Por by Tania Candiani with Fred Sasaki
I was never the kind of girl you would think would be the start of something. Not before the twitching, anyway.
Here’s the thing I know. Here’s the thing I would tell my little sister, if I had a little sister, between lessons on how to dress like an un-loser and tweet in a non-humiliating way (which I assume I would know in this world in which I was a big sister). I would tell her that no matter how often your parents proclaimed their endless, irrelevant love for you, no matter how many mornings your mom handed you your lunch and told you that this was going to be a great first day of a great new year of school, that big things lay in store, that this was your year, that you were the most specialest little light in the universe, it didn’t mean that any of it was true.
All of this, I say to my imaginary sister, is only because parents are kind of stupid. Or not stupid, not exactly. It’s just that they need to make themselves feel better about you being, like, the main accomplishment of their lives. They don’t want it to matter that you’re not beautiful or clever, that the world will never fall at your feet. Remember that your parents were in high school a long, long time ago and have forgotten that there was only so much room for special little lights of the universe in a class of eighty. Or maybe, fuck all, they were just lying through their horse-yellow teeth because you had to, those were the rules of having kids.
It was the dumbest shit imaginable, what was happening with my family. My brother was still over in Afghanistan. Yet the week before school started, in the armpit of summer, we gathered up all the trashy Jersey Shore cousins and a sledding-saucer full of lunch meat and celebrated Dad coming back from his billionth deployment, while Tommy Jr. was still over there, alive to us only in grainy FaceTime chats and mental army-life montages I’d accumulated from movies. And all any one could say was how great it was, how brave Tommy was, what a service to our country, and no one said out loud (except for margarita-loaded Aunt Megan in the kitchen, when she thought I was outside with the little kids) the truth: What a waste, what a waste it was that perfect, brilliant, handsome Tommy Jr.—who could learn any song on guitar after listening to it once, who had a smile that made middle-age waitresses blush and stammer, who once made the Yahoo News homepage when he stopped running a track race he was sure to win so he could help a fallen opponent hobble across the finish line on a sprained ankle—was overseas, in danger, while his grumpy, fat, talentless loser sister was safe at home, moping about the start of tenth grade. My mom could keep on telling me how special I was, how great this year was going to be. But realistically, if I did anything of note this year or any year of my entire life, it would come as an enormous surprise to everyone. Even her.
I probably would have told my imaginary sister all this while we cuddled up in bed together with some fashion magazines and stuffed animals we knew we were getting too old for, healing after the beginning of school. The first day of sophomore year didn’t seem different from any other first day; my mom handed me that damn well-meaning sack lunch with a go-get-em-tiger smile that clearly belonged to some other mom, some other girl. Like, thank you, Mom, but let’s be real for two minutes here. In the living room, a “Welcome Back” helium balloon still floated at half-mast. It was totally depressing but I couldn’t bring myself to slice its silver neck while it had scraped endlessly along the ceiling, rubbing against the deteriorating plaster, a lazy sadist.
I was staring at that immortal balloon as Mom handed me my lunch. Her lips wobbled with not-crying, probably because she was thinking of exactly that, of Tommy Jr. and how she wished she were handing him a lunch, not me. Or maybe she’d been really invested in the idea that I was going to wear the jumper I’d picked for a first-day-of-school outfit until I’d gotten cold feet. I don’t know what I had been thinking about that jumper. There in the air-conditioned calm of the Kohl’s Missy section dressing room, with that inescapable Carly Rae Jepsen song worming into my ear like a brain-eating amoeba, I think I forgot who I was for a second. I accidentally cast myself as the main character in a music video or something, as if this might be the year I was suddenly trendy, suddenly able to wear something because I’d seen it on Rookie even though I hadn’t yet had the assurance that people were actually wearing it at my school, that the Brett Starlings had approved it.
When it came to the actual first day of school, August humidity pressing down like climatological PMS, my hair teased into a frizzy “before” shampoo commercial, my cheeks bedazzled with zits, I was in no psychological state to experiment with style, went instead with an oversized T-shirt that screamed “insecure girl trying to hide fat, flappy boobs,” the fashion statement of my life. So my mom gave me the lunch she’d packed, which I knew had a note in it, which made me want to cry of I don’t know what. I recognized that she thought tucking these notes into my lunch was a total good-mom thing to do. At lunchtime I would crumble it into my palm and throw it away without reading it, because even the losers I ate lunch with would attack if they sensed weakness. I took the lunch, promising myself I would throw away the Doritos and Pepsi too instead of shoving them in my face while surveying the lunchroom for someone worse off than myself. I walked out to wait for the bus, wondering if I’d know what a panic attack felt like if I had one. Was this a panic attack, this feeling of tightness in the chest, shortness of breath, flushed face? Was I having an aneurysm or was it just another day of high school?
What I’m trying to say is that my greatest ambition for sophomore year, like every year, was to avoid public humiliation. On that first day of school, I slouched through the halls, watching the Cool Girls—Brett Starling and Bad Sophie and all their clones—greet one other in their jumpers (cooler versions of the one I’d sloughed off that morning and thank goodness I had, it would have just looked desperate, really), thinking about how I’d have to go home and face Dad, already overwhelmed by all the school work ahead and dreading the stupid after-school babysitting job I’d taken on as a distraction from the fact that I had no actual friends to hang out with in those endless hours, feeling sicker and sicker but lacking a nurse’s office–worthy diagnosis. And this was pretty much the day up until seventh-period English Lit.
Seventh-period English Lit was taught by this random new teacher Mr. Franz, who looked like he was about one year older than us. Poor guy, clearing his throat over and over again, in his tweed blazer and tie and dark-rimmed glasses, despite all his attempts to exude authority, looking like a kid playing dress-up. After a couple years of high school, we’d seen this all before: dude had come out to Jersey from the city to try his hand at public-school teaching without the terror of some assignment in the Bronx; he had seen too many movies about inspirational teachers and thought he could force his lust for literature onto to me and my screen-zapped peers like academic date rape; he was fresh, uncertain, hot enough for us all to fall in love with automatically, as if the school regents required it. And yep, sure enough, there was Brett Starling sitting up front and leaning over the syllabus in a cleavage-creating posture, pretending to be studious, stealing the bookish thing from us legitimate nerds still encased in our unironic chrysalises, crossing and uncrossing her legs and giving her Bic a blowjob.
And then out of nowhere, there it was, the first episode (as everyone called them, like they were TV shows to buy on iTunes and not fucking seizures), the first time all day I uttered a sound: I twitched.
I knew something bad was about to happen right before it did. My face heated. All the sound cut out, like a huge furry helmet had been dropped over my skull. The room, it didn’t look right. I’m trying to think how to explain it, but all I can come up with is that the colors separated, kind of fizzed around—the green and red marks on the dry-erase board hovered like insects, the purple of Mr. Franz’s tie pixilated. I had that greasy swirl in my stomach like when you’re about to fart and are still praying there’s a way it will be silent, like when you go to the bathroom after a science lab of intolerable closeness to your intolerably cute lab partner and see that yes, the tingle on your nose was actually a tumor-sized whitehead erupting. Like when your period starts as you’re sitting in the front row of class. That heart-stopping dread of the moment when everyone finds out you have a body.
Then: sweet, horrible release. It felt exactly as if I’d really had to pee and then did, right there, in front of Brett Starling and Mr. Franz and God and everyone. As if I could not hold the whatever it was in and really had to stomp, slap the table, jerk my head. Shout, “HEY! HEY! FUCKING COCKSUCKER! HEY!” Being a teenager, being a girl, it required so much holding in. In that instant, I knew I had failed. I had failed, and I could not stop what my body was doing. I had failed and I could not stop failing.
My poor traumatized classmates were offered debriefing sessions as if there’d been a shooting or something; hilariously, the teachers thought they might be worried. According to reports gathered by the guidance counselor, it was, one of the Sophies recalled, totes awkward. It was. It totes was. I was sitting there thinking, Am I dying? And if so, do I have to do it in front of everyone? What did my body think it was doing? I looked down at my table-slapping hand, recalling in some primordial inarticulate way what it is to be an infant and stunned by the movements of your own distant fingers. This was bad, this was bad, this was bad.
I couldn’t hear it (this was bad), or even see him clearly (this was bad), but apparently Mr. Franz popped out his eyes and stammered, “Ex-excuse me?” and everyone turned around and stared, and then I did it again—“HEY! HEY! FUCK! HEY!” jerking my head in a retro-Walk-Like-an-Egyptian kind of move.
This was really bad.
Then it stopped. The silence in the room was the texture of damaged velour. I couldn’t even cry—now that I was myself again I was unable to make a sound—so I just sat there with my mouth open. I looked at the faces of each of my classmates for a nanosecond, or an hour. The appropriate response would have been to run weeping from the room, but I couldn’t even manage that. I scooped up the papers and books in front of me and wandered out into the hallway as if it were some kind of surreal passing period, and probably would have just stumbled over to my locker and headed for eighth period if Mr. Franz hadn’t rushed out after me. He touched my arm, expressing concern, and again I twitched, or ticked, or whatever you want to call it, seized, shook, jolted, shimmied, and he took a step backward and it’s hard to explain but I knew he was afraid and I wasn’t upset about that.
Our pediatrician, who my mom had just agreed I was getting too old to keep seeing, described the symptoms as “Tourette’s-like,” which we had to go home and Google. Stomping. Shuddering. Swearing. Now and then some Screaming of Terrible Things. Different from your ordinary symptoms of being fifteen only in that they came in these sudden fits, flash floods of nastiness, and no one got mad at you for cussing them out. The words came quick and squished together, the vowels evacuated. Once or twice I fainted. The pediatrician called it a “seizure-thing,” but so far she hadn’t found any medical cause. The senior pediatrician at the office, who resembled a less-beardy Gandalf, asked me a bunch of horrifying questions about menstruation, about sex. When I said I was virgin, he said knowingly, awfully, “Ah,” and then waved his hands and said that teenaged girls had wild imaginations, and it was simple “hysteria,” which I also had to Google. (“That’s sexist,” I told my mom, post-Googling. She sighed and said as if it were an explanation, “He’s old.”)
They asked me to stay home from school. Mortifying and totally unnecessary. I wasn’t exactly yearning to have these psychotic episodes in public. This was the worst week, when everyone was Facebook-accusing me of faking, when even my parents looked at me funny, when I hadn’t yet pinpointed the warning signs of a fit and was constantly wrenching my muscles, frightening myself.
But by the next week, wonder of wonders, Sophie started to twitch too, and everything changed. Now I wasn’t making it up. Now it was a thing. This was Good Sophie, whom I’d known since kindergarten and had never made an effort to be cruel to me. By the next week, Bad Sophie, who actively hated me, was twitching too. It was the most overt approval I’d even gotten from someone of her social stature—after all, she was best friends with Brett Starling. I had no idea why they were twitching, but I also had no idea why I was twitching. It seemed like a good development. I was used to girls like them answering my questions.
For a while it was the three of us, and since both my dad and Good Sophie’s dad had just been deployed, it started getting all the media attention, the famous lady lawyer, the hipster radio segment that went viral. People loved the idea that our dads had brought back some secret Afghan neurotoxin to poison the town children. Then a few weeks later, there was another, Olivia, one of the only black girls in school, and one of the non-twitching girls Instagrammed a picture of her, tagging it #follower and #fake and #wannabee, and The Huffington Post got hold of that, and then the story changed altogether. The more girls that started twitching the weirder it got, because the Afghanistan link didn’t make sense anymore, so then the dads were forgotten and the theory was it had something to do with the big chemical spill at the factory in the ’90s when our moms were pregnant with us. Another hipster radio segment.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m glad everyone was so fascinated with our little problem. I’m glad our town’s Chamber of Commerce got such stellar free PR. But the whole thing was weird. No one seemed all that interested in helping us to actually stop twitching. After all, the different doctors examined all the different girls, and each came to the conclusion that the seizures weren’t leaving any traces in our brains the way seizures usually did, meaning they weren’t “actual” seizures, what was there to do but wait and write op-eds or whatever it was the adults were all doing? We were just pawns in leggings and lip gloss. No one seemed to think that we might be scared.
So, I stayed home all day with Dad. It was a slight nightmare. But my mom worked double shifts at the nursing home, obviously Tommy Jr. was, like, busy, and someone had to stay home with poor Molly, too twitchy for the tenth grade.
The morning of the day I got famous, Dad and I sat on the living-room carpet with the Scrabble board, trying to be normal. I was supposed to write a report on some play for English Lit, but Dad didn’t bug me too much about it and I admit I was taking advantage a tiny bit. Since he’d come back kind of army-weird, overly blinky and school-therapist-creepy-calm, our interactions had been as stagey as a bad webisode, D-list actors with strange tics and scarred faces playing the parts of Molly Last Year and Tom Before.
I spaced out for a while watching a couple of birds perched on top of the Samuelsons’ house. One lay on the roof’s precipice. For a second, I thought I was watching the standing bird check on its sick friend, but no, it was pecking the crap out of it. I didn’t want Dad to see but I couldn’t stop looking, and eventually he craned his neck. “Whatcha looking at, Moll?” he said in a bright, talking-to-a-little-kid-I-don’t-know voice.
“Nothing, nothing,” I said. “You suck at Scrabble today,” I added, to punish him for letting me win. Then came a tic. I liked calling them “tics” rather than “twitches” or “seizures.” “My tics” sounded almost cute, like collectable stuffed animals rather than totally alarming neurological freak-outs. Dad watched, as if I couldn’t see him seeing me shimmy my head, clapping, grunting, “Hey. Hey. Hey,” which were the words that usually came out for some reason, as if even the tics were, like, whatever, no big deal, who cares, fine. I knew my parents, like everyone at school, had been counseled not to make me feel self-conscious, but as I snorted and shuddered, Dad got up, moved away, turned his back on me, and stood there by the window watching the bird eating its dead friend.
Finally the tics stopped—they started, they stopped, like scary hiccups—and there was a long silence and I had to say something so I said, “Did you hear about Brett Starling?”
Dad squinted like the house had gotten foggy. “No. Who’s he?”
This made me laugh, which turned into a “Hey. Fuck.” I grimaced. “Sorry, Daddy. That’s just funny. Brett’s a she. But I know, isn’t her name so cool? She’s almost the most popular girl in school, and I know how that sounds but I’m just telling you for context. She’s completely gorgeous, has this wavy dark hair and cool long bangs that always look amazing but also like she doesn’t care, and is in all AP classes, and is like friends with all the popular kids but like a little too cool to be a cheerleader or anything? Can you picture this, Dad? She missed the beginning of the school year because she was visiting her aunt in Paris or something. I mean, she’s like the girl who’s actually a little too cool for the cool kids.”
“I see. Friend of yours?”
“What! Ha—hey. Hey. Hey-fucking-cocksucker. Sorry, Dad, not you, it’s just my tics. And anyway it’s your fault for making me laugh. No, Brett’s not a friend of mine, as if, I doubt she knows I exist, although I do sit next to her in Mr. Franz’s English class, or I did when I was in school, so maybe she’d remember me from that.” No response. Dad wasn’t always the most rewarding person of all times to have a conversation with. “Sooo anyway, I heard Brett. Started. Tah-witching. Right in Mr. Franz’s class, in front of Mr. Franz and everybody.” I laughed. “Can you believe it? Brett Starling has my tics.”
“Huh,” said Dad, giving me a super-weird look, like he’d just recognized me in a crowded room.
Out the window, the bird-body had finally fallen off the roof. A group of survivors loitered in its place, staring into the sky.
After kicking Dad’s ass at Scrabble, I went up to my room and decided, out of nowhere really, to post a video on YouTube. Something about Brett Starling starting to twitch made me feel this need to post proof that I had been first, before I got pushed off the proverbial roof like that damned dead bird. We’d read A Separate Peace in Freshman Lit; I understood symbolism when I saw it. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the other twitching girls shoved me aside or even legitimately forgot about me. I didn’t want to get tagged #follower like Olivia. At least with my webcam, I could adjust the angle so I looked thinner and make sure the lighting was right.
I sat down at my desk and then immediately jumped up again. What was up with my ROOM? It looked like an idiot. If it’s possible for a room to be an idiot, this was the one. Visible behind me was my unmade bed with enough stuffed animals to fill a children’s cancer ward, my idiot pink sheets looking lumpy and fat. In the web cam, my room’s white walls looked strangely depressing. Where was the rosebud wallpaper from movie girls’ rooms? Where was the dressing table mirror with photo strips tucked in the frame? I tried to tidy up a bit, then sat down again and finally just moved my computer over, so that all you could see behind me was a corner. My hair looked stupid, obviously. I tried smushing my bangs down but it just made them look smusheder. What could I do? I put on the Army hoodie Tommy Jr. had given me. It wasn’t the chicest look imaginable, but I had the feeling that this would protect me somehow. This would save me.
“Hi,” I said to no one, to the web cam, to my grainy computer face. “I don’t know what’s happening to me.”
The grainy computer face girl looked sad. I rummaged around in a desk drawer until I found some lip gloss. Pinched my cheeks for some color. Took a deep breath. Tommy Jr. and Daddy could travel halfway across the world to terrifying places. I could say a couple sentences. Even if I twitched.
“Hi,” I said to the Internet. “My name is Molly.”
So that was stupid, but it was a start.
After 10,000,000 mirror-rehearsals, I pressed record. I’d finally struck upon the breezy voice I wished was mine: “I’m just doing this to let you guys know what it’s been like, and to help other people who may have a problem like mine. You’re not alone!” I wanted to believe I was that kind of girl, so I would be that kind of girl online. “I don’t know where the tics came from,” I said, and then I accidentally pictured Mr. Franz, who was after all simply a little too hot to responsibly be a teacher, a little too closely resembling Robert Pattinson, and then what do you know: Tic fit for YouTube. I suffered through the “Heys” and the shimmies and who knew what else, and then I finished my monologue. “If people have ever given you flack for being different, if you’ve ever found it hard to be brave, I totally get it,” I said. “I get you.” It seemed like a good line, though I suspected I might have stolen it from The Hunger Games or maybe even Oprah, but whatever, it worked. I gave myself chills when I repeated it: “I get you.”
Somehow I felt better, like when I was small and mad at Tommy and wrote in my pink diary with the tin key. Only then I had carefully fastened the lock and hid the key. This time—flush-faced, helmet-eared, muttering curses, my hands gnarled as an old woman’s—I posted the video and hash-tagged it to within an inch of its life. By dinnertime it had gotten 2,473 views.
I went downstairs after being in my room for about nine hours straight, most of which were spent refreshing the YouTube page. Didn’t someone want to check on me, to make sure I wasn’t on Chat Roulette with a kiddie toucher or, like, secretly hanging myself in the closet? I wasn’t even hungry, I just wanted to lecture my parents on safety. But I heard them talking in the kitchen as they got dinner ready, heard Dad say, “I’m worried about Molly,” so obviously I had to freeze in the hallway and eavesdrop.
Mom snorted. “Uh, yeah. Me too, Tom.”
“I just . . . Molly told me another girl started twitching.”
“Right. Phyllis Starling’s daughter. You know Phyllis. That makes five. Five girls in a matter of weeks. Where does it end? I know mothers of non-twitching girls in their grade who are terrified, just terrified. Waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
Dad again: “Yeah. But when Molly was telling me about this girl, she seemed almost . . . happy. Or, excited. Like it was cool that this girl was twitching now too. “
Mom paused. I could almost hear her trying to manufacture a defense for me, the unfortunate, uncute, unloved one: “Maybe she is excited about it. Why not? This has been embarrassing for her, you know. This hasn’t been easy. Imagine you’re Molly, you’re sitting there with your friends in your English class, and boom, you start clapping and shouting and twitching. Yelling horrible things. Can you imagine it? You know how shy Molly is. So maybe this makes it a little better, knowing it’s not her fault, that something in the air is making this happen to other children too, even the ‘cool’ ones. I know how that sounds, but it’s high school. You remember high school.”
Listening to your parents worry about you is pretty heartbreaking. I sometimes felt bad for them that their daughter was me, probably not at all what they’d imagined when they’d first had a baby, when they’d first thought “daughter” and pictured some Starling of a girl. I sometimes thought longingly of the old days, before self-consciousness struck me down like the plague, when with a confidence I could now only theoretically remember, I would prance around the playground in my favorite nightgown, princess iron-on tight across my belly, when all that princess stuff felt relevant to me, before I shrank down into the girl the other kids decided I was—thick, tongue-tied, boy-phobic, compulsively smushing my bangs down over my eyes so that by the end of the day my hair looked never ever washed. My mom was always saying, “Molly! Stop touching your hair. Tell her, Tom. You’re a beautiful girl, your hair looks fine!” And Dad would nod, complicit in the parental lie.
Now Dad stood in the kitchen, dumbly, holding very still, one of those disposable crumb-wipe-things crumpled in this hand as if he wasn’t sure whether he was supposed to wash it or throw it away. “Wait, what did you say?”
“She was in English class?”
“Yes, you knew that. With Mr. Franz. The children are all in love with him.” For some reason it made me crazy that throughout all of this, we kept being called “children.” We were hardly children. Half the girls in my class were having sex already and the other, more prudish half sent sexts that would make a porn star blush, but you couldn’t expect parents to notice that yet. “He’s about twelve,” Mom was saying. “Really is cute as a button. I met him when we had that school meeting about the twitching back in September, when it was just Molly and the first Sophie. Poor guy is fah-reaked out by the twitching. Seemed like a weird coincidence at first, but every single episode has started in his classroom, which of course is the one closest to the river, and of course he’s that teacher who always has the windows open. The day her twitching started, he’d held part of their class outside, can you imagine? It was that really windy day, the breeze coming off the river . . .”
“But here’s what gets me about that. Pam, these girls have lived their whole lives near that river. Even if it’s polluted, which I’m sure it is, how could that be it? Why would that have just started affecting them now? Why would it make them cuss at the top of their lungs?”
“Don’t be silly. What else could it be?”
Dad stood there with his mouth open like a doofy sitcom dad, trying to put something into words—but what? How he thought he knew we were all faking, how it was nothing but teenage hysteria, how as usual no one should take me, silly, boring, pointless Molly, seriously—and then something made him turn, and then he saw me preparing to make my parents watch the worst twitching fit yet.
Things got tense after that. I mean, they’d been tense. Now they began to approach geologic levels of pressure, dinosaur-bone-into-oil-type shit. Dad watched me way too closely. I complained to Mom once and only once that he was a little weird since coming home from Afghanistan and I thought she would slap me, but instead she just pursed her lips until they disappeared. It was almost worse than a slap. I pretty much stopped talking to them in favor of refreshing my YouTube video. Once it had officially gone viral, I recorded another. If Brett Starling or one of the Sophies posts a video and it gets more views than mine, I really might hang myself in the closet, I thought. Or at least leave mean comments on it. I might have almost failed Algebra but I was no dummy, I’d seen what happened to people when their videos got millions of views. They were guests on the Today Show, or Jimmy Fallon, or at least the local news. And then everyone loved them, even if their video was of them getting kicked in the balls or doing a stupid dance or jerking around like Goody Whoever at a witch trial.
Don’t get me wrong. Twitching was still a complete nightmare. I would see The Exorcist a couple years later, when I had trouble sleeping and spent my nights wandering the neighborhoods of late-night cable television. On seeing the possessed girl, I stared at the screen as if recognizing myself in a shop window. It wasn’t that, I’m not trying to blame an off school year on the devil or anything, but the only way I can think to explain it is that somehow I knew how that girl felt. I, too, had been lifted up and shaken around by life.
My body, that lumpish form which had been betraying me daily since puberty, was now seriously on my shit list, but the videos gave me something to focus on, and the loving YouTube commenters felt like my only friends, my first true loves. There were a lot of haters, commenters who wondered why I was so desperate I would twitch for attention, who wanted to know why they should care that I was twitching when I wasn’t even pretty. But there was also a growing contingent of “Team Molly,” commenters who stuck up for me, boosting my morale with their emoticon-laden cheers like “Molly is BRAVE, n if u don’t think so u are lame!!!!!!!! J lol.” I thought I knew who these were. I thought I knew that these were girls like me, miserably marooned among the smug bitches at their high schools, but able to be confident in theory, chipper online. The comments were like messages in bottles. We are out here. We will find one another eventually.
A bunch of the parents called a town-hall meeting, asking for an investigation of Mr. Franz. Poor Mr. Franz! I had this almost physical itch to text him, only of course I didn’t have his number, and if he was on Facebook, it was under some sneaky so-my-students-don’t-find-me name, which seemed unnecessary. I didn’t want to stalk him or anything, I just wanted to tell him that it was okay, that it wasn’t his fault. I felt for him, I did. I was sorry he had to stand there in the town hall meeting, tugging at his tie and explaining again and again that all he’d said was that we were going to have a great year and learn a lot, that he wanted to expand our minds and not just “teach to the test,” and then boom, I’d had that first fit, and to this day he has no idea why. That didn’t seem very cool, and I really was sorry at the same time that I was aware that if things had gone differently, he would have gone the whole school year without learning my name. He would have just said, “You in the back, remember that participation points are 25% of your grade,” a couple times. He probably never would have met my eyes at all.
Dad came to my bedroom one evening and knocked in this overly polite way, and sat on my bed like a concaerned grownup in a movie. My parents were trying, the poor things, but they didn’t even ask me about (or, maybe, notice) my growing YouTube fame, my jillions of retweets and Tumblr shares, and so it was clear they weren’t really paying too much attention after all, scarcely deserving of slack. I barely looked up from the homework I was pretending to do. “Moll,” he started, and I pre-cringed, but it was only—“I was thinking it might be nice to get all your friends together. You know, all the girls, you know . . . .”
“The Twitchers?” I interrupted.
Dad studied the Miley Cyrus poster on my wall over my bed. That’s not me, I wanted to tell him. I have no idea what possessed me to put that up. “Right,” he sighed. “All the kids who . . . twitch. Do you think you would like to . . . talk to them?”
I don’t even know what to call my feeling then. Dread? Excitement? Dreadment? “Okay,” I said, careful not to sound too eager. “That might be okay, Daddy. Whatever you want.”
Twelve hours later, I was hustling around like a housewife asked to entertain the boss’s boss. I mean, I assumed—not that my mother had ever been a housewife or my dad had the kind of boss who came to dinner. But that’s just it, isn’t it? We knew all sorts of things that adults thought we couldn’t possibly know. How had they forgotten how much kids really knew? I wanted to write a note to my future self—because as hard as I found it to believe a man would ever love me, I did imagine myself having kids someday like everyone did eventually, which maybe indicated only my lack of imagination, or a cruel, atavistic desire to propagate my awkward genetics—a note to remind me that teenagers were stupid but not as stupid as adult-me probably thought they were. Maybe that’s what I was doing with my YouTube videos, leaving a note to my future self, pinned to the fabric of the Internet, where I could be sure not to lose it.
Dad had gotten all these bags of fluorescent kid-food, made a pathetic bowl of sparkling cider punch. He’d even chilled a two-liter of Orange Crush in an ice bucket like clownish champagne. When twitching girls are expected, there are apparently other considerations too; the glass coffee table was whisked into the basement, the plasma-screen TV pushed way back in the entertainment center. I felt weirdly excited, even though I was about to have a kind of surrealist nightmare of a sweet sixteen party.
Brett Starling arrived first. Brett Starling, at my house. She beamed into Dad’s face when he answered the door, her placid, beautiful, huge smile, the smile of someone who’d always been told she had a great smile. “Hi, hello, please come in.” She said, “Hup. Fuck me,” and then immediately apologized. “My tics,” she said airily, before brushing past. Tics, after all, gave a girl permission to be just as awful as she wanted to be.
Brett’s arrival transformed our house. I remembered to be mortified by the small, close rooms; the musty carpet-cleaner smell of the living room; the dumb family photos with handsome Tommy Jr. and in-every-age-awkward me posed in front of flattened forests; that asshole of a balloon that was, impossibly, still shuddering at knee-height in the air, hovering now in a corner like a creepy uncle. This creature in skinny jeans had changed the atmosphere of my home just by throwing herself onto Dad’s armchair as if she’d sat there a million times and digging into a bowl of Chex Mix. It was like seeing a doe hunker down at a hot dog stand.
I smushed my bangs down over my eyes, murmuring, “Hey, hey”—either a twitch or a greeting, I wasn’t sure myself. I tugged at the fat-creases in my shirt, a purple striped thing with a collar I’d loved until that exact moment.
“Molly,” Brett said, as if Dad had left the room, as if we were friends. I experienced an unwelcome fizz of pleasure at hearing her say my name. “Franz is wondering if you’re going to turn in your paper. I told him to give you a break, like, ‘we’re up all night twitching and shouting ourselves awake, Franzy, sorry if we’re late on our homework.’ Like, try feeling bad for us, people, you know? But you know how he is.” She laughed loudly. Dad looked from her to me to her again, his palms up, as if to say, This is it? This is the famous girl? She’s just . . . a girl. Because who knew, maybe basic training or the arrival of gray hair rendered a person immune to teen-girl charisma. I wanted to see it his way, I really did.
Instead I flushed, clapped, head-shimmied to the right. “You’ve seen him?” I managed. “Mr. Franz?” I wanted to be careful, but also knew I would probably mess this up. I wanted her to know that it was okay with me that she had stolen my tics, because she was Cool. But I also wanted us all to acknowledge that these were my tics. That something belonged to me.
“Oh, sure,” said Brett airily. “I’ve been out of school like the rest of you, but my brother drove me over to pick up my backpack and stuff, and the guidance counselor wanted me to visit the newest Twitch. You know that’s what they’re calling us at school? The Twitches?” Brett crossed and uncrossed her legs, which were improbably thin, like really good prosthetics. She sucked some salt off her fingertip and looked at Dad. “Mr. Molly’s Dad? Could I have like a Coke or something?”
“Sure,” he said. He didn’t appear to have moved a muscle since she’d arrived, but drifted near the door like that damn dying balloon. “They’re in the kitchen. Help yourself.”
“Da-ad,” I hissed, mortified. “Maybe you could like get her one?” He gave me an unforgettable look, but I didn’t care. The Twitches deserved some respect, didn’t we?
I officially banished Dad once everyone had arrived. We tried to be serious at first, like it was a study group or something. Sabrina, the newest Twitch, coiled in the beanbag we’d dragged down from my room. Good Sophie and Olivia huddled on the couch, holding hands sweetheartishly. Brett stroked the hair of Bad Sophie as if she were a pet. Sabrina, a 65%-pretty girl with waist-length mousy hair, who had moved to town in fourth grade and who I still thought of as the new girl, attempted to sit up straight in the slouchy beanbag and told us that her parents were doctors and suspected we all had an auto-immune disorder that was making us react strangely to the first common cold of the season. Here and there a twitch called out like a cockatoo as she talked.
“That makes total sense,” said Bad Sophie, narrowing her eyes. “Since we’ve all had colds every year forever and always have twitches. God, Sabrina, think for two seconds. Hup! Fuck! Hey!” She twitched nonchalantly, managing to make it look kind of cool.
“My cousin was at that town hall meeting, and she said everyone thinks Mr. Franz bewitched us somehow,” said Good Sophie.
Brett exploded into peals of laughter. She tented her fingers villainously and said in a witchy voice, “And now I will hypnotize the girls of seventh-period English Lit with my corduroy elbow-patches and Brooklyn mailing address, bwah ha ha ha ha!”
I laughed along with all of them and twitched along with our shared tic-fit that followed, like the wave at a baseball game, aware my parents were listening from the kitchen. And yet even now, here, I felt left out, already forgotten. I was unable to force my brain to come up with anything clever fast enough or loud enough to join in their volley. And I wanted to know how Brett knew Mr. Franz’s mailing address. Was she just guessing? Where the rumors that she had affairs with teachers true? Those things didn’t really happen, did they? I shifted in my chair, trying to keep my T-shirt from catching in the rolls of my belly, no small feat when your shoulders stiffen and jerk. It felt worse, somehow, having all the girls here with me. The tics came faster, harder; an existential hailstorm.
Sabrina crossed her arms defensively. “At least my parents are trying to figure out why this is happening to us. I mean, we’re making jokes, but this is awful timing. Aren’t you guys starting to take AP classes and go on college tours? How are we going to get through SAT prep class? HEY. HEY. FUCK!” She jerked her head to the side. She, who had been twitching for only a couple days!
“HUP. GUYS. HEY,” I managed to squeeze out of a flurry of tics. My head was in a vise. For the first time I thought, What if these tics really never stop? What if this is the new me, forever? and this thought shook my body in its fist. I yelled at the top of my lungs, trying to climb out of the feeling, “You guys! You guys! My YouTube got a million views already.” An iTunes-crash of silence. Oh crap. Molly, what did you do?
I looked around at the girls, my body momentarily calmed, and wished for a weighty second that this was in reality what it looked like to my parents: friends getting together, buddies hanging out. That it was real. That I was so—something, funny or smart or kind or good at drawing horses or SOMETHING—that girls like this would allow me into their fold, even though I was not pretty or skinny or charismatic, even though I couldn’t for the life of me figure out the damn jumper they were all wearing. It was unbearable, a Hummer parked on my chest. They stared at me and I stared at them. Someone crunched the Cheeto that must have been dissolving in her mouth for that long silent instant. And then, as if the ceiling had cracked open and an angel were shoving down a helping hand in a beam of CFL light, Sabrina started to twitch. Then Olivia. Boom, like dominos, Good Sophie, Bad Sophie, finally Brett. And me. How could I not? Soon we were deafening.
“Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” cawed the Sophies.
It got hectic. Our heads flung from side to side. We jostled furniture, body-slammed each other. Brett was yelling something, or maybe nothing. Thunder crashed unproductively in my brain, lightning zig-zagging across my field of vision. Dad appeared in the room then, reminding me of the handsome lawyer dad in the black-and-white To Kill a Mockingbird they’d made us watch in Freshman Lit after we’d read the book. We vibrated, we shook, we headbanged. But Dad was still. Dad seemed tall and solid and safe, Atticus-ish, the way he’d seemed to me when I was kid, the way he’d seemed before he deployed this time, and remembering that sense of him, catching a whiff of it like a familiar smell, was comforting, horrifying. “Girls!” he was saying. “GIRLS! Calm down, now! You’re going to hurt yourselves!”
Maybe Brett, therefore, got the idea from him. Because what happened next was that she threw herself from the chair, writhed on the floor, whipping around her still-somehow-perfect hair. It took a minute to register that the sickening thump sound was her head on the floor. We all stopped twitching, though curse words continued to drizzle through the air. Dad leapt to Brett Starling, held her tight, as she thrashed and screamed and eventually began to calm. Despite everything I was impressed; truly, to him, Brett was just another child. A child having a fit, the way any child has any fit, the way the kids I babysat for had fits. Because they were unhappy, because they were uncomfortable, because they were bored. Because they were cute and knew that people would believe anything they said. Because they didn’t think anyone else should get the attention. Because they were alive.
I haven’t told you how the twitches feel. How they felt. How it felt when they left.
I didn’t control them. I didn’t mean for them to happen. And yet every time a new girl started twitching—eventually there were twelve altogether, all girls, all sophomores, and the whole thing went on until the school year ended, when without explanation we all stopped, one by one, to little fanfare—I was shocked. I guess it was a bit like (as I wouldn’t know until years later) falling in love. How you suspect you must be inventing each emotion, so distinct and strange, so unlike how you imagined it would be. How surprising it is to learn other people walk around every day feeling the same way you do. We weren’t—I swear—trying to punish Mr. Franz for not loving us back, trying to scare our parents, trying to get attention. Or maybe we were, but then the attention made it worse. I never twitched so bad as when they filmed me for the local news. No amount of deep breathing or sock-tasting Valerian root tea or even Xanax helped. I could not make it stop, anymore than I could cheer myself out of PMS with a pan of brownies and reality TV. The twitches, they descended on me, they squeezed me from without, they squeezed me from within, they shuddered through me like an orgasm you’re not quite ready for, hunched alone in your bed with your sweaty fist down your panties. Remember we were fifteen. We were used to our bodies doing weird shit to us.
Still. Here is what I never told anyone, what I will never tell anyone at all, what I would maybe tell my sweet imaginary little sister but only if she really needed it: that for my whole life (or at least the remainder of high school), I would never be so happy as in those days, when I was one of the Twitches.
Amy Shearn is the author of the novels The Mermaid of Brooklyn and How Far Is The Ocean from Here. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Poets & Writers, Real Simple, Martha Stewart Living, Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, L Magazine, The Millions, Five Chapters, Opium, Oprah.com, xojane.com, and elsewhere. She curates a monthly reading series called Lit at Lark and occasionally updates her blog, Household Words. Amy lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two young children and one elderly dog. Visit her at amyshearnwrites.com.
Lauren Haldeman lives in Iowa City and works for the Writing University website at the University of Iowa. She received her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and has been a finalist for the Walt Whitman Award and the Colorado Prize for Poetry. Also: She’s a mom and makes paintings.