Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Paper Towns - Agloe

The speed limit drops from fifty-five to forty-five and then to thirty-five. We cross some railroad
tracks, and we’re in Roscoe. We drive slowly through a sleepy downtown with a café, a clothing store,
a dollar store, and a couple boarded-up storefronts.
I lean forward and say, “I can imagine her in there.”
“Yeah,” Ben allows. “Man, I really don’t want to break into buildings. I don’t think I would do well
in New York prisons.”
The thought of exploring these buildings doesn’t strike me as particularly scary, though, since the
whole town seems deserted. Nothing’s open here. Past downtown, a single road bisects the highway,
and on that road sits Roscoe’s lone neighborhood and an elementary school. Modest wood-frame houses
are dwarfed by the trees, which grow thick and tall here.
We turn onto a different highway, and the speed limit goes back up incrementally, but Radar is driving
slowly anyway. We haven’t gone a mile when we see a dirt road on our left with no street sign to
tell us its name.
“This may be it,” I say.
“That’s a driveway,” Ben answers, but Radar turns in anyway. But it does seem to be a driveway,
actually, cut into the hard-packed dirt. To our left, uncut grass grows as high as the tires; I don’t see
anything, although I worry that it’d be easy for a person to hide anywhere in that field. We drive for a
while and the road dead-ends into a Victorian farmhouse. We turn around and head back up the two-lane
highway, farther north. The highway turns into Cat Hollow Road, and we drive until we see a dirt road
identical to the previous one, this time on the right side of the street, leading to a crumbling barnlike
structure with grayed wood. Huge cylindrical bales of hay line the fields on either side of us, but the
grass has begun to grow up again. Radar drives no faster than five miles an hour. We are looking for
something unusual. Some crack in the perfectly idyllic landscape.
“Do you think that could have been the Agloe General Store?” I ask.
“That barn?”
“I dunno,” Radar says. “Did general stores look like barns?”
I blow a long breath from between pursed lips. “Dunno.”
“Is that—shit, that’s her car!” Lacey shouts next to me. “Yes yes yes yes yes her car her car!”
Radar stops the minivan as I follow Lacey’s finger back across the field, behind the building. A glint
of silver. Leaning down so my face is next to hers, I can see the arc of the car’s roof. God knows how it
got there, since no road leads in that direction.
Radar pulls over, and I jump out and run back toward her car. Empty. Unlocked. I pop the trunk.
Empty, too, except for an open and empty suitcase. I look around, and take off toward what I now believe
to be the remnants of Agloe’s General Store. Ben and Radar pass me as I run through the mown
field. We enter the barn not through a door but through one of several gaping holes where the wooden
wall has simply fallen away.
Inside the building, the sun lights up segments of the rotting wooden floor through the many holes in
the roof. As I look for her, I register things: the soggy floorboards. The smell of almonds, like her. An
old claw-footed bathtub in a corner. So many holes everywhere that this place is simultaneously inside
and outside.
I feel someone pull hard on my shirt. I spin my head and see Ben, his eyes shooting back and forth
between me and a corner of the room. I have to look past a wide beam of bright white light shining
down from the ceiling, but I can see into that corner. Two long panes of chest-high, dirty, gray-tinted
Plexiglas lean against each other at an acute angle, held up on the other side by the wooden wall. It’s a
triangular cubicle, if such a thing is possible.
And here’s the thing about tinted windows: the light still gets through. So I can see the jarring scene,
albeit in gray scale: Margo Roth Spiegelman sits in a black leather office chair, hunched over a school
desk, writing. Her hair is much shorter— she has choppy bangs above her eyebrows and everything is
mussed-up, as if to emphasize the asymmetry—but it is her. She is alive. She has relocated her offices
from an abandoned mini-mall in Florida to an abandoned barn in New York, and I have found her.
We walk toward Margo, all four of us, but she doesn’t seem to see us. She just keeps writing. Finally,
someone—Radar, maybe—says, “Margo. Margo?”
She stands up on her tiptoes, her hands resting atop the makeshift cubicle’s walls. If she is surprised
to see us, her eyes do not give it away. Here is Margo Roth Spiegelman, five feet away from me, her
lips chapped to cracking, makeup-less, dirt in her fingernails, her eyes silent. I’ve never seen her eyes
dead like that, but then again, maybe I’ve never seen her eyes before. She stares at me. I feel certain she
is staring at me and not at Lacey or Ben or Radar. I haven’t felt so stared at since Robert Joyner’s dead
eyes watched me in Jefferson Park.
She stands there in silence for a long time, and I am too scared of her eyes to keep walking forward.
“I and this mystery here we stand,” Whitman wrote.
Finally, she says, “Give me like five minutes,” and then sits back down and resumes her writing.
I watch her write. Except for being a little grimy, she looks like she has always looked. I don’t know
why, but I always thought she would look different. Older. That I would barely recognize her when I
finally saw her again. But there she is, and I am watching her through the Plexiglas, and she looks like
Margo Roth Spiegelman, this girl I have known since I was two—this girl who was an idea that I loved.
And it is only now, when she closes her notebook and places it inside a backpack next to her and
then stands up and walks toward us, that I realize that the idea is not only wrong but dangerous. What a
treacherous thing it is to believe that a person is more than a person.
“Hey,” she says to Lacey, smiling. She hugs Lacey first, then shakes Ben’s hand, then Radar’s. She
raises her eyebrows and says, “Hi, Q,” and then hugs me, quickly and not hard. I want to hold on. I want
an event. I want to feel her heaving sobs against my chest, tears running down her dusty cheeks onto my
shirt. But she just hugs me quickly and sits down on the floor. I sit down across from her, with Ben and
Radar and Lacey following in a line, so that we are all facing Margo.
“It’s good to see you,” I say after a while, feeling like I’m breaking a silent prayer.
She pushes her bangs to the side. She seems to be deciding exactly what to say before she says it. “I,
uh. Uh. I’m rarely at a loss for words, huh? Not much talking to people lately. Um. I guess maybe we
should start with, what the hell are you doing here?”
“Margo,” Lacey says. “Christ, we were so worried.”
“No need to worry,” Margo answers cheerfully. “I’m good.” She gives us two thumbs-up. “I am AOK.”
“You could have called us and let us know that,” Ben says, his voice tinged with frustration. “Saved
us a hell of a drive.”
“In my experience, Bloody Ben, when you leave a place, it’s best to leave. Why are you wearing a
dress, by the way?”
Ben blushes. “Don’t call him that,” Lacey snaps.
Margo cuts a look at Lacey. “Oh, my God, are you hooking up with him?” Lacey says nothing.
“You’re not actually hooking up with him,” Margo says.
“Actually, yes,” Lacey says. “And actually he’s great. And actually you’re a bitch. And actually, I’m
leaving. It’s nice to see you again, Margo. Thanks for terrifying me and making me feel like shit for the
entire last month of my senior year, and then being a bitch when we track you down to make sure you’re
okay. It’s been a real pleasure knowing you.”
“You, too. I mean, without you, how would I have ever known how fat I was?” Lacey gets up and
stomps off, her footfalls vibrating through the crumbling floor. Ben follows. I look over, and Radar has
stood up, too.
“I never knew you until I got to know you through your clues,” he says. “I like the clues more than I
like you.”
“What the hell is he talking about?” Margo asks me. Radar doesn’t answer. He just leaves.
I should, too, of course. They’re my friends—more than Margo, certainly. But I have questions. As
Margo stands and starts to walk back toward her cubicle, I start with the obvious one. “Why are you
acting like such a brat?”
She spins around and grabs a fistful of my shirt and shouts into my face, “Where do you get off
showing up here without any kind of warning?!”
“How could I have warned you when you completely dropped off the face of the planet?!” I see a
long blink and know she has no response for this, so I keep going. I’m so pissed at her. For . . . for, I
don’t know. Not being the Margo I had expected her to be. Not being the Margo I thought I had finally
imagined correctly. “I thought for sure there was a good reason why you never got in touch with anyone
after that night. And . . . this is your good reason? So you can live like a bum?”
She lets go of my shirt and pushes away from me. “Now who’s being a brat? I left the only way you
can leave. You pull your life off all at once—like a Band-Aid. And then you get to be you and Lace gets
to be Lace and everybody gets to be everybody and I get to be me.”
“Except I didn’t get to be me, Margo, because I thought you were dead. For the longest time. So I
had to do all kinds of crap that I would never do.”
She screams at me now, pulling herself up by my shirt so she can get in my face. “Oh, bullshit. You
didn’t come here to make sure I was okay. You came here because you wanted to save poor little Margo
from her troubled little self, so that I would be oh-so-thankful to my knight in shining armor that I would
strip my clothes off and beg you to ravage my body.”
“Bullshit!” I shout, which it mostly is. “You were just playing with us, weren’t you? You just wanted
to make sure that even after you left to go have your fun, you were still the axis we spun around.”
She’s screaming back, louder than I thought possible. “You’re not even pissed at me, Q! You’re
pissed at this idea of me you keep inside your brain from when we were little!”
She tries to turn away from me, but I grab her shoulders and hold her in front of me and say, “Did
you ever even think about what your leaving meant? About Ruthie? About me or Lacey or any of the
other people who cared about you? No. Of course you didn’t. Because if it doesn’t happen to you, it
doesn’t happen at all. Isn’t that it, Margo? Isn’t it?”
She doesn’t fight me now. She just slumps her shoulders, turns, and walks back to her office. She
kicks down both of the Plexiglas walls, and they clamor against the desk and chair before sliding onto
“Okay,” I say. Something about Margo completely losing her temper allows me to regain mine. I try
to talk like my mom. “I’ll shut up. We’re both upset. Lots of, uh, unresolved issues on my side.”
She sits down in the desk chair, her feet on what had been the wall of her office. She’s looking into
a corner of the barn. At least ten feet between us. “How the hell did you even find me?”
“I thought you wanted us to,” I answer. My voice is so small I’m surprised she even hears me, but
she spins the chair to glare at me.
“I sure as shit did not.”
“‘Song of Myself,’” I say. “Guthrie took me to Whitman. Whitman took me to the door. The door
took me to the mini-mall. We figured out how to read the painted-over graffiti. I didn’t understand ‘paper
towns’; it can also mean subdivisions that never got built, and so I thought you had gone to one
and were never coming back. I thought you were dead in one of these places, that you had killed yourself
and wanted me to find you for whatever reason. So I went to a bunch of them, looking for you.
But then I matched the map in the gift shop to the thumbtack holes. I started reading the poem more
closely, figured out you weren’t running probably, just holed up, planning. Writing in that notebook. I
found Agloe from the map, saw your comment on the talk page of Omnictionary, skipped graduation,
and drove here.”
She brushes her hair down, but it isn’t long enough to fall over her face anymore. “I hate this haircut,”
she says. “I wanted to look different, but—it looks ridiculous.”
“I like it,” I say. “It frames your face nicely.”
“I’m sorry I was being so bitchy,” she says. “You just have to understand—I mean, you guys walk
in here out of nowhere and you scare the shit out of me—”
“You could have just said, like, ‘Guys, you are scaring the shit out of me,’” I said.
She scoffs. “Yeah, right, ’cause that’s the Margo Roth Spiegelman everybody knows and loves.”
Margo is quiet for a moment, and then says, “I knew I shouldn’t have said that on Omnictionary. I just
thought it would be funny for them to find it later. I thought the cops might trace it somehow, but not
soon enough. There’s like a billion pages on Omnictionary or whatever. I never thought . . .”
“I thought about you a lot, to answer your question. And Ruthie. And my parents. Of course, okay?
Maybe I am the most horribly self-centered person in the history of the world. But God, do you think I
would have done it if I didn’t need to?” She shakes her head. Now, finally, she leans toward me, elbows
on knees, and we are talking. At a distance, but still. “I couldn’t figure out any other way that I could
leave without getting dragged back.”
“I’m happy you’re not dead,” I say to her.
“Yeah. Me, too,” she says. She smirks, and it’s the first time I’ve seen that smile I have spent so
much time missing. “That’s why I had to leave. As much as life can suck, it always beats the alternative.”
My phone rings. It’s Ben. I answer it.
“Lacey wants to talk to Margo,” he tells me.
I walk over to Margo, hand her the phone, and linger there as she sits with her shoulders hunched,
listening. I can hear the noises coming through the phone, and then I hear Margo cut her off and say,
“Listen, I’m really sorry. I was just so scared.” And then silence. Lacey starts talking again finally, and
Margo laughs, and says something. I feel like they should have some privacy, so I do some exploring.
Against the same wall as the office, but in the opposite corner of the barn, Margo has set up a kind of
bed—four forklift pallets beneath an orange air mattress. Her small, neatly folded collection of clothes
sits next to the bed on a pallet of its own. There’s a toothbrush and toothpaste, along with a large plastic
cup from Subway. Those items sit atop two books: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and Slaughterhouse-
Five by Kurt Vonnegut. I can’t believe she’s been living like this, this irreconcilable mix of tidy suburbanality
and creepy decay. But then again, I can’t believe how much time I wasted believing she was
living any other way.
“They’re staying at a motel in the park. Lace said to tell you they’re leaving in the morning, with or
without you,” Margo says from behind me. It is when she says you and not us that I think for the first
time of what comes after this.
“I’m mostly self-sufficient,” she says, standing next to me now. “There’s an outhouse here, but it’s
not in great shape, so I usually go to the bathroom at this truck stop east of Roscoe. They have showers
there, too, and the girls’ shower is pretty clean because there aren’t a lot of female truckers. Plus, they
have Internet there. It’s like this is my house, and the truck stop is my beach house.” I laugh.
She walks past me and kneels down, looking inside the pallets beneath the bed. She pulls out a flashlight
and a square, thin piece of plastic. “These are the only two things I’ve purchased in the whole
month except gas and food. I’ve only spent about three hundred dollars.” I take the square thing from
her and finally realize that it’s a battery-powered record player. “I brought a couple albums,” she says.
“I’m gonna get more in the City, though.”
“The City?”
“Yeah. I’m leaving for New York City today. Hence the Omnictionary thing. I’m going to start really
traveling. Originally, this was the day I was going to leave Orlando—I was going to go to graduation
and then do all of these elaborate pranks on graduation night with you, and then I was going to leave
the next morning. But I just couldn’t take it anymore. I seriously could not take it for one more hour.
And when I heard about Jase—I was like, ‘I have it all planned; I’m just changing the day.’ I’m sorry I
scared you, though. I was trying not to scare you, but that last part was so rushed. Not my best work.”
As dashed-together escape plans replete with clues go, I thought it was pretty impressive. But mostly
I was surprised that she’d wanted me involved in her original plan, too. “Maybe you’ll fill me in,” I
said, managing a smile. “I have, you know, been wondering. What was planned and what wasn’t? What
meant what? Why the clues went to me, why you left, that kind of thing.”
“Um, okay. Okay. For that story, we have to start with a different story.” She gets up and I follow
her footsteps as she nimbly avoids the rotting patches of floor. Returning to her office, she digs into the
backpack and pulls out the black moleskin notebook. She sits down on the floor, her legs crossed, and
pats a patch of wood next to her. I sit. She taps the closed book. “So this,” she says, “this goes back a
long way. When I was in, like, fourth grade, I started writing a story in this notebook. It was kind of a
detective story.”
I think that if I grab this book from her, I can use it as blackmail. I can use it to get her back to Orlando,
and she can get a summer job and live in an apartment till college starts, and at least we’ll have
the summer. But I just listen.
“I mean, I don’t like to brag, but this is an unusually brilliant piece of literature. Just kidding. It’s the
retarded wish-fulfilling magical-thinking ramblings of ten-year-old me. It stars this girl, named Margo
Spiegelman, who is just like ten-year-old me in every way except her parents are nice and rich and buy
her anything she wants. Margo has a crush on this boy named Quentin, who is just like you in every
way except all fearless and heroic and willing to die to protect me and everything. Also, it stars Myrna
Mountweazel, who is exactly like Myrna Mountweazel except with magical powers. Like, for example,
in the story, anyone who pets Myrna Mountweazel finds it impossible to tell a lie for ten minutes. Also,
she can talk. Of course she can talk. Has a ten-year-old ever written a book about a dog that can’t talk?”
I laugh, but I’m still thinking about ten-year-old Margo having a crush on ten-year-old me.
“So, in the story,” she continues, “Quentin and Margo and Myrna Mountweazel are investigating the
death of Robert Joyner, whose death is exactly like his real-life death except instead of having obviously
shot himself in the face, someone else shot him in the face. And the story is about us finding out who
did it.”
“Who did it?”
She laughs. “You want me to spoil the entire story for you?”
“Well,” I say, “I’d rather read it.” She pulls open the book and shows me a page. The writing is indecipherable,
not because Margo’s handwriting is bad, but because on top of the horizontal lines of text,
writing also goes vertically down the page. “I write crosshatch,” she says. “Very hard for non-Margo
readers to decode. So, okay, I’m going to spoil the story for you, but first you have to promise not to get
“Promise,” I say.
“It turns out that the crime was committed by Robert Joyner’s alcoholic ex-wife’s sister’s brother,
who was insane because he’d been possessed by the spirit of an evil ancient Egyptian house cat. Like
I said, really top-notch storytelling. But anyway, in the story, you and me and Myrna Mountweazel go
and confront the killer, and he tries to shoot me, but you jump in front of the bullet, and you die very
heroically in my arms.”
I laugh. “Great. This story was all promising with the beautiful girl who has a crush on me and the
mystery and the intrigue, and then I get whacked.”
“Well, yeah.” She smiles. “But I had to kill you, because the only other possible ending was us doing
it, which I wasn’t really emotionally ready to write about at ten.”
“Fair enough,” I say. “But in the revision, I want to get some action.”
“After you get shot up by the bad guy, maybe. A kiss before dying.”
“How kind of you.” I could stand up and go to her and kiss her. I could. But there is still too much to
be ruined.
“So anyway, I finished this story in fifth grade. A few years later, I decide I’m going to run away to
Mississippi. And then I write all my plans for this epic event into this notebook on top of the old story,
and then I finally do it—take Mom’s car and put a thousand miles on it and leave these clues in the soup.
I didn’t even like the road trip, really—it was incredibly lonely— but I love having done it, right? So
I start crosshatching more schemes—pranks and ideas for matching up certain girls with certain guys
and huge TPing campaigns and more secret road trips and whatever else. The notebook is half full by
the start of junior year, and that’s when I decide that I’m going to do one more thing, one big thing, and
then leave.”
She’s about to start talking again, but I have to stop her. “I guess I’m wondering if it was the place
or the people. Like, what if the people around you had been different?”
“How can you separate those things, though? The people are the place is the people. And anyway, I
didn’t think there was anybody else to be friends with. I thought everyone was either scared, like you,
or oblivious, like Lacey. And th—”
“I’m not as scared as you think,” I say. Which is true. I only realize it’s true after saying it. But still.
“I’m getting to that,” she says, almost whiningly. “So when I’m a freshman, Gus takes me to the
Osprey—” I tilt my head, confused. “The minimall. And I start going there by myself all the time, just
hanging out and writing plans. And by last year, all the plans started to be about this last escape. And I
don’t know if it’s because I was reading my old story as I went, but I put you into the plans early on. The
idea was that we were going to do all these things together—like break into SeaWorld, that was in the
original plan—and I was going to push you toward being a badass. This one night would, like, liberate
you. And then I could disappear and you’d always remember me for that.
“So this plan eventually gets like seventy pages long, and then it’s about to happen, and the plan has
come together really well.
But then I find out about Jase, and I just decide to leave. Immediately. I don’t need to graduate.
What’s the point of graduating? But first I have to tie up loose ends. So all that day in school I have my
notebook out, and I’m trying like crazy to adapt the plan to Becca and Jase and Lacey and everyone who
wasn’t a friend to me like I thought they were, trying to come up with ideas for letting everyone know
just how pissed off I am before I ditch them forever.
“But I still wanted to do it with you; I still liked that idea of maybe being able to create in you at
least an echo of the kick-ass hero of my little-kid story.
“And then you surprise me,” she says. “You had been a paper boy to me all these years—two dimensions
as a character on the page and two different, but still flat, dimensions as a person. But that night
you turned out to be real. And it ends up being so odd and fun and magical that I go back to my room in
the morning and I just miss you. I want to come over and hang out and talk, but I’ve already decided to
leave, so I have to leave. And then at the last second, I have this idea to will you the Osprey. To leave it
for you so that it can help you make even further progress in the field of not-being-such-a-scaredy-cat.
“So, yeah. That’s it. I come up with something real quick. Tape the Woody poster to the back of the
blinds, circle the song on the record, highlight those two lines from “Song of Myself” in a different color
than I’d highlighted stuff when I was actually reading it. Then after you leave for school, I climb in
through your window and put the scrap of newspaper in your door. Then I go to the Osprey that morning,
partly because I just don’t feel ready to leave yet, and partly because I want to clean the place up
for you. I mean, the thing is, I didn’t want you to worry. That’s why I painted over the graffiti; I didn’t
know you’d be able to see through it. I ripped off the pages of the desk calendar I’d been using, and I
took down the map, too, which I’d had up there ever since I saw that it contained Agloe. Then because
I’m tired and don’t have anyplace to go, I sleep there. I end up there for two nights, actually, just trying
to get my courage up, I guess. And also, I don’t know, I thought maybe you would find it really quickly
somehow. Then I go. Took two days to get here. I’ve been here since.”
She seemed finished, but I had one more question. “And why here of all places?”
“A paper town for a paper girl,” she says. “I read about Agloe in this book of ‘amazing facts’ when I
was ten or eleven. And I never stopped thinking about it. The truth is that whenever I went up to the top
of the SunTrust Building—including that last time with you—I didn’t really look down and think about
how everything was made of paper. I looked down and thought about how I was made of paper. I was
the flimsy-foldable person, not everyone else. And here’s the thing about it. People love the idea of a
paper girl. They always have. And the worst thing is that I loved it, too. I cultivated it, you know?
“Because it’s kind of great, being an idea that everybody likes. But I could never be the idea to myself,
not all the way. And Agloe is a place where a paper creation became real. A dot on the map became
a real place, more real than the people who created the dot could ever have imagined. I thought maybe
the paper cutout of a girl could start becoming real here also. And it seemed like a way to tell that paper
girl who cared about popularity and clothes and everything else: ‘You are going to the paper towns. And
you are never coming back.’”
“That graffiti,” I said. “God, Margo, I walked through so many of those abandoned subdivisions
looking for your body. I really thought—I really thought you were dead.”
She gets up and searches around her backpack for a moment, and then reaches over and grabs The
Bell Jar, and reads to me.
“‘But when it came right down to it, the skin of my wrist looked so white and defenseless that I
couldn’t do it. It was as if what I wanted to kill wasn’t in that skin or the thin blue pulse that jumped under
my thumb, but somewhere else, deeper, more secret, and a whole lot harder to get at.’” She sits back
down next to me, close, facing me, the fabric of our jeans touching without our knees actually touching.
Margo says, “I know what she’s talking about. The something deeper and more secret. It’s like cracks
inside of you. Like there are these fault lines where things don’t meet up right.”
“I like that,” I say. “Or it’s like cracks in the hull of a ship.”
“Right, right.”
“Brings you down eventually.”
“Exactly,” she says. We’re talking back and forth so fast now.
“I can’t believe you didn’t want me to find you.”
“Sorry. If it makes you feel any better, I’m impressed. Also, it’s nice to have you here. You’re a good
traveling companion.”
“Is that a proposal?” I ask.
“Maybe.” She smiles.
My heart has been fluttering around my chest for so long now that this variety of intoxication almost
seems sustainable—but only almost. “Margo, if you just come home for the summer— my parents said
you can live with us, or you can get a job and an apartment for the summer, and then school will start,
and you’ll never have to live with your parents again.”
“It’s not just them. I’d get sucked right back in,” she says, “and I’d never get out. It’s not just the
gossip and the parties and all that crap, but the whole allure of a life rightly lived—college and job and
husband and babies and all that bullshit.”
The thing is that I do believe in college, and jobs, and maybe even babies one day. I believe in the
future. Maybe it’s a character flaw, but for me it is a congenital one. “But college expands your opportunities,”
I say finally. “It doesn’t limit them.”
She smirks. “Thank you, College Counselor Jacobsen,” she says, and then changes the subject. “I
kept thinking about you inside the Osprey. Whether you would get used to it. Stop worrying about the
“I did,” I say. “I started to like it there. I spent prom night there, actually.”
She smiles. “Awesome. I imagined you would like it eventually.
It never got boring in the Osprey, but that was because I had to go home at some point. When I got
here, I did get bored. There’s nothing to do; I’ve read so much since I got here. I got more and more
nervous here, too, not knowing anybody. And I kept waiting for that loneliness and nervousness to make
me want to go back. But it never did. It’s the one thing I can’t do, Q.”
I nod. I understand this. I imagine it is hard to go back once you’ve felt the continents in your palm.
But I still try one more time. “But what about after the summer? What about college? What about the
rest of your life?”
She shrugged. “What about it?”
“Aren’t you worried about, like, forever?”
“Forever is composed of nows,” she says. I have nothing to say to that; I am just chewing through it
when Margo says, “Emily Dickinson. Like I said, I’m doing a lot of reading.”
I think the future deserves our faith. But it is hard to argue with Emily Dickinson. Margo stands up,
slings her backpack over one shoulder, and reaches her hand down for me. “Let’s take a walk.” As we’re
walking outside, Margo asks for my phone. She punches in a number, and I start to walk away to let her
talk, but she grabs my forearm and keeps me with her. So I walk beside her out into the field as she talks
to her parents.
“Hey, it’s Margo. . . . I’m in Agloe, New York, with Quentin. . . . Uh. . . . well, no, Mom, I’m just
trying to think of a way to answer your question honestly. . . . Mom, come on. . . . I don’t know, Mom . .
. I decided to move to a fictitious place. That’s what happened. . . . Yeah, well, I don’t think I’m headed
that way, regardless. . . . Can I talk to Ruthie? . . . Hey, buddy. . . . Yeah, well, I loved you first. . . .
Yeah, I’m sorry. It was a mistake. I thought—I don’t know what I thought, Ruthie, but anyway it was a
mistake and I’ll call now. I may not call Mom, but I’ll call you. . . . Wednesdays? . . . You’re busy on
Wednesdays. Hmm. Okay. What’s a good day for you? . . . Tuesday it is. . . . Yeah, every Tuesday. .
. . Yeah, including this Tuesday.” Margo closes her eyes tight, her teeth clenched. “Okay, Ruthers, can
you put Mom back on? . . . I love you, Mom. I’ll be okay. I swear. . . . Yeah, okay, you, too. Bye.”
She stops walking and closes the phone but holds it a minute. I can see her fingertips pinkening with
the tightness of her grip, and then she drops it onto the ground. Her scream is short but deafening, and in
its wake I am aware for the first time of Agloe’s abject silence. “It’s like she thinks my job is to please
her, and that should be my dearest wish, and when I don’t please her—I get shut out. She changed the
locks. That’s the first thing she said. Jesus.”
“Sorry,” I say, pushing aside some knee-high yellow-green grass to pick up the phone. “Nice to talk
to Ruthie, though?”
“Yeah, she’s pretty adorable. I kind of hate myself for—you know—not talking to her.”
“Yeah,” I say. She shoves me playfully.
“You’re supposed to make me feel better, not worse!” she says. “That’s your whole gig!”
“I didn’t realize my job was to please you, Mrs. Spiegelman.”
She laughs. “Ooh, the Mom comparison. What a burn. But fair enough. So how have you been? If
Ben is dating Lacey, surely you are having nightly orgies with dozens of cheerleaders.”
We walk slowly through the uneven dirt of this field. It doesn’t look big, but as we walk, I realize that
we do not seem to be getting closer to the stand of trees in the distance. I tell her about leaving graduation,
about the miraculous spinning of the Dreidel. I tell her about prom, Lacey’s fight with Becca, and
my night in the Osprey. “That was the night I really knew you’d definitely been there,” I tell her. “That
blanket still smelled like you.”
And when I say that her hand brushes up against mine, and I just grab hers because it feels like there
is less to ruin now. She looks at me. “I had to leave. I didn’t have to scare you and that was stupid and I
should have done a better job leaving, but I did have to leave. Do you see that yet?”
“Yeah,” I say, “but I think you can come back now. I really do.”
“No, you don’t,” she answers, and she’s right. She can see it in my face—I understand now that I
can’t be her and she can’t be me. Maybe Whitman had a gift I don’t have. But as for me: I must ask the
wounded man where he is hurt, because I cannot become the wounded man. The only wounded man I
can be is me.
I stomp down some grass and sit. She lies down next to me, her backpack a pillow. I lay back, too. She
digs a couple of books out of her backpack and hands them to me so I can have a pillow, too. Selected
Poems of Emily Dickinson and Leaves of Grass. “I had two copies,” she says, smiling.
“It’s a hell of a good poem,” I tell her. “You couldn’t have picked a better one.”
“Really, it was an impulse decision that morning. I remembered the bit about the doors and thought
that was perfect. But then when I got here I reread it. I hadn’t read it since sophomore English, and yeah,
I liked it. I tried to read a bunch of poetry. I was trying to figure out—like, what was it that surprised me
about you that night? And for a long time I thought it was when you quoted T. S. Eliot.”
“But it wasn’t,” I say. “You were surprised by the size of my biceps and my graceful window-exiting.”
She smirks. “Shut up and let me compliment you, dillhole. It wasn’t the poetry or your biceps. What
surprised me was that, in spite of your anxiety attacks and everything, you were like the Quentin in my
story. I mean, I’ve been crosshatching over that story for years now, and whenever I write over it, I
also read that page, and I would always laugh, like—don’t get offended, but, like, ‘God I can’t believe
I used to think Quentin Jacobsen was like a superhot, superloyal defender of justice.’ But then—you
know—you kind of were.”
I could turn on my side, and she might turn on her side, too. And then we could kiss. But what’s
the point of kissing her now, anyway? It won’t go anywhere. We are both staring at the cloudless sky.
“Nothing ever happens like you imagine it will,” she says.
The sky is like a monochromatic contemporary painting, drawing me in with its illusion of depth,
pulling me up. “Yeah, that’s true,” I say. But then after I think about it for a second, I add, “But then
again, if you don’t imagine, nothing ever happens at all.” Imagining isn’t perfect. You can’t get all the
way inside someone else. I could never have imagined Margo’s anger at being found, or the story she
was writing over. But imagining being someone else, or the world being something else, is the only way
in. It is the machine that kills fascists.
She turns over toward me and puts her head onto my shoulder, and we lie there, as I long ago imagined
lying on the grass at SeaWorld. It has taken us thousands of miles and many days, but here we
are: her head on my shoulder, her breath on my neck, the fatigue thick inside both of us. We are now as
I wished we could be then.
When I wake up, the dying light of the day makes everything seem to matter, from the yellowing sky to
the stalks of grass above my head, waving in slow motion like a beauty queen. I roll onto my side and
see Margo Roth Spiegelman on her hands and knees a few feet from me, the jeans tight against her legs.
It takes me a moment to realize that she is digging. I crawl over to her and start to dig beside her, the
dirt beneath the grass dry as dust in my fingers. She smiles at me. My heart beats at the speed of sound.
“What are we digging to?” I ask her.
“That’s not the right question,” she says. “The question is, Who are we digging for?”
“Okay, then. Who are we digging for?”
“We are digging graves for Little Margo and Little Quentin and puppy Myrna Mountweazel and
poor dead Robert Joyner,” she says.
“I can get behind those burials, I think,” I say. The dirt is clumpy and dry, drilled through with the
paths of insects like an abandoned ant farm. We dig our bare hands into the ground over and over again,
each fistful of earth accompanied by a little cloud of dust. We dig the hole wide and deep. This grave
must be proper. Soon I’m reaching in as deep as my elbows. The sleeve of my shirt gets dusty when I
wipe the sweat from my cheek. Margo’s cheeks are reddening. I can smell her, and she smells like that
night right before we jumped into the moat at SeaWorld.
“I never really thought of him as a real person,” she says.
When she speaks, I take the opportunity to take a break, and sit back on my haunches. “Who, Robert
She keeps digging. “Yeah. I mean, he was something that happened to me, you know? But before he
was this minor figure in the drama of my life, he was—you know, the central figure in the drama of his
own life.”
I have never really thought of him as a person, either. A guy who played in the dirt like me. A guy
who fell in love like me. A guy whose strings were broken, who didn’t feel the root of his leaf of grass
connected to the field, a guy who was cracked. Like me. “Yeah,” I say after a while as I return to digging.
“He was always just a body to me.”
“I wish we could have done something,” she says. “I wish we could have proven how heroic we
“Yeah,” I say. “It would have been nice to tell him that, whatever it was, that it didn’t have to be the
end of the world.”
“Yeah, although in the end something kills you.”
I shrug. “Yeah, I know. I’m not saying that everything is survivable. Just that everything except the
last thing is.” I dig my hand in again, the dirt here so much blacker than back home. I toss a handful
into the pile behind us, and sit back. I feel on the edge of an idea, and I try to talk my way into it. I have
never spoken this many words in a row to Margo in our long and storied relationship, but here it is, my
last play for her.
“When I’ve thought about him dying—which admittedly isn’t that much—I always thought of it like
you said, that all the strings inside him broke. But there are a thousand ways to look at it: maybe the
strings break, or maybe our ships sink, or maybe we’re grass—our roots so interdependent that no one
is dead as long as someone is still alive. We don’t suffer from a shortage of metaphors, is what I mean.
But you have to be careful which metaphor you choose, because it matters. If you choose the strings,
then you’re imagining a world in which you can become irreparably broken. If you choose the grass,
you’re saying that we are all infinitely interconnected, that we can use these root systems not only to understand
one another but to become one another. The metaphors have implications. Do you know what
I mean?”
She nods.
“I like the strings. I always have. Because that’s how it feels. But the strings make pain seem more
fatal than it is, I think. We’re not as frail as the strings would make us believe. And I like the grass, too.
The grass got me to you, helped me to imagine you as an actual person. But we’re not different sprouts
from the same plant. I can’t be you. You can’t be me. You can imagine another well—but never quite
perfectly, you know?
“Maybe it’s more like you said before, all of us being cracked open. Like, each of us starts out as
a watertight vessel. And these things happen—these people leave us, or don’t love us, or don’t get us,
or we don’t get them, and we lose and fail and hurt one another. And the vessel starts to crack open in
places. And I mean, yeah, once the vessel cracks open, the end becomes inevitable. Once it starts to rain
inside the Osprey, it will never be remodeled. But there is all this time between when the cracks start to
open up and when we finally fall apart. And it’s only in that time that we can see one another, because
we see out of ourselves through our cracks and into others through theirs. When did we see each other
face-to-face? Not until you saw into my cracks and I saw into yours. Before that, we were just looking
at ideas of each other, like looking at your window shade but never seeing inside. But once the vessel
cracks, the light can get in. The light can get out.”
She raises her fingers to her lips, as if concentrating, or as if hiding her mouth from me, or as if to
feel the words she speaks. “You’re pretty something,” she says finally. She stares at me, my eyes and
her eyes and nothing between them. I have nothing to gain from kissing her. But I am no longer looking
to gain anything. “There’s something I have to do,” I say, and she nods very slightly, as if she knows
the something, and I kiss her.
It ends quite a while later when she says, “You can come to New York. It will be fun. It will be like
And I say, “Kissing is pretty something.”
And she says, “You’re saying no.”
And I say, “Margo, I have a whole life there, and I’m not you, and I—” But I can’t say anything
because she kisses me again, and it’s in the moment that she kisses me that I know without question that
we’re headed in different directions. She stands up and walks over to where we were sleeping, to her
backpack. She pulls out the moleskin notebook, walks back to the grave, and places it in the ground.
“I’ll miss you,” she whispers, and I don’t know if she’s talking to me or to the notebook. Nor do I
know to whom I’m talking when I say, “As will I.”
“Godspeed, Robert Joyner,” I say, and drop a handful of dirt onto the notebook.
“Godspeed, young and heroic Quentin Jacobsen,” she says, tossing in dirt of her own.
Another handful as I say, “Godspeed, fearless Orlandoan Margo Roth Spiegelman.”
And another as she says, “Godspeed, magical puppy Myrna Mountweazel.” We shove the dirt over
the book, tamping down the disturbed soil. The grass will grow back soon enough. It will be for us the
beautiful uncut hair of graves.
We hold hands rough with dirt as we walk back to the Agloe General Store. I help Margo carry her
belongings—an armful of clothes, her toiletries, and the desk chair—to her car. The preciousness of the
moment, which should make it easier to talk, makes it harder.
We’re standing outside in the parking lot of a single-story motel when the good-byes become unavoidable.
“I’m gonna get a cell, and I’ll call you,” she says. “And email. And post mysterious statements
on Omnictionary’s Paper Towns talk page.”
I smile. “I’ll email you when we get home,” I say, “and I expect a response.”
“You have my word. And I’ll see you. We’re not done seeing each other.”
“At the end of the summer, maybe, I can meet you somewhere before school,” I say.
“Yeah,” she says. “Yeah, that’s a good idea.” I smile and nod. She turns away, and I am wondering
if she means any of it when I see her shoulders collapse. She is crying.
“I’ll see you then. And I’ll write in the meantime,” I say.
“Yes,” she says without turning around, her voice thick. “I’ll write you, too.”
It is saying these things that keeps us from falling apart. And maybe by imagining these futures we
can make them real, and maybe not, but either way we must imagine them. The light rushes out and
floods in.
I stand in this parking lot, realizing that I’ve never been this far from home, and here is this girl I love
and cannot follow. I hope this is the hero’s errand, because not following her is the hardest thing I’ve
ever done.
I keep thinking she will get into the car, but she doesn’t, and she finally turns around to me and I see
her soaked eyes. The physical space between us evaporates. We play the broken strings of our instruments
one last time.
I feel her hands on my back. And it is dark as I kiss her, but I have my eyes open and so does Margo.
She is close enough to me that I can see her, because even now there is the outward sign of the invisible
light, even at night in this parking lot on the outskirts of Agloe. After we kiss, our foreheads touch as
we stare at each other. Yes, I can see her almost perfectly in this cracked darkness.


Post a Comment