How far would you go to separate yourself from the people who love you?
Excerpt from Chapter 1:
“Mom says starlings are just like people,” I tell Jonah as I lean back and rest my elbows on the rough wooden back of the park bench. “They’re greedy, they fight all the time, and they’re always together.”
Jonah tosses the last of his crumbled-up hotdog bun onto the ground. Starlings rush forward, screeching, squealing, and pecking at the bread and each other. “I like starlings,” he says. “They remind me of you.”
I open my mouth, but he beats me to it.
“I mean, you and me. We’re always together and we’re always fighting.” He laughs.
I laugh, too, but I know something has changed. Not with us. Not in him. In me.
I don’t like starlings.
It’s early spring in Chicago, and they don’t call it the Windy City for laughs. The March breezes are invisible demons intent on ripping the bricks from the buildings and the warm air from your lungs. Entire newspapers cartwheel past us as we walk back to the museum--to work. I wrap my scarf over the lower half of my face and pull my hat down around my ears. It’s too cold to talk. I wouldn’t know what to say if we could. You can break up with a boyfriend. You can divorce a husband. But there’s no official way to end a friendship. You just have to drift apart.
* * * * *
I was six when I first met Jonah. The first day of first grade.
“Wichita Gray?” the teacher yelled over the crowd. She pronounced it Whi-chi-taw.
I scuffed my toes into the gritty blue-green carpet. “Wi-chee-ta,” I said.
I hated being the only child with a city for a name. A city everyone correctly pronounced incorrectly. Mom’s priest--her current religious affiliation was Catholic--had told me God would answer all my prayers. Every night, I prayed for a name change.
But after months and months, I figured God wasn’t listening.
“What? I can’t hear you.” The teacher cupped her hand around her ear. “People, hush. You’re so squirrelly.”
“Wi-chee-ta,” I said again, my voice loud in the silence.
“Oh,” the teacher said. “How nice. That’s the original Indian name, you know.”
I shook my head.
“We’ll have to look that up,” she said. “I’m sure everyone would be interested.”
Everyone might be, but I didn’t think so. I knew I wasn’t. I just wanted to fade away.
But I survived my first day, even without fading. Survived until the organized hell euphemistically called the after-lunch recess.
“Wi-chi-taw wears a bra,” Berkeley chanted. Berkeley was in my Sunday School class at church and thought he was a genius because he could rhyme. He ended the sing-song taunt by trying to pinch my chest.
I took off running. And ran all the way to the monkey bars. Closing my eyes, I climbed up and swung from bar to bar, praying for a new name with each rung.
“Cheetah,” said the voice of God. But the priest had never said anything about God sounding like a first grader. More like thunder and lightning. Or sneaking around at night and calling peoples’ names twice. “Samuel, Samuel.” That kind of thing.
I opened my eyes. Down under my feet was a boy from the desk group next to mine. I recognized him because he was missing both front teeth and his hair hung down over his eyes.
“You’re fast,” he said. “Like a cheetah. That’s probably why you’re named Wi-cheetah.”
“It’s a city,” I said. “In Kansas.”
“Yeah, I know.”
He walked over to the merry-go-round and made it spin. I dropped down to the sand underneath the monkey bars.
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s ride.”
I shook my head. “Go ahead.”
I didn’t want to tell him that the last time I rode on a merry-go-round I threw up.
He ran beside the whirling, so-obviously-sadistic contraption of metal and wood. He ran beside it, pushing hard, then jumped on and leaned back so his head was upside-down. Going around and around. I kept waiting for something bad to happen to him. At least he should turn green from spinning around upside-down. Nothing happened. Then he stuck his toe into the dirt and stopped the revolving death trap.
“Come on,” he said again. “I’ll push it. You can just ride.”
I shook my head again.
He held out his hand. “Come on. Trust me.”
I started to shake my head, then I grabbed his hand and hopped on. My palms started to sweat, and I could smell the rusty metal scent of the iron pipes coming up from between my fingers where I clutched the merry-go-round in a death grip. The platform beneath me rocked as he ran beside it.
“Get on, get on,” I screamed, frightened that he would push it as fast as he could and then run away. Berkeley had done that at the church playground.
He jumped up beside me. “I’m not going to leave,” he said. “I’m Jonah.”
Then I threw up on him.
* * * * *
How can you be free of a friend? You can divorce a husband. Break up with a boyfriend. Run away from home. But the only way to lose a friend is to drift apart. I don’t even know if I can drift away from Jonah. How do you drift away from a friend you’ve known nearly as long as you’ve known yourself?
“Are we on for The Club tonight?” Jonah asks through his scarf. “Or do you just want to hang out and pout about something?”
He can tell I’m unhappy. I’ve been unhappy a lot lately. I can tell he’s getting annoyed by my silent unhappiness. I’m not a silent person. When I’m unhappy, I fall to the floor and begin to pound my hands and feet in a major temper tantrum. I inherited my anger management skills from my mother. It was one of the reasons I spent so much time in the weedy vacant lot behind our house when I was a kid. Mom spent a lot of time on the floor kicking and screaming. Usually at Dad. Or Grandma. Or the grocery store, because they didn’t happen to have Pecan Sandies this week.
So, my genetic inheritance means I’m not usually silent in my unhappiness. Jonah knows this. I know that he knows this. And I know that my being unhappy and not loud about it is driving him crazy.
“The Club,” I say, ignoring his invitation to talk in favor of his invitation to continue pretending nothing’s wrong.
I can feel Jonz frown. “Okay.”
The Club is not a club. You won’t see it on some ridiculous TV show about life in the city. It’s not the kind of club that knows your name, either. It’s a dirty hole in downtown Chicago. With a constant open-mike night. Jonz and I discovered The Club when Kenny was going through his “I’m gonna be a rock star” phase. Kenny liked the open-ended opportunity of a consistent open-mike. It wasn’t long before Kenny was banned from The Club. Jonz and I kept going. Despite gossip to the contrary, there really aren’t that many people with a voice like Kenny’s--part yodel, part howl--and most of the time, The Club just plays Robert Johnson or Son House tunes over the stereo system. Mostly Jonz and I go there to avoid Kenny.
“We don’t have to go,” Jonz says, “if you’d rather do something else.”
“The Club is fine,” I say, continuing the charade.
He stops in the middle of the sidewalk. I walk a few steps before I give in and turn around to look at him. “What?” I ask.
He steps up and looks down into my face. His eyes are so brown they’re almost black. I look like a ridiculous, swathed, twin Humpty-Dumpty in the brown-black depths. It was a never-ending source of frustration that Jonah kept growing after I stopped at five-foot-six or so. He kept growing to just a little over six feet. Now I have to look up at him. I used to stand on tiptoe so I could (sort of) meet him on eye-level. Now looking up doesn’t bother me. Correction. It didn’t bother me. Right now it bugs me a lot.
“What’s up with you?” he asks.
I shrug. The gesture loses its eloquence beneath a turtle, a sweater, and a heavy wool steamer coat. “Nothing.”
A noise catches our attention. Two starlings fighting over a hotdog wrapper from the stubborn stand on the corner.
Jonz shakes his head and smiles under his scarf. “C’mon, Cheetah,” he says, throwing an arm over my shoulder.
The heat from his arm and side worms its way through the wool, through the sweater, through the turtle, until it touches the center of my chest.
* * * * *
I was a junior in high school when Morgan moved to town. The girl with the cowboy name was from New York City and she was too big, too blond, too hip for a “piece of shit town on the prairie,” as she put it. All the boys fell instantly in love. Morgan was a cheerleader, and she could wave those red pom-poms and jiggle all at the same time. Male tongues fell limp onto the tables when Morgan’s green Volvo whipped past the town’s lone Burger King. Jonz and I didn’t live in Chicago back then. We lived in Hove--an Illinois town that barely qualified to be in the Rand McNally road atlas. Morgan’s New York City daddy had made his money and broken his brain on Wall Street. His wife brought him back to her girlhood home so she could feed him a liquid diet through a straw while Morgan fed the local boys on a heady diet of excitement and danger. The poor local boys. They’d never seen a real, live giraffe, much less an exotic animal like Morgan.
“It’s disgusting,” I said for the nth time as Morgan’s green Volvo sped past the Burger King’s window and male heads twirled like yo-yos on a string. “It’s disgusting how all the guys drool. Don’t they have any dignity?”
“Mmm,” Jonz said around a mouthful of fries.
It was Wednesday. Wednesday was Burger King day. (Just like Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday.) Jonah and I would sneak out and have lunch at Burger King. Jonah and I and all the other students at the high school.
“You don’t think it’s disgusting?” I asked.
“It’s biology,” Jonz said. “She’s the new female in the herd so all the males are interested. You can’t blame them. Blame a few billion years of evolution.”
I felt proud to be sitting with the only guy who could calmly talk about biology and Morgan--together--in such a clinical, doctor sort of breath.
Until I found Jonz rocking the green Volvo with Morgan on Saturday night.
* * * * *
Sitting across from Jonz in our booth at The Club, I lean back into the corner made by the cracked-leather seat and the wall. On a good day, I probably wouldn’t want to lean against the wall, but tonight isn’t a good day. The Club isn’t heated in any normal sense of the word, which accounts for people huddling in booths and not taking off their coats. After an hour or two, human body heat will turn the place into an oven. At that point, we’ll all shed our skins like so many snakes.
Jonz leans into the table and wraps his fingers around a mug of The Club’s best coffee. Coffee. It’s one thing The Club does really well. Strong, black, and hot enough to pierce the thickest buzz at closing time.
“It’s cold,” he says.
“The coffee?” I ask, surprised.
“No. Outside.” He looks up, tilts his head to one side. “Inside. Are you okay?”
Smoke swirls up to the stamped-tin ceiling. My fingers start to itch. The dedication I feel toward quitting can be measured by the fact that I have a pack in my coat pocket. It may have been left there since last week when I threw its brothers into the trash, but I’ve worn my coat every day since so it seems unlikely. I probably bought it in a lack-of-nicotine haze. I tap out a cigarette and light it at the candle--The Club’s attempt at atmosphere--sitting on the table.
“I thought you quit,” Jonz says.
“Mañana.” I blow a cloud up to join the smoke curling around the ceiling.
He’s looking at me. From the way the creases appear around his eyes, I know he’s having the same memory I’m having.
* * * * *
I ran all the way home that night--the night I found Jonah and Morgan rocking the green Volvo. All I could see was Morgan’s red pom-poms bouncing on the back dash. Bouncing, bouncing, bouncing with each slam my running shoes made on the cement sidewalk.
Mom was still up when I banged through the screen door and into the kitchen. She was dunking a Pecan Sandie into a cup of decaf. No caffeine after five p.m., no exception. I grabbed a Coke and started to head for my room, but her voice stopped me.
“Is that caffeine free?”
I held up the can for her to see and tried not to let her see my face. Dirt and tears would cause questions and I was pretty sure I had dirt on my face. Tears. . . .
I don’t remember.
“You need to stop hanging around with that boy,” Mom said. “I’d have put a stop to it by now, but your father won’t hear of it. Says it’s harmless.” She snorted. “Harmless. There’s nothing harmless about it. Look at you. It’s nearly midnight and here you are.”
I kept my mouth shut and my eyes on the stairs to the bedrooms. Normally, I would have started screeching around the “harmless” part of the lecture, but my brain was too overwhelmed by red pom-poms.
“You’re a sight!” Mom continued. “Running around all over town. People will talk.”
People talked all right. They talked about Mom’s trips to the grocery store and Dad’s trips to the post office to see Dolores. They didn’t talk about me. I never did anything half as exciting as Mom and Dad.
“Goodnight, Mom,” I said before she could work up a good head of indignation.
“Someday you’ll wish you’d listened to me,” Mom said. “When you’re knocked up and wondering where that boy is.”
Up in my room, I popped the can of Coke open and stared at the window. Before the can was half finished, a rock hit the glass. I waited. More rocks. I still waited. Maybe I wanted to punish him a little, make him worry I wouldn’t open the window.
It wasn’t like he couldn’t have just gone to the door and asked for me. For all her talk, Mom would have let him come in and hang out. As long as we stayed downstairs where she could hover in the shadows. But we had seen the rocks/window thing in a Saturday afternoon movie when we were kids and had decided it would be our only means of communication from then on. Illicit communication. Like the secret handshake all the Masons are supposed to have.
I pushed the window open. “Hey.”
“Hey.” In the glow from the downstairs windows, I could see that his face was flushed. Whether it was from Morgan or from bending over hunting for rocks, I didn’t know.
Looking up, he pushed the hair out of his eyes. And I decided to forgive him for being as stupid as the rest of the idiots at school.
Because that’s why I felt all twisted up inside.
Nothing like finding out your best friend is an idiot.
I lifted a leg over the windowsill and reached out for the tree limb nearest to me. When I had a good grip, I let my full weight hang from my hands. The limb bowed down until I hung only four feet from the ground. I let go and landed beside Jonah. His eyes were closed.
“I’m down,” I said.
His eyes opened. He never could watch while I did that. I hate spinning around. Jonz hates heights.
I sniffed the air. “You smell like Morgan,” I told him. “Were you doing a biology experiment?” Then I grinned, so he would know I was okay with that.
He looked at me and frowned, with that little way he has of frowning. I know it’s there even when I can’t see it. His eyes scrunch at the corners--like when he smiles, only different--and his forehead wrinkles. But you can only guess the part about his forehead because it’s hidden under that black hair.
“It may have been an experiment,” he said, “but she didn’t know about it.”
“She didn’t notice, huh?” I said.
“Fuck you,” he said, all adult and unconcerned and smelling like Morgan’s sweat. Then he pulled out a pack of cigarettes.
“She gave you that?” I asked.
No. Here.” He tapped one out and gave it to me.
I took it. “Isn’t this what you’re supposed to be doing with her?”
“It’s what I’m doing with you,” Jonz said.
* * * * *
I blow a cloud of smoke up to join the swirls just under the tin ceiling. Jonz is looking at me. From the way the creases appear around his eyes, I know he’s having the same memory I’m having.