This Side of Normal — by Edevine
Part One: Acute
If you can look into the seeds of time
And say which grain will grow and which will not,
Speak, then, to me, who neither beg nor fear
Your favors nor your hate (1.3.61-64).
It’s the middle of the night, and I’m in bed, trying not to piss myself. I’m like my grandfather, who just the other day, told my mom that he’s up “draining the lizard” every few hours. He said, “I feel like a hose that’s stuck on trickle. No matter what I do I can’t shut it off. That can’t be normal?” When he spoke, and then cleared his throat to close his point, I nodded. Not at the phlegm, he’s always doing that. Rather, at what he meant, not having the plumbing working correctly. That’s my problem. I’m up three to six times a night. And it’s not a nervous, little, annoying pee, like when you have to go before a test. You know, just to go, because you’re all panicky.
Lately, it’s like I’m in a marathon-pissing contest, except I’m the only contestant. It wouldn’t be so bad if I had a bank of snow in my bathroom. That way I could write my name and stuff with my piss. But no, it’s just me, and the cold linoleum floor, the creak of the house, and the sound of a flood pouring into the toilet.
So to distract myself, I’m staring at my walls, but they’re covered in this god-awful underwater/ocean wallpaper. I never should have listened to my mom. “It’ll look so cool!” she said. “Your uncle gave you all that fishing gear last year. We could use it as the focus to the theme.” I know what you’re thinking, too much “Trading Spaces” and Martha Stewart. Well, you’re right. But she’s got to have something to do besides working all the goddamn time. She’s a nurse, and judging from what the job has done to her, I know there’s one career path I won’t be taking.
I suck at Science anyway. Honestly, the list of things I suck at could choke a donkey. But my mom. The pain, it’s all in the eyes. Hers get so clouded over, and her thoughts retreat from them, so that she looks vacant. She watches “Trading Spaces”, reads her Better Homes and Gardens-type magazines, and does little projects to keep her hands busy while her mind filters.
Then there’s my dad. He watches “Sports Center”, non-stop. Enough said. The two of them, her with the projects, and him with the sports obsession, never meet.
But it’s more than just different interests. They can’t seem to put their relationship back together, not since my Uncle Brian died; he’s the one who gave me the fishing gear. His death has changed everything, including how my dad and I get along. I’d like to change that, help them get fixed, and help my dad to see what’s in front of him, not just the past. But I can’t get into that now. My bladder feels as if it’s weighted down by a bowling ball and filled with cracked glass.
I peel back the covers and slide my legs over the edge of the bed. As soon as my feet hit the carpet, I feel like I’m three years old again, afraid I’m going to have an “accident.” Except, at 15, I don’t think you can call it that anymore. So I bolt from bed, and immediately know that was a bad move. My midsection feels like I’ve run through a sword, and my legs buckle. Fortunately, the bathroom isn’t very far. My feet plod across the linoleum, sounding like large, dying fish, flopping against a boat deck. I rip off my shorts and don’t even bother to shut the door or hit the light. I’m like a blind person who flawlessly zips around his house, without hitting the edge of the coffee table, or stepping on the dog.
I land on the toilet with a thud. The tank’s lid smacks the wall, but I don’t care; I’ve made it, and now…Oh Holy God! Yes! What I didn’t tell you is that I’m on the toilet, backwards. I get tired from all the pushing. So I don’t stand, and I don’t sit regular either. One night I found the most comfortable position was just plopping down and resting my arms on the tank. I then rest my head on my arms, and let gravity work down below. This way, at least for a few moments, I’m free. The pressure’s spilling out, and then it’s gone, and I can flush it all away.
I find my shorts with my toes, slip ‘em on, and run my hands quickly under the faucet. I don’t think; I just rush. I want to get back to bed and fall asleep. Because maybe, just maybe, I’ll sleep so soundly that I won’t wake up again. I won’t have to see three, four, five, and six o’clock. Hell, to be honest, I’d settle for waking up to a wet bed, if it meant I wouldn’t have to be so damn tired.
I slap the faucet off and take a step toward the door. Then I hear her the creak from their bed, across the hall. The light pops on, and I’m frozen, like a deer. My hands do a quick inventory of my shorts, making sure that they’re actually there. Yeah, I’ve forgotten before. Just as my hands finish, my mom appears. She’s like Medusa. I look at her shoulders, her hands, her feet, but never directly into her face when she’s fresh from bed. I did, once, and I swear I was marbled for a good five minutes. Her hair is a tangled mass, trying to run away from the scalp; and Bassett hounds have nothing on her when it comes to droopy, puffy eyelids. Despite all this, she wants to talk. “Ed, what are you doing up?”
Why this question? I’m coming from the bathroom. Isn’t it obvious? “I had to go.” I register her shoulder. It’s still. I make a move to pass. “G’night!”
“How many times is that?”
I stop cold. That’s the thing about parents, or maybe it’s just my mom, they always have a sense about what you’re up to. Even if you were hiding out in the basement, and as quiet as a mute while looking at those “dirty” magazines, which I still swear were Sid’s, they see the guilt written all over your face. Or maybe just in the eyes. I half turn to her. “Three.”
She sighs. I watch her wriggle her toes up off the floor. “Okay, go to bed.” I get in bed and lie on my back, my side, practically on my head, in an effort to get comfortable, but it’s useless. Already, I can feel the pressure mounting. And, now, I get to worry that the next time I go to the bathroom, my mom will be listening. Only this time, she’ll tell me the complete opposite of what she told my grandfather: You’re fine. It’s completely normal for someone your age to be up like that.
I stare out the window, and into the swirling night. My throat fills, and I try to clear it.
It’s morning now, and I was up three more times during the night. Every time I finished, I passed by my parents’ bedroom and pretended I didn’t hear a sigh coming from within. And now, I’m back in the bathroom. Where else would I be? I’m checking my face in the mirror and I’ve got the worn out look of new parents. Ashen grey circles cup my eyes. I turn away and take in the “head” as my Gramps calls it. I truly wish we had a nicer one. My friend Sid has a gigantic bathroom, with a whirlpool tub and marble tile on the floor and walls. It’s like being in a friggen’ quarry in there. The last time I stayed over Sid’s, I just stood on the tile and felt the cold through my feet. His house is pin-drop quiet, and the bathroom has like five windows. The moonlight was pouring in, and I looked around and thought…It’s so beautiful. I didn’t want to leave. I was just beginning my nightly courtship with the toilet, and Sid’s, by far, blew mine out of the water. Sorry about the pun.
My bathroom’s a complete disaster, toothbrushes and combs lie next to one another on the white-speckled counter, alternately swapping paste and hair. On countless occasions, I’ve brushed my teeth with errant strands of my mom’s Medusa locks. My dad’s electric razor is permanently plugged into the one outlet in the entire room. It dangles alongside the vanity, spewing bits of facial hair, like pepper, across the floor. The mirror is never clean; it’s always coated with that same, elusive, white speckle. It’s like looking at my reflection through snowflakes.
After my first time at Sid’s, I asked my mom why our house was such a mess. She stared at me in the rearview mirror, and her glare iced the windows. “Sid’s parents are very fortunate.” That’s it; that’s all she said. I sat there wondering what the hell she meant. Were they fortunate because they had a lot of money? Or because they have a nice house? Or because they had Sid and not me? If she only knew what it’s really like at Sid’s.
Anyway, here I am, in the wadded-up-Kleenex-that-should-be-thrown-out bathroom, staring at my face. I’ve seen pictures of the Holocaust, and I swear, if you just threw me in one of those pajama outfits, and slapped on a yellow star, I’d totally blend in. I’m gaunt, but I haven’t always been this way. I mean, I’ve never been overweight, except for when I was a baby. Even then, it was normal fat, not on-the-cover-of-the-National-Enquirer-with-Bat-boy-fat. But now, I’m rail-thin. My eyes and cheeks are sunken into my face. I look like some model trying for a sexy pose. Except on me, it’s gross, not at all sexy.
I step out into the hall and can hear “Sportscenter” blaring in the kitchen.
“Jesus!” my dad yells at the T.V.
“No, it’s just me,” I say as a little joke, but my dad misses it, and strains further to watch the play in slow-motion. I walk over to the counter where my mom is cursing at the black, crusty mess on her plate. I pull out my box of Frosted Flakes from the cabinet and set it down next to my mom’s plate. She gives me a quick, “Hmmph,” and proceeds to throw away the burned breakfast. She walks out of the room without having eaten.
I grab a bowl, a spoon, the milk from the fridge, and bring all to the table. I sit down next to my father. It’s like being next to a cadaver, he’s so thoroughly cold and motionless. I slurp away at my cereal, as he mutters over his coffee mug at the commentators on the screen. He went fishing over the weekend, so I stab a question. “You…uh…catch anything, fishing?” The sugar puckers my cheeks and hurts my jaw, momentarily, as I wait for his answer. He shifts in his seat, and speaks without looking at me.
“No…I…” but he doesn’t finish. His jaw works for a second, the muscle twitching. He turns to me and his eyes are flints. I clutch my spoon, but he quickly gets up, scraping the chair legs across the floor, and is gone.
Stupid ass, I think, but I’m not sure if it’s directed at me or him. That fishing gear in my room was so I could join him and his brother, my Uncle Brian, on these weekend fishing trips. That obviously isn’t going to happen. I look up to the clock; it’s already 7:07. Time for me to head off to school.
Of course, I piss, again, before I grab my backpack and leave. It’s a cool morning, the beginning of November, and my breath hangs in transparent clouds as I walk. The dew on the grass is clumped, congealed, close to freezing.
Sid’s already at the bus stop when I roll up, and I practically fall into a heap next to him. “Hey,” he says. I reply with the same, sniffle, and wait for more. I never know with Sid. His parents argue a lot, and he typically reflects the emotional state of things at home. His parents are that classic stereotype, rich and unhappy. So what does that make my parents? We’re broke, and I don’t think they say more than ten words at a time to each other.
Anyway, Sid’s like a stone today. His back is to me, picking up the morning sun, and he’s staring down the street, looking as if he’s watching for the approaching bus.
I sniffle again and pull into myself, already feeling a bit of pressure down below. My mouth is chalky, and even thought I just ate, my stomach growls. Sid and I sit, in the cold November morning, and say nothing.
I’m in tenth grade, so it suffices to say, I hate school. Every day, it’s the same damn drama. It wasn’t always this way. It started to get weird in Eighth grade, when the girls began to sprout boobs. I say, “sprout” because that’s what it was like. One day, hey, we’re playing wiffle ball, yelling at the girls to get out of the outfield, and the next, it’s, Hey did you see the rack on Stacy? Nowadays, the hormones bounce off the walls so freely and so fiercely, I wonder how none of my teachers has been maimed.
We swim with the tide of students out of homeroom, wash into the hall, and drift into science. Sid and I usually sit in the back, but, lately, he’s been trying to hook up with the aforementioned Stacy. So he’s been sitting up near her, and her empty-headed friends, Ashley and Brittany, who I can’t deal with, especially Stacy—no self-respect. But Sid doesn’t care.
So I’ve been sitting next to this kid Mark. He’s always drawing in this sketchbook of his, never paying attention in class, or so it seems. ‘Cause whenever no one feels like answering a question, usually some big, who-the-hell-knows kind of a question, one that could clog a toilet, or put a know-it-all grin on just about any teacher, he nails the answer. Just snaps his head up, brushes his bangs aside, and says it, simply answers like he’s always known. Then, just as quickly, he returns to his doodling.
I move to the back and sit. Mark looks up, says, “Hey” and returns to his drawing. My teacher, Mrs. Didi, is now asking Sid something, but before he can answer, the tools come in. Ashley, Brittany, and Stacy flounce past Mrs. Didi, laughing, stupid, attention-grabbing, laughs. They’re barely dressed, stomachs exposed with belly shirts and those low cut jeans that are a sneeze away from falling off.
Sid’s grinning like Tony the Tiger, and Mrs. Didi’s got that sad/frustrated/almost-angry look. You know the one. Teachers have a patent on it. Maybe it’s a genetic thing, the way their mouths can smile, but the rest of their face can tell an entirely different story. Well, Sid follows them without answering Mrs. Didi. She shakes her head, and then inhales the uninviting aroma of stale cigarettes, masked in perfume.
The bell rings and Mrs. Didi stands before the board, where she’s written CELL RESPIRATION. I have no idea what the hell cell respiration is, and I really don’t care; I gotta piss. But the slackers shuffle in, Mrs. Didi frowns sheepishly, and I just don’t have the energy to raise my hand.
“Take out your notebooks class. There will be a quiz after.”
I’m not kidding; she really says this. And she means it. We really have quizzes, right after we write down the notes she puts on the board, about what we’ve just written down. She actually expects us to learn this way. I don’t even bother to moan like half the class does.
Mrs. Didi blabs on and on about Cell Respiration, and this cartoon image pops into my head: all these little cells, swimming around in my body, inhaling and exhaling at the same time, like some micro-level yoga class. I chuckle.
Mark picks up his head. He’s like a prairie dog popping out of the ground to check for danger. He twists his head to me and his eyes are slits.
“What?” I say and shrug.
He leans toward me, “What you laughing at?” He has his arm curled around his sketchbook, and I see the curve of a woman’s hip beneath the crook of his elbow.
“Nothing,” I say, “just a stupid picture-thing I was making up about this respiration crap.”
Mrs. Didi pauses and looks at me. I think she may call on me, and my stomach flops. That’s not good; I still gotta piss. But she’s just waiting for the class to catch up. Sid’s bent over his desk, whispering something to Stacy. The others look as blank as the pages of their notebooks. Mrs. Didi resumes whatever the hell she was going on about. I look at my own notebook. I haven’t even opened it.
“What do you mean?” Mark’s voice is a gravelly whisper.
I turn to him. “Huh?”
He leans in. “The picture. What’d you see?”
I can’t believe I’m having this conversation. “A bunch of cells…breathing in and out.” I pause and nod toward the board. “You know, cell respiration. It’s stupid.”
Mark doesn’t say anything, just looks off into space. I wait. He shoots me another look, grins, and then flips over a new page in his scrapbook. In an instant he’s back into his comfort zone.
I, again, consider raising my hand to go to the bathroom, but by the time I get around to actually lifting up my arm, Mrs. Didi has begun passing out our quizzes. I get my name down, and before I can answer the first question, Mark slams his finished quiz on the corner of his desk. He’s back to his drawing in an instant. I shake my head and begin to read questions about Mitosis and Meiosis.
I have absolutely no idea. They sound like diseases that old people get, and pharmaceutical companies create drugs for, and then ad agencies create commercials of purple-haired grannies, and saggy-assed gramps walking down the beach holding hands. Luckily, the quiz is multiple-choice. So I pick mostly “C.”
“Hey! Hey!” comes from my left. Mark’s got a goofy grin on his face, and he’s holding up a full-page drawing. It’s a cartoon of a Mitochondria smoking a cigarette. I can tell because it’s wearing a blinging necklace that says so. The mitochondria are surrounded by the rest of the cell parts, like in a prison. In fact, the cell wall is depicted as prison bars. The other parts are all these thug characters, with their names in tattoos, and in gold teeth. They’re all smoking too, and the smoke is all blended together, wafting out the little window into the courtyard. The smoke forms a message that sits fat and dense across an obscured moon. It reads: When Cell Respiration Goes Wrong.
The bell rings, Mark snaps his book closed, and then takes his quiz up to Mrs. Didi, who smiles as she waits by the door. I sit and stare at the place where he was, and then notice that Sid’s gone too. He usually waits for me. Mrs. Didi clickity-clacks her way down the row and stands by my side. She probably saw Mark’s drawing. But she just hovers, and doesn’t say anything. I look her in the face. She lifts one of her penciled-on eyebrows. “Your quiz, Ed?”
I fumble for the paper, and end up wrinkling it before handing it off. Then I bend over, zip up my bag, and almost have an accident. So I make a B-line for the bathroom.
My hands literally shake and fumble as I unzip my fly, but I manage to get it out without spilling. I fight the urge to sit down. Some things you just can’t risk doing in school. While I wash my hands, I snap a quick glance at my reflection in the mirror. My lips are cracked, so I must have been licking them, but I don’t know how, with the amount of time my tongue’s been stuck to my palate. Maybe the poor sucker is afraid of my bottom teeth?
I walk out of the bathroom as the bell rings, and I’m torn. There’s a water fountain directly across from me, and my body’s so desperate for a drink that my mouth starts working in preparation, like an infant’s before she cries for the bottle. But to my right is my English classroom, with my teacher, Mr. Pilsner, standing in the doorway. He’s got his arms crossed and a slight grin on his lips. I look at him, then at the water fountain, and then back. He narrows his eyes and lifts up his chin, cocking his head to the left. Fortunately, someone starts yelling for him, and Mr. P. rolls into the classroom.
I lunge at the water fountain, and practically have a make-out session with it. I manage to slurp the water into my mouth, and down roughly a glassful. I wipe my face with my sleeve and awkwardly slide into class.
Mr. P. is talking to Bob Homiller. Or rather, I should say, he’s talking at Bob. Bob’s nickname is “Silent Bob,” after that guy from those stupid movies. He just sits in the front of class, staring straight ahead, always wearing some black, wrestling, or hardcore band shirt.
Sid’s actually in his regular seat, and I want to crack something sarcastic, but my body just wants me to sit. I slump into my chair, next to him.
“Where were you?” Sid’s talking but not quite looking at me.
I was gonna ask you the same damn thing. I say, “Bathroom.”
“Oh.” He leans to me, still looking across the room. He then turns, and his eyes glint like prisms. “Did you see Stacy?”
He says it like, “Did you SEE Stacy?” What the hell kind of questions is this? Of course I saw her; she draws attention like a fire alarm. I glance over Sid’s shoulder. Oddly enough, she’s looking at herself in her compact mirror. “Uh. Yeah. So?” I say.
Sid blows a quick snort. “Well, you can’t see it now, but she showed me in science.” He pauses; I stare at him. “Her belly button…it’s pierced.” Sid’s face scrunches when he says this, like he’s in pain, but after, he’s grinning ear to ear.
“Really?” I say, even though I’m not at all surprised, or truly care. I figure by the time Stacy’s twenty, she’ll have half of her body tattooed, and piercings in places that only she’ll be proud to talk about.
“Yeah. It’s hot. Real hot.” Sid takes another long look, and I’m about to ask what he’s planning. Stacy’s nothing but trouble, and if he got seriously tangled up with her… but Mr. P. clears his throat, the telltale sign that the lecture is about to begin. He blabs on and on about some literary stuff and then asks us to take out our Macbeth books. Same old nonsense.
We just started this play last class; it’s all right. The play starts with these witches dancing around a cauldron, and, of course, Stacy and the dubious duo asked to play the parts, ‘cause they got to wear black witch hats and skip in a circle, chanting: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.”
“Anyone remember how scene three ended?” Mr. P. asks.
Kids look around, at their desks, at each other’s rears, but not at Mr. P. No one answers.
“Macbeth is thinking about killing the king, and Banquo is warning him not to trust the witches.”
The whole class looks at Mark. His book isn’t even open, but his sketchbook is. Mr. P. smiles. “Well done. That’s absolutely correct.” He looks over the rest of us. “Why is Macbeth thinking about killing King Duncan?”
A smart girl up front raises her hand. “The witches’ prophecies, and…” she pauses. “…well, really, because he believes the prophecies; Macbeth feels that he should be King. It’s his fate.”
The room’s silent for a moment. Most kids looks lost. Sid’s staring at Stacy, again. Pilsner clears his throat. “An excellent point, so let me ask, is fate real or imagined?” Mr. P. likes to throw out these rhetorical questions, as he says, “just to put them out there and see what happens.” Then he asks, “How much of your life do you control?”
The bell rings and I awake in a puddle of drool. It’s tough to open my eyes, ‘cause the lids are so puffy. I wipe up the drool with my book. Sid’s not in his seat, so I start packing up my stuff and then I hear laughing. I look up and the floozies are clumped together, pointing at me. “Nice forehead,” Stacy says. The three laugh like hyenas, and Sid’s with them, chuckling as well. He walks back to me.
“What? Your face is all red, and you got a big circle on your forehead.” He presses the indentation.
I look down at my sleeve, at the oversized buttons. I, again, want to say something, to make a joke, whatever, but I can’t get my brain to clear.
“Come on,” Sid says, “we got gym.”
I stand and when I do, my bladder rapidly wakes up: WE GOTTA PISS! I take an awkward step up the row, and I’m lucky that I don’t topple from the pain.
“Mr. Devlin, a word.” Mr. P. is standing at the end of the row, looking down his nose at me. Sid slaps me on the back and says, “Good luck.” This gesture sends uncomfortable reverberations to my nether region. I want to cry.
“Enjoy your nap?”
I don’t answer; I want this over ASAP.
“Well,” Mr. P. says and uncrosses, then recrosses his arms, “Finish reading scenes four and five, tonight.”
I’m already nodding and taking a step before I realize he’s not finished.
“As I was saying, catch up tonight…” He pauses. “But really, Ed, are you ok?” His brow’s furrowed, so he seems sincere. “You haven’t fallen asleep before...” He breaks off, and leans in. “I mean, you seem to enjoy English. Are you feeling all right?” He looks me over. “I have to admit, you don’t look so great.”
“I’m fine,” I say. “Really.”
“Ok then,” he says, and I’m gone.
I take a long, desperate piss, and don’t give a damn if I’m late for gym. I hold my lower back, just cup it with my hand, as I walk to the sink. It throbs from the strain. I turn the water on and watch it swirl down the drain. I lower my head so that I can drink, and my weight slides with the water. My legs buckle under the effort to keep me upright. But now my head’s spinning, as if someone has injected a bubble into my vein. I turn my head, and the blue, tile floor, swallows me.
I smack the ground, and smell the urinal cakes and stale piss. Above me, the bell rings, and I’m on the floor, not in gym. I can’t move; I can’t speak. The hum of the bell dies away, and my tongue becomes unglued from my mouth. Here, on the boys’ bathroom floor, I’ve collapsed and need help, and am so thirsty, so thirsty that the blue of the tile is suddenly too irresistible. My tongue probes out, like a snail’s foot, and the tip touches against the tile, which is cold and wet. I swallow, take a deep breath, and then give it a full lick.