Home > Breakable (Contours of the Heart #2)(2)

Breakable (Contours of the Heart #2)(2)
Tammara Webber

Then there were my peers – some who’d known me since we were five. All of them mumbled condolences, but they had no idea what to say after. No one asked for help on algebra homework or invited me over to play video games. The other guys didn’t shove my books off my desk when I wasn’t looking or hassle me when my favourite football team got their asses handed to them by the Redskins. Sex jokes cut off mid-sentence when I walked up.

Everyone watched me – in class, in the hallway, during assemblies, at lunch. They gossiped behind their hands, shook their heads, stared like I couldn’t see them doing it. As though I was a wax figure of my former self – lifelike, but creepy.

No one looked me in the eye. Like maybe having a dead mother was contagious.

One overly warm day, I rolled up my sleeves in Mr Ferguson’s US history class without thinking. I heard the telltale whispering, moving person to person, too late.

‘His wrists?’ Susie Gamin hissed before someone shushed her.

Tugging the sleeves back down and re-buttoning the cuffs made no difference. The words, unleashed, were an avalanche of tumbling boulders. Unstoppable.

The following day, I wore a watch with a thick band on my left wrist, even though it chafed my still-raw skin. I stacked silicone wristbands on my right, banned unconditionally by the principal the previous spring. These became part of my daily uniform.

No one made me take them off. No one mentioned them. But everybody stared, eager to catch a glimpse of what was underneath.

Things I stopped doing:

Hockey. I started playing when I was six, shortly after attending my first Capitals game with Dad. Mom wasn’t thrilled, but she tolerated it – maybe because it was a bonding point for Dad and me. Maybe because I loved playing so much. Though right-handed in every other situation, something happened when I laced my skates and took my left-wing position. Powering a puck to the goal, I was ambidextrous. Between breaths, I shifted positions to dig a puck from the corner or freaked out opponents by switching hands in the middle of a play, sinking goals before they could catch up. My select team didn’t win every time, but we’d made the finals last year. I began eighth grade certain this would be the year we’d take home the championship trophy. Like that was the most significant thing that could ever happen to me.

Participating in class. I didn’t raise my hand. I wasn’t ever called on. Pretty simple termination.

Sleeping. I still slept, sort of. But I woke up a lot. I had nightmares, but not obvious ones. Most often, I fell. Out of the sky. Off a building, a bridge, a cliff. Arms windmilling and legs kicking futilely. Sometimes, I dreamed about bears and sharks and carnivorous dinosaurs. Sometimes, I dreamed about drowning. One thing was constant: I was always alone.


On hot days, I missed having the beach right outside my door. Even if the air had been saturated with humidity and the sand had been grassy and irregular, the gulf had always been there, cool waves lapping against the shore like a come-hither murmur.

For the past three years, I’d lived four hours inland. If I had the desire to submerge myself in a body of water, I had two choices: the Hellers’ pool or the lake. There was little solitude to be found at either.

The lake was perpetually crowded with tourists and townies alike, and Carlie’s friends still hung out at the house almost daily, lounging in the pool’s deckchairs as they had all summer. The absolute last thing I needed was a gaggle of very underage girls trying to net my attention just because I was the only non-dad male in the vicinity. Cole had been the object of their interest all summer, much to his sister’s disgust. But he left two weeks ago to follow in his mom’s footsteps at Duke, and Caleb was only eleven – as young to all of them as they were to me.

They failed to perceive the correlation.

Growing progressively paler over the past few years made my ink stand out even more. I’d begun with the complex patterns that wrapped my wrists, and they’d become sleeves, primarily composed of my own designs. Combined with the pierced lip and the longish dark hair, I more closely resembled a guy who thrives on depressive music and darkness than the beach-dwelling adolescent I was when I first got the tattoos and piercings.

In high school I’d sported multiple piercings – an ear stud, a barbell through an eyebrow and a nipple ring – in addition to the lip ring. Dad hated them, and my small-town high-school principal alleged they were all signs of deviance and an antisocial disposition. I didn’t bother arguing.

Once I left home, I’d pulled them all out but the one through the edge of my lip – the most conspicuous one.

I figured Heller would ask me, Why leave that one? But he never did. Maybe he’d known the answer without me vocalizing it – that I was categorically messed up and far from concerned with fitting in. To ordinary people, my lip piercing indicated the opposite of approachability. It was a self-erected barrier, and it served as a warning that pain wouldn’t deter me – that I welcomed it, even.

Class had been in session for two weeks. Against my better judgement – what was left of it – I studied Jackie Wallace. Her brown hair fell in soft waves several inches past her shoulder, unless she twisted it into a knot with a hair tie or a clip or glossed it back into a ponytail that made her look Carlie’s age. She had large blue eyes – an unclouded wildflower blue. Brows that furrowed deeply when she was annoyed or concentrating, and arched in repose – which made me wonder what they did when she was surprised. Average height. Slim, but still curvy.

Her fingernails were short and unpolished. I never saw her chew them, so I decided she must keep them filed down intentionally, the better to conduct those symphonies in her head and allow her hands to simulate the instrumental movements. I wanted to put on earphones and plug into her and know what she was hearing when her fingers performed. I even grew curious about which instrument she played – as though I’d know the difference between a cello and a viola by ear.

There’s this fallacy that if you’re artistic, you’re arty and creative in your approach to everything. True for some – like my mother – but not for all. When I was younger, people were confused that I didn’t play an instrument or paint or write poetry. But I’ve only ever been artistic in one way. Drawing. That’s it. Even my tattoos are the result of paper and pencil sketches transferred from my notebook to the tattoo artist’s ink, injected under my skin.

After absorbing a mind-numbing chapter about sensor calibration for measurements lab, I returned my textbook to my backpack and pulled out my sketchpad. Fifteen minutes of Heller’s class remained. My eyes strayed to Jackie Wallace, sitting several rows down, chin in hand. Without conscious intention, my hand began sketching her. The sweeping rudimentary lines were there before I knew what I was doing. I couldn’t capture her moving fingers within the confines of a sheet of paper, so I caught her paying attention to the lecture – or seeming to.

‘Those of you who aren’t planning to major in economics might ask yourself, “Why should I waste my time studying economics?’’ ’ Heller said. I sighed, knowing what came next. I knew his whole routine inside out. ‘Because when you’re filing for unemployment, at least you’ll know why.’

A few predictable groans rose from his captive audience. I admit that I held back an eye roll, stemming from the fact that I was now four semesters familiar with this particular spiel. But Jackie smiled, the corner tip of her mouth just visible from my spot in the back, along with the upward arch of her cheek.

So. She liked corny jokes.

And her boyfriend was one of the groaners.

My first tutoring session of the semester was this afternoon. Two weeks into any given semester, most students are still full of early-semester optimism, even if they’re already falling behind. It was possible I’d only have a handful of students show today – or none.

My very first semester as Heller’s tutor, only one person showed up on the first day – the roommate of someone I’d hooked up with two weeks before. I could barely recall the girl I’d spent a couple of hours with, but I recognized the roommate instantly, because there’d been an enormous bulletin board full of exhibitionistic selfies over her bed. They’d been … distracting. Like being watched by half-naked spectators. I’d found myself wondering – during the most awkward moment possible – what she did during Parents’ Weekend. Tacked posters of the periodic elements and Albert Einstein over them?

So during my first tutoring session ever, I drew charts on a whiteboard while explaining the difference between a downward shift in demand and a decrease in demand to one student. One student who was oblivious to the fact that I’d seen her topless selfie gallery. I couldn’t look her in the eye, or anywhere else, really, the whole hour, which was pretty damned awkward since she was the only other person in the room.

I had four students show today, all of them surprised that they were the only attendees out of such a huge class. None were Kennedy Moore or Jackie Wallace. I was relieved and disappointed – and I had no right to feel either of those things.

‘This is my third semester tutoring for Dr Heller,’ I said, facing them. Four pairs of eyes watched me raptly from their front-row seats in the tiny classroom. ‘Last year, every person who attended supplemental sessions two to three times per week for the entire semester made an A or a B in the class.’

Eyes widened, impressed. Clearly, I was a miracle worker.

Truth? Regular session attendees were usually the overachievers – students who only missed class for emergency surgery or when someone died. They did the assigned reading and the optional chapter quizzes. They turned in extra-credit assignments. Education was a priority, and most of them might have aced the class without me.

But the statistical data gave me job security, so I used it.

Every week, I allotted at least fifteen hours in class, in sessions, making up worksheets and providing individual assistance, either on campus or through email. Those hours added up to a quarter of my tuition, paid. Being Heller’s tutor wasn’t as lucrative as Job One – parking enforcement officer for the campus PD, or Job Two – working the counter at the campus Starbucks, but it was way less stressful than either.


Until her.



Dad didn’t seem to notice I’d quit hockey. He didn’t notice my detachment from friends or the collapse of my social life. He’d only arranged for a car to pick me up from school each day because I’d paused to ask him how I was getting home before I left his car on my first day back.

His Ray-Bans hid his eyes, so I didn’t have to witness the agony that scorched through them every single time he realized that Mom was gone, so she couldn’t do a thing she’d always done. Things someone had to do in her place. Like pick me up from my private school, because home was a twenty-five minute drive or a Metro trip I’d never taken alone followed by a several-blocks walk.

In my mouth were the words, I’ll just take the Metro – I’m thirteen, I can do it, when he answered. ‘I’ll … call a car to take you home. You’re dismissed at three o’clock?’

‘Three thirty,’ I said, shouldering my backpack and stepping out, anger building. I felt myself fracturing down deep, straining to contain it.

Mornings were still cool, not yet cold enough to see your breath. Kids who’d already arrived were hanging out front, waiting for the first bell while others exited their parents’ cars. No one was rushing inside. Heads swivelled, watching me. Parents, too, none of them pulling away from the kerb. Everyone slowed – suspended, watching. I felt their eyes like dozens of tiny spotlights.


I turned back to my father’s voice, irrationally hoping he’d tell me to just get back in the car. That he’d take me back home. Take me to work with him. Anything but leave me here.

I didn’t want to be here. I didn’t want to do this.

‘You have your house key?’

I nodded.

‘I’ll have a car here at three thirty. I’ll be home early. Five thirty, latest.’ His jaw hardened. ‘Lock the door when you get home.’ And check the windows.

I nodded again and shut the passenger door. He looked at me through the glass, and again, the crazy wish that he wouldn’t leave me here sprang up and grabbed me by the throat. He raised a hand and drove away.

So I’d never reminded him about hockey practice. I just stopped going.

When my coach finally called me, I told him I was quitting. He suggested that keeping previous routines in place would be good for me. Told me I could return at my pace, build back up. Said the team was ready to support me – that some of the guys had discussed having decals of Mom’s initials added to our helmets or sewn on to the sleeves of our jerseys. I sat stonily on the other end of the line, waiting for him to realize that I wouldn’t argue, but I also wouldn’t go.

I don’t know if Dad continued to pay or if they stopped billing him, and I didn’t care.

There was this girl I’d liked, before. (Everything now was either before or after.) Before-girl’s name was Yesenia. I hadn’t seen her since the last day of seventh grade, but we’d texted a couple of times over the summer and had been friends online, trading cryptic social-media comments, which is sort of like flirting in semaphore. Cool shot. Haha awesome. Pretty eyes. This last was from her, one comment of a dozen on a pic Mom had taken of me on Grandpa’s beach, standing in the surf at sunset.

Hers was the only comment that mattered. It was also the boldest thing either of us had ever said to each other.

I’d grown over the summer. A good thing, because Yesenia and I had been the same height in seventh grade, and there’s this thing about girls and height – they want to wear heels and not be taller than the guy. I’d added three inches and had hopes for more. Dad was over six feet. Neither of my grandfathers was.

The only daughter of an ambassador from El Salvador, Yesenia was beautiful and dark, with short, silky black hair and huge brown eyes that watched me from across classrooms and lunch tables. She lived in a brownstone off Dupont Circle. I’d talked Mom into letting me ride the Metro to her place alone two weeks before, but hadn’t yet built up the nerve to ask Yesenia if I could come over.

That second week of school, I managed to catch her without her mob of friends – a rare occurrence with thirteen-year-old girls. ‘Hey, do you wanna go see a movie Saturday?’ I blurted the invitation and she blinked up at me, hopefully noticing those three inches. She was the tallest girl in our grade. Some guys had to look up to her. ‘With me?’ I qualified when she didn’t answer right away.

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