By Francesca Louise Grossman
My eyes are too far apart. My skin isn’t rosy or olive, the two options on the online makeup matching quiz. My hair is mid-length and curly. Sometimes frizzy, but I can usually get that under control with some of the expensive hair gel I steal from my mom. My lips are thin. My eyebrows aren’t thick enough. My lashes are nubs.
My thighs do not gap.
I stand in front of the mirror in my attic bedroom and look at myself. My mother says at sixteen this is the best I’ll ever look, so I should cherish it, but if she’s right I might as well shoot myself now. Thankfully she’s not right about most things. Except the hair gel.
If only I were pretty. It’s such a lame thing to think, but I can’t help thinking it. If I were pretty, I would be able to walk down the halls in school without slouching. I would be able to raise my hand in class without worrying that my classmates will see my pocked face. I would be able to get my best friend to fall in love with me instead of treating me like a friend with benefits.
But I’m not pretty. And I know that. And so does he.
I hear my phone buzz. I scan the room and zero in on a pile of sheets on the floor from when I kicked them off last night in the heat. Summer is so gross in New England, and my parents still haven’t put in central AC in our house. They say I can use a window unit if I want to go back down to my old room on the second floor, but I set up my stuff in the attic three months ago and no way I’m moving back downstairs. For now I will fry.
It’s worth it to be two whole floors away from my parents. They aren’t terrible, but it’s too hard being an only child. Why they stopped at one is anyone’s guess because my mother’s suffocation is enough for at least three daughters.
I shake out the sheet and my phone bounces on my makeshift rug, a bunch of beach towels laid out on the floor because my mother said I was not to bring my shag rug from my old room up into the dusty unfinished attic. I scramble to pick it up.
Where are you? It’s my best friend, Walter, the very same one with the benefits. We have to go to Annemarie’s party!!!!
Last thing I want to do. I love hanging with Walter alone, just the two of us, but as soon as we’re around other people, he forgets I’m alive.
I’d so much rather just hang with Walter at home.
Ugh, I text.
Shut up you’re coming
You’ll owe me
The text lingers.
Like a party would kill you, he adds.
OK fine what time?
9:30. i’ll come get u
I throw the phone onto my bed, an old cot that my mother put up in the attic for when my cousins come for Christmas. It’s covered with some couch cushions from a springless loveseat that’s pushed in the corner.
I go back to the mirror, turning this way and that, trying to ignore the pimples that have ravaged my cheeks, squeezing my stomach to approximate flatness, trying to see myself as maybe a sixteen year old boy could see me if I could just look a little bit better.
Maybe working out would help. Maybe not.
The truth is I actually don’t really care about most of the sixteen year old boys who might see me. I only care about one. I’m as cheesy as the 80’s movies my mom makes me watch with her when I’m sick and can’t refuse. I am desperately in love with Walter, and I have been all my life. It ripped my heart out when he told me he didn’t feel the same way about me.
It wasn’t long ago. A few weeks. I thought things were going well. I thought we were both on the same page. We had been hooking up for a couple of months, nothing major, making out in his room or my attic. He had his hand up my shirt. I was sitting on his lap. And then I made the mistake.
He was kissing my neck, making his way up to my ear. His palm lay flat on my boob, like he was going to squeeze but was waiting for something. He stopped, took a breath and looked at me. For a minute neither of us spoke. Then he smiled, kissing my nose.
“I love you,” I said. It slipped out.
Walter coughed. In my face. He coughed in my face and I swear he laughed, just a little.
“Crystal, you know what you mean to me,” he said.
“What do I mean to you?”
“Don’t do this, don’t screw with this, you’re my best friend.”
“But that’s it,” I didn’t want to say it, but I couldn’t help myself. He was still so close to my face, his hand was still up my shirt. I could feel myself starting to sweat.
“I don’t want to ruin what we have,” he said.
“Which is what?”
Walter took his hand from my chest and scooted up to the top of the bed. He ran that very same hand through his hair and looked at the ceiling.
“I’m sorry Crystal, I just don’t feel that way about you.”
I should have been mad. I should have yelled at him for taking advantage of the situation, told him I wasn’t an object he could play with. I should have thrown him out. But this wasn’t just some guy. This was Walter. He was my very favorite person in the world, my best friend. And he hadn’t promised me anything.
“OK Walter,” I said.
He took my hand. “I’m sorry.”
Me too. I thought, but this time I kept my mouth shut.
Later that night, after Walter had gone home, I lay in my cot staring at the ceiling. What would I have to do to get Walter to feel the way I did? What would it take to make him see me like that? How could I make a change?
That was weeks ago, but I feel the same. Rejected. The next morning, I do my face for school. I put as much foundation on as I can, slathering concealer over the hot red bumps that cover my cheeks. I line my lips with a brownish mauve, dabbing a little gloss in the center as the YouTubers have taught me. I line my eyes in black flicking it out a little from the corner of each eye. I brush on mascara and powder my whole face. Hopefully everything won’t melt off in the heat. I look ok, passable.
I go downstairs to the kitchen, walk to the pot and pour myself a cup of coffee.
“Morning Hun,” my mom says, coming over to hug me. I don’t want to mess up my face so I pull away, something she misinterprets as me not wanting to be close to her. She thinks I hate her, which just makes me hate her.
“When are you home today?” she asks.
This question. If I answer it, she’ll be waiting for me, and get upset if I’m “late.” If I don’t, she’ll think I’m hiding something.
“Text me later and I’ll tell you,” is as much as I can give her. I grab a banana from the bowl on the table, and make my way to the bus.
About an hour later I’m in math. I touch the grooves on the old wooden desk. Years of teenagers have scratched the surface with points from a pencil, a protractor, a ruler, a pen. Teachers can see if we’re writing something, but they never notice us etching, slowly and silently, at the pace of a math class.
I stare at my desk to avoid looking at Walter. Watching him from the back, out of the corner of my eye, even though I know he can’t see me, I notice him squirm. I can make out his waist between the wooden slab and metal rungs that keep the chair upright. I can see how the fabric of his faded tee shirt follows the curve of his sides, grazing him, almost meeting the waist of his jeans. That inch of skin. It is so pale, and so smooth, I can imagine, without much effort, how it might feel, how it might taste.
Today Mr. Parker is talking about sines and cosines in the faint background, but my thoughts are far away from anything resembling Trig. I trace my gaze upward, landing on the back of Walter’s neck. His dark brown curls reach his earlobes and I wonder if they tickle him. I’m jealous of his hair for getting to be so close.
The bell rings. Mr. Parker looks directly at me as he says, “We’ll have a quiz on this on Monday.” His look suggests he knows I wasn’t paying attention. I hide behind my hair, and
gather my graph paper, completely blank, following the herd of sophomores out of the classroom.
I squeeze past kids clogging the hallway, stumbling, and there he is. I tuck my hair behind my ear and smile. My heart beats too fast. My hands get too sweaty. This is my best friend. I know him. He knows me. I don’t understand why my insides don’t know this. I have to be cool.
He waited for me.
“Hey Walter,” I say, and I can’t help it, my stomach flutters. I have told myself a million times to let it go. But look at that hair, those eyes, his smooth cheeks.
Truth is, I’m pretty sure he loves me too. He just won’t admit it. I’m the one he calls when he needs a pep talk. I’m the one he texts to go out when his parents are fighting. I’m the one who knows he’s afraid of the dark, and sleeps with the TV on.
“Wanna walk me home?” he asks.
My pulse speeds and I nod, my voice failing me. This happens all the time. My brain forgets. It makes new realities that I believe.
Walter hooks his arm through mine. It’s almost summer and our arms are bare. A shiver runs up to my shoulder from where our skin touches.
Walter leads me to the big double doors that go out behind the high school. His house is on the far side. We walk slowly, making our way to the other side of the wide set of fields, where the younger kids have their soccer games and the JV girls play field hockey in the fall.
Walter is telling me things like the party is going to be epic, they should make a pact to drink only two beers so they don’t get out of control, should he wear jeans or shorts? but it’s the thick arm hair in the crease of his elbow that I’m focused on, so unlike my own smooth crease it feels almost pornographic.
When we get to the edge of the first field, Walter pulls me towards a large oak, one side covered in a florescent green moss. He leans me up against it, taking me by the hips. Why does he do this? Doesn’t he know what this does to me?
One of the many problems with the situation is that Walter is more than willing to fool around in secret. This should infuriate me; and I sort of wish it did, but I let it happen because, in a way, it thrills me. If we hook up in secret then I’m a secret, and if I’m a secret I’m worth keeping secret. Right? Could that be a good thing?
I wish that I believed that. I wish that were true. But I think Walter wants to hook up with me when we’re alone in the woods because he doesn’t want anyone to see us. That kind of secret is not the nice kind.
Walter puts a palm on my shoulder. Our chests brush up against each other. Sparks fly up my leg and land between them, but I don’t flinch. I don’t want anything to stop what is about to happen.
“Should I stop?” Walter asks, trailing one finger along my collar bone.
“Yes, no, yes, stop,” I answer, even though I know in my mind this is all crazytown. Teenage boys are obsessed with sex, my mother would tell me, it doesn’t mean to them what it means to you. Be careful with your heart, Crystal.
He looks at my mouth and I can’t look away. The small woods are quiet. I can barely hear school letting out through the trees.
I’m aware of how I must seem to him at this moment, sweat pouring down my back, the sides of my head wet behind my ears. My foundation must be dripping down my face in globs. I am not a polished girl. I know girls like that, of course, who somehow never sweat, whose shirts are never wrinkled and whose hair is never mussed. Walter could have any of them. He could have anyone. But right now he’s here with me, and that has to count for something. I glance back at school. It seems so far away, a canopy of trees guarding us against all of the possible teenage eyes and gossiping mouths.
A soccer ball comes bounding through the trees and hits Walter in the leg, dissolving our sun dappled moment. A freshman comes jogging to retrieve the ball and stops short when he sees us. He lifts his eyebrows, waits a beat and winks. Walter stands up and passes the ball back to him. “Nothing to see here,” he says.
“Thanks, man,” the kid replies, chuckling to himself as he jogs back to the field.
The moment lost, we walk to Walter’s house, hand in hand to the basement entrance and into his room. His space is totally private, he took it over when his brother moved out.
“You’re still up for hanging later tonight?” I ask him.
“Yes! Annemarie’s, it’ll be epic” he says, and he kisses me on the forehead. Epic. Awesome. Forehead.
I take Walter’s hand. It’s so big, my fingers fit so nicely inside it. How does he not see how perfect this is?
I look at him. Walter dresses like a typical parking lot boy, low-slug jeans, tee shirts; in the winter a cracked leather jacket he inherited from his older brother. He wears faded black converse, low tops. When he smokes, which is not as often as people might think, he lifts his face towards the sky like he is praying.
Walter walks like he carries a huge weight on his shoulders. He’s tall, almost six foot two, and he stoops, but not too much, just enough to remain mysterious. His hair falls delicately over his hazel eyes and I love nothing more than pushing the shock of it back off his forehead with the palm of my hand. Without the bangs in his face, Walter looks younger, fresh, maybe even innocent. His long black lashes are the envy of everyone, myself included.
Once we toss our backpacks on the floor I pick up the book on his nightstand and finger through the pages. The cover of the book is ripped off so I can’t tell what it is.
“What’s this?” I ask.
“It’s silly,” Walter says.
“Is it for school?” I flop back on his bed, lying face up at the ceiling, turning the book over in my hands.
“No.” He swipes it from me and tucks it in the back pocket of his jeans. The pages re-form their ripples, like they belong there.
“What is it?” I lunge for him and Walter shimmies out of the way, arching his back away from me. I dive onto him and grab the book out of his pocket. The corner of his grey fitted sheet comes loose.
“It’s embarrassing,” he says, flushed. “It’s nothing. It’s a book.”
“What book, asshole?” Does he think I’m not smart enough for it?
“It’s a bunch of short stories. Raymond Carver. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”
“Oh come on.” I roll my eyes, though secretly I’m swooning.
“It’s good, I promise,” he says.
This is one of the bazillion things I love about Walter. His mushy side. Most people don’t see it. They see a brooding bad boy with a wallet chain. But I know the real him. The deep one. The one with the soft palms. The one who reads love stories. The one who pays attention.
“Look, don’t make fun of me. It’s great. It’s not what it sounds like.” He smiles.
I grab the book from his pocket. It’s ripped up on the edges. I put it up to my nose and smell it, the thin paper scent going directly to my head. It smells like the library and cardboard and laundry detergent. And Walter.
I put the book softly down on the bed and look up. Walter sports a sheepish grin but I can tell he isn’t really that embarrassed.
He reaches for me and pulls me towards him. Our bodies align front to front.
“What do we talk about, then?” I ask.
“When we talk about love?”
“Crystal, come on,” he says.
We have talked about this. I know. But I know he must feel it too. He has to. And my mind gets all muddled up between what happens and what he says.
“I know. Don’t worry,” I say, even though I don’t mean it.
My mother texts me:
What time will you be home?
What do you want for dinner?
“Ugh, it’s my mom, I have to go,” I say and look around for my shoes.
“You’re coming with me tonight, though, right?” Walter asks and I sigh. I know what will happen at this party. I will go with Walter, he will stand by me until Annemarie or one of her swan-like friends walks by with their long necks and big boobs and bouncy hair and then he will leave me in the dust. I’ll know no one else there, and I’ll have to call an Uber to get home before midnight.
“Yeah, alright, I’ll go.”
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I can make him see me like he sees the swans. I can try, can’t I?
After dinner with my parents, I run up to the bathroom and lock myself in. I shave my legs, I scrub my face, I wash my hair with coconut shampoo. I do my face, slick my hair with gel, pick my outfit, spray perfume. I avoid the mirror, hoping that my imagination of what I could look like will catapult me into a reality in which I do. I pull on my blue halter top, tuck my racerback bra in so the straps don’t show. I put on cutoffs, ones that barely cover my butt cheeks, and I tie a sweatshirt around my waist to cover the shorts until I’m outside. As I run down the stairs to meet Walter, I catch a glimpse of myself in the windowpane. I look good. Not Annemarie good, maybe not even her swans good, but good enough for me.
Walter picks me up at 9pm, which my mother thinks is “an outrageous time to go out.” He beeps the horn.
“Boys should ring the doorbell,” she says.
“It’s just Walter,” I say.
“He’s a boy, right?” My mother is typing on her laptop, but his eyebrows lift up and over the screen. “I know it’s not PC for me to say,” she starts, “but do you ever think of pulling back a little from Walter? Let him come to you?”
“We’re just friends, Mom.”
“You never have to settle for being good enough Crystal, I hope you know that,” she says.
“What does that mean?”
“It means, my love, that there is something to be gained from letting him wait a little, letting him want more.”
I roll my eyes but there’s a part of me that thinks she’s probably right. I know the old he chases you in the playground because he likes you and you always want what you don’t have might be antiquated and unpopular unfeminist tropes but they’re sayings nonetheless. And there’s always some truth in a saying. “Maybe,” I say, I’ll give her a maybe. She smiles, appeased.
I let her kiss me on the top of the head.
“Be safe,” she said. “Home by midnight.”
I nod and run outside, jumping into Walter’s car before my mom can say anything else.
“You look hot,” Walter says, and kisses me on the cheek.
I smile. I have put myself together in the best way I know how. Something that looks effortless, but took me over an hour.
Tonight. Maybe he will change his mind tonight.
We get to the party, park around the corner.
Walter looks at his phone, chuckles.
“Just Annemarie. Nothing,” he says.
The air hisses out of my heart.
We go in the back way into the kitchen, where kids are lounging on the counter and playing flip cup at the table. Walter heads to the keg, pumps and pours us a beer each, mostly foam. He hands me one.
“Thanks,” I say, leaning into him. I want him to smell the coconut, a scent I know he loves. But I want more than that. I want him to lean in towards me and kiss me. I want him to take my hand, show this kitchen of kids that I mean something to him, that we mean something to each other.
He does not.
Annemarie appears in the doorway, a golden fairy, one hand on the doorframe, a waterfall of bronze curls tumbling down her back. The room hushes just from her presence. Annemarie is beautiful, but it’s more than that. Her face is flawless, not one red bump, not one scar, and not one smear of cover up. She wears a low cut top, red and white polka dots. The outline of a black lace bra is clear underneath. Her shorts are low on her hips. Annemarie has a raspy, breathy voice and when she clears her throat we all wait to hear it. She always sounds like she was just laughing. Like she just finished something that took her breath away. A run, a dance party, a cigarette, sex. Somehow this evokes a sense of urgency, a sense that you should pay attention to her, before she’s off again. If I’m invisible, she’s the show.
I see the change in Walter. He is no longer easygoing. He straightens up, breathes more heavily. I can almost smell him start to sweat.
“Hey Walter,” Annemarie breathes, and I know I’ve lost already.
“Hey wassup,” Walter says, handing Annemarie his beer.
“It’s new,” he says. “I’ll get another.”
“Thanks Babe,” she says, taking a sip.
“I’ll be back Crys,” Walter says and follows this breathy fairy into her backyard. I know he will not be back.
It feels like my belly button bumps up against the back of my throat. I take a sip of the foam in my cup just to have something to do and it goes down the wrong tube. I cough and run to the sink, leaning my head to the faucet. I see my foundation streaming onto the plastic cups already discarded. How I could think I’d be able to keep Walter away from Annemarie is now completely beyond me. I can’t compete with someone like her.
I put my cup on the table and wipe my chin. I’ll walk home. I’ll be back way before midnight, and my mom will be thrilled.
I leave through the screen door, letting it slam.
I can see Walter and Annemarie sitting on the edge of her pool, their feet dangling into the glowing aqua water. He has a hand on the small of her back, she’s stretching, exposing her midsection. He splashes at her. She laughs in a trill. I don’t know how to trill like that.
I’m a glutton for punishment. I know this, but I can’t look away. I sit down on the grass far enough away that they won’t see me. I stare.
Walter goes inside and gets them more beers; when he’s back they lean into each other and laugh. I see him touch the curve of her spine with one long finger.
I lay back, I can’t watch. But I can’t leave either. I close my eyes, mortified that I thought even for a minute that Walter would choose me.
I’m not sure how it’s possible, but I fall asleep there in the grass, and don’t wake up until Walter kicks me lightly on the thigh.
“Crystal,” he says, “Come on, it’s late,” his voice is slower than normal, like he’s dragging it through honey.
I don’t move, and he lays down next to me.
“Was it worth it?” I ask.
“Don’t do this,” Walter has turned so that he is facing the sky, one of his arms up and behind his head, the other resting on top of my hand in the grass.
“Don’t,” I say, pulling away. “Someone might see us.”
I want to be mad. I want to shove his hand away, get up, walk home like I planned. But I can’t be mad, I can’t move. I know that I’m not his girlfriend. I know the deal.
“I think I can hear your heartbeat,” I say.
“Oh weird, I think I can hear yours too,” he says. “Do hearts beat louder when you drink beer?”
I laugh, turn towards him.
I let him choose. He could easily turn away. Or he could scooch his way up and let me listen to his heart. Or he could scooch down just a little bit and face my face.
Our heartbeats amplify while I wait. Maybe it’s just mine. The crickets buzz and the grass is wet on my side and the beer is stale in my mouth.
Walter touches his lips to mine, gently at first. I don’t react and he kisses me harder, pulling my face toward his with his hands. He parts my lips and kisses me more deeply. As he finds my tongue, I push him softly away, our mouths staying pressed together as our bodies part, holding on.
“Wow,” Walter says. All I can do is nod in agreement.
Walter places a hand on the underside of my chin. Right before our lips touch again, I feel a trickle of sweat roll down the side of my face. I pray it doesn’t end up in his mouth. If it does he doesn’t say anything. He just kisses me more. Walter’s lips are cool. And soft. They taste like ocean water mixed with malty beer and just a little bit of honey.
I know he is doing this because he’s drunk. I know he probably kissed Annemarie this same way just a few minutes ago. I know she’s the honey I taste. I know that on Monday I will still just be the best friend, and his guy friends will be asking what it was like to be with Annemarie on Friday night. I know that I should stand up for myself, tell him he needs to choose, that this isn’t fair. Tell him I have to protect my heart.
But I don’t do any of those things. I kiss him back. I pretend that this moment is all the moments. I pray someone will see us, so that our whatever this is will be out in the world. If it is out in the world then it’s real. I imagine myself with long honey hair and a see through tee shirt.I imagine the choices I might have. We sometimes have to live in the moment in front of us. We sometimes accept second place because it is so much better than losing everything.
Francesca Louise Grossman is a writer and writing instructor. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Brain, Child Magazine, The Manifest Station, Ed Week, Drunken Boat, Word Riot, and The Huffington Post among others. She runs writing retreats and workshops internationally, and leads an annual intensive workshop at The Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has a BA and MA from Stanford University and a Doctorate from Harvard University in Education. Francesca lives in Newton, MA with her husband and two children and is currently working on a memoir and a novel.