The morning always began with a solo. Elliot prepared himself for it ceremoniously, washing his face, slipping on a belt, facing the rest of the concerto. The audience manifested as a mirror propped up against the wall, reflecting his usual school attire with some bulk strapped to his shoulders. From there, the rest crashed in. Like a proper symphony, the day’s individual occurrences blended and knocked together, a wave of cause-and-effect, but stable. He maintained control. From first through third period, it blared on— then, intermission.
The school cafeteria came together in a similar way, Eli thought. It followed a structure and involved moving parts— a mechanism with functions similar to those in a school day, yet part of one all at once. Across from him, a girl in gleaming gold hoops swiped her hand at a grinning boy who’d stolen something from her tray. The kid shoved a handful of it into his mouth. Their friends scrolled away on their phones, screens all gleaming fluorescent blue, providing a constant hum; or maybe that was the vending machine. Kids flocked around it, knocking dents into its soft metal sides as it yet again swallowed up their crinkled bills, forcing-feeding it plastic chips and torn-up bits of napkin until it whirred with a sound as close to displeasure a machine was capable of.
A table comprised entirely of girls buzzed with higher-frequency chatter. Eli could never make out what they were on about. They all existed on some greater plane, one he could never reach, but only watch others do. He scanned their glossy lips and hair, braids and buns silky like the shawls and skirts of their mothers’ Sunday bests. Accents curled around voices that remembered their origins but had loosened their grasp on the original tongue. Books on Shakespeare spilled out of backpacks adorned with recuerdos of trips home — keychains, little flags, hecho en Ecuador. Salvador. Peru. Assembled in Estados Unidos. Knowing their language wasn’t a course requirement any longer. As they distanced themselves, their softened b’s and rolling r’s remained, vernacular reigned superior. They found their place wherever they could find room — sitting between other cliques, befriending those who didn’t mind their commotion, perhaps even who shared the quality. Eli continued watching the boys approach them, girls flirting back, eyelashes batting, whispering.
Marina’s with Andre now.
You heard Carla hooked up with him? That’s why she hasn’t been at school in two weeks.
Hey Daevon, what d’you think about Rosalin’s hair?
Shut up before I whoop you!
Accompanied by the clatter of cheap silverware and the humidity of microwaved mashed potatoes, this was how the concerto was executed: constant, chaotic movement, yet all predetermined. Everything fell into place as it was meant to. That knowledge allowed him to relax, to be a fixture amongst the rest of the moving parts. More importantly, they let him be. Usually, there was a mutual disinterest between those two parties, Elliot and the rest of the cafeteria’s capacity.
From Daniela’s view a few tables over, he appeared lost in deep thought. His only movement, which came from his hands, continued towards infinity. He fixated on the zipper on his hoodie and dragged it up, down… up, and again. That garment was going on three months and a half, she recalled. He’d begun wearing it day after day following the loss of the last one, which had been almost identical, but shred to death in the dryer after a cruelly short life of just two years. She remembered her brother, his best friend, having to hold Eli back during the meltdown bloomed from sheer grief. But so far, this new hoodie had been able to withstand his fidgeting tendencies and the dryer on top of that.
She offered him a smile as she took a seat. It was the kind that caught his attention, pearly and genuine, not plastered on as a formality. He knew the difference.
“Hey Eli. You good?”
He wasn’t very eager to respond. But he did look back at her, black eyes blinking in acknowledgement to her presence. It meant something like ‘hello’. Daniela nodded back. That meant something like ‘greeting received.’
“It’s loud as hell in here,” she huffed, craning her neck at a sudden thunderous applause bursting from individual tables — an apparent response to some kid dropping his tray, swimming with beans and floury potatoes, food-first on the floor before ever getting to his seat. “But… this corner’s alright.” She leaned in with her elbows on the table, tacky with leftover syrup. Her eyes followed that zipper, up, down… up again, and she let go of a breath. This was definitely alright.
In Daniela’s version of things, Eli was a statue in the capsule of chaos, the only ounce of order. He was silent, sturdy. But Elliot himself didn’t hold his ‘silence’ in the same regard. He held his version as the truth: mute wasn’t any type of wisdom or poetry. Mute meant slow hand movements, futile attempts to communicate his name, the sign for bathroom, or stop it, or I can hear you. It meant Symptom. Defect. Embarrassing. In the cacophony of the cafeteria, horseplay and flirtation harmonizing, Elliot contributed radio static after having snuck in from the downstairs special-ed rooms, where students were meant to eat alone. So, this was alright for him too. More than alright.
“So, I took that English quiz today…”
The voice drew him front and center. Somehow, it was more prominent than anything else in the place. His eyes flickered towards Daniela, the bump in her nose’s profile and the arch of her brows. “The notes and reading you went over with me with really helped. Thanks for that, actually, it was really cool.”
Eli took his hands off his zipper to gesture ‘Welcome,’ a grin peeking through his lips. Daniela’s own grew in response. His hands shifted again. She watched the slur of his signs, the delay of his fingers as he shaped them, a sort of accent taking shape. She’d familiarized herself with it years ago when she’d started learning. The criticisms of her family were still fresh in her memory. You want to learn sign language, but can’t bother learning Spanish again, huh? What’s wrong with you, you don’t want to talk to Abuela anymore?
“Wish I had your skills, honestly. You real good at that, you know?”
But there was a sudden lapse in that gleam — it flickered, then was gone. Eli replaced the real-deal with a plaster-lipped smile.
‘I guess… for someone who doesn’t speak it.’
He didn’t want to look at her anymore. Although he’d released a silent puff of air in a half-hearted laugh, Daniela didn’t reciprocate.
“You sure you’re good?” She offered him a gentler voice. “Something... happen today?” Once again, nothing. His fingers wandered back to that silver zipper. Up, down… up, as it went. A subtle zip-noise followed, accompanying her sigh. Of course something had happened. Again. Her hand reached for something in her bag; out came a baggie of apple slices dusted with cinnamon, the way he liked them. Quietly, she pulled one out and gestured for Eli to take one. Daniela took a bite of her own slice as she mentally filed it into the number of happenings since Monday. She couldn’t be there with him every moment of the day. It always happened when she wasn’t trailing him like a puppy at his heels. “You don’t deserve that,” she said, looking into the bag to pluck another slice. She held his gaze when she handed it to him. “These kids suck. I’m sorry.”
At first, though they’d been inseparable as children, she’d been shy to approach him in school. She was simple unable to conceal the rose blooming in her cheeks while unfamiliar eyes floated over them. Eli just looked like he belonged here— an established junior, nestled comfortably in his spot. Daniela herself still got lost in the halls occasionally. She’d learned one important thing so far, however: most upperclassmen were just taller versions of their old selves; nothing more but a little extra algebra under their belts. Ignorance redistributed through their stretching limbs and bones.
Elliot shrugged. Something like ‘It’s okay.’ Daniela kept her eyes on him, a flame behind hers.
“It’s not okay. You don’t.”
There was no contesting. He directed his attention back to his hoodie. His finger poked the wiggly part of that silver zipper, looking up as it dangled.
‘Know what this is called?’
She clenched her jaw a moment, but reasoned with herself that maybe this was for the better. Not bringing it up meant not dwelling. She shook her head, entertaining his question. In response, Eli put his hand up and fingerspelled:
She eyed it curiously as he gave it another wiggle.
“I didn’t know the different parts had names.” He nodded, fidgeting with it some more. “Hm. So then, what about... this–?” Daniela reached out to pinch the bulkier metal part, which the pull-tab guided upwards. He spelled:
“Alright, what about... this? She ran her fingernail over the jagged metal trail the slider ran through. “That one got a name?” Eli didn’t fingerspell that last word in response. Instead, he signed it: using his index finger, he bore a grin and pointed.
“Hm.” Daniela let her minuscule smile come back. “Hoodie anatomy. Good to know.”
The slam of the front door echoed upon Daniela’s arrival. From the kitchen bar where Eli sat with Hugo, her brother, he leaned back to try and catch a glimpse of her movement. Daniela had barely emerged before hurrying up the stairs, not stopping to greet anyone before there was a second, smaller slam. Eli guessed it was that of her bedroom door. He turned back to Hugo.
‘She O-K?’ he fingerspelled the last word hesitantly.
“Bad day, probably. She’s started losing it over bad grades lately.” Hugo had only taken his eyes off their homework to watch what Eli was saying; he didn’t look concerned at all. Elliot frowned.
‘She’s not O-K.’ Again, Hugo only shrugged. ‘Should I–’ Eli looked back at the staircase. ‘Try… to help?’
“I mean, sure, if you really wanna, but... she’s not gonna be nice. I’ve tried. I usually just leave her ’til she feels better.”
Eli nodded, but kept his sights at the top of the stairs, at the vacant space she’d left. Usually, he trusted Hugo. Since their first encounter in the communal sandbox, kindergarten fistfuls of grit and plastic, he’d taught Eli rules about everything. When Hugo said not to bother girls, Eli took the advice. Rules are rules, man, he’d said. Unless you wanna risk making everything worse.
Elliot approached her like one would a wounded animal, unsure which of his movements would cause something. But as he stepped closer, he realized that Daniela was turned around, curled up under a blanket. He stopped a few feet away, watching the blanket heap rise and fall with her breathing. Then, the heap’s muffled demand:
Her voice glazed over with contempt. Eli couldn’t decide on a plan of action. Daniela couldn’t see him, so he couldn’t sign back in protest. He stepped further. On instinct, in his uneasiness, his fingers traced his hoodie zipper, pinching the pull-tab, going up, down. Under the covers, she couldn’t hear the subtle zip.
“No, seriously, sale, Hugo! Get–”
Daniela paused after throwing aside her blanket, emerging from the burrow she’d dug for herself, realizing who actually stood before her. Elliot watched the tears streaking her cheeks, and frowned.
His hands clenched over the metal anxiously. Was she angry?
‘Sorry.’ That sign worked for most situations. He remembered he was frowning. ‘You’re… crying.’ She hastily wiped off any remaining evidence on her cheeks and shook her head. Eli felt lost. Here he was, lanky and awkward, standing over the girl like a tourist without a guide, studying some artifact. He was missing something.
‘Tell me… what to do.’
‘I want to help. Tell me… what I can do.’
“You don’t have to do anything, Eli. It’s okay.”
‘It’s not O-K. You don’t deserve that.’
Daniela could’ve smiled at his recycled phrase. “Well… I don’t know,” she said. Hugo ordered Eli around enough as it was. But he was going to keep standing there otherwise. Maybe she didn’t mind it all too much, she thought, and collapsed back onto the bed with her eyes on the ceiling. In the near-silence of the room, Eli heard everything: the radiator whir, the click of her manual clock, a car being parked in their driveway, tire rolling over the gritty pavement. It was like the cafeteria, but smaller. A deafening intermission.
When he reached again for the zipper, he instead peeled the hoodie from his shoulders. Revealed by his loosely-fitting shirt, the dark skin of his arms peppered with goosebumps. He gripped the fabric with hesitation and took another few steps forwards. Daniela sat up. She noticed his eyes— that was the odd part, he was looking at her this time. With one gentle motion, he bent over her and draped the hoodie over her shoulders.
It carried the scent of cheap pine cologne and a softening detergent, and stretched long after her arms stopped. The sleeves wrapped past her hands and fingers when she slipped them through, hood hanging low on her small shoulders. The folds hid her like an animal’s extra coat; she sunk into it, allowing it.
‘I…’ He scanned her, all enveloped in his second skin. His insides were ablaze. Unknown territory, something within him blared. Unknown, unknown, unknown— ‘I hope it helps.’
All Daniela could do was nod. Her hands clenched over the sleeve-paws she’d made.
‘Want to talk about it?’ Usually, when she asked him this, Eli would crack a sad joke about his obvious situation. ‘Since you’re the one who can,’ he added. Daniela shook her head. ‘That’s O-K.’ His knees bent where he stood; he took a seat, legs crossed, right before her. With an arm outstretched, he poked at the silver zipper hanging over her knee. She looked at him. A tiny smile manifested in the corners of her lips.
‘P-U-L-L-T-A-B,’ she fingerspelled. She’d dug her hands up from the dangling fabric. ‘Hoodie A-N-A-T-O-M-Y.’ She didn’t know the sign for that yet.
‘Anatomy,’ Eli signed back properly. She caught the familiar gleam in his eyes, something exciting, content.
Daniela pinched the zipper, and Elliot realized the absence of something that had once swarmed over him. He couldn’t hear the clock anymore. No more ducts whirring, tires rolling, instruments moving— only a subtle zip, guided by her hands: up, down, up, again, cause and affect, but something different now. Something new. Maybe now, he thought to himself, that didn’t have to be frightening any longer.