Delicate | Chapter One: Ivy

Delicate cover

Jeremy was quiet in the driver’s seat. He was carrying at least two sleepless nights’ worth of baggage under his eyes, and it occurred to me again that he was an expert at letting his overachiever compulsion wear him down. He’d scored early acceptance into poli sci at McGill months ago, had won Suttonville High School’s Youth Leadership Award two years running, and there wasn’t a senior within miles who could touch Jeremy when it came to knowledge of international relations, but that obviously hadn’t stopped him from staying up all night cramming for our World Politics final. 

This is how it works when you’ve been with someone for a year and a half: you know when he’s being too hard on himself without him having to spell out the facts for you. “Did you eat breakfast?” I asked. “I have a cereal bar in my knapsack if you need it.” Jeremy always forgot to eat when he was busy. I’d gotten into the habit of showing up at our Anti-Violence League meetings with packages of peanuts and corn chips. God knows what would happen to him in Montreal when I wasn’t around.

“I had a muffin,” he said, right hand landing on my knee. “Thanks.”

He tossed his curly hair back, and that movement, in combination with the warmth of his hand on my kneecap, was enough to put me in the mood for something besides flipping through notes on treaties and ideologies. He was good at that too. We’d had lots of practice during the past ten months.

“Are you coming back to my house after we finish this?” I asked. My voice never smouldered suggestively until at least afternoon, but it was definitely toasty.

“I can’t. You know I have to meet up with Amara to go over the AVL notes with him.”

I did know that; I’d just forgotten. Jeremy had been instrumental in setting up the AVL with Mr. Amara last winter, in response to two tragic incidents. Rose Mahacek, one of last year’s most popular seniors, had been sexually attacked by a friend of her brother’s while he was crashing at their house. Eight days after that hit the headlines, an eleventh-grade guy had stabbed a convenience store clerk during a botched robbery. A week later the victim died, and word leaked out that Seth Driskill, who had been absent from school all week and who, of course, continued to be, was the one who’d done it.

In the dismal aftermath Jeremy got a bunch of students together and interested in doing something positive, and Mr. Amara, a confirmed social activist himself, was more than willing to help out. The rest is history — me and Jeremy, the monthly AVL bulletin and blog, outreach meetings with various community groups. I ended up doing more writing for the AVL than for our chronically underdeveloped school paper. It seemed the more aware I was of violence, the more it happened. Kids bullied by groups of malicious eight-year-olds in the schoolyard. Wives murdered by tragically controlling husbands. Partiers shot outside downtown clubs as a result of nothing more than bad timing. The school paper seemed frivolous in comparison. Hence my plan to tackle hard-hitting journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa in the fall while Jer beefed up his political muscles in Montreal. I’d received my acceptance in February. It was a done deal.

I tried to think about the way our educations would help us grow as people rather than agonize in advance about our time apart. Besides, Montreal was less than a two-hour train ride from Ottawa. There’d be plenty of opportunities to see each other. In the meantime, we had a World Politics exam to write, and as we pulled into the school parking lot I shifted my brainpower towards the more fruitful activity of skimming through class notes.

The two of us sat fervently absorbing our notes in our own separate universes until evidence of the June sun streaming through the windows showed up on Jeremy’s forehead in the form of sweat. “Have some water,” I told him, reaching for my knapsack.

“No, I’m fine.” He held up one palm, the universal sign for stop. “Let’s just get in there and do this. If we’re not ready now, another ten minutes isn’t going to help.”

His eyes were anxious, and he promptly shut them and massaged his sockets with his fingertips. “We’re ready,” I assured him. “Don’t worry. You’re going to ace this thing no problem.”

He shrugged like it didn’t matter either way, exhibiting completely un-Jeremy-like behavior. He never pretended to be apathetic about education like lots of our classmates did; he never pretended to be apathetic about anything that actually mattered.

We strode into the hall at exactly the same pace. He has longer legs than me, but I’d noticed that he automatically slowed down whenever we were together. I threaded my fingers through his as we approached the stairs. We were writing the exam in one of the main science labs on the second floor, and a crowd of people were already milling around in the upstairs hallway.

“Good luck,” Jeremy told me. “Not like you need it.” His top teeth gripped his bottom lip, and the accompanying agitated vibes that leaked into the vicinity made me rest my weight against him and stroke his arm.

“I’m okay,” he said, but he was using his crisis mode voice. He rested his hand between my shoulder blades and attempted to propel me forward with him, but I didn’t move.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. It was beginning to dawn on me that whatever was going on with him might not have anything to do with our final.

“Nothing.” His hand dove into the back of his hair, fingertips immediately disappearing in waves of black. “Nothing. Come on, we don’t have time for this now.”

“Don’t have time for what?”

“Nothing.” His gaze ricocheted off mine and hung on the nearest row of lockers. “Nothing.”

So much nothing that it rendered him speechless. My mouth dropped open a little as I racked my brains for potential nothings that he might be referring to, but before I could make any progress with that his hand cupped my elbow. “Let go,” I told him as he tried to urge me on again. “Just tell me whatever it is.”

Jeremy shifted his hand from my elbow and pinched his jaw with it. “We’re about to write our last final, Ivy. We can’t talk now.”

I focused my eyes on his and held them there. Jeremy had always been good-looking, even in ninth grade when most guys looked either unformed or ruddy with acne, but most people couldn’t see it right away, probably because he didn’t act the way you’d expect a good-looking guy to act. He acted like it didn’t matter what he looked like and like it shouldn’t matter to anyone else either.

“Please,” he said. “We’ll talk later tonight, after all this is done.”

I spun away from him, and I wasn’t going to say another word about it. A crowded school hallway wasn’t the ideal place to have a serious discussion.

“Ivy.” His fingers encircled my arm. “I’m sorry.”

I swung to face him. “It’s okay.”

But it wasn’t. He squinted hard as he released my arm, his troubled expression freezing me on the spot. “What’s going on with you?” I went on. “You can tell me, you know that.”

Tell each other everything, that was one of our rules.

Jeremy’s head drooped. Someone had opened the science lab door, and kids were streaming in up ahead. Nadine Noh’s heavy perfume assaulted my nose as she jostled her way past me. Someone else trampled the back of my heel, apologizing as he blurred by.

Jeremy straightened his back so that I was staring at his full height. He opened and closed his mouth. He’d had braces when he was a kid, and now he had a perfect bite. His perfect bite frowned at me for another ten seconds, and then he said, “I didn’t want it to happen like this. Your exam …” He motioned helplessly to the science lab.

“I don’t give a fuck about the exam. What are you doing?” I don’t believe in swearing for emphasis. I cringe when people pepper their sentences with four-letter words, and I cringed as I questioned Jeremy outside the science lab, but not because I gave a shit about my own outburst of bad language.

Jeremy had hunched over again. A bead of sweat slipped leisurely down the side of his neck, as though it didn’t matter what was unfolding between us. “Do you remember what we talked about after Christmas?” he asked. He scratched his neck, catching the sweat droplet with the side of his finger.

Claustrophobia. He’d raised the subject a couple of days after the holidays: “Do you ever feel like our relationship is in danger of being claustrophobic? Do you think it’s normal to wonder what it would be like to have sex with someone else?”

Fantasizing was normal, we were only human, but the claustrophobia part had worried me. As the conversation went on it became clear that what he honestly wanted was to sleep with someone else before finishing high school. Shocked, I told him he should do it, if that’s what he was after, but that there wouldn’t be any going back. We’d be finished. Then my paternal grandmother passed away unexpectedly just after New Year’s and he went back to being the supportive, crazy–about-me-and-only-me Jeremy Waite that I knew and loved. He apologized for ever having mentioned his thoughts out loud. Said they were the product of a high school culture that valued sexual experience over meaningful relationships and that he should’ve known better than to have been influenced to begin with.

He’d felt profoundly guilty about it and was more there for me than you’d ever really expect anybody to be. I’d let my doubts and disappointment get lost in grief about my grandmother, and over time the conversation had nearly been forgotten.

I’d thought it had nearly been forgotten. Obviously I’d been wrong.

“You’ve been with someone else?” I asked. My tone was so shrill that it made my ears ache.

“No, no, I would never do that.” His teeth worked over his bottom lip again. “I just mean that I think it’s time to reconsider us as a couple. Next year was always going to be so complicated for us — all the traveling and trying to stay connected on top of everything else. This way we have the summer as individuals, to work certain things out for ourselves.”

Certain things like sleeping with someone else before high school was truly over with. “This is a sex thing again,” I told him. “Don’t kid yourself that it’s anything else.”

People were listening as they passed, but I refused to be embarrassed. The master of social causes was telling me that he needed to get good and laid over summer vacation. In some ways he wasn’t any different from certain beer-swigging, freshman-banging members of the football team. I was livid.

Jeremy’s puppy dog eyes filled with sadness. He tried to hold my hand, but I shook him off. “Don’t act heartbroken,” I told him. “You’re such a hypocrite, Jer. Pretending you’re so ethical and above it all. How long have you been planning this? Since Christmas?”

He mutely shook his head. One of his hands wound around the back of his neck, but he never stopped looking at me.

“So you’re a coward, too. A coward and a fake.” I wanted to tear him into psychological pieces. I knew him better than anyone. I was the person to do it.

Only obviously I didn’t know him quite as well as I’d thought.

“I’m sorry,” he said again. “You’re right to be angry. I hate hurting you like this. What we have is really special, and I know I’ll probably regret it too, but …”

I didn’t hang around to hear the rest. I walked away before my eyes turned sticky. I thought we’d had everything settled, that we could go out into the world and learn new things but still have each other to come back to. I’d been so sure about him. How could I be so sure and still be wrong?

The science lab was freezing, and I rubbed my arms as I stepped inside. I chose a seat near the front and kept my eyes on the bit of counter in front of me. The science lab is a stupid place to write a final. There aren’t even proper chairs, just stools, and mine was off balance. I rocked on the uneven legs as I uncapped my pen.

The exam wasn’t difficult. Keeping my focus was a challenge, but for the most part I did okay. It wasn’t until I’d handed my paper in and let the door swing shut behind me that I really went to pieces. I scurried through the hallway and down the steps, bits of me breaking off and falling to the ground along the way. I felt shrunken and incomplete. Lost. I felt all the things you’re never supposed to feel just because you don’t have a boyfriend.

I couldn’t stop rushing on my way to nowhere, drenched in sweat that made it impossible for anyone to tell if I was crying. I didn’t know either. I didn’t know anything except that it was over. For the first time in eighteen months I was completely alone. The person I mattered most to in this life was me, and that wasn’t remotely close to being enough.

Chapter Two: Lucan

She liked me. I’m not the kind of guy who thinks that about every girl he meets, but I was sure about Annalea Gayle. We had to do this group mobile design project in Manufacturing Engineering Technology, and the two of us ended up doing, like, eighty percent of the work. I didn’t really care about the division of labor. It was just weird spending time with someone who wanted me to like her so badly. The pressure was intense.

I thought she’d back off after the project was finished, but no, she kept calling and texting to say that I’d left my green hoodie at her house and did I want to drop by and get it? I have a thousand hoodies, you know? It didn’t even matter. Bring it to school with you whenever, I told her. But she’d never managed to remember it, and just when I thought summer had resolved the issue here she was calling my cell again. I squinted at it in the sun, debating whether or not to answer as every step took me closer to my apartment.

Okay, Annalea, let’s see what you got this time
. “Hello?”

“Lucan, hi,” she chirped. “It’s Annalea. Where are you, anyway?”

“On my way home,” I told her as a middle-aged guy in a fedora pulled his straining-at-the-leash Welsh terrier by me. He’s deceptively cute, but he bites. The dog, I mean, not the guy in the fedora. They both live in my building, and the first time I’d run into them I’d nearly had my fingers chomped off. Thank God the fedora guy had good reflexes. “I just finished the math exam,” I added. “I’m a free man.” 

Annalea giggled into my ear. It probably would have been easier on both of us if I’d blown her off weeks ago, but I hadn’t figured out how to do that without being outright mean. The girl couldn’t seem to take a hint. “I feel sooo bad that I never got your hoodie back to you,” she said. “If you want I can stop by your place right now and give it to you — finally.”

It was June 20. I wouldn’t need a hoodie for months. “You don’t need to do that,” I told her. “I haven’t missed it. I don’t think I even remember what it looks like.” 

“I should’ve returned it weeks ago,” she insisted. “I’ll be there in about twenty minutes.”
“Okay. Cool.” I mean, what else could I say? 

I whipped out my security card, swiped my way into the building, and put on my game face. I’d take my hoodie back, end of story. I was absolutely not going to make any future plans with Annalea. This was the end of the line for us.

A few minutes later she was buzzing me from the lobby. She’d been over once before, about two months back, for the mobile project, and her house wasn’t far. The one thing I genuinely liked about hanging out at Annalea’s house — or anybody’s house — was the space. There’s usually somewhere you can escape to if you have a house, even if the basement gets cold in winter or the den TV makes a weird humming noise. With Michael away at university, sometimes I hung out in his room, just for variety.

Anyway, there was no one around at the moment, only me and Annalea, and she handed over my hoodie like it was something precious. There was some sweat on her chin, and then I knew she must’ve walked over. It was pretty hot outside, but that’s one way I’m lucky; I don’t sweat much unless I’m shooting hoops or running or something.

“Thanks,” I said. The air between us smelled like flowers. I guess it was either her deodorant or her perfume.

“So what’re you doing?” she asked, flipping her naturally blond hair behind her back.

“Not much.” She actually had really nice hair, which she tossed around all the time to show off because the rest of her was chubby. She always looked like she was ready to bust out of her clothes, especially her tops. Maybe that wouldn’t have mattered if I’d liked her, but I didn’t. I just didn’t want to be mean when there was no cause for it.

“It’s poker night,” I added quickly. “At Paolo’s.” A bunch of us had a semi-monthly poker thing going — my best friend, Des, Jack, Paolo, and some other guys. Mostly I lost money, but it was still a good time. There wasn’t any poker planned for that particular night, though. I just didn’t want her to think I had forever.

“I play sometimes too,” she said, smiling. “I’m pretty good.”

“Yeah?” Was I supposed to ask her along to an imaginary poker night? Not in the game plan, Annalea. “I kinda suck, but it’s more just to, you know, hang out with the guys.”

“Guy’s night in,” she summed up.

“Yep.” The two of us were standing around by the door, and I didn’t know what to say anymore.

“Thanks for dropping this off. It’s been a while — are you sure it’s mine?” I stared at the green zip hoodie like it didn’t look remotely familiar.

Annalea didn’t laugh at my joke. She did a slow scan of the apartment from our place at the door. “It’s funny, it looks bigger than I remember it. Did your mom redecorate or something?”

“Nope.” Not unless you counted her thirty-one-year-old boyfriend, Julian, as a decorative object. He’d been loitering around the place for the past couple of months. Running into him in the kitchen in the mornings, which happened a couple of times a week, made me want to scrub my brain with antibacterial soap.

Annalea bounced past me and into the living room, where she stared at the painting over the TV. Actually, it wasn’t a real painting: it was a print of a David Hockney called Day Pool With Three Blues. When Mom had asked Michael to hang it a few winters ago she’d said it reminded her that summer was on its way.

“I wish I could dive right into this picture,” Annalea said. “Would you mind getting me something cold to drink?”

I got her a Coke. It wasn’t diet, but I wouldn’t have given her diet anyway. That would’ve been insulting.

“You know, I don’t think I saw your room last time,” she said, sipping her Coke.

“It’s a sty. Trust me, you don’t want to see it.” Not many girls had been inside my bedroom, and I didn’t want to go there with Annalea Gayle. Like I said, there was no one around. I was afraid once we got in there we’d never get out.

“It can’t be that bad. I swear I won’t rag on you about it.”

I took a deep breath, only Annalea was doing that thing where she stared at me so hard that I had to avert my eyes. “Okay, if you think you can handle it. Just don’t say I didn’t I warn you.” I led her down the hall and opened my door. The bed was crammed against the wall, with the covers thrown back and my black sweatpants rolled up in a ball on top of my pillow. My TV and laptop were both on top of the cluttered desk, my math binder open in front of them but half its contents spilled out on the carpet. I scooped the loose pages into my hand, yanked up my bedspread, and dropped the notes on the bed. A dozen video games camped out on the floor by my bookshelf, but I left them there, along with the Rocky T-shirt I’d worn to bed last night. My empty backpack was down there too, next to a pair of jeans that may or may not have had another day’s use left in them before I’d toss them into the laundry basket.

Annalea reached down and picked up a half-full glass of water from my nightstand. “So do you drink yourself to sleep every night?”

I smiled for her sake. Could we get out of my room already?

Annalea set her Coke gently on the nightstand along with my unfinished water. She held her arms at her sides like a soldier. “You don’t like me very much, do you?”

“What?” I frowned at her. “I like you fine.” You returned my hoodie and you have nice hair. Could we not do this?

“Right,” she scoffed. “That’s exactly what you say when you honestly like someone.” She pushed her arms up under her cleavage, making her breasts look even more gargantuan. “Is it because I’m fat?”

“You’re not fat.” I couldn’t help but notice her nipples jutting out because of the air conditioning. The longer I noticed the sharper they got.

“I guess you don’t mind fat girl boobs,” she snapped.

My head shot up. “You’re not fat.” Looking her in the eye was more awkward than facing her man-eating boobs. I should never have answered my cell.

“I’m not totally fat, but I know I’m not skinny.” Her breasts slumped as she unfolded her arms. Her cheeks were starting to flush pink, and her eyes might have been watering a bit, but then again, maybe not. “You already know I like you. How come you never gave me a chance?”

“I just …” I dug my thumbs into my jeans pockets and shrugged with my elbows. “I’m not looking for a girlfriend — it’s not you. It’s nothing personal.”

“Well.” Annalea sat down on the bed, which meant I was now staring directly down her top. Okay, she didn’t just have nice hair, she had nice breasts. I was starting to get hard looking at them, which was unfair because I still wanted her to leave. “I never said I was looking for a boyfriend. I mean, not a serious boyfriend anyway.”

She took my right hand and guided it to one of her breasts. It was more than a handful. I squeezed. I stroked. I moved my fingers around it. But mainly, I stared. I didn’t feel guilty enough about not liking her to stop, especially when she wriggled her top off and unsnapped her bra. I sat down on the bed and Frenched her. She was a good kisser. She didn’t jam her tongue down my throat like the last girl I’d kissed, and she didn’t ruin it by trying to talk.

I molded a hand around each breast, the tent in my pants reaching serious proportions. I didn’t think it would be fair to take things any further, but I wasn’t ready to quit yet, either. And then — shit, this was bad — and then my mother was standing in the open doorway with her sunglasses clinging to the top of her head. Her mouth fell open, a gasp of air escaping. Her hand shot towards the doorknob. She slammed the door shut so hard that a framed photograph of my dad at the top of my shelving unit collapsed.

“Lucan!” she exclaimed from the other side. “I … I want to talk to you. Meet me in the kitchen as soon as possible.” Someone laughed enthusiastically from behind her. Fan-fucking-tastic. Julian Caravello, the guy who sent my mother’s bed squeaking, was now an eyewitness to my limited sex life. If she really needed a boyfriend she could’ve at least picked someone her own age, someone quiet and intelligent, like a university professor or a dentist, not someone with a gorilla laugh like Julian Caravello’s.

“Al-riiight!” I shouted aggressively to make up for the humiliation.

Beside me Annalea was turning twenty different shades of red. She dove back into her bra and locked her man-eating breasts in. “I’m going to die of embarrassment,” she cried, yanking her top over her head. “I can’t believe your mom saw that. O'God. O'God. What is she going to do to us? I can’t believe it! And who was that laughing? OH. MY. GOD.”

“You should just go,” I said, watching her chest heave. “I’ll deal with it. Don’t worry.” I touched her arm like we were in this together, which was a lie because Annalea was the only one leaving. I’d have to face Julian on a regular basis until he and Mom burned out their “romance” and broke up. It was bound to tank sometime, but as far as I was concerned it couldn’t happen soon enough.

“Okay.” Annalea fluttered her eyelashes in gratitude. “But walk me out, Lucan. I’m not leaving this bedroom on my own.”

I walked her all the way to the front door without running into a soul, and when we got there Annalea jumped towards me and kissed me quick. “Call me, okay?”


“Okay,” I agreed. I didn’t want to lie, but I needed her to go. What I really needed was to have resisted the temptation to squeeze her boobs in the first place, but since I’d flunked that one I at least needed her to go.

I staggered to the kitchen, cursing myself. Mom was sitting at the table with her purse down at her feet. She stroked her face as she watched me. “Who was that?” she asked. “Have I met her before?”

“She was here a while back, working on a project.” I pulled a chair away from the table and sat on it. I didn’t know how long the conversation would go on, but I might as well be comfortable.

Mom nodded slowly, thinking that over. “Does she know about your allergy?”

The entire school population knew about my peanut allergy. I was one of those kids who grew up bringing his own food to parties in a plastic container. My parents went practically everywhere with me until I was twelve. I was taught to read labels with the same attention that other people gave scripture. I never left the house without my auto-injector.

“She knows,” I said. But I’d never thought to ask Annalea if she’d eaten any peanut products recently. I didn’t know we were going to kiss until the second it happened.

“You know you have to stay on top of that,” Mom said. “If you kiss someone who’s just eaten a peanut butter sandwich or a cookie or whatever else, there’s a possibility you could bring on anaphylaxis. I know you’re aware of that. This is just a reminder.”

“I know, Mom. I’m careful, okay?”

“So careful that you left your bedroom door open.” Mom smirked. The incident would’ve netted most people my age a safe sex lecture, but we were still stuck on allergies. That’s life when something as small as a peanut can bring you to your knees.

I had my only anaphylactic reaction when I was three years old, after eating a couple of homemade chocolate peanut butter cups. I don’t remember it. My parents said my entire face swelled up, even my tongue. I couldn’t breathe. I was coughing and choking, and then I threw up in my mother’s hair. My dad drove through every red light on our way to the hospital, and the ER people saved my life. It’s terrifying when you think about it.

I’d had other reactions since then, but none as bad as that. I was lucky not to be touch or smell reactive, and my allergy had gotten less severe with age. Still, it wasn’t worth taking chances, and most of the time I tried not to. I questioned waiters and fast food cashiers. Mostly. I didn’t eat stuff if I didn’t know what was in it. Mostly. And mostly I didn’t make out with girls I didn’t really like just because they’d returned my hoodie.

“Where’s Julian?” I asked. “He scared Annalea with his mountain gorilla laugh.”

“Annalea?” Mom repeated. “That’s her name? She didn’t have to dash off.” Mom lowered her chin and arched her eyebrows. “Julian’s a perfectly nice guy. Why do you feel the need to make fun of him?”

“I don’t get why he has to be here all the time.” I hooked my foot under the chair opposite me. “He’s taking up valuable space.”

“He’s not here that often. Maybe once a week.”

I laughed and shook my head. “You know a week’s made up of seven days, right?”

“I didn’t realize you were keeping score.” Mom’s top lip twitched. I wished we hadn’t started down that road. I scraped the chair towards me with my foot, and Mom said, “I live here too, Lucan. You’re not the only one who can have friends over.”

If that was the trade-off, I’d rather not, but I didn’t want to talk about it anymore. I went to Michael’s room and lay down on the bed he hadn’t slept in since April. If I were the older one I’d have been backpacking my way through Europe now instead of him. Europe was spacious. There’d be no end to the places you could escape to, not one of them within laughing distance of my mother and her mountain gorilla.