Hot, dry Friday night, late September in Texas. Callie, Mina, and Emma get ready for the football game. Constrained during the week by the plaid skirts and button-down shirts of the St. Agnes School for Girls, they go all out. Callie pulls Emma’s purple miniskirt off and tosses it to Mina, sitting on the bed. Callie hates that she keeps getting taller. The skirt’s too short for her, and it’s too tight for Emma, who’s all boobs and hips. Mina’s Chinese so she’s small. She could maybe get away with it.
Emma leans into the mirror; her damp breath steams the surface. Her eyes take shape as she lines them in black. Pale and blonde, she’s a couple of shades away from disappearing altogether. The girls are at Emma’s house because she can take the car wherever, whenever she wants. Her parents are too busy getting divorced to notice.
“Anything else?” Callie says.
Emma’s pulled-down lower eyelid is a blood-red crescent moon. She rolls her eyeballs toward the closet. The accordion doors are hinged wide open, and a tongue of clothes spills out, licking the soft blue carpet. “Cropped jacket and matching shorts,” she says, circling the eyeliner above her head. “All black. Super cute.”
Callie pushes at hangers while Mina’s attention gets caught by an orange stain on her khaki shorts. “Damn,” she says. She licks her thumb and rubs the stubborn cotton.
“Try the skirt, my dear,” Emma says. She bats her eyelashes, thick with mascara, but Mina ignores her, scratches a bitten-down nail against the dry clot. The scraping is like ripping cardboard. The purple miniskirt lies abandoned on the bed, lapping against Mina’s bare, brown calf.
These are Callie’s best friends. She didn’t dare hope for friends at this new school. Last spring, when Aunt Rosa brought home two heavy plaid skirts, Callie didn’t know they were from St. A’s second-hand sale. Aunt Rosa held one up to the light and nodded with the kind of conviction that would make any fifteen-year-old nervous. “Ain’t so thin you can see right through them,” she said.
On Callie’s first day, girls floated down the hallways in crisp cotton. Emma taught Callie how to bust open her locker without the combo, and Mina showed her the shortcut to the science wing. As they jogged across the quad, Callie’s shiny polyester skirt made her legs sweat like wet popsicle sticks in the hot Texas sun.When Callie told Aunt Rosa she was going to the football game, Aunt Rosa couldn’t say no. These friends were safe, unlike those cholos, the ones who’d gotten Callie put into this private school in the first place. She’d only been talking to them, but Callie might as well have been tonguing one of those boys the way Aunt Rosa had screeched to the curb and thrown open her passenger door. Those boys were there every afternoon, standing on the corner with their too big pants and their slicked back hair. Aunt Rosa grumbled as she drove Callie home from school, and Callie, still mad, didn’t say a word.
The shorts and jacket are perfect. “Super cute,” Emma says, turning from the mirror to survey Callie up and down. All three draw a simultaneous breath, and when Mina exhales, her laugh is a nervous bark. Callie will be the one who Andrew Smart invites into his car tonight, but each girl is imagining what it would be like if it was her.
Two weeks ago Emma pulled Callie and Mina aside as the game was ending. Said she’d found out where everyone was going after. The dead-end road was on the backside of an empty subdivision, built too fast to sell. The alley bordered a field, yellow and matchstick dry, where latticed steel diamonds climbed in stacks, fat at the bottom and skinny on top. Power lines connected those electric towers, arms outstretched, one to the next and the next and the next, so far down and shrinking to a place you couldn’t see. At the end of the road was a circular slab of concrete with a single streetlamp to light it. That was where the kids parked their cars and drank beers after the game.
Callie, Mina, and Emma shouldn’t have been there. They weren’t the right kind of girls. A circle of blondes cradled longnecks in pink manicures. Their whispers followed Emma as she walked to the cooler and slid one, two, three bottles from the watery ice. Cars were parked at the borders of the light, webbed with murmurs, pushed up against darkness. A hoot and a cackle, the laughter of the blondes, made Callie look up. Andrew Smart walked toward them.
Andrew was the same height as Callie but lanky in an awkward teenage boy way. He had brown hair, brown eyes, pale skin, and bad acne, but he was there because he was rich and funny. He was the kind of kid who could talk his way into the student council vice-presidency, which he’d done. He sounded just like the Jesuit Prep football coach when he threw out his chest and drawled, “Ladies.” He made them all laugh, even Emma.
When Andrew invited Callie to come check out his car, she followed him across that circle of light. She looked back once to catch the eyes of her friends but missed. Emma bent toward the cooler, and in the yellow flicker of the streetlamp, her pale head and Mina’s black one tilted together and merged.
That first time Callie and Andrew talked, nothing else. His father was an orthodontist, his mother was board president at Jesuit Prep, and when his older brother started UT, Andrew got the red M3 all to himself. The padded leather of the passenger door was as soft as the quilt on Callie’s bed. Andrew told her stories of the stupid things his brother had done pledging a fraternity, and Callie covered her mouth with her hand. Even with the windows down, her laughter was too loud for the small space. Andrew didn’t seem to mind. He grinned, and his perfect, white teeth shone in the night.
A week later, they kissed. This time the car windows were up against a sudden fall chill. Andrew held her cheeks in his palms, as if Callie’s face was as precious as a book. The gentle probing of his tongue against her lips sent a tingle down her spine that made her open her eyes. When she saw that his were closed, she moved closer, let him pull her. She pressed back, her body against his. The wanting there surprised her. After she left his car, Callie walked over to Mina and Emma through a volley of sidelong glances from the blondes, who pretended not to watch. Callie touched her fingertips to her lips. They were full and bruised.
Tonight will be something more. They all know it. They speed down the long, white highway, and Emma rolls down windows and cranks the sunroof wide. In places where Callie has never been, only read about, September is crisp and cool, brimming with colored leaves and the promise of change. In Texas, summer holds tight. Katy Perry blasts, and the three girls belt out the wrong lyrics as dry wind rushes through the car, spinning their hair, their voices, their anticipation to a frenzy. They drive away from stadium lights, bright against a navy blue sky, and into the warm, eighty degree darkness.
“I can’t go to UT,” Andrew says, his forehead against Callie’s. His palm lies damp against the back of her neck. His car is parked further into the shadows, away from the edges of light, and the windows are down, bugs sawing their chorus from invisible trees. Callie’s eyes walk the tightropes of power lines across the windshield, and Andrew says he’ll go anywhere for college if it’s far enough away: the East coast, the West coast, even Canada. “I’ve gotta get out of here,” he says, and his voice is quiet, not the voice of the raucous Andrew with the jokes. With his face so serious, without those white teeth flashing, he’s more handsome. He taps one finger against the back of Callie’s hand. As slow as a drip, he taps and taps. “Where do you want to go?” he says.
The back seat of the car is too small. Andrew half-folds at the place where Callie undoes the top button of his jeans. She kisses him, then frees another button. Their breathing and the squeaking of their bodies against the leather seats distract her. She can’t figure out how to kiss him and do this at the same time. Callie steadies her gaze on the hollow at the base of his throat and watches the way it moves when he swallows. She works open another button, the taut denim coaxed by her fingers, and his mouth pushes against her forehead. Callie pulls the last button out, moves her hand up and over the waistband of his boxers, and closes her eyes. This time, this very first time, she doesn’t want to see him, she just wants to feel it. She wraps her hand around his flesh, and the pulsing there is in her hand and in him at the same time. His skin is both smooth and wrinkled. It is thick and muscled and yet sheathed in a layer that is as thin and soft as tissue.
What Callie can’t see, what is close but what seems impossibly far, is that she will go away to college, she will go farther away than Andrew. She will be the first in her family; Aunt Rosa will be so proud. When a professor notices her and insists that Callie take her seminar in gender studies, Callie will discover theories about the life she has lived. She will find that people have spent money and time and dissertations and careers, reading and writing about her. On a spectacular fall day, in the corner of a silent library – a neo-Gothic structure built before this country even existed – Callie will look up from the article she is reading. She will think of Mina and Emma, and she will wonder where they are now.
But tonight as the girls drive home, flying down a dark Texas highway, Callie holds her hand out the window, lets the dry air rush over and through her long fingers. Her heartbeat pulses into their very tips. She leans her head against the back seat of Emma’s car and imagines she can smell the heat of a teenage boy blowing off her hand and over her face, even though all she smells is the warm night air. Her fingers could be sticky with that heat, but there is nothing there, nothing but her own fingertips rubbing smooth against each other. Nothing but the strength of her own hand, pushing against the wind.
Lillian Huang Cummins is a writer and psychologist who lives near Chicago. She has received support from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, The Elizabeth George Foundation, and the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. She is a graduate of the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College and is working on her first novel.