Plain China

Signs

by Alexandra Burns · Skidmore College
If Hair Could Talk, Austin Petersen-Hays · University of California, Berkeley

The first time I saw him I had just turned fourteen and the way he used swear words and carried his backpack on one shoulder was how I knew he was older. He called his friends by their last names and his teachers by their first names and they said the teachers didn’t care and he always looked like he just got up and I knew he hadn’t but I let myself think he had. They said he didn’t believe in God, and he used to live in a big city like St. Louis or Little Rock, and that he had a pair of shoes worth more than your mom’s wedding ring and that he drank coffee and liked the taste of it. They said that sometimes he wore glasses, and they said that he knew how to speak another language like Spanish or Chinese and that he had a scar on his lower back that was in the shape of a triangle. I learned in third grade that triangles were the strongest shape and I never understood why, but then it made sense and I knew it was a sign from God.

Sometimes I passed him in the parking lot and he was always like they said but even more. I  imagined the things he and his friends were talking about when they lounged in the parking lot, smoking cigarettes. Things like Mozart and drinking games and meeting someone who was Jewish and botanical gardens and gourmet food and the poker game he won in Las Vegas and diamond chandeliers and the time he dated a girl in college who wore high heels.

At night I would pray to God that one day we would be together forever. I would pray and promise and make deals and when Mary Ellen told me that her brother was friends with him I thought that God had finally got around to listening. I started to go to Mary Ellen’s more and then once when I was at her house he was there and so was I.

 

It was the summer then but he was dressed like it was the fall and didn’t seem to mind the heat. Mary Ellen’s brother and him and all their friends were drinking beers outside and it wasn’t even dark yet. We were watching them through a window that was crawling with ladybugs and I kept remembering how my mom says that “ladybugs are the children of Lucifer” after she kills them with lemon Lysol. Their dried-up bodies always pile up in that spot where the floor meets the wall and my mom lets them rot there until the floor starts to smell like spoiled custard and I have to vacuum them up. Mary Ellen used the side of her fist to take out a whole family of those little guys and when she slid her hand down she smeared a dark red liquid against the glass. “You should put on some red lipstick,” she said as she wiped her hand on her shirt, “it will make you look older.”

Outside they were being so loud and screaming at each other to drink more and when I closed my eyes they sounded like what I had always imagined my dad sounded like. When we’re around other people and someone asks about my dad, my mom always says the same thing: “When the Lord was handin’ out brains, that fool thought God said trains, and he passed ’cause he don’t like to travel.” Everyone laughs when she says this but it never really answers any questions and when I ask her, when it’s just me and her, she pretends she can’t hear me and her accent gets all funny. One time when I told her I wanted to meet my dad she just told me, “Well, people in Hell want ice water too,” and that was the end of that.

Mary Ellen and I walked out to the porch and I was wearing my favorite shirt and my hair was in a ponytail but I wished I’d worn it down like the older girls wore theirs. Everybody looked at us for a moment but then looked away and kept on chanting the word drink and I told Mary Ellen that we should go but she shook her head and told me to get a beer. The beer was warm and tasted like rust and trying to look like it tasted good was harder than learning how to give yourself French braids. I forgot I was wearing lipstick and got some of it on the edge of the can and it looked like the dead ladybugs.

He was sweaty and louder than the rest and his hair looked like wax up close and every time he cussed I felt myself cringe and I wished I wouldn’t cringe but I couldn’t help it. Mary Ellen’s brother started introducing us to them and even though this is what I had been praying for, I was scared. I was scared like you are right before you go down the biggest water slide at the water park or scared like when you are about to sing your solo during choir.

I think he was drunk and he asked how old I was but before I could answer he said, “Don’t answer that,” and I flinched. He started to laugh and his friends started to laugh too. When he laughed I noticed that his teeth were stained yellow by the gums and one of them was chipped and for the first time I didn’t want to know the details. I just wanted him to stop laughing. He asked if we wanted to “go fuck around” with them and I looked at Mary Ellen and she was already looking at me. We made eye contact for just a moment and I wanted her to read through my eyes how scared I was but she couldn’t tell that I was biting the inside of my cheek so hard it was starting to bleed. She turned and said, Fuck yeah. That was the first time I heard Mary Ellen say a curse word. The inside of my cheek still hasn’t healed.

He kept looking at me in this way that made me think there was lipstick on my teeth. His eyes were flat and his stare was still and empty. I wanted it to stop. Everyone was leaving and he asked us to come with him and his friend to drink in a parking lot or a motel room and when he asked this he was only looking at me, not Mary Ellen. I followed Mary Ellen into the back of a car that smelled like wet laundry, but not the clean kind, and whenever we glanced at each other she would give me these looks that told me to hush up but I wasn’t even talking. She was acting strange and was laughing at things that weren’t funny and calling me nicknames that I never knew I had.

 

He rented a room at the Port Zedler Motel, just to say he had to his friends the next day. He was already there when I walked in and while he stared at me, I felt my bra unhook and snap back towards my sides and I thought God was giving me another one of his signs. It was hot as blue blazes in that room and I felt the grey fabric underneath my arms slowly turn black. “Ask me if I have a cigarette,” he said to no one in particular but he was looking at me again with that stare.  He was so proud of that pack of cigarettes and he offered one to me and I pretended I knew what I was doing and tried so hard not to cough. He told me I had small hands. I can’t look at my hands the same way anymore.

In bed that night he smiled and asked me my name and I felt like the cheap dresser he used to put his cigarettes out on. It wasn’t a mistake that I left my bra—I remembered that God doesn’t send out signs through things like bras. A few days later Mary Ellen told me exactly what we did that night. I already knew but when she told me like she did I knew God wasn’t involved at all. I had to buy another bra with all the money I had been saving for older-girl makeup, but I didn’t want that makeup anymore anyway.

Someone told me once that every motel has a new-bound, fresh-spine Bible in the drawer of the nightstand and I thought they were fibbing. When it was over and he was gone, I opened the drawer and I was right. There was no Bible, just a remote control that I remember someone was looking for earlier and in the back corner there was a dried-up white flower that was long and hollow and looked like a trumpet. I only could look at it for a few seconds though because it was so fragile, and when I grabbed it, it fell apart in my hands. It was some sort of flower that I had never seen before, this trumpet flower, and I’ve been keeping a wide eye out for more of them around town but they aren’t anywhere around here.

 

told Mary Ellen that it felt like nothing. She kept asking and asking about it and she wanted to know about things I didn’t even know could happen. I told her that it felt like nothing because it did feel like nothing. Talking to Mary Ellen was like talking to your doctor about church and your favorite subject in school and your mom’s cooking when you’re wearing one of those blue smocks with the open back. Every time she said his name I just wanted to not be there, and not be anywhere else either. I stopped being best friends with Mary Ellen after that.

But when it was happening my mouth tasted like his mouth and his mouth tasted like a bad sore throat and I could feel the lipstick on the sides of my mouth starting to dry. All the sheets were on the floor and the naked mattress against my back was clammy and cold at the same time and the material was so itchy that I kept thinking about getting scabies even though I don’t actually know what scabies are.

And when it was happening I counted the stripes on the bleached-yellow wallpaper so I wouldn’t have to look at his face. I didn’t want to look at his face because I didn’t want him to look at mine. I didn’t want him to see me. But when he shifted his weight, I stopped counting and I will never forget the face he made when he saw. It was a face that was saying sorry, saying sorry, I didn’t know. A face that knew about how hard I was biting on my cheek earlier, and how much I hated the taste of beer and a face that was scared too, and he left right then, in a hurry. His face finally knew.

Summer ended and the kids at school never found out and no one called me names like Mary Ellen said they would, but it’s only been a few weeks. Sometimes I wish people did find out so I wouldn’t have had to pretend that nothing happened, but no one ever did. I asked God if this feeling was ever going to stop and he never gave me a sign. I guess that was his way of saying no.

About the Author

Alexandra Burns · Skidmore College

“Signs” was originally published in Skidmore's literary journal, Palimpsest.

About the Artist

Austin Petersen-Hays · University of California, Berkeley

Austin Petersen-Hays is a recent graduate of the University of California at Berkeley with a major in art practice. She loves drawing and strives to convey veiled emotions and an unapproachable attitude through her work, while keeping the aesthetic light and attainable. She also loves catching frogs. “If Hair Could Talk” first appeared in CLAM.