Half-lit cylinders crushed the soil, choking the life out of Mom’s prized possessions. Cam called it a metaphor; Dad called it compost.
I’ll always remember the smell of my father’s Marlboro Lights. The way smoke curled around his lips when he moved around the room, like it was part of him. White wisps shadowed his every move, sneaking its way around his fingers, leaving a makeshift wedding band around his knuckles.
A cigarette was in his hands when he punched a hole in the wall, right after mom left the divorce papers on the kitchen table. Screaming matches rattled the foundation every time she came back in a car that wasn’t her own. My brother and I hid behind our dresser whenever they got too loud, Camden’s clammy hands straining against mine. Our parents met at Harvard years ago—two struggling paralegals balancing work and law school—and followed the college-lovers-to-suburban-Cambridge pipeline. They had the 2.5 kids and picket fence life like everyone else, but I guess Mom got tired of that after a while.
Her name was written in pretty cursive at the top of the documents, right below the “Commonwealth of Massachusetts” and some fancy lawyer’s name. It all looked very professional, almost like she’d been planning on leaving us for some time now. Our father screamed at the sky that night, veins straining against his skin while Cam’s ten-year-old body clung to mine. His fists held onto my D.A.R.E sleep shirt like a lifeline. We saw reason fade from his eyes, mania taking over his body as he smashed frame after frame of wedding pictures against the counter. The marble broke—that one faulty corner dad always said to be careful with pangea’d itself apart— and his signet ring left indents on the kitchen sink. Whiskey mixed with the nicotine on his lips, staining his perfect teeth a bitter yellow as he wailed our mother’s name in varying degrees of hurt.
When it was all over, we had to help carry him to the couch; twin featherlight frames bearing the weight of our family name. Cam cried the whole time, snot bubbles dripping down his cupid’s bow every time dad’s arms slipped out of his hands. Neither of us spoke once we finally got him on the couch. The New England air fought against window panes as we made our way back to the kitchen and scooped chunks of white debris into plastic bags. Shards of marble pinched our skin, working their way into our lives while we swept in silence.
That wasn’t a very good Tuesday.
By the time we turned twelve, the divorce papers had been signed, and cigarette butts lined the geraniums on the windowsill. Half-lit cylinders crushed the soil, choking the life out of Mom’s prized possessions. Cam called it a metaphor; Dad called it compost.
Our mother stopped showing up to dance recitals and little league practices, too busy with the new family she found in her pretty paralegal to care about the one she left behind. She went from driving Cam’s team to Dunkin’ Donuts after games and burning bake sale cookies to sending late child support checks. Burberry Black haunted the halls, ghosts of toddler-past staining the blankets she’d wrap us in when the December chill crawled its way into our twin beds.
The less she came around, the more Dad screamed. He started by making angry quips about her here and there—“dumb bitch never knew how to do anything right”—and slowly graduated to physically shaking any remnants of her Cam and I could possibly hold in our bodies whenever he felt we looked too much like his ex-wife.
Jack Daniels and his friends replaced us at dinnertime. The four chairs that stood by Grandma Annie’s dinner table faded into stools propped against a makeshift bar top. Cam’s night light was thrown in the garbage. A half-slurred “fuck you” replaced whispered goodnight lullabies. The “Cherry, honey,” that used to slip off my father’s lips with a smile when he looked at me became “ungrateful bitch,” maybe “Cherise” on a good day.
Sometimes he’d stare at my brother and I for a minute, and I’d wonder if he was actually watching rather than seeing us, straining to get a glimpse of the woman he loved. Her heterochromia eyes that Camden and I shared—green with slivers of golden brown mixed in. The snorts after a good laugh that made her whole body shake.
On the really bad days, my pigtails would be enough to send him into a spiral, the lit end of his cigarettes threatening to burn holes in my scalp. He said the flame would get rid of it, as if lighting me on fire would somehow erase every trace of my mother he saw in me.
I always kept my hair short after that.
The smell of secondhand smoke got so bad that my brother and I started to replace the stifling nicotine with cherry Chapstick and cheap latex. We smuggled a slew of nice boys—the ones that give you kisses on cheeks and sneak their hands under the folds of your skirt when no one’s looking—up the back door. Their screams echoed off the mattresses in our rooms, rough and broken like the cracks in their sixteen-year-old voices. Chemistry partners and handsome strangers shimmied down twin balconies that had seen better days, Victoria’s infamous secret hanging off their belt loops when they reached the ground.
When Cam first started messing around with guys, he tried to find ones that would pass off as pre-calc geniuses or student body presidents—he figured it would be less suspicious if he had friends over for “tutoring” purposes or class projects. That stopped once he realized if he were to get caught, dad would beat him twice as hard for getting fucked by a nerd. After that, it was all lumberjack types that reeked of testosterone and Axe body spray. That way if dad ever saw him on his knees, it would be worshiping a man of stature and dominance.
I met Theo Adams the same way in senior year, with his head nestled between my thighs. The smell of weed and spearmint gum pushed past the fog in my brain, and his rings left indents at the top of my thighs. His fingers, calloused from years of competitive Lego-building, erased the handprints around my neck, painting all my bruises pink instead of blue. I wish I could say I remembered his name the first day I woke up to his body beside mine.
Inside of classrooms he was silent, slouched in a corner with ramen noodle hair shoved into a red hoodie. Silent and spacey, the type that made teachers not give two shits about him. He’d put his head down for an entire period, dead to the world, and wake up minutes before the passing bell rang. Almost immediately, I wrote him off as a loner with nothing in his brain. Someone to use for a good fuck and discard after a few weeks.
That changed on Saturday, September 15th. Cam and I had gone up to Shannon Beach with some friends for the day and by the time we got back, Dad had packed half of the bar into our living room. Middle-aged men littered the hallways, carrying the smell of cheap beer and regret out into the backyard. My vision blurred as I watched a man brush past a photo of my brother and I at our Cape house—one of the only pre-divorce memories we had left. Cam turned my body away right as it crashed to the floor. We wrestled our way past swaying bodies to the front door and slumped onto the sidewalk in silence.
The beauty of having a twin is knowing exactly what the other is feeling. That’s why when the silver sedan pulled up, I couldn’t blame Cam for climbing into the passenger seat. His boy of the month asked if I wanted a ride, but the last thing I wanted was to sit on someone’s couch while my brother had sex two doors down. Camden gave me one of those smiles adults reserve for kids at funerals, the kind with broken reassurances hidden behind, as the car pulled away.
I could’ve called anyone. Isaac would’ve broken a good amount of traffic laws if I said I wanted to see him again, but for some reason, Theo came to mind. Each dial tone made my heart beat faster; it stopped when his voice rang out over the receiver, slow and muddled with barely-there sleep. I tripped and stumbled over my words, almost like I’d been possessed by a kindergartener with a school crush. Heat crawled on my cheeks when he laughed, his keys jingling in the background.
Twenty minutes later he rounded the block. The same BMW the dinosaurs died in slowed to a stop in front of me, remnants of a Deftones song fading into the air. He didn’t ask me why I called or if I was okay, just locked the doors and told me to buckle in. My fist curled around the seatbelt strap. “Rosemary” played softly over the speakers, lulling any leftover tension out of the car.
Theo looked over at me when the two minute mark hit, guitar chords and soft screaming breaking through the night air. He titled his head back, leaned forward to turn the volume up, and yelled “stay with me” louder than I’d ever heard him speak, mouth upturned in a boyish grin. It was like looking at the sun, so bright and full of life that it almost hurt. He looked over at me, an unfamiliar fondness in his eyes, and motioned for me to do the same. I screamed the lyrics back to him, lungs burning with the air I’d been missing for seventeen years.
His laugh echoed off the Buzz Lightyear figurine dangling over his dashboard, loud and full-chested.
“You can’t sing for shit, C,” he lilted, frame shaking with leftover laughter.
I sang louder, placing cracks and dips in my voice to emphasize my god-given talents. Theo had tears in his eyes by the time we pulled up to the Taco Bell drive-thru. He explained the EPR paradox over a Crunchwrap Supreme that night, his brain working much faster than his mouth could articulate. He told me about his baby sister and how he refused to let her grow up without an overprotective older brother. Baja Blast Freeze spilled on the seats while we argued over whether or not a hot dog is actually a sandwich (it’s not). When I told him the real reason I called that night, he held my hand and listened the whole time. No false reassurances or pity smiles, just his fingers running circles on my skin.
Too much time with him should’ve felt like attachment, the sort of tethering I’d avoided since boys regarded my body as feminine, but it didn’t at all. It felt natural and warm, almost like I’d finally found him after searching for years.
It took a whole semester for Cam to acknowledge Theo’s presence, let alone get his name right. “Teo” and “Trevor” became his favorite ones to use, the syllables of one seeping into the other in hallways and locker rooms. He’d never been friends with any of the boys that went in and out of my room, and he wasn’t about to make this new one the exception. I don’t think Camden fully let his guard down until that thirteenth of December, the day we turned eighteen.
Theo didn’t invite anyone that night. The whole party was just the three of us, a table full of our favorite snacks, and all eight Harry Potter movies on rotation. I asked Cam if he wanted to bring one of his hookups over, maybe Brayden from biology or that new kid that sat in the back of our English class, but he just smiled and shook his head, eyes trained on the boy hanging streamers from our living room ceiling. I think he could tell this was different; Theo was different.
He’d been relatively calm for most of the party, making small talk with my brother over some video game I didn’t understand, but when the time for presents came around, Theo crawled back into his shell. His shoulders rolled in on themselves, voice going quiet when he placed a small box in my hands. It was wrapped with a blue bow and pretty lace. I can’t remember exactly what I said when I lifted the lid, probably something between “what” and “no.”
Every nerve in me turned to static, and all I could do was stare at the cherry pendant hanging from a silver chain. Shock would’ve choked all the oxygen out of my lungs if Theo hadn’t been squatting in front of me. His hands reached for my face, thumbs brushing against wet cheeks; maybe it was this, the fondness in his green eyes or his lips brushing against my forehead, that felt like I’d finally made it home for the first time.
Cam got a Bruins jersey he’d been eyeing for a while, and a watch with his name etched onto the back. I still have no idea how Theo knew exactly what my brother and I wanted, especially since Cam spent most of his time avoiding him, but every time I asked, he just smiled and said, “a magician never reveals his secrets.” Total bullshit.
It was ten til midnight when Theo brought the cake out, a huge ice cream slab with Camden’s name smushed against the edge. Tears pooled at my waterline when he lit nine candles with Dad’s lighter, giving the rusted rectangle new life. Cam didn’t wait until he’d finished singing happy birthday to blow the candles out and shove my head into the cake.
Theo became my brother’s best friend after that. His Miami Heat obsession bled into game days huddled under blankets and Tostito chips, Tyler Herro snarling at us through a screen. If he wasn’t by my side, he was building Star Wars Lego sets and having Fanta chugging competitions with my brother, two idiots sharing one buffering brain cell. I once asked Theo if Cam had ever given him the overprotective brother lecture, the one where he brings boys up to his room and threatens to ruin their lives if they insult my honor or whatever. He laughed so hard he almost choked on a piece of Trolli Sour Worms. I took that as a no, which meant he’d been the only person to pass Cam’s test.
Right after winter break, Camden and I realized that if we wanted to get into a half-decent college, we needed to start trying to pass our classes. We traded in fake IDs for laminated flashcards. Theo helped us turn our living room floor into a map of the world, each country labeled with important dates and key words. Too many tears were shed over hand-me-down SAT prep books; Cam couldn’t read to save his life and I was incapable of solving any problem that required the subtraction of three or more numbers.
We applied to every college we think we could afford. Dad had blown through his trust fund years ago, so it was up to us to pay for whatever education we could get. The man had been out of the house for months now, probably hopping between bars and couches, so it was just the two of us towards the end of senior year. Theo would come over every once in a while, make us some of his mom’s peach cobbler (he refused to share the family recipe) and brainstorm answers to scholarship questions. When we finally got our acceptance letters, he was the only one who congratulated us. He packed us into his car and drove to Middlesex Fells with a picnic basket and three party hats. Theo, our resident physics god, had gotten into Stanford the week before. Cam and I celebrated by decorating his room with calculators and math-themed cupcakes.
For once in our lives, everything was falling into place.
A week before Theo was bound to leave, it all fell apart.
My brother and I were helping him pack everything he’d need in California. He and Theo were in charge of lifting things into the boxes and I was quality control. I organized everything and made sure all the boxes and bins were labeled properly. We worked as a unit and got through almost half of his room before Theo’s mom called Cam for help in the kitchen. She’d discovered my brother’s hidden talent for baking a few weeks ago and now looked for any excuse to get a competent sous chef in her kitchen.
I was laying on Theo’s mattress, head turned to the glow-in-the-dark stars he’d glued to the ceiling when he was a kid, when I realized this was it. In the back of my mind I’d known he was leaving, but it hadn’t really hit me until I saw him standing right in the middle of the cardboard chaos, his impish grin making the dimples on his right cheek pop out. He was leaving. The Theo that read The Lord of the Rings to me when I couldn’t sleep—ridiculous Gollum voice and all—would be gone at a school with people more interesting than I could ever be. He’d find people that could actually understand his black hole theories, meet girls that could hold conversations about quantum mechanics at a school they could actually afford to attend.
We’d talked about it once, him leaving for California and me staying here. I’d tried to tell him he’d be better off without me; have better opportunities if he wasn’t tied down to a charity case in his hometown. He’d just cradled my face in his hands and told me he wasn’t going anywhere. That no amount of distance or hot STEM girls could change his mind. But sitting here with him bobbing his head to “Cherry Waves,” I realized I couldn’t do that to him.
His head shot up so fast I feared he’d given himself whiplash.
“You heard me,” I sat up, looking anywhere but his face. “Whatever this was, it’s over.”
Theo’s laugh echoed off the barren walls. “Okay, sure. Pass me the tape, would you? I can’t get this damn box to close—”
I stood up and beelined for the bedroom door. The faster I got out, the better.
“Woah, C, hey,” his hand wrapped around my wrist, pulling me back. I could no longer hear his smile. “What the fuck?”
He used his free hand to tilt my head up.
“Look at me.”
I stepped back, feeling the hand on my wrist tighten.
“Cherry,” his voice was softer than I’d ever heard it. “Look at me.”
“Let me go.”
We stayed there in the middle of his room, motionless. I tried again.
“Let me go, Teddy,” I twisted my body, reaching out towards the door again. “We’re done.”
His thumb brushed my eyes, coming back wet with unshed tears. “Bullshit. What’s wrong, C? Did I do something?”
He didn’t. He’d been nothing short of wonderful and that’s exactly why I needed to get him as far away from me as possible.
“I’m tired of you.”
The hand on my cheek tensed. When I opened my eyes, he’d taken a step back.
“You don’t mean that,” he shook his head. “You’re freaking out over the move and, and the distance, you—”
“Don’t tell me what to feel, Adams,” I had knives in my voice, all of them aimed at one target. “We had a good run but I’m done.”
Hurt shattered his honeyed irises like glass, but I couldn’t stop. Fear consumed my every nerve, pushing any affection I could’ve held for him off my heart.
The hand on my cheek dropped. “Cherry, I…”
I reached for the cherries hanging around my neck before he could say it. His eyes widened and for a second, I thought about what it might mean to let go of something you love. Metal strained against my skin, pinching all of my nerves together when the chain snapped. Two cherries slid down to the center, hanging aimlessly in my palms like the broken wings of something I’d just torn apart.
I chucked it at Theo’s feet, silver clinking against the hardwood floor; the sound of two hearts shattering under the weight of one hand. He looked at me for a second, tears bringing out the green in his eyes.
I didn’t shut the door on the way out.
Five years passed before I saw Theo again.
Cam still talked to him every once in a while, and they’d met up a few times in college, but I hadn’t seen him since I was eighteen. He never told me what happened that day after I walked out. All I knew is that my brother got home at midnight and said three words to me before going to bed: “You fucked up.” He saw Theo off a week later, wrapped up in a crimson hoodie and a hat that said “Proud Stanford Dad.”
We ended up going to a small community college in Cambridge before transferring to different universities. Cam got into Tufts for sociology; I went to Boston University for writing. Neither of us wanted to be too far away from the other, but we still wanted to get a sense of our own independence.
I traded out college guys like they were Pokemon cards for a while until I got tired of having someone beside me and still feeling alone. Telling people you grew up with an abusive alcoholic for a father and a disappearing act for a mother tends to rain on everyone’s parade, so I got a therapist. Jenny helped me realize that just because one man did something bad to you, it doesn’t mean all men will; that I shouldn’t run from the possibility of good things happening to me. I fell in love with a nice man (actually nice, not the kind I’d dated when I was sixteen) and allowed myself to be treated right for the first time after Theo. It didn’t last very long, but at least I could say I tried.
Cam started seeing a guy in his public policy class senior year. He’d done the whole therapy thing way before me and by the time he met Eli, he wasn’t afraid to fall in love with him. Elijah was everything Cam had wanted since he was little. A tall science nerd with a passion for chemistry and ugly dogs. They moved in together right after graduation, a tiny studio apartment big enough to hold them and Gertude the bulldog.
The day I saw Theo, Cam and I had just bailed on Dad’s funeral party. We’d gotten a call one afternoon from the Cambridge police department asking us to come identify a body. Apparently, in all the years our father had been drinking and couch surfing, he’d ended up getting himself killed over some drugs. Some of his old friends decided to set up a funeral, nothing too big since he’d pretty much exiled everyone out of his life for decades.
I only attended because Jenny said it might help with the whole closure thing. Eli drove Cam and I back to our childhood house on Avon Hill Street. They held hands the entire ride, and for a split second I longed to have a fraction of the love they shared. The ceremony couldn’t have been more boring, just a bunch of people our father used to know talking about how tragic it was that a good man died all alone. Distant relatives milled around a snack table outside the funeral parlor, picking off blocks of cheese and stale crackers like vultures while they doled out fake condolences. I was there for no more than ten minutes before I looked at Cam; there were no words needed and both of us turned to leave at the same time.
We’d barely made it out of the house when I saw him. He was talking with someone, a friend of our father’s maybe, his lanky figure ridgid. His neck tilted back—he always cracked his neck when he was uncomfortable—and when the glow of the street lamp hit him just right, I saw it. A small cherry pendant sat on the hollow of his throat, silver with two red dots hanging from a stem.
My knees buckled. I braced myself to meet my maker and atone for all the sins I’d committed, but I never hit the ground. His hands felt the same around my waist as they had all those years ago. He smelled just like my Theo but sweeter, like time had taken all the best parts of him and made him whole. I expected him to let me fall, leave me to crack my head on the pavement and pass away. But he just smiled, cherries dangling from his neck like a pendulum before me.
“Five years and you still don’t know how to walk in heels, C.”