A short story by Lisa Locascio.
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The summer before eighth grade, your parents send you to art camp in the north Michigan woods. They suspect that you, bookish and not yet pretty, will benefit from wearing blue corduroy knickers and red knee socks to outdoor concerts. At camp you live in a cabin with ten other girls. You wake at dawn every day. The mornings are so cold that you dress in bed, under your quilt. You walk through the woods to classes in small low buildings and breathe in the thick green air of the forest. Each Sunday you sit in an outdoor auditorium for the interdenominational worship service. At night the high school girls pass by your cabin in skinny groups.Their baby blue knee socks are like veils on their legs.
At camp you make your first male friend: Justin, a boy who loves to sing and read science fiction. He just happens to be from the town next door to yours. That September he invites you to your first Oak Park party. Your mom drives you down Augusta and over to Ridgeland, right over the highway and deep into South Oak Park. The houses shrink and creep up towards the street as you go. In your friend’s neighborhood they are tiny and close together as teeth. His house is lit up like an orange lantern. Halloween is soon.
Boys and girls smoke together on the porch, wearing billowy black pants like the sails of a secret ship. You have never been to a co-ed party before. You look at them, get scared, and then look off into the distance off the porch, the stucco next door melting into darkness. You go inside and twist your hands. Your black t-shirt and gray pants are not cool.
“Hey,” says a stranger boy with dark feathery hair.
All you can say is your name: “I’m Nina.”
“What kind of music do you like?” he asks. You name the band that means more to you than anything in the world. The boy walks away.
Then, music from the piano. Music you know. The black-haired boy taps out the opening bars of a song that is not a single, a song he can only know because he owns the album. You drift over to the piano like seaweed.
“I’m Sasha,” he says. Under his hair his eyes are blue as lake water. He is from Oak Park. There are no alleys in River Forest, where you live. You want to see one. “Will you show me the alley?” you ask Sasha, even though the party is not at his house.
So Sasha takes you out back, to Justin’s alley. It is as unexciting as you expected: a chain-link fence next to a low white garage, a forgotten soccer ball lolling against the cracked pavement. You realize that you did not want to see the alley, so embarrassingly shabby next to the curved cobblestone driveway in front of your house. What you wanted was to stand next to Sasha in the dark and not talk. Your face fills with pink blood as you happily look at the boring alley. The sun is down, the air is chill, and just the back of a little house is visible, a white dinette set moored in a scrappy square of grass.
Then a car blazes by too close to your bodies. Someone screams out the window. There is a yellow flash of speed. You grab Sasha’s arm, hoping he will think it is just a reflex. In the moment before you can see again, he taps your hand with his index finger. Your ice cream heart falls into your stomach and melts.
After that night, nothing in your normal life holds your attention anymore. You go to a sleepover party at the Holiday Inn Bolingbrook with your regular friends and refuse to get in the pool because you have finally gotten the pieces of hair on either side of your face just right and look unbreakably cool in your big black t-shirt and prescription sunglasses. Instead of swimming, you crouch in the phone booth, calling Sasha’s house over and over and hanging up when he answers the phone.
You do this at home, too. “What are you doing?” Sophia, your sister asks, watching The Simpsons next to you.
“Nothing,” you say, after you replace the receiver in its cradle. You find Sasha’s email address and send him your telephone number written out in words all run together in one big word: sevenoheightsevensevenoneeightsevensixfour. He calls and leaves a perplexed-sounding message on the answering machine. “Hi,” his voice says distantly. “I got an email? With this number?” You stand over the machine as it records him, staring out the window at the little yard with the rhododendron in its brown trapezoid and the ornamental gate that leads to the street. Your hands shake at the way Sasha clips his words. You delete the message as soon as he is finished speaking.
You read books about girls who love books about vampires so much that they become vampires. On a tour of the language lab at the high school you get taken to the bathroom by a girl with purple hair named Finn, a junior who smiles at you. In your head you make up a complicated story about how she told you she was just like you, she was different too. That she told you that high school would be better. You buy a black mesh top and a strapless black bra for underneath.
Your hair gets long and you start putting it up in gold chopsticks.
High school begins. School starts at eight, half an hour earlier than before. Your mother delivers you to the massive building next to the oldest church in Oak Park. The main entrance has a concrete overhang, a vague nod to Prairie style. The front of the building has almost no windows, but when you are inside, they seem to be everywhere, showing the calm world outside the math and science classes where you languish. Across the street are flat-faced Victorians. People actually live there, you realize once morning as your mom speeds up Scoville, trying to get you to the door before the last bell. You watch teenagers emerge from these houses. They walk sleepily and without worry the few hundred feet to school.
Inside, the lights are yellow donuts in the ceiling, the lockers bright orange, the cafeteria food inedible. If you try to eat M&Ms in the Student Center a security guard comes over and clamps his hand over your mouth. They pipe classical music into the hallways during the passing periods between classes and kill the lights in the less-trafficked stretches of the building. Sometimes you find yourself walking down a dim windowless tunnel with Pachebel’s Canon playing tinnily from some corner and wonder if you’re in a weird movie. The bell is a high metal tone, nothing like a bell at all.
You see Sasha in hallways and assembly lines, tall, angular, his black hair shaggier around his eyes. In ninth grade, he stops you as you run down the gym hallway, fresh off some Elijah crisis. “You always look different,” he says.
Another time, tenth grade, Sasha sees you at a block party and says, “Do you know who I am?”
And both times you answer, “I know.”
But behind the shape of Elijah’s body everything is blurry, hard to focus on. By the time you have replaced Elijah with Jonah, Sasha is the founder and editor-in-chief of an independent school paper that has just announced its decision not to cover 9/11. You see him striding purposefully down hallways and decide to go to an information meeting for his paper. You linger afterwards, standing with your back to him, slowly unzipping your backpack. You sink your hands deep inside. And just like you want, his voice comes from behind you. “Hey. Nina?”
He rides his scooter and you walk your bike down south to the brown house on Wenonah where he lives with his mother. You are thrilled to walk away from your house, to walk in the exact opposite direction of home, through the commercial area of Oak Park. Every store you have seen every day of your life is suddenly beautiful and surprising: the green-awninged bank with its little scalloped window edges, the auto shop with its giant glowing red sign, Erik’s Delicatessen with the breadsticks that taste like doughnuts and come free with soup. You pass Mills Park, a broad stretch of hills punctuated by a single white tower in its center, the tallest building in Oak Park. Sasha points to the tower, which leans conspiratorially over Pleasant Home, an old house where people sometimes get married. “My grandma lives there,” he tells you. “She doesn’t speak any English.”
A set of metal shelves on the front porch of Sasha’s house with thin aluminum flowers on its sides holds a pair of scuffed brown work boots, several sodden copies of the Tribune, and a half-empty plastic bag of planting dirt. “Careful,” he says as you climb the front steps, and reaches for your arm. In the front hall of his house is a framed picture of Sasha as a child, beautiful as a woman. Thin blankets cover every chair. You eat cheesy bread in wax paper over a lace tablecloth and he tells you stories. Born in Moscow, he came to America when he was five and didn’t speak at school until fourth grade, when he brought a present to school for a pretty girl. She asked “For me?” and he had to break his silence to shout “For you!”
You stretch out next to him on the daybed in his front hallway. He jumps up, pushing the hair out of his eyes, to tell you something else. When your sweater rides up above the waistband of your jeans you take your time pulling it back down. His body gives off a panicky heat. He curls into impossible shapes, the lanky length of him as supple and flexible as a rope of the braided bread you make sometimes when you are home alone. You long to press your chest into him, to let him feel your breasts and the indent of your waist, but you content yourself with watching his movement from just a few inches away.
You talk to Sasha online, too, you chat. In one of these chats you tell him that you have a special nickname for him, words that mean “little love” in Norwegian. You write this casually, as if he has just never asked you about your ability to speak Norwegian. As if you didn’t just get it off the Internet. And you call him this word even though that Christmas you give Jonah a ring with the words Real Love Is Forever engraved on the inside, even though that ring is kind of a lie, too; you tell Jonah you had it made especially for him, but really it is just promotional merchandise for the movie The Crow, which you have never seen. You bought it at Hot Topic.
You are in love with Sasha, you tell him, and yourself, but of course it’s a different type of love than the way you feel for Jonah. Why? Sasha asks, and when you press your mind over to this question it leaps and wobbles, tries to get out of the interrogation. He is neat and perfect as a statue in my mind, a creature of pure beauty too dangerous to touch. You write these words in a notebook, and tell yourself that they are true. But you’re protecting yourself with your ultimate flaw, a self-serving romanticism that allows you to collate love affairs, to collect the affection of others and flicker on and off in their lives like an old light bulb. You’re a free spirit. You’re a lover. You’re a fraud.
During winter break you keep meaning to call Sasha back, but Jonah is over at your house and your parents take you for tea at the Walnut Room and you walk down Michigan Avenue with hot chocolate in your hands, squinting into the winter sun, grinning at how tall and bright everything is. At night you drink wine with dinner and watch movies you got for Christmas and on weekends you go sledding in Indiana. Before you know it, it is time to go back to school.
When you see Sasha in the English hallway in January, you reach up to touch his hair. He grabs your wrist with two fingers and removes your hand.
You say, “What’s wrong? I love you!”
He says, “Don’t tell me you love me.”
He is editor of the real school paper by this point and starts to write nasty articles about you to use as filler text for the paper’s computer layout. RICH GIRL N. NOCENTE BUILDS LIFE-SIZE DOLLHOUSE IN RIVER FOREST. They are deleted when the actual articles are dropped in, but you live in fear that one will actually be printed: BLONDE GIRL THINKS SHE’S BIG SHIT.
I AM GOD, NINA NOCENTE DECLARES.
“Funny, right?” Sasha says, showing you.
“Not really,” you say, and go home and cry. Jonah touches your shoulder in sympathy.
You and Sasha might have stayed on opposite sides of the third-floor hallway forever, glowering at each other from the literary magazine room and the newspaper room respectively, but then Carol breezes into your life, smelling of pot smoke and carrying lazy summer secrets in her hair. You meet her on the curb in front of her house one night. One of your friends is supposed to give her a ride. “Get out and get Carol,” your friend says, pulling over, and there she is, glowing against the little path that leads up to her stately house. She smiles goofily, rising off the pavement and brushing the dust from her long skirt. Her shape swells in your vision, and you stare so long that your eyes itch and water. Her giant house soars up behind her like a castle. She is the princess, the gift.
Fresh out of eating disorder camp, new breasts heaving against her hemp cloth top, she is the only girl you have ever met who likes to cuddle with her friends. She is sleepy and beautiful and going to be valedictorian. Her soft brown hair knots together in clumpy white-girl dreadlocks like ropes on her pale neck. You long to part the curtain of hair and press your mouth to one of the unblemished spaces between. On your first night together Carol sits in the backseat of a car between you and Sasha, her head swiveling back and forth between the two of you like an excited puppy. When the driver puts Loveless on the stereo, Carol lays her cheek down against your right thigh. Her boobs flatten against your folded leg. You feel her warm skin through your jeans and remember to practice kegels. She is smooth and feline in your arms all night, and the best part is that none of it feels surprising, or wrong.
The next day is a Friday. Carol comes to sit with you in the literary magazine room. “Nina,” she says, “What are you doing this weekend?”
“Hanging out with you,” you say and blush hard at your sandwich. She squeals and hugs you. You look to your right, out the door and into the newspaper room, where Sasha paces with his hands in his hair. He notices the two of you together and gives a thumbs-up. You return it under the table. Over the next little while you speak in sign language like this across the hall when Carol deigns to promise friendship to either of you in her lilting voice. You create a secret language about Carol: a furrowed brow means trouble, a smile means things are good, a half-smile means things are great.
By the time this alphabet is complete you and Sasha are friends again, and seniors. “I know you’ll get into a good college,” Sasha says. He hates wearing shorts in gym class and scowls throughout, which is why you think he is making fun of you one day in September when he says, “Hey, are you going to Homecoming?”
He knows that Jonah is at college in New York. You figure he is taking Carol. You wish you could take Carol. Your answer is “Shut up.”
Later that night on the Internet, Sasha writes: You’re mean.
I ask you to Homecoming and you don’t even answer.
That question, with a knowing smile – what the fuck did you think I was talking about?
You wear a long blue dress and pin your hair in twin rolls behind your head. Sasha, bearing a bouquet of flowers from his mother’s garden, says “Wow,” when you open the door. You smoke his mother’s Capris together in his Taurus and hold hands. Afterwards, at somebody’s house, you want to lie together on a couch, but there isn’t enough room. When he leaves you at your door, it isn’t even late. It isn’t even midnight.
That spring Sasha takes Carol to prom. You go with Jonah. After the dance everybody heads back to your house. Sasha makes a special mix CD for Carol and plays it all night. You and she take mushrooms and chase each other around, screeching about ghosts, while he lies on the floor of your living room, hood up, singing along with the stereo. You love the music and ask Sasha to burn you a copy, and he says he will, but he never does.
Every night after graduation, Sasha takes the Taurus north to Carol’s big house on Euclid and Chicago and when he is done there he comes to you. You read in your bedroom until your parents go to sleep. Then you brush your teeth and put on nice men’s pajamas, leaving the top unbuttoned to the fullest part of your chest. You wait for him in your night kitchen. You have always been scared of your house after dark, but for Sasha you are brave.
You don’t turn on the light, preferring the blue glow of the muted television. The orange light on the white electric kettle blinks and you rub lotion all over your hands. Some nights, instead of waiting for Sasha to knock on the sliding door, you slip outside and sit on the back of your dad’s truck. You look up at the starless sky, feel the comforting heft of your white house behind you. It is always almost raining, the sort of warm drizzle you want all winter. The streetlamps shine orange and the insects sing loud.
Tonight his headlights wash up into the house as he parks in the driveway, bathing the dogwood trees in the half-moon of grass in the center of your driveway in urgent yellow light. You see an idea of his face behind the rainy windshield. He leans over to let you in, smiles, and turns on the stereo. Tiny notes from a toy piano fill the car. “This is Cat Power,” he says. “I downloaded it.” He plays the second track, “Free,” and then the eighth, “He War.”
It’s twelve-thirty or one-thirty or two-thirty in the morning. Your parents are in bed and the sidewalk is dark with rain. “This one’s really good,” he says. He reaches over and takes your hands in his and holds them together in his lap. His thumb burns like a little sacred thing in your hand. The music touches red on your face. But it’s dark; he can’t see.
You sit in his dark car and listen to his songs. When the last one ends Sasha looks at you and smiles. You know it’s time for him to go. You reach for his face and kiss him on the lips, keeping your eyes and mouth carefully closed.
The first time you did this, even you didn’t know it was going to happen. After that it is still surprising, but you both have come to expect it. Last night, Sasha wrote online: I get scared before you kiss me, but good scared.
After the kiss he leaves and you go back, feet wet on the flagstone, toes muddy, back inside, through the sliding door, back in front of the blinking television. The water has boiled, the kettle turned itself off. You stay in the dark kitchen, listening to the sound of Sasha backing into the street. He has burned you a copy of the Cat Power album, and this is when you play it quietly on the faux jukebox stereo your parents keep on the back table.
You remember looking at Sasha for the first time, his hand tapping yours in the alley, his face over Carol’s warm body. You listen to the songs you heard for the first time in his Taurus in your driveway, the car windows tight against the orange rain: “He War,” “I Don’t Blame You,” “Good Woman,” “Free.”
You think of your lies, of the Norwegian word. Nothing you felt was foreign or secret. None of it was little, at all.