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Friday June 3, 1977
Maybe it’s stupid to write this letter. I can’t possibly mail it without an address, but sleep is a million miles away and I’m sick of rolling around in sweaty sheets trying to make my brain stop screaming. So I pulled my daisy bedspread out on the porch roof to look for cooler air and shooting stars. Suddenly, it seemed like a good idea to write down everything that’s happened since you left.
It’s been four awful days since I last saw you. I miss you so much! Where are you now? Does the sky look different there? Are you wondering what is going on back here?
Don’t worry, I haven’t told your father anything that will help him or the sheriff track you down. I just wish they didn’t know I saw you that night. It was such a stupid mistake!
Walt called my house when he got home from the fire station and found your room empty.
The Mother Monster hollered upstairs asking if you came over last night and I said, “Yeah.”
That one little word has changed everything.
Anita yelled, “Cassie, your dad’s on the phone. Pick it up!”
I yelled back, “She’s not here now.”
Next thing I knew, Walt was hammering on the back door and then he was standing in my bedroom hammering me with questions. Mother Monster stormed in and dragged me out of bed in my ratty old nightshirt. Walt kept yelling at both of us non-stop. Anita yelled back. I know I should have tried to say something to trick Walt, to get him looking in a totally wrong direction, but all I could think to do was grab the sheet off my bed and hug it around my body.
Anita managed to make Walt back off with promises of helping him find you. When he left, I was almost grateful to her…until the evil witch pinched the flabby place below my bottom and said, “This ain’t baby fat, young lady. Cover it up!”
By 4:00 that afternoon, Sheriff McCombs himself was standing in our kitchen asking the first round of official questions. Anita kept muttering snide comments about how the sheriff wouldn’t move that quickly for most teenagers, but he jumps right in to chase down the fire chief’s daughter.
That gave me goose bumps because it reminded me of the time you went camping with Jeff even though Walt said you couldn’t go. I never told you I was standing in our kitchen watching from the window when he yanked you out of his car and dragged you into the house while you screamed and screamed. Anita may be the Mother Monster sometimes, but Walt is just plain scary mean. And he keeps getting meaner every day you’re gone.
Even though I miss you, I hope you are really far away from Walt by now.
Your friend forever,
IT’S A TERRIBLE THING TO LIVE UNDER A QUESTION MARK. The lies and the truth keep getting tangled and twisted in my mind. That’s why I can’t stop examining every minute, every second, every breath of that last night, looking for some shadow or flaw that might reach out to drag Cassie back to this prison she fought so hard to escape.
On the night Cassie finally broke free from this hell hole, I sat up until the wee hours of the morning waiting for her to come home from Jimmy’s party—partly because she’d promised to stop by and tell me all about it, partly because I was afraid Walt was going to come home in the middle of his shift and discover she’d snuck out again. I guess I thought staring at the light from her bedroom window would somehow get her back there safe and sound.
I was nursing a bottle of warm Tab Cola to stay awake, every sip like battery acid on my tongue. I remember the swish and swoop of cars on the old state road as my Mickey Mouse alarm clock ticked and clicked its way beyond midnight. I think I heard the strains of the Star Spangled Banner before the Mother Monster switched off our TV.
After an eternity of waiting and watching and listening, Cassie finally popped through my bedroom window a few minutes after 1:30 am with an oversized straw bag in one hand and a bottle of pink champagne in the other. That bottle was cold and wet against my spine when she threw her arms around me and spun us in a circle, but I didn’t mind. I was buzzing with relief to see her safe and so happy.
When she pointed outside and slipped back out my window, I followed without hesitation. Without question. Just like every other time she appeared.
After leaving my bedroom, we walked across the south porch roof and climbed down the old hollow pear tree that grew too close to the house, its branches all tangled up with the splintering wood trim. Once we were both on the ground, she pressed a finger to my lips and walked in exaggerated tip-toe steps past the row of dark bay windows on that side of the house. Those windows belong to the studio rooms where my Mother Monster teaches ballet, tap and jazz to all the pretty little princesses in town, so there was no real danger of being seen or heard by anyone in the middle of the night. Cassie knew that. She was just being silly for my benefit and I had to bite down hard on my lower lip to fight back the giggles.
When we reached the unlit alley that ran between our back yards, Cassie twirled a few steps away with both arms stretched wide to the glittering stars and declared, “Once I escape Nowhere, Ohio, I’ll figure out how to breathe the sky.”
There was a nearly full moon hanging over the trees and not a single cloud to hide the stars. Despite the heavenly lighting, my eyes were slow to adjust to the night and my footsteps were awkward, shuffling. Cassie continued to dance ahead until we left the streets and alleyways of our neighborhood, crossed the state road to the Catholic cemetery and found our way to the grassy hill beyond the graves. As soon as I caught up, she wrapped her arms around my shoulders and planted a loud kiss on my forehead.
“It’s time, Erika. I’m leaving tonight!”
“Tonight? Why?” It was a struggle not to panic.
But her eyes were sparkling as she said, “Let’s celebrate!”
Cassie took a few hopping steps and then she was running up the shallow slope. I followed, working hard to ignore the terrible weight in my feet and my heart. When we reached the top to hug the lone poplar tree, she just kept giggling like a maniac while I tried to hide how puffy my breath sounded. Soon we were rolling down the hill and racing back up to roll again.
When she was finally tired of rolling and running and rolling again, we both flopped down on the hillside near the poplar tree. She produced two Dixie cups from the depths of her straw bag and opened the pink bubbly. We sipped and giggled and talked about all the things we would do in Hollywood. The places we would visit. The movie stars we would date.
“What will you do when you first get there?” I asked, still a little breathless.
When Cassie rolled onto her stomach, it seemed like she was searching every inch of my face for something. It was so intense. What was she looking for? Bravery? Trust?
I’m glad it was so dark, because I’m sure my face was flaming red by the time she laughed and said, “The very first thing I’ll do is buy a gorgeous postcard with a palm tree on it and I’ll mail it off to you.”
“With nothing written on it except my name and address, right?”
Our secret signal.
“Right. No one will know who it came from, but you’ll know I’ve made it.” Her finger lightly tickled my shoulder. “Second thing I’m going to do is get one of those maps that show where all the movie stars live. Then I’ll go pick out the mansion I’m going to buy when I’m a movie star.”
“But how will you get there? Where will you stay until you’re famous?” I wanted to know more. I was hungry for details the way she was always so hungry for freedom.
“I’ll stay wherever I want and no one will be able to tell me what to do or when to do it.”
“But, you know what I mean Cassie,” I insisted. “How will you live?”
“Don’t you worry about that, Worry Bird. I’ve got everything worked out.”
“But, if I don’t know where to find you….” My voice wobbled at the terrible thought.
“You’ll always know where to find me,” she promised. Eyes locked on the horizon, her voice was pure calm certainty. “We’re a team. Soon you’ll come join me. You’ll write the movies I’ll star in. We’ll be millionaires and we’ll spend every weekend next to a pool drinking expensive champagne from real crystal glasses. We’ll own the world.”
That’s the part I keep replaying over and over in my mind. Whenever it feels like too much work just to breathe, I remember that promise and it makes breathing just a little bit easier.
Around 3:00 AM, we scrambled back the way we came. I left her humming and waltzing around my back yard while I scuttled up to my bedroom to retrieve our secret stash of money. My whole body was shaking so hard it took ten deep breaths to calm my nerves before maneuvering back down the pear tree. When I handed over the shoebox of money, we linked pinkies and pressed our foreheads together.
“Don’t you dare cry,” she whispered, “Stay strong. Promise you’ll never, ever let them guess you know a thing.”
“I promise,” I whispered back.
And I am trying to keep my promise. I am. It’s just so damn hard to keep the lies and the half-truths straight when the questions never seem to stop.
Monday June 6, 1977
The police were at school again today. I had to talk to the same officer, Deputy Wayne Todd. Remember him? He was the cop who caught us hitchhiking back from the Millersport Corn Festival. You said he looked a little like Burt Reynolds. I thought he was just hairy.
Now that hairy deputy has become my interrogator, pushing me with question after question. His eyes are always glued on me. Sometimes it feels like I’m nothing more than a smudged fingerprint he’s examining under a microscope. I am getting so sick of that hairy man!
He keeps showing up at my classes with Principal Nelson. Then they both walk me into Nazi Nelson’s office to answer the same stupid questions over and over. Do they ever get me out of Algebra or Gym? Of course not. They pull me out of the only classes I don’t hate—Art and English. Some of your other friends have been called to the office too, but I’m the one they torment the most.
Everyone has noticed.
Now they’re oinking at me!
It started today when I left Nazi Nelson’s office after third period. My feet were walking toward Biology class while I tried to shake off another round of the deputy’s endless, brain-draining questions. First, there were these gross, grunting pig noises that seemed to follow me down the hall. Then a piggish squeal echoed right behind me. Just before I stepped into Mr. Ray’s classroom, some guy yelled out that “Soowee!” pig call and the hallway exploded with laughter.
All during the review for my Biology final, I tried to tell myself the noises and the laughter had nothing to do with me. But then Tammy “Big Red” Costas stopped me on the way to lunch. After looking me up and down carefully, she said, “Do you mind moving downwind? I hate the smell of bacon.” Everyone milling around us cracked up like that was hilarious.
During lunch, three different voices belted out “Soowee!” before the lunchroom monitor promised the next offender a whole hour of detention. People I barely know would stage whisper things like, “Squeal like a pig, Erika!” or “You’re gonna get chopped, Suey” as they walked past my lunch table.
It was Dana Spivik who finally took pity on me.
Yes, that’s right. Nose-picking, spit-spraying, brace-faced Dana Spivik—the freshman who carries her French horn to every class and had her head stuck down the girl’s room toilet at least three times this year—SHE looked at ME with a face full of pity as I stumbled out of the lunchroom.
“You really don’t know what it’s all about, do you?” she asked.
All I could do was shake my head.
“Pigs…that’s what the Dopeheads call cops.”
Deputy Wayne Todd! This nightmare is all his fault!
Dana says everyone thinks I squealed to the hairy deputy about a party at Slim Jim’s that got busted Saturday night. The cops found drugs. Lots of crazy stuff. Some kids got hauled off to jail and might not be allowed to take final exams, which means they’ll flunk this term. All because of one wild party. And since Deputy Wayne Todd led the charge into Jimmy’s garage and he’s always interrogating me at school, now people are saying I told him about the party and the drugs. They’re saying the whole mess is my fault.
Like I had any idea there was another party at Jimmy’s! Nobody invited me. I know you used to love his parties, but I’m not even sure where Slim Jim lives. Whatever led Deputy Todd to Jimmy’s door, it had nothing to do with me. But how can I spread the word it wasn’t my fault without looking even more guilty? I bet you’d know what to do…if only you were here.
Oh, Cassie! There’s only three days left of this school year, but I don’t know how I’m going to survive without you. I know I shouldn’t wish it; I know you’d hate me if it happened and I was the cause, but sometimes I wish you’d come home. I wish you’d drive up and jump out of the car glaring bullets at this whole town. At least you’d be back here again.
I wish everything could be like it was before you decided to leave….even though I know that’s impossible. I know you had to get away from Walt and I’m trying to be happy that you escaped. I am.
It’s just that tomorrow and all the ugly tomorrows after it are coming at me too fast right now.
Your friend forever,
Somehow, I manage to survive Tuesday by scuttling around the edges and corners of school, clinging to the shadows like a teenaged cockroach. The pig noises are always there. At times the grunting and squealing threaten to suffocate me, but I keep my eyes down and my feet moving. Instead of going anywhere near the lunchroom, I stand next to the baseball practice field eating a peanut butter sandwich. Deputy Todd doesn’t show up all day. I’m not sure if I’m relieved or disappointed by his absence. There are questions I need to ask that horrible hairy man.
Wednesday starts the special two-day schedule for finals. Juniors and seniors with a grade point average of B or higher don’t need to stick around school when they aren’t taking an exam. That, plus the fact that some students and some classes are exempt from the whole thing, leaves the campus much less crowded than usual. There’s not a single oink before morning announcements, not a single squeal.
I dare to think the storm has passed. Big mistake.
The two bottles of Tab I sucked down before school hit me during my second exam. I barely manage to scribble out the final translation “en Français” before dropping my blue booklet on Madame Renard’s desk and rushing out of the room. In my hurry to reach the girls bathroom, I forget to scuttle and hide. As I approach the doorway, someone shoves me hard between my shoulder blades, slamming me into the doorframe.
“Hey, lookey who came to the girls bathroom!” a female voice calls out from behind me.
A dark, scowling creature wearing bright blue eye shadow emerges from a cloud of cigarette smoke in the doorway. She squints at me for a few seconds before grabbing a handful of my hair. “Oh no, I am not sharing toilets with this dirty little freak.”
She yanks my hair and plants her foot on my hip, kick-shoving me toward the opposite doorway. Next thing I know, I’m on my hands and knees in the boys bathroom…within full view of the urinals! There’s only one guy in there, and he’s just washing his hands, but I can’t make myself look up. I try to scoot back out, but the evil she-troll stomps her foot on my butt.
“What the hell, Tracy?” The guy’s voice booms out. “That’s wacked!”
“Walk on by, Toad. This little freshmeat is nothing more than a sicko leg licker.”
“Leave her alone, Tracy. Go crawl back to your hole.”
Everything stops. Tears of shame are scalding my eyes and my bladder is threatening to burst all over the filthy bathroom floor, but my body is locked in that miserable position waiting for the next blow.
It never comes. The pressure from Tracy’s foot disappears and the guy she called Toad helps me to my feet.
“Don’t let Tracy get to you. She’s messed up…and not in the good way, you know?”
I still can’t make myself look at him. My lips refuse to move. So, instead of thanking him, I break away and stumble toward the exit. Once outside, I realize I’m not going to make it through the next five minutes, let alone the rest of the day, without peeing. There’s other student bathrooms, but now I’m terrified to go anywhere near them.
“There’s a toilet in the janitor’s closet in the next building.”
When I turn around, Dana is pressed into a corner, hugging her French horn with one arm and shoveling Buckeye potato chips into her mouth with the other. I am practically dancing around with the need to pee.
“Kenny the janitor leaves the door open for kids who don’t feel safe in the student bathrooms.” She stops to push in another fat wad of potato chips, chews and swallows while I wiggle in pain. “Through the door, to the right, down three steps, then right again. The door says ‘private’ and the handle won’t turn, but if you pull hard enough, it will open…unless someone’s already claimed the space. Then you’re out of luck.”
I mumble some gratitude in her direction and waddle away as fast as my aching bladder will allow.
Wednesday June 8, 1977
You will not believe this! There is a tiny psychedelic trip of a bathroom hidden under the stairs to the Freshman lockers. I’m sitting here right now surrounded by a kaleidoscope of florescent colors. It is absolutely wild! I can’t believe this place was under my feet all year.
When I first opened the door, it looked like nothing more than a sad little supply closet with a toilet in one corner. Truth is, I didn’t pay much attention at first because I had to pee so bad it was hard to breathe. But once I answered the call of nature, I started looking around and realized this is no ordinary janitor’s closet.
To start with, the back of the door is painted to look like you’re standing at a window that looks out over the Milky Way. A flock of exotic birds made from folded notebook paper hangs from the ceiling. A step ladder climbing one wall is filled with magazines. Some of the covers, like People, Mad and Time, are familiar. But who reads magazines with names like Starlog and Famous Monsters?
Time had a feature about “The Best Movie of the Year,” but I can’t tell you anything about it. When I opened the pages, the words swam into a soupy mess. It has not been a good day and that headline made me realize I won’t be going to see any movies anytime soon. Without you, there’s no way I’m going to hitchhike to the Cineplex or sneak into the Valley Drive-In. Safe in this weird little space and with no exam this period, I let myself sit on the toilet and cry it all out until the tears refused to flow. Then I forced myself to stand up and splash cold water on my face.
Above the sink, I found an aluminum bucket filled with hundreds of well-used florescent crayons. That really puzzled me…until I noticed a lamp with a black light bulb on the floor.
When I turned on the lamp and switched off the overhead light, the puke-green walls disappeared; replaced by a mural of words, symbols and drawings in every one of Crayola’s eight florescent shades. The effect is impossible to describe, but there is one part I have to tell you about. Someone sketched a drawing of you in there. I don’t know who the artist could be or how that person managed to capture your personality in crayons, but you look amazing. You’re wearing a slinky dress, a pageant sash and the most incredible set of rainbow wings that seem to embrace the whole room.
Underneath your magical portrait, someone wrote, This could all be happening right now.
I’m not sure what that means but it sounds beautiful, doesn’t it?
The Mother Monster and I are staring at each other over boiled chicken and Brussels sprouts. She’s decided we’re on a diet again. I’m counting the seconds until she gets up and leaves me to clean the kitchen. Maybe I’ll be able to scavenge up some real food.
She frowns down at my fork as it circles around the disgusting things on my plate. To divert her attention, I say the first thing that pops into my head.
“What’s a leg licker?”
Anita’s fork clatters to the floor. “Where did you hear that?”
“Some girl at school called another girl a leg licker. I just wondered….”
“That’s a filthy way of calling someone a lesbian. Don’t let me ever hear you say it again.”
It’s a good thing I have not eaten because, hearing that, I would have puked it all back up right there on our dinner table. Why would Tracy Troll call me that?
The screen door slams open and Chief Walter Abbott barges into our kitchen. He doesn’t bother to knock or ask permission or even look at me. He just points two fingers at Anita and tells her he’ll be driving me to school tomorrow to clean out Cassie’s locker.
“Erika knows the combination. I don’t want that negro janitor cutting open the lock or going through my little girl’s personal items.”
Anita shrugs and says, “Whatever you say, Chief,” without noticing that I’m begging her with my eyes to say no.
“Be ready by oh-six hundred,” he barks at the wall behind me before slamming his way back out of our kitchen.
My fate is sealed. Walt and I will be digging through Cassie’s locker tomorrow morning, probably with Principal Nelson standing by to take custody of school property…which is not going to improve this torture that has become my life. Not one bit.
Walt is pounding on our door before the sun has a chance to make an appearance. Even with sleep crusty eyes and a skull full of mush, I know who is wham, wham, whamming on our kitchen door. No one pounds on a door quite like Chief Walter Abbott.
“Said I’d be here. Why aren’t you dressed?”
No “good morning.” No “thanks for doing this.”
“They want to search her locker,” he practically spits the words in my face. “It’s not just about getting her stuff. That idiot Nelson is tryin’ to tell me there’s some missing money my little girl might have stole.”
What to say? I was up half the night trying to figure out how to deal with this man. He knows I saw Cassie right before she left, so now he won’t leave me alone. Unless….
There has to be some way to play this so that he thinks I’ve given him a clue to follow. Not a real clue. Something false that will send him out thundering fury in the wrong direction. If I plant a fake lead that points everyone in the wrong direction, maybe they’ll all leave me alone, but I can’t seem to figure out how to fool anyone, especially not this early in the morning.
“Don’t worry, Chief. They won’t find anything.”
Chief starts rubbing his buzz cut and glaring pure poison at me. “And just how do you know what they will and won’t find? Did you steal the money?”
He keeps eying me like some messed up version of the Mad Hatter without a hat. It’s impossible to breathe, let alone think of something clever to say, with Walt looming over me staring. Suddenly, he’s back to barking orders. “Get dressed. Move, move, MOVE!”
So I turn and run for my room like a scared puppy.
On the way to school, Chief hammers me with a non-stop verbal assault. Some of what comes out of his mouth is phrased as if he’s asking questions, but, really, he isn’t interested in anything I might have to say.
“You know what’s going to happen, don’t you? I’m going to find my baby girl and I’m going to bring her home. She comes up wild sometimes. My Cassie is too much like her mother that way, but she always comes home. Remember last March? She had some wild idea she was going to Nashville to sing on the street until she got famous. Remember that? Then she calls me from the truck stop up off Interstate 70 begging me to come rescue her. Didn’t make it more than thirty miles from home. What’s happened this time? That’s what I want to know. What’s different? This escapade has dragged on way too long. Someone else has to be involved. You know who’s messing with my family business? Better tell me now if you have any idea who might be involved. When I find my little girl, and I will find her, I’m going to figure out who had a hand in this and I’m going to gut them like a fish. You hear me?”
His diatribe goes on and on and on. If there was any chance to tell him something, anything to get him away from me and looking for Cassie in all the wrong places, I let it slip away.
When we get to school, Principal Nelson, Deputy Wayne Todd and Kenny the janitor are lined up next to Cassie’s locker. Kenny has these huge metal clippers that look way too big to cut off one tiny little combination lock.
“Put those cutters away!” Chief snaps. “No use ruining a perfectly good lock she can use next year.”
Nazi Nelson launches into this long speech about how all students are required to report their lock combinations to the office, but the combination Miss Abbott reported doesn’t work and this constitutes a serious violation of the school’s code of conduct….blah, blah, blah. Other kids wander in early for the first exam of the day and every single one of them stops to watch this little scene. I hear a few piggish grunts and squeals in the crowd. My guts are dissolving.
Finally, I just walk up to her locker and open the stupid thing.
The heavy chunk of the lock opening sets off a terrible chain reaction. Deputy Todd grabs my arm and yanks me away just as Chief’s hand slams into the locker door right where my head used to be.
“I’ll be the one going through my daughter’s things.”
Deputy Todd slams his hand right next to Chief’s and says, “That is NOT the plan, sir. Please stand by.”
Nelson tries to act tough by saying, “This is school property and there is money missing from our student council funds. I think the school needs to conduct this search.”
Kenny rolls his eyes at me, but keeps quiet. I wonder if he knows I’ve been peeing in his toilet and reading his Time magazine.
The three big men continue to yell and argue. I keep my eyes glued to the hallway linoleum and imagine myself sitting with Cassie next to a turquoise pool under a palm tree. The first bell shakes me out of my lovely daydream. Out of the corner of my eye I watch the feet of the other students start to drift away. I want to get moving too, but I don’t want to open my mouth and bring anyone’s attention my way. The flecks in the linoleum start to dance and quiver at the edges of my vision.
I’m not sure which one of the men ends up opening the locker. I have no idea how they manage to dump most of Cassie’s books and stuff onto the floor. What I do know is that some Polaroid pictures fall out of the pile and slide right into my line of vision. I get a really good look and immediately realize these are some pictures Cassie never intended her father to see—pictures of her posing in skimpy underwear with pouty, glossed up lips.
Chief takes one look and he just about loses his mind.
He gets down on all fours, scrambling around on the floor and covering them up with his hands. He’s howling–really howling, like a wounded animal–and babbling at everyone, “Don’t look. Don’t you dare look. Shut your eyes.”
The other three men stand there with their jaws hanging open, even when Chief’s crazy scrambling almost knocks me down. Suddenly he looks up, latches onto my ankle and starts bellowing, “Who took these? Who took these filthy pictures? Answer me! Answer ME!”
I can’t make my lips move.
Principal Nelson grabs my arm and pulls me away from Chief. “Better go to your classroom Miss…uh, Miss…”
Deputy Wayne latches onto Walt’s shoulder and yanks him back, breaking his painful grip on my leg. “Get lost, Erika.”
My lips may have failed me, but my feet move just fine. I hustle out of there and over to my own locker in the freshman section as fast as possible.
Head deep in my own locker, I listen to two sophomore girls from the yearbook staff gossiping about Cassie. From what they are saying, it’s obvious some of the fundraiser money for the senior class graduation picnic is missing and someone told Nelson that Cassie took it.
Cassie? That makes absolutely no sense. She isn’t even on student council and she would never volunteer to help with the senior picnic. Only pep rally idiots and snot-nosed cheerleaders do that sort of thing. But who’s going to listen to me?
Thursday June 9, 1977
Last day of school. Do you remember this day last year? Bicentennial summer stretched in front of us like a birthday gift waiting to be opened. Everything was brighter, bolder and better back then. I wish I could flip a switch or jump down a hole and go back.
You were still dating Charlie and you made him pick me up from my last day of junior high school in style, in his dad’s candy apple red street rod with the rumble seat open. We sat back there in the rumble seat drinking rum mixed with real Cokes instead of that horrible Tab my mother makes us drink. You were wearing a white peasant blouse that my mother gave to you instead of me because you “had the body for it.”
Halfway through my rum and Coke, I told you Anita said that. Then I showed you the moon-shaped marks where Anita digs her nails into the fatty place above my hip. You stood up in that seat—right there at the traffic light at Main and Oak—and you pulled that shirt off. Within a block of downtown! You stood there wearing only your bra, handed me that shirt and said you would never wear it again because Anita was a bitch.
Up until then I would have said you really liked Anita. After all, she was your dance teacher before you were my friend. But I saw the green fire in your eyes and I took the shirt because you insisted. The guy behind us started honking so Charlie flipped him the bird and revved the engine.
The guy in the other car yelled, “You gonna take off any more clothes, Baby?”
“I’ll take off whatever I damn well please,” you yelled back and flipped the bird just like Charlie. Then you said, “Take off your shirt, Erika.”
And I did it. Even though my skin puffed out around the elastic of my Playtex bra, Charlie whistled and hooted like I was every bit as great as you. We laughed and everything felt so good, I even flipped the bird at the car behind us before Charlie sped off.
Then we were driving so fast my skin almost felt light for about sixty seconds. When I closed my eyes, I could picture myself with long, flowing hair like Ali McGraw’s in Love Story and a tiny, thin little body.
When we stopped at the park, you grabbed my old Pittsburg Steelers shirt faster than I could think to move. You tied the front in a knot that exposed your flat stomach and made that ugly old shirt look adorable. I was forced to put on a flounced white half shirt even though my mother was absolutely right and I absolutely do not have the body to wear it.
“There we go!” You were so happy, and you looked so proud of me. So I smiled. And I walked with you and Charlie to the clearing in the woods where a bunch of high school people were drinking beer and smoking those weird-smelling cigarettes. My flabby sides were flapping out at everyone so I kept my arms wrapped around myself and my chin down.
I know you didn’t mean to embarrass me, but I felt like a fat and jiggling freak at my very first high school party. I never told you. Thank goodness you never noticed the way I squirmed and kept my arms crossed over my midsection.
Someone did notice. I don’t know her name. She gave me a big scarf that was wrapped around her jeans gypsy-style. She said I looked cold when she draped it around my back and arms, but her eyes said she knew I was feeling exposed. They were nice eyes, golden chocolate brown, and I never did figure out who she was.
That was the night you fell in love with Jeff. You told me Charlie was too small town. You said Jeff had poetry, but he also had a football player’s body. You probably didn’t remember me telling you about my secret crush on Jeff. Not that it mattered. It wasn’t like he was ever going to look at me twice anyway. I was just Cassie’s pudgy tagalong friend.
I remember thinking, yeah, Jeff has poetry and Cassie has magic. A poet needs a pretty muse, not a chubby brown moron mooning over him.
But then you fell out of love with Jeff almost as quickly as you fell out of love with Charlie. Now you’ve moved on again….but I can’t seem to ever move on and I’m still wondering why you had to leave without me.
I’m sorry. That’s not fair.
I remember how Walt went after you with his belt that night because we got home so late. I’ll never forget his voice yelling, “You stink like sin!” Or the sickening crack his belt made every time it bit into your skin. Or the angry welt marks all over your body the next day. I can still see you curled up like a sick kitten on the foot of my bed, sobbing and sobbing until you threw up in my trash can. Most of all, I remember the terrible green fury in your eyes when you sat up and said, “Erika, get your camera.”
Whenever I start feeling sorry for myself, I have those pictures to remind me…I know why you had to get out of here, Cassie. I do. I just don’t know if I’m strong enough to survive this aching emptiness you left behind.