From Ned Vizzini’s first collection of essays “Teen Angst? Naaah…” to his novel “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” (now a major motion picture), there is a running theme throughout his writing—a self-aware teenager is a complex, beautiful, burdened, hilarious, resilient, layered human being. This type of protagonist inevitably leads to novels about personality changing pills, life-altering LARPing, and writing for television programs like MTV’s Teen Wolf. Ned recently made his foray into fantasy writing with Chris Columbus in the new epic book series, “House of Secrets,” the first of which was recently released. We’re not at all surprised it’s been getting rave reviews.
And now . . . we are thrilled to share with you Ned’s latest, “Strike a Chord”—a YARN exclusive short story! Here it is!
Strike a Chord
By Ned Vizzini
Mary is a light sleeper, and I make a lot of noise at night. Never mind the fact that we’re not even supposed to be in the same building complex. She got into college and I didn’t—or I did, but I wanted to do other things—and when I visit her, I’m supposed to be out by 10:00 p.m. But what I do is sign out and then double back outside the front doors and go up the back stairs, which are mostly used by pizza delivery guys and people having tortured phone conversations with their boyfriends and girlfriends back home. I knock on her door and she lets me in while glancing back and forth down the hall. The lock clicks, and then I get a sharp lovely spike in my abdomen because it’s sex time. I think she likes the secrecy better than anything.
She never wants me to leave without holding her, like we used to in high school, so I end up sleeping over, but I don’t sleep really. Nights are very active for me. I stay up and do random things on the internet, eat whatever food I can find, and write songs. I know that’s rude but it’s the best time. Mary’s dad gives the college money so she got herself a single with a closet and she has a guitar in there. Once she’s asleep, I stuff myself in there and put a towel under the door like you’re supposed to during a fire.
Mary has her first class at eight tomorrow because she’s crazy. I have this interview at ten tomorrow because—honestly, I don’t know why. I know the circumstances that led up to it: last week when I visited Mary, I woke up in the morning in this very closet and I couldn’t move because the sweat was so bad on my face and I wanted to die so badly, and she told me I should try and get a summer job.
“Your band is doing great and you should be so proud, but I see what this is doing to you. Living with your parents, asking them for money . . . you’re a very independent person. If you don’t find something soon to feel good about myself, you’re going to end up . . . I don’t know. Addicted to drugs, or dead.”
She always puts those two things together like they’re automatically related.
She told me her father could get me a job at one of his cafes, where I could interact with lots of people every day. Like that’s an advantage. I’ve been with Mary since I was fifteen. You could give a lot of different reasons for it, but the real reason is that I got hit by the sex truck and I’ve never been brave enough to try it with anyone else.
So now, at 1:47 a.m., while I’m playing guitar in her closet, she opens the door to check on me.
“Mm,” she says.
“Come to bed.”
I sigh and put down my guitar and follow her. Like a twin in a dorm room even counts as a “bed.” When I do sleep, I end up sleeping wedged between her and the wall with the draft from the window falling over me like a waterfall. But that’s not happening tonight.
Tonight, the song is really good. I mean I was onto something there in the closet. It’s starting to have lyrics and everything. I’ve been reading on the internet about the artistic method and how you’re destined to fail until something strikes you and if you don’t grab it then, it’s your own fault.
“Mary,” I say.
“Please. Tomorrow. I have my early class. Please.”
She bundles me around her, shutting me out. I think about Keith Richards, how he recorded “Satisfaction” when it struck him. He didn’t have a girlfriend probably.
After ten minutes, Mary’s breathing becomes regular and deep. I move myself away from her. She has a little piece of snot in her nose that pops like a bubble when she exhales.
Hey, I guess I’m in love / Don’t you know I know it’s true
Those are the lyrics.
Hey, I guess I’m in love / I’m too weak to speak these words to you
Those are the bad lyrics. What words are you too weak to speak when you’re in love? “I love you?” That’s too easy. What to do, what to do. After I count forty of Mary’s breaths, I ease up in her bed.
I lie back down.
She rustles and mumbles.
I climb over her. She turns around, faces the window. I hold totally still. Count forty more breaths. I start to slip out of her bed an inch at a time.
I crawl to the door. I’m moving so slow I’m practically going backward. I always wanted to be a ninja as a kid. I pretend I’m getting ready to assassinate someone. I hear the RA pass outside the dorm room, walking down the hall like a Nazi guard. I have to worry about her too. I take twenty minutes to reach the closet in a way that doesn’t wake Mary up. If you ever have to do this yourself on dorm-room carpet, here are the rules—
- Move on your flat palms rather than your stretched-out fingers; it’s quieter.
- Crawl on your knees with your feet held up, ankles crossed.
- Wait five breaths between movements to pace yourself.
I inch the closet door open with my finger. I’m still messing with the lyrics:
If I ever get the chance with you
When I’m done I can’t pretend with you
I’m a real fine punk with a lot to lose
When I was a kid, you know, I spent a good hour trying to figure out a single chord to a hit song in my room. (I’m not going to mention the song’s name because who cares.) I knew there was a chord change, but I couldn’t figure out which note it went to.
After trying all the notes, it turned out that the song stayed on the same note, just played it twice.
I’m crawling toward my guitar when she catches me—
“What are you doing?”
My butt is facing her. “Art.”
“What’s wrong with you? Come to sleep!”
The next morning, I try to put on a tie for this job interview at 10:00 a.m. Mary’s getting ready for class, putting her pants on. It feels like we’re married, like we’re in a scene in a movie where the husband is brushing his teeth and the wife is putting on her earrings. If you type “How” on the internet the first thing that comes up is “How to tie a tie” and that’s what I’m looking at, trying to remember the song. All I can remember is “love.”
Mary kisses me on the cheek before I open her window. “Good luck, you’re going to do great.”
I sneak out her window; this is always how I leave her. The air is cold and flinty. I can’t feel her lips on my cheek. I used to be able to feel them whenever she kissed me. She has soft lips that look like they have lipstick on them even when they don’t. That’s tough to deny. People say there are lots of fish in the sea; however, not many of them have good lips. I guess when you’re in love you can—wait.
I guess I’m in love / Don’t you know I know it’s true
I guess I’m in love / I’m too weak to speak these words to you
It’s coming back! The whole thing, from the first note through the chorus! . . . And all a song needs now is a verse and chorus. That’s all they play on TV.
Hey, I guess I’m in love / I’m too weak to speak these words to you
And which words are those? Not “I love you.”
Because I’m gone
You know the bad thing about music? As soon as you hear a song—or maybe this is just me but who else am I supposed to speak for—you can imagine yourself writing a song, and as soon as you imagine yourself writing a song, you can imagine it being a hit, and as soon as you can imagine it being a hit, you can imagine it being the biggest hit in the world. It takes absolutely nothing to get you started thinking about earth-shattering worldwide success. Whereas actually accomplishing that is not possible. It’s like the brain should know better than to be able to think that big. One of the philosophy things I remember from high school (that I would probably be learning again if I were in college) is Rousseau or someone saying, “Since we cannot make the world infinite, let us limit our imagination.” And I really believe that. Because it’s dangerous to have a big imagination.
I walk quickly across the campus with my hoodie over my head and my tie flapping. I never got it right; it’s going out behind me like a streamer at a used car lot. The campus security people are all drinking their coffee and reading newspapers; they’re the last people who read newspapers, in their little golf carts. They don’t notice me. I open the gate and leave Mary’s school and get in my car. The window is all frosted up.
I’m still thinking about art—and the great thing about it, the thing I forget about until moments like this, is that all it takes is one good idea. All it takes is the smallest kernel of a notion to believe that you can have what you need, that you don’t need to take any crap, that you are gone, you are gone into your head where no one can tell you it’s wrong, and all anyone can do is sit back and watch your exhaust trail burn them a new nostril and send their hair and nails reeling, I’m gone.
And you know what else? This is my car! It’s Mary’s school, Mary’s dorm, Mary’s bed, Mary’s guitar that she keeps in that closet for me, but this is my car, and I’ve got other guitars.
I start up and drive the hell away and loosen my tie and head for something that, statistically, is certain to fail.
Ned Vizzini is the New York Times bestselling author of young-adult books The Other Normals, It’s Kind of a Funny Story (also a major motion picture), Be More Chill, and Teen Angst? Naaah…. In television, he has written for ABC’s Last Resort and MTV’s Teen Wolf. His essays and criticism have appeared in the New York Times, the Daily Beast, and Salon. He is the co-author, with Chris Columbus, of the fantasy-adventure series House of Secrets. His work has been translated into ten languages. He lives in Los Angeles.