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But Those Are Guppies

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When the liquid line drops below the label, Rachel worries Tom isn't going to make it. He is fragile. Yet he raised her until she was old enough to construct herself, not too many years but enough to be grateful for. They are enough for her to pry his cup with unusual gentleness from his clutches and catch his eyes again, his eyes that proclaimed in 72 point look at my sorrow, but nary a cry for yours—

(—His voice hoarse by spiel because he believes in the old things, and he doesn't believe in crying except when their mother died, that was all. She heard the unshed tears trickling down his face. Once she cried about cookies her teacher didn't give her; they really didn't taste good, though, and she cried like that.)

"So there you were, committing the original sin of asking if she was real." He can take that however he wants, although drunk as he is, it will involve much of the self-pity he's stockpiled from the early days with Summer. "What did she say then?"

He recounts something about a tree of origami birds. The content isn't important, so she reallocates her brain to her possible relationship choices (there's a girl across the aisle in math whose sarcasm implies she's going fast through her adolescence, but so much drama, that girl) until he shambles to a stop about his. Everything she needs to know she extracted from three words of him talking or from twelve years of their siblinghood.

It makes sense to touch him with a rub across his knuckles. She pretends to be tentative about it. "Tell me about this," she demands, and he'll tell her about this and that, Summer, later Autumn, the way he told her about April last spring but with more alcohol. She never demands that he take in her stories and wedge them into the ingress of his mind and feed them back digested because he doesn't really try to dissolve things in sense, not like she does. He talks about magic all the time.

Call it science this taking things apart. A story of exposition, rising action and exposé.

Bodies in motion.

(She knows what sex should feel like, long before she will find herself fumbling in her bed with hands awkwardly under the sheets, discovering her theory/image of growing up is a bit untrue.)

An experiment.

She has more questions than anyone should have, Tom complains to Summer the only time he tries to explain Rachel to her, but he doesn't mention every one comes with a hypothesis. Precocious, her teachers write. They mean she is annoying because she wants to know how to answer the hardest questions, the kind of questions no one has an answer to and resorts to witty quotations for instead.

Her grasp of niceties lacks testing. For now she is blunt. She'll be okay with experience with the big world where people underestimate her, think they need to save her from

"God, nothing at all, jesus, I don't care anymore," Tom bleats like a sheep caught on baa.

-- --

To Marissa she says "That's lovely" because Marissa is wearing overalls, because when people experiment with themselves in college you tell them they're successful. You don't inform them they're late. Marissa is a tourist come to stare at herself in the mirror, chewing gum 24/7 to not have to talk.

Marissa of the repurposed farmer's garb beams. "Thank you! You look great too!"

"Do I," Rachel says once the other girl leaves the restroom. Do I look pleased enough.

-- --

Rummaging for answers in the pages of her etiquette books becomes useful at graduation. She bows to the suit, in her own better cut blazer that doesn't create an awkward gap between her chest and the cloth, and bows to obligation, and there begins her career.

-- --

To Rachel he says "You're lovely" because she could achieve aesthetic pleasantry, if she would only let her hair loose and her internship hours shorten. They're in high school. This, her mind supplies, is when she should compliment him back if she wants to keep him longer than Tom kept Autumn, poor boy.

Banter—

"Thank you," she replies. It is a classic line to let him get closer.

Take control of yourself—

Write in your head your experiences, so that they have but the strength of words.

"The secret life of Thomas and Summer: In the winter we prepare to unfurl ourselves next season like we don't remember what happened in the spring a thousand years ago and over. Look at that. Freeze frame."

She thinks of sentences about herself. Needs more pithiness, she thinks, and needs more pizzazz, the way she quests to redefine how she looks. It isn't about boys and girls, no, it's about what she wants to feel like when she sits alone and has only herself to keep her company.

-- --

Here's the thing about Rachel Hansen: she's an image.

Most girls are images, of course, and most boys are when you're eleven and your main experience of real boys is them eating their boogers and drooling over their desks, maybe the brilliant ones program tetris into their calculators; you would prefer to take the assurance of film, the consistent one-liner to make things alright. But most classmates let their relatives snap pictures of them at their birthday parties. Rachel ducked under Tom's camera when she was nine to go find Ryova, who was just old enough to buy cigarettes and still young enough to smoke them on the subway. She took a mirror. She looked at herself so she knew what other people saw, then she started figuring out what they would see when she was finished developing herself, huddled alone on a park bench overlooking the construction of the city.

(It was her place first. But her brother never sees anything coming at all until he's in love with them, snap snap fast. She looks before she throws her heart into people, places, productions.

He doesn't understand planning well enough to be an architect but somehow he does it anyway. She kinda understands.)

It's easy to tell people what the movies say, but she has to sound like they're not taglines and posters. She means to feel them. In high school she does musical theater and in truth, she's very good.

-- --

There are boys and girls and there are men and women. The latter Rachel learns to talk to very quickly. The former she outgrows as soon as she looks in her mirror and can inform herself why yes I am a woman grown.

There are two particularly important boys who become men eventually, Tom Hansen and Kenneth Lang. During/for a short while after Kenneth she feels like the sea dries up and there are no fish left for her at all, he is not Mark nor Marissa nor Sean nor Selene, he makes her feel like Tom must have felt with Summer except without the stupid storytelling.

Well, she isn't sorry. He needed the kick from his depression and that's all she needs too. So because she can follow her own advice, her own zingy one-liners, she spends a satisfactory session in the college counseling office and ends up eating cherries in the park, methodically removing their stems one by one and noting the shape of their pits.

-- --

By the way, Rachel would want the world to know she broke up with him, not him with her. It was because he was restricting her.

What does it mean to be restricted?

Here comes your man. Here comes your woman.

"You don't respect me," she says, with the quiet that should accompany an accusation given strong enough evidence to stand without volume.

"What do you mean?" he blusters. In the end, clever and articulate Kenneth might be but they were nineteen and slotting the experience into "things I will talk about to my children when I'm older with a faint air of embarrassment".

Words squelch about in her stomach. "You eat that jar, you know the one I can't pronounce the name of. It looks like vomit and smells like shit."

He looks at her in quiet horror. "I don't ask you to eat it, I don't eat it near you, and I don't complain about—"

It could be: "You leave the game consoles on the floor at night so I trip over them at night. See." She could hitch up her jeans then to reveal a quarter-sized bruise on her ankle.

"I don't see you cleaning—"

It could be: "You want me to stay in our apartment, or with you, more but you're not rushing to find something to engineer for us. For our keep."

"—some of us harder than others!" His face would flush.

It could be: "We're not in love anymore, it's not magic."

And "I wouldn't!... we don't have to... it's not like that," he could reply.

She dials for Tom at 3 A.M. "Sorry, Ray, it happens." Over the line comes an audible yawn. "You want to talk more about it now? I'm, I'm here for you."

Her brother now designs the places people will live in, assiduously at work making everyone's lives better, for fifteen hours a day— almost as much as she spends in jobs or shadowing or class. "So, basically, I broke up with the guy I told you about. We're good." She hangs up and doesn't need to answer the morning call.

Rachel would also like the world to know she got over him. It might have taken months, but no easy in no easy out.

-- --

Here is a story inside a story outside a story. Who cares, they're all stories, with plenty more stories in the sea. Here, open up wide, here comes another—

Ryova of the turnstile jumps and pleather jackets asks for help with her English papers. She's at the age where she can't be seen in public with Rachel, but they both know her talent is worth the meeting in a rented room. "Write about..." Her mind wanders through alleys and kingdoms and kyriarchies. Would Mr. Carson ("such an asshole", Ryova grouses, meaning he paid attention) take well to an analysis of the advantages of beggar women during the Great Depression? "... society."

"What about it?" she asks.

"You need the long version?" There's film of them somewhere, maybe that would draw sympathy: click, their haunted eyes. Click, mole in just the right place to confirm they were human just like you. Click, a child grown older than its distended belly.

She offers Rachel a helpless smile. It's almost contagious. "Yeah, please."

"Okay. You should start with the prompt, where is it? Here. What does it mean to be different in this context?"

Her teeth disappear behind her frown. "I dunno."

"Think about it," Rachel says, so she doesn't have to. "You could start with the encyclopedia," and she should end with offering Ryova good luck to fulfill conversational expectations.

Ryova tries an answer like it crawled out of her body malformed, Rachel tosses it back clinically translated and an "Isn't that about right?" and yes, why "yes, I am your hero again. I saved you again. You're welcome."

They're going to these meetings, and while their sentences meet and her ideas corrupt the easy naivety of Ryova's writing, they don't talk anymore about things she's not good at. She's not that age where they can meet to struggle.

(Is she even trying to be faithful? Is it cheating to be Rachel Hansen and hit the midlife crisis decades early?)

Or, Tom holds out his calculus homework and says, "Hey, sis, sorry to impose on you."

"Spit it out." There are college admissions to research only four years away. If she finishes early, there is the tantalizing possibility of becoming a bohemian drifter: wearing her uncle's caps and drinking her father's absinthe but with a shrug, scarves and no shoes, love and no house, crafts but no crafted resumes. Though Tom gets to be the free spirit. The image of her parents she carries says he gets a pass but she had better be successful. Meet a husband, maybe a wife, her parents were too often gone to care. Meet a job.

-- --

The boss in the suit makes a valiant effort but can't complain about any of her work. "You wrote this?" he asks, glancing at the code meticulously documented with

/**
@author Rachel Hansen
@author Contact: rachelhansen@aliquam.org
(etc.)

like he doesn't believe she could have created it.

"Yeah." She succeeds at looking self-deprecating.

"Usually no one's got it all, but you, you're going to make it big."

She says something to him, maybe it's "I hope so," maybe it's "I do think so". She's not sorry about her beliefs or deductions or productions and she's going to believe it, deduce it, make everything work out okay. She's only fifteen.