Fiction · 01/12/2011

Excerpt from A Crack in Everything

On that Friday morning, during an April heat wave LA natives didn’t notice, I still believed that I had seen the limit of what could go wrong in my life. I found a clean pair of jeans and enough milk for cereal, folded a to-do list into my bag, and switched the extra-gel shoe inserts from my sneakers to my black platform boots. I left my roommate Janet a note about meeting me for lunch and overcame the impulse to scribble “we need to talk” at the end. The sun had already baked my Honda, so I steered down Sunset Boulevard with my fingertips. On the radio, an overexcited traffic reporter described in loving detail a three-car pileup that wouldn’t get in my way. Arriving at the clinic right on time, I honked twice and waved at Todd through the front window.

We worked at the Silver Lake Life Center, known by its acronym as “The Slick.” The SLLC was a privately funded, youth-focused, outpatient treatment facility that specialized in sexually transmitted infections. We saw patients in the clinic and also did sex education classes and assemblies for Los Angeles high schools. Although technically we were both medical assistants, Todd worked reception and billing and I spent more time with patients. He didn’t like blood. Our office attracted young ones with secrets or no insurance: sexually active high-school kids, underage strippers, drop-outs, and porn actors who were intimidated by the big Kaiser building and Planned Parenthood. Our school programs attempted to fix alarming deficiencies in young people’s knowledge of sex and sexuality. Todd and I wore our matching SLLC T-shirts to school assemblies. I loved it when we matched.

That Friday, Todd and I were off to do a Basic Sex Ed assembly at a high school in the San Fernando Valley, where over half the students got bussed in from downtown LA.

Todd sang his hello and loaded our box of assembly props—condoms, lube, female condoms, dental dams, bananas, pamphlets, overheads, worksheets, and pens—into the trunk.

He opened the door, leaned in, and begged for a Starbucks stop.

I looked at my watch. “If there’s fewer than three people in line,” I said.

He flopped into my front seat and sighed. “Another packed house today. They’re giving us all the tenth graders. Follow-up.” Meaning, these kids had Sex Ed in ninth grade, but an administrator decided it wasn’t enough. He pulled out the folder for Greenvale High School. “Are you sure you want to do the opening bit for this one?”

“I’m sure,” I said.

“You don’t have to prove anything to me,” he said.

I told him I knew that. I was proving something to myself.

This was the first visit I’d made to Greenvale since a student assaulted me in the parking lot six months ago. I hadn’t been talking about it.

Todd asked if there was a chance Nathan would be on campus.

“He’s probably there,” I said, “but he’s not a tenth grader. There’s also a chance I’m wrong about his name.”

“What will you do if you see him?”

“I don’t know.”

“Can I kill him?”

“No. And I don’t want to discuss it,” I said.

Todd said okay, although it was clear he wanted to talk more. He read over the assembly request form while I drove.

After a short Starbucks line and a three-highway drive, we exited Route 118 in the heart of the San Fernando Valley.

“You know this is officially the Ronald Reagan Freeway?” I asked Todd.

“Tamina,” Todd said in a pseudo-formal voice, “We should have lunch out here somewhere special.”

“What?”

“We’ll find someplace unique, bursting with local charm, and commemorate your return to Greenvale.” He stared out the window for three seconds while I tried to respond. “But all I see are Burger Kings.”

I told him I already had plans to meet Janet at Bitsy’s if she woke up in time.

“She will,” he said out the window. “She knows how important it is for you to stare at that waiter.”

It was true. Janet and I had lunch together regularly, and the place we went most often was Bitsy’s. Today we had some serious roommate issues to discuss, but that didn’t stop me from wanting to watch the cutest waiter in our part of the city work his magic on the sidewalk tables.

“How’s your love life?” I said. “What’s happening with Derek?”

“He’s a flake,” he said, “but he’s very sexy. He thinks I’m going to save the world. Still wants to see other people.” He sipped his latte and shrugged.

“Are you?” I said.

“Going to save the world? Probably not.”

“Seeing other people.”

“He is.”

Normally I’d ask more questions, but we were nearly there.

“Damn,” Todd said as we pulled up to the high school, “I hate the Valley.”

In the 1930s, the San Fernando Valley’s appeal was picturesque orange groves and the promise of a better life. Now it was parking lots and drive-throughs. You could arrive wherever you wanted to go and be greeted by a lot full of spaces, or an option not to get out of your car at all. Car-friendliness made the Valley a paradise, in the abstract, for those of us accustomed to routine parking nightmares in Hollywood, Silver Lake, and even Studio City. In reality the Valley demanded a steep tradeoff: those big beautiful parking lots were usually spread out in front of strip malls. Going over the hills into the Valley meant entering the same suburban sprawl, bloated with chain stores, that I’d left behind five years before in West Courtney, New Jersey. I counted on the California weather and palm trees to cheer me up, but I often wondered how long it would take for all of residential America to streamline into one-stop shopping. And once that happened, how long would it take for all of our personalities to follow?

My Jersey-born mother and father would have considered my neighborhood in Hollywood a ghetto. Teenagers in baggy pants smoked weed on the curb, trash lined the street, and bars covered every window, but I treasured the old Spanish architecture of my building, the banana leaves growing in the courtyard, and the way you could stand at the end of my block and see both a decrepit liquor store and the Hollywood sign.

We found a space in the parking lot marked FOR VISITORS ONLY.

“Wrapped up like a Christmas present,” I said. I tried not to look down the row of cars, at the spot where Nathan Reggman had cornered me six months ago.

“Your AC is crap,” Todd said brightly.

“You’re welcome,” I said. “I was happy to drive.”

“Seriously,” he said, putting his hand on my arm, “are you ready to do this?”

I told him yes. But as soon as we got out of the car, I started sweating. An itchy prickle crawled up my back. I was not ready. I should never have gone back there.

We headed to the office for visitor passes. A grim-faced woman in khaki pants led us to the cafeteria.

“What are you all here for?” she asked over her shoulder.

“Sex Ed,” Todd said.

“Lord knows they probably need it,” she sighed.

“I wish the Lord would communicate that more clearly to the school board,” Todd said, and I stifled a giggle. She pressed her lips and ignored him.

Most high schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District didn’t have real auditoriums or theaters. Students piled into football stadiums, gyms, or cafeterias when it became absolutely necessary for them to have large group experiences. I suspected administrators and teachers were afraid of the violence that might erupt if too many kids gathered in one place. Inside Greenvale’s cafeteria, an enormous, shouting mass of faces, arms, and backpacks swallowed us as our escort disappeared. Accustomed to the chaos of three hundred talking teenagers, I started unpacking at the front of the room. Fifteen teachers leaned against the back wall of the makeshift auditorium, ignoring their students to bitch with each other. Occasionally one of them would shout a student’s name, “Guys, knock it off,” “Come on,” or “Quiet, please!” into the crowd.

Some schools booked us for health classes, during which we gave a more interactive forty-five-minute presentation, or even a series that lasted a week or longer. Most schools only wanted the big assembly, because it was the most cost-effective way to deliver Sex Ed, particularly AIDS education, which they needed to fulfill certain state laws. If they chose to do all their education in house, they’d have to send their teachers to specialized AIDS educator training, which was more expensive than hiring us. Every school that hired us took a risk, though, since we didn’t do abstinence-only programs. Abstinence-only was still exclusively approved by the federal funding people. Apparently it wasn’t cool in Washington to read statistical reports on the colossal failure of that right-wing brainchild.

In four years, the only time I’d taken a break from work was after Nathan attacked me six months ago. He had figured out I was the person who helped his girlfriend schedule an abortion. He found me in the parking lot after I visited his health class. That shit wasn’t mutual, he said right before he shoved me. You had no right to kill my baby. He punched, hit, kicked. He ran, I think, when I blacked out. A security guard held my neck steady on the ground next to my car until the ambulance came. I spent the night in the hospital. I talked to a cop who took a description.

“No tattoos?” he asked.

I said no.

“Blond, about six foot, black backpack,” he read off his notes. “I gotta tell you, this doesn’t look good. There’s a whole city fulla them out there. Probably two hundred just at that school.”

At the time, I had no idea who had come after me. I explained that he must have some connection to the clinic, but even that wasn’t helpful. I didn’t recognize him, because I’d never seen him before.

I returned to my job against the advice of my doctor and Janet. On my first day back I dropped a box of clean syringes on the floor and then sat at my desk and cried. I didn’t talk to anyone but Janet and Todd about the attack. Other clinic employees thought I’d taken some days off and come back banged up because of a car accident. I didn’t want them to see me as a victim. My job mattered too much to let one angry kid stop me. The police said there were no witnesses coming forward. They told me that if I came up with any more information, I should call before two years passed.

Within a week, I used my class list from the school, my clinic records, and the Web to figure out that the kid’s name was probably Nathan Reggman. He was only sixteen, a junior. I didn’t go back to the police. Even if I was certain it was him, my position in youth outreach made me deeply reluctant to throw a teenager to the law. Anything wrong with him would only get worse in jail.

Now, nearly six months after the attack, I was still trying to decide what to do. I’d gotten my life back into tenuous balance, and I’d become comfortable telling everyone the same lie about feeling fine. But standing in the cafeteria at Greenvale, feeling hot, nauseated, and light-headed, I wondered how much longer I could keep it up. The memory of the attack was like a blister suddenly rubbing raw on the inside of my chest.

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Vanessa holds an MFA from Emerson College and her work has appeared in both literary and trade magazines including NinthLetter, Boink Magazine, Juked, and others. She is currently working on a PhD at UC Riverside and her second novel. Find her, and more of A Crack in Everything, at vanessacarlisle.com.