Chapter 37: Burn The Pages - Sia
We all referred to Arthur as the quiet storm. He faded into the background of most of his classes, only speaking when spoken to. He had a very small and tight knit group of friends. When not with them, he had the tendency to self-isolate. But when he was on stage or in front of a camera, he turned it on to impossibly high decibel. He had such conviction and feeling in his eyes. He could also do comedy, fully committing to gags in ways that most of us drama actors struggled to. We were not surprised when he landed one of the leads in an indie film. But there were plenty who were jealous, refusing to cheer him on because of it. I bought him a flannel shirt composed of our school colors, pinned a note that said ‘don’t forget us when you’re famous’ onto it, and left it in front of his dressing room mirror. Many asked, “why?” after I did it. I was unashamed to let them know that I was his friend and I was elated for him. He cited both gestures as two of the reasons he came back.
Upon his return, I was surprised to see that he was still the sweet guy that I ran lines with until 2 AM. Our romantic progression happened quickly. The first day of school we saw each other, talked during acting block, and it clicked. His demeanor was relaxing. He was soft spoken, but assertive. He knew what he wanted; he sought it without the pathological need for attention that all of my past boyfriends and crushes had. He pushed me to be better by simply supporting and honestly telling me what I needed to do to improve.
To some, our images clashed. He was the introverted flannel-clad alt boy, man bun and stubble generally included. I was the bubbly prom queen who kept up with fashion trends and the latest gossip. We knew we were one in the same. We were both icebergs –difficult to get close to and armed with dangerously deceiving depth. He made me happy. The people that mattered were on board. Everything else that was said was superfluous.
“I feel as though I am intruding on your Halloween plans.”
“No one has an issue with you joining our superhero squad. We’ve discussed it. You’ll be Nightwing. Adam is joining in at the last minute too. He’s going as Atom. You’re not stealing anyone else’s costume.” I angled myself towards Art as we waited for acting block to start.
“Are you sure?”
“Positive. Ryan’s going as the Green Lantern; Finn is Robin; Milo is Superman; and Nick is Aquaman. You’re good. I promise.” I picked up his hand.
He took a deep breath. “I am not used to doing things like this.”
“The perks of dating an extrovert. You’ve been keeping up very well.”
“You’ve yet to appear bored during our living room movie dates.”
“I love them. You don’t get mad at me for spouting facts throughout; instead, you silence me with kisses when I talk too much. Ry would start an argument with me.”
“Did you date last year?” He lowered his voice and moved in close.
I looked for Ry. I found him laying on the stage on his back. He drew an audience complaining about how tired he was. It was basically a comedy routine and he ate the attention for a second breakfast.
“Ha. No. We were just best friends and went to prom that way. I would never date that.” I pointed to him.
By that point, he was making exaggerated sound effects because the teacher told him to move to a seat in the audience. Instead of going to one of the many empty ones in the large auditorium, he walked up to a couple with their tongues down each other’s throats.
“Sorry. Kind of my seat.” He shooed the guy to the left.
He moved without rebuttal, thrown off by his boldness. He wedged himself between them and clasped his hands together in his lap as though nothing had happened.
I breathed a laugh and rolled my eyes. I felt Arthur looking at me after the fact.
“That level of PDA makes him uncomfortable. He’ll stop at nothing to make it stop. That’s what made it funny.” I tried to validate my actions.
“Is Misha participating in your group costume?”
“No, she’s going as a fairy. It’s a super cute costume. Morgan let her use her sewing machine to make it. She’s really talented.”
“She wasn’t interested in doing it?”
“Her costume took weeks to make. Tossing it aside would’ve been a waste. She said if she had known in advance, she would’ve made a Raven one.”
“Are you jealous?” I poked his shoulder with a smile.
“I don’t recall you being this close. I can’t exactly compete with the life of the party.” He gestured to him.
“There’s a reason I am with you and he is with Misha. Ry and I make each other’s blood boil for fun. It makes for a fiery friendship, but it would turn into a toxic relationship if we dated. We both need mellow and easy going. You give that to me.”
He smiled. “You’re helping me out of my shell.”
“You’re a cute turtle.”
“And you a beautiful butterfly.”
“Iz is more of a butterfly – grace, whimsy, beauty; those are her adjectives. I’d say I’m a lark. I’m a morning person; I have plenty to talk about; I have a lot of energy –“
He stopped me with a kiss. “You are a lark. Happy?”
I nodded with a smile. “You admit when I’m right.”
“Good morning, Class.” Dr. Jarvis paced the stage with his arms behind his back. “Incongruence with our self-expression unit, I asked each of you to write a monologue about a pivotal moment in your life. I want happy; I want sad; I want a full range of emotions up on this stage. You must be willing to push yourself in order to make acting breakthroughs.” He retired to his desk within the audience, ready to observe what we had come up with.
I went into my backpack and pulled out both of my scripts.
The first was an easy read, winning my first beauty pageant. I performed my heart out. At the end of the day, a crown was placed on my head, a crown on my body and I was declared the brightest of all the stars. I have yet to stop chasing that feeling ever since.
The second was raw and almost too honest. The first time my compulsions negatively impacted my life and my parents sent me to psychiatrist. I was diagnosed and began treatment. I was both happy to be taken out of the dark in terms of what I was dealing with and terrified by what that meant for me.
“What is yours about?” I whispered to Arthur after the first actor completed their monologue.
“My first plane ride.”
“That’s cute.” I took an anti-bacterial wipe from the side pocket of my bag.
“Not really. I was so nervous I puked.”
I scrubbed my armrest to ease my anxiety.
“What’s going on?”
I shook my head.
“Is there anything I can do?”
I looked over at him. “I am just cleaning.”
His eyes bore into mine unflinchingly, even when I started challenging him. He wouldn’t budge, so I did. “Who told you?”
“No one. I learned through observation.”
“How long?” I cleared my throat.
“First year, second semester.”
I shifted my head upward. “How? I was barely diagnosed at that point.”
“Little things – your first screen test was flawed, just as the rest of ours were. You spent an impossible amount of time in the recording lab to perfect it. I saw your numbers on the log when I swiped in to practice.Whenever someone uses OCD as an adjective, you appear sad.”
“They don’t know what it’s like to be unable to control their mind. Tossing it out like that cheapens all the turmoil I’ve endured.”
“That’s in one of your monologues, isn’t it?” He eyed the papers on each of my legs.
“I think part of you is ready to tell them.”
“What if they think less of me?” We both looked at my legs.
“You have time to think about it. You’re performing last.”
I excused myself to the restroom. I disposed of the wipe upon entering. I used the toilet and spent more time than necessary washing my hands. I flipped my hair and ran my fingers through it as I checked myself out in the mirror. Primping was comforting to me; the reason why brought tears to my eyes. I mentally recited my new mantra as I walked back into the auditorium.
“Did I miss your performance?” I settled back into my seat.
“I am next. Refocused?”
“Yeah.” I exhaled. “I know you will do well. You always do.”
“No pressure or anything.” He used his arms to stand up from his seat.
I watched with engagement, a rush building as I continuously reminded myself that he was my boyfriend. He earned the thunderous applause he received. I rose to my feet and cheered for him. He gave a short bow as he grinned through his discomfort. He exited the stage and jogged back to where I was waiting for him.
“Every time you say that phrase, I am disappointed that I did not wield a sword to earn my compliment.” He unscrewed the cap on his bottle of water.
“You will crawl there some day, my talented tortoise. Don’t you worry.” I went back to studying my scripts.
“Have you made a decision yet?” He returned to our conversion after swallowing a substantial amount of water.
“Do you know why your performance was good?”
“Is that a rhetorical question?” He put his elbow on our shared armrest.
“You were honest. Perfect gets stale.”
“A singular instance of vomiting and revealing a medical condition are two vastly different things.”
“Now you’re psyching me out.” I stole his bottle of water and started drinking it.
“You were just –“
“Let me let go. Just let it happen.”
“Can we share?” He held his hand out.
“You’re not going to argue with me?” I gave it back.
“I stated how I felt earlier. I questioned it so that you would.”
“You do use words sparingly.”
“What’s something few people know about you?” I asked him during a break.
He raised an eyebrow.
“Seriously, tell me something. It’ll keep me calm.”
“I have a tattoo. My mother doesn’t even know about it.” He peeled the label off of our shared bottle of water.
“What’s it of? Where is –“
He looked up from his meaningless task with a small smirk. “You get a single follow up question.”
“What is it of?”
“You are merciless.” I whined, pushing him.
He chuckled lightly.
“I think you love being an enigma.”
“And you are proud of your chameleon qualities.” He quipped with ease.
“I’ll humor you.” His eyes were back on his bottle.
“Where is it at?”
“Ribs, left side.”
“Will you let me read it one day?” I tucked his hair behind his ear.
“Now you are the one being unfair.”
“It’s an honest question.”
“To the question or statement?”
“We’ll see.” He looked over at me.
I shook my head at him, smiling uncontrollably.
I had gotten rid of my blazer and my hair was up in a bun by the time Ryan performed. My perspiration decreased, but I was still on edge. I tapped my fingers on the armrest as I mentally prepared. Art offered me his hand without a prompt to stop.
“My palms are sweaty.”
His hand remained in place. I wiped my palm on my skirt and put my hand in his. His steady calmness rubbed off on me and I was able to reach a state of tranquility. My breathing was regulated and my negative nerves were gone and my positive preshow jitters were all that was left as I walked on stage.
“Always remember, Elle, the happiest girls are pretty girls.” I did an impression of my mother.
I opened an imaginary compact and applied makeup. I ran a hand through my hair and puckered my lips. “Am I pretty, Mama?” I used a high-pitched voice to represent my younger self.
“Beautiful. Appearances are important. Put your best face forward for a positive impression.” I was her once again. I cleared my throat to switch to a deeper, more manly voice. “You have everything you need to be successful. I worked hard to get it for you and your brothers. I will not accept failure from you, Elle. Winners leave legacies; yours will be great.” I transformed into my dad.
I mimed writing on a piece of paper. I held it up. “Look what I did, Daddy. Are you proud?” The little girl returned. “Yes, Princess, keep up the great work.” He concluded.
“Be pretty, smart, strong. Pretty, smart, strong. Pretty, smart – wait! Something’s wrong!” I heaved, putting my hand on my chest, mimicking a panic attack.
“Elle, what’s going on?!” I wore a look of sheer panic, looking over as if I were watching someone in pain.
“Pretty, smart, strong – it won’t turn off when you’re gone!” I wailed, putting my hands over my ears.
“There, there. We’ll make it all better. We love you no matter what.” I stood up straight and stroked the air as though I were comforting someone.
“But I can’t mess up.” Tears burned my eyes as I used a raw and small voice.
“We’ll love you no matter what.” The first tears streamed down my cheeks as I repeated their words.
My voice shook but I kept my eyes on the audience. “Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, they said. OCD, the report read. My brain wanted me to be the best too. Medication and therapy were added as new ingredients to the recipe for success. No one has to know, I thought. The top is supposed to be lonely, I knew.” My eyes fell.
I dried my eyes and looked up with a small smile. “But guess what? I learned a trick. To turn it off, I have to accept I can’t be everything at all times. Pretty, smart, but not strong – not until now. Strength comes from removing the mask and owning up to who you are. My mind betrays me at times, but I’m finally able to say it –“ I exhaled. I looked up. “Hey, Elle, I know you’re doing the best you can. I’ll love you no matter what.” I closed my eyes and tears trickled as my applause ensued. I dried my eyes with my hand and curtsied.
Both Ryan and Arthur were waiting for me off stage. I was conflicted as to whom to go to first. My instinct told me Ry; he had been around for much longer and I felt at home with him, but Art was my boyfriend and he had been the one to encourage me to do it.
“Brilliant.” Art held me in his arms. From the corner of my eye, I saw Ry’s disappointment. I resented the logical decision.
“I wouldn’t go that far.” I kissed him on the cheek.
“I would.” The smile he gave me made my heart sail. My regret was gone, but I still wanted Ryan.
I turned to him. He engulfed me in a comfortably constrictive hug. “You knocked it out of the park.”
“You think so?”
“I know so.” He put his hands into his pockets.
“Why did you come back here?” I tucked my hair behind my ear.
“To make sure he did.” He patted Art on the back. “And at the very least, you’d have little ole me to tell you what you did took a lot of guts and you pulled it off without a hitch.” He put his hand on his chest.
“That was really sweet of you.” I pushed him in a friendly manner.
“That’s inappropriate. I have a girlfriend that I very much like, thank you very much. You better watch her; she’s handsy.” He pointed to me as he left with a playful saunter and matching smirk.
I giggled as I watched his back fade into the darkness of backstage. Art and I left shortly there after.
“I get it now.”
“Hm?” I packed up my backpack once we were back at our seats.
“Why he is so important to you.”
“Good, you’ve finally learned you have nothing to be concerned about.”
“’Buy the ticket, take the ride.’”
“Your quote’s by Hunter S. Thompson?”
“Aw, but I wanted to discover that by reading it.” I poked out my bottom lip.
“I doubt that eliminated all of your curiosity.”
“I do want to know about exact placement, font, and size.” I reluctantly admitted.
“See, the mystery’s not gone.”
I walked into the seating area of the dining hall with my tray. I had every intention of walking to my usual table, but the confirmation of a rumor made me change my course. I sat down at the wooden table for two. She raised her head slowly.
“Why aren’t you sitting with your friends?” She put her eyes on her plate and pretended to be busy eating after seeing me.
“I heard you moved on from them.” I folded my arms and looked in the direction of our old friends.
“The thing is, I don’t even miss them as people. It just sucks being alone.”
“And here I am. How have you been?” I laid a napkin in my lap.
“I would have never done this for you.” She looked at me with pursed lips and a somber expression. “I am sorry for that, among many other things.”
“Ugh, I wish I was still angry. I would’ve LOVED to say something snotty in response to that.” My goal was to make her smile. I grinned when I met it.
“Better than expected. I am feeling again. How are you?”
“Happy. I’m in a really good place. Are you going to the Halloween dance?” I lathered my hands with hand sanitizer.
“No, it would be too triggering for me right now. I was completely sloshed at the last one.” She kept her voice down as she leafed through her salad.
“What finally made you stop? I couldn’t even get through to you.”
I stopped cutting in to my grilled chicken to look at her. “Ann, he’s with Izzie. He –“
“I’d be an idiot not to firmly grasp that he adores her. We’re not even on speaking terms. The last time I lashed out at him, he finally fought back. He told me the truth.”
“It resonated more coming from him.”
“It was something we did together. He stopped shortly after we started dating. Our relationship mostly consisted of babysitting. I’m so ashamed of everything I put him through.“
“I’m sure if you said that to him –“
“There’s no point. It’s not like it’d make us friends. He’s asked me to leave him alone on several occasions. I’m finally listening to him to say thank you.”
“Is there anything you’d like me to tell him?”
“Nope. We didn’t speak much when we dated. He was either catering to me while I was in oblivion or we were hooking up. I don’t even know how to talk to him like he’s a person. Art’s filling out his lumberjack gear better these days.”
“Be nice.” I warded off a smile.
“How was that not nice? The real question is: what do you have against lumberjacks?”
I giggled. “Nothing. Mine’s pretty great.”
We had a nice lunch together, far surpassing old times. In the back of my mind, I knew I would be with her frequently. I struggled with concept of someone struggling alone.
“Do you want to skip academics today?” I approached Arthur at the cubbies.
“You have a perfect attendance record.” He pulled a sweater over his head.
“It’s been four years. I think I’m long over due for a break.”
“What would you like to do instead of raise your hand and answer questions for three hours?”
“Watch day time television, perhaps do a little ink research.”
“Your place or mine?”
“I will meet you there as soon as I change out of my uniform.”
“Sounds good.” I pecked him on the lips. “I will see you soon.”
“Need to speak to Izzie?” He looked down at me with a knowing smirk.
“It’s been four hours. I don’t know how we’ve gone this long.”
“It’s a new record.” He kissed my forehead. “Bye.”
I received a hug from behind. “I missed you.”
I twirled around to find Izzie. “I missed you too, Babydoll.”
“At least I get you next period.”
“Actually, I’m ditching to watch television.”
“If you settle on a rerun of the latest episode of Baker Battles, don’t try to discuss it with me. Milo and I haven’t seen it. We always bet on who will get sent home. ”
“I’ve still yet to understand why two people who are not particularly interested in cooking religiously watch a baking show.”
“We learn a lot. Last week we learned the many ways one can fail at making a soufflé. “
“Who won the bet?”
“I did. Milo had to clean my room.”
“You two are so cute.”
“Nah, we’re just okay. Have fun on your day off. You’ve more than earned it. Go in my room if you need to.”
“Why would need to –“
She smirked as she told me with her eyes.
“I think we’ll be fine.”
“Offer always stands.”
“I never thought I would see the day when you were the one making us late.” Milo told me as walked up with his backpack on and Izzie’s in his hand.
“She’s not going to class. This is still on me.” She accepted her backpack.
“We are one tardy away from detention. I cannot serve it next week. Morgan, Nick, and I have a film marathon planned in preparation for the convention.” Adam reminded her.
“See you at home.” She gave me a final hug. “Let’s roll, boys.” She led the triangle they walked in with a skip and a hop.
My uniform was swapped for a t-shirt and yoga pants. For the first time, I felt like it was acceptable to be undone in front of the person I was seeing. He removed his flannel shirt shell, remaining in a black t-shirt, and rested his arm on the back of the couch. I made myself comfortable within it.
“Why did you sit with Anna?”
“She was alone. The sight of anyone being that way makes me sad.” I kept my head on his shoulder and my eyes on the show we agreed on.
“Is that why you fought so hard to befriend me our first year?”
“Choosing solitude and being forced there appear the same from the outside. I ensured it was your choice.”
“I thought it was a sick joke at first; that is why I was not immediately receptive.”
“You thought I was capable of something so cruel?”
“Recall who your friends were at the time. Anna did it whenever possible. It took me a second to notice that you were the only member of her inner circle that wasn’t laughing about it.”
“I tried to tell her to stop. It made me physically sick; I had painful stomachaches. I felt so guilty.“
“I never understood why you remained by her side. You were never attached to the hip the way you and Izzie are.”
“We attract the same sort of people. I quickly learned I either had to make her an ally or accept her as my competition.”
“What made you leave?”
“The first semester of sophomore year was particularly difficult for me because of the mismanagement of my OCD. Ann didn’t seem to notice. She’d make it worse by joking about my behavior, not knowing I was complying with compulsions. She ousted Sam shortly there after. I could no longer bring myself to sit by and watch her pinpoint people’s sensitivities and exploit them for fun.”
“I remember the Sami part. You took it upon yourself to behave as her publicist – correcting rumors and issuing compelling statements on her behalf.”
“Sams would fight the entire world long before she would explain why she was hurt. Ranting for her allowed me to get a lot off of my chest. People listened and I stopped questioning the power of my voice.”
“You were still questioning it after your freshman year student council election?”
“I had to factor in the full-color pamphlets and my ability to perform. Did you vote for me?” I looked at him.
“No, you were a sure-win. I have an underdog complex. My ballot was cast in favor of Mikey.” He gave me a hint of smile.
“You have hipster tendencies. I am sure you are aware of that.”
“Did you vote for me sophomore year?” I traced his jawline with my fingers.
“You ran for reelection unopposed.”
“Answer the question.” I kept my eyes on his.
“I was going to run against you simply to make it a true democratic election, but I never found the motivation to turn in my application.”
“You do not articulate your personal platforms in front of audiences. You only know how to perform a variation of them.”
“That is the case for almost all politicians. The highest donor dictates their opinions and positions. Our debate –”
I eliminated the remaining space between us.
We only pecked in public. Alone, our kisses were all encompassing and firework producing. He was the first person I had encountered that could make me stop thinking and just feel while we were together.
He abruptly pulled away from me. I opened my eyes and mouth to comment.
“May I borrow your spare graphing calculator?” Morgan’s voice gave me the answer.
“Sure. It’s in my room.” I gestured for her to follow me there. “I’m really sorry about that.” I shut my bedroom door.
I opened the middle drawer of my desk.
“There was a vibe, not a visual.”
“We were just kissing. Did it look–“
“Don’t overthink it. You’ll ruin a wonderful thing.” She took the calculator I was offering her.
“But I –“
“Feel great. I’m sure of it. Thanks for the loan. I will tell you what you missed in Astronomy.”
“Thank you.” I crinkled my eyebrows and pursed my lips.
“Let your emotions seep in. Your head’s firmly on your shoulders.”
“I shouldn’t be falling in love this quickly. I’m scared to trust myself.”
“You forced it with Scott and the others. Just let a relationship unfold on its own for once. ”
She walked out of my room. I watched her leave our suite from my doorway. When she was gone, I lifted my arm and wiggled my fingers at Arthur.
“Are you inviting me into your room?” He remained on the couch.
“Mhmm.” I wiggled my fingers again.
He switched off the television and joined me at the door. I took his hand led him inside.
“You really know how to decorate.” He put his hands into his pockets and looked around as I shut the door.
“I get it from my mom.” I played music from my laptop. I went to stand in front of him afterward. I leaned up and kissed him. He put one hand on the side of my face and the other on my hip. I walked backwards and he was with me step by step. I sat down on my bed and crawled up to the top with my hands. He stayed with me, allowing us to keep kissing.
“May I kiss down your neck?” He pulled away to request, pushing my hair back.
I smiled at his consciousness of my boundaries. “Let’s take my shirt off first.” I pecked his lips.
He sat up. I put my arms over my head. He eased it up by the hem. I fixed my hair. Getting his shirt over his head was somewhat awkward because he was hovering me. Our bodies collided when I attempted yanking it over his head.
“Sorry.” He rolled onto his side.
I giggled, putting my hand over my face.
“What’s so funny?” He removed his shirt by himself and tossed it aside.
I turned my head to look at him. “I love that this isn’t perfect.”
He tucked my hair behind my ear to rest his hand on the side of my face. He stroked my cheek with his thumb and a thoughtful smile on his face. “I never thought we would get to this point.”
“What point?” I scooted closer.
“You’re no longer the unattainable goddess I once perceived you to be.”
“That sounds like a downgrade.”
He shook his head and moved in close to kiss me. I went with it, slowly moving my lips in sync with his.
“Knowing you’re real allows me to know I am able to be myself with you.”
I bit my bottom lip.
“I also never thought I would see you without a shirt.”
I shook my head at him. We resumed kissing. He rolled me onto my back. He kissed the side of my face and down my neck, his hands on my chest. I closed my eyes and found myself getting really into it.
“You’re really good at that.” I complimented when he was back at my face.
“Maybe Scott was just terrible.”
“You have no clue how right you are.” I smiled into a kiss.
We continued to kiss as we bantered.
“I was not expecting you to be this toned.”
He broke our lip link and hovered over me. “What is that supposed to mean?” He struggled not to smile.
“You’re lean. It’s not like you’ve got bulging muscles. The shirt comes off and you’ve got pecks and tasteful abs.”
“I developed it for the film. Shirtless scenes.”
“I can’t wait to see it.”
“You’re seeing it now.” His lips were back on mine.
We shifted so that I was on top of him. I tucked my hair behind my ears, looking down at him from an upright position. I spotted the black ink on his ribs.
“When did you get it?” I traced the lettering with my fingertips.
“My 18th birthday.” He put his hands on my knees.
“Good decision. I find it extremely sexy.” Our mouths were once again reunited.
Once again my thoughts were nonexistent. As a chronic over-thinker, the relief made it all the more thrilling. I allowed my body to do as it pleased.
“We should slow down.” His hands were on my outer thighs.
“It’s so easy to get carried away.” I pecked him once more.
I rolled off of him and stared at the ceiling as I tried to catch my breath.
He shifted onto his side and propped his head up with one hand and draped the other arm across my torso. “We should both be astounded by my willpower.”
I turned my head and looked at him with a content smile. “Why did you want to stop?”
“You have been pushing your boundaries all day; I fully support your liberation. Making out is one thing, but I don’t want you to sleep with me just to prove that you can.”
“It wasn’t a tough one to make. You mean a lot to me. You always have.”
“Secretly pining?” I put my tongue in my teeth and wiggled my head in his direction to poke fun.
“Something like that.” He leaned over and kissed me.
“I want to try one last thing that I’ve never done before. I need your cooperation.”
“Tell me what to do.”
“Put your arm around me and allow me to put my head on your chest.”
“You have never cuddled before?”
“Only with my parents and Izzie. Never with my boyfriend.”
“I truly am competing with her.” He moved to lie on his back.
“She loves me. I love her too.” I nestled within his wingspan.
“How does Milo feel about that?” He looked down at me.
I put my hand and head on his chest. “He just goes with it because it makes her happy, like the good boyfriend he is.”
“I am still adjusting. Give me time.”
“You’re lucky I like you.”
“I know.” He kissed the top of my head.