After school ends at two-thirty and the bells ring out a long flat sound, stay-at-home mothers congregate in the parking lot outside the campus buildings. The mothers sign clipboards and collect their children, who pull their shirts and beg to stop for fast food on the way home. I watch out of the corner of my eye as these mothers nod yes, as the children play with a Nintendo DS and wander into a sea of cars without looking.
I line up on the blacktop with everyone else who stays. The afterschool program I attend is called Galileo. For three hours each day, I run around the empty playground, the paved fields of school grounds. Caroline and I gallop like horses across the empty basketball courts, press our cheeks to the cold glass of classroom windows, write the first letters of our names in pencil on the wooden foundations underneath the play structure.
Leaving our mark, Caroline says.
It’s wrong to do graffiti, I tell her.
She snorts and rolls her eyes. It’s not graffiti if it’s pencil.
Caroline and I play a game we invented called Blind People, where we put on our jackets backwards and pull the hoods over our faces. We wander aimlessly with our hands out, feeling around for trees, monkey bars, other bodies. Each of us starts from opposite ends of the playground and tries, fruitlessly, to find each other.
As we play, the staff watches everyone from a vantage point on a set of concrete stairs. They draw on binder paper and talk about the dates they’ve been on the weekend before.
Sometimes, students from the high school down the road volunteer at Galileo for credit hours. Caroline and I interrogate them about what high school is like: if they have girlfriends, how many minutes their lunchtime break is, if driving a car is hard.
Fourth grade was better than high school, one once said. Enjoy it while you can.
Neither of us believe him.
In class, all I do is wait for after school. Caroline and I pass each other notes and stick out our tongues at the teacher, Mrs. Denzin, when her back is turned.
Mrs. Denzin has hair short as a boy and there is something I do not like about the way she looks. One day, when I read a beauty magazine and learn of the complicated ways a woman’s face threatens to cave in on itself, I realize that it is her pores.
She has huge pores, I whisper to Caroline.
Caroline thinks this is so funny that she tells everyone at recess, at lunch, at Galileo. She says it like she made it up, thrusting her shoulders forward and proclaiming it. But it was myjoke. I’m the one who found out what pores were. I stare at the back of her blonde head and decide I hate her for now, just right now.
After she says the thing about pores for a fourth time, I fold my arms over my chest and wince at the sudden pain pressing against my tender nipples. I think I might have cancer. A girl in my second-grade class had cancer and now she is dead. And my aunt had breast cancer once. Maybe I have that.
My father comes to pick me up at six from Galileo. His hands are dry and crusty from his construction job and his eyes look tired. He signs me out and lets me ride in the passenger seat of his truck while he listens to classic rock on the radio. I think about asking him why my chest hurts so much, but I decide against it because it feels like something that is meant to be kept secret, and if I die of breast cancer then that is just how it will go.
When I get home, my four older siblings will fight with me about the television until I yell Fine! and slam the bedroom door. But for now, it’s only my father and I in the truck singing along to Journey, and I pretend I am an only child, that my life is always like this moment.
Everyone at school is talking about gay marriage. I hear it on the radio and on the playground, where ten-year-olds repeat phrases they’ve heard their parents say.
No on prop 8! they chant. The boy I hate, the one who is always on his Nintendo DS during reading hour, shouts, Yes on 8! Protectmarriage!
During math, someone raises their hand and asks Mrs. Denzin what a proposition is. She pauses for a moment.
A proposition is like a plan, she says. A plan that someone suggests. But I can’t tell you what Prop 8 is. You’ll have to ask your parents.
Mrs. Denzin goes back to teaching long division, and I stare at her. There are so many things I haven’t noticed about her before, like how the tiny hairs at the bottom of her scalp indicate she must use a clipper, maybe the same kind my father uses. Like how her breasts push against the buttons of her white shirt. I wonder if they ever hurt her, too.
She fingers her wedding ring, twirling it around as she talks, and staring at it, I wonder who has the other one. I imagine what mine might look like some day, around a finger of my own.
One day we are playing Blind People and I actually find Caroline. Wandering in the dark, my hands outstretched like some kind of timid bird, I suddenly bump into her taut body. I feel the fabric of her training bra and soft flesh beneath her summer shirt.
She jumps away, and we both tear the hoods off, and she goes, what the hell was that?
Caroline just learned how to curse. When she does it, she sounds unnatural and awkward.
It was an accident, I say, laughing because I don’t know what else to do.
She scoffs and puts the hood back over her face. Then she wanders away and keeps playing Blind People.
I watch her for a moment as she leaves. I thought the whole objective of Blind People was to try and find each other in the massive playground without being able to see. But she just keeps going, like the game is about something else.
When the moment passes, I put my hood back on. Behind the sweatshirt, I am hidden as my face grows hot and tears of shame slide down my cheeks. Through the fabric I see glimpses of light and nothing else.
All at once, there are large pressing hands on my shoulders.
I rip my hood off. Not Caroline, but instead, a Galileo staff member is looking down at me. He is new; I don’t recognize him. He must be a volunteer high school student.
What are you doing? he asks.
Playing Blind People.
He shakes his head. Don’t do that.
Why not? I say, annoyed. Who the hell are you?
The left side of his mouth curls up in a smile, as if he thinks I’m funny for cursing when in reality I am trying to be menacing.
I work here now, he says. You shouldn’t play a game like that, because there are people in the world who are actually blind. And their lives are not fun.
I look at him exploratorily. His hair is jet-black, his eyes so round they look are little circles. He looks a little like an uncle on my moms’ side, one who now only calls me and my siblings on Christmas, never my birthday.
All right, I offer finally.
I gallop like a horse to Caroline, who waits on the other side of the playground.
Who was that? she asks.
A new volunteer, I say. I still feel his hands on my shoulders, so huge they covered the space from the side of my neck to the beginning of my arms.
Let’s call him Corny, says Caroline, squinting in the sun.
Caroline comes up with names for all the volunteers, names that are not their own. When we interrogate them about high school, she uses these fake names like they’re nicknames, as if we are close with them.
I was thinking Oscar, I say.
She wrinkles her nose. Why would we call him Oscar? That’s not a nickname. That’s just a name.
Fine, I say. But in my head, I resolve to call him Oscar privately, because it’s the name I chose and it just feels right.
Because Caroline’s mother stays home from work the next day, we get to go to her house after school instead of Galileo. Her house is huge and has winding wooden stairs, countertops made of smooth granite. We sneak a carton of mango juice from the fridge up to her room and drink right out of it, the orangey juice dribbling down our chins.
She pulls out a copy of Twilight with a cracked spine and we take turns passing it between us, reading aloud the sections that she’s highlighted. Edward staring at Bella, almost overcome with lust. Pulling her neck back, moving like he might take a bite, but instead kissing her. I wonder if that is what it’s supposed to be like.
Why is the cover of the book just an apple? I say. There aren’t even any apples in the story. It makes no sense.
Caroline rolls her eyes and sighs, like she always does when she knows better.
She’s the apple, she says. And he’s the hands.
That’s stupid, I say.
It’s not stupid. Caroline closes the book. Then she gets a mischievous look, the same look that she got when we snuck the mango juice.
If you could kiss anyone in our class, who would it be?
I hesitate. When I’m alone, sometimes I pretend to kiss the walls of the shower and my bedroom. But I always imagine someone faceless, like who it is doesn’t matter as much as the actual act of kissing itself.
I don’t want to kiss anyone, I say finally.
Liar. Everyone wants to kiss someone.
Well, who would you kiss?
I shrug. Parker is the tallest boy in our class and the first to develop acne. It’s an obvious choice for Caroline: someone that is physically older, not a boy, but a budding man, stoic and classy like Edward.
Caroline narrows her eyes. If you don’t like boys, you must like girls.
No, I don’t, I say, but my voice is a whisper.
If you do, I’ll never tell, she says. Friends keep secrets until the grave.
I don’t, I say again. But now I am going through the face of each girl in my class like a deck of cards, imagining kissing each of them, testing to see if I feel anything.
When my father picks me up from Caroline’s house, I try to shake the conversation off of me. I know that I cannot be gay, not when it’s all they talk about on the radio and all the adults say the word in hushed tones.
I have the same name as a Jane Austen character, and I think maybe my mother named me after him to damn me to an exceptionally flitting existence. I don’t have the words to explain it yet, but I feel my life is perennial, predetermined.
At Galileo, Caroline and I play Get Across the Playground Without Touching the Ground. The objective is in the name: we have to walk on benches and climb fences or trees that line the corners of the playground until we finally make it back to the starting place.
Oscar watches us both from the steps, and I feel his gaze on my bare back and shoulders that are exposed by my tank top.
We should interrogate him, I say.
I walk over to him and take the lead for once, imagining I am in a scene in an action movie where the woman walks in slow motion with her hair blowing behind her. He looks up from his sketchbook, where he draws a and large three-dimensional shaded letter S.
Hey, he says, smiling.
Oscar, I say. We have some questions for you.
Corny, says Caroline.
He raises his eyebrows. My name is Mike.
Do you have a girlfriend? Caroline begins.
He laughs. Sort of, he says.
Is she pretty?
Yes, he says, but he isn’t looking at Caroline. He stares into me with the round eyes, and I stare back, the bottom of my neck beading with sweat.
What kind of stuff do you do with her?
Alright, he says. You guys shouldn’t be asking these kinds of questions. One day, when you’re older, your mothers can tell you.
Caroline throws her hands in the air, like unbelievable, and storms off. I watch her go, but I linger, standing there in front of Oscar’s step and his drawing.
What is Prop 8? I ask him.
He looks at me strangely, like I’m older than I am. It is the first time anyone ever looks at me like I’m not a kid. I bask in it.
It’s a proposition to get rid of gay marriage in the state of California, he says. They want to make it illegal for some people to get married.
I look down at my black canvas sneakers, at the torn laces of them. Do you know the symptoms of breast cancer?
He looks startled. No, not really, he says.
I lean in close to him. I can see white dust on his eyelashes.
I think I have it, I say, my voice lowering. It hurts all the time.
Oscar pulls away. His eyes seem to thin themselves out, to grow less round. You should tell your mother, he says.
I shake my head.
I don’t have one, I say, and then one tear escapes and I can’t help it and I can’t take my eyes off my dirty sneakers. He reaches out and puts one giant hand on my shoulder and says something, and I want to turn and run away, but instead I freeze and stop crying. I imagine Bella standing there, perfectly still, allowing her boyfriend to reach out and drag his fangs across her skin. I think, this is how it’s supposed to happen.
Caroline tells Margo who tells Miranda who tells Lacey who tells Rachel that I am a lesbian, and I see them whisper to one another in class with their hands covering their mouths and their eyes staring sideways at me like fish. The wordlesbian comes out of their mouths like a secret to whisper. Like a curse word.
I keep my eyes fixed on Mrs. Denzin as I feel their gaze. Maybe, I think, I could make a class announcement: stand up in front of everyone and say, I am not a lesbian, the way that I once saw a video of an ex-president saying, I am not a crook.
But Caroline is my best friend and the person with the most knowledge in my life, and I start to fear that maybe she is right, that she sees something hidden in me. I look at Lacey and her long red hair the color of fire and imagine kissing her, imagine myself leaning in as she stands perfectly still. I don’t know what it is I feel when I think of this.
There’s a new high school volunteer at Galileo. Caroline seeks her out immediately, and I watch from afar as they laugh together, looking like they’ve always been friends. I wonder what name Caroline bestowed upon her, if it’s clever.
Underneath the play structure, I find the pencil markings of our initials, untouched by the lack of San Francisco rain. I take a pencil from my backpack and hold an eraser out to the wood. It works, strangely, and I rub and scrape off the shavings, and the Cis gone.
My pencil traces the curvature of the letter that remains, making the sharp line and then the curving fall, closing the loop. It looks good on its own, I think, a Dthere by itself. When I kiss someone for the first time, I think, I’ll bring them under here, and they will pencil in their initial next to mine.
What are you doing? comes Oscars voice from above.
I sit up so quickly from my lying-down position that I bump my head. But I take a deep breath and try to play it cool, even though I was writing on the play structure with a pencil.
Nothing, I say.
He raises an eyebrow. Are you peeking up people’s skirts under here?
No, I say. I hadn’t even thought of that. But now I look up, and through the empty spaces, I can see the legs of people running up the play structure to the slide.
Oscar sits down with his knees brought to his stomach, his arms around them in encapsulation.
I was just asking because I always did that, he said. When I went to school here.
You went to school here?
He doesn’t answer the question. He looks sad, like he remembers sitting under this same play structure too, erasing other names until he was left with just one lone circle as his mark.
Do you think I’m gay, I whisper.
He takes my hand in his. I drop the pencil, but he doesn’t seem to notice it.
You’re not gay, he says.
How do you know?
I just know.
All of a sudden I start feeling the hot feeling on the back of my neck. I look up but I can’t see up anyone’s skirts, just patches of light, the same sort of blurry light I saw through the cloth of the hoodie when we played Blind People.
Oscar takes my hand and lifts it to his face. His lips touch it in a light graze, and for a second I think he’ll really kiss it, but he just holds it there for a few seconds and then drops it. I keep my eyes shut the whole time and stand as still as I possibly can, as still as I do when Caroline and I play hide and seek.
When it’s over, I stand and pick up my pencil and crawl out from under the play structure. I vow to never return, not even to check if my letter is still there. I see Caroline on the steps, drawing something in a notepad, and I briefly think of walking over to her, but change my mind.
My father lets me sit in the passenger seat on the ride home again. His hands are still rough and his face still tired, but his worn eyes look kind. On the radio, the DJ talks about how Prop 8 passed.
What does that mean? I ask my father.
He turns his head to face me, but keeps his eyes on the road. Prop 8?
Yes, I say. I know what the proposition was. But what does it mean now that it passed?
His eyes flicker to meet mine, and for the second time in my life, someone looks at me like I am not a child, but this time I don’t bask in it.
It means that a lot of people can’t get married. People who love each other.
Outside the window, I watch the fog roll over the tops of buildings, slowly eating up the whole city. I think about all of the secrets I have to carry now, and I wonder if I’ll just keep collecting more and more over the years. They already feel so heavy, and my chest aches from holding all of them, so I resolve to give some away slowly, one by one. I’ll start small, I think. I’ll start with the way that mango juice dribbled down the corner of my best friends’ cheek and onto her neck, and the way I fought the impulse to reach out and wipe it off, to press my finger against her veins and squeeze.