“Why didn’t you tell me you were sad?” she asked, staring down at our shoes, kicking invisible rocks.
“I didn’t know I was allowed to be.”
My parents were broken enough, so it felt as if I didn’t have the right to break down too.
When her shoes stopped moving, I looked up to find her doe eyes staring at me. “You can be sad with me,” she offered. “You don’t have to hide it anymore.”
I cleared my throat and nodded. “Thanks, Art.”
“You’re welcome, Levi.”
The bus pulled up and as she stepped away from me, her shoulder brushed against mine. We were covered in fabrics, both wearing jackets and T-shirts underneath, yet her small touch was enough for me to know what she felt like.
Somehow she was warm and cold all at once, the same kind of feeling the rising sun brought to the frosted forest in the mornings.
The only time I’d ever felt that way was when I played the violin and was able to escape reality for a little while. Shutting my eyes and feeling the bow roll across the strings was the only way I’d found warmth until Aria looked at me. She looked at me as if she really saw me, the real me, and she was okay with it, too. She stared as if I deserved to be happy. The real kind of happy.
* * *
That night, Dad was drunk again. Instead of watching him stumble around, I went over to Lance and Daisy’s apartment, ate tofu that tasted like feet, and stayed on their pullout couch.
Aria: This afternoon I found out that the baby is sixteen weeks old and the size of an avocado, finished my calculus homework, painted a bit, and downloaded the whole Mumford & Sons CD to my iPod. Your turn.
Me: I ate tofu.
Aria: That’s it?
Me: We had calculus homework?
Aria: You’re never going to graduate.
Me: I think you’re beautiful.
Aria: Shut up.
Me: Your avocado is pretty cute, too.
Aria: I bet you say that to all the pregnant girls at school.
I hadn’t stopped smiling.
I imagined what she was doing. When a person wasn’t allowed to touch someone who they really wanted to touch, they settled for noticing every little thing about them instead. When Aria was happy—really happy—her dimples deepened. When she was uncomfortable, she chewed on the collar of her T-shirts. When sad, she bit her bottom lip—but she did the same when she was nervous or deep in thought, so I’d had to pay very close attention to make sure which she was. That wasn’t hard, though. She was very easy to pay attention to.
I hoped her dimples were showing. I hoped I made her happy.
Me: Why did the chicken cross the möbius strip?
Aria: To get to the same side. You’re such a nerd. And I think I’m more of a nerd because I knew the answer to your terrible math joke.
Me: Goodnight, Art.
Aria: Goodnight, Soul.
Each Thursday, Dr. Ward stared at me with the same concerned eyes. It was annoying how much he pretended to care. I wondered how much he would care if Mom wasn’t writing him such a big check.
This time the candy bowl was filled with black licorice, which was worrisome. Anyone who believed that black licorice was candy should see their own therapist.
Our conversations became cliché, each week echoing the last. He started with the same question each time, I spoke about an artist, and then he followed it up with one more question.
“What’s on your mind, Aria?” he would ask.
“Banksy,” I replied.
“He’s this amazing street artist who uses graffiti art to express his controversial views on the world. He’s loud with his artwork, but quiet at the same time. No one really knows who he is, but they know him. The Balloon Girl is my favorite piece because it just captures everything within it.”
He arched an eyebrow like he didn’t understand what I meant.
I sighed. I wanted to say Google it and you’ll understand, but I explained, because I liked talking about art. It was the one thing I understood, the one thing that was meaningful. “It’s a little girl reaching out toward a heart-shaped, red balloon, but the balloon is already floating away.”
“Do you feel like you’re floating away sometimes, Aria?”
All the time.
But I didn’t tell Dr. Ward that. I stayed quiet, and he never pushed me for more details.
* * *
Monday morning I walked to the bus stop and smiled seeing Simon holding four balloons that read Happy Birthday in his hand. “Happy birthday!” he shouted, handing me the balloons.
“Thanks!” I laughed.
Levi walked over to us frowning, staring at the balloons. “I didn’t know it was your birthday.” He ran his hands through his hair. “I didn’t get you anything.”
“It’s okay, really. No big deal.”
“It is a big deal!” Simon exclaimed. “Because you, my friend, are no longer sixteen. Which means you are no longer sixteen and pregnant, which means—”
I definitely knew what it meant. “I am no longer a statistic! Well, I’m still a teen pregnancy statistic, but! I’m not the MTV television show kind of statistic!”
“I think this calls for a dance,” Simon said.
“No. I think it’s hammer time.” He and I proceeded to partake in the weirdest M.C. Hammer dance right there on the sidewalk, cracking up with one another while Levi stared at us as if we were psycho, before he joined in with the dancing.
And I swear at one point, my heart swooned a little.