As he returned home a total failure it seemed to Adam that he was going back into an ocean, an ocean of stucco and of sidewalks and of parks with exactly two swings. The televisions, it seemed were always tuned to news stations, where sweaty, sweatless men with red cheeks and square haircuts yelled about new controversies certain to cause immediate political apocalypse. Their voices congealed into a sort of omnipresent static, the crashing of waves.
It is through this ocean that the Subaru glides, a seasoned ship that Mom captains expertly, through nondescript, samey roads- Huckleberry Avenues and Bluebird Lanes and Canyon Circles- on the way to their own little cranny of Nevadan suburbia. Ahoy, the suburbs! Where young people go to stagnate, to have their youth sealed away in picture frames and lost forever! The suburbs! With rotating monthly dinner menus (“Oh look, spaghetti is on a Tuesday this week!”), with constant stressful chatter about 401k’s! The suburbs! Sponsored by off-brand Oreos and brought to you by last-year’s Kia Sorenta.
As the old ship beats on, Adam can see the worry in Mom’s focus and hear it in her silence, but he appreciates the lack of conversation. What is there left to say?
Alice Applegate- teenage cello-maestro, frequent wearer of polka dots, record-holder in the 200 meter dash- was not immune to the hormonal locker room talk of high school boys, but she did get her own variety of it. Instead of talking about her in hypothetical, lascivious scenarios, the boys of Williams High spoke of Alice with an almost reverence. It would not be uncommon in any given post-practice communal shower for some linebacker or tight end or stubbly lineman to mention- totally unironically- that Alice Applegate looked very beautiful at school that day. The other players would softly agree, and the team would take a moment of silence before going back to scrubbing their armpits with bodywash (or shampoo, or conditioner- whatever they could find, really).
Alice Applegate with her floral eyes and dropkick waist, with her nearly perfect grade point average and stellar voting record as president of Ollis High’s Student Council. Alice Applegate, who left the scent of strawberry melon shampoo in her wake, who was somehow friends with everyone and friends with no one because who did she hang out with, even? Alice Applegate- who could resist that cutesy alliteration? Definitely not Drew Jackson- eleventh-grader, idealist, captain of the football bench.
Drew and Alice had worked on an investigative science report together in eighth grade and ever since she had waved at him in the hallways, smiling excitedly and delicately flitting her hand back and forth as if she was a music conductor manipulating the tempo of Drew’s heartbeat. When they spoke, Drew hung on Alice’s every word as if playing a really bad game of hangman, nodding and uh-huhing and frequently failing to comprehend her sentences as English. A basic exchange between the two might go as follows:
Alice: “Drew! Did you hear that-” (This is about where Drew begins to think about how Alice’s excitable way of speech is maybe the cutest thing ever, how all of her sentences seem punctuated by double exclamation points. Or maybe he thinks about how her eyes open with this sort of innocent, excitable glow that reminds him of elementary school tag. Maybe he also thinks about how her skin seems to radiate joy and warmth, like she has a full body fever or something. Then, maybe Drew realizes that he should be paying attention to what she’s saying so he can sound not like a total idiot when he responds.) “-don’t you think so?”
Drew: “Yeah, totally!”
Drew’s Inner Monologue: “Oh no! She’s onto me! She knows that I wasn’t listening. I have to recover from this. We do have history class together, maybe if I say something incredibly vague about that it will apply to the situation. Brilliant!”
Drew Again: “I mean, history is decided by the victor.”
Alice: “Um, yeah, I guess. Hey, I gotta go, Drew. It was nice talking to you!”
Drew’s Inner Monologue: “I hate myself, I hate myself, I hate myself.”
So Drew, very often, sounds like a total idiot when talking to Alice, but this has not yet deterred him from his plan, the singular goal he has set for his eleventh grade year: not only will Drew Jackson ask Alice Applegate to homecoming, but she may even say yes!
One September, just after her ninth birthday, Alice Applegate announced to all of the children in her third grade class that she would be throwing a Halloween costume party that afternoon if any of them wanted to come. Alice’s mother was not let in on the party plans, but, around four o’clock, kids started showing up anyway costumed and ecstatic- duct-tape robots with toilet-roll swords and kings and queens with burger king crowns. Luckily, Mrs. Applegate was used to this kind of behavior from her second child and so, instead of asking questions, she set out making fish-shaped peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches and stringing streamers up by the front door. In a few hours, after the kids were all picked up, Alice’s mother kindly asked her daughter what exactly that had been about.
“Oh, I’m sorry if I forgot to tell you Mom! I just couldn’t wait for Halloween.”
Alice never got better at patience, so when she heard a knock at the door past eight o’clock the day after the homecoming theme (“A Night of Stars” only the letter “a” in “Stars” was itself a star for stylistic reasons) had been announced, she just about had an anxiety attack, rushing to the door from her upstairs bedroom and softly yelling “I’ve got it! I’ve got it!”
Was Vince Todd asking her out with a candy poster that said something like “I would ‘rollo-ver’ with “Almond Joy’ to go to Homecoming with a ‘Red Hot’ girl like you?” Vince was always holding the door open for people, what a nice guy! Or could it be Robert Shapiro, from Chemistry? He was a little bit awkward, sometimes, but Alice could make it work! Plus, she really wants Rob to go and she doesn’t know how many friends he has. It really doesn’t matter who is asking her, Alice thinks, because this is her junior homecoming and it will be incredible!
Alice holds her breath at the door, for a second, and then unlocks it excitedly, pulling the door open with a flourish.
On the porch is Adam. Mom is there too, looking uncharacteristically fragile.
“Sorry, Alice, Mom forgot the key.”
Alice is silent and breathing audibly and looking at her brother who she hasn’t seen in over a year and is unsure of whether to laugh or cry. He looks older, and thinner, and his eyes are flitting awkwardly, dancing around hers so that he doesn’t have to see his little sister realize that he has failed.
Here is Adam’s childhood- here is his youth, in this stucco house with this girl, eating gold fish and walking to the park. His childhood is follow the leader and box houses and all manner of suburban debauchery, of lollipop-theft, of finger pointing and hot-faced tattle-taling. He sees the summers in Alice’s eyes, as she stands there, inside the door, the trips to the beach with sandwiches, with shovels, with sandy holes big enough to bury her in so that only her head is above ground and she’s laughing and screaming as the tide inches in towards her chin. In this moment, it seems to Adam that Alice is once again three and he is once again six and he wishes he could explain everything to her as a child would. “I’m sorry, Alice, I got too sad and it was scary, so now I’ll be home for a little while. Do want to go upstairs and play mousetrap? We can make our own rules.”
After a moment, Alice steps out onto the porch. Her face doesn’t change expressions as she hugs Adam tightly, pulling him close enough that she can smell the airport on his shirt.
“Adam, I missed you so much. Welcome home.”