Authors: Cynthia Voigt
because it's a love story
* * * * *
I am sitting at a school desk. A wooden desk top with an open shelf of ridged blue pipe metal under it, the desk stands on spindly piped-metal legs. I am sitting on a chair made out of wood and metal. It is recess and we're inside, so it must be raining.
The new girl is assigned the desk next to mine, on my left. On my right is a chalkboard, all along the wall. The desk next to mine is the only empty desk in the classroom and it is empty becauseâwhy do I remember this so clearly?âHeather's father had been transferred to Fort Pendleton, so Shirl, who from the beginning of the year had sat next to me, had asked if she could switch into Heather's old desk, next to Frannie. Frannie is the Queen of the class; so when Frannie asked
Shirl to ask the teacher if she could move, and Shirl wanted to, I didn't blame her, even though it left me alone next to an empty desk. I'd have done the same.
The new girl is assigned to what used to be Shirl's desk, next to mine.
The new girl has red hair, carroty red, in wiry curls. She's short and scrawny and pale. She wears jeans, shirt, sneakers, gold hoop earrings in pierced ears. She isn't looking around, she doesn't expect anyone to talk to her, she doesn't expect to talk to anyone, she doesn't care.
I do care, which is why I am coloring a gown for a paper doll. Frannie announced a contest, to draw the best outfits for your paper doll. I have my box of forty-eight Crayola crayonsâcopper, silver, and gold includedâopen at my right hand. I have a brunette paper doll in a red bathing suit and red high-heeled shoes beside the box of crayons; I trace her outline onto my paper. I am bored of paper dolls after about five minutes, and bored with designing outfits after about two minutes, and I keep the gown simple. I draw a long dress, floor-length to cover the red shoes, long-sleeved and high-necked. I color it dark blue. When you are making outfits for a paper doll, you have to make a gown
and a pair of pajamas and a sports outfitâusually shorts, although it can be winter and you can do a ski outfit or a skating outfit. And you have to make a day dress or skirt and sweater. Once you've done those you can quit if you want to.
I finish coloring the long skirt. I think the new girl must be admiring me out of the corner of her eye. Everybody says Frannie is the best drawer in the class, but I think I am, although I would never say so. I am humming a song everybody is singing, one which the boys have declared cool, in the smirking way that tells me the lyrics have something to do with sex. I am smart enough to know I don't understand that part of it, although I pretend I do; but it seems to me that I do understand the other part, the sadness part of it. I hum softly, her hand gestures, she reaches over to the paper. I smile and nod, take out another sheet, and start to draw a maze.
That year I draw mazes whenever I can, square mazes, rectangular mazes, circular, triangular, trapezoidal, rhomboid, ovoid. I draw them for the pleasure of their intricate pathways and the one secret route into the heart. I draw them for the pleasure of the controlling shape that governs
whatever space the mazes occupy.
The new girl reaches over and takes the copper crayon out of my box. She begins to color on my drawing of the gown. I think she shouldn't be doing that, but I don't know how to stop her. She is humming a song I don't know, quietly, as she colors. Her face is hidden by the long wiry hair. Whatever she is doing to my drawing is hidden by the curve of her hand and arm.
I go back to the maze, working outward from its heart.
When the new girl returns my paper to me, she doesn't wait for my reaction.
My reaction is surprise. What is bad about the gown is that it isn't fancy enough, but she hasn't fixed that, with flounces or lace or belt. She has made wings, huge wings, that spread out behind the shoulders in great floating copper arcs. I had never thought angel wings might be copper. “It's not an angel,” I say to her.
She takes the paper back and looks at it.
“Yes it is,” she says. “Can't you see it?”
And I can see that it might be.
When I have spread my lunch out on the top of the deskâsandwich and fruit,
square container of milk, four Oreo cookies wrapped in waxed paperâthey come circling around, five of them, or four, or six. Their noses jab down at me. “One way to find out what a prisoner knows,” says Robby or Rip, “is you don't ever let him fall asleep. Day after day. If he falls asleep, you wake him up, by sticking knives into him, or electric shocks, cold waterâyou can make him stay awake.”
“That breaks him down,” adds Robert or Rupert.
“A few days,” says Rab or Bobby. “A few days of that and then they pull him out of his cellâthe cells have no light, no windows, not even a crack, it's as black as a coffin inside. His eyes are red, and he's trembling, the shakes, probably looks like an addict, or a drunk with d.t.'s. Wanna bet?”
“I bet. I bet. Scared shitless.”
“Begging them to let him sleep. Begging to tell them anything they want to know.”
“Begging for help, but there's nobody there to help, nobody can help him.”
What is the same about them is their voices, the way they start speaking the cruelty and have no power to stop themselves. Cruelty urges or calls them
onward, and they dive more deeply into it, as if they could get drunk on cruelty, addicted to violence, swallowed up and besotted, as if they heard their own voices speaking the words and fell in love with the sounds of violence in their own voices.
“Â 'D'joo see about that girl, in the mud slide, in Brazil? Enny, did you see that? How nobody could get to her, so she was just stuck there? They took pictures, while she was dying. She was our age.”
“It took days, didn't it?”
“Only her head was out in the air.”
“The rest of herâ”
“I guess the other people got out of the village in time.”
“Wasn't this in Mexico? Or was there another one in Mexico too?”
“I guess she was just too slow a runner. But mud slides move fast, there's not much chance, a lot of the people in her village just gotâ”
I study my sandwichâbologna and yellow mustard on white bread, without any butterâbut I have to hear. I don't cover my ears. I have to listen, until I am gulping, and tears plop down onto the desk and onto the top of my sandwich, and then they go away.
My hands are cramped on top of my desk. I move them to my lap. When I look over, the new girl sits with her head bent, her face hidden.
*Â Â *Â Â *Â Â *Â Â *
Her name was Orfe and she was everything I wasn't. She was my best friend.
That first day, when she finished her lunch, she jammed crumpled-up waxed paper into the brown bag and said, “I can throw up whenever I want to.”
She seemed to expect some response. I had wiped my eyes, but my nose was still stuffy; I had no response to make.
“There are things, if I think them and picture them? I can make myself throw up. It's called projectile vomiting.” She demonstrated, her hand raised to her mouth with fingers curled, then flung open, outward. “I can projectile vomit when I want to, Enny.” She bent her head then, and her face was hidden again.
This was a mannerism, I learned. Orfe would bow her head and her eyes would fill up with what she was feeling so that when she raised her faceâif she raised her face, that is, because sometimes she kept it hiddenâwhatever she was feeling was loosed, full force, out of her eyes.
When she did that, it was impossible to
misunderstand Orfe. When she raised her face and loosed her glance, what she meant was clearer than words spoken aloud.
The Creature from Outer Space is what Frannie called her. Orfe didn't seem to mind, but I didn't want Orfe to be left out. I wanted her to be happy, so I made protests. “You should ask Orfe to your sleepover,” I suggested to Frannie.
“The Creature from Outer Space? Why, did she ask you to ask me?”
“I just think it's mean to leave her out.”
“No it's not,” Frannie said, and giggled at her own wit. “So I guess if you don't go anywhere the Creature isn't going, then she's your best friend now.”
“I didn't say that,” I denied, and was so ashamed of myself that I hated Frannie and was afraid of her. “I think you're being mean.”
“Just because you think so doesn't make it true. So you can go back and tell your new best friend
. There's nothing either one of you can do about it anyway. It's
I even went so far as to offer Orfe my boyfriend. “You can have Leo,” I told her, “for your boyfriend.” I didn't bother saying that Leo wasn't much. She had to know that.
“Dumb.” Orfe's voice came out from
behind a tangle of hanging hair.
She was right. It was a dumb idea. And he was dumb, I was dumb, the whole setup was dumb, and Orfe was right not to want to take any part in it.
We explored the nearby patches of woods, wandering along by streams, and we talked. We explored the streets of the town, and we talked. We jumped rope, rode bikes, played cards, and we talked. To talk was to discover differences.
“It's the mostÂ .Â .Â . the bestÂ .Â .Â . story. Ever,” I would say.
“But, Enny, you always say that about what you're reading, if you like it,” Orfe pointed out.
“So nothing. It's just true.”
“That's not so bad,” I defended myself.
“I didn't say it was bad. Did I?”
“No,” I admitted.
“It's the way you are, it's always what's right now with you. Never before or after, just now.”
I knew what she meant, but I didn't want to talk about it. It was enough just to get through every day. “What about you?” I asked.
“I think about the future. Like, what I want to do, who I want to be.”
“Really? What do you?”
“Famous,” Orfe said.
She made me laugh sometimes, just laugh. “And rich?”
“I don't care about rich.”
I believed her. “Famous for what?”
“As a singer?” I guessed. “Even Frannie has to admit how good you are in singing.”
But Orfe was shaking her head. “For my own songs, I want to write songs, and the music, and perform them. I want to sing so everyone hears me. I wantÂ .Â .Â .” She bent her head. “I want to write a song that's so trueÂ .Â .Â .” She raised her face and her eyes shone. “A song like fire, like ice.”
“If anyone can do that, you can,” I said as soon as I could catch my breath to speak, under the shining of her eyes. “Is it a rock star? Is that what you mean? Because if you got famous, you could hire me. Famous people need secretaries; I bet I'd be a good secretary. Or your housekeeper.”
“I'd rather have you in the band.”
“But I'm no good at music. I can't sing. I can't dance. I can't play anything.”
“And you don't have much sense of rhythm, do you?” Orfe said. “So, but you could be the manager.”
“What does a manager do?”
Orfe thought, then shrugged her shoulders to say she didn't know.
“I'd be good at being your secretary,” I said. “Would you hire me?”
“As manager,” Orfe said.
We played endless games of cribbage. I taught Orfe how to shuffle a deck of cards and then riff them together. We would decide how many times around the cribbage board our game would run and then deal out hand after hand, as we played out the run, leapfrogging our markers around the tracks.
“He was a frog, and that's slimy, cold,” Orfe said. “I wouldn't want any frog sleeping on my pillow. Would you? I wouldn't want to have to let him share everything.”
“If I make a promise, I ought to keep it,” I said. “The princess shouldn't ever have promised if she didn't mean it.”
“That was to get the ball back,” Orfe explained.
“And she shouldn't have thrown him against the wall. Justâthrown him, like that.” I could imagine how that would feel, to fly helpless through the air and slam into the wall. I wondered if you would feel your skin splitting and your bones being smashed. I wondered how it
would feel to have someone hate you that much.
“But it's not about the frog, it's about the ball, the way the ball is perfect. If I had a golden ball and it was perfect, I'd promise anything to get it back.”
“It's about the frog. Or the prince, they're the same. Maybe it's about throwing him against the wall. He couldn't have turned into a prince unless she threw him against the wall.”
“He couldn't have turned into a prince if it wasn't for the golden ball, Enny. The perfect thing.”