Writers Institute


by Lauren Bailey

1. Things I Don’t Know

The spring I graduated from high school: “I was bulimic while I was pregnant with your sister,” my mom says. She’s driving. I’m in the passenger seat, my feet falling asleep underneath the weight of my body. “I was barely eating, but I threw it all up anyway. I used to throw up my coffee and eggs in the morning.” Something pulls at the corners of my memory. An image of my mother bent over the toilet, a towel wrapped around her hair. Do I really remember this? Or is it just easy to picture? “I thought you knew,” she says, turning to look at me. I don’t look back. “I swear you did. You used to tell me I smelled like throw-up.” And then I remember for real: my mom and I, lying on a comforter on my bedroom floor, her hands running mechanically through my hair. Giving her a kiss and smelling cherry lotion first, her skin second, and something else third. Something sour, something off.

And on my sixteenth birthday, walking through my yard: “I heard what you did,” my aunt says. “I heard you got real drunk at your friend’s house and puked all over your daddy’s car.” I choke out a laugh, remembering that night, but only in pieces. Side of the road, vomit smeared across my chin, the look on my mom’s face when I stumbled through the door. “You’ve smoked before, right?” Clearly my aunt is not talking about cigarettes. When I tell her no, she laughs. “You’re lying. Your parents do it all the time!” And then her face goes slack. She didn’t mean to let that slip. I expect her to cover her tracks, to deny her admission, but all of a sudden, she’s grinning, intoxicated by telling the truth. “You know, your mom smoked pot while she was pregnant with Michael,” she confides. She’s nodding, waiting for my reaction. I’m so embarrassed that I don’t even write about it in my diary later.

And the summer after my first year of college: I’m waiting for my mom to come out of the dollar store. Her phone is sitting in the cup holder. Without thinking, I snatch it and flip it open. I read her sent messages, beginning with the one sent longest ago. The first few are about “JB.” Johnny Blaze, that’s my mom’s nickname for marijuana. “I need some JB to take the edge off,” one of the messages says. And the last one – an afterthought – reads, “Ur dick in my mouth would take the edge off.” Months later, I catch her looking at lacy underwear in a department store. She’s holding different pairs up to her body, picturing herself wearing them. Wondering if he’d like them. And I think, if I hadn’t known already, maybe I would now.

2. Things I Didn’t Know

At the playground by my house the summer after tenth grade: “I’m sorry,” my friend Ben is saying. “We wanted to tell you, but we didn’t think you could handle it.” I’m pulling leaves apart, trying to splinter them evenly along their spines, but they keep breaking. “Please say something,” he pleads, scooting closer to me. We’re sitting cross-legged beneath a maple tree. There used to be a picnic table here. I’m mad at whoever moved it. Ben and I sat at that picnic table once, our arms touching, playing a stupid word game that involved naming words that began with the letter “r” and ended with the suffix “-tion.” Relaxation, rumination, remediation. “Do you want me to break up with her?” he asks. I think of all the things that make sense now that I know Ben has been dating my best friend for three months. The two of them embracing outside the gymnasium, for example. The time he invited her to see a movie with his whole family. I don’t know how to define what I’m feeling. I don’t realize, in this moment, that it is shame.

And walking through campus my first year of college: I’m looking at the grass, and it’s littered with those puffy white weeds that little kids call “wishies.” I remember blowing on them in my old neighborhood, giggling, wishing for a new baby doll. They have the same stems as dandelions have: green and brown, thick like a straw. And now I’m thinking back to a few weeks before, when this path was lined with dandelions, not wish-flowers. And then I realize that dandelions and wish-flowers are the same thing. They start out as dandelions, don’t they, and then, as they mature, they turn white and fluffy, and when people step on them, the seeds spread. And I remember my parents scolding me when they caught me blowing on wish-flowers – “Those are weeds, we’ll have them everywhere!” – and I feel cheated, somehow. Like the world lost a flower.

And in my ex-boyfriend’s car: We pass an advertisement for a convalescent home. “What does that mean?” he asks me. I stare at the sign for several seconds, searching my brain, running through root words, trying to think of synonyms. I want so badly to know the answer, but it’s nowhere. “I don’t know,” I tell him. “What kind of writing major are you,” he asks, “if you don’t even know what ‘convalescent’ means?”

3. Things I Wish I Knew

In the common room with someone I dated my first year of college: “It’s just a kiss,” he tells me. My back is arched, my neck exposed, and I want more. “Just a kiss,” he repeats. I move away from him, but I’m clenching my hands into fists, digging my fingernails into my palms. “I know,” I breathe. “I know it’s just a kiss.” But it must be obvious from the way my feet are tapping, my kneecaps locked and pressed together, that I don’t know how to ‘just kiss’ him. It’s never just a kiss. Once I start, I can’t stop.

And sitting on a curb outside Best Buy: “I need a cigarette,” the boy I’m dating says. “Do you want one?” I take the cigarette and spend twenty seconds trying to light it, rubbing my thumb against the metal wheel, hoping he isn’t watching me. When I smoke alone, it doesn’t matter that I don’t know how to work a lighter or that I’m inept at ashing properly. Now I’m aware of everything. He’s making normal conversation, talking about the movie we’re about to see, but I’m thinking only of the cigarette in my hand. I’m so lightheaded that I have to sit down. I hope he just thinks my legs are tired. I hope he doesn’t realize that I’m so unaccustomed to nicotine that I can’t stand and smoke at the same time. I’m covered in ash, and I don’t know where to put the butt when I’m done. Can I just leave it on the ground? “You ready to go inside?” he asks. Do I look like I’m ready to go inside? “Sure,” I tell him. I’m so dizzy I almost fall over.

And sitting at the dinner table with my grandparents: “Don’t you want to learn how to drive?” my grandma asks, taking a slice of bread. She pointedly does not use butter. “I want to,” I say. “It’s just that my parents won’t teach me.” My grandpa is giving me a look that lasts as long as it takes him to finish chewing his roast beef. “You have to be aggressive,” he says, pointing a finger at me. “It seems to me like you don’t even want to learn. Twenty years old and no driver’s license? Sheesh.” He shakes his head at his plate while my grandma clucks her tongue at me. I take a forty-five-second drink of water, refusing to make eye contact. My sister always tells this story about the time our stepdad asked me what the letters on the gear shift stood for. “He asked her what the ‘N’ meant, and she knew it was neutral,” she begins. “And then he asked her what the ‘D’ stood for, and she was like, ‘Um, I don’t know,’ so I go, ‘Uh, drive.’” Then everyone laughs. My sister is twelve.

4. Things I Shouldn’t Have Said

In a rented beach house with my uncle and grandparents the summer after my first year of college: “So, does Jules have a boyfriend?” my uncle asks. I’m sure he expects me to say no, since Jules is only eleven, but I can’t say no, because she has. “They made out at the mall,” I tell him, not pausing to think about whether or not my uncle needs this information. “And then in the back of her friend’s mom’s car on the way home. Minivan, actually.” My uncle bursts out laughing; this is right up his alley – since before I can remember, he’s thrived on humiliating those around him. According to my mom, he stopped maturing at the age of fifteen. “Don’t say anything to her, though,” I add in a rush. “Seriously, don’t. She’s embarrassed enough already.” He doesn’t answer; he’s still laughing. “Made out at the mall,” he says, shaking his head. “That’s fuckin’ fantastic.” Later, my grandparents take my uncle, Jules, and I out to eat. Jules sits in between my uncle and my grandma, a hair clip secured messily at her temple, revealing her shiny, acne-ridden forehead. Sometimes she’s so awkward I want to punch her. “Hey Jules,” my uncle says, “you done any making out at the mall lately?” My sister’s eyes fill with tears. “I hate you, Lauren,” she says. My grandma tries to put an arm around her, but she shrugs it off. “You tell everyone everything! Why can’t you just keep your mouth shut?”

And in my mom’s car: “What do you want for dinner?” my mom asks. I’m looking out the window, mad for no reason. I can feel it prickling at my skin; I want to lash out at her, to tell her not to speak to me. “I don’t know,” I say. I can feel her looking at me. I try to put myself in her shoes: driving with my sullen teenage daughter, trying to make conversation, trying to have a good day. “I mean, it doesn’t matter,” I add, hoping my tone is level, hoping she can’t hear my irritation. “I always think I want something special to eat, but then after I eat it, it doesn’t matter anymore, because then I’m full. And it’s over. I can’t ever eat it again.” My mom’s expression turns sour. Now she’s mad, too. “You’re so weird,” she says. “Fine, fuck you then. If it doesn’t matter to you either way, why don’t you just eat month-old bread and drink water? Fuck it.” That’s not even what I meant, I’m thinking. That’s not even what I was trying to say. And now our whole day is ruined, and I feel stupid about what I said, even though it was true.

5. Things I Say

In my grandparents’ living room: “And these are our gay friends, Larry and Steve,” my grandpa says, pointing to a picture of two men standing on a golf course. “They’re really funny. They’re… you know.” I study the picture. “What does that even mean?” I ask. “What are you trying to say?” My grandpa’s eyes go all bulgy like they do when he feels like he’s being accused of something. “I just mean… you can tell they’re gay, that’s all.” I stare at him. “Do you mean they’re physically demonstrative?” I ask. My grandpa laughs until his face turns red. He doesn’t answer me. I think he’s offended until he brings it up again at dinner. “Physically demonstrative,” he says, looking at me thoughtfully. His eyes are suspiciously watery.

And on my ex-boyfriend’s couch: “In conclusion, I’m just stupid.” He’s shaking his head. “Oh, yes I am,” I assure him. “Every day. All of the time.” I pull at the ends of my hair, trying to hide my smile. I don’t want him to know that I think I’m being cute right now. “All of the time?” he repeats. I didn’t realize I said that. What a stupid construction. “Yes,” I say, slumping back onto the pillows. “All of the time.”

6. Things I Can’t Say

Sitting in my living room the summer after my second year of college: “I hate that bitch,” my mom says, sipping her cherry vodka and Mountain Dew Code Red mixture through a straw. “If she expects me to wipe her ass when she’s old and sick, she can just forget it.” My mom hasn’t spoken to her mother since I graduated from high school two years ago, when she decided that my grandma’s parenting mistakes, coupled with her harsh judgments of my mom’s lifestyle (apparently it’s considered unorthodox to have three children with three different fathers), were too much – she never wanted to see her again, she claimed. “I can’t tell her anything,” my mom continues. We have this conversation at least once a week. “She’s so fucking pretentious – it’s like, I can’t do anything, you know? I can’t say anything to her. She doesn’t even try to understand.” Now I’m thinking about last summer, when I couldn’t sleep without stealing my stepdad’s anxiety medication. I wanted to say something to my mom – to talk to her about getting actual help – but I was afraid she’d tell me I was being dramatic, that if I wanted to get some sleep I should just go to sleep, that I wasn’t actually anxious, I just wanted prescription drugs so I could be high all the time instead of sitting around thinking about how boring my life was. “And when I was little, I broke my arm after school, and I just sat there with a fucking broken arm. For hours. I didn’t want to bother her. Isn’t that fucked up? That’s fucked up,” my mom is saying. I just nod. “Yeah, that’s pretty fucked up,” I tell her.

And visiting my biological father in Minnesota the summer after I graduated from high school: It’s my half-brother Drew’s seventh birthday. His friends from school are here, and I’m committing their names to memory: Mackenzie, Nate, Christian, Sam. My stepmom has organized a scavenger hunt, and the kids are running in and out of the house looking for clues – a blue Easter egg, a Yu-Gi-Oh! card, a Luke Skywalker action figure. Drew steps on my foot as he runs past, and I reach out to ruffle his hair, only managing to graze his spiky blonde bristles with my fingertips. Later, while we’re eating cake, one of Drew’s friends points to me. “Who’s that?” he asks. “Is that your sister?” I smile at them, and Drew turns back to his friend. “No, she’s only half of my sister,” he says, shoving a piece of cake into his mouth with his fingers. My father is still cutting the cake and putting it onto plates for the kids. I try to catch his eye, but he won’t look at me. I bring my cake into the living room, where portraits of his three children – Noah, Drew, and Olivia – hang in a row on the wall. The pictures of me are always separate, scattered throughout the house like an afterthought, like punctuation. I think of the inquisitive looks I get when my father introduces me to his friends as ‘my daughter, Lauren.’ I think of asking him what kind of seven-year-old needs a phrase like “half sister” in his head. But the next time we’re alone together, the only thing I can think to say is that dinner was delicious, thank you, and no I would not like a second helping of ice cream.

And driving to my aunt’s house on Christmas Eve: I made the lasagnas. My mom spent the past month talking about how she was going to make dinner for my aunt’s annual Christmas Eve party. But I made them, and I covered them with aluminum foil, and now I’m holding one in my lap. It’s burning my thighs, but I don’t want to look at my stepdad. I’ve convinced myself that if I stay still, he’ll forget I’m here. My thighs are so hot they feel itchy. I press my forehead against the window, looking at the Christmas displays. Some people really go all out. One house has a Santa complete with a sleigh and all nine reindeer. I’m squirming in my seat, thinking of how, while I was assembling a tray of cookies for the party, my stepdad called my mom a cunt in front of my twelve-year-old sister. “Why don’t you tell them what you’ve been doing for the past year and a half?” he hollered, red in the face. “Why don’t you tell them?” My mom’s a cunt, I’m thinking, and all I can see are wire Christmas trees hung with lights, lit-up rooftops, inflatable snowmen, and it’s such a waste of electricity, and I know I’ll have to sit in my aunt’s kitchen with my grandparents and cousins and aunts and uncles – and I’ll have to talk about Christmas – my breaths become shallower, strained, and the hot aluminum against my jeans is almost unbearable – and my mom’s a cunt – and I’ll have to carry the presents inside – and my mom’s a cunt – my stepdad parks, and everything goes very still. “You know what’s going on, right?” he says to me, as I hand the lasagna to my sister. I’m sick of looking at it. “No I do not,” I say, and I walk into my aunt’s house.

7. Lines I Shouldn’t Have Crossed

In my best friend’s boyfriend’s car, the winter of my senior year of high school: My tank top is pulled down to my waist, exposing my breasts. My pants are tugged to mid-thigh. Ken flicks on the overhead light and turns to stare at me. “My turn,” he says, and yanks down his sweatpants. He isn’t wearing any underwear, and I am all of a sudden staring at my best friend’s boyfriend’s penis. It’s bigger than my boyfriend’s penis, I note, and then I look away, staring into my bare lap. We were playing Strip Padiddle, and we never touched, but I find, afterward, that I have no desire – or intent – to tell either my boyfriend or my best friend. When Ken tells them, I say I didn’t see Ken’s naked body, that he didn’t see mine. I say I don’t know what made me do it, but I do. I did it because I could.

And in my grandparents’ friends’ basement the summer I turned seventeen: “If you beat me at pool,” I tell Caleb, “you’re the winner.” I pick up a pool cue and aim it at the table as if I know what I’m doing. I don’t. I have never played pool before. “The winner of what?” he asks. “Of whatever you want,” I say, purposely not watching his reaction. Very quickly, it becomes obvious that I am not a good pool player. Caleb wins in less than five minutes. “So I’m the winner,” he says. “And you’re the loser.” I lean into his arm. We kiss for seven whole seconds before I inform him that I already have a boyfriend. I look at myself in the mirror later, trying to feel guilty. Trying to be the I’m-so-sorry-please-take-me-back girl. But I’m not sorry. I’m looking at my game of pool as a logical sequence of events, a game of connect-the-dots. First I met Caleb. Then I made him want me. Then I let him kiss me. What’s so wrong with that? Everything that was supposed to happen happened.

8. Lines I Should Have Crossed

On a sidewalk in my neighborhood in the rain: This whole day is a cliché, I’m thinking, flip-flopping down my street, my sweatpants soaked at the bottom. I take off my shoes and run as quickly as I can, feeling silly, thinking that nothing ever goes quite the way you want it to, especially when you’re trying to create a movie-perfect kiss in the rain. I catch up to Ben just as I’m beginning to think I won’t be able to. He grabs my hand. Everything smells like coconut – yellow coconut lotion that comes in a little plastic bottle, sample size, and it’s running down my arms in streaks from the rain – and then he wraps his arms around me. And I’m thinking, kiss me. I’m thinking, I’ll never be able to write about this. I’m thinking, he’s dating my best friend. I’m thinking, please don’t kiss me. I slide out from between his arms. “I can’t,” I say, and I begin to run down the sidewalk toward my house. He follows – gives me another chance – but I keep running. I tell myself I didn’t let him kiss me because it was the right thing to do, but really I’m running because I was afraid I’d be bad at it.

And in a tiny room in a tiny church in Philadelphia: I’m sitting next to the boy I started dating recently, overheated and picking at my fingernails. Everyone here is so edgy, so alternative. They’ve all heard of the ‘underground’ bands that are playing. They didn’t think to find it odd that this show is taking place in a church, the way I did. I look at my purple flip-flops, hating them, hating everything I’m wearing, knowing it all makes me look like some stuck-up girl from the suburbs who has never had a problem, someone with pink toenails, certainly not someone worthy of dating the beautiful, music-conscious, shaggy-haired boy beside her. I’m afraid to scratch my nose or brush my hair out of my eyes. I don’t want to look disinterested. How disrespectful, these people will think. What a dumb young girl. I look at my boyfriend. He’s staring at the artist, barely blinking, inches and inches away from me. It’s not so much that he isn’t paying attention to me. It’s more that he’s somewhere else, somewhere better. I’m not in that place, but he doesn’t know it. He’s with the music. You’ll never love me, I think. I try to reason with God. I’m in a church, after all. If he tries to hold my hand, I decide, it’ll all be okay. He never tries to hold my hand. But I never reach for his, either.

And at my oldest friend’s mother’s funeral, the winter of my senior year of high school: I can’t find Jenny. Her family is sitting in the front. There’s her dad, his head just as bald and his ears just as protruding as I remember them in middle school; and her brother, with his spiky blonde hair and his pretty brunette fiancée; and her grandma, who already looked about a hundred and fifty years old when I met her six years ago. But I don’t see Jenny. She isn’t with them. I haven’t seen her in months – she’s been in rehab since October. I remember running into her in the fall, the way she took fifteen seconds longer than normal to answer my questions, how glossed-over and big her pupils were. I remember how her sentences seemed strung together by nothing, an invisible ellipsis hanging between each of her words. And I remember the day our French teacher pulled me aside to tell me Jenny’s mom was in hospice care. I had to ask my mom what that meant, and she told me: end of the line. I wanted to ask Jenny what the fuck she was doing, why she was spending the end of her mother’s life popping Klonopin and smoking pot before school. But I said nothing, and a few weeks later, Jenny went to rehab. And now her mom is dead. My mom, who’s standing next to me, taps me on the shoulder. “There’s Jenny,” she whispers, pointing to the last row of pews. I can’t see her face. She’s draped across our French teacher, who is trying to prop her upright, but Jenny’s limbs dangle like a cloth doll’s, limp and pathetic. I was afraid she’d be motionless, that she’d still be that glassy-eyed girl I saw in the fall. I was afraid she’d fucked up her chemistry so bad she wouldn’t even understand. But she understands, like I understood in September, that she messed up. And now neither of us can go back.

9. Things I Know

My sister was born six weeks premature. She weighed four pounds and two ounces.

“All of the time” has become such an integral part of my vocabulary that my friends started saying it, too. It’s a very versatile construction – i.e., “all of the days,” “all of the coffee,” “all of the stupid,” etc.

‘Convalescent’ means ‘recovering from illness.’ A convalescent is a person who has recently been sick or operated upon, but is not yet well; convalescence is the period of time when someone is not sick anymore, but isn’t quite better yet, either. A convalescent home, then, is a place that offers shelter to those who aren’t sick enough to warrant being in a hospital, but aren’t yet comfortable living in the everyday world.

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