I didn't belong with these people. I never had. Next to my life with Rogerson and the ongoing struggle to avoid full contact, cheerleading seemed even sillier and more unimportant than ever. It was like another world, another language that I'd hardly learned and already forgotten. Don't you care anymore? Don't you? This question seemed ludicrous to me. Of course I didn't care. If I did, I wouldn't be biding a bruise on my arm and one on my back. I wouldn't be shrouding myself in long sleeves and chain-?smoking, watching myself shrink down to nothing as I tried to be invisible. Don't you care, Caitlin? They were all still watching me. “No,” I said bluntly to Chelsea Robbins and her pink, pink lips, then lifted my eyes to look across all their faces. “I don't.” I could feel them all reacting to this as I walked down the bleachers and started across that shiny gym floor, where I'd done a hundred cartwheels and climbed atop so many pyramids what seemed a million years ago. “Caitlin,” Rina called after me. “Wait.” But I was already gone, pulling my arms tight against my chest as the door slammed shut behind me. I walked out to my car, got in, and locked the door. Then I sat there, in the empty parking lot, and cried. It was the worst kind of sobbing, the kind that hurts your chest and steals your breath. No one could hear me. I couldn't believe I was upset about being kicked off the cheerleading squad, since I'd hated it right from the start. But it wasn't just that. It was that at least while I was on the squad I had some semblance of a normal life: my old life. But now, I was just a girl with a boyfriend who beat her, who smoked too much. I was drowning in broad daylight and no one could tell. I was due to meet Rogerson at my house right after practice, at six sharp, so I had time to take the long way home, following Rina's driving and crying path. When I passed Corinna's, all the windows were dark and her car was gone. I thought of her coming home that night to a pitch-?black house, holding her hand out in front of her face as she found her way to a candle and a match. The dark might not be so bad when it was everywhere, even outside. I drove out to the lake, then back into town through Rina's old neighborhood, pausing for a minute in front of her second stepfather's house to curse him, just like she did. Then I headed home, taking my time, and passed my house, driving up the street to hang a right and pull into Commons Park. I hadn't been there in years. The slide and the swing set were new, but the sandbox where Cass had reached out with a shovel and changed my face foreverwas the same. I went and sat on its edge, reaching down to scoop up a handful of the grainy, wet sand, imagining the layers beneath it, full of lost buttons and action figures and Barbie shoes, all buried and fossilized like dinosaur bones. There was something of mine here, too. I reached up with my finger and traced the scar over my eyebrow, remembering when that was the greatest hurt I'd ever known. When I closed my eyes, I pictured my mother carrying me all the way home, and my father holding my hand while the needle dipped in and out, outlining the arc of my scar. And finally, with my own memory, I saw the way Cass's expression changed whenever her eyes drifted across my face, taking it as hers as much as my own. That had been a different time, a different hurt. I couldn't even remember that pain, now. I sat at the park for a long time, running my fingers through the sand. I thought about everything: cheerleading, my bruises, Roger-?son's face in the picture I'd taken of him, my mother's chipper voice on the phone, and Corinna at Applebee's, pushing Super Sundaes and dreaming of California. But mostly I thought of Cass, and how I wished she was here to claim this hurt, too.
I was still there when Rogerson slowed down, seeing my car, and pulled in. His headlights moved across the swing and slide and monkey bars to finally find me, staying there like a spotlight. He didn't get out of the car, but just left the engine idling as he waited. I squinted as I stood up, pulling my jacket around me. Like always, I didn't know what to expect from him. I slid a handful of that sand into my pocket, wondering what relics it had once held. I rubbed the grains between my fingers, like charms, then took a deep breath and stepped into that bright, bright light.
I didn't tell my mother that I'd been kicked off the squad, exactly. In fact, she was so busy winning Cass backphone call by phone callshe didn't even question my flimsy explanation about how in the lull between winter and spring sports there were fewer practices. So I began spending more time in the darkroom at the Arts Center when she thought I was doing cheerleader stuff: sticking to my former schedule and going there after school, then showing up at the same time for dinner. On game nights, I'd just call Rina from wherever I was with Rogerson to find out who'd won before I went home. This was surprisingly easy. My mother was distracted not only with Cass but also with her annual April Fool's party, my father with a new semester, a chancellor search and the men and women's basketball teams in the thick of March Madness. Now it almost seemed that I was becoming invisible, passing through the house in my long sleeves and jeanseven as the weather heated up my eyes red regardless of Visine, hardly talking except to answer their standard queries: How was school? Who won the game? Would you please pass the potatoes? And the answers came easy, automatically. Fine. We did. Yes. The only time I ever felt safe anymore was when I was at the darkroom, in the half-?light with the door locked, everything quiet as I worked developing my pictures, watching each of the images come into being right before my eyes. Since Christmas I'd focused mostly on portraits of people. I was fascinated with the way light and angle could completely change the way a person looked, and I'd spent the last two months taking pictures of everyone I knew, trying to capture each one of their different faces.
Behind the camera, I was invisible. When I lifted it up to my eye it was like I crawled into the lens, losing myself there, and everything else fell away. I'd shot Corinna sitting on her front steps in the sunlight with the dog, Mingus, lying beside her. She was wearing a long, gauzy skirt and a big wool sweater fraying at the cuffs. She'd cocked her head to the side and propped one hand under her chin, her bracelets glinting in the sunshine, the TV in the distance behind her showing static. Her hair was blowing around her face and she was smiling, with Mingus looking up at her adoringly. I'd had the picture framed and gave it to her as a gift. She'd hung it on the wall in the living room, next to a huge Ansel Adams print of a canyon. She said she couldn't remember the last time she'd seen a picture of herself that she liked, and sometimes when we were sitting on the couch just hanging out I'd catch her looking at it, studying her own face as it smiled back at her. I posed Boo sitting in the grass of her backyard, cross-?legged, right beside her chipped cement Buddha, both of them smiling and content. And I found my mother, her chair pulled up close to the TV, leaning forward to scan the screen during Lamont Whipper, looking for Cass. She'd been so absorbed she hadn't even heard me take the picture, her face hopeful, intent, watching carefully so as not to miss a single thing. That picture I buried deep under my sweaters in a drawer: it just hurt me, somehow, to look at it. Rogerson didn't have much patience for getting his picture taken, but occasionally I caught him: bending over the engine of the BMW with the hood up, reaching with one hand to brush back his hair. Standing in Corinna's kitchen drinking a Yoo Hoo with that big velvet Elvis taking up the whole frame behind him.