Kissing her is like drinking stars from a slotted spoon. The last few crumbs left bare on the plate, but the taste of them is so cosmic, so all at once, that it almost feels worth it. You go in again again again until she pushes you away.
You meet at play practice. She is Perdita, and wears a crown of flowers and a white sundress. Florizel heralds his love for her. She is: “no shepherdess, but Flora peering in April's front.” From behind the curtain, you mouth the lines along with him. You mean every word. She is seventeen, much too cool for playing at Shakespearean rouges with swords and dancing like virginal maidens, but her mother directs some of the plays, so she stays. You are fifteen. You like to tinker with the light board and paint acrylic backdrops. You are almost pretty enough to act, but carry no bravado in your body to be any good at it.
She invites you to hang out with her and her friends after practice. You go to the Catholic school in another borough, and sometimes the girls will pick you up in their car. Your knee-socks and polo shirt look foolish next to the fashionable sweaters they stole from the local Goodwill, cutting them up with scissors to expose the bottom crests of their breasts; the baggy jeans that accentuate the thinness of their waists, the flats of their pale stomachs. They use Bic pens and lighters, insert sewing needles into their forearms in order to tattoo marks of girlhood: hearts, smiley-faces, the faintest peace sign. You are there, unspoken, unbelievably blessed, basking it all in.
They live most of their lives at night. You lie to your parents that you are sleeping over at a classmate's house and go careening off with them into the setting sun. Before her, you have never been to a party. You expect there to be dancing, but there isn’t, just hundreds of kids packed into a house smoking cigarettes out windows and drinking wine out of boxes. One friend has made meade in their basement, and the children line up to try it, wincing as the bitter moonshine washes down their throats. Your eyes linger on thin white lines that scamper across the kitchen countertop. Maybe you shouldn’t be here.
The thoughts of anxiety wash away when your eyes land on her. She has a boyfriend, a freshman at the community college, and they are kissing passionately, pressed up together in the way that only people under the influence of love or alcohol can. It is sweaty and uncomfortable, but erotic because of a fizzle in your chest. You will learn this feeling later. You wonder if they love each other. She and him are in an open relationship, something you will find laughable when you grow older and fuck other people as they please. Rumors of threesomes, foursomes, an orgy at an after prom party circle around you. She pulls away and looks at you, smiles, and you wonder what you would give to feel her touching you in any semblance of the way that she is touching him.
On the floor of the living room, you sit together. She pulls a crumpled up bag of sour candies out of her purse and plops them in red solo cups. Then, she grabs the largest bottle of vodka off the tabletop and pours a hefty amount into each one. The sugar makes the liquor taste sweeter, she claims. You take a sip and want to gag, throw up the concoction right onto this stranger's carpet, but she made it just for you, so you swallow it down happily. Sweet.
One night she takes you to the elementary school playground. Her boyfriend is not there, in his stead is a boy with a shaved head and tight laced boots. He looks like 1960’s skinhead, but assures you that he’s not a Nazi. He’s in it for the look. He tells you that she likes to have sex with her boyfriend on the roof of the elementary school. He tells you that they do it sometimes during the day when any toddler can walk out and see. He tells you that they haven't ever gotten caught. He tells you that you are not like her, that you are a “cornflake girl” and that you are “hanging with the raisin girls.” He never tells you what that means. He places his hand on the small of your back and you shiver.
The three of you begin to frequent the playground, sitting on the swings and passing back and forth a cigarette, but you always decline. When you get home you wash your clothing in the bathtub to get the stench out; dry it clean with the hair dryer to keep your father from smelling it.
Also, you begin to shave in the bathroom. Just in case.
You three-way split a six pack of beer. You drink the least. You remember reading somewhere that gluten is in beer, and each sip tastes like a moldy crust of bread. When all the bottles are finished, the skinhead boy begins to throw them against the wall of the school. The bottles splinter against the brick and broken glass coats the hopscotch court. You laugh, half really needing to pee and half-terrified that the police will come, but delight overcomes you and you throw a bottle too. Crack.
Later, you all sit on the skinhead boy's front porch, playing some kind of question game. When did you lose your virginity? To my best friend when I was fourteen. Homecoming night Sophomore year. Never. Never? They ask. You nod feverishly, a little dizzy with embarrassment and something else. That fizzle in your chest. He turns to her and whispers something in her ear and she turns pink.
She begins to tell you things about yourself that you thought nobody would ever care enough to notice. The way your eyes look greener when you wear the sweater your mother got you for Christmas this year, the way the front piece of hair on your left side is short and comes down like a bang because you pulled it out accidentally in an anxiety attack when you were thirteen, the way you wear athleisure far too often because you don’t trust yourself to be able to pick out a fashionable outfit. She says it's cute. The skinhead boy asks if you both want to come to his room. She acquiesces, raises an eyebrow towards you. You wonder if you want to lose your virginity in a threesome. When you look at the two of them together, her long limbs with his stocky build, you cannot possibly imagine where you would fit in. A regular person in the throes of an Amazonian and a punk. When you look at their eyes, you only see one pair staring back at you. No. I’m sorry, you say, holding your hands up apologetically.
The street is cold at night. It’s spring, but a frosty chill makes you gooseflesh all over. You don’t know quite how to get home without her. You sit on the sidewalk, picking at the moss in the crack. With the sound of Chuck Taylors bounding along the pavement, she comes back to you. She tells you she’d rather hang out with you than the skinhead boy. She presses you up against a street sign and kisses you.
“Most of the dandelions had changed from suns to moons,” a car listening to an audiobook being read by a man with a deep tremor in his voice stops to watch you. Two girls budding like flowers, embraced in the middle of the night. His headlights feel like a spotlight, and you know what it feels like to be center stage for the first time in your life, the moon and this car guiding you in. When you hear her astral laughter you can see yourself, flashes of interstellar like beauty in the otherwise dark night. He honks his horn and she flips him off, grabbing your hand and pulling you into her darkness.
There, you gaze up at the stars. You are Callisto following the bright Diana. Her boyfriend and the skinhead boy take the roles of Zeus, alternating on different nights. She disregards as you lunge forward, but the boys are always there to catch you with slicked grins and invites to the bedrooms that they share with her. It’s open. But you stay closed, attached only to her. She never kisses you again after the first night.
The hand-holds that once were clasped in corners and under table-tops become lonesome figures that you keep to yourself. She teaches you how to hold your own cigarette, no longer blowing smoke into your pleading mouth. Don’t fall in love with me, don’t go falling in love with me, is a constant reminder that falls from her asp-like tongue. You never stop trying, though. It would be foolish to give up that simmering in your stomach. The meat of your bones joylessly shaking.
So you show sportsmanship. The old college try: a phrase your father told you once in middle school, when you weren’t making many friends. At parties, you approach her and her boyfriend, rolling the hem of your school skirt up. At play practice, you speak with her mother, showing off new tricks on the light board that you learned to do by taking out a large leatherbound guidebook from the library. In her car, you play the most romantic music you can find. “Like a storm in a desert, like a sleepy blue ocean,” filling up your senses again and again.
Each new try is met with more distance and a well placed grimace. She has stopped caring. Your novelty has gone stale. The way you get drunker faster than the other kids, the way you accidentally knocked over her ashtray once in the throes of the night, clumsily pawing at her nightside table looking for your cell phone. With each inhale of her life, you cough harder. Swallow the ashes. Need water.
At one particular party they run out of booze. The skinhead boy grabs you and her loudly proclaiming that the three of you will go on a liquor run. You remind him you don’t have an ID; he tells you it doesn’t matter. Good company is good company. He assures you that he is sober but there is a stumble to his step. Your parent’s always told you to never get in a car with somebody who has been drinking, but you wonder what she will talk to him about if you aren’t there, present, a ghost in the back seat. Will she complain that you are annoying? Will she say that you are acting silly to ever think she would want you? Will she insist that the kiss was a one time thing? The questions are a rabbit hole and you tumble in, buckling your seatbelt before he even touches the gas pedal.
You are going ninety in a residential zone. The radio undulates between “remember what the dormouse said,” and “rabbit, where’d you put the keys, girl?” The houses become a blur, American flags and signs advertising the year’s mayoral candidate are flashes of red white and blue in the black of night. When you close your eyes to ground yourself from the dizziness and nausea you see your face, hers, and the skinhead boys plastered on milk box cartons. All those missing children, reduced to ashes. She makes a joke about how the skinhead boy doesn't even have his license. You ask to be let out of the car.
The street is warm this time, but she will not come swooping in to save you. You are alone, lost, and still tipsy from the beer you had to ask her to open for you.
You go back to soundlessly moving set pieces. She doesn’t meet your eyes.
It is a sad story told a thousand times before. Callisto turning into the bear, the brief moment of freedom before the rapture. You try to convince yourself that you are just like the mythological figure, but unlike her, you know the sense of being unwanted, drowning in your own sorrows. Maybe it’s best to be alone. Being a cornflake girl has its pitfalls, after all.
She will grow up, throwing a graduation cap high, as your wait for adulthood grows long and tedious like the locks of her hair. But it will happen; you will skip the town that you both once called home.
The skinhead boy goes to college with you. One night, in your freshman year, at his apartment (you don’t have enough friends to know better yet), he will whisper in your ear a secret. It’s a secret so terrible you never dare repeat it. It’s a secret about her. You can never decipher if he is telling the truth or trying to break your heart and as he tells it he caresses your thigh so sneakily and you try to shriek but no sound comes out.
You tell him you have a boyfriend. That he lives on Spring street above the bodega and buys you coffee, irons his button up shirts, and kisses you in the rain. It is a lie, and sounds like a lie, curated from stories about academia that aren’t true in a place like this, but he kind of believes it and lets you go. You never see him again.
One day, when you are much older and you can count the names of lovers on more than both hands, you go to an art show. Instead of money, they are auctioning off pieces for secrets. The best secret of the night wins the prize. It is a concept so youthful, a concept that she would probably love unabashedly and make the skinhead boy roll his eyes. You are indifferent to the matter. None of the paintings strike your fancy.
It is a painting of a girl who looks so much like her in those days, smoking a cigarette leaned up against a street sign. A half bloom of a girl caught in the puberty of adulthood.
You think of all she taught you. It’s the little things, the way you are able to feel beautiful in the dark but still struggle in the fluorescent light of day. The proper way to hold a Marlboro but never take a puff. The way she said you were beautiful, oh so long ago.
You raise your hand.
Tell a secret.
Maybe it’s hers,
Maybe it's yours.
(You’ll never tell.)