It was truth or dare and she had no choice so she kissed him and everyone cheered and she wiped his spit off her mouth with the whole of her forearm and pulled a face, but inside she was all fireworks and neighborhoods set aflame by them. Roofs blazing into the night.
He walked her home, the rest of the party crammed into the lit doorway like a bunch of kids from the fifties seeing how many could fit in its telephone booth shape, each of them “oohing” on a different frequency so they walked away to a nightmare Halloween soundtrack and he took her hand anyway and she said, I always thought you were different but now I know for sure, and he didn’t disagree or agree.
In a week they were a couple. The night of their third date, he waited in the den where her mother’s Miss Chowder Fest tiara lived on a velvet cushion. Upstairs, her mother zipped her dress, saying Hang on to him, if you can.
She went to his football games even though he was a sophomore and a bench warmer, and since he wanted her to see him in action she went to his practices too, three days a week to fit in choir on the off days. Even on the sidelines he was a dynamo, always pacing like a tiger, head wagging side to side, slapping the starters high fives and beating their helmets when they scored, howling like she imagined a wolf might, though she’d never heard a real one.
At the crowded games, each more frigid as fall advanced, she sat on bleachers cold enough to sting through jeans and the other girls gave her a little moat of metal space because they didn’t understand. She had braces, for one, the Invisiline kind that had to come out before eating. In choir she sang a sickly-sweet soprano. They sort of envied her hair, a natural orangey-red, sort of golden really, but they told themselves redheads grayed early. Mostly, they hated to imagine his hand in it and their faces coming together in a storm of breath and sweet words. She was no one, no one special, no one at all but the mousy childhood friend of a popular girl whose unexpected presence at a party sparked an ordinary game that sparked an inexplicable pairing.
She didn’t know why either.
Nights she got texts saying “143” and in the mornings she sent them back.
When his parents went away she rode over on her banana seat and left it in a heap on his driveway. He put on Dirty Dancing, the remake with the thinner, prettier actress. He’d lit candles, but they were tall and white and waxy and released no scent but the wick’s own sulfurous burning, one step closer to Dracula’s dimly-lit palace than any gently-lit bedroom she’d ever seen in any movie she’d ever wept to. In the end, she was glad he had not bothered with the rose petals as they’d never have gotten the stains out of his baseball-themed comforter, a relic from the days before he lined up after school to collide at the sound of a whistle like a well-trained dog with other boys both bigger and smaller than him. Watching in the all-but-empty stands, her stick body helpless before the chill even in a purple, quilted parka, he liked to find her eyes after the big ones, the clashes that made the coach yell he was hitting too hard for a practice. After the big hits, he’d turn to grin around his mouthpiece, and she’d clap until he turned away.
On the night of the candles, she’d stared into their flames so long they showed up blue against her eyelids. Thank you, thank you, thank you, he said in time with his frenzied collisions. She rode her banana seat home, standing on the pedals. She’d heard it would hurt and it did and she didn’t want to do it again a week later, even though the hurt was just an echo now, something she might have imagined, a reminder of the way she should be grateful. He’d taken a chance on her, he liked to say. He’d taken a chance when, let’s be honest, no one else probably would.
She’d seen his temper at practice, knew the fervor of his sideline touchdown dance, but the back of his hand against her jaw still came out of left field, and she remembered the first time he’d touched her: five other girls at the party, four other boys, a dare between giggles, time pouring like syrup between each second it took to lay her hand (bony, freckled, blue-veined in the right light) lightly on his pilled wool sweater, his own hand (ticklish palm, piston-fingers, nails cut short-short-short) a warm surprise on her back, pinning her briefly to him. His spit had gleamed against her arm and she liked to imagine his DNA stamped there, indelibly, between her elbow and wrist. Now he pinned her down like any B-movie monster. He’d given her those building blocks. He’d taken a chance. He’d plucked her from the chorus and made her a leading lady. She owed him, owed him, owed him. She kept expecting him to howl.
In the beginning she couldn’t believe her luck, had pinched her arm where she’d wiped her lips, over and over, bruising herself, until he’d kissed enough, whispered enough, grinned enough through his facemask that she’d come to accept it was love. In the beginning of the end, she lay curled, trembling, naked, on his comforter printed with bats and balls as his mouth made new shapes. I’m sorry, he said, I’m sorry, he said, I’m sorry. You have to believe me. The apologies fell stinging across her back like the cooling embers of a cherry bomb or Roman candle, a ground spinner or bottle rocket, a child’s simple sparkler, its galaxy of sparks burning one by one into black.
Katie Cortese holds an MFA from Arizona State University and a PhD from Florida State. Her work has recently appeared in Carve, Gulf Coast, Third Coast, Crab Orchard Review, Monkeybicycle, Word Riot, and elsewhere. She teaches in the creative writing program at Texas Tech University, where she also serves as the fiction editor for Iron Horse Literary Review.