The rules are no spitting and no open flames. You are supposed to give a speech on what you know. People know many different things, your teacher says. Think about what you know.
You can’t tell anyone what you know.
Kids make paper airplanes and bookmarks. The bookmarks are really lame. Someone makes a French braid. Someone makes coffee. Someone ties their shoes.
Five minutes is a long time.
You can smoke a cigarette down to the filter without coughing. You can drink most of a fifth of whiskey, and chase it with milk so you don’t throw up fire. You can do it and almost walk a straight line, even though the first time you did it, you were so little you just kind of walked in circles and then your legs gave way underneath and everyone laughed because you looked just like a marionette with her strings cut.
You can get your sister up in the night when she’s sick and sit with her in the bathroom. You can pull her hair around her shoulders and hold it at the nape of her neck when she throws up when the sound from downstairs is like wind, roaring under the roof, threatening to level the place. You can put Band-Aids on her knees, suck out a bee sting, and help her clean up and stop crying when he wakes her up in the night. When she tries to tiptoe into the bathroom in the dark, her legs slick and her insides like one big bruise. You can rush in when she knocks over the shampoo bottles. You can sit against the door with her and hold your breath, the two of you, puffed and silent, waiting until the house is quiet again. You can show her how to wash up, how to make it so she doesn’t smell, even when you know she will smell it every day, every time she pulls her pants down, and even in odd places, like in the middle of a spelling test, or on the playground. The smell never leaves. It lives on you forever.
You can make a dinner for three out of one can of soup and a little bit of leftover rice.
You can get blood out of cotton, but not polyester.
You can joke with the guy at the gas station so that he sells you cigarettes, smiling and looking down, and admitting they’re not for you. You shake your head, and he sells them to you anyway, and you can sneak one out on the way home, and take it when one is missing, when the reason you got them is because you flirted, when the reason you went to get them anyway is because he asked you. That long smoke on the walk home in the cold, by yourself. It’s worth the hard hand on your face.
Someone makes a water tornado with two soda bottles. The insides, a perfect storm, swirling, chugging down.
You can give a perfect blowjob. Without gagging. Without teeth. It becomes an art to you. A practice in meditation, in leaving your body. You become two different people: the person on the floor and the person in the air, floating. The person who flies above trees and housetops over the town. You know how to fly out of yourself when you need to and your body doesn’t go limp; it keeps doing what it is supposed to be doing, just like it should. It’s a real talent. It’s not something you can show the class how to do.
You can swipe a little money from the dresser when he’s sleeping, and get something for your sister when she turns eleven, and still have enough left over to get her some pads because she started. Thank God she started.
Someone makes s’mores in the microwave and shows the class how not to have them explode or melt too much.
'Explode’ and 'melt’ are not words you like to hear. The goo of the marshmallow and the smell of the burnt sugar make you feel wavy, nauseous.
You get asked to go and you’re not ready. You could give a daylong speech on not being ready.
Think about the things you could do. You could do anything. Wear a dress. Wear shorts. You could ride a bike down the street at night and you could look Carson Mulligan in the eye. The look of his hair on his shoulders makes your ears prick with sweat. You could stay out after nine on a Saturday, or get in the car with someone else’s dad who might drive you and some girlfriends to a park or to the mall, but all you can picture is staying in the car with the dad when the girls are gone, your hair mussed and your eyes wild. You could be uncontrollable. There is no telling what might come out of you.
You could tell how to sneak out your window on a summer night to look at the trees that are black against the ink sky. About how to look down to the creek and hold your breath to listen to the water moving, bubbling over rocks. That if you’re real still, you see the deer pick their feet among the trees, stepping out into the clearing, sometimes four of them, eating, and watching, the way their ears prick up at the littlest thing. You can do that, too: listening, you stop, and listen and, when you have to, you disappear.
You could talk about the faces you make when no one is looking, except maybe your sister. The faces you make for each other, to make the other one laugh without sound, the mime that goes on behind his back, in the kitchen or the hallway. You think of your mouth wide open in a circle grin, and her doubling over her belly, her eyes tearing and no sound, when not a chirp comes out of either of you.
You could talk about driving your daddy’s car home from your mother’s own funeral, about sitting up behind that wheel and reaching your toes down to the pedal. About how easy it is to steer it, and how hard it goes forward, lurching, jerking away from the curb and into the street and how you hugged the yellow line all the way home, your daddy with his head on the window that was half open, the wind, parting his hair like waves, and your sister, your sweet baby sister in pants you would have to change yourself, asleep in the backseat like the world had not just gone into the ground, like the world was not over, right then. It hadn’t hit you yet because you were driving, and it felt a little like flying, like being afraid, then trusting what you didn’t know you could do, taking off, down the middle of Main Street.