By Terri Leker
“Honey, you should really slow down. You’re absolutely attacking your food.” My mother had skipped breakfast and was finishing her second cup of black coffee. “Nothing looks worse than girls who eat fast.” She got up from the wooden table and walked toward the sink to refill her mug. “Pardon me — young ladies eating fast. But especially now that you’re in high school. Kids can be cruel.”
On my way home last week I’d walked my bicycle across the blacktop adjoining the basketball courts, where a group of boys were playing a noisy pickup game. They ran back and forth in long shorts and shiny tank tops, grunting and cursing. As I passed, the ball ricocheted against the backstop and stopped near my feet. I ignored it.
“Throw it back!” a kid in a gold Pacers jersey yelled, so I propped up my bike and heaved the ball, which sailed wide by about twenty feet. “Thanks, retard,” he laughed, then added, “You got a fat ass.” I stayed very still. My ears prickled with heat, and my chest thumped once. It was too late for a comeback by the time another, taller boy in a Rasta-colored beanie ran after the ball.
“Jesus, Paul,” I heard him say, as I jumped onto my bicycle and started pedaling away. “Don’t be such an asshole.”
“Especially the boys,” my mother said. “Ugh.” She poured more coffee, took a sip, then pursed her lips into a line that stretched nearly to her ears. When her teeth reappeared they were filmed bronze with lipstick. “Anyway, you’re going to be late for school.” Her mug made a quick scraping sound on its way into the sink. I looked over my juice glass at my mother’s stiff blonde bob, the cable-knit taupe cardigan, the pleated tan slacks. She wore wooden clogs, and the tops of her feet were encased in toast-colored pantyhose. She looked like a mushroom. I was dressed in what my mother was now calling my ‘uniform’: jeans and a black t-shirt under my dad’s old grey hoodie. I wanted to finish my breakfast even after she said these things, but not with her watching, so I swept my half-finished pancake into the garbage disposal and walked down the hall to the bathroom.
“Don’t forget your teeth,” she called, at the same moment I was squeezing a tube of Crest. I closed the door and spit into the sink. Had this house, my mother — had everything always been this beige and dreary? I didn’t think so, but it was already hard to remember. I shouldered my backpack and walked to the front door, stooped forward beneath its weight.
“Bye, Kay,” my mother said from the kitchen. “I’ll see you after five.”
“Goodbye.” I walked my bicycle out of the garage into the morning. It was sunny and cool outside, and across the street Mrs. Yee was kneeling on her trim lawn in a jaunty straw hat, adjusting a soaker hose. It was mid-May, but their Easter display was still up. That’s the sort of neighbors they were: Styrofoam nativity scenes sharing the front yard with a cupid windsock, or jack-o’-lanterns overlapping with inflatable pilgrims. The American flag never faltered; it waved proudly all year long. We hadn’t lived here then, but someone told me that the previous summer Mr. and Mrs. Yee had planted a “Way to Go, Graduates!” lawn flag, even though they didn’t have any kids and looked like they were in their seventies.
“Hello, Maya,” Mrs. Yee waved. I didn’t know if Mrs. Yee was demented or just playing with me. Yesterday she had called me “Ling.”
“Hello, Mrs. Yip,” I mumbled, and shook my hair free from my backpack straps. As I swung a leg over my bike and started pedaling, I pictured my mother watching from the kitchen window, biting a knuckle as me and my fat ass faded into the distance.
We’d moved from East Templeton to Templeton Heights at the beginning of the year, after my dad got promoted to tread line supervisor at the Goodyear plant. It was four miles from the squat apartment building I’d grown up in, the Glen Crest, which was built around a courtyard where the older boys played a version of Frisbee they called Headhunter. It was still Kokomo, Indiana, but now I had my own backyard with a lawn and a plum tree, and an all-season tire swing that my dad hung while he cursed and laughed and begged my mother for a cigarette. I watched it all from my bedroom window, thinking fifteen was too old for a swing, but I’d thanked him and made a point of perching in it and gripping the braided ropes when I thought he might be watching.
“Why can’t this stuff just taste like Dentyne?” he asked me one day in the garage. Every flavor of nicotine gum tasted like black licorice to him. The room was still cluttered with boxes from the move, and some were still unopened. My dad’s plan was to take enough junk to Goodwill to make a workspace for his table saw.
“I guess if it tasted like real gum then no one would ever quit.” I was glad that he kept trying. I thought it should be hard, so hard that once you stopped you wouldn’t start again. My mother said she was quitting too, but I bumped into her Camels everywhere. I didn’t show them to my dad in case it weakened his own resolve. I thought about dumping the cigarettes in the trash and putting the empty packs in the freezer, or stuffing them back inside her jacket pocket, but in the end I decided that it was my mother’s choice.
He pulled out a blue plastic colander and stared at it in amazement. “I’ve been looking for this. It’s like we packed in the dark.” His voice was muffled by cardboard as he leaned in to examine the rest of the box. “How’s your new school going? It’s supposed to be a step up.”
I was silent. I wanted to tell him that it was hard, that I was trying, that I was a drab brown rabbit moving unnoticed through the halls and classrooms, but what father wanted to hear that? When I rode my bicycle back to East Templeton to visit Tina Macht, my best friend who still lived at the Glen Crest, we studied Seventeen magazine like a bible and talked about going back to middle school where we would have been bosses. She still cut my hair, and sometimes her own, in a three-way mirror that took up an entire corner of her parent’s cramped bedroom. She could read backwards too.
“Good,” I told my dad in the garage that day. “It’s already going better.”
Tina and I had been in my kitchen the day of my dad’s accident. I was sitting up straight in a dining room chair with a bath towel wrapped around my shoulders. Tina stood a few steps behind me, scissors in the waistband of her Levi’s, frowning. With two hands, she gathered my hair into a sort of unicorn horn, and shook the bristly end in my face. “Do you think you’re ready for bangs now?”
The telephone rang, and I glanced at the caller ID. “It’s my mom.”
Tina dropped the rope of hair she had been holding, which fell in a wavy brown drape. “And?”
I spoke through the hair covering my face. “She’s probably calling to remind me to load the dishwasher.”
My mother didn’t leave a message, but she called again, five minutes later, and then a third time, and finally I did answer. “Stop. Please stop. Slow down,” I said, hoping it was a game but knowing that it wasn’t, because my mother didn’t play, and because I could hear the wail of an ambulance through the telephone, and the sound of blood roaring in my ears.
The bike ride to school was a quick ten minutes, not enough to break a sweat, especially on a cool morning. I passed the band room on the way to first period and saw the boy from the basketball court — the one in the Rasta beanie — now hatless, playing drums. His eyes were squeezed shut, and, as he kept time, his head whipped around and his straight dark hair took wild flight. I paused at the edge of the doorway, thinking that he looked older than the other boys. I moved on toward the din of homeroom, and took my seat in the first row, hearing the groans and whispers of twenty students behind me. Mrs. Knight was already standing at the whiteboard in ballet flats, writing an equation in green marker. I opened my Algebra textbook and waited for the bell to ring when the door opened and a tiny girl in camouflage leggings entered the classroom, handing Mrs. Knight a note.
“Hey, Freshman,” a deep voice called from the back of the room, “Why are you so short?”
“Toby! Enough,” said Mrs. Knight. She turned to me. “You’re needed in the office.” I felt a thrumming, sickening excitement. The hospital. I tried to read the note’s contents on Mrs. Knight’s face, but Mrs. Knight had returned to her equation. I glanced around the room, where my classmates were oddly absorbed in their deskwork. I gathered my things and stood up, preparing for some cloddish insult to be hurled in my direction, but the room was silent.
What I remembered: the waiting area. The cracked vinyl edge of a teal chair. My pounding heart, my buzzing jaws. Snips of hair on the kitchen floor. Stories swirled in my head like flies: I hadn’t loaded the dishwasher; the front door was unlocked; I had a math test next week. It was like I was telling someone else these things, not Tina, not myself. I didn’t know who. The ICU was chaotic, icy, fluorescent. My mother bumped into medical equipment and monopolized both chairs. “Stop,” she told a nurse who was walking to the toilet with a container of cloudy pink urine. “We need more ice in this room.” She shook the plastic pitcher almost in the woman’s face.
“Can’t you be more patient?” I hissed. “She isn’t a waitress.”
“I am patient,” my mother said. “Even when people are ignorant.”
The details of the accident were simple: a lunch trailer was parked in the wrong location and a tower crane collapsed while my dad was buying a sandwich. The man handing it to him had died instantly (everyone said “instantly,” but I wondered if it felt like an instant to him), and two months later my dad was an unrecognizable white shape in a hospital room, coils of gauze and bandages layered over tubes and drains. Even his teeth were covered, by a plastic ventilator that propped his mouth open. I tried to visualize him waking up and marching out, a mummy surrounded by flying scarabs and a howling sandstorm. In the movies, waking the mummy was always a mistake — it was angry, with its own malevolent agenda. Imagining him as a mummy made as much sense as picturing him back at the tire plant in his work boots, inhaling rubber and drinking coffee. What I tried not to visualize but always saw was the worn tape the nurses would pull off his body, the wiry dark hair that would come with it, and the form he would finally take, with nothing holding him together.
Part of me was impatient for it to be over, to stop thinking about the worst and have it be done. I was glad when visiting hours ended and I was glad that he would never know about the eight pounds that I’d gained. But that wasn’t quite true either, because he wouldn’t have cared if I gained eight pounds or eighty. Before his accident, eating had been just another slice on a chore wheel, something to complete before moving on to the next task, but at some point I had begun thinking about the next thing I’d eat even when my mouth was full. I still woke up feeling the possibility of some great, unfolding change, but before long it was just another day, one where my mother no longer pretended to quit smoking and my father’s table saw was covered with boxes. Somewhere between remembering and forgetting was knowing, which was in some way worst of all because it was a constant, creeping ache.
These days, my mother scrutinized every bite I took and sat up nights at the kitchen table with her Camels, talking to the bills: “You came late, so I’ll pay you late. You, I know. You, you can wait until next month.” Over time, her shock transformed into an anger I could hear in the sharp yank of a zipper or a garbage can’s clatter. She worked behind the counter at Charms and Chains Jewelers, and when she finished at five o’clock she drove to the hospital. I would meet her there after doing my homework, and we’d go home together at eight, when visiting hours ended. I’d ridden my bike the first week or two, but the bus was quicker.
Memory had always been my mother’s talent, and she started returning to unrelated details and facts, as if for reassurance. “I had a miscarriage two years before you were born,” she mentioned during one drive home, her eyes fixed on the road ahead. “The same day the dentist put a crown on this back molar.” She took her right hand off the steering wheel and waved a finger near her open mouth. “Three hundred dollars.” Another day, in the hospital cafeteria, she told me, “When you were a baby, you just about choked to death on a metal button.” I was eating a pre-packaged salad, balancing a cherry tomato on the tines of my fork. “Your father didn’t know any better. He let you play with it while he made coffee. A metal button,” she repeated. “You were blue when I walked into the kitchen. I put you over my arm and whacked your back once and it popped right out.” I hadn’t heard this story before, and thought I should say something — Thanks? — but my mother had closed her eyes, and I saw her fingers (she still got manicures every week) tapping a rhythm into her temples. She looked up at me and smiled, eyes bright with need. “Anyway, you’re still here.”
I walked through a long empty hallway on my way to the office, bare without all the girls in black eye shadow, the leather-sleeved jocks with crew cuts, the one Amish sophomore in her lace bonnet who might have been even lonelier than me. The walls were lined with banners — “Stop Bullying!” and “Suicide Kills!” — in green and pink tempera paint, and the cakey lettering was raised and dark like an alphabet of long, wriggling insects. I thought I’d see my mother at the office, but I was greeted by the guidance counselor, overdressed as always in a navy suit. I usually saw him in his stupid necktie on the school’s front steps before the first bell rang, yelling at kids to ‘Get a move on.’
“Come in.” He waved a hand for me to walk around the counter. The office was half the size of a classroom, with two metal desks in the middle; the other desk was occupied by Mrs. Snell, the principal’s secretary.
“You can sit down, Kay. Do you know why you’re here?”
I could only think of the extra piece of cake I had snuck from the cafeteria yesterday. This room was very bright. “I don’t think so,” I said, and then, more firmly, “No.”
“Mmhmm.” He flipped open a manila folder, but nothing inside seemed to catch his eye. His nameplate faced me from the front of his desk, and read ‘Dewey Heller’ in gaudy gold lettering that didn’t match the rest of him. “I heard about your father’s accident, and wanted to see how you were doing.”
“I’m fine,” I said. Two feet away, Mrs. Snell was licking envelopes and putting them in a mesh basket next to a photo of a little girl with no front teeth.
“I know he’s been in the hospital now for a couple months, and this is still a new school for you, so big changes…” I looked at my hands, folded tightly in my lap, and then at Mr. Heller’s, which looked like they had never done anything but sign hall passes and detention slips. “You probably already know this, but I also coach the girls’ lacrosse team.” I didn’t even know what lacrosse was. “So that’s something you might want to try. The camaraderie, plus all that running around might…”
Mrs. Snell had walked me around campus on my first day of school. By the next day, I had already forgotten where the water fountain was, and asked a redheaded boy where to find it. “In my pants,” he had answered, walking on. I hadn’t made any friends at Land Park High. The boys behaved like donkeys and the girls like old married couples.
Mr. Heller was still talking. “…because I know a good workout really clears my head when I’m stressed out…” Where did these people come from? Maybe Tina could cut my hair this weekend. I might be ready for bangs after all. “…but we are here for you,” Mr. Heller continued. “We are all of us here for you.” He gestured around the room as if it were filled with a crowd of supporters, not just him and Mrs. Snell and her damp envelopes. I tried to take a deep breath without him noticing, but Mr. Heller did notice. He stopped talking and his face had a crooked, hurt look, which could also have been exasperation at trying to communicate with a teenaged girl. I had seen both expressions before, usually from my mother. Either way, the conversation was over. It had to be over. He reached into his desk, a bit sadly, I thought. “All right, then,” he said, and signed a hall pass. “You let me know if you want to talk.” I took the folded paper from his hand, and sped back along the quiet corridor to my locker.
There had been a Saturday at the hospital, a particularly difficult Saturday, that began with my mother tripping over a low curb in the parking garage. She didn’t actually fall, just pitched forward in slow motion, her stiff blonde hair frozen in place until she righted herself, cursing. When we got to my dad’s room, we discovered that a leaking catheter had left the bed sheets heavy and stinking, which in turn revealed a new bedsore. Then, a shrieking phone call directly to the room — a wrong number — and the young, panicky Indian doctor on call instead of the grandmotherly attending physician.
“You people,” my mother said to the rabbit-eyed doctor she had shouted for down the corridor. “The least you can do is keep my husband clean while he’s dying.” She gripped the IV pole like a scepter, probably for support, but also like she was some kind of aggrieved royalty. The doctor backed out of the room with his palms in front of his chest, assuring her that someone would come right away. My mother must have liked the sound of her horrid line, because she repeated it to both nurses on duty, along with the poor custodian who was just trying to glue down a section of peeling rubber baseboard. There were other things that day, but I finally left the room and walked through the different floors of the hospital and around the outside of the red brick building. I looked for the glassed room in the maternity ward with all the newborns, but a nurse told me that there was no such room, that the babies were all with their parents.
It took my mother several long hours to set things as right as possible, and, when we finally left, the air and color of the day were gone, replaced by florescent lights that buzzed and flickered at us as we walked from the lobby to the muggy parking garage. My mother sat behind the steering wheel for five full minutes before turning the ignition. It was a quiet drive home. There was one message on the answering machine, an invitation from Tina to go to the movies.
My mother leaned against the sink, chewing at an apple. “You should go,” she said. “It’s Saturday.”
I didn’t say anything. I didn’t think that a movie could entertain me, or that I should be around a friend, even a good friend like Tina, who suddenly had a bumpy spray of acne over her forehead and cheeks. Because she hadn’t mentioned my weight, I hadn’t said anything about her pimples.
“No, you go. I’ll be fine,” my mother said, like something of importance had been decided. She crumpled into the sofa, clearing her throat until she burst into a thin, abrupt cough. Seeing my mother so exhausted and shrunken spurred me to boil water for tea and fetch cigarettes and a lap blanket. She turned on the television and flipped through a loop of programs that I recognized from the times I’d stayed home from school with a fever: infomercials, talk shows, grey local news. My mother paused at a sitcom with an ugly, grouchy man and a patient, nice-looking wife.
“This looks fine,” she said, pulling the blanket higher and folding her hands across her stomach, and I felt a little tearing sensation in my body that I couldn’t precisely locate. I was always hoping for something to distract my mother, so I wasn’t sure why her acceptance of something so small should seem like some kind of defeat. In the end, I said goodnight and slipped into bed, unsure whether she thought I had gone to the movies or was in the house. We didn’t talk much anyway.
I turned my locker combination and leaned inside as far as I could, resting my elbows on the shelf, my eyes squeezed shut. I stood there panting in this small, private space, and reached for a handful of M&Ms from a crumpled bag stuffed beneath my gym clothes. I blotted my eyes with a tissue and blew my nose. Tina and I sometimes listened to her mom’s guided meditation CDs. A woman named BellaRuth encouraged you to focus on the smallest affirmations, so I remembered that and praised myself for using the tissue in the right order. BellaRuth also suggested finding a memory from childhood that made you feel safe, so I thought about when I was nine, and had squeezed between my parents while we rode a steam engine through a redwood forest. We had all held hands in my lap, and my parents kissed each time the train ducked into a tunnel and I had laughed, anticipating the bumps, and the darkness, and the tightening grip of their large hands on mine. I blew my nose again and the school bell rang. After a moment the classroom doors opened, and the hallways were full and noisy. When I backed out of my locker, the boy without the Rasta beanie, the basketball-playing drummer boy, was standing there watching. I couldn’t decide which was worse, him seeing that I been crying, or knowing that I was eating candy inside my locker.
He just smiled and said, “Do you want to get messed up after school?” He dangled a baggie of weed an inch away from my eyes, pretending to hypnotize me. His fingernails were nicely trimmed. “I’m Jonah Minch. We sort of met on the hoops court last week.”
Maybe one of the other basketball players had sent him. I had heard about these kinds of dares among boys. I fingered the straps of my backpack, waiting.
“Don’t worry about what Paul said. He’s a creep.”
I understood then that no one had dared him. Was there chocolate on my lips? I wiped my mouth with the back of one hand. And had Jonah found something notable about me, or did I just look like a meek fat girl who might say yes to such a question? The second bell rang without warning, blasting us apart.
“Meet me at five behind the school,” Jonah called from the other end of the hall. “Bring your M&Ms!”
Lunch, history, and geography passed as slowly as church, which gave me time to think about what might happen at five o’clock. Tina and I had smoked together a few times in the basement of the Glen Crest. Once, when the washing machine had gone out of balance, bucking and jerking against the weight of whatever was inside, we had taken turns riding it while one of us guarded the door. Getting high with a boy would clearly be different. I had an itching sense of anticipation, like I was keeping a secret even from myself.
After the final school bell, I rode my bicycle around the track instead of heading straight home. I tried to calculate how many laps might equal a pound of fat, and decided on twelve. My feet moved the pedals with an authority that I had missed, and my burning lungs reminded me how little they had been used these past several weeks. I knew that I was traveling in circles, but the movement felt more like escape than repetition. I was an engine, generating something.
“How are you, and tell me the truth,” Tina had asked last night on the telephone. My cotton nightgown rode up over my hips as I slid under the quilt to muffle my voice.
“The same. Whatever. Do you think my dad can hear the awful things my mother’s saying?”
“If he can, he’s probably ignoring her like he always did.” We both laughed a little, and I remembered the time my dad had smiled his nice smile and said, “No hablo Inglés, señora,” when my mother complained that he hadn’t rinsed his cereal bowl.
“What about when he’s really gone, and there’s no one around to ignore her?” I rubbed a dry patch behind my knee. “When it’s just us. My mother’s needs are vast.”
“Vast: immense. Of very great size or proportion,” Tina said. “At least your parents didn’t actually fight. Not in front of you. Mine can barely say two words to each other.”
Tina’s parents were a messy distraction that I took comfort in, and I suspected that Tina dramatized their dysfunction for my benefit. “My mom slept on my trundle bed last night and told my dad to kiss her ass when he came to say goodnight — to me.” Tina’s voice climbed higher as she continued, “She snored so loud that I moved to the sofa. Her beer bottle was on my nightstand when I came home from school.” Jonah’s invitation would send Tina into a delirium of excitement. Whatever happened tonight would provide a welcome diversion, one that we could analyze over multiple conversations. We loved our mysteries.
I veered off the track at the end of the twelfth lap, and rode home across the empty basketball courts. The sun was still high; its warmth spread across my back and glinted off the freshly mown lawns I rode past. After growing up on the other side of town, Templeton Heights, with all its blooming flowers and slow-moving pedestrians, could look like an unpopulated movie set. Mr. Yee waved at me from his mailbox as I approached the house. He and Mrs. Yee seemed always to be home and awake at all hours. My dad had once seen Mr. Yee, wearing a headlamp, pruning roses at midnight. I wheeled my bicycle into the garage and rested it against the metal shelving. My dad used to keep the chest freezer filled with things he liked: ice cream, waffles, fruit for smoothies, but there wasn’t much left at this point, so I rummaged around until I found a bent, shrink- wrapped pizza to bring inside. The kitchen lights had been on since breakfast, and the sink was dark with coffee cups. I programmed the microwave and hoisted myself onto the counter. The tag in my damp hoodie pricked the back of my neck, and I peeled it off and tossed it over a dining room chair.
A half-finished letter was tucked under the telephone, as though my mother had given up and simply called the person she was writing to. Even upside-down, her compact, formal script read easily: “Ed is not well. He is not eating. You asked if he was doing his crossword puzzles. I’m sorry I had trouble speaking, but the answer is no. He can’t even see.” I didn’t realize I was crying until I saw the blue letters expand and seep into each other. Blotting the paper with a napkin only made it worse, so I folded the letter into a small, thick square that I slid into my back pocket. When the phone rang, I thought it was the microwave beeping, but it was my mother, calling from the hospital.
“You need to do something.” It was hard to make out her voice, even with the receiver pressed against my ear. “Bring his duffel bag to the hospital.”
“I thought Dad wasn’t coming home.”
“He isn’t.” The microwave dinged. The pizza was ready. “I want you to bring that bag here so we can put his clothes and things in it.” My mother’s words were hoarse and subdued, I assumed because she had already tired herself out using some other, uglier voice. “The doctor says he isn’t going to make it through the night, and I don’t want to think about this in the morning. Come now.”
I glanced at the clock: it was four o’clock. “OK,” I said, and set the handset back in its cradle. Steam rose from the pizza; its blotchy pink surface looked like the hives that had once come out on my biceps after a bee sting. I crimped the doughy edges together, wrapped it in a wad of paper towels, and buried it in the trash.
The duffel was on a shelf in the hall closet above the coats, and I was surprised by its weight. My dad’s waders were still inside. There had been a warm spell just before the accident, and he’d taken a weekend fishing trip to Carr Lake where he caught walleyes for us to eat for nearly a week straight. He’d cleaned the boots in the laundry sink and put them back in the bag for a trip this summer, which we were all three going on. I didn’t want to take the boots out. He had put them there, and anyway, the bag shouldn’t go to the hospital, he should be coming home. I kicked the duffel back inside and slammed the closet shut, then I let out a long breath that would have sounded whiny and dramatic to anyone listening but felt like it was being pulled out of me from someplace very deep. I stayed there for a few minutes, my back pressed against the door like I was trying to keep the bag from escaping.
Were his eyes blue or green? It had been so long since I had seen them. I tried to remember as I walked to the bathroom, while I splashed cool water on my face, while I brushed and flossed my teeth. I loosened my hair from its ponytail and fluffed it around, looking at my reflection in the mirror. Nothing I saw was a surprise, but I hoped that one day it would be. I gathered the ridiculous strands back into a scrunchie, then gave the hoodie a shake and pulled it back on. I left my bike at home and returned to school on foot, which ended in a sort of running walk over grass, gravel, and asphalt. Jonah was standing near the first dumpster behind the cafeteria, hands in his jeans pockets.
“I wasn’t sure you’d come,” he said. “I could be a creep too.”
“Are you?” I said. “Are you a creep?”
“I’m actually not,” Jonah smiled. “Which is saying something at this school.”
“Let me guess. You transferred here?”
“I did.” he nodded. “From Muncie. I started in the fall.” His face had a softness I hadn’t noticed earlier. “I used to go to an alternative school, like for hippie kids. We moved because my mom changed jobs, and there wasn’t time to find a new hippie school here. But it’s not so bad. I like the band room. What about you?”
“I used to go to East High, but we moved across town in January.” I shook my head. “I don’t recommend starting a new school in the middle of the semester.”
Jonah dug around in his coat pocket while he listened. “Voila,” he said, producing a wooden pipe and lighter. “It’s kind of gross, but we can smoke over there. No breeze.” I followed him, and we squatted on the asphalt in the shade of the dumpster. Jonah offered the pipe to me; I took a breath while he waved the lighter over the top, then handed the pipe back and did the same for him. We shared the M&Ms, and I knew I was high when I started counting them with my mouth. I am one pound lighter, I remembered.
“Do you want to go to the flea market at the old drive-in?” Jonah lay flat, hands laced behind his head. His words floated straight up and hovered above us. “The bus goes right there.”
I had been with my dad last year. I saw my first record player that day, and learned how to ride a unicycle. “Yes.” I pushed myself off the asphalt with both palms and rose to a quick squat next to Jonah’s feet. “To the flea market.” A cool, dizzy wave washed over me and settled behind my eyes. I gulped a quick breath. I wasn’t going to be sick, I just needed a moment. What time was it? My mother would have noticed by now that I hadn’t arrived at the hospital. Or maybe not.
“No rush.” Jonah stretched and jumped to his feet. When I started to stand, he hoisted me up and steadied me until I took a step on my own. He asked about my old neighborhood during our walk to the bus stop. I tried to describe the Glen Crest; I formed the words in my head, but couldn’t tell which ones made it out of my mouth. Jonah was laughing beside me, saying “Headhunter, headhunter,” like it was a question. We waited for the bus next to an elderly woman holding a Walgreen’s bag. I could see everything through the thin plastic: fabric softener, a box of graham crackers, and a fifth of Seagram’s gin.
“What are you kids getting up to?” she said, but in a friendly voice. “Big night? I remember those.” I nodded, not trusting myself to speak, but Jonah said, “Yes, ma’am, we are exploring what this town has to offer.”
When the bus arrived, Jonah helped me up and dropped what must have been the correct amount of change into a box beside the driver’s knee. We walked down the corrugated metal floor, straight-faced, and collapsed into our seats. I closed my eyes, feeling the shadows and the last of the day’s sun on my eyelids. Jonah’s presence beside me was solid and comfortable. The bus ride was not so different from the washing machine at the Glen Crest.
I had only been to The Eleven Acre Flea Market once before, in the morning, but it was the same open-air maze I remembered, an enormous garage sale fused onto a carnival. My mother had stayed home that day with a headache, but felt better by the time we got back. She was just waking from a nap, her blond hair arranged on the pillow. After a headache my mother sometimes looked dazed and weary, like she had won some minor battle only she had been challenged to. My dad explained the row of Band-Aids on my right knee: “She only fell once,” he said, “but it was a doozy.” My tumble off the unicycle was more embarrassing than painful, but there, in my parent’s bedroom, my knee throbbed with fresh heat. We took turns describing the rotary telephones and Pez dispensers, the wooden buckets of candy you could buy by the pound. My mother listened, smiling, but her tired face was sad and suspicious, as though our fun had taken something from her.
When Jonah and I got to the flea market, it was transitioning from day to night. Strings of colored lights were just beginning to twinkle, and we bounced loosely around the buzzing stalls like nothing was holding us to the ground.
“Cotton candy.” Jonah stopped without warning at a red and white striped canopy. “Please tell me you want some.” It made me laugh, this warm pink cloud at the end of a white paper stick. We sat together and shared it on a bench facing a round stage. A cover band was playing the same rock song I had heard all my life on car radios and in elevators. I liked the asymmetry of Jonah’s mouth, the way his canine teeth were slightly longer than his incisors. My mother called them ‘eye teeth,’ and had told me that a long time ago people believed you would go blind without them. I moved closer to Jonah, and our jeans touched. He turned to me, his mouth a jumble of white. The music was loud. I felt it through my chest, and my swirling sense of time was joined to each beat and measure. When Jonah kissed me, I kept my eyes open too, and the golden spokes of his irises glowed. I couldn’t tell whose mouth I tasted: it was all sugar.
“I saw you,” he whispered. “You were watching me play drums.”
My face burned until I decided that I didn’t mind being seen by him. “I liked the way your hair moved,” I said. “It looked like it was shouting.”
We stayed on the bench, talking and kissing, and I had an unfamiliar feeling of recognizing something right in the moment it was happening and not wanting it to stop. Jonah’s arm was like a blanket around my shoulder. We went on like this; time passed, eventually the band stopped playing. The singer thanked the little crowd for listening and told us the name of the bar they’d be at that weekend. “Have a good night,” he said, and then he tipped his baseball cap at the two of us. “Young love, everyone. Right here.” A few people around us clapped. I stared straight down at my feet and Jonah smiled, saying, “Why does this keep happening to me?”
We walked back to the bus stop in the dark, leaning and pushing against each other, and then at some point we were sober and a little shy, our hands in their own pockets. The bus was lit amber and smelled of exhaust. We moved past the clumps of other passengers and found two seats in the rear, me at the window, Jonah beside me. He stretched across the aisle and grabbed an abandoned sandwich someone had left on a seat. “Turkey,” he said, flying it up toward my face, and in that instant he seemed to me a typical boy hoping for a reaction, but he wasn’t. After he looked at me he set the sandwich down and put his arm around me.
Now that I was sitting still, I noticed the grit in my sandals, and in the dark I heard only bus sounds: tires on pavement, the creak and sigh of the brakes. I felt my mother’s ruined letter in my back pocket. If Jonah tried to kiss me on the bus, I would kiss him some more. If he tried to put his hand —
“Where’s your house?” Jonah said. “I can walk you.”
“No.” I shook my head. “You definitely don’t want to do that.” I leaned against the smudged window, no longer able to ignore the dread that had settled around my ribcage. I wanted to stay in my warm seat with this boy for a month, for however long it took for my mother’s rage to weaken into something that I could tolerate.
“I really don’t mind.”
“No.” I said. “I don’t want you to.” I might have hurt his feelings. We traveled in silence for another few minutes. When the bus reached our stop, we walked off together and paused under a streetlight, shifting our weight from one leg to the other. I didn’t know how late it was, and didn’t ask. It seemed like more than a long day had passed since I’d been home.
“I had a good time,” Jonah said. “I guess I’ll see you at school in the morning.” He shook my hand like he was congratulating me at the end of a debate tournament, and then he leaned in and kissed my cheek. He wasn’t handsome yet, but I thought that he would be one day, and that he would still be kind.
“Goodnight.” I held onto his hand. “Thanks for getting me so high and buying me cotton candy.” He laughed. He didn’t know what I was supposed to have done that evening, that my mother was going to kill me, that I wouldn’t be at school the next day or what was going to happen after that. I walked home from the bus stop, my feet heavy, shaking my tangled hair to get the funk out. I felt something urgent in these last minutes, a need to find and keep something for myself. I walked through breath and wind and breeze, until the blurriness in my head fell away. My father had a quiet voice that I could always hear. I walked on, tongue against my front teeth, the night air cool on my face. He was good at getting splinters out, and told me it was because he had magic tweezers. Walking into bright sunlight made him sneeze. His eyes weren’t green. They were a grey-blue that matched one of the squares in his plaid flannel shirt. I could remember these things. I smoothed a few damp strands of hair away from my face into a new ponytail that I tightened until my temples ached. He liked to drink cold milk with ice cubes, and he gave me his pocket change when he came home from work. Sometimes it was only a few pennies, and he’d raise his hands and tell me, “It all evens out.”
When I got to my house, every window blazed with light, and my mother’s sharp telephone voice tumbled out the front door. I didn’t recognize the cars parked in the driveway, so I crouched in the darkness behind the juniper bushes that circled the front yard. I watched my mother in the kitchen, lit like a stage actress, palm against her forehead. She stared out the window with a mulish expression that she dabbed at with a Kleenex. I was torn between running and holding my ground, so I crept into the yard and lay rigidly on the grass, facing the night sky, waiting. My fingernails etched jagged half-moons into the meat of my palms. Across the street, the oversized plastic rabbits and carrots lining the Yee’s fence reflected pastel in their porch lights. After I had waited long enough, waited through what sounded like someone walking toward me and then walking away I waited some more, until I heard the bite of my mother’s footsteps approaching on the gravel pathway. I watched Mr. Yee’s silhouette strain toward the rafters above his front door, hanging the red, white, and blue bunting for Memorial Day that would dovetail into Fourth of July.
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Terri Leker is a freelance writer and a student in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. She lives just north of San Francisco with her husband and daughter in the same strange neighborhood that Philip K. Dick wrote A Scanner Darkly. She is working on a collection of short fiction.