“I don’t know the scientific names of plants and flowers,” she says. “But I can tell you how to ride the bus from, let’s say, Hunter’s Point to Stonestown Mall.” She breathes in and out three times, but he only stares at her, so she points to his backpack on the ground and tries again. She says, “I probably can’t fill in the blanks on your quiz about Greek gods or the food pyramid, but I have private deities and secret snacks from my cousins in the Philippines, and I will share both with you, if you ask.”
He’s not sure what to make of her, this fellow 11-year-old whose vocabulary includes the word “deities” and whose mother lets her wear gigantic gold hoop earrings and t-shirts that say things like “stone cold fox.” He wants to touch the tip of her nose with his own, wants to trace the lines on her palms. He stares at a spot in the sky just above her head. He understands that she is waiting for him to speak. He manages: “I already have a best friend.”
“Oh? I don’t remember asking if you do or if you don’t,” she says. She flips her hair over her shoulders and considers him, her stare level and sincere. He can barely stand it. She’s like an x-ray machine; she sees the white of his bones, the rush of his blood. “Are you scared?” she says at last. She makes her big eyes extra big; she raises her dark brows. “Okay. I’ll give you one more chance.”
“I don’t need another chance,” he says. “I’m sure.” He’s not really sure at all, only desperate to free himself from her scrutiny. He picks up his backpack and swings it over his shoulder. “Are you deaf or what?”
“What was that you said?” She cups her hands around her ears.
“I said ‘are. you. deaf.’” He says this before he realizes she was making a joke.
“Oh. Oh.” She moves her lips from one side to the other, and when he sees that she is trying not to cry, he wants to punch himself in the face, he wants to hurl his body through space and never return to earth, not ever. What should he say now? She swallows hard and rushes past him, so close they bump shoulders.
In the years that follow he’ll catch sight of her a few times a week, her hair blue-black like crow feathers, her eyes as big as ever. She will look away at the last moment and pretend not to see him, but he waves anyway and takes the rejection as his due. He gets her number and texts her, and every time she doesn’t answer (which is every time), he imagines that she almost did, and it inspires him to try again. His daydreams are full of her. By junior year, he wants to ask her if maybe he hasn’t been punished enough; he wants to let her know that if she’s interested he could really use that one-more-chance she offered all those years ago. But she is flanked by boys all the time, boys who were less stupid than he was when she looked at them and told them amazing, incredible things.
In college he drinks beer and smokes weed and wonders what’s become of her, her and her mysterious gods, her weird Filipino snacks. He’ll explain this to a person who is trying to love him, and the person will tamp down their jealousy and pretend not to care, but how could they not? All his life he will parse his memories of her, and coax from his staid imagination the things she might have done or said. He sees her stare up at the night sky, hears her say, “I don’t know how to read what’s in the stars.” And he thinks, yes you do.
Veronica Montes is the author of the award-winning chapbook The Conquered Sits at the Bus Stop, Waiting (Black Lawrence Press, 2020) and Benedicta Takes Wing & Other Stories (Philippine American Literary House, 2018). Her flash fiction has been published in Wigleaf, SmokeLong Quarterly, CHEAP POP, Fractured Lit, Lost Balloon, and elsewhere.
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