"Whitney doesn't get nervous," Heather, the other girl, said. She looked to be about my age and had short black hair, cut spiky, and a variety of piercings in her nose and lip. "You know that."
Kirsten and I exchanged a look. "What would you be nervous about?" she asked Whitney, who was sitting beside me, rummaging through the purse in her lap.
"Reading," Jane told her, taking a sip from the mug in front of her. "She's signed up for tonight."
"She had to sign up," Heather added. "It was a Moira Must."
"Moira Must?" I said.
"It's something from our group," Whitney explained, pulling some folded papers from her purse and putting them on the table in front of her. "You know, like an assignment. Moira's one of my doctors."
"Oh," Kirsten said. "Right."
"So you're reading something you wrote," I said. "Like part of your history?"
Whitney nodded. "Kind of."
"All right, we're ready to get started," Esther said. "And first up, we have Jacob. Welcome, Jacob!"
Everyone applauded as a tall, skinny guy wearing a black knit cap wound his way through the tables to the microphone. He opened a small spiral notebook, then cleared his throat, "This is called 'Untitled,'" he said as the espresso machine hissed from behind us. "It's, um, about my ex-girlfriend."
The poem he began to read started with images about daylight and dreaming. Then it began to build quickly, his voice rising until it was just a staccato list of words that he spit out, one right after another. "Metal, Cold, Betrayal, Endless!" he was saying, as the occasional bit of spit arced over the mike. I glanced at Whitney, who was biting her lip, then at Kirsten, who looked completely entranced.
"What is this?" I whispered.
"Shhh," she said.
Jacob's poem went on for what seemed like a long time before ending, finally, with a series of long, breathless gasps. When he was done, we all sat there for a second before deciding it was okay to clap.
"Wow," I said to Heather. "That was really something."
"Oh, that's nothing," she said. "You should have been here last week. He did ten minutes on castration."
"It was disgusting," Jane added. "Compelling, but disgusting."
"Next up," Esther said, "we have a first-time reader. Everyone, please, give it up for Whitney."
Jane and Heather immediately burst into loud applause, and Kirsten and I followed suit. As Whitney walked up to the mike, I watched the crowd reacting to her, their heads turning, then double-taking, at her beauty.
"I'm going to read a short piece," she said, her voice kind of faint. She stepped closer to the microphone. "A short piece," she repeated, "about my sisters."
I felt myself blink, surprised, and looked at Kirsten. I
wanted to say something, but I kept quiet, not wanting to be shushed again.
Whitney swallowed, then looked down at her papers, the edge of which I could see fluttering, just barely. She looked scared, and it suddenly seemed too quiet. But then she began.
"I am the middle sister," she read. "The one in between. Not oldest, not youngest, not boldest, not nicest. I am the shade of gray, the glass half empty or full, depending on your view. In my life, there has been little that I have done first or better than the one preceding or following me. Of all of us, though, I am the only one who has been broken."
I heard the chime over the door sound, and turned in my seat to see an older woman with long curly hair come in and stand at the back. When she saw Whitney at the microphone she smiled, then began to unwind her scarf from around her neck.
"It happened on the day of my youngest sister's ninth birthday party," Whitney continued. "I'd been sulking around the house all day, feeling alternately ignored and entirely too hassled, which was pretty much my default setting, even at eleven."
Kirsten's eyes widened as, at the table next to us, a man laughed loudly, and I heard other chuckles as well. Whitney flushed, smiling. "My older sister, the social one, was going to ride her bike down to the neighborhood pool to meet some friends and asked me to come along. I didn't want to. I didn't want to be with anyone. If my older sister was friendly, and my younger sweet, I was the darkness. Nobody understood my pain. Not even me."
There was another laugh, this time from someone across the room, and she smiled. So Whitney could be funny. Who knew?
"My older sister got on her bike and headed for the pool, and I started to follow. I always followed, and once we were riding, I started to get angry about it. I was tired of being second."
I looked at Kirsten again; she was watching Whitney so intently, as if no one else was even there. "So I turned back. And suddenly, the road was empty ahead of me, this whole new view, all mine. I started to pedal as fast as I could."
I could hear Heather's spoon clinking as she added another packet of sugar to her coffee, as I sat silent, unmoving.
"It was great. Freedom, even the imagined kind, always is. But as I got farther away, and didn't recognize what was ahead of me, I started to realize the distance I was covering. I was still going full speed, away from home, when my front wheel suddenly sank, and I was flying."
Beside me, Kirsten shifted in her seat, and I moved my chair closer to her.
"It's a funny feeling, being suddenly airborne," Whitney said. "Just as you realize it, it's over, and you're sinking. When I hit the pavement, I heard the bone in my arm break. In the moments afterwards, I could hear the wheel of my bike, ticking as it spun. All I could think was what I always thought, even then: that this was just not fair. To get a taste of freedom, only to instantly be punished for it."
I looked back at the woman by the door. She was watching Whitney with full concentration.
"Everything hurt. I closed my eyes, pressing my cheek to the street, and waited. What for, I didn't know. To be rescued. Or found. But no one came. All I'd ever thought I wanted was to be left alone. Until I was."
I swallowed, hearing this, then looked down at my coffee mug, sliding my fingers around it.
"I don't know how long I lay there before my sister came back for me. I remember staring up at the sky, the clouds moving past, and then hearing her calling my name. When she skidded to a stop beside me, she was the last person I wanted to see. And yet, like so many times before and since, the only one I had."
Whitney paused, taking a breath.
"She lifted me up and settled me onto her handlebars. I knew I should be grateful to her. But as we pedaled toward home, I was angry. With myself, for falling, and with her for being there to see it. As we came up the driveway, my younger sister, the birthday girl, burst out of the house. When she saw me, my arm dangling useless, she ran back inside yelling for my mother. That was her role, always, as the youngest. She was the one who told."