Editors’ Note: We accepted this story long before the tragic events of Sandy Hook, which occurred almost a week ago today. Yet the innocence and optimism conveyed in this YA short story seem especially poignant and much needed now. Our hearts will forever be with the families of Newtown. We wish all our readers and friends all the peace and joy that is possible this holiday season.
by Anna Scotti
The first day Gianni waited for me at the corner, I didn’t realize he was waiting: I’d been hanging around, saying goodbye to Maribelle and Jazz, trying to explain to Jazz why a whole number divided by a fraction gets larger, instead of smaller, which was basically a lost cause without some cookies to demonstrate. Jazz is not the greatest on conceptual imaging. By the time I’d said goodbye and hoisted my backpack over one shoulder most of the kids were gone, picked up by moms or nannies or headed homeward, the few who lived close, on foot. I live only four blocks from school and am allowed to walk, but that’s mostly because my mother doesn’t actually realize that there’s no one walking with me, most days. Peggy imagines it as it must have been when she was a child, everybody leaving en masse at dismissal, packs of kids traveling in the safety of numbers, peeling off one by one along the way.
Gianni was leaning against a tree, just off school grounds, with his skateboard under his arm.
“Hey,” he said hoarsely, falling into step beside me, all casual, as if by accident, but I’d seen him waiting. Gianni has mostly ignored me since last year when I refused to let him copy off my paper during a history test. Painful choice, that: I was torn between duty and love, like Marcus Brutus, except that I definitely did not see Gianni as a father figure.
“Hey,” I answered back, suddenly feeling awkward.
“You want me to carry that?” Gianni offered.
I stared at him. “My backpack? Why?”
Gianni shrugged. “Just seems weird, the girl carrying this ninety pound bag of books, and the guy with just a board.”
The way he said it: the girl. The guy. We were that girl and that guy and I was overwhelmed, suddenly. I felt this strange stretching pain in my knees and a silliness rising in my chest: giggles. Knowing this was an entirely age-appropriate response to a flood of hormones from my endocrine glands did not help in the least. I stared at my shoes, fumbling for words.
“Forget it,” Gianni said gruffly, “if you’re gonna dork out over it.”
But I had already swung the heavy pack off my shoulder and pushed it toward Gianni. He threw it onto his back easily. More endocrine response.
“You ought to have your own bag,” I said, hating the prim sound of my own voice. “How do you get your studying done?”
“I don’t.” Gianni grinned. “And I don’t see why you do, either. You don’t need to read all that stuff to pass the tests. You already know most of it!”
“Look,” I told Gianni, “what would be the point of just passing tests on stuff I already know? I like to really read the chapters – history, I mean – and think about what happened a long time ago. I think about the little stuff – what people ate, whether they had pets, what they wore. and it makes it real. Now math, that’s different…that’s pictures. Like puzzles you can do in your head, if you get bored! I find our book is pretty useless, actually, because –“
Gianni was looking at me with this amused, superior expression that was annoying and sort of exciting at the same time. I stopped talking, suddenly, feeling foolish.
“How old are you, anyway, Hes-tah?” he asked.
“Oh, you know how old I am,” I said impatiently. “Same as yesterday, same as tomorrow! I’m eleven!”
Gianni shook his head. “Damn. Eleven. You’re tall for eleven. You’re taller than Lupe Alvaro.”
At the mention of Lupe Alvaro, I felt the heat rise in my face. Lupe has a big chest – she’s famous for it, and for wearing tight sweaters and low cut baby tees to show it off. I felt confused, and embarrassed, and delighted all at the same time.
“I’m one person, and Lupe is another,” I said, hearing that primness again, and now Gianni laughed.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “That’s for sure.”
We reached the corner of McKinley Street, my block, and we stopped. “I live down there, in the grey house,” I said.
“I know, Hes-tah,” Gianni said, dropping my backpack onto the ground at my feet. He swung the board out from under his arm and got ready to drop it. “See ya.”
“Why do you say my name like that, anyway?” I asked.
Gianni dropped the board, kicked it, and took a step after, then hopped on. He was across the street and up the curb when he yelled back over his shoulder, “Because it’s cute! Like you!”
Three days later, Gianni and I were sitting against the brick walk at the back of my house, with our knees up, and our hands next to each other on the warm brick, almost touching. It was a gorgeous day, warm and sunny still, after three o’clock, with that smell the air gets in fall; a cold smell, a warning that cold is coming, even though it’s actually still quite warm. But the great weather isn’t really why I told Gianni we should sit outside.
In actuality, I was afraid to invite him into our house. I mean, he’s just Gianni, the kid I’ve known for two years, the one with stinky sneakers and a battered long board. But I was afraid to be alone in the house with him. I was not afraid that he would hurt me in any way, obviously – but I was thinking it was remotely possible he might try to kiss me, and I am only slightly ashamed to tell you I had not the slightest experience with kissing or being kissed. In fact, I’m still not sure exactly what the difference is, although presumably it has to do with who initiates the action. The thing they never tell you, either in books or if you see people kissing in movies, is how you know which way to move your head. Obviously two people can’t kiss head-on, or their noses will collide. So, either one person tilts their head a lot, or both people tilt a little. But there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason as to who does which.
I thought for a while the girl always tilted left, because that’s what happens in most of the Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen movies, as well as in Freaky Friday and in other films, as well. Unless film switches everything, like a mirror, and all the lefts I’ve noted should have been rights, and vice versa. I’m supposed to be smart, but sometimes it’s confusing to think of things like that. To wit: a mirror doesn’t really switch anything at all; it reflects exactly what it sees in front of it. Well, I’m anthropomorphizing, but you can see what I mean. It’s not the mirror that reverses, but only our own perception of what right and left might be. So, on film – well, it would be easy enough to test with the camcorder, but right at that moment, as I was thinking about kissing and right and left and perceptive reversals, there was Gianni, plopped down on the brick beside me, and suddenly instead of our hands being side by side, he was tracing a pattern on the back of my hand with his slightly sun-browned finger.
Gianni’s hands are amazing: so strong looking and clean, with broad flat fingertips and broad palms. They are big like a man’s hands, but not all hairy and veiny (yet, I guess). Honestly, I would be just as happy to hold hands with Gianni forever, and not ever think about all the kissing stuff and where it leads: biological urges, reproduction, and so forth. But when I looked down at his finger touching my hand, I looked up suddenly, and there he was, leaning toward me, looking right into my eyes, not seeming a bit embarrassed, and I knew that inside or outside, ready or not, I was about to kiss or be kissed.
I didn’t even think of which way to tip. I just thought of Gianni’s lips, full and plump like a girl’s lips actually, and nice and dry, not at all wet like some people’s mouths are. I thought about how nice it would be to touch my own lips to his soft mouth, and then suddenly, I was doing it – no worry about noses whatsoever. I’m not even sure where my nose was at that moment, nor his. His mouth stayed closed –and that’s another thing – how do you know when to open and when to stay closed, when to stick your tongue out and when to keep it tucked up in your own mouth? But it didn’t seem germane, at that moment, with Gianni’s hand on mine and his mouth and my mouth pressing, very nicely and dryly, and his smell in my face: a clean smell of shampoo and skin and breath. Not bad breath, but not mint mouthwash, either. Just natural and real, like teeth that haven’t been brushed in the past couple of hours, but are definitely brushed at least twice each day.
A little bit into the kiss – maybe ten seconds – I started wondering how long it would last. I silently counted “one hippopotamus, two hippopotamus,” and after about thirty five seconds, maybe a little more, Gianni pulled away and then of course, I did too. The thoughts of hippopotami should not imply that I wasn’t enjoying the kissing – I was, absolutely. It’s just that sometimes I think of two or three or six or seven things at once, each one riding along on its own track, going at its own speed, and if I just let the thoughts go, I’m fine: they take care of themselves. It’s when I try to sort it all out, keep the math on one track, humorous thoughts on another, kissing down there in the limbic track – that it all gets mixed up. Sometimes when I’m talking and thinking at the same time – which not everybody does, I can assure you – but sometimes when I’ve got several tracks going, plus I’m trying to explain something or participate in a conversation, people get really annoyed with me, and the problem is, if all my tracks are in use, I don’t really observe the proximal cues that would tell me to shut up. It happens in class, a lot, and it happens sometimes with my mom, too, although she’s patient because she knows what’s happening. The problem is, it’s interesting. It feels good. Thinking a lot, with some active problem-solving in the front of my brain and then something big and loose going on in the back part, like music or remembering something happy, or just chanting, and then talking, too, and trying to explain the way all the things fit together, where they cross over like railroad tracks and where the thoughts pass through each other like ghosts through a wall, in a cartoon, before they straighten out again and go their own way – it feels good. It’s like jumping from rock to rock in a stream, with perfect balance, knowing you won’t fall and knowing that although the path might not be exactly clear to your eyes, your feet know the way and will get you to the other side, so you’re free to look, smell, listen, feel, and think while everything happens all around you. Sometimes it feels good to just be a body without a brain, but that doesn’t really makes sense, because do we have free will or don’t we? You could sit down with Rogers and Maslow and René Descartes and argue about it all day, I guess. Except they’re all dead. duh.
But at that moment, as Gianni and I broke apart, I could still taste his mouth flavor on my lips, smell his clean laundry and shampoo smell, feel his hand on mine, and math track was running the hippopotamus count and English track was chanting “Gianni and me, Gianni and I” like some haywire version of a subject/object lesson, and I was also thinking about my friend Melinda’s espadrille shoes and whether Gianni would think my hairy eleven year old legs would look good in them, and I was also wondering if anyone had seen us kissing there on the brick walk in plain view of the alley, and for the first time ever, perhaps, every track was running on variations of a single theme: Gianni Paul.
“Hestaaaaaaah,” Gianni said, and then he grinned and I did, too.
“Why’d you do that?” I asked him.
“Do what,” he said, with a fake-confused look. I couldn’t look right at him, and I felt my face getting all hot. I hate that!
“You’re blushing, Hester,” Gianni said, and I could tell that he was wanting to laugh, and trying not to laugh, at the same time.
“Blushing is an involuntary physiological response,” I told him. “I’m not responsible for my blushing, and it’s not necessarily indicative of my frame of mind, either, so –“
“That sounds sexy, Hester,” Gianni said. “An involuntary physical response? Hmm….”
“Physiological,” I muttered, and then he did laugh, and I pulled my knees up and buried my face in them.
“It’s okay, Hester,” Gianni said gently. I felt his hand in my hair, very lightly touching. “Everything’s okay.”
Even though five minutes earlier I’d been one of the happiest people in the world, and one minute earlier I’d been one of the most excited people in the world, and still marginally happy, at that exact moment the gentleness of Gianni’s voice and the lightness of his touch made me want to cry. I willed the tears to disappear back into my eyes and I swallowed down the hot-cold lump that pressed against my throat and made it hard to speak. The touchstone of validity is my own experience, I said inside my head, but even Carl Rogers couldn’t help me now.
I don’t know why it is that sometimes if someone is especially kind to me, if someone touches me in a very gentle way or talks to me in a certain kind of voice, it makes my chest feel tight and I feel sad all over, even in my elbows, even in my knees. It feels good, receiving kindness – it’s a kind of love, I guess – but it hurts, too, and I don’t see why it should. I am lonely sometimes, in a way that I don’t understand. Sometimes I guess that it might have to do with being adopted, but when I think of that, suddenly all the tracks in my mind shut down – they just stop running, like somebody pulled the emergency cord – and I want to sleep, or at least to curl up in a ball and comfort myself by sucking on the corner of my mint green blanket.
Gianni’s hand felt so nice in my hair, though. It was the first time I could think of that anyone besides my mother could comfort me, touch me or talk softly to me, and I could stand it, just receive the kindness without wanting to turn away.
As I sat up, Gianni scooted a little closer and took my hand. He put it on his knee, but in a nice way, cupped in his own hand, not near any embarrassing places. His leg was close to my leg, and I was glad and sorry we were both wearing jeans.
“I gotta go in a minute,” Gianni said. “Gotta go home and meet some guy my dad invited over. Hey, do you ever go down to the skate park on Marine?”
I felt a sick sudden turn in my stomach. I’d been to the skate park and it was a scary place; not drug dealer-gang member scary, although there were some of them around, but more scary in that the stands were always full of those really polished looking teenage girls, watching their boyfriends board up and down the steep, smooth cement inclines of the skate runs. Sometimes girls boarded, too, and they were really scary, tough in a way that made the boys seem weak, cursing worse and making it a point to laugh hard if they fell and got cut badly enough to bleed. But it was the girly girls who scared me more; they wore makeup and tiny tee shirts and Juicy sweats, and every single girl who sat in those stands had boobs, big or small but undeniably there.
“I don’t know how to skateboard,” I blurted. “Or watch.”
Gianni grinned and his hand tightened on mine. “You don’t know how to watch? Come, on, Hestah. If you don’t want to hang, you can just say so.”
I pulled my hand away from Gianni’s and stood up. “What I mean is, I’m more of a beach kind of person. I don’t know how to skateboard and I’m not much of an observer, you know?
Gianni got up and kicked his board, grabbing one end. “If you don’t know how to ride, and you don’t like to watch, there’s only one solution I can think of. Come on, we’ve got to get onto the cement. Brick’s a bitch.”
I followed him to the sidewalk and kicked off my sandals. When he threw the board down on, I jumped right on, steadying myself by grabbing his arm when the board started to slip out from under me.
“Ah, the newbie toe grip,” Gianni said, and when I looked down at my own pink toes, curved around the edges of the board like monkey feet, I had to smile.
“If you get serious, you’ll need board shoes. But for now, just don’t scrape your feet on the ground. Keep ‘em on the board.” And then he had both of my hands in his and he was backing away quickly, towing me as I clung to the board as it rumbled over cracks in the sidewalk. I laughed out loud, it felt that free and good, the wind lifting my hair and Gianni’s face serious and intent, running fast backward, trusting me.
There is so much more to life than that “life of the mind” of which Plato spoke of so authoritatively! Or maybe, actually, it would be Socrates who spoke of it, but either way, there’s a lot more out there than the stuff you can conceive of inside your head, more goodness than you can experience with your brain alone. Try it: go puddle jumping in that artificial but still beautiful brackish creek at Douglas Park. Leap onto each dry stone, catch your balance, leap again. Smell the grass and the eucalyptus from the tree that bends low over the water. Hear the ducks complaining that you’re too near their nests, hidden in the rushes. Feel the warm, heavy air on your arms, and the welcome splash of creek water onto your bare legs when you nearly miss. Breathe deeply and think about how good it is, how good it feels, to be in the air, with trees and water and ducks and bugs and dirt, and little kids swarming all over, and the shouts of the bigger kids skateboarding down in the empty cement ring at the base of the park, and the smell of eucalyptus and oranges in the air. Feel the sun beat hard against the top of your head, feel the heat seep into your brain. Think about how you’re hungry and happy and tired.
Now: do all the same stuff, with a boy holding your hand in his. Feel the bones in his fingers, feel his hand tighten around yours, when you nearly lose your balance; feel the warmth radiating from his chest beneath his shirt when you lean against him for just a moment. Forget to think, just smile up at him, let your head fall back and let your mouth come open, and laugh. Don’t wonder how your hair looks, don’t think about variations in the patterns of duck plumage and whether they correspond to variations in the coloration of the eggs. Don’t wonder if your butt looks fat in your new shorts. If Rene Descartes tries to make a point about instinct versus self-determination, tell him to lie down and act dead for a change. Forget to think, just feel your hand held tightly in the hand of another, and laugh out loud because it feels so good to be alive.
Anna Scotti is a poet, writer, and teacher living in southern California. A former journalist, Anna has written for national and regional magazines including InStyle, People, The Los Angeles Times Traveling in Style, Bon Appetit, Los Angeles, Redbook, Good Housekeeping, YM, and Sugar. She was a foreign correspondent for WhoWeekly (Australia) and a columnist for the late, great Buzz Magazine. Anna is the author of several pseudonymous novels, and has a short story appearing in the current issue of Ontologica. She teaches English and history in Los Angeles, and enjoys working with adults, teens, and children. Anna earned an MFA in Creative Writing (fiction) at Antioch University in 2007, and is working on two young adult novels and a collection of poetry.