Dark Hunger

Page 15

“Because when I touch you I feel like the world makes sense.”

The cloth of my futon rubbed against my knees, the raspy sound amplified a thousand times in my ears. Moonlight spilled in through my window, and the air went warm, like a billowing curtain brushing against my skin as a gentle breeze turned the tiny apartment into a rapturous asylum from the craziness of the world. His fingers brushed against my arm as he held me, eyes open and intense, vulnerable and seeking.

The next kiss wasn’t an apology.

It was a demand. A demand on my part, as four years of pent up questions and sorrow came pouring forth from me, unbidden and unleashed.

And just then, Sam’s fingers rested on my arms and went perfectly still.

Chapter Four


4.5 years ago

I didn’t know that I could feel this sick to my stomach. National qualifiers for debate. The top three would go to national competition this summer. This was my third year here. My freshman year I’d competed in a different event in Speech, but switching over to Lincoln-Douglas debate had been a revelation. It turned out I was actually good at something other than writing papers, and just being the smart girl. When I got up in front of the judges, stood face to face against a single opponent, and crafted an argument on whatever topic they threw at us, my brain could click into place. It was like gears shifting in a machine, step by step, making connections.

Someone once told me that debating was like playing chess. You had to see how it was all going to end eight, ten, fifteen, twenty moves in advance, and to understand the possible consequences of each choice that you made. Every word that came out of your mouth, each sentence that you formed and put forth had to both convince that judge sitting out there in the audience that you had a better argument than the person you were trying to defeat, and unsettle your opponent enough so that he or she couldn’t do the same.

Using my mind to convince adults that I was more persuasive, that my facts were better, I felt unprecedented power—I could convince them that damn near anything I said was right.

It was incredibly rare, in teenage life, to be able to tell adults something and be believed. To be academically and intellectually capable of gathering research around an idea, of forming a case and then presenting it. I would stand with another teenager in front of two adults who might be teachers, who might be parents, former debaters—we never really knew who the judges were. Sometimes they were nuns from Catholic schools, sometimes they were incredibly bored nineteen year-olds who had just graduated and were there for the paltry amount of money that judges earned. Often they were debate coaches from other teams. Most of the time they were friendly, if a bit stone faced, trying to remain neutral and to judge on the merits of our cases.

It wasn’t a popularity contest. It wasn’t about looks. I didn’t have to be pretty. I didn’t have to be well dressed beyond looking professional and businesslike. I didn’t have to wear the right lipstick, or the perfect earrings, or be fashionable, or talk about the latest music, or movies.

I could talk about the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution. I could talk about civil liberties, and questions about the rights of the majority versus the minority were my playing field—not perfumes and self-tanners. I got to stand up next to some damn fine guys from other high schools who wielded the same intellectual weapons that I did. I got to watch them dressed up like their dads, staking their claim across classroom floors, walking like men, shoulders squared, faces alert, taking me on in a test of intellectual merit.

Not in some ridiculous romantic game where I was supposed to read signals that were subtle or where subterfuge became some kind of twisted, sexual joke.

Oh, no, I was their equal. In fact, most of the time, I was their better. I could use information and analysis the way other girls used a hair flip or played with the neckline of their shirt. When these guys looked into my eyes they didn’t lick their lips—they ruffled their papers and straightened their arguments. The air crackled between us because the stakes were so high. High school debate—competing to go to Nationals? That was huge.

Living in the suburbs of Boston, with nationally-ranked school districts and parents who mortgaged their careers to get a house, everything was about competition. Getting into the right preschool, the right school district, having parents work extra hours to make sure that they could afford the house and the property taxes that came with being in a top ten school district—the pressure began before you were potty-trained.

I had to do all the right activities starting in middle school, learn the right instruments, speak the right foreign languages, volunteer at the right centers, all for the Holy Grail of getting into the best college possible. Around here that was Harvard, MIT and Yale—and if you couldn’t get into one of those top three, you were lesser. Right here, right now, as we got ready for the crackdown where people stopped making eye contact in the halls, where people—competitors that you’d joked with three weeks ago—suddenly clung to their notes and turned away, whispering in corners. This was real life.

All of it changed relationships.

I think that was the part that scared me the most; how eviscerated people felt as they were eliminated. Some of my debate friends hadn’t even made it this far, but Sam had. So far when I’d passed him in the halls he’d made eye contact, even smiled, though his face was a bit gray, and there was a sickly sense of something about him. Butterflies probably churned in his stomach as if someone had fed them meth.

We all felt that way. Every single one of us had spent the last few weeks poring over our cases, constructing careful analogies, worrying through wordings, sayings, and statistics. It was preparation for law school for plenty of us, and yet—nothing like it.

Let me explain how intense the world of Lincoln-Douglas debate can get. If you did well on your PSATs, the brochures began coming in. The emails started to pop up. You received invitations to visit the top debate teams at colleges across the country. Alluring and enticing comments about full tuition scholarships for a handful of students nationwide made you want to win. A phone call might even come from one of those top schools, a coach on the other end, friendly talks with your parents—all revolving around one thing.

Winning. And not the Charlie Sheen kind.

It was nothing like sports. Most of us were sports rejects. A handful of golden boys and girls managed to balance it all. That definitely wasn’t me. For as mentally agile and coordinated as I was in a classroom or in a debate session, I might as well have been an octopus on roller skates when it came to a baseball, a soccer ball, a track hurdle or anything else other than the occasional recreational swim. College tuition was on the line for plenty of debaters, but I had a full ride already lined up. So for me, it was more ephemeral. I could go into this just wanting the glory, adding the notch on my academic belt.

As I flipped through my pages, preparing for my next debate, I saw Sam walk by again, running a hand through that auburn hair. Oh, how I wished it were my hand. Memory took over my mind and body, the thought of his arms around me just two weeks ago so evocative.

He stopped at a drinking fountain and bent over, the gray wool of his suit stretching tight across his shoulders. His lips drank greedily from the stream of water, and suddenly everything else disappeared. The butterflies in my stomach, the tightness in my shoulders, the sense that everything hinged on what I was about to do today—it all rushed away in one mad wave.

All that was left was me taking in everything about this one person who mattered more than anything I was about to do today.


Don’t throw up, don’t throw up.

I felt like a genie was trapped in my stomach and struggling violently to get out. A burning sensation rose up through my esophagus, and tension squeezed my jawline. I felt a fiery flush from the anxiety, up my cheeks all the way to my scalp, and I bent over the water fountain as much to hide it as to cool it down. My entire future rested on today. My dad had told me that everything weighed on this win—everything. I had to make it to Nationals, and I must win without question. The top three would make it, and I had to be one of those three. Just third would do; even dad had relented on that point. It wasn’t about being number one.

For once, it was about being good enough.

And yet, good enough would be damn hard.

Dad was a minister at a local church, a pillar of the community, right? Then that made me a preacher’s kid. He wasn’t a preacher in the southern sense, though. No one here in New England would tolerate anything quite as big as what Dad called a “Holy Roller,” but he had a way of making sure that God infused everything in our lives. Funny how God always seemed to have the same exact views as Dad. I’d gone to a small private school from preschool to eighth grade, learning everything through the lens of God. When money started to get tight, he’d relented and let me go to the local public school.

I’d been shocked my first session of science class, sitting in a biology lecture, and learning about evolution. Dad had told me that evolution was something that people had created as a way to separate us from God, so I knew the basics. The scary part was that now I was being told to bridge two worlds, somehow to remain devout and without sin—or at least with as little sin as possible, at the same time that I accepted what so many people at my old school and at my church, Dad’s church, told me were signs of moral failure.

“Fake it,” Dad said. “Get good grades and pretend enough to get the grades you need, and don’t let it bother you. God knows that you understand it’s just not true, and there’s no violation of God’s law unless you choose to actually believe it.”

That’s what he said, but you know, things have a way of backfiring when you lie, and that’s exactly what Dad taught me. To lie. To lie to myself by learning something that I wasn’t supposed to believe in, and then realizing I did believe in what they taught, and realizing I had to lie at home. That? That I could master. Easily. Because what Dad didn’t know is that I had been doing it most of my life.

Violently poison-tongued, my father could wield words like weapons, especially when he had too much to drink. And that was the first lie, the central lie, that taught me how to really pretend to believe something that wasn’t true. The fact was that my father was supposed to be an ethical man, the interpreter of God for his flock, and yet at home he was a tyrant, a real son of a bitch. My stomach tightened at the thought of calling him that, at the contradiction between the truth that it represents and the sin that it is.

Back then, though, in ninth grade, sitting there while my teacher explained the role of vestigial limbs or why humans walk upright, I found a divergence. It was the same feeling today, getting ready for debate. It was a sense that I was being told to go through the motions for the sake of the motions, but I was actually doing it because it’s what I believed. A full ride to college rested on how I performed. Two different high level schools had coaches who said if I could get into the top three, I could make my way through their schools with no debt. Dad didn’t have a college fund for me. He said I could go to a Bible school if I couldn’t get a free ride somewhere else. I’d rather scrape and save and work five jobs to pay for a different college than go to the kind of Bible school my father would choose for me, where people couldn’t touch each other, where dancing was considered a sin, and where attitudes about homosexuality were like something out of a 1960s documentary.

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