I’m her girl, the second. The baby. Or third, if you count my brother.
We live in Blacksburg, Virginia, on a dead end by the old, paved-over railroad tracks. The calendar page hanging in Ma’s kitchen is a fluffy dog, white and black like a cow, with her paws on her snout like she was naughty. Little muddy paw prints spell out July 1982 across the top. I like the calendar even if Vivvy thinks it’s for babies.
Vivvy is Vivian, because even her nickname is beautiful. She is older by almost three years. I’m ten and she’s almost thirteen. Ma wanted us separated three years perfect, but I was preemie. Vivvy says I’m squishy dough because Ma didn’t cook me long enough but I’m not smaller than she is. I’m thick like Daddy, who says that’s a sturdy way of living.
Vivvy says it’s being fat. Once she started to blow away in a wind tunnel in Chicago, pulled up into the snowy air. Vivvy likes thinking of herself as someone who can easily blow away. One time she said if I were with her there again in that wind tunnel, the two of us holding hands, I’d be her anchor and keep her safe.
Vivvy and I play in the pines off the side of the house, the ones that make a wall marking where we end and the Thomsons’ yard begins. Sometimes we climb them. More times, we swing or dangle from the thick branch, our yellow pigtails or ponytails hanging down.
Clint Thomson crouches small behind the corner of a shed, watching us. Like we don’t see him. Vivvy and I laugh.
He comes out, says, “I’m coming up.”
“The hell you are,” says Vivvy.
“Hell you are,” I say.
She tips back her head, eyes rolling.
Clint kicks the trunk of our tree. He touches the branches but doesn’t know which is the one to grab. He holds on to two thick ones and walks his feet up the trunk but then he’s scrunched like a ball, stuck.
He drops back down in the dead needles. “I’ll come up,” he says to Vivvy.
She hooks her chin on a branch over us. Her ponytail hangs straight down her back, smooth and perfect. Clint has this way of looking only at Vivvy when he talks, and I don’t know why but it makes my stomach feel homesick.
His dog Basey trots over from underneath the bushes at his back door. A beagle mix with a coiled tail and a scruff of hair at the base of his neck for when he’s feeling ornery, which is almost all the time but especially when our dog Floey’s out playing too. Today Floey’s inside because Ma’s making her a fairy costume for Halloween. This is only July but Ma likes an early start.
Clint tries again. He grabs another branch but it’s wrong, too, and there’s nowhere to go from there, so he just sort of grips at the sticky needle tufts coming at his face and leans there. Basey’s sniffing around every inch of forsythia and brambledy blackberry bush we’ve got, peeing every step of the way. He’s got funny short legs and, when one springs up in the air, Vivvy calls it peeing with gusto. It about tips him over when he lifts his leg so fast and high.
“He’s doing it again.” I nudge her to look down at Basey in the currant bush.
“Stupid dog,” she says.
“He can’t help it,” I say.
Sun spots Vivvy’s face through the needles. It falls across her eyes but she doesn’t squint or move away. “That’s the trouble with being stupid, Enid,” she says.
We’re carrying on this conversation loud enough for Clint to hear it but we are high up enough he can pretend not to hear if he doesn’t want to, and he must not because he hops off and Basey follows him back into his yard.
“Stupid boy,” says Vivvy, watching him go. She drops down to hang by her knees.
“Stupid,” I say, and she flicks my big toe.
The screen door slaps shut and out comes fluffy white Floey running her happy-dog run that’s more like a horse’s gallop. Right to our tree she comes. I see her catch on that Basey was here and she’s so smart that she turns her head and looks into the Thomsons’ yard.
“Good girl,” I tell her. “Smart girl.”
Then she’s off walking the bushes, sniffing everywhere he’s been, stuffing her nose right into all those drips of pee.
“Do you ever wonder what it’s like,” says Vivvy, pulling herself back up on the branch to sit by me, “to think about things or do things that other people don’t know you do?”
“You know, secret things.”
“Oh, never mind. You’re too young.”
“What did you do?” I say and shove her once.
“Don’t be stupid.”
“I’m going out,” Ma calls from the screen door. She’s in her tennis togs. She’s clutching her tennis satchel. But she doesn’t go get in the car; she heads back into the house. She never takes her racket. And you can’t play all by yourself, but no one ever calls her to reconnoiter—that’s one of Ma’s favorite words—and she never calls anyone.
“Bye,” she says to us once she’s made it out the door twirling her keys, and still I don’t answer because I’m watching the sun catch in the pleats of her white skirt, the pink balls bouncing from the backs of her ankle socks. Her ponytail tied with a lemony bow to match her yellow hair combs.
She backs the Datsun out the gravel drive.
Vivvy swings upside down again, says, “She lies to us.”
My stomach drops and now I’m afraid. Of being up high. Of Vivvy falling and landing on her head. Of Floey gone to find Basey. Of this being the start to the end of summer. Of Daddy not knowing the particulars of this day for us, because this isn’t one of his days—it isn’t a spend-the-night day and it isn’t a barbecue-grill day and it may not turn out to be a phone call day.
Daddy doesn’t live here anymore. And we don’t live with him because Ma said “no” and Vivvy said nothing and I said “yes” but that was that. He’s in an apartment over by the university—which I guess is convenient, because that’s what he says. Vivvy says, “At least it’s not Christiansburg,” and we laugh because everybody knows what you get when you add hot water to Christiansburg: instant grits, and our daddy is no gap-toothed, shiny-shirted, greasy-haired grit.
First time we visited, Daddy made Chicken Hot as the Devil, which is his specialty. We had strawberry ice cream after supper. When he handed me the bowls to take out to the patio, I chose the bigger scoops for me. Ma says I’m a creamy girl: mashed potatoes, yogurt, pudding, oatmeal all make my head spin.
I took a big bite of ice cream.
“Easy, sister,” said Daddy.
Clint’s at the base of our tree again. Basey’s sniffing around after Floey, who was here a minute ago but now’s gone off exploring. Ma’s back home and Vivvy’s inside getting the pins stuck in her Bambi costume. She’ll have a tail sewn on some brown shorts and white patches on the insides of tan leg warmers, a thrift store brown turtleneck, and an old Easter basket with twigs for antlers on her head. What she wants is what I want. Something in a kit, store-bought. Something brand-new.
“I saw you,” he says to me, looking up but into the angles of the tree limbs, not at me.
“Saw me what?” I call down.
“Which branch to start with.”
“Did not,” I say. “Prove it.”
“It’s this one right here,” he says, and makes like to start climbing. The silver clip jingles on his Scouts shorts.
“You don’t know anything,” I tell him. I rip off a hank of needles and toss them at him. He blinks, this time looking up at me.
“Come on, Basey.” He pats his side and that dumb dog sort of turns his way but then thinks better of it and keeps on with my yard. “Come on now,” says Clint. He goes after him and takes hold of Basey’s loose red collar and starts dragging him home by it.
I swing from the branch. I swing upside down. I swing right side up. I swing and swing. Ma’ll make me a pirate next.
I drive the same route to the tennis courts each day. Windows rolled tight so the air wraps me in heat. I smile and breathe the sun. The girls can hang like monkeys in their tree all they want.
I go out of my way, go into downtown. I wouldn’t drive to tennis any other route. This is my path.
Midway, I slow to pass Carol Lee Donuts but keep my face forward, my eyes in front of me. It doesn’t matter. Even just seeing it peripherally, I know the scene by heart. Inside the big picture window, an imposing mixer pipes batter rings that drop into hot oil below. They float and sizzle and then the pretty girl with the thick red braid flips them. One by one she dunks soft yellow edges and the fried rings bob up golden brown.
I know who she is. To Tate. And for how long—at least part of last quarter. I tidied a set of papers he left spread across my porch table after watching the girls in April. On principle, he has never given a student a 100%, yet there it was.
The name on her tag, the name on her essay.
On the days I see her here, turning the rings, I run 20 more laps around the courts.
On the days I don’t see her, I run even more.
On the first day of my July aesthetics class, I give a brief lecture to open the course and now the students are filling thirty minutes on who is the better artist: Warhol or Michelangelo. I set my notes aside and, on the back of a piece of scratch paper, begin a grocery list:
I look up and she stands in front of me at the desk. “Yes?” I say and slide the roster over my list.
Holly smiles. So I smile back—I go for a please move it along, what do you need? kind of smile.
Holly sits up next to my freakishly fuzzed knees. She looks toward the covered window. I lie on the bare top sheet. There is some vestige of covers in a mess down at the end of the bed just beyond her pink-nailed toes, but the rest must have hit the floor some time ago. Stark naked, she is just as poised as she was when handing in her essays and exams all last spring.
I’m not quite old enough to be her father and that is a comfort. Holly scoots back up here and nestles against me, her head in the crook of my arm. Her hair splays all across the mattress and her skin and mine.
I grab her arm and kiss it, bring her to me and kiss her between the eyebrows and down the freckled slope of her nose. I track a line, kissing as I go.
“So,” I say.
“Me hungwy,” she says like Cookie Monster. She jaws my chest over and over again, as if I am made of cookies.
It is 4:22 PM. Not officially time for food but no one here cares about that. I go pick up a sausage-and-pepperoni at Angelo’s and we eat it back in bed.
“Then hold still.”
Mom rocks back on her knees. “You want this or not?” she says.
“No,” I say.
She knows what I want. Princess Leia, the one from The Empire Strikes Back, with braids hanging in loops and a lightsaber. Enid and I saw the costumes at Leggett and we decided we could both be Leia—only Enid would have to be Leia with the buns and I could be new Leia with braid loops. And a saber.
We found Mom in the dressing room, saying, “Why don’t they make these small enough? Who wants blue jeans that sag?” She spun around and grabbed at the empty fabric hanging down from her butt. “And look at this waistband.” Then she saw what we were holding. She dumped the jeans on the floor, slipped her own pants back on, and walked out. She didn’t speak again until we were on the white aisle heading out the door.
“You don’t expect those horrible things to go home with us, do you?” she said over her shoulder.
We had already laid the costumes down.
Now I am on Sheldon’s locked toy chest in the hallway outside the door to his old room. I’m being measured and stuck, wearing an upside-down egg basket on my head—so she can get the “full effect”: twigs poking through the top to make antlers. The little old ladies on our block will ask if I’m a tree this year.
“At least let me go as the hunter and Enid can be Bambi’s mother. I can shoot her every time we ring a bell.”
From Pretend We Are Lovely. Used with permission of Tin House Books. Copyright © 2017 by Noley Reid.