The Sky is Electric
by Lauren Mechling
The homeroom bell had already sounded and I was still in my apartment, just like all the other smart kids in my grade. We had been waiting for this day for so long that I couldn’t remember what it had ever been like before the obsession had taken over. In the early fall, when we were getting our applications ready, it was all we could talk about, like the so-bad-it’s-amazing “Prancercize Pretty” video series Kenji Marks had found on Youtube. Once we filled out every last application form, we stopped bringing it up, which I guess was the senior class’s collective attempt at making everything feel a little less intense and terrible.
My bedroom curtains were drawn tight and the only indication that it was morning was the sound of Galia, the building super, talking on her phone while she swept the courtyard below. My room was a mess, with Snapple iced tea bottles on the bookshelves and piles of books all over the carpet. I’d decided to organize my bookshelves by color a few nights ago and I’d made it through the greens and blues when Mom came in and told me I was making too much noise.
Mom was the morning manager at the restaurant at the St. Regis Hotel, where all the big politicians had their power breakfasts when they were in town. She had to be at work at five-thirty in the morning. For breakfast I ate day-old croissants she brought home from work. If I had a swim meet or an important test, she would make me something high in protein, like an egg sandwich or teriyaki chicken, and leave it for me in the fridge with microwave instructions scribbled on a Post-It note.
December 15th was the day when colleges let early applicants know their fates. My school encouraged all the students with decent grades to apply early. This way you had a fifteen to twenty percent better chance of admission. I had chosen Wellesley College because it had a cross-registration program with MIT, the only school that I really wanted to attend. Willie Crane, who shared all my academic interests and scored 190 points higher than I did on the SAT, couldn’t get into an all-women’s college.
I hit the refresh button over and over, faster than the phone could even communicate with the server. I almost didn’t believe it when the screen moved down a quarter of an inch to make way for a new message. It was from the admissions committee. My years of soup kitchen volunteering, vocabulary cramming, blogging as a competitive sport, and butterfly-stroking in freezing-cold swimming pools in inconveniently located athletic facilities all boiled down to a single verdict that was probably a sentence long. If that.
Half an hour later, I was riding the elevator up to my Aunt Auggie’s apartment. She wasn’t actually my aunt—she was my grandmother’s first cousin, which made her my first cousin, twice removed.
Auggie’s apartment was my second home. Auggie went to bed late and if my friends and I came over she would leave us alone and go listen to one of her Australian internet radio shows in another room. When I showed up alone, she let me watch cable and text my heart out. All she ever asked for was that I tell her what my friends and I were talking about. It didn’t matter that she’d only met a fraction of the lead characters, as she called them. She loved picking apart other people’s gossip.
I got off at the 26th floor. Before I reached Auggie’s door I felt something rubbed up against my leg. I looked down to see a black cat slink off into the shadows and through Auggie’s neighbor Mr. Pasternak’s door, which was barely cracked open. I used the key Auggie gave me on my 13th birthday and found her in her study. She had recently gotten a Facebook account, supposedly to connect with her former co-workers for a book she was trying to write about the history of the cruise-ship soap opera “Waves.” Auggie used to work there as a “script girl,” which was a sexist way of saying she was given a synopsis and a night to write the dialogue for an upcoming episode.
Mom said it was sad that she spent all her life writing steamy lines for fake people to say to each other when she never had a true love of her own. Which is not to say Mom wished steaminess on everybody. She would have killed me if she knew about all of the stuff some of my friends and I did on Auggie’s turf. During the three weeks when Addison Burri and I were going out, we used to watch TV at Auggie’s. I’d sit between his legs and try to act like my head wasn’t spinning so hard my brain was sweating. As if I normally spent my evenings with a golden-haired guy’s hands on my ribcage. I was so terrified that he was going to ask me about what was happening on the screen that I was more relieved than pleased when I’d feel his lips start to kiss the back of my neck.
“I got my email.” I waved my phone at Auggie and felt it buzz in my hand. Mom had been calling me nonstop.
Auggie raised her eyebrows so high her forehead crinkled up.
“I’m too scared to read it,” I said. “If I have to go to the diner, I’m going to have a panic attack.”
All the early applicants had decided that everyone who got a yes would meet up for a freezing-cold victory picnic in Tribeca Park, and the rejects would go to the Square Diner for greasy consolation food. Nobody was allowed to text each other before lunch.
“I’ll make us some tea.” Auggie got up and wobbled toward the doorway. Her left leg was significantly shorter than the right one. All her life, she’d had to wear custom-made shoes that made her left foot resemble a bloated hoof.
“I’m fine,” I said, realizing I was being a baby. “I should just get this over with. You just might have to share some of your psychedelic drugs.”
“They’re medicinal herbs,” she said. “Open it.”
When I saw what the letter said, I couldn’t quite believe it. “They’re bozos,” Auggie said. She must have been able to read the verdict on my face. “You can reapply.”
“No I can’t.” My voice was nearly inaudible. And even if I could reapply, it wasn’t going to change the fact that I felt suckier than I ever had in my life. I was the human equivalent of a toothpaste tube with nothing left for anybody to squeeze out.
I’d said no to Rachel Swerdle’s weekend party in the Catskills to make the statewide swim meet. I’d left the Yo Yo Ma Ma battle of the high school bands earlier than anyone else to submit my application for high school blogger of the year, a statewide competition run by librarians. (I’d placed second in the “social issues” category.) I’d written one hundred and five versions of my college statement. It was an essay on things I’d learned from my afternoons with Auggie. It came out okay in the end, but it was too cheesy to ever share with her.
And then my stomach twisted as I remembered Mom. Last spring, she’d canceled her yoga retreat in Costa Rica and reached out to David Divik, the college coach who helped me decide what “my thing” would be (science-wiz swim champion from a single-parent household) and well as make sure all my “other things” made up an attractive background. She still took that week off work, and spent most of it in the apartment doing headstands to yoga podcasts.
Auggie came up to hug me. “Oh, Phaedra. I’m sure it’s for the best.”
“It’s not. Can you just let me deal with this?” It came out sounding meaner than I’d meant it to. A shortness of breath hit me, and suddenly a sadness that was too overwhelming. Now I was sniffling, and my face was wet.
“Take it,” Auggie said when my phone buzzed. “You need to move through this.”
I wiped my eyes. “It’s a rejection,” I said into the mouthpiece without even checking first to confirm it was a St. Regis line.
When I reached the diner, I didn’t see anyone I recognized. I figured the consolation lunch must have been happening in the pink-walled room in the back, but it was empty. Then I came back out and saw Jonathan Garbage Eater sitting on a stool at the counter. His real name was Jonathan Smolin but in ninth grade he went through a phase where he ate banana peels and gum wrappers. The name stuck, even when he started hooking up with Maddie Lippman, a super hot goth girl a grade below us. He had a beaky nose and floppy brown hair that I noticed as I came closer was shaved underneath.
“So it’s just us in Loserville?” I asked from behind.
“No way,” he said when he saw who was speaking to him. “I was sure you were safe, Riot Girl.”
“It’s ‘Riot Don’t Diet,’” I said.
“That’s it,” he said, nodding. “It’s good. I’ve read it.”
“Thanks.” I rolled my eyes.
I moved to take the seat next to him, then froze. I didn’t want a pity party over burnt cheese fries. “You really have an appetite?” I said.
“Have you met me?”
“Come on,” I said, pulling his arm. The backs of our hands brushed up against each other. I slowly backed away, playing it off like it wasn’t awkward. “We have to get out of here.”
Outside, the sun was high but it felt even colder than it had on my walk over. “Let’s just go to Tribeca Park with everyone else,” I said. “We have to embrace the suckiness.”
Jonathan didn’t object. “You want to hear something?” he said when we were waiting for the light to change. “I’ve always been obsessed with your shoulders. They’re huge. Are they cut from swimming or is it genetic?”
“I’m going to pretend you didn’t just bring up something I’m already pretty self-conscious about.” As I spoke I watched a taxi full of old ladies slide by.
“It was a compliment,” Jonathan said. “I wouldn’t have—”
“Green light,” I said, rushing ahead.
I’d forgotten how many people had applied early. The park was swarming with kids who’d just got the greatest news of their lives. My best friend Georgia was at the center of the group, eating a Cuban sandwich and throwing her head back at something Andrew Costlip was saying. Laughter didn’t come easily to her, so she had to do things like that. I’d seen her practice in the mirror.
I went over and gave her a hug. “Congratulations, Miss Wesleyan.” It was tough to get the words out—the name of her future college sounded too much like Wellesley.
“Phaedra!” She looked surprised. Her lips broke out in a tiny quiver. Then her eyes brightened. “Are you here, here? You got in? I didn’t see you, and I thought you…”
“No, I got rejected.” I don’t know why but it felt a little good to say it, like popping an uncomfortable pimple. Maybe I wanted her to say something that would make me feel better. I glanced up and saw Willie Crane. He may as well have been wearing an MIT sweatshirt. I forced a smile and looked back at Georgia.
“I’m so sorry, Fay,” she said. “That’s so unbelievably horrible. Are you sure?”
“Yeah, it was pretty clear.” I suddenly wished we hadn’t showed up. “I just wanted to tell you that I’m happy for you.”
“But you have a freaking feminist blog! Can’t your mom ask Hillary put in a call for you?”
It took me a second to understand. “Hillary Clinton?”
Georgia shrugged. “Doesn’t she eat breakfast at the St. Regis?”
I glanced over at my fellow reject. He was hovering near the jocky guys and working on a hotdog smothered in radioactive green relish. The only sign that he felt less than stellar was how quickly he was chewing. He wasn’t taking breaks between bites. “Garbage Eater,” I said loudly. The look of shock that flashed across his eyes suggested people didn’t usually call him that to his face. “We have to go,” I said. “The movie starts in twenty.”
“Oh snap!” he said, playing along. He must have understood how awkward our being there with the accepted kids was. We cut back onto the street and immediately started up Greenwich Avenue, toward the Regal Views.
When we reached the theater, I wanted to see the teen drama and he was into the Lord of the Rings rip-off. So we bought tickets for a Dutch movie about a haunted house, a film neither of us wanted to see. I hadn’t been here for ages, or any movie theater for that matter. Auggie didn’t even bother trying to get me to join her at the Film Forum anymore.
We had plenty of time to select our popcorn and candy and find seats that were perfectly centered. I tried not to think about how cold it was in the theater, but Jonathan took off his hoodie and passed it to me. “Take it.”
“Aren’t you a gentleman?”
“I have a very active thyroid,” he said.
“Are you sure men have thyroids?” I said.
“Am I sure?” He raised his eyebrows in a way that made me laugh. “The thyroid is an incredibly attractive gland. Butterfly shaped.”
“I’ll never look at you in the same light again,” I said.
Even though Jonathan and I were the only two people there, everything proceeded as if the house were full. After the celebrity trivia slideshow, a guy in an usher uniform came to the front of the house and gave his spiel. “Welcome to the Regal Views,” he said in a dull voice. “We ask that you refrain for texting or—”
The theater door opened loudly and a team of men with shiny canisters slung over their shoulders entered. One held onto a leashed beagle. At first glance, the dog was tiny and cute, like something you might see on a Christmas sweater. Then I saw how it moved around as determinedly as a sniper.
“Where’s the bees? Where’s the bees?” its owner asked as it furiously sniffed the carpet. I wondered if this was the same bedbug-detecting dog that Mom had seen in action at the St. Regis, or if they all went to the same bedbug-fighting school where they learned to answer to the same words.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I muttered. “You know what the beagle means, right?”
“What? A bomb?”
“Basically.” I lowered my voice to a whisper. “Bedbugs.”
A man rushed over to us and said he was the manager. “I’m sorry about the interruption. We’ll give you a refund.”
The dog had leaped onto a seat near the back of the theater and was alternating between pawing at an armrest and the sleeve of its guide’s coat. Clearly he’d found what he was looking for.
“Forget about a refund,” Jonathan said. “We’ll take season passes.”
The manager’s eyes screwed up. “I can give you through the new year,” he said reluctantly.
“That’s two weeks. Presidents’ Day,” Jonathan countered. He rolled up his shirtsleeve and made a big production out of scratching his elbow.
Now all the exterminators were huddled around the infested seat. The man with the beagle walked the dog away while two of the guys with canisters worked at unfurling their hoses.
“Evacuate!” one of their team members called. “That means you!” he screamed our way.
When we left the theater, with our two-month passes in our pockets, the air was misty. It made the city look soft at the edges, the cars dark blurs. Jonathan wanted to go to the Indian cafeteria across the street. “All you can eat for seven bucks,” he said.
“That wouldn’t be such a good deal today,” I said, feeling a wave of exhaustion. “I’m going to go home.”
“Suit yourself,” he said. “Just promise me one thing?”
I felt a stab of self-protectiveness, like he could see through me and didn’t like the sight of all the pain. “What?”
“You should probably get your thyroid checked.” And with that, he made his way across the street.
Back in my apartment, I threw my backpack, sneakers and clothes in the laundry machine and put it on a hot cycle. I wasn’t sure if I was imagining the itching on the back of my neck, but I took out my pillbox and gulped two Benadryl. Then I took the longest shower of my life. For some reason I started thinking about Auggie’s old dog Flotsam, and how she kept a jar of rice flour dog bones in her freezer for me to give him—all before the gluten-free craze. This got my thoughts drifting to beagles, and why they were the dogs who had ended up working the bedbug beat. Then this horrible picture of Willie Crane rollerblading along the long hallways at MIT broke into my head.
I got out of the shower and heard Mom and her old friend Claudia in the apartment. Mom must have just gotten off work. Claudia used to be an actress, just like Mom. They’d met on a movie set where they were both working as extras. She ran a summer stock festival in the Berkshires now that she had a kid.
“Fay?” Mom said cautiously when I came into the living room. I saw she had brought a bag from Koreana, which was usually my favorite.
“It’s me,” I said. “Miraculously enough, I haven’t committed suicide.” The second the words came out of my mouth, I looked down at Natalia, who didn’t appear to understand what I’d said. “Phaedra wet!” she cried.
“I didn’t mean to drop the S word!” I said to Claudia. “I’m just having the worst day of my life.”
“You mom told me,” Claudia said. “So now I can tell you that women’s colleges are to be avoided at all costs.”
“You went to Amherst,” I said.
“I took a class at Mount Holyoke. The most competitive atmosphere ever. And the only girl I kept in touch with ended up in jail for white-collar crime. No joke.”
Natalia toddled over to me and pressed her face into my towel-covered thigh. I scratched her head and wished she would stay down there forever.
“Want to go read a story, Tali?” I asked.
“Want video.” Natalia craned her neck up at me. Her sperm donor must have been handsome. She had golden skin and frizzy hair that was so light it looked like it was peroxided. I turned see what her mom thought about the idea. Claudia was strict about limiting exposure to screens.
“It’s okay,” Claudia said.
Natalia jumped on my bed while I threw on a pair of jeans and a shirt. Then we snuggled against the floor pillows and watched baby videos on Youtube. Not videos made for babies—Natalia was obsessed with watching other babies. And I was just as obsessed with having her in my arms, keeping me warm and holding back the pain.
Soon Natalia stopped squiggling. Her body slackened into my tummy and I started to feel more relaxed than I had at three in the afternoon in as long as I could remember. When a video of a grown man running around a music festival in a bonnet and diaper started, Natalia laughed in incomprehension. I felt my eyelids falling shut.
I woke up to the sounds of panic. I was alone on my bedroom floor. My first thought was that I had been rejected from Wellesley. The second was that Natalia had been watching videos with me, and now she wasn’t.
I turned off the iPad and ran into the hallway. Choking noises mingled with screams. In the bathroom, Claudia held her daughter’s head over the toilet. She had her hand shoved inside Natalia’s mouth and was making her gag. Mom was holding my pillbox, her eyes black holes of shock. “What is in here?”
My head went hot as I realized I must have left my cheapo pill container next to the sink. “I took Benadryl.”
“That’s not all. There are different colors.”
“There’s Advil. And herbal energy pills. They’re Chinese.”
“Jesus Christ!” Claudia screamed. “Call poison control.”
I ran into my bedroom, came back with the phone and fumbled to find the number.
Natalia was alternating between making gagging noises and wailing. I saw the capillaries around her eyes were a web of red.
“Forget it!” Claudia said. “We don’t even know what she took. We’ve got to go to the emergency room.”
“I’m so sorry,” I muttered as Claudia pushed past me, into the hallway. Claudia couldn’t even look at me. Not that I blamed her.
“Let me come with you!” I said.
“No, that’s not a good idea,” Claudia said.
Natalia wailed my name to the best of her ability. “Fada! Fada!”
Mom tried to hold me back by my sleeve but I broke away and caught up with the others. “I have to come.”
Pediatric ER was its own separate unit beyond the hospital’s regular ER. Dr. Glatter, the doctor who met Natalia in the intake room was eerily friendly. She must have been able to tell how devastated I was because she made sure to keep glancing at me and smiling with her eyes as she spoke.
“It’s highly unlikely she swallowed anything. Pills are hard to get down,” Dr. Glatter said. “But we have to be safe. It could have been Advil, which can be incredibly dangerous in high doses. We’re going to give her ipecac, which will induce vomiting.”
I wanted to ask what ipecac was made of, but knew to keep my mouth shut. “Can’t you pump her stomach?” Claudia asked.
“No, that can be dangerous too. She should be fine. I’ve seen kids who’ve done much worse.”
“But you can’t say that for sure.” Claudia’s voice was breaking. “Who knows what was in that Chinese herbal thing.”
I burned with shame. I wasn’t even supposed to have that stuff—I’d taken it from Auggie’s medicine cabinet. It had come in a vial with Asian characters and a picture of a ginger root radiating cartoon rays of energy.
Dr. Glatter put her hand on Claudia’s arm. “I can say for sure I think she’s going to be fine. You just need to do a better job keeping any medical substances locked up.”
“It’s my fault,” I said.
“It’s not anyone’s fault,” Dr. Glatter said. Claudia was staring at me with her lower lip hanging slack and a look in her eyes that said she barely recognized me. I took a deep breath and made a mental promise to look out for Natalia for the rest of my life. Even if Mom and Claudia stopped being friends, I was going to keep tabs on that beautiful girl.
I waited on a chair while Dr. Glatter took Claudia and Natalia went into a procedure room. They were back before long. Natalia rode Claudia’s chest, her arms and legs clamped around her mother’s torso.
Dr. Glatter showed Natalia to her station: a twin bed and two folding chairs. “We’re just going to watch you for the next little while. Do you like popsicles, Natalia?”
“Yes!” Natalia’s head shot up. The doctor gave us the thumbs-up sign.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “Nobody was home when I took the—”
“It’s okay. It wasn’t your fault.” Claudia wiped a tear and squeezed my hand. “And if I said anything mean back there—”
I shook my head. While Natalia sucked on her popsicle, Claudia tried to show her how to use a coloring book. Instead she crayoned all over her bed sheets, then sprinted around the floor, opening toxic garbage cans and digging through other mothers’ purses. She seemed the opposite of drowsy, which I took as a good sign. I held back and trailed behind them, wiping up sticky popsicle dribble.
Mom must have called and known that Natalia was okay. She showed up with coffee, water and the Korean food she’d picked up before. She I was sitting on the edge of Natalia’s bed, reading a text from Jonathan Garbage Eater: YO P, U ITCHING? I’d forgotten about the movie theater incident but immediately felt itchy. Claudia and Natalia were walking around and making friends with a little boy who’d fallen off his scooter and had a bump the size of a lemon on his forehead.
I grabbed a container of bibimbap and shoveled it into my mouth with a plastic spoon. I hadn’t eaten anything since the movie theater popcorn. “Why am I not surprised they were stingy with the bean sprouts,” I said with a full mouth. Mom sat up straight but the corners of her eyes were watering the way they did when she found something funny.
“First the rejection, then the bed—” I stopped short. “I’ll explain later. I need to go to the bathroom. Will you watch my stuff?”
“What stuff?” Mom said. “You’re a mess. Go take care of yourself.”
The lobby bathroom was closed off for cleaning. I turned to look at the scratched-up door to the pediatric unit, then walked down the wheelchair ramp. A man in an MTA uniform was arguing on his cellphone. I took a seat on the windowsill and tuned him out. The air on the street had a dusty, gloomy quality and all the people walking outside seemed so serious. Even the ones reading their smartphones looked bored to death. I craned my neck and looked up to see a slice of the sky. It had turned a majestic purple swirled through with pinks and lavenders and it was dotted with hundreds of tiny little clouds, each bursting with its own private light. I leaned against the wall and felt a bizarre rush of happiness.
Natalia was going to be okay. I’d get into a college, even if it wasn’t my first or second choice.
When I returned to the pediatric ward, Natalia was asleep in her mom’s arms.
Mom looked up at me from her chai. “The doctor said they’re fairly sure she’s fine, they just need her to stay half an hour. Do you want to go home?”
“Let’s wait for them,” I said.
I opened my phone and logged onto Facebook. I ignored all my friends’ posts about early action and composed a message to Auggie.
CAN I TAKE YOU TO THE MOVIES SOON? XOXO P
How had it taken me this long? I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen her outside of her apartment.
Lauren Mechling is a features editor at The Wall Street Journal and fiction writer. You can learn more about her at www.laurenmechling.com.
Image source: Kevin Slavin via Creative Commons