An excerpt from the first chapter of my novel. Temporary title is Inner Swagger of Unhappy Kids. Please do not share without explicitly crediting my name, thanks!
Chapter One: The Chapter One I Wanted to Write
The reason there are more books narrated by kids than by adults isn’t because we’re more interesting. (I’d like to think so, but it’s probably not true.) I think the reason adults don’t like to narrate their own stories is because they know their lives are ordinary, while us kids still have years to go before we’re ready to admit that about ourselves.
I think – no matter how hard life is, even if you’re the kid who never speaks up in class, who isn’t an athlete, whose parents are divorced or in prison, whose mom keeps marrying the wrong guys, who is raised by strangers, who is too tall with three chins or crooked teeth and eyes too big (or too small), who eats lunch by yourself, who can’t eat lunch by yourself, who waits at the front office for your brother the high school dropout to pick you up because he’s always late because your parents work so many jobs have so many kids or just forget about you, who is bad at taking tests, who for some reason can’t make small talk is socially awkward and never likes the right music wears the right clothes, who doesn’t have enough boyfriends, who has too many boyfriends, who is not straight, who feels slow never knows the answers gets talked at by teachers, who is sad or angry all the time or feels nothing ever or is too cheerful and not cynical enough – no matter who you are, you still want your life to be big. You still believe – you still reserve a part of yourself that believes – it will be. The magic of being a kid is how stupidly brave we are to dream in colors no one has ever invented.
Have you ever tried to explain your dream to someone who doesn’t dream? It’s like trying to describe your painting to someone who has never known sight. Where do you begin? I feel that way a lot, all the time. Always around adults. The funny thing is, no matter how broken a kid feels, she still knows what a dream is. I don’t know when it happens, but at some point a person snaps and stops dreaming. I think that snapping point is the line – or point – between childhood and adulthood. I wish no one ever grew up.
Take my dad, for example. He’s a (house) painter, twice-divorced (once from my mom), and he plays the drums better than anyone I know. Before I popped out, he used to chainsmoke and motocross. But it was hurting his body and my mom said he had to grow up, so he quit. Now he only smokes.
My friend Bailey says that’s what love is: When you do the hard thing for the right person. That sounds pretty smart, and Bailey should know, since his parents have never divorced and married each other at the right age and still kiss each other on the mouth at Open House and volleyball games. It’s really embarrassing to look at them when everyone else is around, but actually it’s kind of nice, and since I never saw my parents stand within five feet of each other without being cruel, I pretend that’s what they used to look like. I can see why Bailey believes in love.
If you’re lucky and you grow up in a home where everyone is safe and loved and no one ever leaves, the side effect is that you wind up as a cheeseball. That’s why I like Bailey so much. He’s a foot shorter than all the other eighth-grade boys, his hair is redder than Vicky Trache’s Wednesday panties (which ride high above her low-cut skinny jeans), his voice is caught between puberty and a high place, but he’s happier than anyone I know. The guy’s got faith, and the balls to play on an otherwise all-girl V-ball team.
That’s inner swagger. I wish I had that. I wonder if other people think I have it. There’s that old cliché about grass being greener on the other side, so maybe we just think everyone has inner swagger and no one really does. But if that’s true, what would there be left to believe in?
The thing is, though, that I’m not sure I agree with Bailey about love. I learned the word ‘finite’ last year, which means the opposite of ‘infinite.’ If something is finite, that doesn’t mean you can’t have a lot of it – so much that most of the time people can’t tell the difference between finite and infinite. It just means there’s an end to it, at some point. That there’s a limit. I think love is finite. I think people get tired, or scared or they just forget. It doesn’t have to be this evil or deliberate thing. You can stop loving someone, even for a moment, just because you forget about them. But the moment reveals that your love is finite. If we pay attention, we find cracks in every sidewalk.
Doing the hard thing for the right person is a really nice idea. Part of me wants to believe that this is what love is, that this is what I should expect out of love because it’s so filling to imagine that – if I hold my standards high, and if these are the right standards – one day I’ll meet someone who would do that for me. But there’s another part of me – the part that has to lie to my mom when my dad takes me out of school to drive down to Easton’s Beach with him (and look at Newport mansions as he explains how to do coastal paint jobs), the part that has to sit in the foggy car as they argue about how selfish he is how big the stick up her ___ is what an ___hole he is or what a ____ she is and they think I can’t hear because the windows are rolled up but they’re yelling so loud my stepdad Jerry storms out to the driveway and besides, even if I couldn’t hear them I know exactly what they’re saying because they always end up saying the same things and while it all sounds like hate hate hate, I think what they hate is that love didn’t work out for them. This part of me doesn’t believe.
That’s what I mean. How long do you keep doing the hard thing for the right person before you realize they’re just not the right person? Do you ever figure it out, or do you wonder – no matter whether you stay with or leave them – if they were the wrong person or if you were? Amanda Sheldon, the sophomore on my volleyball team who might be pretty under all that makeup (but I’ll never find out), just broke up with Kyle Kang and she says they were wrong for each other. But from where I’m standing, they’re both just as wrong by themselves. So what’s the problem? The bad chemistry between two people, or the terrible people creating the chemistry? My point, I guess, is that Bailey’s parents are really lucky, and Bailey is really lucky. And being lucky makes you believe in truths that aren’t true for unlucky people. So they’re not really truths, but “truths.” But how do you explain to a person who has everything that not everyone can have everything?
(I know Bailey doesn’t have everything. But he has everything worth having, including the shortness and red hair because they make him interesting.)
 I’m sorry I keep using blanks, because anyone who tells you thirteen-year-olds shouldn’t hear or don’t know cuss words is ____ing kidding themselves. But the problem is that your parents and your teachers will probably never let you read this book if I filled in those blanks. Or maybe your cool teachers will, but then they’d be in trouble and it’s so rare to get a really cool teacher that if you’re lucky enough to have one I wouldn’t want to be the reason they’re fired. I thought about filling the blanks in with fake cussing like ‘freaking’ or ‘butthole’ or ‘witch’, but nobody older than five talks like that and pretending they do just butchers the whole point of language, which is to communicate real – rich, thick, ugly, wonderful – feeling. So I’m sorry you have to put up with all the blanks. Maybe you can fill the words in yourself – and then you’d be reading a version that no one else has, is irreplaceable and entirely your own.
End of Excerpt. Constructive feedback is very, very welcome.
So much wisdom and thoughtful questions in just one chapter! I love that it’s in first person and I can relate to the narrator. I’m not sure if it’s because growing up I was (and still am) a Bailey, but some of these things I hadn’t realized at 13 but years later in retrospect. I really enjoyed this and I hope to read more! (I know this isn’t very useful feedback but I just wanted you to know that you have a fan in me.)
Dear Sam: Thank you for continuing to support my work – I hope you’ll stick around to read more. In retrospect, it strikes me that the Baileys in the world have a fighting chance to become well-adjusted and interesting adults. They are lucky enough to be loved and to know firsthand how to give love. And they are also lucky enough to face challenges that truly build character. Of course, going through it feels differently (see: painful), as all adversity does. But – in a world where so much between birth and adulthood can go wrong, I can’t think of a better cocoon to emerge from than Bailey’s.
So, here to you: Sitting to the right of adulthood, and probably ahead of the curve in ways you haven’t discovered yet.
I want to know more about Bailey. It’s really thoughtful and rather stream of consc. which I am a great fan of (excuse the prep on the end of a sentence – which is not really a sentence as it is very late at nite here). It makes me want to get back to writing. Keep at it! It is worth it. sue paynter
I really like the expression “inner swagger”.
oh man, why’d you stop writing. i re-read your posts from time to time and this was new for me, with plenty of tears to come with.