“Well, that makes it harder,” Margo said, seeing it was locked. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a length of wire that had once been a coat hanger. It took her less than a minute to jimmy the lock open. I was duly awed.
Once she had the driver’s-side door open, she reached over and opened my side. “Hey, help me get the seat up,” she whispered. Together we pulled the backseat up. Margo slipped the fish underneath it, and then she counted to three, and in one motion we slammed the seat down on the fish. I heard the disgusting sound of catfish guts exploding. I let myself imagine the way Lacey’s SUV would smell after just one day of roasting in the sun, and I’ll admit that a kind of serenity washed over me. And then Margo said, “Put an M on the roof for me.”
I didn’t even have to think about it for a full second before I nodded, scrambled up onto the back bumper, and then leaned over, quickly spraying a gigantic M all across the roof. Generally, I am opposed to vandalism. But I am also generally opposed to Lacey Pemberton—and in the end, that proved to be the more deeply held conviction. I jumped off the car. I ran through the darkness—my breath coming fast and short—for the block back to the minivan. As I put my hand on the steering wheel, I noticed my pointer finger was blue. I held it up for Margo to see. She smiled, and held out her own blue finger, and then they touched, and her blue finger was pushing against mine softly and my pulse failed to slow. And then after a long time, she said, “Part Nine— downtown.”
It was 2:49 in the morning. I had never, in my entire life, felt less tired.
Tourists never go to downtown Orlando, because there’s nothing there but a few skyscrapers owned by banks and insurance companies. It’s the kind of downtown that becomes absolutely deserted at night and on the weekends, except for a few nightclubs half-filled with the desperate and the desperately lame. As I followed Margo’s directions through the maze of one-way streets, we saw a few people sleeping on the sidewalk or sitting on benches, but nobody was moving. Margo rolled down the window, and I felt the thick air blow across my face, warmer than night ought to be. I glanced over and saw strands of hair blowing all around her face. Even though I could see her there, I felt entirely alone among these big and empty buildings, like I’d survived the apocalypse and the world had been given to me, this whole and amazing and endless world, mine for the exploring.
“You just giving me the tour?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “I’m trying to get to the SunTrust Building. It’s right next to the Asparagus.”
“Oh,” I said, because for once on this night I had useful information. “That’s on South.” I drove down a few blocks and then turned. Margo pointed happily, and yes, there, before us, was the Asparagus.
The Asparagus is not, technically, an asparagus spear, nor is it derived from asparagus parts. It is just a sculpture that bears an uncanny resemblance to a thirty-foot-tall piece of asparagus— although I’ve also heard it likened to:
1. A green-glass beanstalk
2. An abstract representation of a tree
3. A greener, glassier, uglier Washington Monument
4. The Jolly Green Giant’s gigantic jolly green phallus
At any rate, it certainly does not look like a Tower of Light, which is the actual name of the sculpture. I pulled in front of a parking meter and looked over at Margo. I caught her staring into the middle distance just for a moment, her eyes blank, looking not at the Asparagus, but past it. It was the first time I thought something might be wrong—not my-boyfriend-is-an-ass wrong, but really wrong. And I should have said something. Of course. I should have said thing after thing after thing after thing. But I only said, “May I ask why you have taken me to the Asparagus?”
She turned her head to me and shot me a smile. Margo was so beautiful that even her fake smiles were convincing. “We gotta check on our progress. And the best place to do that is from the top of the SunTrust Building.”
I rolled my eyes. “Nope. No. No way. You said no breaking and entering.”
“This isn’t breaking and entering. It’s just entering, because there’s an unlocked door.”
“Margo, that’s ridiculous. Of c—”
“I will acknowledge that over the course of the evening there has been both breaking and entering. There was entering at Becca’s house. There was breaking at Jase’s house. And there will be entering here. But there has never been simultaneous breaking and entering. Theoretically, the cops could charge us with breaking, and they could charge us with entering, but they could not charge us with breaking and entering. So I’ve kept my promise.”
“Surely the SunTrust Building has, like, a security guard or whatever,” I said.
“They do,” she said, unbuckling her seat belt. “Of course they do. His name is Gus.”
We walked in through the front door. Sitting behind a broad, semicircular desk sat a young guy with a struggling goatee wearing a Regents Security uniform. “What’s up, Margo?” he said.
“Hey, Gus,” she answered.
“Who’s the kid?”
WE ARE THE SAME AGE! I wanted to shout, but I let Margo talk for me. “This is my colleague, Q. Q, this is Gus.”
“What’s up, Q?” asked Gus.
Oh, we’re just scattering some dead fish about town, breaking some windows, photographing naked guys, hanging out in skyscraper lobbies at three-fifteen in the morning, that kind of thing. “Not much,” I answered.
“Elevators are down for the night,” Gus said. “Had to shut ’em off at three. You’re welcome to take the stairs, though.”
“Cool. See ya, Gus.”
“See ya, Margo.”
“How the hell do you know the security guard at the SunTrust Building?” I asked once we were safely in the stairwell.
“He was a senior when we were freshmen,” she answered. “We gotta hustle, okay? Time’s a-wastin’.” Margo started taking the stairs two at a time, flying up, one arm on the rail, and I tried to keep pace with her, but couldn’t. Margo didn’t play any sports, but she liked to run—I sometimes saw her running by herself listening to music in Jefferson Park. I, however, did not like to run. Or, for that matter, engage in any kind of physical exertion. But now I tried to keep up a steady pace, wiping the sweat off my forehead and ignoring the burning in my legs. When I got to the twenty-fifth floor, Margo was standing on the landing, waiting for me.
“Check it out,” she said. She opened the stairwell door and we were inside a huge room with an oak table as long as two cars, and a long bank of floor-to-ceiling windows. “Conference room,” she said. “It’s got the best view in the whole building.” I followed her as she walked along the windows. “Okay, so there,” she said pointing, “is Jefferson Park. See our houses? Lights still off, so that’s good.” She moved over a few panes. “Jase’s house. Lights off, no more cop cars. Excellent, although it might mean he’s made it home, which is unfortunate.” Becca’s house was too far away to see, even from up here.
She was quiet for a moment, and then she walked right up to the glass and leaned her forehead against it. I hung back, but then she grabbed my T-shirt and pulled me forward. I didn’t want our collective weight against a single pane of glass, but she kept pulling me forward, and I could feel her balled fist in my side, and finally I put my head against the glass as gently as possible and looked around.
From above, Orlando was pretty well lit. Beneath us I could see the flashing DON’T WALK signs at intersections, and the streetlights running up and down the city in a perfect grid until downtown ended and the winding streets and cul-de-sacs of Orlando’s infinite suburb started.
“It’s beautiful,” I said.
Margo scoffed. “Really? You seriously think so?”
“I mean, well, maybe not,” I said, although it was. When I saw Orlando from an airplane, it looked like a LEGO set sunk into an ocean of green. Here, at night, it looked like a real place—but for the first time a place I could see. As I walked around the conference room, and then through the other offices on the floor, I could see it all: there was school. There was Jefferson Park. There, in the distance, Disney World. There was Wet ’n Wild. There, the 7-Eleven where Margo painted her nails and I fought for breath. It was all here—my whole world, and I could see it just by walking around a building. “It’s more impressive,” I said out loud. “From a distance, I mean. You can’t see the wear on things, you know? You can’t see the rust or the weeds or the paint cracking. You see the place as someone once imagined it.”
“Everything’s uglier close up,” she said.
“Not you,” I answered before thinking better of it.
Her forehead still against the glass, she turned to me and smiled. “Here’s a tip: you’re cute when you’re confident. And less when you’re not.” Before I had a chance to say anything, her eyes went back to the view and she started talking. “Here’s what’s not beautiful about it: from here, you can’t see the rust or the cracked paint or whatever, but you can tell what the place really is. You see how fake it all is. It’s not even hard enough to be made out of plastic. It’s a paper town. I mean look at it, Q: look at all those cul-de-sacs, those streets that turn in on themselves, all the houses that were built to fall apart. All those paper people living in their paper houses, burning the future to stay warm. All the paper kids drinking beer some bum bought for them at the paper convenience store. Everyone demented with the mania of owning things. All the things paper-thin and paper-frail. And all the people, too. I’ve lived here for eighteen years and I have never once in my life come across anyone who cares about anything that matters.”
“I’ll try not to take that personally,” I said. We were both staring into the inky distance, the cul-de-sacs and quarter-acre lots. But her shoulder was against my arm, and the backs of our hands were touching, and although I was not looking at Margo, pressing myself against the glass felt almost like pressing myself against her.
“Sorry,” she said. “Maybe things would have been different for me if I’d been hanging out with you the whole time instead of—ugh. Just, God. I just hate myself so much for even caring about my, quote, friends. I mean, just so you know, it’s not that I am oh-so-upset about Jason. Or Becca. Or even Lacey, although I actually liked her. But it was the last string. It was a lame string, for sure, but it was the one I had left, and every paper girl needs at least one string, right?”
And here is what I said. I said, “You would be welcome at our lunch table tomorrow.”
“That’s sweet,” she answered, her voice trailing off. She turned to me and nodded softly. I smiled. She smiled. I believed the smile. We walked to the stairs and then ran down them. At the bottom of each flight, I jumped off the bottom step and clicked my heels to make her laugh, and she laughed. I thought I was cheering her up. I thought she was cheerable. I thought maybe if I could be confident, something might happen between us.
I was wrong.
Sitting in the minivan with the keys in the ignition but the engine not yet started, she asked, “What time do your parents get up, by the way?”
“I don’t know, like, six-fifteen?” It was 3:51. “I mean, we have two-plus hours and we’re through with nine parts.”
“I know, but I saved the most laborious one for last. Anyway, we’ll get it all done. Part Ten—Q’s turn to pick a victim.”
“I already picked a punishment. Now you just pick who we’re going to rain our mighty wrath down on.”
“Upon whom we are going to rain our mighty wrath,” I corrected her, and she shook her head in disgust. “And I don’t really have anyone upon whom I want to rain down my wrath,” I said, because in truth I didn’t. I always felt like you had to be important to have enemies. Example: Historically, Germany has had more enemies than Luxembourg. Margo Roth Spiegelman was Germany. And Great Britain. And the United States. And czarist Russia. Me, I’m Luxembourg. Just sitting around, tending sheep, and yodeling.
“What about Chuck?” she asked.
“Hmm,” I said. Chuck Parson was pretty horrible in all those years before he’d been reined in. Aside from the cafeteria conveyor belt debacle, he once grabbed me outside school while I waited for the bus and twisted my arm and kept saying, “Call yourself a faggot.” That was his all-purpose, I-have-a-vocabulary-of-twelve-words-so-don’t-expect-a-wide-variety-of-insults insult. And even though it was ridiculously childish, in the end I had to call myself a faggot, which really annoyed me, because 1. I don’t think that word should ever be used by anyone, let alone me, and 2. As it happens, I am not gay, and furthermore, 3. Chuck Parson made it out like calling yourself a faggot was the ultimate humiliation, even though there’s nothing at all embarrassing about being gay, which I was trying to say while he twisted my arm farther and farther toward my shoulder blade, but he just kept saying, “If you’re so proud of being a faggot, why don’t you admit that you’re a faggot, faggot?”
Clearly, Chuck Parson was no Aristotle when it came to logic. But he was six three, and 270 pounds, which counts for something.
“You could make a case for Chuck,” I acknowledged. And then I turned on the car and started to make my way back toward the interstate. I didn’t know where we were going, but we sure as hell weren’t staying downtown.
“Remember at the Crown School of Dance?” she asked. “I was just thinking about that tonight.”
“I’m sorry about that, by the way. I have no idea why I went along with him.”