Six Roses in Cellophane from Issue 95
Rachel kissed her cousin last night—or he kissed her. They were watching TV, when he leaned across the couch and pressed his lips below her right earlobe. She jumped, and turned so fast their lips touched. It only lasted a few seconds, and then he moved away. She couldn’t breathe. It was her first kiss.
She glances at the door, but it’s safe in Liz’s garage, where the four of us press knee-to-knee on the pool table. When she’s nervous, Rachel winds the short curl at her temple around her finger.
He used his tongue, she whispers, as if confessing. Her eyelashes are dark and wet.
Cousins don’t count, Liz says, shutting her up just like that. And just like that, it’s erased. We’re equals again.
Liz reaches across the stained felt for another slice of pizza, and the slip she wears as a nightgown slides off her knees. It’s pink silk with lace straps, and we covet that slip almost as much as we covet her brother, a senior who doesn’t notice us, even though we sleep over every Saturday night. Amber says he notices her sometimes, when she’s wearing a low-cut shirt. June says we can do better, that he’s just a high school boy. She thinks she’s so sophisticated, for someone who wears pajama sets printed with farm animals.
June is too good for high school boys. She’s holding out for a man like Heathcliff or Mr. Darcy, whose scorn masks a deep pain only she can heal. She wants a kiss that will stop the earth from spinning, with a man who would die for her. If they were stranded in the ocean with only one plank of driftwood between them, he would insist she take it, and comfort her as he froze to death. No high school boy can compete with that. Jamie Bagley never stood a chance.
On the first day of summer, he stood at the end of June’s driveway for three hours. Liz lives across the street, and she watched all evening from the garage window while he leaned against his bike, chewing his thumbnail. Every half hour or so, he got on his bike and started down the driveway. When he reached the honeysuckle bushes, he turned back and stood there some more. When it was almost dark, he got on his bike again and, this time, sped straight down the middle of the driveway like he had a tornado at his back.
June’s mother called up the stairs that she had a visitor. She came to the door wearing matching pajamas printed with sheep jumping over fences. Jamie stood on the other side of the screen. June had never spoken to him, though he’d been at our school since fifth grade, at least.
Hi, he said.
Hi, she said.
Can you come out?
He stood next to his bike in the driveway, and she stood on the top step in her sheep pajamas.
I wanted to ask you… He stopped and looked up at her. He had sweat stains under his arms and his hair was sticking to his forehead. Canyoucometothemoviestomorrow?
Oh, I can’t, she said. I have—
Before she could come up with an excuse, he flipped his kickstand.
Don’t worry about it. Just thought I’d ask.
Thank you, she said.
He didn’t come back the next day, or the next, and it seemed that was that. June said she was relieved and a little sad to have hurt his feelings—but mostly relieved.
We would have gone to the movies with him. He’s not handsome, like Liz’s brother, but he has green eyes, and maybe he looks a little like River Phoenix, when he turns his head just right. But none of that matters to June. She’s such a snob she even thinks she’s too good for us, sometimes.
Jamie showed up on June’s doorstep again the next Sunday. This time, he did not ask her to the movies. He just asked if she’d liked Frankenstein, and she said she had, and he said he wished she’d been in his English class, because he was the only one who’d liked it. She asked what he’d liked about it, and came down all the porch steps, and they stood talking for a little while in the driveway.
He came back the next Sunday, and the next, and she started getting ready for bed later so she would be dressed when he knocked. They talked in the driveway, and soon they sat together on the steps. He did not mention movies or stare at her lips or touch her arm. He did none of the things Liz says boys do when they like you, and so June thought it would be safe to be his friend. We told her it’s impossible to be just friends with boys, but of course she didn’t listen.
Jamie taught her to ride a skateboard. They exchanged their favorite books. She introduced him to Jane Austen. He introduced her to Nirvana. They played Game Boy under the magnolia tree. They talked while walking circles around her big yard. He was always so earnest. He made her feel like a difficult book, or a marble statue, or a landscape. She never invited him inside.
Don’t take him to your room, her mother warned her. He’ll tell everyone he saw your bed, and that’s how rumors start.
When June’s mother was a girl, the preacher’s son told everyone at school that he had slept with her. They believed him, because he was the preacher’s son, and her reputation was ruined. June didn’t think Jamie intended to ruin her reputation, but she was careful not to give him the opportunity.
He never invited her to his house. Amber thought maybe he was embarrassed. She lives down the street from Jamie, whose house has dingy curtains and a sagging porch. She has heard a man’s voice shouting inside. She has seen Jamie’s mother rush outside in her nightgown (cotton, not silk) to kiss him goodbye at the bus stop. He had kissed her back, even though Brian Whitehead made fun of him for it all the way to school.
One day, he gave June a bracelet of woven leather he’d made himself. His fingers were shaking as he tied it around her wrist. After he went home, she hid it on the top shelf of her closet under Your Body, Your Treasure, a book her mother had given her instead of having “the talk.”
What’s the matter? You wanted diamonds? Liz asked.
I didn’t want anything, June said.
The next time Jamie came over, he didn’t mention the bracelet. June said she had to accompany her mother to the library. She felt bad about lying, but it was better than encouraging him. So she and her mother got into the car with their library bag, and Jamie escorted them down the driveway on his bike. He stopped at the end and watched them drive down the hill.
The library was closed. June and her mother waited in the parking lot for half an hour, listening to the radio. When they got home with their empty bag, Jamie was gone.
The next time he knocked, and the next, June said they were on their way to the library.
Stop being a snob and go out with him, we said. He might not have been the mysterious man she was waiting for, but at least he was nice.
She said she knew he was nice, and that’s why she was lying to him. She didn’t want him to like her that way, but she didn’t want him to stop liking her, either.
You’re a tease, Liz said.
Yes, we agreed, she was a tease. Even in matching pajamas, with a worried frown.
She avoided him for a week—until one day Jamie came to the door with six roses wrapped in cellophane. They crackled when he handed them to her, and the cellophane was slippery from his sweaty palms. She thanked him, but her knees were shaking. He was watching her, waiting for something else. Something more. She couldn’t breathe. The roses crinkled in her fist.
I like you, June, he said.
She wanted to sit down and run away at the same time. She wanted her mother, her father, someone to interrupt. But the kitchen was empty behind her.
I like you too, she said, but before he could say anything, just as the corners of his mouth began to lift, she darted in to add, I like you as a friend.
His lips trembled in a half smile. Something in his eyes crumpled.
Okay, he said, and shrugged. It was more of a twitch. Happy birthday.
He reached out. To take the flowers back, she thought for a second. But no, he patted her shoulder, then swung his leg over his bike and wobbled away. That was the last time she saw him all summer.
You’re such a bitch, Liz said, and laughed.
I am not. June’s eyes filled with tears.
You should have thanked him right.
She didn’t elaborate, but we all knew what she meant.
But I don’t like him that way.
So what? Liz said.
It doesn’t matter if you like a boy or not; it only matters if he likes you. Like Stan, who works at the CVS. He likes Amber, so she flirts with him in exchange for cigarettes. Last week, she finally let him kiss her. She said it wasn’t so bad. He’d tasted like cigarettes and mint.
Stan is working tonight, so Amber goes behind the counter while we pocket lipstick, liner, polish, blush. It’s better than some of the other things we could do to prove we’re alive. Stan wouldn’t tell even if he found out, so June has no reason to be worried. Liz presses a lipstick into her hand, but she refuses to take it. She could afford makeup, if she wanted it. But June has perfect skin like in the magazines, and she never steals. Liz slips it into her own pocket.
It’s starting to rain, so we run back across the street to the hotel, where Liz’s parents have rented a room for her birthday. The hotel is next to an overpass. Under the overpass, the bridge rats are smoking up. They watch us run by, their eyes blurred under their hoods. We wave, they wave back, but June turns up the collar of her raincoat and pretends not to see them.
The lobby is empty. A streak of wet footprints on the tile floor is the only sign that there’s anyone else here. The furniture is pretty shabby, and the elevator creaks, and our room smells like stale cigarettes. But we keep our mouths shut. It’s still a great birthday party, even if Liz’s parents are in the adjoining room.
We spread the makeup on the dresser and Liz sits on the bed with a towel around her shoulders. Her wet hair frizzes at the temples. We conceal the acne on her forehead, give her cheeks some color, and fill in her eyebrows, which she’s plucked too thin. She’s too impatient to let them grow back. She impatient with her nails, too, and bites them down to nubs. She paints them to hide the ragged edge. As the polish chips, she just paints over them again until they’re lumpy, like a wall that’s been painted too many times. We strip her nails and paint them pale pink to match her slip.
We give Amber’s face some angles and part Rachel’s hair on the right to hide her widow’s peak. June won’t let us pluck her unibrow. She says that’s the way her eyebrows grow, and she doesn’t see any reason to change it. She doesn’t wear makeup, either, but it’s Liz’s birthday, so she sits on the edge of the bed. Her knobby knees stick out from the hem of her shorts. Her legs are goose pimpled, and each hairless pore stands up, red with razor burn.
Did you shave your legs with a butter knife again? Liz asks.
June’s fingers twitch over her knees, then interlace in her lap. She rolls her eyes. Sometimes, we say things just to see what she’ll do.
Liz pulls up the desk chair so their faces are level. She flicks powder across June’s cheeks and forehead. She spikes June’s eyelashes and slashes her lips with “Tramp” red and bruises her eyelids. When we turn June to the mirror, her face goes still.
I look like a slut, she says.
We can’t help laughing. She wears her shirts all the way buttoned up. She could never look like a slut, but now she looks almost like the rest of us.
We walk through the lobby in our bathing suits, but there’s no one to impress except each other. In the hot tub, the makeup streaks down our faces and drips from our chins. We dunk our heads and emerge clean and red. We lean back against the jets, and the vibration makes our breasts bounce. We compare whose breasts bounce most. Amber wins, as always when it comes to breasts.
Hey June, Amber says, arching back against the jets. Do you know what sixty-nine means?
June sinks in the heaving water and pretends not to hear.
She doesn’t know!
She never knows. We had to explain sex in fourth grade. She won’t say “penis” or “vagina,” and calls them “genitals” like our science textbook. Once, we asked if she wanted to join the PEN-15 club, and she let us write PEN15 on the back of her hand. When she realized what it spelled, her face crumpled. She’d thought it was real, like the Babysitters Club.
Voices echo from the locker room, and five boys burst through the glass doors and hurtle into the pool, their bodies dark and sleek like seals beneath the surface.
They’re probably from Linton, Rachel whispers.
They must be. We know all the boys in Stone. They vault over the side of the hot tub, and the water sloshes onto the floor. We scream, pretending to be afraid. They crunch between us, and we press back against the jets. A boy with a diamond stud earring slings his arm over June’s shoulder. She sinks up to her chin. Her cheeks are flushed, and her eyes are wide and her eyelashes are so thick, even without mascara. Tease.
A boy with a faint mustache runs his hand up Amber’s arm, dangerously close to the hem of her bikini top. His hand is big and dark against her skin.
We wrap ourselves in towels—and the mustached boy holds a towel open for Amber, like he’s holding a fur coat. We follow them out to the parking lot, where we sit on the front steps. Three boys cram between us on the steps and the other two strut off across the parking lot.
What are we doing? June asks. She’d rather be upstairs watching a movie, like Liz’s parents.
Hanging out, Liz says, lighting a cigarette.
She shares her cigarette with the mustached boy. She has reapplied her lipstick, and the tip of the cigarette is stained red, but he doesn’t seem to mind. The others pull up in a dented Buick, and the boy who shares Liz’s cigarette puts his arm around her and says, You wanna come?
She plucks the cigarette from his mouth and takes a drag, studying the car while he studies her. She shrugs and says, Why not? and stands, brushing off her damp thighs.
You can’t! June jumps off the step, gripping her towel around her chest so tight it bites into her armpits.
Why not? Liz turns to her, waiting for something more, as if she really wants a reason.
You don’t know them, June says.
So what? Liz says, and slides into the back seat. The boy with the mustache follows her inside and shuts the door. The others lounge on the steps, leaning back on their elbows.
Don’t worry, says the one with the earring. He’ll take good care of her.
Yeah, real good! the others echo.
We watch the car pull away. Liz waves through the back window, and when she is gone, it’s quiet. Amber and the boys smoke. June just stands at the bottom of the stairs with her towel clamped around her chest. It’s dark, and the parking lot is nearly empty. We can hear each other breathing. One of the boys is peeling a splinter off the porch railing.
You wanna come up? he asks, without looking at us.
June just stares at the empty road.
We would, we say, but we’re going to wait for our friend.
He shrugs and grinds out his cigarette, almost in relief.
Room 202, if you change your mind, he says as they disappear into the lobby.
We won’t change our minds.
Do you think she’ll be back soon?
The street is empty and quiet.
What if her parents ask where she is?
Rachel curls her hair around and around her finger.
We’ll tell them she’s in the bathroom.
We can’t lie. June’s eyes are wide and damp. We have to tell. We have to—
She would kill us, Amber says. June and I will go upstairs. If her parents ask, we’ll say everyone else is at the vending machine.
June starts to cry in the elevator.
That’s not helping, Amber says.
But June can’t stop. She huddles on the bed with her face to the wall. Amber pulls the desk chair to the window and looks down at the parking lot. She opens the window so she can hear, but there is nothing to hear.
What if something happens to her? June whispers from the bed. What if—
Shut up, Amber says.
Rachel sits alone on the steps. The shadows of the bridge rats are moving below the overpass.
The toilet flushes in the next room. June moans, and curls tighter on the bed. The sliver of light under the door goes black again, and Amber closes her eyes, but her stomach hurts.
Rachel trembles in her damp towel. It’s chilly, for the end of summer.
Amber is awoken by the sound of a car pulling up, and she leans out the window. Liz slides out of the car and slams the door behind her.
Liz tosses her purse on the bed, where June is still facing the wall. She strips off her bathing suit, whispering about the boy, and the car ride, and his hands and lips. The tender skin under her nose is raw from his faint mustache. She changes into her silk nightgown and curls her legs beneath her on the bed. He’d kissed her first, and kissed her afterward, and it was just like she’d imagined. But as she talks, she chips the paint from her nails. It flakes onto the bedspread. Her eyelashes are dark and wet.
Something has changed. It’s not just that we haven’t seen June for a few days, and she won’t answer the phone. It’s more than June. We press together knee-to-knee, but it doesn’t feel as safe here anymore.
Liz says she doesn’t notice a thing, as she paints a coat of blue polish over the chipped pink. The smell fills the garage, and Rachel jumps down from the pool table to open the window. She calls us over to look across the street.
Jamie Bagley is riding his bike down June’s driveway. He rides slow and steady. He rides with purpose.
Doesn’t he ever quit? Liz asks without looking up, and starts painting her toenails.
Jamie disappears around the honeysuckle bushes. Now, he will be getting off his bike, and flipping up his kickstand. Now he will knock on June’s door. She will not go to the library today. She will open the door, and she will be glad to see him. She will barely notice the sweat rings under his arms.
Hi, Jamie says.
Hi, June says.
They walk into the yard, and she is aware of him beside her, aware of his quick breathing and the way he keeps sneaking glances at her. She pretends not to notice. Her hands are shaking, and she hides them in the pockets of her shorts.
He talks about his paper route. He describes a book he thinks she’ll like. He asks if she had a good summer, and if she’s ready to start high school. June admits she’s nervous, even though she’s smart and works hard and gets straight A’s. It’s just that she feels like everything’s changing, and she’s not sure she wants things to change quite so much. Not yet.
Jamie says he understands what she means. He’s nervous, too. And the way he says it, gentle and serious, makes her look up at him. He’s a nice boy, with green eyes, and he likes so many of the same things she does, and he likes her. And maybe he looks a little like River Phoenix, when he turns his head just right. She realizes she might like him that way, after all.
They walk slowly in silence, like you do in museums. She thinks maybe she sees him clearly now. And she begins to see herself clearly, too. She’s too careful, with her matching pajamas and buttoned-up shirts. She has bushy eyebrows and frizzy hair and a pimple near her right ear. She doesn’t want the boys who want her, but she wants them to want her.
She wants Heathcliff and Mr. Darcy, but she’s just a dull, small-town girl in a dull, small town, and we’re right: who is she to turn down a nice guy like Jamie? Who is she to expect romance and fireworks and a man who would die for her? Who the hell does she think she is? Six roses in cellophane should be enough.
They end up at the edge of the driveway where he parked his bike. When they stop walking, the silence changes. He rests his palm on the seat, patting it like a horse. He looks up at the treetops and down at the gravel and anywhere but at her. He looks off down the driveway and swallows noisily.
Thank you for coming, she says, and her voice fills her head. The world looks pixelated, like it does right before you pass out. She longs for the safety of the garage. She longs to be pressed knee-to-knee with us again. But a different kind of longing keeps her from running away this time.
He looks at her, now, and his green eyes crinkle at the corners when he smiles.
Well, he says.
Well, she says.
His hand drops from the bike seat, and as he steps toward her, his breathing gets faster. He holds out his arms. She moves into them. His wet T-shirt slips against her arms as he pulls her close. Her left arm is pinned to her side, and she pats his shoulder blade, and his back, too, is damp.
He holds her tighter, and his breath is loud. He presses his lips just below her right earlobe. She hopes he doesn’t notice her pimple as his lips slide to her cheek. Everything seems too loud and bright as his mouth meets the corner of hers and—does she turn her head a fraction of an inch? We think she does.
His lips are soft, but his faint mustache scrapes the skin under her nose. She doesn’t know what to do with her hands. His lips part a little, and hers part too, and he tilts his head and breathes in her mouth, and there are no fireworks, and the earth does not stop spinning, but it isn’t so bad. He tastes like cigarettes and mint. Then he is moving away, and his palms are wet as he squeezes her arms. June can’t breathe.
He tries to flip up his kickstand three times.
See ya, he says, and gives her a big, dumb smile.
See ya, she says.
She watches him wobble down the driveway, already rehearsing what she’ll tell us about her first kiss—a kiss that counts. He might not be the mysterious man she was waiting for, but at least he’s nice. At least he gave her roses. At least he knows her name. Her eyelashes are dark and wet.