Bibliographic record and links to related information available from the Library of Congress catalog
Copyrighted sample text provided by the publisher and used with permission. May be incomplete or contain other coding.
It's two years ago, and I'm just about to turn twelve. At home things are just about to turn too. My mother spends most of her time crying in the bedroom or the kitchen, or wherever someone might hear. To get away, I'm in the woods near the house. Wandering. Suddenly he's there, walking toward me. His face blank. His breathing ragged, audible. I've seen him before. He's mentally retarded. The boy who never grew up. But he's different this time. There's something distant in his eyes, and strange. As he comes closer, I see why -- his fly is open and from it stands his erect penis. It's pale and fishlike, an alien thing. I take a step backward. He stares at me and says nothing. I turn and run --
Screeching brakes from a semitruck bring me back. I'm on one of my walks, waiting to cross the busy freeway. The driver is watching me and blasts the horn. He's maybe thirty years old, wearing a white tank top. He has blond hair and thick stubble. His window is rolled all the way down and his arm rests on the top. He sits up high, but he's close enough for me to see the sun glinting off the pale, short hairs on his arm. My eyes lock on his and he flashes a warm, friendly grin. There is something else in his eyes too. He's interested, admiring.
My body fills with warmth, as though heat is seeping from the sidewalk through my flip-flops all the way to my face. I like the feeling, his eyes lingering on my small new breasts. I smile back. I reach into my pocket for my camera.
"Hey, there," he says. Before I can take a picture, the brakes of the truck release, the gears shift, and he is gone. I watch after him, wanting something, wishing there were more. Wondering if his erect penis looks pale and fishlike.
When I get back to my house, my sister Anne is sweeping the kitchen floor.
"Hey," I say. I want to tell her about the man in the truck, but what would I say? She pauses a moment, looks at me, and pushes her glasses up the bridge of her nose. She's only two years older than I am, but sometimes she's like a middle-aged woman.
"Where have you been, Jessica?" Mom is at the sink, sponging a counter. Her arm moves in quick jabs. She turns to frown at me. It's Dad's weekend with Anne and me, so Mom is starting her regular meltdown. Even though they divorced almost a year ago, she won't forgive Dad for the affair.
"I took a walk," I say.
"You wanted that expensive photography class, and then you don't show up."
Oops. I forgot.
When I signed up for the four-week class in June, it was all I could think about. I couldn't wait for the class to start. Mom turns around again so I can see only her petite back and dark hair. She is a bundle of darkness.
"Who do you think I am? Your personal chauffeur? I'm supposed to wait for you? I have a life too," she says.
I set my mouth so I won't blurt out anything. Mom misunderstands whatever I say. I go up to my room. The contest information sits on my desk. Ruth's handwriting is at the top: DON'T FORGET! She's been my art teacher since seventh grade. The big blue letters seem to mock me. "Forget" is my new middle name. Ruth's in charge at our school of this year's national high school art contest. The prize is five thousand dollars and a chance to show your work in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., where thousands of people will see it. This is the first year I'll be able to submit my work. I just started my first year in high school.
"You have a gift," Ruth told me once while sifting through photos I had just developed in the darkroom. I've held on to that idea ever since: a gift, waiting to be unwrapped. I want more than anything to win that prize. And not for the money. For the chance to be seen.
The deadline is December fifteenth, three months away. The theme of this year's contest is self-portrait. Last year it was nature. That sounds much easier.
I take my digital Canon out of my pocket, place it carefully on the desk, and pick up the manual Canon that Dad bought for my twelfth birthday. I stand in front of the floor-length mirror. Other than my long light hair and the mole on my jaw, I barely recognize myself. My hips are wide, my breasts swollen. I have three zits on my forehead. Even my feet seem strange and not mine.
How will I take a self-portrait if I don't know who I am anymore? I hold up the camera, adjust the focus, and snap! I don't know what the picture will look like, but sometimes my camera sees better than I do.
I hear a horn honking outside. It's Dad in his white Mustang. I come downstairs just in time to see Mom running to her room without saying good-bye. I catch Anne looking back at the stairs twice before she closes the door behind us. Anne and I hump our backpacks out to the car. It is late afternoon, almost evening. My favorite time of day, when the sky seems to lift and the sun shoots out at an angle, no longer right overhead and punishing. All the photos I take in this light come out tinted blue.
"There's my girls," Dad says. He's leaning against the passenger door, his smile big, his light hair flapping a bit in the breeze. He reaches out to take our packs, and, though Anne lets him take her bag, she shrinks away from him when he goes to hug her. I let him hug me, though. He rustles my hair, which is the same color as his. Then he looks me up and down. I cross my arms over my chest, not wanting him to see my breasts.
"Every time I see you girls lately, you look so different that you'd think I hadn't seen you in years." He says it cheerfully, but when I look at his face, I can see that he's sad. I wait for him to say something about the sadness, but he just smiles and opens the car door for me. Anne avoids his eyes, but I smile back, knowing it's what he wants -- his girls should be cheerful too.
"Can we have Friendly's tonight?" I ask as soon as we're all in the car.
Anne's in the front seat. I'm in the back. Dad looks over at Anne, whose gaze is fixed out the window. "What do you think, Anne?"
Anne shrugs. "Whatever."
I press my fingers into the vinyl seat, trying to think of something good to say, something that will take Dad's mind off Anne's attitude. "Let's go to the one near the mini-golf course."
"Sounds like a plan," Dad says. Then, "We just have to make one stop."
My stomach drops. "I knew it," Anne says.
"You just have to get to know her," Dad says. His voice is pleading. "Dana's really great."
"I'm sure," Anne says. She still won't look at him.
"I thought it was just going to be us this weekend," I say. It has been every other weekend, just Dad and Anne and me.
"Well," Dad says, "starting this weekend things are going to be different."
After dinner we walk into Dad's apartment. It's strange to see all his things, all the stuff he bought when he moved in. I pull my digital out of my pocket and eye the room through the screen. A one-bedroom with a foldout futon for a couch. A TV. A desk with Dad's computer. A kitchen table with four metal-legged chairs.
Dana shows up in the screen. I follow her with the lens. She walks into the kitchen, opens a cabinet, and pulls out a glass, knowing where everything is. She flips her blond hair over a shoulder and turns on the tap to fill her glass. She is comfortable here.
Dad enters the screen. He comes up beside Dana, puts a hand on the small of her back, just above her butt. He knows where everything is too. I glance over at Anne to see if she's watching, but she is already sitting on the futon, her bag on her lap, putting on her I-hate-being-here-so-let's-just-get-this-over-with look. She didn't say one word during dinner.
That night Anne and I lie on the futon. The mattress is hard. Shadows of leaves jump across the ceiling, making pretty shapes. I can hear the hum of cars on the street. It is always hard to fall asleep the first night here. Especially tonight, knowing Dana is here in the bedroom with Dad. Knowing they are together, under the covers. I focus on Anne's breathing, hoping the pulse of her breath will quiet my mind, but I can tell by the quickness that she is awake too.
Instead I think about boys. It is what I do lately when I can't sleep: I pick a boy -- one I know, one I saw, or one I made up -- and I imagine how things might go. Tonight I imagine there is a new boy in the ninth grade. He has dark shaggy hair hanging into his eyes, and he wears ruined jeans low on his hips. He doesn't know his way around yet, so he asks me where algebra class is. Wouldn't you know it? We have algebra together. After school we get on the same bus because, it turns out, he just moved into a house on my street. After the bus drops us off, we walk together and talk about everything. Then, in front of my house, he leans forward and kisses me. Soon his hands are in my hair and on my back. "You're what I've been waiting for," he whispers, and he presses his warm body against mine. His hands work their way down my back to my behind, and he pulls me into him -- Just then a noise breaks into my fantasy, a sound I don't quite recognize.
I listen. It's Dana, making noises with my father, on the other side of the wall. My stomach goes hollow and the blood rushes into my face. Worse, I can feel a tingle between my legs, sent there by my fantasy boy, but egged on by Dana's moans. I slide my hands up slowly to cover my ears, hoping I don't wake Anne. Anne rolls away from me. She hears it too.
Copyright © 2006 by Kerry Cohen Hoffmann