Novel Excerpt: Better Not Die
Della nodded, seeming like she didn’t want to talk anymore. I got nervous, like I sometimes do, wondering whether I had asked the wrong questions, or just asked too many. She looked down as we crossed the street and reached for my arm without removing her gaze. It was Thursday, and squirrels trickled up and down the trees. I imagined sometimes when the breeze pushed through the crisp stillness that Della liked to call the wind at rest, that the fur of the squirrels might be swayed down like a field of brown wheat, but I never get close enough to see.
“Do you want to go to your house or mine?” I asked, trying for my words to be soft. She shook her head, then shook it again disapprovingly, as though she was mad at herself for acting depressed.
“Mine,” she said, “I want to lie down.” She looked up at me and almost smirked. “With you,” she added. I smiled too, using my teeth, then closed my mouth to kiss her on the top of the head. “Are you hungry?” I almost asked, but stopped myself. I wasn’t hungry either, and I knew her mother would have left something in the fridge. We walked along the reservoir and joggers passed us by too sweatily, with red faces looking as though their crisis wasn’t a choice. “Do you think I’ll be able to finish the semester?” Della asked broken-heartedly. “Is that what you want?” I asked. She looked at me obviously.
“Of course that’s what I want.” And I knew I had answered too quickly.
“I just mean,” I said, “Do you care about that?” She stopped paying attention to me and watched the geese who were somehow standing in the middle of the water, though nothing was frozen. It seemed like there was a long under-water road that split the reservoir in half, but it was always more of a suspicion than an understanding. “Maybe,” I said, “It’s just that I don’t care.”
“Yeah,” she said in a prickled tone, “But you’re not at risk of getting kicked out.”
“I might like to be.”
“Don’t say that,” she said. “You don’t know what that means. It’s different for you.”
“Why? You think I’m having an easy time at this place, going to college instead of high-school?”
“Just because you were on financial aid for a year in middle-school, doesn’t make you underprivileged.”
“I’m not saying that. I just don’t know why you want to stay here, all the kids care about is 4.0’s and which law school they’ll get into after they find out which IVY they get into.”
“That’s not very smart,” she said like I’d said everything I had just so I could be proud of myself.
“Alright, don’t be an asshole.”
“All those kids want is for their parents to love them.” I winced slightly, and tried not to interrupt her as another dying jogger passed us by. “Most of them don’t see their parents half the time, and when they do they’re being asked to speak about politics like they’re running for local government or speak Latin like they’re going to give a lecture at Harvard.”
“I don’t get it, why is that so bad. They’re rich as fuck, and maybe they don’t get to see they’re parents a lot, but when they sit down with them at the end of the day, they eat a five-star meal cooked by a chef who lives with them. I don’t really think that’s suffering.”
“Jam, just because you don’t have a house in the Hamptons and wear a leather jacket instead of a Canada Goose parka, doesn’t mean you’re not also rich as fuck. Just because you don’t like hanging out with them doesn’t mean you don’t go to school with them. And the fact that you could leave if you wanted to is even more evidence of how privileged you are.”
“Jesus, where is this coming from?”
“What do you mean where is it coming from? It’s your life. Just because your dad lives in a tiny apartment and teaches high school in the Bronx, doesn’t mean your mom’s not rich.
Being able to deny yourself opportunities simply because they would make you appear more privileged, is an even higher level of privilege. I have to take full advantage of every opportunity I get because unlike you I can’t switch schools to Friend’s Seminary so I can be around kids who are just as rich, but look like they’re chill liberal downtown whites, instead of uptight liberal upper east side whites. You all think there’s a difference, but there’s not. Not to people like me. You’re only fooling yourselves.” I didn’t respond. Della had never said anything like that to me before, and I began to feel like she’d been holding something back the whole time we were together.
“Dude,” I said, “I know you’re really depressed right now, and I love you. I get it, but there’s no reason to take it out on me.” Della looked at me once, and even though we kept walking side by side, I felt like she was walking away. We walked for a long silence. I tried to look at the trees instead of the ground. But I stopped myself from looking at Della. It was always hard to look at her when she was mad at me. I always wanted to make her feel better, to fix it right away, but I knew that had more to do with me feeling better than it did with her.
“Jam, I really should just go home alone. I’m only staying because you’re my boyfriend and I don’t think you realize what you’re saying. But before I say what I’m about to, I just want to make sure you know that if you were anyone else I would’ve walked home without saying anything. The only reason I’m giving you a second chance is because you’re my boyfriend and I knew you were white when you asked me out. I’m staying because you’re my boyfriend, Jam. Not because I love you.”
“Okay, okay,” I said, “I get it. Jesus.”
“No,” she said, “You don’t. That’s what this is about. I can’t fail, Jam. If I get kicked out, I have to go back to public school. I’ll have to go back to the school by my house for the rest of the year, until maybe—maybe I could apply to get into a specialized school for my senior year, but by then I’d already be applying to college and it would barely make a difference.”
“I’m sorry I said, is this about me being white? Or me being rich?” Della shook her head.
“Jesus fucking Christ. Both.” She wouldn’t stop shaking her head, and she was talking to me in a way that she hadn’t before. Sometimes she talked to me in a certain tone when she was angry with me, the same one she always used with her mother, but this was different. She was talking to me in a way that didn’t seem like we were friends. “Will you just shut up for one second and not make this about you? You realize there are so many other spaces where you get to say whatever the hell you want, and never feel like you need to be quiet or like you can’t say it. Can you just swallow your words for one time in your life.”
“There’s a lot of things that I haven’t said during this conversation,” I said, feeling like she was talking to someone else.
“Alright, so you’ve done it once. Congratulations—I’m sorry,” she said, “It’s just like, just because you’re not saying everything you want to doesn’t mean the few things you do say don’t still take up a lot of space. Like everyone else is constantly censoring themselves, and it feels terrible. You do it once and not only do you want me to give you credit, you also want me to feel bad for you.”
“Okay,” I said, “Fine, I’m sorry.”
“Don’t apologize,” she said, “That doesn’t make it any better. You’re—”
“Damn alright then what should I do?”
“Just let me talk,” she said, “You don’t even have to listen. Just at least pretend.”
“Alright,” I said, “I’ll listen.” She shook her head again, and I couldn’t help being mad, but I kept quiet, just like she said.
“I don’t know if I want to say what I had to say anymore.” I said nothing, nodding slightly before getting worried that it would upset her, but she was watching the sprinkler in the middle of the reservoir, and I don’t think she cared what I did anymore. “It’s just—I think, like I get that this school is hard and everything. I know your mom’s sick, but like that doesn’t negate all the things you do have. Like you don’t think about them because you have them, you’re used to them so maybe you don’t consider them as things to have or things that people want to have, you just think of them as a given, like having food in the fridge whenever you want it.”
“There’s not always food in my fridge.”
“Yeah I’m sorry, but that’s not the same thing. You’re mom being too depressed to go to the grocery store is not the same as someone else not being able to afford keeping their fridge full of food.”
“There’s always food in your fridge.”
“Jam, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m using an analogy. I’m saying your fridge can be full or empty. It won’t make a difference to whether you eat or not—you can just order something with your mom’s credit card. And you don’t have to order something like Dominoe’s you can order Patsy’s with as many toppings as you want and not even question paying 30 dollars for one pizza. And if you don’t eat the whole thing, no one’s going to say anything. No one’s gonna get mad at you for wasting food, or wasting money.”
“What do you mean and?”
“You said you were using an analogy.”
“You’re being a cunt.”
“Okay,” I said, “I’ll try to be less of a cunt.”
“I don’t like it when you say that.”
“You just said it.”
“The fact that you don’t get why that’s different is exactly the problem,.”
“Fine, I won’t say it.”
“The analogy is that it doesn’t matter if you go to Dalton or Friend’s. It doesn’t matter if the fridge is full or empty. You’re still going to eat. No matter where you go you’re still going to get one of the best educations in the country. And you’re going to go to one of the nicest colleges in the country, even if you think that not going to an IVY league school is somehow non-conformist of you. My fridge may always have food in it, and if it doesn’t yeah I can go out and grab something it’s not a big deal. I’ll eat. I’m not worried about eating. But if I don’t go to this school, I can’t just go to another one just like it. I’ll have to go to a school that’s not even close to one of the best school’s in the country, and that will mean I won’t be able to go to a college where I can study (x) because there are very few programs that do that. And then I will have to study something else, and that will change the whole trajectory of my life. My whole life will be different Jam. So you feeling like you’re different from the other kids, you’re right, you are. But having a chiller aesthetic doesn’t mean you’re not being given everything. You’re a straight white man, a straight cis white man. It doesn’t get better than that. I know you have family difficulties, but you think people who can barely get a meal on the table don’t also have family difficulties? What if your mom was sick, and you couldn’t pay for her medication? What if your dad leaving meant you had to drop out of school, so you could try and work a job and make enough money to just barely keep her alive? What if your dad leaving meant your mom wasn’t able to get the care she needed, and she was already dead. Right now. And please, please stop touting the fact that you were on financial aid for like two years. I know your mom lost some money when the stock market crashed, but I know she made it back like right after when her family sold those properties. I’m just saying babe, I know you’re going through a lot, I know it’s difficult. I’m not trying to discount that or invalidate it. But your life compared to the rest of the world, compared to the rest of the country, their lives are dire. And I know mine isn’t dire, but it really hurts my feelings and pisses me off, when I’m barely passing my classes and you talk about moving schools like its which party are we going to this weekend. And ask me if I care? If staying in this school is what I care about? I’m barely hanging on by a thread. If I get kicked out, I don’t know what I’ll do. I don’t know. I don’t know if I’ll still want to stick around.”