Author's Note: This was uncalled for.
DALTON: Yes, it was.
But, since it was my dearest darlingest and fellow genius SATURDAY'S birthday, I had to. And Racetrack, eventually, will recover.
DALTON: Or, at least, that's what we hope. Because he's been in the closet of a while now and—
He'll be fine. And now…
DALTON: ((pelts Saturday with enormous meatballs.)) HAPPY BIRTHDAY!
RACETRACK ((from inside the closet)): FIGLIO DI PUTTANA! ((CRASH))
DALTON: He's trying on your shoes again.
I choose not to think about it.
…and now, on with the fic!
"Princesse Hereuse est mon amante"
--graffiti in the Paris métro
At four a.m. on a Wednesday morning, in the small hours of a cold winter's day, New York City was the closest that it ever came to being peaceful. Waitresses, security guards, nightclub singers and strippers from across the river shrugged on their coats and took the long way home, dreaming their own dreams in the sodium light of the subway, home to a thousand unquiet souls, or piled into taxicabs, two-to-a-seat, to save cash; taxicab drivers, between commissions, called their families from pay phones in coffee shops and bard, talked to their grown sons, pregnant wives, boyfriends, and mothers. Police cars patrolled the streets; in the twenty-seventh precinct, detectives worked double shifts and downed coffee thick as sludge scraped from the East River. The lights in the Brooklyn Battery tunnel flickered on and off, and for a moment a perfect darkness took over, with no one there to witness its grandeur, couples in warm beds, on fire escapes, in restaurant kitchens, and empty subway trains made achingly slow love. The mermaids of the Hudson surfaced beneath the full moon, to awaken dead men with a kiss. People entered, stage right, and some of them left forever, but most of all, New York City, as always, was far from quiet.
This was truer nowhere than in the Higgins household, where the last documented case of sustained unconsciousness had occurred in 1946. Barely anyone in the family slept, and if they did at all, it was rare and infrequent. Maybe it was hereditary insomnia, or a curse placed upon their forefathers by Fat Rizzo DiGregorio before he went to swim with the fishes. No one really knew. But at any given time, the entire apartment was awake, refusing to waste valuable time by sleeping their lives away. At four in the morning, on a day in November, there could be found in each corner of the apartment:
--Romola Higgins, sitting in her room with her Disney Princesses night light on, reading Bunnicula
--Cosmo Higgins, at his desk, writing a research paper on the Brachiosaurus that he had had three months to work on, and was due in exactly four hours
--Giovanna Higgins, making breakfast for her husband, who was currently attempting to get his shirt clean by swearing at it before he had to go downstairs and open up the bakery
--Valentine Higgins, dancing around in her bedroom, singing along with the Breakfast Club soundtrack at the top of her lungs, and doing her best to wake up the whole apartment building, if her parents had somehow failed
--Racetrack Higgins, sitting in his bedroom, watching late-night TV, and having the very first appearance-based nervous breakdown of his seventeen years.
To his credit, he usually spent his nights more constructively. Over the past few years, he had, in the hours between eleven in five, learned a number of boating knots (even though he had never been boating), read the Encyclopedia Britannica cover to cover, learned how to tend to bonsai, written a number of admirably original papers for his English class (among them "Great Expectations and the narrative and characters of the Superman franchise: a cultural comparison", which had earned him a place on the school honor roll and a trip to the guidance counselor's office), and learned how to translate Morse code, among many other things. He had also wasted countless hours watching infomercials, as he happened to be doing right now, and in that fact was his undoing.
"Do you constantly worry about your appearance? Is your nose too large for your face, or too small? Is your nose hooked, bent, off-center, crooked, out of alignment, down-hanging, or simply undeserving of you? Do you feel that people judge you unfairly because of your nose? If so, you may be a valid candidate for Rhinoplasty!"
Sitting, near paralyzed, at the foot of his bed, Racetrack reached a tentative hand up and felt along the bridge of his nose, down across the front and as carefully as he could down the sides, as the woman on TV instructed him to.
"Don't worry; if you feel no deformities with the thumb-and-forefinger test, there may still be flaws when you look at your nose in the mirror. Remember, everyone could be a little bit more perfect! Now, to perform the second test, hold two hand-mirrors at ninety degree angles and—"
"PsstRace! Lemme in!"
Sprawled flat on his face on his bedroom floor, his lamp fallen across his back, Racetrack, wondering momentarily if he was paralyzed, could still see the corner of the TV screen, and, to the left of that, Jack climbing in through his bedroom window from the fire escape outside.
"Sorry, buddy, did I scare ya?"
"Jack," Racetrack said, looking up at a pair of extraneous black cowboy boots and trying to muster as much dignity as he could, "what in hell are you doing?"
"What? Can't I visit my best friend?"
"In the middle of the night?"
Jack shrugged and sat down on the edge of Race's bed. "It's not like you sleep anyway," he said. "And I live right down the hall."
"Lived right down the hall, Jack. Your family moved out of the building five years ago. You're like four trains away now."
Jack sighed wearily and turned off the blonde woman. "I just wanted to talk, okay?"
Racetrack looked up at him, feeling slightly more sympathetic as he had just wiggled his toe and was confident that he might be able to walk once more. "You broke up with David again, didn't you?"
"It wasn't my fault this time! I swear!"
"Okay," Racetrack said. "Help me up and I'll help you."
But before Jack could even stand up, a piercing voice came through the wall. Both boys cringed. "ANTHONY?" Racetrack's mother shouted, "WHAT'S GOING ON IN YOUR ROOM?"
"HI, MRS. RACETRACK'S MOM, IT'S JUST ME," Jack shouted back, equally as loud.
"Jack, y'know, you can probably get away with callin' her by her real name. You've known her since you were four."
"WOULD YOU LIKE A TOAD IN A HOLE, FRANCIS?"
"ONLY IF IT'S NOT ANY TROUBLE!"
"IT'S NONE AT ALL!"
"WELL, IN THAT CASE, COULD I HAVE SOME SCRAMBLED EGGS AND COFFEE INSTEAD?"
"SURE THING!" There was a pause, and a clang. "ROMOLA! WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE FOR…"
"I hate my family," Racetrack muttered.
"Why? I love it here," Jack said, brightly, bouncing on his heels. "How could you hate it? People are always awake—what is it, four-thirty?—something's always going on, people welcome you when you come in the door…"
"Yeah, well, only if you're not related to them. You come over, my mother makes you eggs. I walk into the kitchen and she has trouble remembering my name." Racetrack paused, and looked up again. "Hey Jack? Do you think of me as a valid candidate for Rhinoplasty?"
Jack stared at him. "For what?"
"Y'know, nose surgery?"
"Gee, Race, I'd'a thought you'd be insecure about bein' so short."
"…Thanks a lot, Jack."
He didn't get a better response when he tried asking the same question at breakfast. Cosmo was still working frantically on his research paper, Romola, who was only eight, didn't see what the fuss about, his mother was busy cooking Jack what looked like an entire carton of eggs, and Valentine still had her headphones on and was currently singing "We Are Not Alone" at 200 decibels, making conversation difficult as it was. His father was the only one who actually heard him, and his answer was hardly helpful.
"Dad, do you—"
"JUST IMAGINE MY SURPRI-ISE! WHEN I LOOKED INTO YOUR EYES AND SAW! Through your—"
"Is it true that the Brachiosaurus had too brains? Because it said on this TV show once that—"
"Francis, do you want orange juice as well?"
"Sure, I'd love it if you have some."
"Oh, we're out…well, don't worry, il mio tesoro, I'll squeeze some fresh oranges just for you."
"WE ARE NOT ALONE! 'CAUSE WHEN YOU CUT DOWN TO THE BONE WE'RE REALLY NOT SO DIFFERENT AFTER ALLLLLLLLLLLL!"
Carmine looked at his son as if he had just told him he was considering registering as a Republican. "What you want to change your nose for?" he asked, flinging his arms up emphatically and managing to hit Romola's book, sending it flying out of her hands and into the skillet in which Jack's eggs were cooking.
"Oh, gross! My book has salsa all over it!"
Jack scraped some of the offending substance off the book, and tasted it. "No, that's diced tomato."
"I have this bump in my nose," Racetrack said to his father. "From where Val pushed me down the stairs when I was four." He glared at Valentine, who didn't notice as she had her eyes closed and was now singing "Heart Too Hot to Hold". "Besides," he added, it's too big."
"In Italy," his father said, "the boy with the bigger nose always gets the girl."
"Well, not in Manhattan."
"In fact," his father mused, oblivious, "I went to school with a boy who had a tiny button nose, we all hated him. He was a horrible fellow. Do you know why, Anthony?"
"No, why, dad?" Racetrack sighed.
Carmine put his hands on his son's cheeks and leaned forward, as if telling him a fantastic secret. "Because, my son, the nose is where the soul is kept. If a man has a small nose, then he is known to possess no soul."
And Racetrack saw no better response to this than to drop his head down onto the table, straight into his bowl of oatmeal.
"Also," his father said, leaning back into his own seat, "everyone knows that nose size is directly related to male…stamina, I suppose you would say. It is medically proven, and that's a fact. Why, just ask your mother."
All through the walk to school, Racetrack could feel his nose growing like Pinocchio's. The cold air was making it increase in size until by the time they reached Baxter Street it had taken over his entire face, and he was forced to cover it up with his hands, for fear of an innocent child seeing it and shrieking in terror. Jack did not help much. He was not in any state to dispense advice, still being worried about making up with David, and when Race voiced his fears about children being brought to tears by his repulsiveness, Jack, inspired, started reciting the "to the pain" speech from The Princess Bride, which did not do much to make Racetrack him feel better. By the time they got within a block of their school, had decided that plastic surgery was his only option.
"…WRONG! Your ears you keep, and I'll tell you why: so that every shriek of every child at seeing your hideousness will be yours to cherish, every babe that weeps at your approach, every woman who cries out: "Dear God, what is that thing?" will echo in your perfect ears. That is what "to the pain" means. It means I leave you in anguish, wallowing in freakish misery, for—"
"Oh, God, I have to get a nose job."
"What?" Jack said innocently. "Why?"
"Because if I don't know one will ever love me, I'll die alone and have no friends because people won't even be able to stand to look at me."
"I can stand to look at you," Jack said generously. "Anyway, how much does a nose job cost?"
"Only about six thousand dollars. Not that much."
"Right. So it's either go to college or fix your nose, is that what you're saying?"
"I see it as life or death, Jack. At this point I have no other choice."
After Jack had caught sight of David in front of the school, and ran into his arms, kissing him ecstatically as they both swore they would never, ever fight again, Racetrack was on his own to worry about plastic surgery and get to class. With a hand carefully clamped over his colossal nose, he made his way into first-period English and sat down at a desk in the back.
Every time he caught sight of his reflection in the window, he cringed. He couldn't stand the idea of anyone looking at him, seeing his ugliness and judging him for it. He needed to fix his nose as soon as he could. He needed to be perfect, that was what he needed. Then no one would think he was ugly ever again and everyone would like him. He would schedule an appointment this week. Even better—he would ride the bus down to a plastic surgeon's office after school—no, during lunch! He couldn't waste any time. He had lived an imperfect existence for too long as it was.
Having settled the matter, Racetrack smiled and turned toward the equally painful class conversation, on the subject of Tess of the D'Urbervilles. A girl in front who he didn't know—she must have been new—was squirming in her seat, wrestling nervously with a question on environmental descriptions in the book and how they fit in with Tess's character development, and banging her pencil nervously against the table in a rhythm that Racetrack, suddenly startled, realized he understood. It was morse code: S.O.S.
Quickly, he picked up his pen and began to tap it, rapid-fire, on the top of his desk. The girl pricked up her ears and listened. To anyone else, it sounded as if he was doing Bohemian Rhapsody.
She looked back to the teacher, and said, slowly and carefully, "the pastoral…scenes…described in the first chapter…are reflective of Tess's…fractile…innocence."
"Fractile?" she said, raising a circumflex eyebrow and looking down her nose at the girl.
"Fragile," the girl corrected quickly. "Fragile innocence."
"Well. All right. Thank you very much, Isobel." With a groan, Mrs. Pancake, who must have been over a hundred by now and really had no right to actually be alive, shuffled over to Racetrack's desk and peered down at him expectantly.
"Anthony, stop that racket at once. Now, tell me, if you've actually done your reading…what do you think of Tess?"
"She's a tragically pristine character who is destroyed by the world around her," Racetrack said, quickly, without taking his hand off of his nose.
"Do you need a tissue, Anthony?"
"No," he said peremptorily.
"All right; anything else?"
"Yes. I think comparisons can definitely be drawn between Tess Durbeyfield and Mary Jane from Spiderman."
"Okay, Anthony, let's quit while we're ahead, shall we?"
As Mrs. Pancake heaved herself towards the head of the classroom, Racetrack slid down in his seat until he could barely look over the top of his desk, and was confident that no one would notice him, and attention would no longer be drawn to his ugliness. As he looked toward the front of the classroom, Isobel caught his eye and began to tap out a rhythm with her pencil, against the back of her chair.
I always thought Tess could better be compared to Lois Lane.
Race slid up a little in his seat, and fumbled for his pencil.
But she was so tough.
Only in the movie. And besides, it took her three hours to figure out Clark Kent and Superman were the same person.
Yeah, the sequel is a lot better.
I was always more of an Indiana Jones girl, to tell you the truth.
Really? Me too.
Apart from not being a girl.
Right. Fortune and glory, kid. She laughed. It's too bad I've never been able to use it in an essay.
I bet you could compare Short Round to David Copperfield.
Brilliant! But I—(CRACK.)
And he would never be able to finish his thought, because at that moment Mrs. Pancake waltzed over and ripped his pencil out of his hand, and snapped it in half.
Racetrack shuddered and put his hand back over his nose. Isobel smiled at him and turned back to face the board.
At the end of class he caught up with her, not even bothering to try to cover his nose with one hand while he held his books with the other. She leaned against the wall as he walked up to her, beneath a photograph of William Carlos Williams. "Doctah Jones."
"Doctor Brown," he said.
She grinned. "Call me Saturday."
"Racetrack," he said. "So how did you learn to do that?"
"What, morse code?" She ran a hand through her hair and looked up at a picture of Ernest Hemingway tacked to the ceiling, contemplating. "I don't know, I just learned from a book, it didn't take that long. I don't sleep much so I like to have something to do, you know?—I mean, I actually just don't sleep, nobody knows why, it drives my parents nuts. It just feels like a waste of time to me, you know." She grinned. "You probably think I'm crazy."
"Not really," he said, still in the act of coming out of speechlessness. "So, uh, do you want to work on developing that thesis sometime?"
"Maybe we could do it together…we could watch Temple of Doom or something…maybe…at…my place?" He paused. "If you want?"
Leaning over, Mrs. Pancake looked at him carefully as she slithered out the door. "Anthony, are you running a temperature? You're awfully red."
"No," he muttered.
"All right, just making sure. Oh, and Isobel, you too…could you not drum in class? It's extremely disruptive."
But Saturday didn't say anything; she was looking at Race, smiling, a little bit of a blush on her cheeks too. And suddenly Racetrack understood: she was looking at his nose.
Quickly clamping a hand over his face, he gathered his books and, without a words, hurtled out of the classroom.
"Nice boy," Mrs. Pancake said, vaguely. "But a little high strung."
Saturday nodded, making sure to keep her clamped firmly over her face.
The bus headed uptown that day was nearly empty when Racetrack got on, right after lunch period started, determined to make an appointment to change his nose. He asked the driver, quietly, if the bus went all the way to Bob's Rhinoplasty Roundup, and after flashing his pass he went to the back and sat down a few seats away from the other person there, who was leaning against the side of the bus, a brown paper bag over their head. Racetrack didn't think twice about it. After growing up with his family, nothing really surprised him anymore.
He was just opening his bag to pull out a copy of SPIN he had bought at the newsstand that morning, when a voice, timid, quiet, broke the silence. "Race?"
He whipped around in his seat. "Saturday?"
She pulled up the paper bag up just enough to see him. "What are you doing here?"
He reached up and put a hand over his nose. "I'm…going to the Rhinoplasty roundup, what about you?"
She sighed, and pulled the paper bag down again. "Me too."
"Are you kidding? Racetrack…I'm hideous."
"You're beautiful," he said, quietly, and gently pulled the paper bag off over her head. "What's wrong with you?"
She pointed to her nose. "One of my nostrils is wider than the other one. My entire face is out of balance. And you can always look…"
"More perfect, I know."
They were both quiet for a few moments, glaring out the window. "Well, what's wrong with your nose?" Saturday asked him at last.
"It's too big," he said. "And it has a bump in it."
"I like your bump."
"I like your nostril."
"No I'm not."
"Yes, you are."
"Look, I—" but he stopped, because he knew nothing he could say could make her think otherwise. So instead, he leaned forward, and kissed her, very softly, just on the corner of her nose. He noticed that she had started to cry.
"I think you're beautiful," he said. "Don't let anyone tell you different. And who wants to look like everyone else? Did you ever read the Arthur books when you were a kid?" she nodded. "Well, remember the firs tone, Arthur's Nose? Where Arthur was upset because he had this enormous, anteater-nose and he didn't look like everyone else? He wanted to change it, right? But then he realized that it was what made him Arthur, it was what made him special. And it's the same with you."
"I think you're beautiful too," she said.
"Dashing," he corrected her. "Dashing and rugged," he said, but he was smiling, and so, despite herself, was she.
The bust lurched to a halt. "RHINOPLASTY CITY!" The bus driver called.
"Let us off at the next stop," Racetrack said, "we had a change of plans. Oh, and Mr. Busdriver?"
"Hey there, Crutchy the busdriver. Did anyone ever tell you that you have beautiful ears?"
As he put the bus back into gear, Crutchy smiled and looked in the rearview mirror, looking first at himself, and then at the boy and girl in the back, kissing as if the rest of the world didn't exist, their noses bumping against each other in a dance of passion.
DAKKI & DALTON: ((holding up an enormous chocolate cake in the shape of Montana, with fourteen candles and pink icing)) HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU! HAPPY BIRTHDAY TOOOOO YOOOOOUUUU! HAPPY BIRTHDAY DEAR SAT-UR-DAY! HAPPY BIRTHDAY TOOOOO YOOOOOOOUUUUUU!
RACETRACK: ((from inside the closet)) And many moooooore, on channel fooooouuuuuur…