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Imaginary girls, p.4

Imaginary Girls, page 4

 

Imaginary Girls
 


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  From the cloudy expression on her face, I knew it hadn’t gone well. She seemed . . . there was no other word to call it but surprised. He must have said no, which didn’t happen to her often. She probably had no clue what to make of it.

  One time, I remember, a boy she was sort of seeing tried to say no when she told him she was craving a slice of cheesecake and he needed to go get her some, like right this minute. “Where’s the best cheesecake in the whole state?” she’d asked him, and when he’d said down in the city, she’d said, well, that’s where he needed to go. She was testing him, I knew, doing it only because she could. But he had to work early the next morning, he said. It was late, he said, too late to drive two-and-a-half hours to the city just for cheesecake and two-and-a-half hours back so he could make it to work on time, especially if she wasn’t going to ride with him.

  She gave him the eyes first: green in the way nothing else in the world is green, green to stun you, venom green.

  She moved closer to him on the couch, lowered the volume on the TV. Then she took a single finger, just the one, and traced the line of his chin—accomplishing two things at once: a reminder that he really should do something about that stubble, but also of who he was dealing with, who she was.

  “Don’t you like cheesecake?” she asked him innocently, and I’m trying to remember if his name was Raf or Ralph or Ray, because then Raf or Ralph or Ray said, “You know I do,” and she said, “Do I really?”

  She leaned on his shoulder and mumbled something into his ear that I couldn’t make out from across the room.

  She’d had him at the chin, I could tell, but she’d also made him late to work a few times already and I knew he had that on his mind, too. Being fired was apparently something that normal people concerned themselves with. Ruby herself was always late for work at Cumby’s. She ate M&M’s free off the vine in the candy aisle and popped the cap on her gas tank to keep her car full up on unleaded, but she wasn’t fired, not even close. Then again, no one else in town lived a life like Ruby’s.

  Raf or Ralph or Ray was trying to make a decision. Then he saw me looking.

  I was thirteen then, maybe twelve. He saw me across the room and smiled. That’s how I knew he’d risk getting fired for Ruby; lots of boys in town would.

  “You up for some cheesecake, Chloe?” he asked me then, because if a guy wanted a solid shot at Ruby, he had to make an effort with her little sister. And I said yeah sure I wanted some cheesecake, and with cherries, and before you knew it he was heading south for the Mid-Hudson Bridge, trying to beat the 1:00 a.m. weekend closing at Veniero’s, some bakery in Manhattan that he assured us made the best cheesecake in the whole state. We didn’t even give him gas money, though Ruby donated a nickel for the tolls.

  And I honestly don’t know—didn’t care—if he got fired the next day or not.

  How easy it had been to convince him. He could have said no; he’d made a valiant effort. But in the end he didn’t. He physically couldn’t. And I don’t think he even liked cheesecake.

  My dad, though, he seemed to have a strength that boy couldn’t muster. Or else Ruby had lost a touch of her magic in the years we’d been apart. My dad came out of his office all beard and big head, like he held all the power, like no one could tell him what to do, and I hated him a little bit then, hated him a lot, for thinking he could deny Ruby what she wanted.

  “So it’s all settled,” my dad said. “I assume Ruby’s staying for dinner?”

  “Oh no,” Ruby said. “I’m staying, but not for dinner. I’m on a liquid diet, you know, a cleanse. Shakes only, the fruit kind or the milk, and I don’t want you to go to any trouble with the blender.”

  She nodded politely at the man who was my father, though he’d skipped out on me before I could walk, and then she nodded politely at the woman who was married to the man who was my father, and pulled me by the sleeve up out of the basement to get the hell away from them both.

  I should have known she’d come for me at some point. I should have been waiting. Ruby was impetuous. She did things like head down the driveway to check the mailbox, wearing only rain boots, a hoodie, and a summer slip with a jam stain on the lace hem, and end up across state lines, hours from home, telling my dad she’d come for custody.

  I don’t know what happened during her walk down the driveway that made her decide she had to have me back immediately—she didn’t say. It must have been really important to leave right then, though, because otherwise she totally would have put a dress on over that slip.

  Once Ruby decided on a thing, it was like, in her mind, it grew legs and turned real. She could write on a piece of paper the color underwear I’d have on tomorrow and fold it up a dozen times and hide it down deep in the toe of her boot, and even if I searched through my dresser drawers blindfolded, picking out a pair I hadn’t worn in weeks, she’d have known, somehow, that I’d pick red. Almost as if she’d willed the color on my body by writing down its name.

  “What did my dad say?” I asked. We’d convened in my camper, climbed up to the bed compartment wedged over the wheel, even though it was pretty humid up there, to discuss in private.

  “He said you have school,” she said, wrinkling her nose.

  She pressed her palm to the screen of the porthole window that looked out over my stepmom’s garden and, outside, a bumblebee flew up close to it, then flitted away. She tapped the screen, but it didn’t come back, not even to be near her.

  “I do have school,” I said. “For three more weeks.”

  “He said you have finals and if you don’t take them you’ll fail out or whatever and have to repeat the tenth grade.” She flipped over to study me. “You lost your bangs.”

  “They grew out like a year ago,” I said, but softly, because I wasn’t mad. I was thinking that this was the moment she was seeing me after all this time without bangs, and I’d always been thinking about this moment, wondering if she’d like me this way.

  “I’ll cut them again for you if you want,” she said.

  She folded up my hair and held it above my forehead to create the illusion of bangs, that curtain over the eyes to hide things you don’t want to have to see. The world closer in, less inhibiting, easier to deal—and that was all she had to do to make me miss them.

  “When we get you home, that’s the first thing we’ll do,” she said, “cut your bangs, then get veggie lo mein at the Wok ’n’ Roll, and I’ll give you all the baby corns like always. There’s been no one to eat my baby corns. I’ve had to throw them away.”

  “I thought you were on a liquid diet. A cleanse.”

  “I wouldn’t need to cleanse anything anymore if I got you back.”

  She let her hand fall, and my hair was the same length again. My eyes could see all. I made a face. I was thinking of driving into town, where the Wok ’n’ Roll was, of who we might see—or not see. “We don’t have to get lo mein . . .”

  “What, you don’t want Chinese? Do you want pancakes at Sweet Sue’s?”

  “That’s a drive,” I said. “You mean the place way out past the high school, right?”

  She looked at me funny. “You don’t remember Sweet Sue’s? The pancakes at Sweet Sue’s? The strawberry-banana pancakes?”

  I did—I remembered everything about the town and about Ruby. Or I used to. Maybe it was being so close to her now, but I felt like I’d been spun around and around with my head bagged in a mosquito net and then asked to give street directions.

  “I remember . . .”

  I was going to bring her up. London. That’s who we were talking around, not haircuts and what to eat for dinner.

  The girl who died.

  The reason I was here in the first place.

  London.

  The girl whose name I couldn’t make my mouth say.

  So to Ruby, what I said was, “Yeah. Of course I remember Sweet Sue’s.”

  We were talking like I was already coming back, like my dad hadn’t said no. Like I had no dad and there
was no such thing as no. Like I would be stuffing myself full of pancakes tomorrow.

  “Also . . .” she said, eyes on me now, eyes in all my wrinkles and corners, eyes up inside my clothes, “something’s different about you, and it’s not just the hair.”

  I let her look, though I wondered what she was seeing.

  “What size do you wear now, a B?” she asked.

  “Um, yeah,” I said, blushing. She was looking at my chest.

  She smiled softly. “Well, you are only sixteen. Don’t worry, that’ll change.”

  I flipped over onto my stomach so she couldn’t keep looking. But she was sitting up now, staring deep into me, her body between me and the ladder, the only way down.

  “Don’t tell me his name,” she said. “I don’t want to know.”

  “Whose name?”

  “Don’t say it. Just thinking about it makes me want to murder him. You cannot let me in the same room with him, Chlo. I can’t be responsible for what I’d do.”

  “Ruby, what are you talking about?”

  “I’m talking about the boy you lost your virginity to—don’t say his name—who else did you think I meant? Is there someone else I have to kill on your behalf?”

  I looked away. She looked away. We looked away together out the porthole and stayed like that for a long while.

  “Why didn’t you tell me?” she said at last.

  “What, like in a text? ‘Hi, I just slept with this semihot guy Jared from sixth-period study hall. TTYL’?”

  “I told you not to say his name,” she said. “I should absolutely not know his name.”

  “Oops,” I said, though she sure knew I’d done it on purpose.

  “Semihot?” she said, with some small concern. “How semi?”

  “Oh, you know. Cuter in the dark.”

  “Aren’t they all?”

  Then, quickly, before she could ask more questions, I added, “It was no big deal. What happened, I mean. I’m glad I got it over with.”

  She let out a breath. Clearly she was not glad, not one bit. And here would be the time to ask the questions big sisters were supposed to ask after a secret like this had been revealed—about protection, for instance, all the slimy stuff no one wants to talk about. Force herself to say the word condoms, to make sure we used one. Ask did he treat you all right? Ask how do you feel now, you okay? Say it’ll be better next time. Next time it won’t burn so much, next time you won’t want to sock him in the eye for not going slow.

  Big sisters had to do it, when the mothers weren’t sober enough to string five words together and say it themselves.

  But Ruby told me a story instead.

  “My first time,” she said, “was right on the edge of the water, on the rocks. I had on these little silver hoop earrings, like three in one ear, and when we were doing it they starting humming and my ear got really hot—like that time with the iron on the bed when you thought you unplugged it first and don’t make that face it didn’t hurt that bad really—and then the earrings were flying out of my ears, these shiny, silver whirling things high up over the water, they’d come totally alive and, wow, was it something.”

  “So you lost your earrings?”

  “Yeah, they fell out. I guess I wasn’t supposed to have them anymore. The whole thing sort of ruined the idea of earrings for me. I mean, you’ll only lose them. Why bother wearing them at all?”

  I wasn’t sure what she was trying to say with this. Ruby’s stories didn’t have morals. They meant one thing in the light and one thing in the dark and another thing entirely when she was wearing sunglasses. If she was disappointed in me, for what I did in that Subaru, she wasn’t showing it.

  “This was at the reservoir?” I asked.

  She ignored that. “I remember looking up and seeing these silver swirls in the sky, bright like stars, brighter even than the moon, which was full that night . . . well, almost. I bet that was them flying over the mountains—and what’s on the other side, the big mall in Poughkeepsie?—and you could see them for miles and miles.” She sighed. “That was the best part of the night.”

  “Who were you with?” I asked. Because she’d never told me.

  “Some guy,” she said. “So, anyway, your dad’s all hung up on those final exams you have to take at school, and also, FYI, he called me irresponsible, and I said that’s our drunk mother not me, and he said our mom’s an alcoholic and it’s a disease and we should not make fun of her because she has problems, and I said he’s got no idea what kind of problems, and he said only over his dead body could you go back upstate with me, and I told him he didn’t own you, and he said actually he did, that’s what child custody is, and you’re technically still a child until you’re eighteen, and then I stuck my tongue out at him like this.” She stopped talking, to demonstrate.

  “You didn’t!”

  “Kidding. Well, only about the tongue.”

  “What else did he say?”

  “He said I’m a bad influence and got you mixed up in drugs. I said you don’t do drugs because I won’t let you, and if he knew me at all he’d know that.”

  Now I rolled my eyes. She was right, though.

  “Because if anyone knows how to look out for you, it’s me. He has no idea what I’d do for you. No idea.”

  This was true; then again it wasn’t. It was true because I wanted it true, made it so by stowing it in a picture frame on the wall of my mind where I reminded myself of things, the things I knew about Ruby, the things I knew about myself. One and the same, all hung on the selfsame wall. But it also wasn’t true because I was here. She let me stay here in Pennsylvania, and it had taken her two years to come.

  “If he says I can’t go, I can’t go . . .” I told her. “He’s only remembering what happened to London.”

  I had finally said the name and I swear, for a second there, she stared blankly back at me as I had when she’d uttered the name Sweet Sue’s. She just stared.

  “London,” I reminded her.

  Nothing. Her stare was especially intense, like she was trying to shove a noise signal into my head—but I could think and hear just fine.

  I tried again. “What happened . . . with London?”

  She blinked, broke the stare, and said, “Oh, yeah. That.”

  “That’s why he doesn’t want me to live with you. Even for the summer.”

  “Hmmmph. What happened to that girl could never ever happen to you. Like I said, I wouldn’t let it.”

  I’d turned away from her here, somehow, on that narrow bed stuffed up over the wheel, the compartment so small our four feet were hanging off the end. But she wasn’t letting me stay turned away; she wasn’t letting me not face her. She wanted me to look at her, to see her mouth as she spoke. She climbed over me, she rolled into me, she did a series of swift jujitsu moves on me that tangled me up in her arms and locked me to her, elbow-to-elbow, one bare foot held fast in the crook of my neck, and then, calmly, hardly even breathing heavy, she said:

  “I wouldn’t. Let it happen. To you.”

  She rolled away. Far enough away that I immediately wanted her back.

  “I want to go home with you,” I said, the words coming true the moment I said them. I didn’t do everything she wanted, not every little thing. But I wanted to do this. “I want to,” I repeated.

  “I know,” she said.

  “I’m going.”

  “Not tonight. You’ll have to sneak out. After finals. Whenever you’re ready, when they’re not looking—that’s when you’ll go.”

  “Like how?”

  “I dunno,” she joked. “Hijack a hot-air balloon?”

  Ruby had a thing for heights—being up in them and looking down. She liked imagining herself soaring through the sky higher and higher until she was so high up she’d need a telescope to look back to ground.

  Even so, she’d never been on an airplane. And there were no high-rises in our town, so she couldn’t dangle out their windows to count the dots of cars and people below.
She didn’t bother to climb our tall, spindly pine trees, since that was an awkward feat to maneuver while wearing a dress.

  The highest Ruby had ever been on this earth was Overlook Mountain, which at its summit showed off a bird’s-eye view of our town and not much beyond that, since all the trees got in the way. She once wanted to rent a hot-air balloon to test out our town’s clouds, though I told her that I was pretty sure, from science class, she wouldn’t be able to poke donut holes through them like she hoped to. She wanted to be able to spy on everyone, she said, from the cloud cover, and shoot them with jets of rain when they misbehaved.

  But we could go anywhere, I remember saying. If the hot-air balloon was ours for a whole day, imagine how far we could travel. We could make it to the ocean maybe, or up to sightsee the clouds over some cool northern state like Maine.

  But Ruby didn’t like to travel far—she needed to be able to see home, she said. She had to stick around, just in case.

  She believed this wholeheartedly, which was why it was shocking to see her here, in Pennsylvania, untied and cut loose from her usual haunts upstate. And it also explained why she wanted to get home right away. With me.

  “Be serious,” I told her. “Please.”

  “Okay,” she said. She took one last look up and I followed her gaze, like together we could cast our eyes skyward and see the way out of here—but mere inches above our heads was the camper’s plastic pockmarked ceiling, and the camper itself had legs of cinder blocks, not wheels.

  She dropped her eyes back down to me and let her mouth perk up into a smile. “Forget the balloon,” she said. “You know . . . you could always take the bus.”

  “The bus? How much would that cost?”

  She let the smile have her whole face. “Don’t worry about that. You know the Trailways stops right on the Green.”

  Maybe she’d lost her grip on everyone all around her, maybe the Ruby I remembered wasn’t the Ruby who was here now, but she had enough of an influence on me to make me sure. I would go. Balloon or bus or thumb out on the highway, I’d head home to her.

  I didn’t know then that she hadn’t lost anything. Not me—and certainly not what she could do. It was only the physical distance. The farther she got from her blue mountains, down away from her green trees, the less she was herself. She couldn’t do anything she wanted, not like she was used to, not while she was all the way out here.

 
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