All my friends had been telling me to let him go, to just cut him loose and move on with my life. It was good advice, the same advice that little voice in my head was giving me. That voice was pretty effective at keeping me out of trouble, when I listened to it. Your life would be a whole lot less complicated if you just ditched the schizo kid, it said. Why are you hanging out with him anyway? The whole thing is just ridiculous. Everyone thinks you’re a creepy weirdo.
But I didn’t want to ditch Phoenix. I wasn’t really sure what I did want – my emotions were like an angry bear snarling around in my chest – but it wasn’t that. I couldn’t stand the thought of not seeing him while at the same time feeling ashamed and awkward about going over to his house. I’d just be bugging him. Our relationship has gotten too complicated, and I’d just make him feel bad. I messed it up.
I had a new trick for when I felt like this: I closed my eyes, tried to let go of my ego, and went to talk to Invisible Friend Jesus.
He was leaning back on his elbows in the grass, the cuffs of his slacks pulled up around his skinny ankles, the sun reflecting off the scuffed lenses of his turquoise-framed sunglasses. “Hey, Tink,” he said.
A warm peace spread through me, and my shoulders relaxed. “Hey,” I said.
He leaned back to let the sun into his shirt collar, closing his eyes. “You promised Phoenix you’d go see him today. So, go see him.”
I stared at him, my brow furrowing. “You’re not supposed to tell me that. You’re supposed to tell me to go home.”
He cracked an eyelid and cocked an eyebrow. “If you already supposedly know what I’m going to say, why bother to talk to me?”
“It makes no sense for you to tell me to go see Phoenix. You’re supposed to clear out all my selfishness and angst, and make me at peace with not hanging out with him anymore.”
“All your bad feelings and confusion come from you worrying about what other people think of your relationship with Phoenix,” he said. “You don’t really have any conflict about seeing him. It’s a healthy relationship, for the most part. A bit complex, maybe, but I think it’s good for both of you, if you’re careful.”
I thought about it. “You’re right,” I said. “But still, this doesn’t really make sense.”
“God is supposed to make you do things you don’t want to do. You know, like give up your weekends to boring, pointless volunteer work, or get nailed to a cross and die slowly in the blistering desert sun. He doesn’t tell people to spend sunny afternoons climbing trees and picking wildflowers. That’s my own brain speaking, telling me to do that stuff.”
Invisible Friend Jesus smiled in that little way he has. “That’s not how it is, Tink. God doesn’t want us to be miserable. God wants us to make beauty and peace in this world, and we all have our own ways of doing that.” He pulled his sunglasses down his nose, looking at me over the rims. “But, for God’s sake, stop with the drinking and smoking cigarettes. Watch yourself, and be good, and above all step carefully.”
I opened my eyes, blinking. Before my doubts could pour in again, I stood up and stalked off towards Phoenix’s house.
I’d feared knocking on the door, having to talk to his mom or Whisper, but I found him lying on the gravel shoulder of the road in front of his house. He watched me as I walked up, and I thought he looked surprised; maybe he hadn’t expected me to show.
I sat down next to him. “What are you doing? Just lying here in the dirt?”
He closed his eyes and pretended he hadn’t heard me.
We didn’t talk. I could tell he was upset, but I felt better just being around him. A car passed, its tires a scant foot from Phoenix’ head, and I saw the passenger peering down at us curiously.
I started dragging my fingers through the gravel, arranging it into patterns. He opened his eyes, propped his head on his hand and watched me. “What are you doing?”
“Making pictures,” I said.
“For artistic reasons.”
He laughed. “Artistic reasons.” He sat up and started helping me. We drew circles and piled the rocks up in the shapes of twining vines. Then his hands went still, and he looked up, locking me in his intense gaze. “I thought I was happy for the first time in my life.”
He pressed his lips together, then dropped his eyes to squint distantly at the ground. “But I don’t really know what happiness is, so.”
I wrapped my arms around myself. “Phoenix, I want you to be happy.”
His fingers fidgeted with the pebbles. “What, what do you mean?”
“Just that. Only that. That I want you to be happy.”
He glanced up, a goofy grin flitting across his face. “Huh,” he said. He threw a rock into my lap and made an explosion noise. I giggled and made guns with my fingers, pointing them at him.
“Pew pew!” I said.
He clutched his hands over his heart. “Argh, you got me, you killed me.” He fell down on his back. “I’m totally dead now. That was so mean, you shot me dead.”
“You were exploding me with cannons, I’m not supposed to retaliate?”
“I’m really mad at you, actually,” he said, smirking.
Then I heard the dogs bark, and looked up to see Whisper coming out of the house. She leaned on the picket fence, smiling. “Hey, Liz.”
“Why are you all, like, in the dirt, Phoenix?”
Phoenix sat back up. “For artistic reasons, and because Liz shot me.”
“Oh.” She fished in the pocket of her tight, studded jeans. “You wanna cigarette, Liz?”
Phoenix’s spine went rigid, and he scowled. “What are you offering her cigarettes for? Liz doesn’t smoke.”
Whisper raised her eyebrows. “I was just being nice.”
“Spreading all your unhealthy bullshit,” he said. “Get off and leave her alone.”
“Don’t get all pissy on me, brother.”
“She doesn’t smoke!” he bellowed. “Leave her alone!”
“Phoenix,” I said, but he didn’t look at me. I still hadn’t figured out anything that calmed him down when he got like this.
“Are we gonna go again, Phoenix?” Whisper asked, her hands on her hips. “Are we gonna go? Come on, come break my nose again, like last night.”
Phoenix looked away from her, muttering. I squinted at Whisper. Her nose didn’t look broken to me; there wasn’t a mark on her anywhere.
She stood looking at him for a few more moments, then hopped the fence and came over to pull him into a rough hug.
“Let’s not fight, brother,” she said. “I love you.”
Phoenix sat stiffly in her arms and muttered something else, staring at his hands. Whisper let him go and strode back towards the house, lighting her cigarette and yelling through the doorway for her boyfriend.
“What does she mean you broke her nose?” I asked.
He pointed at his eye. “See my black eye? We got in a fight last night.” He punched the air, laughing. “It was super fun.”
“Oh, my God.” His right eye was indeed swollen; he had cuts around it and across his nose. I hadn’t really paid much attention before, because he was always covered in boo boos from climbing trees and doing backflips or whatever. “What were you guys fighting about?”
He shrugged, curling into himself and picking at his cuticles. “I don’t even remember. Some bullshit. We were both drunk.”
“You shouldn’t drink, Phoenix. You’re a mean drunk.”
He glanced up at me. “I am?”
“Fighting with your sister and stuff, and yelling at your mom. I’m afraid you’ll hit me someday, too.”
His eyes went wide. “No, not at all. No way. I wouldn’t hit you. I don’t hit girls and stuff. Whisper just came at me. I was defending myself.” He curled up again, frowning and fidgeting with the pebbles. “Being all bitchy at me, giving me a black eye.”
We worked more on our gravel artwork until his family and Whisper’s boyfriend came out a few minutes later. “We’re going into town to see your grandma,” his mom said.
“Okay, have a good time,” Phoenix said.
“You don’t want to go with them?” I asked, as they all climbed into the Jag.
“I do, actually, but there isn’t room for us in the car.”
“You could probably fit,” I said. “Go ahead and go, if you want. Don’t stay here because of me.”
“No, to tell you the truth, I was just joking, I don’t want to go,” he said.
I stared at him as his family drove off, but he didn’t look at me. After the car turned the corner, he stood up. “Do you think you could put cheese in eggs?”
“Yes,” I said. “Cheese in eggs is really good.”
“How about chicken?”
He spun on his heels and went through the gate, into the house. I stood up and followed him.
He was rummaging in the fridge. “There’s not anything that adds up to food, actually,” he said. “WHY can’t we ever have anything that’s FOOD?”
I glanced over his shoulder at the half-eaten cups of Jell-O and sticks of margarine that looked like someone had squished them between their fingers. “What’s in the cupboards?” I asked. “Do you have onions?”
“Yeah, there’s onions.”
We chopped up onions and chicken, and he put a pan on the stove. “You need some oil in that,” I said.
“I don’t like oil in my food,” he said. “All we have is dollar store oil.” He scattered the chopped chicken into the pan. “There’s good oil in the chicken, that works for oil.”
He went to wash his hands, and I put the onions in, then searched for a spatula in the drawers. I found one, but he yelped at me when I went to stir the food around.
“Don’t use that one!” he said. “My mom is all, meh meh, I’m gonna use that spatula, gonna get all up in your food with it.” He opened a cupboard and searched around behind the plates, coming out with another, almost identical, spatula.
“You have a secret stash,” I said.
He flipped the chicken and onions. “I’m not sure I can eat this food now, actually. I don’t like people touching my food, or even getting near it or looking at it.”
I saw him smirking, and I snorted. “Shut up.”
When the omelets were done, we went out onto the porch to eat them, listening to Modest Mouse on my phone. The house sparrows twittered in the willow branches and Shiva begged for scraps at our feet.
“You literally saved my life today,” Phoenix said, feeding his dog a piece of chicken. “I was going to lie in the road until a car came and crushed my head.” He gave me a shy glance, then held my eyes and smiled. It was a real smile, boyish and happy, and I seldom saw it on him.
I smiled back. “I’m glad I came over, then,” I said.