The Mystery Year

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It is late September and I’m sitting in the front seat of my boyfriend’s car watching people arrive at the building. The faint hint of nausea that originated in the small hollow of my stomach during the ride out here has now spread throughout my entire gastro-intestinal area.

We are double-parked, the street lined with parents unloading suitcases, cardboard boxes, duffel bags. It looks just like the scene outside Dartmouth when I helped my brother move all his possessions there last fall.

Except the brown Victorian with a wide porch that I’m about to walk into, alone, without any family members, is not a college.

“Look at all your new friends,” my boyfriend snorts.

A light dusting of early-season frost covered the back yard at his house earlier this morning, the first sign of impending hypothermic New England weather. Even though it’s totally obvious we are sleeping together, his parents still won’t let me spend the night in his bedroom. He came into the spare room after a shower to wake me up. If it had been the beginning of the summer, when we first started going out, we definitely would have had sex right then and there. But now the sight of him wet, wearing only a towel, doesn’t quite stir me the way it used to.

“Guess I better go.” I want to say good-bye to him here, in the car, not outside, not in front of these new people. I don’t want to make any kind of impression at this point so I lean over to kiss him.

But he gets it.

“What,” he says. “You embarrassed of me or something?”

“No,” I say too quickly, too hesitantly.

“Fuck you.” He clenches his jaw and stares straight ahead. “Just get the fuck out of my car.” He reaches across me and opens the passenger door. Our bodies touch for one small moment.

“Come on,” I say.

But he’s fully committed to the fight and won’t even look at me. So I haul my duffel bag out of the back and my boyfriend drives away without saying anything. I stand there on the sidewalk watching the back of the car getting smaller and smaller before he makes a left turn for the highway and heads back home.

Is that it? Did he just break up with me?

That car is where I’ve spent most of the past three months. My boyfriend was someone else’s boyfriend in June, but she went away and somehow he became mine. The summer was torture, caught in this three-way thing. He wouldn’t break up with her; I couldn’t keep my hands off him. Guilt and jealousy all mixed together, all throughout the long, hot summer that seemed like it would never end.

But now it’s finally all over and, in some ways, feels like it never even happened.

I hesitate before picking up my bag. Trying not to look at anyone, I crunch through dead leaves scattered around the sidewalk as I make my way to the main entrance of the building that looks like someone’s home. Except for the sign above the door announcing, Revive: The Fifth Year, in bold purple letters.

Inside the lobby, a woman at the front desk slowly checks people in. When it’s my turn, it seems like her voice has gotten extra loud when she asks for my name.

“Mac Butler,” I mumble.

“Excuse me honey, you’re gonna have to speak up,” she barks, her mouth widening, revealing lipstick skid marks on her front teeth.

I repeat myself. Twice.

“I see a Mackenzie Butler. That you, honey?”

I nod, wishing it didn’t sound like she had a megaphone. Is everyone looking at me?

“Okay, got ya,” she crosses my name off her list. “Your counselor is Sandy and her office is on the third floor. Go see her right after the director speaks to you all in the auditorium, okay. And don’t forget to smile!”

Finally, my little time with her is over and I go into a large, wood-paneled, musty-smelling room that could almost be a church. The rest of the Revive staff mill around in their brushed-cotton flannel shirts and worn-in hiking boots as parents start to leave.

With no one to say goodbye to and nothing else to do, I take a seat in the last row of the metal folding chairs behind a group of girls who are laughing at something. A glance around confirms that I’m the only one in the entire room not talking to a newfound friend so I busy myself with pretending that I need something inside my wallet, checking carefully through every compartment.

After what seems like five thousand hours of looking at my driver’s license, someone stands at the front of the room clearing his throat, the international sign to sit down and be quiet.

He has a tiny wet spot on the crotch of his tan khaki pants.

“Good morning! My name is Gordon, and I’m the director of Revive,” he says, when the room has settled down. “Welcome to the start of what will be one of the most important years of your life. We believe that everyone deserves a second chance, and we are here to make the dream of college a reality for you.”

“The Chinese symbol for crisis is the same as the one for opportunity. And that’s really what this year is all about. It’s an opportunity for you to start your life on a different path, a path where you will learn to meet challenges, set goals, take personal responsibility.”

The girls in front start laughing again. Maybe they also noticed the wet spot so I make knowing eye contact with one of them. She whispers something to the others and they turn around and give me the don’t-even-think-about-trying-to-be-our-friend glare while Gordon continues his speech.

He talks about self-reliance, self-esteem, self-awareness, trust, the significance of attendance and timeliness, responsibility, then more about trust.

And I start to drift.

This is possibly the longest I’ve ever gone without listening to music. Most of the summer was spent listening to music in my boyfriend’s car, driving around the quiet bedroom community where I’ve lived my whole entire life, looking to score, looking for the party, looking for anything remotely interesting to do in between washing dishes all day long at the International House of Pancakes. But the stereo in his car broke a few weeks ago, so we drove here in silence.

Gordon is finishing up, telling us to go find our counselors and everyone streams out of the auditorium.

“That so totally harshed my mellow,” says a girl wearing a leather mini-skirt and torn fishnet stockings. She has a studded dog collar around her neck and stiff, peroxide hair shoots upwards, lilting slightly to the right. “Could that asswipe be more of a major Nazi? And did you see his totally rank stain?”

“Yes!” Someone is actually talking to me.

“Oh my God, finally. No one else saw that. I’ve asked like five people and you’re the only one that actually noticed it.” She swallows a yawn. “This blows, doesn’t it?”

“Totally.”

“What are we supposed to do now?”

“Find our counselor or something?”

“Oh right, that hideous woman told me that when I first got here. Okay, guess I better go deal.”

I wander around a bit before finding Sandy’s office on the top floor of the building.

“We’re really glad that you are here at Revive,” she says when I’m in a chair across from her desk. Pictures of the same three small children are Scotch-Taped to everything.

I glance at her file–maybe she mixed me up with someone else. Authority figures are never happy to have me in their presence. Each year on the first day of school, the teacher’s face would fall when my name was called out on the attendance sheet. My report card was peppered with Ds and Fs, Unsatisfactory—see me written in angry, red letters across homework assignments.

Sandy looks at me as if I’m a lost, wet kitten that she has just found on her doorstep. “The first thing that I want you to know is that although we are a fifth year program and our goal is to help you get into college, I want to make sure that college is right for you. We’ll spend the first few weeks here trying to determine that. It seems that maybe you are a bit ambivalent about it?”

“I guess.” I’m barely making audible sounds.

She’s searching through the file. “You are living in the residential building on Walnut Street and your roommates are Karen and Monica. I’ll be over there in a little while to meet with you all and make sure you’re settling in okay.”

She hands over keys, a telephone directory, a rulebook, and a map and looks up at me. “As you know, a major component of Revive is getting some actual work experience and professional skills through our internship program. We take this very seriously and expect you all to do so as well. In the real world, work is not optional and if you blow it off, you get fired. That clear?”

She doesn’t even wait for a response. “I see that you put on your enrollment form that you’re interested in social work. Is that still accurate?”

I barely remember last spring, let alone what I wrote on some form. Before I get a chance to respond, she is on the phone, signing me up to work at an agency for people who’ve been recently released from a mental hospital.

“Okay then. I think we are off to a really great start here. I just want you to know that I’m here for you.” I squirm in the chair as she says this, hands clasped underneath my knees. Sandy adds, “I believe in your ability to have a successful year here.” She gives me one last lost-kitten smile, stands and shows me out the door.

Back in the lobby, I run into the peroxide-hair, dog-collared girl who’s talking to a guy with a shaved head and a deep scar running along the left side of his face. His eyes linger on her ass as she walks over towards me.

“Hey, wait up. Where’s your apartment?” she asks me.

“On Walnut Street.”

“That blows. Mine’s on Forrester. You gotta come over to my place later.”

“Okay.” I suck in a smile. Not only is she talking to me, but she wants to hang out too.

“I’m Patty.”

“I’m Mac.”

“Whoa. Is that like your real name? Or like a nickname?”

I automatically start fiddling with my lower lip as I explain for the millionth time about my name. “Well, Mackenzie is my real name. But everyone calls me Mac. Except my mom. She calls me…”

I stop.

“What does she call you?”

“Macaroni,” I focus on the floor.

“Moms are such douches.” Patty smiles. “I’ll see you later then.”

“Definitely.”

She walks back towards the shaved-head guy. I push open the front door and follow the directions to my building.

My apartment is on the second floor, the door already unlocked. Inside, a girl is unpacking her trunk on the far side of the living room.

“Hi,” I say.

She doesn’t look at me. “You’ll have to share the bedroom. I have a boyfriend so I need the privacy.”

“I’m Mac,” I announce, even though she has yet to make eye contact.

“What the fuck kind of name is that for a girl.” She says it like a statement of fact, not a question. Then the phone rings.

A couple of posters left over from previous occupants line the walls of the living room: the sun setting over palm trees and a skier in mid-air with Go For It written underneath. Two armchairs that must have been left out in the rain bookend the couch and a dead plant sits atop a Formica table. Daylight streams in from three windows overlooking the street below. It looks like Monica has draped Indian print tapestries around a double mattress in the corner of the room next to a year’s supply of Caffeine-Free Diet Coke, as if already this is more her place than mine or Karen’s.

While she talks to her boyfriend on the phone, I investigate the rest of the place. The kitchen is right behind the living room and has just enough space for the flimsy appliances that are more like play-pretend toys. The bedroom is dark and small with two single mattresses on the floor but at least it’s near the bathroom. A back door leads to a porch overlooking the building’s rear driveway. The smell of cat piss and wet newspapers permeates the entire apartment.

I pick the bed closest to the window and start cramming clothes into the dresser, my stomach growling with hunger. I’m trying to hook a misshapen fitted sheet around the mattress, spackled with red and brown stains, when a short, thick girl comes into the room and sits on the other bed. A large metal pack is strapped to her back with clothes spilling out from the top.

“Heeey,” she says, not taking off her sunglasses or the backpack, frizzy hair escaping from underneath a bandanna. “Karen’s the name.” She punches her left palm twice, then makes a peace sign. “Wanna get high before we have to go to that stupid-ass meeting?”

She mimes quotes and pulls out a sandwich baggie filled with pot from her lumberjack shirt pocket. Then she starts rolling a joint in her lap. “How scary is our roommate? Already heard all about her boyfriend. Like I give a shit. I don’t know why Miss-Stick-Up-Her-Ass gets the double bed and we got stuck with this sorry-ass arrangement. Hope you can handle really strong weed.” She lights up the joint and passes it to me. Her backpack is still on. “Bet my boyfriend’s dick is bigger than hers any day.”

I take a hit, then pass it back.

“It really is massive,” she continues. “Sometimes, when he’s hard, I’m like, how the fuck is that gonna fit inside me?”

It’s not really apparent just how strong Karen’s weed is until the middle of the building meeting with Sandy. We’re in the apartment right above ours, and I am concentrating on this über-jock guy drumming his index fingers over and over on his knee when Karen steps on my foot. Apparently, Sandy has asked me a question.

“Whaaaat?” I say slightly too stoned-sounding.

“I said that maybe you could make a few recommendations about the area. I think you’re from a town pretty close by, right?”

“Uhhhhmmm,” I can’t think of anything. “I don’t know.”

Sandy doesn’t say anything for a full minute while people giggle nervously.

Then I notice this totally hot, totally older man winking at me. I look quickly away, my whole entire face igniting, a sweat tributary flowing down my back.

“Please, feel free to return to wherever you were.” She sighs loudly then introduces us to the totally hot guy who turns out to be the building supervisor. “Tony is here strictly for emergencies when the main offices are closed.” Tony gets to his feet and bows slightly. There is more nervous giggling. “But only call him if you have to. You should always contact us first.”

“I knew you wouldn’t be able to handle my weed,” Karen says when we’re safely back in our own apartment.

Monica is just waking up from a nap. “What time is it?”

I don’t answer her, just collapse into a laughing jag.

Monica gives me a look of repulsion.

“Like six or some shit,” Karen lights up a cigarette.

“Fuck, my boyfriend is gonna call soon. Hey, toss me one of those, would ya?” She points to Karen’s cigarettes. “And could you girls get scarce for a little while so I can have some privacy?”

“Hell no. It’s bad enough we have to share the bedroom. I am not moving from this sofa,” Karen puts her muddy boots up on the compressed wood coffee table. “And get your own mother-fucking cigarettes, you lazy-ass slut.”

While they continue to argue, I slip out the back door, remembering Patty’s offer. I head down the rickety steps of the staircase that lead to the parking lot below. Daylight has started the slow decline into dusk, a few barren crickets chirp in the city evening.

I start to cut through the narrow alleyway that separates my building from the drugstore when I hear someone calling after me.

“Hey!”

I turn around and see the building supervisor shoving a guitar into the back of a rusted convertible.

“Stoner girl, where you headed so fast?” Tony asks.

I blush. “The building on Forrester.”

“Wanna ride?”

I hesitate for a moment.

“I’m not going to bite you, I promise.” He smiles a toothy smile.

Without meaning to, I look around to make sure no one is watching, then quickly open the passenger door and get in. This car is like so many that I’ve been in before. Not just because of the low bucket seats and the scent of deeply saturated cigarette smoke. This car is after-party-post-coital-crack-of-dawn-music-pounding-pot-smoking-sunrise-watching-convenience-store-dining-Tall-Boy-chugging.

He puts in a CD, then reverses out of the parking lot.

“Who is this?” I ask, noticing his delicate hands, wondering what they would feel like touching me.

“It’s my band. You should check us out sometime.”

He’s in a band, I think as we drive past the park and the main office building of Revive. The front door opens and Sandy comes out. Automatically, I duck down so she won’t see me.

“Don’t worry, Stoner Girl, Sandy’s not so bad. For a staffer.”

“Aren’t you staff too?”

“Not really. I just get free rent as long as I make sure you all don’t destroy the place. It’s a total joke of a job. Here we are,” he pulls up in front of a dark green, three-story building that looks like mine.

I hesitate for a moment, sorry that the ride is over so quickly and I can’t continue on with him and his hands.

“First time living on your own?”

I nod.

He searches around in the car for a pen, tears off a piece from a Taco Bell bag that’s on the floor. “Here’s my number. Call me anytime, okay?”

“Thanks,” I swallow.

“Man, you look so worried! You’ll be okay Stoner Girl. Maybe loosen up a little. Just think, this could end up being the best year of your life.”

I look at him hoping he’ll say more reassuring things.

“But, um I kinda gotta motor. I’m already late.”

“Sorry, sorry,” I fumble with the door handle, tripping slightly in my haste to get out.

“Good talking to you Stoner Girl.”

I wave at him as he drives away, tuck the piece of paper with his number into my wallet and walk up the drooping steps of Patty’s building. Garbage bags are piled up along the front entranceway, paint peeling off the window frames.

My index finger hovers over the bank of buzzers, trying to guess which one is Patty’s. I push the third one down, hoping I’ve made the right choice, and wait for the next thing that will happen.

 

 

 

 

 

Photo by Prensa 420 on flickr

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About Author

Susan Buttenwieser's fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in Failbetter, Bound Off, Epiphany and other publications. She teaches creative writing in New York City public schools and in organizations for underserved populations including incarcerated women. She has been awarded several fiction fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.

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