I was eighteen. The year 2000. I sat in front of the computer at midnight to see if anything would happen. My mother explained everyone logging in at once to see if anything happened might be the very thing to cause a crash. At the time there was already a sense of system overload. Sometimes I would try and make a phone call and the voice on the other end, as though the end were a physical, identifiable point in space would repeat: We’re sorry, the system is temporarily unavailable.
Nothing happens at midnight except distant fireworks. The news reports no significant outages. In Delaware slot machines stop working. In the United Kingdom, several women with high-risk pregnancies terminate after a computer incorrectly reports the presence of Down’s syndrome in fetuses. The next morning the traffic lights work and the world releases a long held breath. The man who drives my bus let me on after Mom forgets to leave change out. This isn’t her fault. They’re alpha testing a banking website for a firm in New York City that won’t exist after a few men in Florida finish aviation school. She comes home late and sleeps in. But she forgets the change more often now and I have to borrow from friends to get home. Sometimes I sell my lunch ticket. At work I know Mom is having problems: she’s a client facing employee who keeps engineering hours. The client needs an early morning meeting but we are not what you’d call an early morning family. The dotcom boom will be described later as a bubble that burst the same way real estate speculation will, but that’s not how it happened. There boom was made of skin that began to weaken in places and blister. There was no traumatic burst with the shadow of the bubble hanging in the air. This was a slow tear and drain of lymph and infection. I come home from school and pick up my sister from the private school where they won’t make fun of her medical problems. But she is losing skills and the teachers think maybe I should finish high school there.
Every year our world history teacher organized a trip to the reenactment festival in Movedizo. I borrow money from the teacher to go. I talk with my crush about artificial intelligence during the bus ride down and piss off his girlfriend. She is writing poetry in the next seat over.
We have lunch during the Battle of Gettysburg and at night we stay at a vacant dorm at the university there. The walls were white at some point but faded. The concrete and metal are painted green, also fading. My friend Jean is my roommate and the girls next door will not shut up. I ask her if she likes this school, what she thinks of it here. Jean likes it. The topography is different here, there are hills that stretch into the sky and they are closer, like you might touch them. Some are flat like table tops and the highway on the way to the university is lined with the strata of millions of years exploded away to wind I-5 into Oregon.
“What do you think of it here?” Jean asks from her bed. It’s a cot really; the mattress is thin and matches the grey and green. The room next door is still talking. I can hear them as though they’re sitting at the edge of my bed.
“It’s pretty. I could look at the hills forever. But I don’t think I could spend four years here.”
I dream only in sensation that night. A strong man with broad shoulders is holding me but I cannot see him. I am safe and loved. These are not feelings I can access anymore. I tell one of my friends who gives me bus tickets: I think it is my history teacher. She doesn’t laugh at me like I thought she would.
I graduate high school and before I leave the stage I check to see if they've spelled my last name correctly. Satisfied, meet my family. My sister is crying under the bleachers. She is only nine but I am angry with her anyway.
“Why are you crying?”
“You’re gonna go away,” and fresh sobs come but they are cheering for a valedictorian now and no one can hear her.
Collin takes me out for my twenty first birthday. The bar is quiet and I order orange juice and vodka.
“So this is the bar?”
“Yeah, this is pretty much it,” says Collin. He has a rum and coke.
I take a drink. It’s not my first. I like this one. I have one more and then we go home.
The volume turns down.
We start going out every night. One Saturday we end up in bed together and I was lonely so I didn’t care. At night we walk past the same woman in a hoodie, smoking outside on her porch. She always waves at me and I wave back, the cherry of her cigarette glowing in the dark. I pretend it is a neon ladybug. We never do anything more than this. We don’t ever speak, but it becomes a ritual, the wave and smile.
At home Collin and I settle into new patterns of normal. We play online games. I avoid my homework, choosing useless variations on activism instead. I fail calculus. My physics instructor takes pity on me and gives me a D. The house becomes a place where hoarders would feel comfortable. Outside, Collin does the landscaping once a week. He mows and trims and sweeps. He rakes the gravel in the driveway so it’s even again. We tell people they can find out house easy: it’s the one by the stadium with the Republican lawn. At night we go to the bar and come home to sleep together. Collin smells like cleaner somehow, and I have to be drunk to sleep with him. But Collin never hits me, so I figure everything else is just what happens in relationships.
Mom has left Todd, the sad man with beer. We have a place and it’s just me and her and there are no men. At night she counts her money from working in the mall. She has four hundred dollars. What will we do with it all?
Sometimes she paints. She makes magic forests and a moon lady. She makes music
At the after school program a girl is mean to me. She whispers to her friend at silent reading that I cheat and skip paragraphs. I am mean back and she says her father is a lawyer and she will sue me.
“I don’t care if your dad is a lawyer. My Mom has four hundred dollars.”
Miss Abrams says words don’t hurt, that we have to ignore them. Words are what I have. I make them sharp and hard like sticks or snowballs from the freezer.
In the apartment upstairs there are a boy and girl in College. I don’t know what College is but I want to go there. They are skinny and wear flannel shirts. I tell them my favorite thing is cats. They make me a box and put a rainbow and cats on the top and fill it with pencils and pens and pastel chalk for black paper. On the front it says WE LOVE CAYCEP. One night Todd shows up. He tries to kick the door in and he’s too drunk so he breaks the window instead. I try to call 911 like Miss Abrams taught us in school after Mom cuts her knuckle on the glass and we don’t see Todd again.
We get evicted and Mom tells me it’s because I told the boy and girl upstairs we have a cat.
When I grow up I remember the cat liked to sleep in the window.