Standing in the kitchen my mother says my attitude makes her cancer worse. When I tell her that’s a horrible thing to say, she says, “This yelling makes it worse too.” When I leave the room she says, “Oh, walking away? Leaving me all riled up? ” and shakes her head, dipping her gloved hands to the pots in the sink.
There’s a boy I’m trying to kiss. Or there’s a kiss I’m trying to have – an act that needs to get done before I start next school year. If it doesn’t happen this summer, I’ll have to lie. I’ve already made up the name of the guy: Jeremy Schlussle. It’s lame enough that people will believe it. Imagine me, sixteen.
“Him,” Raquel says, pointing at the Hunch Back of Notre Dame-looking kid who does the deliveries. Marco. He’s not a hunchback, but he’s got that face with the snub-nose. Maybe. Sure.
They say if you raise your kid in New York City she grows up too fast. What I have too fast is a job as a cashier at a salad place called Tossed. We wear black t-shirts that say Get Tossed. “Who ever thought these up is a fucking pervert,” Raquel says, “and I love it!”
“Don’t go out,” says my mom, whose pouring her third spoonful of Pepto Bismol. I ask her if she’s sick. “Am I sick?” she snorts.
Outside Raquel is spraying CK1 and dancing, chin to the sky, through its mist.
Last year this girl named Andrea Barbino wrote an essay about her first kiss, which she read in front of the whole class. It was with a guy named Julio and it happened on a windowsill in the staircase at school when she was in seventh grade. Two things: I heard she was wearing a short skirt at the time, and let’s just say it wasn’t only a kiss.
Lucky, she got it all out of the way like that.
“You are compulsively manipulative,” my father is telling my mother. “You are compulsively paranoid,” she parrots, and hacks some throaty coughs for effect. I’m in the bathroom hearing them just barely above the running blow dryer. Achieving straight hair in the summer is a real bitch.
Raquel thinks I’ve hooked up with four guys. She thinks so because it’s what I’ve told her. She goes to a Catholic school in Brooklyn, so it’s safe to assume our paths will never cross. “Have you ever seen, like, a really tiny dick?” she’s asking. Yeah, it was practically invisible, I say, and ring up two Greek salads with extra feta.
“Marco!” our manager shouts, holding up the delivery bag. “Polo!” Raquel throws her arms in the air. Her shirt rides up and a rhinestone strawberry winks out from her bellybutton. Marco laughs and so does everyone else. It’s the 23rd time she’s done the Marco Polo bit so far this summer. I have a little tally going.
You know when you were younger and you’d be walking with your friend to the park or somewhere, and she’d pick up a little speed, and then you’d pick up a little speed, and you’d catch each other’s eye and without saying anything, suddenly you’d be racing? I don’t bother with that anymore.
My father was the one who told me the day she was diagnosed. My mom was on her way home and I was sitting on their bed. After he said it the room staggered unsteadily as if someone was setting up a slide show, trying and failing to center the projected image. My father and I both stared at his computer and I watched as he played a game of solitaire. The screen reflected in tiny blue patches on his glasses and his eyes were gone.
“He’ll do it!” Raquel is bouncing up and down in front of me. “Marco said he’ll hook up with you at my Fourth of July party.” He’s willing. Lucky me. I look over and he’s loading a big paper bag into the basket on the front of his delivery bike. He looks strong and focused, his black sideburns shiny with sweat.
Mom, mom, mom – I write in my journal – mom, mom, mom. I write the word until its hollow and my pen’s empty, just scratching the page. People are always saying she’ll still be here, somewhere in the universe, watching me accomplish great things. Why does no one get that mothers only count if you can hug them? She’ll be watching over you, your children, your children’s children! they say. That’s assuming I ever have sex.
“You are implicated in her misery,” my father is telling my mother, “you are heavily implicated in her lack of confidence.” It’s 9 pm and I’m going to bed because if I watch one more teen drama where everyone is all picky and choosy about who they get felt up by, I’ll stick a fork through my shriveled little heart.
I am implicated in Raquel’s quest to give the entire kitchen staff erections. Every day we play the same CD and every day when La Isla Bonita goes on, Raquel is dancing up against me like a we’re a pair of hot pseudo-lesbians on Spring Break. I don’t move a muscle. I cover my eyes with my hands. The guys in the kitchen look up from their lettuce chopping and applaud.
My parents do love each other. I found a condom in the toilet two months ago. I put my hand on the lever to flush, but then I left it. For prosperity, or however the expression goes.
The Fourth of July party is at Raquel’s parent’s house in Canarsie. The house is full of people, bottles and bottles of alcohol, and huge pans of hot food. There are grandparents, babies, and eleven year old girls who don’t like my outfit and tell me so. “It’s hot out,” one says, “why you wearing jeans for?” I see the Tossed people out on the front yard, and when Raquel motions me towards them and I see that she’s wearing a sequined tube top that shows off the rhinestone strawberry, that Marco is there sipping beer from a silver can, that the sun hasn’t quite set yet, that Spanish music is playing and even the fat people are dancing, I let myself want something good.
I tell Raquel I like her better than any of my school friends. It’s after the fireworks and two beers. After the first, I was drunk enough to ask Marco what his favorite salad dressing was. “Japanese ginger,” he said, then pointed to the sky because the fireworks were starting.
Marco is sprawled on the lawn chair with a beer in his hand when he hooks his free arm around my back and pulls me onto his lap. The lawn is dark and warm, buzzing with gluttonous insects. The streetlight is a dim yellow-orange, not too bright, and I’m ready. I crane my neck to look back at him and then I feel his hand on my left breast, just stroking up and down. “This is okay?” he asks. A slice of black eye gleams from under his right eyelid. When I tell people about this I’ll repeat everything just how it was, except I’ll add a kiss. Better than Jeremy Schlussle.
I think about my mom and look out my bedroom window. The leaves are electric green and it suddenly looks as if they’re growing, rippling in the wind, flicking in and out of shadow at high speed. It’s like the part of a movie where the narrator’s low, confident voice comes on and says, “And the days turned to weeks, the weeks turned to months, the months turned to years.” Downstairs I spot Raquel. “Get out here!” she calls. “Tell me what happened with Marco you little slut!”
My mom’s next scan shows stability and she feels energetic, so we rent a car and drive to somewhere in Westchester. Each of my parents reaches one hand to me in the back seat. I hold them both for a while. We all look out the front window to keep from getting carsick.
Sarah Schwartz is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in English Literature and Creative Writing at Fordham University. Her work has been published in Grey Sparrow, The Prose Poem Project, 5×5, and Ducts.org.