The school board barred

as much practical education as they could. Maybe they

just really liked babies and wanted us to start breeding as soon as possible.

chronological cartography

1. I clawed my way through ninth grade breath by breath, second by second. Kids living in war zones should get extra credit just for showing up to school. The fact that my parents didn’t see how messed up I was, and how stoned I stayed to avoid dealing with what messed me up, proved they were fighting hard battles of their own. Dad was hanging on by a thread, but Mom was a warrior. She kept us alive and made sure we had a place to live—two incredible accomplishments, when you think about it. But I didn’t think about it, not then. I focused on breathing in, breathing out, then breathing in again.

2. Sophomore year, I tried to be a student, minute by minute. Sometimes hour by hour. My X-kid friends were mad cuz I wouldn’t party with them anymore. But I made friends with a girl who swam with me and she was good at discus and I threw the shot put, which landed me with the nickname Moose. I joined the International Club and went to meetings, and Mr. P. was right—I liked it. My guidance counselor was not impressed with my progress; he shook his finger in my face and yelled at me and said if I didn’t get my act together, I’d wind up in jail.

3. By eleventh grade, living hour by hour was habit and every once in a while I could see a little further ahead. I remembered to return library books. I got a job and wasn’t fired. Some of my friends’ parents didn’t like me; they could smell the desperation, the faint whiff of disaster that clung to my clothes. Whatever. I branched into the nonfiction section of the library and read about Russian history and Japanese etiquette. I wrote down important things on a calendar. I watched the musical and went to a couple basketball games, just for fun.

cardboard boxes

I visited kin in the mountains late in high school, pinned

down in a small town; no car, no cable TV

(internet hadn’t been invented, or gaming—hell, they barely had lights)

our choices were simple: weed, beer, or grain alcohol mixed

with pink Kool-Aid by spotty boys eager for sex, sad little puppies living in crumbling houses or decomposing trailers with pregnant girls from their algebra class

toddlers sleeping on towels on the floor, the stench of diapers choking the dogs.

Poor kids get snatched by the real world at seven, eight, nine years old, dragged onto the front porch of adulthood, forced to figure it out on their own rarely making old bones,

a few will live to see their grandchildren chewed up by the same machinery then buried in cardboard boxes I wanted a coffin made of wood from trees not yet planted

my appetite for time was growing.

peanut butter chews

the peanut butter chews at my high school, legendary food of the gods, were simple: corn syrup, cornflakes, peanut butter, and sugar mixed, plopped, and baked by badass cafeteria ladies who understood everything by eleventh grade, I’d shape-shifted from a lost stoner dirtbag

to a jock who hung out with exchange students wrote poetry for the literary magazine and had a small group of nerdy, funny, sweet friends to sit with at lunch my I’m fine! mask fit snugly I only took it off at home,

but when I shared peanut butter chews with those friends

sometimes I forgot I was wearing it I studied hard to keep up with them, we listened to each other and to the same music we ate a lot of peanut butter chews the slant of light in the cafeteria illuminated possibilities

I was smart enough not to tempt fate by dating any of the guys in that group I went out with a dude from a different school who knew me before IT happened, a boy who loved arguing politics and religion as much as I did, one of the good guys.

Home was still hellish, afire with the painful realization

that no matter how much I loved my parents my love could not fix them

in the mythological universe of high school cafeteria ladies are the Norns

taking our measure with a glance seeing whom Fate would cut down early and who needed an extra peanut butter chew for free

I could only fix myself

high diving

Once upon a time, this fractured girl wanted to fly

but was sore-afraid.

I watched teammates leap off the high dive, flip themselves into hawks

they called my name

but I chained myself in the far lane pacing back and forth in the water churning a wake of frustration, still

every second stroke as I lifted my mouth out of the water

to breathe

I opened my eyes to watch the hawks spear the air

At meets, the diving took place in the middle of the competition swimmers turtled in towels on the deck idle-watching, licking magic sugar powders with cat tongues, as the divers flew landing with a splash or a ripple Once, a friend clipped her wings on the way down, smashed her head on the board

before she fell onto the surface of the water,

they pulled her out, dazed and confused scrubbed her blood off the board my friend limped, but flew a few weeks later, throwing herself into the air, spinning spearing

bruising the water

and getting up to try again every second stroke as I lifted my mouth out of the water

to breathe

I opened my eyes to watch until one day my fins

Laurie Halse Anderso's Books