That's How She Says Goodbye
The first time she lets a boy touch her is in December, just before her 18th birthday. The day the rain starts. It usually doesn't begin until January or February, but this year the rain comes early. Buckets and buckets of water dump down against the cement, against the strip malls, against the freshly painted stucco homes. In Southern California, the further you get from the ocean, the less interesting it becomes. The beach boardwalks and bronze-colored beauties from the TV shows are replaced with high-desert heat, dust storms, and barren foothills. The annual precipitation is laughable, but for two weeks each year, the skies cloud over, and it rains with vengeance. The sandy soil can't absorb the water fast enough, so the streets become rivers, hill sides become hill slides, and then, as quickly as it comes, it goes away.
Skylish is a senior in high school and her mother is out of town for the annual Herbs4Life convention. She's in Atlanta or Dallas or Vegas, one of those convention cities where, each year, thousands of stay-at-home moms and drop-out dads meet up for a weekend of inspirational speakers and selling workshops designed to help them be the very best work-from-home vitamin sales people that they can possibly be. Reverse aging, fight obesity, a cure for cancer. It's all there. The little pills, the gel caps, the powered drinks, the essential oils. First you pressure your family to buy, then your friends and your friends' friends, and so on from there. Once people start buying, then they can start selling too. And for every pill that's sold in her network, Skylish's mother gets a share of the profits. According to the start-up kit manual, the network can grow infinitely. There is no limit to the amount of money you can make, the lives you can save. Her mother calls it genius, but Skylish calls it pyramid panhandling.
Things are really happening, her mother says over the phone the morning the rain starts. Skylish is in the kitchen with the cordless wedged between her ear and her shoulder. As her mother talks, Skylish hurriedly spreads margarine and peanut butter over two slices of bread that she thawed out from the freezer for J.J.'s breakfast.
I met a woman here worth over two million dollars, her mom says. So we'll see who's laughing when I retire at age fifty. I'm going on a nationwide networking tour, she says, obviously borrowing a phrase from one of the motivational coaches at the convention. With the phone still pressed to her ear, Skylish sets the plate of food on the table and then goes over to the closet to look for an umbrella.
This tour is going to be a major turning point in my career, her mother says. I can visualize it already, so I know that it will work. What your mind can see, your body can do, she says, but Skylish has her doubts. Her mom doesn't even know how many feet there are in a mile. She may or may not know who the vice president of the country is, and she definitely doesn't know the capital of Montana.
Networking is the key to success, her mother tells her. It's who you know and who they know, so that's why this tour is so important. Her mother keeps talking, but Skylish is busy digging through the mess in the closet. Besides, she knows that her mother's nationwide tour really means that she'll go to Detroit to visit Aunt Carrie, then to Ft. Worth to see her parents and her other sister, Jamie. Out of pity, they'll all buy some pills and since she'll no doubt be driving the entire span of this nationwide tour in her Honda Civic, she'll most likely stop off to visit her ex-boyfriend-slash-mechanic in Reno on the way home - the climax of the trip, you could say.
You didn't leave enough money, Barbara, Skylish says, giving up and hurrying upstairs now to check in her mother's closet for something to fend off the rain.
I left you $100 on the kitchen table. Didn't you get it, hun? You didn't get it? Skylish finds a parka stuffed between two of her mother's ancient-looking blouses.
Maybe Rosa took the money, her mom says. Nancy Prindle says you can never trust Mexicans.
Rosa is from Ecuador, Skylish says, and then goes back downstairs.
She's Spanish, her mother says. That's what Nancy meant. You can't trust the Spanish because they're still mad about the war.
Barbara, you left $40, Skylish says, and then fills the dog's bowl with chicken-flavored pellets. The line goes silent. Barbara Lowery is driving across America selling vitamins while Skylish and J.J. stay home and try to make creative meals with frozen bread and canned goods. Through the phone, Skylish can hear her mother's aerosol hairspray now, and she can almost smell its nauseating strawberry scent.
Have you been taking those vitamins, Sky? her mom eventually asks. The ones with Ester-C are especially important for your immune system. They help fight infectious diseases and may even prevent pre-cancerous tumors. Blah, blah, blah. Her mother goes on, but Skylish is done listening. She sets the bowl of food outside the sliding glass door and then quickly closes it. Outside, she watches the German Shepherd pace back and forth in a nervous circle. Its hind legs are shaking wildly and its tail lies flat against its rump as it watches the rain.
The dog wandered up to their door a few months ago as a puppy, and Skylish's mother decided to let it live in their fenced-in backyard because the neighbor lady told her that it looked like a purebred greyhound and might be worth a thousand dollars. For weeks, her mom fed it warm milk spiked with Herbs4Life vitamins to try to nurse it to health. At first, it was shy, sweet, and slender; and while her mother's regimen didn't do much for the dog's mental health, it did help plump him up in a hurry. He grew into a ninety-pound, temperamental monster in what seemed like a matter of days. Skylish's mother is still hopeful, but this is no racing dog. It barks for no reason, claws at the ground when the sun goes down, and pees while it walks.
I'm staying at the Omni, her mother says after she finishes her sermon about the importance of antioxidants in the electronic age. The hotels here are really something, she says. Last night after our meeting, we all went out -
You left me $40. How long are you going to be gone? Skylish asks, interrupting. Her mother sighs.
I'm going to be late for school, Skylish says, and that's when it really starts coming down. Huge raindrops smack down onto the patio tiles, the dog barks, and then thunder rattles the kitchen windows.
Is that rain? her mother asks. Don't let that dog in. You hear me, Skylish? Don't you let that stinky, wet dog inside my house! Nancy Prindle says a coyote may have given it a disease or something.
I promise, Skylish says. Then she hangs up the phone and hurries upstairs to J.J.'s room. With his fair skin, thin hair, and tiny frame, her brother looks more like a doll than a boy. He's awake, but he has his eyes closed. It's the same trick every day, but Skylish plays along because it's one of the rare times she actually feels like a sister.
Wake up, J.J.! she says, and his little green eyes pop open as if on cue. He jumps up in bed like a jack-in-the-box.
Morning! he screams, and Skylish pretends to be startled. J.J. laughs and then, with one elbow on his knee, he cradles his chin with his hand.
I'm hungry! he says, his voice like a squeaky hinge. What d'you make?
Power pills first, Skylish says, handing him a fistful of medicine and a glass of water. One pill is for his ear infections, one is for some liver problem, and the last one is for his skin. J.J. was premature at birth and it's been a struggle ever since: fevers, infections, bruises, fainting. Skylish has never met J.J's father, but whoever he is, he must be a sick man.
One! Two! Three! She counts as her brother proudly takes the pills one right after another, chasing them down with big gulps of water. Without her mother knowing, Skylish stopped giving J.J. his Herbs4Life vitamins a long time ago because it's hard enough getting him to take his prescribed medicines. After J.J. swallows, he opens his mouth to show her that it's empty.
Good job! Skylish says, and then J.J. smiles so big that she can see his two blackened front teeth, mementos from a nasty fall in the bathtub a few months back. He gets out of bed, and she helps him squeeze into a pair of kid's Levis that he outgrew months ago. She pulls a long sleeved shirt over his head and, as she's lacing up his shoes, she hears Rosa's slow, deliberate footsteps coming up the stairs.
Hola Rosa! she calls from the bedroom. We're in here! Rosa appears in the doorway, winded from the climb. She has a big soft face, a big soft belly, and hands that immediately lull the fear from any child. She doesn't speak a word of English, but she takes very good care of J.J. every day until four o'clock when Skylish comes home from school. Who knows the last time her mother paid her, but sweet old Rosa would probably just keep coming either way.
See you tonight! Skylish says. She kisses J.J. on the top of the head and then hurries off. That's how she says goodbye. Outside, her cul-de-sac is flooded and looks like a lake with tract homes on its banks. Two junior-high boys who live on either side of the duplex across the street are wrestling in the water, and the boys' mothers are standing in their respective halves of the yard wearing identical bathrobes. The weight of the thick, wet cotton shows on their hunched shoulders, but their lips are fixed in a Mona Lisa smile. The mothers watch as the larger boy grabs the younger one's hair and pulls him backward into the water. From the expression on his face and the way he's limping now, it looks like the younger boy's back is hurt - but neither mother moves to stop them. Southern California is essentially a developed desert and, on days like today, the novelty of the rain takes precedence over parenting.
For a moment, Skylish considers just staying home, but she hasn't missed a day of school in two years so a rainstorm doesn't seem like much of an excuse. Reluctantly, she zips up her parka, tucks her chin to her chest, and plunges out from under the house's front awning. With every step, her hair gets wetter and wetter. She died it Simply Red a week ago, and when she catches sight of her reflection in the side mirror of a parked car her hair looks as dark as blood against her skin.
She walks as fast as she can and, at first, the parka does a decent job. She gets as far as Costa Brava, one of the main streets through her housing development, and then the sky starts to rattle. A minute later, raindrops start bouncing up into the air after they hit the pavement. She turns and looks back behind her hoping to find a ride, but all the Hondas and Toyotas that come in waves of ten or twelve at a time are heading the other way toward the Los Angeles Freeway. If not for Barbara's phone call, she could have left ten minutes earlier and easily caught the bus. Even when she's not around, her mom always makes a mess of things.
Jogging now, the rain starts leaking through the collar of her parka and dripping down her back. The raindrops feel like marbles landing on her skull, but it's too late to turn around. So she starts running faster. The weather is wild now, and the sound of her feet hitting the wet concrete gets lost in the patter of the rain - but she's nearly there. She rounds the last corner at a dead sprint, sweating underneath her layers now. Her school is just a quarter-mile in the distance when she hears her name.
Skylish! Skylish! she hears. She stops and turns. Right behind her is an oversized golf umbrella with two legs, and before she has time to react, an arm reaches out and pulls her under the canopy. She wipes the rain from her eyes and is face-to-face with an average-looking boy she's never seen before.
You Skylish? he asks.
My mom calls me that, she says. The rain hitting the umbrella sounds like popcorn popping all around them.
I live on Aveneda Del Sol. My mom met your mom the other day, he says. My name is Brian. Lightning makes the umbrella glow red, white, and blue. Stylish counts five one thousands, and then there's thunder.
I just moved here from Malibu about a month ago, Brian says. Your mom brought over vitamins the other day. Skylish stares down at the stream of water flowing on the sidewalk between her sneakers and his slip-ons.
I'm going to be late, she says. It's only her second tardy for the term so she won't get detention if she hurries.
Took me an hour to find this umbrella, Brian says, still smiling as big as when he first said her name.
I'm going, she says, and then steps out from under the umbrella.
Wait! he says, but it's difficult to hear, so Skylish pretends that she didn't. She clutches her arms across her chest and starts running again. The first bell has rung by now and Mr. Carlson's aid is probably taking roll.
Skylish, wait! Brian yells. Over her shoulder, she sees him quickly gaining on her with his umbrella in tow.
You'll get soaked, he yells, and then he catches up. His t-shirt is sopping wet, and she can see his nipples poking out on either side of the skateboard decal printed in middle of his chest. She slows to a walk.
Come under here, he says, lifting the umbrella up over her head.
My mother calls me Skylish.
If you want to walk fast, I can walk fast too, he says. He waves his hand, motioning for her to keep going, and then they hurry down the street together. When they reach the school gates, Brian gives her the umbrella. He says he's wet already, and anyway, he likes the rain.
I'm not going to class, he says.
What are you going to do? she asks. His jeans look like they're painted on.
Maybe I'll take the bus to the mall. Watch a movie or something, he says. Anyway, nothing will happen at school today, he says, looking back in the direction of their homes. She's about to ask him what he means, but then she remembers the last time it rained. Ocean Hills High School has nearly two thousand students and was built in the record time of twenty-nine days. The school consists of five long rows of prefabricated classrooms with a double-wide mobile home in the middle that serves as the principal's office. Heavy rain means the pathways flood. The classrooms get muddy and humid, the roofs leak, and lunch hour becomes utter chaos because everyone piles into the gymnasium, the only brick and mortar structure on the entire campus. In the next district over, they refer to Ocean Hills High School kids as trailer trash.
Want to come? Brian finally asks when he sees Skylish hesitating. We can call in sick, he says. I did it once last week. I put a rag over the phone to make my voice sound like my dad's. I can call for you too.
My dad left four years ago, Skylish says. My mom cheated on him and got pregnant.
They don't know that, Brian says pointing toward the school. They just know your ID number. They punch your number in the computer system to access your name, your classes, and your grades.
How would you know? Skylish asks. You just moved here.
You coming or not? Brian asks. With her GPA, her attendance, and her job as a teacher's aide, Skylish should have her choice of colleges - that's what her student advisor told her anyway. But then again, her student advisor has a G.E.D. and an associate's degree from a correspondence college in Phoenix, so what does she know? From where Skylish is standing, she can see the rain smashing onto the plastic picnic tables in the courtyard, onto the football team's faded banner hung between two palm trees, and onto the roofs of the outdated fleet of busses lined up along the curb. She wants to think that what she's looking at is a stepping stone, her ticket out, but today her school just looks like some kind of dilapidated daycare center that accepts any and all the teenagers that live in the district.
It's up to you, Brian says, and she hurries over to his side. Lightning illuminates the nylon umbrella three times on their way back home, and their shoes get so wet that they squeak with each step.
My parents are at work until late, Brian says when they reach their housing tract. He invites her to come over, and they enter through the garage so they don't get the house all wet. Brian hands Skylish a towel to dry off, and she squats down and rubs her hair fast and rough the way she does every morning after she showers. She clears her throat, sniffles hard, and then tosses her shoes onto the garage floor next to Brian's. When she looks up, Brian is staring. He's a little taller than she is, but he has the body of a boy. His hair is big waves of brown and his hands are like mitts.
What? she asks, but Brian shrugs and looks away. She plops down on the floor and rubs her feet with the towel.
What do your parents do? she asks, but Brian won't let up. He's staring again.
Why are you looking at me like that? she asks, but Brian just shakes his head. Maybe it's because she's never been alone in a house with a boy her own age before or maybe it's because of the way he's smiling, but right then, she becomes aware of herself, of her mannerisms. The way she moves, the way she talks and throws things around, it's not very feminine. She's never worried about being ladylike before, but suddenly, she feels like an emasculated, middle-aged spinster. She feels like her mother. Conscious now of what she's doing, Skylish slowly pulls her wet sweater up and over her head.
What do your parents do? she asks again. Her t-shirt is damp, but it'll dry soon enough on its own.
My Dad works at a bank and my mother works in the Triple Town Hospital, Brian says. Mom's not a doctor or anything. Just office-type stuff. Brian's face is soft and full. She likes the way his forehead squares off on the sides.
What about your parents? I mean, your mom, he says, and Skylish tells him about her mother's job, about the phone call this morning, and about the nationwide tour. They make cocoa in the kitchen and watch the rain through the window. Brian puts on a Beastie Boys album, but the power goes out before his favorite song comes on. Skylish finds candles in the cupboard above the stove, and then Brian asks if she wants to see his room. Upstairs, the candles don't give off much light, but there's not much to see anyway: a wooden-framed bed, a stereo, a TV, a disassembled skateboard. The only thing that interests her is a small bookshelf above his desk.
So what do you want to do? he asks, and Skylish accidentally drops the hardcover copy of The Sun Also Rises that she was holding. She picks the book up from where it fell and pretends to read the inside cover.
After you finish high school, I mean, Brian says. What do you want to do? Skylish's face cools off, and she sits down on the edge of the bed next to him.
Make money, she says. And after I make money, I'll read.
My parents have loads of money, Brian says. And they hate each other. I want to help people, he says, and Skylish laughs. Brian laughs too because it sounds corny, but maybe he means it.
I'd like to be a missionary or something, he says, lying back on the bed. Without even thinking, Skylish lies down too. With their heads side-by-side on separate pillows now, Skylish can feel Brian's eyes examining the side of her face - but it doesn't feel weird or perverted or anything like that. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees his hand reaching out towards her. His warm fingers touch her stomach first, and when he lifts up her shirt, she closes her eyes.
There are only three kinds of houses in the neighborhood: the duplexes, the two bedrooms, and the three bedrooms. She and Brian both live in the ones with three bedrooms and except for a slight tonal difference in the exterior paint, their houses are identical. The silverware is kept in the same drawer, their dining room table is in the exact same place, and they even have the same couch and love seat combo that both their mother's bought on sale at a warehouse home furnishing store ten miles west on the freeway. Brian's room is her room: same carpet, same doorknobs, same closet. His bed isn't as soft as hers, but still, she feels like she's at home.
By noon, the power comes back on, but the candles are already lit so they don't bother with the lights. In bed, it's as though they've both done this before. They talk and take off their clothes slowly, kissing and laughing the whole time. Brian tells her stories about his old school and the rainstorms in Malibu where he used to live. Skylish tells him that the only time she ever gets to leave the valley is when she tags along on her mom's Herbs4Life trips to Orange County where Barbara is convinced the big bucks are waiting.
At some point, Brian gets the idea to play steam roller and Skylish can't stop laughing. He rolls over her and then she rolls over him - and then he rolls over her again. Somewhere in the middle of all that, they stop playing and start kissing. The kissing now is different, and then without much production, he goes inside her.
For years, Skylish has been taught that sex is about condoms and diseases, pain and blood. Boys are crazy, girls are delicate - protect yourself. But what she'd heard about, been taught and warned about, is nothing like this. This is warm and slow and whispered. Brian's house suddenly seems like their house; as though they'd both taken the day off work just to be together; as though the kids were at school and no one could bother them. The candle wax drips slowly down onto the nightstand making cream-colored stalactite formations. The white sheets are cool against her skin, and the rain knocks politely against the clay-tiled roof the whole time. Afterwards, there's that stillness that always follows a storm.
For lunch, Skylish boils spaghetti and Brian makes garlic bread in the toaster oven. They spend the afternoon listening to music, and Skylish reads him some passages from Hemingway that she likes. By mid-afternoon, they end up in bed again - this time to sleep - and when Skylish wakes up, she hears the television. Brian is propped up with a pillow watching old cartoons on cable. A talking cheetah is trying to sell a ringtail monkey a piece of land in the Arizona desert, but the monkey wants something more tropical. Brian is laughing his head off, and when she sits up next to him, he puts his arm around her. She leans into his chest and he smells like green soap. More than anything, the green soap is what she remembers. She lets her eyes close again, but a moment later, she jumps out of bed.
What time is it? she asks, her voice sharp and jarring. Brian shrugs and turns down the TV. His eyes get huge and his mouth drops open, but before he can respond, Skylish runs out of the room. Downstairs, she stares up at the strawberry-shaped clock hanging above the kitchen sink and stops breathing. It's nearly six o'clock. She bolts for the door and leaves Brian's house barefoot and sprinting. She rounds the corner to her street, races around the cul-de-sac of water, and then crashes through the front door of her house. The first thing she sees are muddy paw prints in the hall. Next she sees J.J.'s little legs only halfway visible through the kitchen door. As fast as she can, she runs toward him, and then everything comes at her all at once.
Rosa on the kitchen floor crying, cradling her little brother.
The dog in the corner, crouched down and growling.
Kitchen towels covered with blood.
Paw prints everywhere.
The phone on the floor, off the hook, repeating the same tone over and over.
Water boiling on the stove.
In three weeks, it's Christmas. In two weeks, Skylish turns eighteen.