Tonight, we walk to the baseball field to watch the fireworks. The show had been rained out the day before, so today, the fifth of July, the whole city is pooling together. Families with small children and staggering fathers fill the bleachers. There are American flag T-shirts and cigarette stink and sunburn, all over. It takes Jamie a while to get us there. We walk down a stretch of dirty highway, careful not to step on the smashed-bottle shards littering the sidewalks. They check our bags at the entrance, but we stuffed our snacks and candy bars into our pockets, undiscovered. They sell that stuff here but for a higher price, so we break the “no outside food” rule with bulging pockets. The cop checking my purse smiles at me wide, and Jamie tightens his grip on my wrist. We sit on the field, on the grass, dead-center of the four bases. I spread out a worn blanket, one from childhood, and we sit.
Children are all around us. Children running, children blowing bubbles, children with streaks of dirt on their faces and ice cream cones in their hands, melted vanilla dripping down to their elbows. They all look so breathless, so fragile. The sky turns to bruised purple, then to blue velvet, and the first of the fireworks explode above our heads. The whole city, corralled into the baseball stadium, cheers.
Jamie pulls a flask from his pocket and starts to drink. Hey, I say, there are children all around us. I’m not bothering anyone, babe, he says. You want a sip? he asks, gold tooth flashing in the dark. No thanks, I say, burying my face into his shoulder. Jack Daniels is too strong for me—at least it is tonight—and I don’t have to ask to know that’s what he’s drinking. I pry my fingers around the crook of his elbow but he shrugs me off. We sit close, my back arched against his side. I want him to notice me, my body. To see that I’m trying.
He has his iPhone in one hand, its cracked screen too bright in the field’s darkness. Jamie’s other hand is resting on his knee, the flask leaning on his limp palm. By now, its contents are nearly gone.
I sit with my arms crossed, watching the fireworks explode overhead. The red, white, and blue pulses are blurred by smoke that hangs in the air. When the sky finally goes silent, I pick up our stuff and throw the blanket over my shoulder. We stumble back through the crowds and finally find our way out onto the sidewalks. A streetlamp flickers somewhere nearby and my feet ache in my cheap sandals. Let’s just go home, I say.
Hey!, Jamie shouts, and I flinch out of habit before seeing the strangers waving to him from across the street. They approach, five boys who look like him, smooth and strong and angry. In their red T-shirts and gold chains they scare me a little, their coyote teeth, Adam’s apples throbbing against bronze throats.
How’s it been?
You know, same shit, man. A throaty laugh.
Yeah, I feel you. Just watched the fireworks with my girl.
Nice. We just happened to be around. We was hoping to run into you, actually.
Yeah. You got anything for us?
Jamie steps towards the boys and answers in a low mumble that I can’t make out, and they erupt in laughter.
No but really, you got anything?
Jamie licks his lips. Glances left. Glances right. He shifts his weight, digs deep into his pants pocket and pulls out a little bag of something. I look away, look at the boy in the red T-shirt with tattooed arms who is looking at me. He smiles at me, hungry. I glance left. Glance right.
I’ll pay you back tomorrow.
I think you meant to say tonight, Jamie says. His voice is hard, almost jagged, and everybody tenses. Five sets of eyes glare at him in unison. He stares into the faces of the five boys who look like him and sees what I see, which is something menacing.
Relief pools in my stomach. The boys leave. We walk back to Jamie’s apartment. I wasn’t thinking about the little plastic bag of green on white in his pocket, or how he had that on him when he knew the cops at the fireworks would be searching our stuff. As we walk back to his apartment, the moon hanging huge over our heads, I don’t think about anything, I guess.
In his apartment, the air is hot and still. I run my palm across the walls, which are warm to the touch. There’s a stagnancy here. I wander into his bedroom, where there’s a drawer of my things that I leave, and grab a T-shirt to change into. When I sit on the edge of the bed, I can already feel the sleep digging into me. I’m tired, like I’ve been lately. So tired I don’t hear Jamie walk into the room.
In bed, the lights are off and the fan is on. We lie on top of the blankets, my T-shirt stuck to my back with sweat. In the dark, he reaches in between my thighs and I part them, half-asleep. I don’t exactly feel like doing this, not right now, but his hands are insistent and I want to be good for him. I want him to stay. I bite my lip the whole time and once he finishes, he kisses me hard. I try to taste his lips, to see if the booze is still on them. A minute later, he’s asleep. I’m lying awake now, thinking about all this. Running all of the details through my mind. How the sound of fireworks scared the children. How the grass clung to the backs of my legs, how my back grew sticky with sweat. Jamie’s breathing, right beside me. I start chipping away at my nail polish with my teeth so that it litters the bed with flakes of gold. It takes me another hour to fall asleep.
The next day, my cousins from Long Beach arrive. We cram into my grandparents’ house, across town from Jamie’s apartment. Grandma makes a feast, aluminum trays filled with spring rolls, skewered beef, mekathung. We’re sprawled across the tiny living room, my legs up against the wall, head dangling off the couch a few inches from the tile floor. Sierra is sitting with her back to the TV stand, breastfeeding, her brow knit in concentration. I watch her as the baby, Rith, pulls away from the nipple, falling asleep in her lap. Brooke is sitting next to me, reading. A Brief History in Time by Steven Hawking, the cover says. There’s an entire ocean of things we have to tell each other. It’s been a year since they last came to visit, and so much has changed. There is a second nephew now. My mother’s moved far, far away, back to Cambodia. Grandma’s favorite tree was cut down, and now there’s a stump where she sits and reads the newspaper. Grandpa is losing his eyesight. Brooke’s hair looks thick and so do her thighs. Sierra has finally quit smoking.
In the evening, after Rith has fallen asleep, I sit with Sierra on the twin bed in the guest bedroom. There’s a box fan on full-speed in the window, but this summer night feels sticky and endless, an inescapable kind of heat. Beads of sweat drip slowly down my back. Sierra’s skin is sticky in the places she leans on me. She has an envelope filled with photos that she’s showing me. In one, her husband Ricky is balancing a Coke can on his forehead. In another, they are at a bonfire. The flames cast a glow on their smiling faces. The next few are photos of Sierra’s four-year-old son, Michael. He’s wearing butterfly wings on his back and pink plastic high heels. There is a big grin on his face.
I think he’s gonna be … you know, Sierra says.
Gay? I ask, and she nods and smiles, and I can tell she’s a good mother.
The next photo is the back of Ricky’s neck. There are three names tattooed in cursive lettering: Sierra, Michael, Rith. The skin around Rith is red and slightly shiny.
This was just after he got that one done, she says.
Oh, that’s cool.
It was his idea, not mine, she shrugs, laughing a little bit. We keep flipping through the photos until we’re back where we started. Sierra tucks them back into their envelope and slides off the bed, unsticking her body from mine.
I lie in the musty heat of the bedroom, alone. The Sierra I grew up with was a wild spirit, young and unstoppable. Now she is a mother, two times over. Now she has a family. The thought of this makes me smile in an aching way. Deep down, I want that to be me. I want children, enough smiling faces to fill a Christmas card. Not now, not yet, but once I’m out of college and making more money, maybe. I haven’t told Jamie any of this. I remember childhood as the dirt on my feet and how my gold anklets jingled when I ran across the street. The red strings tied around my wrists, the first apartment we grew up in. Summers full of bug bites and melted ice cream. Sleeping parents and car alarms. I want to give that to someone.
Flashback: it’s summer, 2004. We are all lighting sparklers in the backyard at grandpa’s house. Late July and the mosquitoes are everywhere. I rake my nails, painted pink, over the bites covering my knees. Sierra has just turned sixteen. She is sitting in a beach chair on the concrete patio, holding a cell phone that we marvel at, open and close with our sugar- and dirt-covered fingers when she isn’t looking. Sixteen and she is just learning how to properly hide the hickies using makeup. When we play in her bedroom, she pushes the vodka bottles farther underneath her bed. She is trying to protect us.
I am nine and Brooke is seven. We run across the tiny backyard, sparklers glowing between our fingertips, singing the lyrics to the songs we watch obsessively on VH1 when our mothers are at work or asleep. The English feels funny in our mouths, and none of the elders understand, which makes the songs feel electric, alive. Nine years old and already they don’t understand what I’m saying. Nine years old and already I am being birthed from the belly of America, this other woman, her fingernails digging into the flesh of my upper arms.
Sierra sits us on her bed and tells us to close our eyes, dusts our eyelids with blue powder, smears a tube of red across our lips. I open my eyes and Brooke does too. She is smiling, laughing into the mirror that Sierra holds up to her face, but when I get a chance to look I feel a balloon of hope bursting within me. I wanted the makeup to make me somebody else, but I am the same stupid girl and now the makeup feels stupid, too.
Smile, Gracey, you’re so pretty when you smile, Sierra says, holding a dusty mirror up to my face. I smile, even though I don’t want to, so that Sierra’s feelings don’t get hurt. I study my own face in the mirror, two rows of tiny teeth poking through the crimson.
The next morning, grandma sends me out with a list of supplies. She’s planning a barbeque for tonight, a big celebration now that the family is back home. Brooke and I head out.
She’s wearing her shiny black hair pulled back into a ponytail, her face clean and without makeup. The book she was reading earlier, A Brief History In Time, is lying open across her lap in the passenger seat. She’s just finished her freshman year at UCLA and is too smart for me to understand. The windows are down in grandma’s old Toyota, and the pages of her book get caught in the wind. I reach into my purse and take out a Kit-Kat, breaking off a piece, offering it to her.
Flashback and it’s 2010. At age fourteen, Brooke is measuring her thighs in the mirror, grimacing at herself. Why are you doing that? I ask, but she just shrugs, closing her eyes. Stop watching me, she says, her voice harsh. I stare at the tile floor instead. There are no scratches, no burn marks we can find, but it’s obvious that she is wounding. Her hair is brittle, and I find clumps of it in the shower drain, left behind on the pillows of the bed that we share whenever I’m visiting. For the first time, she is smaller than me. At night she lines her body up next to mine before we fall asleep. She is making comparisons, calculations. She wonders who is really skinnier, which one of us is closer to nonbeing. I am sixteen and stupid, but Brooke is different. Her obsessions all eventually lead to dying. The fruit trees in the backyard, the shaved ice our parents bring home, the Dairy Queen a few blocks down have all lost their magic. Now that Brooke won’t eat with me, the sweets taste shameful, sticky and sickly like guilt, all coiled up in my stomach. At the beach, she wears a bikini. She’s never done this before, but her ribs have never stuck out like this before, either. Standing in the ocean, she is virginal, vulnerable, and the boys are finally looking. I don’t know how to ask her why she’s doing this. I ignore the dried vomit in the corners of her mouth as she falls asleep beside me. When we leave, I hug her like somebody frail, who would break from too much force. I worry that she mistakes my slack grip for indifference.
I’ll have some, Brooke says. I break off a piece and hand it to her, the milk chocolate melting onto my fingertips. She’s better now, I can tell. Her hair is back and her body too. It’s not something we talk about; it’s behind us now.
We sit in the parked car and I watch her read. How’s the book, I ask, like I have any idea what it’s even about. It’s interesting, she says back, lifting her head up to look at me. There’s something different about you, I tell her. I don’t know what it is. Yeah, she says, smiling. I expect her to return to her book, to keep reading, but she closes it. Come on, she says as she opens the passenger side door, unbuckling her seatbelt. We have to buy the groceries.
By the time Jamie arrives, the house is spotless. Brooke, Sierra, and I have spent the entire afternoon scrubbing walls and washing floors. The rusty faucets and dusty shelves have transformed. Family photos now shine in their frames. The linoleum gleams beneath our feet.
When Jamie pulls me into a hug, I can smell the fresh shower and aftershave on his neck. Sierra and Brooke peer out from the living room, watching us at the front door. Jamie gives me a small kiss on the neck and I lead him into the house, to Sierra and Brooke lounging on the couch.
Hey, he says to them, bowing his head.
This is Jamie, I say, nudging his elbow, trying to make him say more.
Hey, my cousins reply in unison, studying him from head to toe. His curly black hair, his lanky frame, scuffed Nikes, all under examination. I worry that they’ll judge his gold necklace, his bad tattoos. He stares into the tile floor and the room is silent, filled with Sierra and Brooke’s thoughts, their efforts to find the bad in this boy standing before them.
How was the flight here? he asks them, smiling uncomfortably. I can see that he’s trying to be friendly, and I’m grateful for the attempt.
Not bad, Sierra says after a pause.
Lowell’s an alright place to be, Jamie says.
Yeah, it is, Sierra replies with a little laugh.
Is there anything I can do to, like, help set up? Jamie asks, after another pause.
I lead him into the kitchen and tell him to fill the coolers with ice. Can you unpack these? I say, pointing to the cases of beer and Coke cans lining the counter.
Of course I can, babe.
It takes a few hours, but eventually the backyard is crowded with guests. Some sit on blankets and old bed sheets spread across the lawn; others stand, surrounding the two tables piled high with food. I’m lying on a faded blue bedsheet in a white sundress, one I still have from back in high school. Rith is next to me, asleep in the portable carseat that Sierra brings him everywhere in. There are toys hanging from the handle, dangling above his head: a stuffed whale made out of velvet, a sunflower with ribbons hanging down from its center, a tiny mirror. Amidst the cacophony of the party—the loud voices and grandma’s traditional music streaming through the speakers in the kitchen—our blanket is its own private island. Safe. Sierra makes her way over through the throngs of relatives and friends and strangers. She’s wearing a black halter top, a can of Bud Light in her hand. I’m reminded of the high-school version of herself, always like this but more careless, more wild. Always running away from something. Hey, she says, sitting down cross-legged, facing Rith in his carseat. She rubs my back with her right hand, sips beer with her left. Her palm is calloused, stronger than one would expect, but she’s gentle with me like always. There’s a ring on her finger, and she’s got a family now, she’s a real adult. But I still remember her as sixteen. Weekends with her in charge and all of us dancing in the living room, just our underwear on, pizza boxes piling on the kitchen table.
Brooke is at the tables, pouring seltzer into a red Solo cup. She’s changed out of her yellow romper from before and into a long dress. She’s wearing winged black eyeliner and a silver necklace. She has breasts now, I notice, my little cousin Brooke, and is talking to a boy in a white button-down. He laughs, visibly nervous, visibly kind, taking little sips from a can of lemonade and resting his palm on the table. He’s Asian, like us, a boy about my age. A boy I don’t recognize but have probably seen before. He is placing a hand on Brooke’s shoulder, brushing the hair out of her face, and she is smiling with her eyes closed.
It’s dark now, and the mosquitoes are out. Most of the party has gone home or gone in. Grandma’s folk music has been replaced by a pop station on the radio. The DJ is talking loud into my ear, and I sit in a lawn chair, sipping Sprite mixed with vodka until his voice dulls. Jamie is next to me, eyelids closed. I watch a mosquito land on his neck and extract his blood, but I don’t say anything. He doesn’t flinch. I remember him from high school, back when his hair was short, when he got suspended for selling weed in the boys’ locker room. How he laughed on his way out the front entrance, handcuffed and led by police, like it was some elaborate prank. His mother was a whore, they said, his father was a drunk, and it could be slander but it could be fact; I never met either of them. I didn’t get to know him until last year, after we graduated. We were both downtown at the same time and struck up conversation. He had a nice laugh. Pretty eyes.
The first date we went on was to the movies, the theater in the highlands. It was a windy night and my skirt flew up in the parking lot, and I said sorry uncomfortably. We both knew that he saw my thong, and he stared at me just a second too long afterwards, watching me smooth the down the fabric of my skirt. In the theater I was the first one of us to hold the other’s hand, but he was the one who pushed our clasped hands into my lap, his calloused palm against my inner thigh the whole night. Nothing about it was sweet or romantic, but it was honest and that was enough. I guess. I still don’t know if I liked it, but I thought about it for days, until finally I decided to call him back. I forget what movie it was. I forget everything but him looking at me and his hand in mine, his hand in between my thighs in the dark.
Brooke runs up to us breathless, her dress trailing behind her through the crabgrass. Do you guys want to dance? She asks, her speech slurred just slightly. Almost asleep, I yawn a no in response. Sure, I’ll dance, Jamie says, filled with a new energy, no longer the boy too exhausted to brush a mosquito off his own arm. He puts his hand out and Brooke helps pull him up. Maybe Jamie will fit into my family after all, I think, watching them run toward the music with my eyes half-shut.
When I wake up, the time on Jamie’s phone screen, which he left lying in the grass, is 12:49. It’s dark out, the party illuminated only by hanging Christmas lights and lit citronella candles. The song that’s playing is loud and fast-paced, and Jamie and Brooke are still dancing, in a group with other people our age. He is shiny and bronzed in the candlelight. I can see beads of sweat running down from his curly hair. He’s beautiful right now. I want to take a picture but instead I watch him move, uninhibited in a way I could never be, unaware that anybody is looking at him.
The next song is slow, something jazzy. I like it but don’t recognize it. It’s been so long since I’ve listened to the radio. The young people partner up and I watch Jamie reach for Brooke. Brooke is unsure. She smiles apologetically toward the drink table and I notice the kind-looking Asian boy standing there still, with a lemonade in his hand. She doesn’t really want to slow dance, it’s obvious, but she goes along with it and it doesn’t seem that bad, I think, after a minute. The song is long and I watch him sway her, slowly back and forth. They both look beautiful. They look good together, as a pair, and I feel a little protective. I keep watching from my bed made of grass. Anyone who looked at me would think I was still asleep, but my eyes are open a crack and I’m watching. Jamie has his hands around Brooke’s waist and her eyes are shut. She’s smiling. He rotates now, his back to me.
When I see it happen, I don’t trust my eyes, not at first. One minute they are dancing and then they stop. Jamie is no longer swaying and his mouth is on Brooke’s. He stands pressed up against her and both of his hands are groping her ass. There is a knot in my stomach that I didn’t even know was there. It explodes. What the hell? Brooke goes, in an angry whisper. The other dancers don’t seem to notice, but I do, and so does the boy drinking canned lemonade at the drink table. Brooke pulls away, smooths out the wrinkled fabric of her dress. Lemonade boy snarls at Jamie, and I’m angry, I’m confused. Without thinking, I’m already rooting for this kind boy who likes Brooke, who wants to protect my cousin, and not for Jamie.
What the fuck? He goes, and now everybody turns to watch. Now it’s a confrontation, a scene. Don’t touch her like that, you asshole, lemonade boy shouts. Yeah, don’t fucking touch me! Brooke calls out, her voice braver than it used to be.
Time is suspended above our heads, everything moving in slow motion. Jamie breathes in fierce, like a stallion, wet with sweat. Lemonade boy doesn’t move a muscle when Jamie swings his fist, but we can all hear the crack of bone. Can all see the gush of blood. Brooke runs up to lemonade boy and holds him, rips off strips of the worn tablecloth fabric to stifle the bloodflow. His blood runs down the front of her dress now, dripping from her chest.
Jamie heaves a sigh, wipes the sweat from his brow. I can see the bad tattoos peeking out underneath the loose fabric of his T-shirt sleeves, a faded Marilyn Monroe pinup on one upper arm, two hands clasped in prayer on the other. He walks out the gate of our backyard silently, all eyes on him, without looking back. We are all deathly still, unsure where to go from here. The radio is still blaring, an upbeat love song now, and there is an acrid taste to the air. Inside, the elders have no idea what happened.
Sierra is the one who drives lemonade boy to the ER. His real name is Peter, actually, and he sits in the front seat, me and Brooke in the back. He holds Brooke’s hand above the passenger seat headrest. How do you feel? We keep asking him, but his answer is always the same thing: I’ll be okay, I’ll be fine. The drive is smooth and dark and nothing like it used to be, when Sierra would careen through the streets at age sixteen, me gripping the car door in terror.
Inside the ER, the waiting room buzzes fluorescent. A secretary with thick, dark lip-liner and two-inch nails hands us a form to fill out, a pen, and a clipboard. Brooke rushes off to the bathroom to wash the blood off her chest. It takes an hour before Peter is finally seen by a doctor. We spend it together in the waiting room telling jokes, buying bottles of soda and candy bars from the vending machines. Under the blood and the bruises that have started blossoming across his face, I can see that Peter is smiling.
After he’s seen by a doctor, he comes back into the waiting room with a painkiller prescription and an X-ray image of the broken bone. It’s scary to look at, how big and jagged the break is, but he waves it around like it’s a prize he’s just won.
We hug him like he’s family, like we’ve known him for years.
Come home with us, Sierra says as we walk back to the car. You mean back to grandma and grandpa’s? I ask, confused. I am, Sierra. No. She says. She sighs. Come home. To California. To Long Beach.
The weather is finally cool, now that it’s the middle of the night. In my sundress, I shiver. She hugs me from behind, my older cousin. Underneath the parking-lot lights, she looks into my eyes and I know she’s right. It doesn’t take more than that to convince me. I can find work; I can transfer schools. I know without second guessing that this is the end of this city for me, that staying would only bury me in wreckage. When we get home, she pulls a laptop out of her suitcase. In the darkness of the bedroom we are sharing, the screen glows, luminescent. The printer groans out my plane ticket. To Long Beach Airport. One way.
I decide the best time to get my stuff from Jamie’s apartment is the middle of the night, when he’s asleep. I park the car quietly and unlock the front entrance. I walk up the flights of creaking stairs bathed in flickery yellow light and open his front door. The fan is on, and the fourth-story window is open. The sounds of traffic waft in from the street below. I go into the bedroom and he is asleep, shirtless. I watch the rise and fall of his chest, illuminated by the city lights pouring in through his window. He looks so peaceful, so gentle, and I want to crawl in bed with him, feel his sleeping body pressed into mine. I want to hold every good thing about him and let go of the rest, but that’s not how things work, that’s not how things are. I find my drawer of things in the dark and empty it into my backpack. I take one last look at his bedroom, the yellowed posters, the laundry scattered across the floor, my hair products lined up along the dresser. I lean over his sleeping body and kiss his shoulder right where the collarbone begins, one last time.
The darkness outside is slick, complete. The cicadas are out, and the whole city buzzes with their voices. I wrap my arms around my stomach. It feels hollow somehow, cratered. I take one last glance at the apartment. His bathroom light is on like always, I think, but then I see a different man at the sink and realize it’s not his apartment that I was staring into. I close my eyes. I get in the car, start my engine. I drive away. I don’t go back.
Greta Wilensky is a seventeen year old writer from Lowell, MA. She was the 2015 runner-up in prose for the first annual Winter Tangerine Review Prizes. Her work has been published in the Best Teen Writing Anthology of 2015 and Souvenir Lit Journal, and is forthcoming in the Winter Tangerine Review, Blueshift Journal, and Alexandria Quarterly. She was a 2015 YoungArts national winner for short story, and her work has been displayed at MoMA PS1 in New York City and in the Department of Education building in Washington, D.C. Selected by Ahsan Butt.
Image © Brad Hagan via Flickr Creative Commons.