That morning I swam in the campus pool with the other kids from summer school, and the chlorine clouded my eyes right away. All summer and my eyes hadn’t gotten used to the water like the teacher said they would. Afterward I ate a Snickers bar in dad’s car and wondered why I could never tell when my socks were inside out but everyone else could. Just the day before Megan’s mom had pointed at my feet and laughed at me while I stood on their front porch. “Goofball,” she said. I didn’t want to be a goofball. I wanted to be as elegant as my mom who wore cashmere sweaters and kept her hair in a neat black bob and took business classes at night. My socks were foggy in my swimmer’s vision and even though everything looked all right, I was sure it wasn’t. Something about me was inside-out or not tied properly. It could even be my shoes were on the wrong feet.
My aunt Lauren came down the hill from her dorm to meet us. Sometimes from the pool I could see the window of Lauren’s room, and I’d imagine her watching me dive under the water, holding her breath until I resurfaced. I was 8 and Lauren was 21. She seemed not quite old enough to be my mother, but too old to be my sister.
I stayed with Lauren one night a week, while Dad taught a graduate course in ornithology. He was known around campus as a hard professor, but if you wanted to be a park ranger or a wildlife biologist, he taught all the courses you had to take. Dad handed me over to Lauren, and the two of us walked back up the hill and into the thin drywall of her living quarters. Lauren stroked my wet hair, “You’re a mess,” she said. “We need to find a comb before the tangles set in.”
She lived with two other girls in her room, but the others were rarely home. There were drawers of combs and brushes, clips and ponytail elastics, shelves of powders and perfumes. Lauren would fix me up and feed me and we’d watch a movie until Dad’s class was over.
Later Lauren cooked a couple of microwave pizzas, and I sat under her kitchen table drawing the bar of the letter e with the straightest edge I could. It was a copy of Lauren’s letter e, which smiled from the lines of her notebooks like an audience. I hated my handwriting, so I studied Lauren’s every chance I could and tried to copy her. Her penmanship was cheerful, with straight stems and cute curves, each letter resting on the baseline in a pleasant, even row. She took copious notes in all her classes and even in the margins of her books. But sometimes in those books I’d find letters she’d written to Brian—her ex. It was hard to tell if they were new or old or if they’d ever reached their recipient.
Brian had twice broken her nose and had burned her arms with cigarettes, leaving behind smooth white dots paler and shinier than the rest of her skin. Lauren wore long-sleeved shirts year round to cover them up. Mom was worried that Lauren’s ex would come back like he usually did, crying at her doorstep. Maybe this time he’d propose and Lauren would quit school again and go back to living with him in their old apartment.
I had to be careful sitting under the table like that. Sometimes one of my knee caps would pop out of place, and my leg would stay locked like a safety pin. Dad was the only one who knew how to push everything back together. The thing with my knees happened almost every day. It had gotten to the point where I dreaded sitting on the floor at story time in school, where I would remain long after the teacher had stopped reading and all the other students had gotten up. I’d sit there trying to move the disc of my knee cap while the teacher yelled and eventually jerked me up to standing by my elbow, at which point my knee would jolt back into place, and the pain of it all would make my eyes water.
Lauren always made me a bed on the couch with her comforter and a couple of pillows, but I never ended up falling asleep. We’d curl up there with our plates of dinner and watch a movie or an episode of Murder She Wrote. This night we watched a horror movie for kids that scared us both. It was about family who moved into a house in the English countryside, only to find it haunted by the ghost of a teenage girl who’d died years ago during a solar eclipse. The family could feel and sometimes see a pair of green glowing eyes watching them from the woods outside their windows. Lauren pulled the blinds down after the movie.
“Sometimes,” she said, “I see Brian standing in the parking lot watching my window.”
When Dad came to pick me up, I was afraid for Lauren. “Why don’t you come home with us and sleep in the spare room?” I asked. But Lauren laughed and said she’d be fine. Her roommates—at least one of them—would be back soon.
We got in the car and mom was there waiting in the passenger’s seat in a new summer dress. The sky was dark, and I looked up at it while we drove past the trees of the campus and into the farm land that surrounded everything, and I thought of Brian standing in the dorm parking lot, bathed in street light, searching for Lauren’s window. My body felt full of stars, my blood ticking with the light of them.