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You Know Where to Find Me, Page 1

Rachel Cohn


  An imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division

  1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, New York 10020

  This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real

  people, or real locales are used fictitiously. Other names, characters,

  places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination, and any

  resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is

  entirely coincidental.

  Copyright © 2008 by Rachel Cohn

  All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.


  Simon & Schuster, Inc.

  Book design by Ann Zeak

  The text for this book is set in Bembo.

  Manufactured in the United States of America

  10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Cohn, Rachel.

  You know where to find me / Rachel Cohn.—1st ed. p. cm.

  Summary: In the wake of her cousin’s suicide, overweight and introverted

  seventeen-year-old Miles experiences significant changes in her

  relationships with her mother and father, her best friend Jamal and his

  family, and her cousin’s father, while gaining insights about herself,

  both positive and negative.

  ISBN-13: 978-0-689-87859-6 (hardcover)

  ISBN-10: 0-689-87859-1 (hardcover)

  eISBN-13: 978-1-4424-3012-9

  [1. Suicide—Fiction. 2. Interpersonal relations—Fiction.

  3. Overweight persons—Fiction. 4. Substance abuse—Fiction.

  5. Family life—Washington (D.C.)—Fiction. 6. Self-esteem—Fiction.

  7. Washington (D.C.)—Fiction.] I. Title.

  PZ7.C6665You 2008

  [Fic]—dc22 2007000851

  For Patty


  With love and thanks to Patricia McCormick,

  Andi Gitow, Dr. Juhayna Kassem, David Levithan,

  Linda Braun, and Alissa Merrill.

  “Sybylla, Sybylla,” said auntie sadly, as if to herself. “In

  the first flush of girlhood, and so bitter. Why is this?”

  “Because I have been cursed with the power of

  seeing, thinking, and worse than all, feeling,

  and branded with the stinging affliction

  of ugliness,” I replied.


  Once Upon a Time

  ONCE UPON A TIME, THERE WAS AN UPTIGHT COLLECTOR man named Jim. In the late middle age of his life, Jim decided he wanted a baby with a passion greater even than the obscure Picasso sketch or rare Russian-dynasty Fabergé egg he coveted at the elite auctions he frequented. Apparently being gay, sterile, and old were not factors that should stop Jim from realizing the baby dream. He was independently wealthy, he could make his own dreams happen. So Jim got his beautiful young lover, a Legolas clone but normal-size and from this dimension, to do his thing into a cup. Jim found the perfect surrogate mother, a fit and attractive, penniless medical student who looked like a poor man’s Gwyneth Paltrow. If she could do him this favor, he could put her through medical school.

  Once upon a time, Laura was born to this man whose greatest wish was to become a father.

  Laura fulfilled Jim’s every dream of fatherhood. Good-natured, bright, and adorable, baby Laura was Jim’s sun. The dark side was Jim’s lover, who’d been holding back a secret. If he didn’t take his meds, bad things happened.

  Once upon a time, Jim’s lover decided he didn’t want to take lithium anymore. Before Laura’s first birthday, he was dead. But Jim would survive. He had nothing but time and money—and Laura. Raising her would give his advancing years purpose and inspiration, a renewed heartbeat.

  Once upon a time, the dead lover’s penniless twin sister Melanie appeared at Jim’s house in Georgetown, a baby on her hip. Jim took in Mel and her daughter and gave them the carriage house at the back of his property to live in. Jim liked to save people. It was like a rich man’s hobby for him. Mel and Jim could raise their children—who were biological cousins—together, almost like sisters.

  Mel’s child was me, Miles. People assume I’m named after the jazzman Miles, and I don’t bother to correct them. People are like that, judging you before they know you. Let them. In fact, I’m named after the feminist Australian author Miles Franklin, an author whose books I’m sure my mother has never touched, much less read. There was a movie made of this author’s most famous book, called My Brilliant Career, that Melanie and Buddy, my father, saw on their first date. Mel’s interest in the movie and the name Miles turned out to be more permanent than her attachment to Buddy. He was out of the picture by the time we arrived at Jim’s, seeking shelter and family, a lifeline.

  When Laura and I were old enough to safely climb trees, Jim had a tree house built for us in an ancient oak tree on his property. The house was nestled into a branch so full and solid, it was almost its own tree, and not even the seasonal nor’easters passing through could knock it down. The tree house’s small window view swished with green leaves and sucked in the heavy, humid D.C. swamp air, sweetened by the faint honeysuckle scent wafting up from the garden. It was our own little paradise, solid.

  In that tree house, Laura directed our play time in her favorite game, Once upon a Time. She started the game in her little-girl whisper, her fairy-blond hair and doll-perfect facial features offset by hard blue eyes and the determined clench of her jaw: Once upon a time, Sleeping Beauty took a nap. In Laura’s fairy tales games, Cinderella never escaped the scullery to meet her prince, Belle left the Beast for the sorceress who’d cast the original spell on him, and that spaz, Alice in Wonderland, needed special pills to make it through her adventures with the looking glass. Villains made no special guest appearances in our Once upon a Time story games. They scared Laura and bored me, so instead we made up heroines with ghastly itchy skin but magnificent tresses of hair, and the occasional sleeping disorder. Those heroines had enough on their hands without having to worry about warding off true evil.

  In Laura’s favorite story, Sleeping Beauty never woke up. This made for a short game, but that was fine. While my Sleeping Beauty—Laura—napped in the tree house, I read books, nestled next to her. On scorching summer days, we’d bring a bucket of ice along with us up to the tree house, and I’d rub Sleeping Beauty’s hot arms while burying my face in a book, my secret pleasure. Although I could read by age four, I was actively encouraged not to read by the time I was in elementary school. I read too much, to the point of being punished, relegated by many a teacher to the corner of the schoolroom in disgrace, my nose to a white, wordless wall that I imagined covered in newspaper print to pass the time. Bruises mapped my body from bumping into tables and tripping over curbs while walking with a book in my hand, my eyes focused on the pages instead of the live space around me.

  I preferred books to people. Laura was my exception. We had our own secret language, nonsense words to communicate when adults were present. Me-oh-my-oh-milo, eh foo manchu mysteryahoyatolah, in the car ride back from gymnastics class, could translate as, “Miles, since I’m allowed to check out more than two books a week from the library, I snuck some Nancy Drews and the book with the horrible skin-pigment pictures up into the tree house for you.” Aiieee, hersheyhialeaLauraho spaghetti-o-saurus was easily understood as “I swiped some chocolate bars for us from 7-Eleven, Laura. Meet you up there after dinner.” When we fell over each other in giggles on the b
ackseat of Jim’s sedan, we could look up to the rearview mirror to see Jim’s sandy-gray eyebrows lifted in amusement, his blue-gray eyes fixed on us, our secrets secure in his ignorance and his joy in us.

  Laura and I never went to the same school, but we did everything else together: Brownies and Girl Scouts, summer camp, swimming and dance lessons. With our white-blond hair and rosy complexions, we were often mistaken as sisters. To us, “cousin” meant almost the same thing as “sister”—inseparable, but with separate houses. While Laura’s social schedule brimmed with invitations as mine never would, she refused to go to sleepovers or birthday parties without me. When the thunderous storms that rocked the Potomac passed by at night, I slipped across the courtyard to her house, up to her room, where the princess’s queen-size bed had plenty of extra space for me. I needed it. On that giant bed, I huddled next to her and made up stories to drown out the crackling sky that cracked open terror in Laura’s heart.

  Once upon a time, adolescence came along and pulled us apart. Laura grew into the goddess her genetic predetermination had promised. Tall, slim, and still fairy-haired blond, popular, academically gifted, and with the inevitable all-star boyfriend, Laura was the perfect progeny Jim had bet he could create.

  Once upon a time, two cousins who loved each other like sisters turned back into cousins, polite and tolerant of one another, disinterested.

  Laura’s light burned so bright, it blinded me. I slipped into darkness. I live on a diet of Hostess snacks, greasy Chinese food, Cokes, and smokes. I bury the tonnage packed onto the generous curves of my chest and hips under billowing black dresses, leg fat wrapped into black tights, feet smothered in too-tight black boots. Depending on the day’s humidity, my long, thick hair falls somewhere between curly and frizzy—but never lustrous. My hair is dyed black but I’m lazy with the roots, as with everything else, so the artificial black hair peeks natural blond at the top, giving me a bloated, inverted porcupine-color look. Where Laura’s face bursts with bright blue eyes, peach cheeks, and pink lips, mine is powdered a death pallor, accentuated by a nose stud and a lip ring, and my baby-blue eyes, the same shape and color as Laura’s, are heavily lined with a kohl pencil, my mouth painted in the deep Popsicle-purple of a good bruise.

  They call me “8 Mile” at school—white trash with the wide load, capable of an occasional decent rap. I’m the token white girl at a D.C. charter school that’s 70 percent black, 20 percent Hispanic, 5 percent Caucasian, 4 percent Asian, and 1 percent fat (me). Teachers say I’m a natural-born writer. What I really am is a natural-born reader. I may write stories during class to pass the time ticking away at my boredom, and I may sometimes let my best friend Jamal turn my words into performance art, but I plan on pledging foremost allegiance to books written by other people. I would have nothing to say if I ever tried to be a real writer. My life is a waste not worth reporting. Whereas, even bad books are rarely boring. Words jump. Pages fly. Action. 8 Mile observes it all, but does not live it.

  Teachers say they can’t understand why I turn in work late or not at all, why I don’t care if I maintain a C-average. If only I tried, I could be a star student. Trying is overrated. Trying earns teacher comments like “excellent thesis statement, but improper use of commas” (so, what) or “this reads like you wrote it during lunch right before it was due instead of drafting and revising for the last two weeks, per the assignment requirement” (french fry spots on notebook paper, always, give me, away).

  When the school term ends, this supposed natural-born writer will be lucky to pass Creative Writing. She is, however, acing gym. Fat girls can kickbox something fierce.

  Those teachers won’t have to worry about me being a letdown once school lets out. I don’t plan on returning to school for senior year. I turn eighteen at the end of August. I don’t have to go back if I don’t want to. I can do what I want with my life.

  I should have graduated with Laura and Jamal this past May. But once upon a time, the most gifted reader in her kindergarten class was held back. The parent/teacher/principal conference in which I had no vote determined that my social skills were not on par with the rest of the erudite Play-Doh set, and I would be better served by repeating kindergarten. So began my life of utter academic boredom. It shall end when school lets out next week. I have the summer to figure out a plan of escape. I cannot do another year of school. I will not. I will pass a million times through Dante’s Inferno before walking through the doors of high school again.

  I know where I will go to figure out my escape plan, and I know who will help me. The tree house is still a sanctuary, where Laura and I occasionally have our happy medium. She surprised us by breaking up with her boyfriend soon before graduation; we expected her to follow him to Boston in the fall. Blessed with a multitude of thick-enveloped Ivy League acceptances, she chose Georgetown. She is not ready to leave home. I am not ready to let her go.

  Laura returned to me this past spring, to our tree house. In the late afternoons after school, when no else is around, we know without communicating, and instinctively she’ll show up in the tree house when I’ve scored a nickel bag, and I can sense when she’s up there with a pill. Here, Miles, a 40-gram for you, a 20-gram for me. You crush, together we’ll snort. 8 Mile’s body weight can sustain the Oxy40, but pixie-perfect Laura can’t tolerate past a 20.

  Two girls who share nothing now except some genes and a shared childhood still have one thing in common. They like to get high. A joint, sometimes an Oxycontin, usually a Percoset, these are our weapons of choice, missiles that rocket us to a place where we feel nothing except quiet and the wet air, the hum of crickets ushering in dusk, the suspension of anxiety, empty brains beaming laser light shows.

  I haven’t yet told Laura of my plan to drop out of school because why waste a good high with discussion? I will get around to telling her soon. I will get her to the bookstore alone, and we won’t be high, and I will tell her, and she will help me.

  Once upon a time, two sister-cousins played together in the musty aisles of the neighborhood bookstore. The fairy-tale stories they acted out there were so entrancing, the owner renamed the store for them. Later he hired the head storyteller. Once upon a Time, the bookstore where I now work part-time (or, basically, whenever I bother to show up), is off the beaten Georgetown path, situated on a garden-filled, brick-lined side street of Federal-era row houses, a hangout for locals, university students, and the occasional lost tourist. Unlike the chain stores in the nearby Wisconsin and M Street corridor, with their generic cafés, immaculate shelves brimming with shiny new books and admirable collections of pretty writing journals, the store where I work is a dusty old place with mildewed walls; it’s lined with stacks of old magazines and wobbly bookcases shelving spy mysteries and pulp fiction, new and antiquarian books, in no particular order. There’s no saving this place, so we don’t bother with a Self-Help section. We do have a cappuccino machine, but it only works if you kick it a certain way, and it’s only used in situations of dire caffeine emergency. The store makes no money whatsoever, and I suspect the only reason it stays in business is as a tax write-off for the owner. In truth, the store is a dump. But it’s my dump, my second home since childhood, the place I could be found on the days I “forgot” to go to school.

  But then.

  Once upon a time, a week after Laura’s graduation ceremony, Jamal came into the bookstore. He did not offer his usual greeting, “Yo, Miles, turn that frown upside down,” spinning the cliché with a stream of back-beats coming from all corners of his mouth. In fact, it was the first time since I’ve known him that Jamal’s mouth was clamped tight, teeth gritted, his dark eyes fogged to a place no blunt could take them. I knew right away, he hadn’t dropped by for any of his usual missions. He was not here to enlist me to apply for asylum at the Canadian Embassy, to kidnap me to Adams-Morgan for some jerk chicken and the reggae record store afterward, or to offer me a commission for holding the money can while he breakdanced with his crew, back flips and full-circ
le head spins from the ground, for tourists down by the C&O Canal.

  Jamal is the only reason 8 Mile has survived high school this far. His mom is friends with Laura’s dad, so it seems like I’ve known him my whole life, but it wasn’t until we ended up at the same high school that we became friends. Early freshman year, I was carrying my lunch tray to a solitary corner of the cafeteria when I accidentally bumped into one of the school’s generic mean girls. “Watch your step, 8 Mile,” Mean Girl snapped at me, in front of a crowded table of popular kids. Before I had a chance to sink inside humiliation, Jamal stood up from that table, took the tray from my hands, and placed it next to his lunch. “I wish I could skat like this girl,” he said. He placed his arm across my shoulders for all to see. “Y’all heard those Black Panther raps she wrote for the oral project in History of Social Movements class? ‘Stoked to be Stokely.’ Wish I’d thought of it.”

  Since that moment, Jamal and I have been like the mismatched pairing in a Hollywood buddy movie, only in our D.C. version, it’s Freak Girl befriended by Popular Boy not so they can bring down a drug cartel, etcetera, but maybe because Jamal’s simply like that: kind. He’s the actor-rapper-breakdancer boy who can do anything, including shroud 8 Mile in secondhand cool, her association with him saving her lily-white ass from being kicked on a regular basis. He’s the one person who can coax me out of a book and into the world. Sometimes I think of Jamal as a literary character from an anthology of my favorite books: His charisma is part Salinger’s Zooey Glass, coated in the brown sugar of Tea Cake from Their Eyes Were Watching God, with the sly cool of a Dashiell Hammett detective, and the hot looks of a Walter Mosley one. He’d be played by a young Mos Def in the movie, sound track by old school Stevie Wonder.

  Inside my bookstore, Jamal said only, “Laura . . .” And I knew, just knew by the rip through my gut and the instant convulsion in my heart, knew by Jamal’s uncharacteristically unsmiling face. I knew because Laura always did what I wished I could do. My mother must have sent Jamal to deliver the news that, now twice struck, she could not handle a second time.