Andre had been disappointed to discover that, even with the Darling Budds gone and The Gang mostly disbanded, he was still in the thrall of someone who disapproved of his clothes. His Aunt Marissa had only been in town for three hours, but she’d already told him his pants were too tight, his shirt was too loose, and he needed new shoes. In fact, the first thing she said to Andre after getting off the plane was “Whoa, you grew up!” while staring at his midsection. Three hours down, two weeks to go.
And now, after he’d come up to the kitchen in the clothes he’d intended to wear to Temple that night—black pants, untucked black short-sleeved shirt—she’d sent him back downstairs to “try again.”
Aunt Marissa was supposedly in New Orleans to visit her hometown, but the real reason for her visit was to check up on Andre and his dad. Andre had spent the last week completely cleaning the house and making it seem like a normal domestic unit in preparation for her visit. The only room he didn’t touch was his own, under the assumption that this was a private space and therefore outside of Aunt Marissa’s jurisdiction. Besides, Andre felt it lent an air of authenticity to leave his bedroom a mess; he was a teenage boy, and normal teenage boys have messy rooms.
Marissa was the baby of the Meyer family, eleven years younger than Andre’s dad, and she had always fought to keep up with her older siblings. She lived in Phoenix, where she owned a tile store she won in the divorce from her first husband. She was remarried now, to a plastic surgeon who went by his first name (Dr. Ray), and she had two kids about half as old as Andre. They were the sort of family you saw in sports drink ads…the parents roller-blading as the kids rode their bikes in the park. All of them in helmets, of course.
Andre rooted around in the laundry room, eventually finding a white dress shirt of his father’s from years before. It fit him almost perfectly, he was shocked to discover…he’d always thought of his dad as being much bigger than him.
He tucked the shirt in, then pulled it out as much as he could to hide his real shape, and found the black jacket that matched his pants. There was no way he was putting a tie on, not in June. Andre stood in front of the mirror: he looked like a waiter.
When he came back upstairs, his aunt had all the kitchen cabinets open and was staring into the refrigerator. “Andre,” she asked, “how can the two of you be so fat when there’s no food in the house?”
Andre didn’t answer. In fact, he barely even heard her. This was the way the Meyer family talked to each other, and only when someone’s feelings got truly hurt did the family grudgingly admit that there was affection under the teasing. In incredible cases, they even refrained from tormenting the injured party for up to half an hour.
Besides, there was food in the house. Andre had gone to the grocery store just that morning, and had stocked the house with breakfast cereal and sandwich supplies…it just hadn’t occurred to him to buy anything that took longer than two minutes to make.
“Grilled cheese it is,” Aunt Marissa said, straightening up and pushing a mess of black curls from in front of her face. She looked at Andre’s clothes. “Much better. Tuck your shirt in, though, you look like a sad little mushroom.”
Andre sat down at the kitchen counter and found the in-flight magazine Aunt Marissa had left there. “Where’s Dad?”
“He’s in his room, getting ready. Maybe you could check on him in a few minutes.” She began opening the loaf of Bunny Bread that Andre had bought that morning. “I got your report card the other day. Not bad, mister. But what’s with the B in Calculus? You had an A—a low A, but still—all last semester.”
Andre looked up from the magazine and started to answer when, incredibly, his cell phone began ringing in his pocket. He shrugged at his aunt and tried to pull it out of his pocket, but it was stuck. (Okay, maybe his pants were a little tight.) He stood up and fished the phone out. He would have talked to anyone, but he was surprised to see Litta'Bit’s name in the caller ID window.
“Sorry, I have to take this,” he said, and his aunt rolled her eyes. “Hello?”
Litta'Bit sounded surprised that he’d answered. “Oh hey, Andre…have you heard from Robert lately? Like at all this week?”
“Hey, kiddo!” Andre said loudly. “I was going to call you when we got back from Temple.”
There was silence on the other end of the line. “Andre? This is Litta'Bit…”
Andre walked out of the kitchen, still talking. “No, it’s okay, but I can’t talk too long. Aunt Marissa is making grilled cheese.”
Litta'Bit caught on. “Oh…I get it. Come on, it can’t be that bad.”
He started to go downstairs to his room, then caught himself and walked towards his dad’s bedroom. “Oh, I wouldn’t say that, exactly.”
“You still can’t talk?”
“Not yet, no. Hold on.”
Andre slipped out of the hallway and into his father’s room. He had trashed it already, of course, only a day after Andre had cleaned it. The sheets were off at the corners and were twisted on the bed. The closet door was open and there was a mess piled up around the opening, as though his father had been frantically excavating the closet at some point in the night.
Reuben Meyer himself wasn’t in the room, though. Andre listened and thought he heard water sloshing around behind the closed bathroom door, followed by a deep snore. Ridiculous. His dad goes a week without taking a bath, then has two in five hours. He’d probably already forgotten about the first one.
“Okay, I can talk.”
Litta'Bit laughed. “No, seriously, it can’t be that bad.”
Andre pulled a suit and a clean shirt out of his dad’s closet and threw them on the bed, followed by a pair of dress shoes and socks. “It’s not, not really. She can just be really…brusque, sometimes.”
“I don’t know what that word means.”
“Rude, short.” Andre glanced over his shoulder to make sure that his aunt hadn’t followed him, then reached in his back pocket and pulled out a flask, which he slid into the jacket on the bed. Seconds later, the flask was joined by a folded up square of paper containing a half dozen pills. “So what’s up? You’re looking for Robert?”
“Yeah, have you heard from him this week?”
“No, I haven’t heard from anyone. Well, David and you, and just on Messenger.” Andre banged twice on the bathroom door. On the other side, there was the sudden sound of sloshing water, as though a tremendous weight had jerked awake in surprise. Andre knocked twice again.
“What are you doing over there?” Litta'Bit asked.
Two knocks hit against the bathroom wall, and Andre could hear his father mumbling. “Yes, yes, yes.” Water began draining out of the bathtub and Andre walked away.
“Have you tried calling Robert?” he asked.
“No, not really. Things are weird between us. I don’t know.”
“Again? Still?” Andre slipped past the kitchen. His aunt had her back to the doorway, searching through the drawers for, presumably, a spatula. He went downstairs, towards his ordinary teenage boy’s messy room.
“Yeah.” Litta'Bit sighed. “We broke up on Sunday. Or I think we did.”
“You think? You don’t know?”
“Well…it’s weird. I broke up with him by text message on Sunday. Classy, I know. But then I haven’t really heard a word out of him all week. I expected him to at least call me and try to patch things up.” He heard her rustling on the other end of the line. It sounded like she had crawled into bed. “But I don’t know, the message was sorta unclear, I guess he could have taken it a bunch of different ways.”
“Yeah,” Andre said, shutting the door to his bedroom. He thought about turning the light off, but didn’t. He sat on the edge of his unmade bed and looked at the side of his Doc Martens. “I don’t know…maybe he’s just sick of the bullshit cycle this time.”
Litta'Bit didn’t speak for a moment. If anyone else had said this to her, they would have been hung up on, and possibly subjected to two or three profanity-filled text messages.
“You could be right,” she finally said.
“I mean, I haven’t talked to him or anything, so who knows? But maybe…this is what, the seventh time you’ve broken up with him? Maybe he’s just like ‘fuck it,’ you know?” There was a bit of dried mud on the side of his boot, and he flicked it off. “But then again, that doesn’t sound very Robert-like, does it? He puts up with a lot when it comes to you.”
Litta'Bit sighed. “Tell me about it.”
If any member of The Gang had been eavesdropping on this conversation, they would have been stunned at what they’d just heard. And not just Litta'Bit’s willingness to accept criticism from Andre, of all people, but also Andre’s ability to deliver it. In fact, Andre and Litta'Bit were closer friends than anyone in The Gang suspected.
There were practical reasons for this: they were both known for staying up later than anyone else—they got most of their sleep during long afterschool naps—and neither of them were ever very far away from their computer. At any given point during the night, long after most of their other friends had gone to sleep, there would be a chat window open between the two of them. Usually, their late-night messages were short and disjointed, often with hours between responses, but they were there for each other in the middle of the night, after everyone else they knew was in bed, and a certain curious kinship had grown between them.
Occasionally they would end up in actual conversations, chatting about whatever, sending each other links to websites and videos. And sometimes, as the night wore on and they grew sleepier, these conversations would move to the telephone, where they could finish talking as they got ready for bed, and even afterwards, as they both lay in the dark of their rooms, mumbling into their hands.
This didn’t happen too often, but it was profound. After they had both relaxed into their beds, their daytime personalities began to recede, leaving something perhaps more genuine behind. Andre would always start out disdainful and sarcastic, and Litta'Bit would still have her casual, even unintentional, flirtiness—“Hold on, my bra is too tight to sleep in…let me take it off”—but while whispering secrets in the dark their other selves would be revealed to each other. As their voices became softer, they would tell each other things they had no one else to tell, what they hoped for and what they were scared of. Sometimes Andre talked about his dad; once he even talked about his mom.
Andre never told anyone about these phone calls, and he was sure Litta'Bit never did either. His friends would only hear the part about talking to a hottie in bed, but it wasn’t like that. They never had phone sex, never even really talked about sex. What they had was more intimate than sex, and for the length of the phone call at least, brought them closer than a hook-up ever would.
These occasional conversations made a deep impression on Andre. He had never had a girl open up to him like that, and it affected him for days afterwards, as he dwelled on every aspect of their talk. One night about a week before Prom, Litta'Bit had called him at three in the morning, and Andre—in what he considered one of the first truly adult decisions of his life—didn’t answer. The next day at school, he was prepared to tell her that he had already been in bed, but she never brought it up.
“Would it really be such a bad thing, though, if Robert were finally blowing you off?”
“What do you mean?”
Upstairs, a pan was noisily extracted from an overstuffed cabinet. “I just mean, wouldn’t it be sort of a relief if he were just ready to move on? No fights, no breaking up…”
“I guess so. I mean, yeah…totally.”
Aunt Marissa stomped twice on the floor of the kitchen, which was Andre’s ceiling. He angled the door open an inch and yelled, “I’ll be up in a second!”
“Okay, that was my ear,” Litta'Bit said.
“Sorry. I should go in a minute.”
“Okay. How’s the visit going so far?”
Andre took his glasses off and blinked heavily a few times. “Well, so far so good, but she’s only been here a few hours. Call back in a week and a half, maybe I’ll take the shotgun out of my mouth long enough to talk.”
“No, I mean, it’ll probably be better than last year, sure. But it’s a such a tightrope I have to walk. On one hand, I have to make it look like my dad’s still competent enough to take care of me. On the other, we both know what’s really up, so I have to prove that I’m competent enough to take care of him, without making it too obvious at the same time.” Andre slipped his glasses back on. “My one advantage is that she doesn’t really want to take me back to Phoenix with her and put my dad somewhere. What a pain in the ass, right? But if things are bad enough, well…I’m her nephew, and he’s her big brother, and she’ll do what she has to.”
“Well, be good,” Litta'Bit said after a pause. “The Gang’s lost too many members this month as it is.”
“Andre?” Aunt Marissa called. Andre opened his bedroom door and looked up into the stairwell, where his Aunt Marissa was leaning over the first floor balcony, her hair dangling down in front of her face.
“Lookin’ for butter…or margarine…maybe some olive oil…”
“Cooking spray, god forbid? Or Canola? Crisco, in a pinch?”
“Anything to get between the bread and the pan, really. Maybe a little vegetable oil?”
“Oh! There’s a gallon jug of popcorn butter under the sink.”
Aunt Marissa made a face but went back to the kitchen. Andre closed his door and sat back on the bed.
“Yum,” Litta'Bit said.
“One of the advantages of owning movie theaters…we’re never short on Yellow Death. Although I just sentenced myself to an entire dinner of jabs at my gut. Uh, metaphorically speaking.”
“She doesn’t.” Litta'Bit sounded horrified. The Gang had stopped making any mention of Andre’s weight long ago. Well, except for Alexander, of course.
“She does nothing but. It seems that it’s going to be the theme of this visit, in fact. Apparently the ability to take care of myself is inversely proportional to the size of my waistline. Watch, by the end of this visit she’ll have me doing Pilates and eating tofu burgers.”
Litta'Bit didn’t say anything, and suddenly Andre felt panicked.
“All wearing spandex, doing Tae-bo,” he said.
“You know, that wouldn’t necessarily be the end of the world.” Litta'Bit spoke slowly, cautiously, as though choosing her words very cautiously.
“Working on my glutes. Hanging out at a juice bar.”
Litta'Bit was quiet, and after mumbling “all watching my carb intake,” Andre fell silent, too.
“I mean, tell me to shut up if you want, but you’re not an ugly guy, Andre. Please…I haven’t talked to an ugly boy since ninth grade, and that was, like, an accident. And it’s not like you’re obese. You need to lose, what? Twenty pounds?”
Andre just sighed, and on the other end of the line, he heard what sounded like Litta'Bit cringing.
“Don’t start ranting, okay? I’ll shut up.”
Andre laughed. “No, it’s cool. It is, it’s cool. But you don’t understand. You’ve never had a weight problem-”
“Oh my god, are you kidding? I’m a total cow right now.”
He laughed again, surprising himself. “I’m not talking about having a soft little tummy that boys want to nibble on. I’m talking about…look: you and Aunt Marissa and I guess everyone else we know sees me and is like, ‘Why doesn’t he just lose some weight?’ like that’s the solution. But…Jesus Christ, you know? It’s not the solution, it’s the problem. Why don’t I just lose weight?”
Litta'Bit was quiet, and after a while it was clear that Andre was done.
“So. Anyway.” Andre stood up and ran his hand through his hair. “I better go.”
“Hey, but before I go, let me say this: I don’t know what’s going on with Robert—if you want I could try to find out—but I know that he really loves you.”
“I know,” Litta'Bit said, then chuckled darkly. “But it’s like you just said. That’s not the solution, that’s the problem.”
“Enjoy your tofu burger,” Litta'Bit said. “And keep your head together, two weeks isn’t that long. Stay in touch…maybe I’ll come rescue you one night and we’ll hang out.”
“I’d like that,” Andre said, and he meant it, even though he knew it would never happen.