Fiction
Fiction

Youse

Nicole Haroutunian


 

On the morning of this newest test—hadn’t they just had one?—Rae slips her foot from its ballet slipper, extends her leg from the knee, and brushes her toes up the calf of the boy in front of her, Erik Paley. She feels his muscles flex. “Last one, I promise,” she whispers. He shifts his back so his paper is visible to her. Erik only gets Bs, but she could do worse. He always pops a piece of gum in his mouth before they meet after school on test days—thoughtful for a ninth grader, really.

 

She’d be more inclined to try the math test on her own if she hadn’t discovered yesterday that she was screwing up in English, too. She’d had no idea until Ms. Helmsley handed her last essay back with an appointment time rather than a grade on it; she has to go see the guidance counselor after geometry today.

 

When she gets there, Mr. Bertino has a photocopy of the essay. Rae doesn’t like the idea of her work proliferating without her knowledge. How many other copies are out there?  

 

“Your teacher is concerned about your choice of subject matter, Rae,” he says.

 

“But she gave me a choice,” Rae says. “For independent study, when I wasn’t coming to school.”

 

“Sylvia Plath brings up some very serious issues…”

 

“I’m not going to kill myself,” she interrupts. “My mother already made fun of my unoriginality. I know girls get obsessed with her. Condemn me for cliché, if anything. It’s not like I wrote about how she put her head in an oven.”

 

In truth, Rae hadn’t been familiar with Sylvia Plath when she chose her essay topic; she just saw a poem entitled “Daddy” in an anthology and went with it. The poem was pretty unsettling, actually—it wasn’t the best portrait of a father/daughter relationship—but her paper would have been late if she’d had to find something else. 

 

“What’s the rest of your class reading now?” Mr. Bertino asks.

 

“Dickens,” she says.

 

“Time for you to get back on track,” he says. “Whether it be the best or the worst of times.”

 

***

 

At lunch, Rae and Joanna sit on a ledge outside of the plate glass cafeteria windows.

 

“I won’t eat turkey,” Rae says, peeling pale slices from between her whole wheat bread. “My mother thinks that I’m trying for anorexia with this vegetarian thing, but I swear. If she’d buy the organic, hormone-free kind of meat, I’d be open to it.”

 

“My mother is thrilled I only want vegetables,” Joanna says. Her lunch consists of carrot and celery sticks, with a small Tupperware of peanut butter for dipping. 

 

“You’re beautiful,” Rae tells her, and she is—greenish eyes, dark hair, curves for days.

 

“I do think we’re onto something,” Joanna says. “You know, eliminating those extra hormones. My hips are going down for sure and my boobs even—they look smaller, right?”

 

They don’t. “Maybe,” Rae says. “I think my skin’s improving.”

 

“Know it,” Joanna says.

 

They watch the action on the other side of the window like they’re at the movies. “What if we sat with the Chinese kids one day,” Rae muses. “Would they let us?”

 

“You never hear about that,” Joanna says. “It’s always black kids versus white kids. Where’s the news special on white kids versus Chinese kids?”

 

“Let’s try to hook-up with one,” Rae says.

 

“By one, you mean a Chinese kid?” Joanna says.

 

“Yes, sorry.”

 

Joanna affects a solemn expression, eyes wide. Rae’s begun to recognize these looks.

 

“Is this about your dad?” she asks quietly.

 

“I never wanted to make out with my dad.” Rae busies herself with her bread sandwich.

 

“Because he died in China,” Joanna says. “Is that why you care suddenly about the Chinese kids?”

 

Rae’s father had his aneurysm in China, it’s true. He was there to research an article about a dissident, an artist. But it didn’t have anything to do with China. She found out afterward that he knew it could happen at any time; he’d had his first aneurysm when he was in his twenties, soon after he met her mother. There was a little bomb in his brain; China didn’t set it off, it just went on its own.

 

Rae squeezes her bread into a ball and tosses it at the trash can. It hits the window instead. Ms. Washington, the new reading specialist stuck with lunch monitor duty, starts toward them but stops when she recognizes Rae.

 

“All I’m saying,” Rae explains, “is that we could be part of the solution rather than the problem.”

 

***

 

Rae can hear the little kids playing in the park, the thump of their feet against the rubber under the jungle gym, their screeching afterschool mania. Erik, who is often late to class, is never late to meet her here behind the handball court. At the beginning of the year, he’d been shorter than she was, but now he’s caught up. She hopes they’ll be done with all of this by the time he’s taller than her, but if that means starting to understand math again, she’s not sure she can end it.

 

As far as Rae knows, Joanna’s the only other person aware of this arrangement. Before her father died, Erik probably would have told everyone, but she has a bit of a pall on her now. No one makes fun of her, thank goodness, but they talk to her less, stare at her more—she’s constantly worried there’s something in her teeth.

 

Today, things go a step further than usual: Her hand ends up down Erik’s pants, his waistband chafing against her wrist. She isn’t quite sure what to do, but it doesn’t seem to matter. His eyes are practically rolled back in his head.

 

After a few seconds, at a loss, she says, “I have to go.”

 

He stares at her like he’s dumb.

 

“See you later,” she says.

 

***

 

Rae heads straight to Joanna’s house. Joanna’s mother doesn’t work because her little brother has autism and goes to tons of after school appointments and programs. In the past, Rae used to let herself into their house, look at Billy’s toy trains with him, chat with Laurie—Rae calls her Laurie, not Ms. Greenbaum—and eat a snack of salami wrapped around pickle spears. Recently, she avoids visits like this for a few reasons. One, Billy is older now and less adorable. Two, Laurie constantly hugs her head and tells her that she’s a good girl, which objectively she is not. Three, she’s off salami and pickles with artificial dyes.

 

She sits on the front steps for a few minutes, breathing in the sweet scent of leaf-rot. The door swings open behind her. “Joanna is in the bathroom,” Billy says. “Mom says come in.”

 

Rae turns around to smile at him, a smile he does not return. “I’d rather sit here,” she says.

 

She hears Laurie calling from inside.

 

“Mom says…” Billy repeats.

 

“Okay, okay,” she says.

 

Inside, Laurie’s doing something weird involving spreadsheets. She’s at the kitchen table with a laptop and an overturned box of crackers, her hair in a messy bun. She gestures Rae over and squeezes her close, smelling like smoke. She thinks no one knows she smokes in the shower.  

 

“How are you, baby,” she says. “How’s mom.”

 

Rae hates when people ask questions that aren’t. Her voice doesn’t elevate—she thinks she knows the answer and she thinks that answer is bad.

 

“I did great on my math test today,” she says. “And my mother’s firm just got a big commission. She’ll probably get a promotion. What about you?” She gestures at the computer.

 

“Oh, this,” Laurie says, drawing uncomfortably close to Rae’s ear. “Billy goes to junior high next year. We don’t know where to send him so I’m making a file of pros and cons of all of our options.”

 

“He’s lucky you have the time to do that,” Rae says.

 

She feels her stomach dip in regret seeing on Laurie’s face that the dig registered. In truth, when she was younger, Rae often wished that her mother didn’t work, that she was around as much as Joanna’s. There were months when she had dinner at Joanna’s house more often than her own. Her father would pick her up at nine at night and tease that maybe he should just let her move in there for all the time he got to see her.

 

Joanna appears, hands clenched over her abdomen. “Kill me,” she says.

 

Her mother hands her three Advil. “Exercise,” she says. “I know you want to curl into a ball, but I swear nothing helps more than exercise.”

 

They head outside. Rae suggests jumping jacks, but Joanna says she’d rather take a walk.

 

“Should we tell your mom?” Rae asks.

 

Joanna rolls her eyes. “She’ll try to come with us or something.”

 

After a few blocks they come to the town’s main street, Broadway. Rae’s been to the real Broadway—she can take or leave the musicals, but loves the sugary coconut cubes her dad used to buy her from the street vendors—and so it seems ridiculous to call this street by the same name. Its big attractions are a grocery store, the pharmacy that fills everyone’s prescriptions, a new frozen yogurt shop, and three gas stations, because everyone has to drive out of town to get anywhere of note.

 

As they pass the yogurt shop, Rae says, “If only it were probiotic, right?” but her voice is drowned out by the honking of a passing bronze SUV. The man inside yells, “How about youse sit on my dick?”

 

“Did he say ‘youse’?” Rae asks, shuddering.

 

Joanna rubs her arms as if she’s showering. “Dirty,” she says. “Bad grammar makes me feel dirty.”

 

 “I bet he’s married,” Rae says.

 

“My dad never believes me when I say that men do that. He can’t conceive of it.”

“Can you imagine your dad yelling out his car at teenage girls?”

 

“Can you imagine yours?” Joanna turns red instantly. “That’s the worst thing I’ve ever said,” she says.

 

“I forgive you,” Rae says. “I don’t know if God will, but…”

 

“Come on,” Joanna says. “Get even. Say something terrible to me.”

 

“I think I gave Erik Paley a hand job today,” she says.

 

Joanna stops dead. “Excuse me?”

 

“Loosely defined,” she says. “Nothing got sticky.”

 

Joanna doubles over, gagging. “You’re kidding me, right?”

 

“I mean, he let me cheat off of his test again…”

 

“You’re killing me, RaeRae,” Joanna says. “You need to be on Prozac. It’d be one thing if you actually liked Erik, but this just doesn’t seem like you.”

 

“Not my finest hour, I agree,” she says.

 

“Next time that dude drives by,” Joanna says, “let’s make sure he knows that one of us is a pro.”

 

***

 

Rae cannot stay awake. The Dickens hits her in the face every time she drifts off, its musty smell getting right up into her nose. She’s reading the copy from her parents’ bookshelf rather than the one from Ms. Helmsley. She’d be fooling herself to think that it was her father’s copy—nonfiction was his thing—but her mother denies the book being hers. Her thing is minimalism; she never thinks twice about trucking decorative bowls or books or sweaters she hasn’t worn in a year over to the Goodwill. People meeting her now might think she’s dressing like she’s in mourning, but she always wore black: generally dresses with interesting cuts and modest hemlines, well-fitting and lint-free. Rae thought this was all very unusual until her mother brought her to work once and she realized all architects looked like her. There was even one woman with hair a little shorter, lips a little redder, neckline a little more angular—her mother in sharper focus.

 

Rather than read, Rae decides to try minimalism herself. She grabs some garbage bags and starts to tear down posters from her wall. As soon as she strips off the first one—a picture of this pop musician she was listening to on repeat for a while—she can’t believe she’s been looking at it for so long. After she peels all her posters, song-lyric print-outs, and magazine movie-star cutouts from the walls, breaking her thumbnail scratching off the stubborn shards of scotch tape they left behind, she sweeps half-empty bottles of old perfume, a collection of owl-shaped candles, and a miniature lava lamp off the top of her dresser and into a bag. Once she’s discarded most of her clothing—leaving behind only one type of item in each color—she has enough drawer space to house the objects she didn’t want to completely forsake: a pleasingly heavy paperweight the green of an old Coke bottle given to her by her grandmother, three photographs of her parents from their wedding day, her mother wearing white for possibly the only time ever, her father thinner and younger-looking than any married man should be, a colorful enamel jewelry box from her other grandmother filled with all the jewelry Rae owns but never wears—slim gold chains with babyish charms, costume necklaces she used to use for dress-up, the ten silver studs from when she turned twelve and her mother’s sister signed off on her piercing each ear six times, all at once, and her parents, upon seeing her triumphant, glittering return from the mall, demanded that all but two be removed.

 

Rae clamps on headphones before carrying her full bags to the trash bins in the garage. Her mother is next door, in her own bedroom. Rae’s only heard her crying in there once, but she’ll never forget the sound. It was worse than at the funeral, where they were all crying, of course. Rae doesn’t know if it was worse than when she got the phone call—her mother had been at work when the news came in. Rae doesn’t know what that scene was like, if the other black-dressed woman hugged her, what the men in their rectangular plastic glasses might have said. It had to have been worse than the crying she heard coming from the other side of the bedroom door. And it had to have been the door that made it sound this way, but part of what was so terrible about it was how quiet it was. Sounds like that, she should have been wailing, top-volume, but she wasn’t. Her mother seemed a hundred miles from her, like she was drowning on the other side of an ocean.

 

At first, Rae was upset that her mother didn’t tell her until she got home from school, that she kept those few new hours of grief for herself. Now that’s she lived with it, though—the grief—Rae’s glad for the gift of that time. Six hours may not seem like much reprieve, but when she thinks back on that day, she remembers sitting in math class, Erik Paley just another kid in front of her, ignoring the hum of her teacher’s voice, confident that, when he got home, her father would teach her what she needed to know. 

 

She showers—she was sweaty from all the work—before settling back down onto her bedspread, a dizzying patchwork quilt, which she will ask to exchange for a plainer one next time she’s due for a gift. Wearing her one nightgown—she’d chosen the blue one to keep—in her nearly bare room, she concentrates, for three whole chapters, on reading her book.

 

***

 

Rae raises her hand for every question during the first half of English class, but Ms. Helmsley seems to avoid calling on her, positioning her head so she can only see half of the room. Even after the Mr. Bertino visit, she’d refused to give Rae a grade on that Sylvia Plath paper, which she’d called “inappropriate.” Rae thinks Ms. Helmsley’s afraid that if she calls on her, she’ll say something off-base or awkward. She wants to have an outburst to teach her a lesson until she thinks of what that would actually entail; she’d rather no one look at her than everyone. So she stuffs her yellowing novel into her shoulder bag and walks out of the classroom. She bets that her teacher won’t call after her and no one will follow her, and she bets right.

 

Joanna’s in Spanish class. Rae pauses halfway down the hall, leaning against the cold cinderblock walls, closes her eyes, and conjures her father, the last time she saw him.

 

He was leaving for China early the next morning. At dinner, her mother apologized for ordering pizza instead of making something delicious.

 

“One thing I won’t get over there is pizza,” he said, ruffling her perfectly straight hair—no one but he would ever dare to do that. “This is great.”

 

Rae had interrupted to ask about ordering a whole wheat crust next time, without mozzarella because who knew where the milk came from. She’d banged her fist on the table when her parents exchanged a look, hating them for not taking her seriously.

 

She demurred from sharing dessert on the same grounds, although she can still picture the cupcakes—bright red velvet cake, pillowy icing—and sulked through the sitcoms they watched before bed even though they were her choice. She’d barely hugged him goodnight.

 

This does the trick and by the time she knocks, she’s wiping at real tears. Joanna’s teacher comes to the door and leans down toward her. “Can Joanna come see Mr. Bertino with me?” she asks.

 

***

 

Neither of them has cut school before. Their escape is complicated by the fact that they didn’t think to stop at their lockers to grab their jackets before slipping out the side door of the gym and onto the grass behind the school.

“This limits where we can go,” Rae says.

 

“What’s the plan, man,” Joanna asks. “I’m a little outside my comfort zone here.”

 

“Let’s walk to my house,” Rae says. “My mom won’t be there. We’ll get sweaters and figure out the next move.”

 

They scurry through a thicket of trees onto the street, maintaining speed until they’re a few blocks away, fairly confident they haven’t been detected. Rae expected to feel giddy, like thrill-seekers, but they press ahead in silence.

 

“Are you mad?” she asks.

 

Joanna twists her ponytail around her finger, considering. “I will be if we get caught.”

 

“Fair enough,” Rae says.

 

Then the bronze SUV—the same one, it has to be—is slowing down beside them.

 

They hear a familiar voice. “How about youse…” he starts.

 

Rae does not want to hear the rest of his sentence. “How about we fucking kill you?” she yells, kicking her foot in the direction of the car.

 

“I’m going to scream,” Joanna murmurs. “Let’s scream.”

 

“No,” Rae says, walking faster. “We’ll get in trouble if someone comes. He just wants attention—he’s full of shit.”

 

“What are you going to do?” the guy asks, keeping pace with them. His voice is deep and mean; he’s also dropped the “youse.”

 

Joanna grabs for Rae’s wrist and starts off toward someone’s yard. Rae leans back in opposition. Their tug of war paralyzes them in place. It’s not that she’s being stubborn by not changing course—the yard is full of shrubs, shrubs she can picture lying dead in.

 

He rolls down the window a little farther. No one is moving.

 

“I can see you,” Rae says, although she can’t. “We know what you look like.”

 

He says, “Oh yeah?” in this threatening way, like there’s more he has to say, but before he does, he pops open the passenger door. It swings so close it almost hits them.

 

Then they’re running: Joanna through the yard and Rae down the street, running how she does in dreams, without regard for what’s beneath her feet, not knowing where she’s headed, only that there’s something to escape. In her dreams, it is unclear what that is—the terrifying unknown behind her—but now, she knows: It is a man in a car who has things he wants her to do.

 

She doesn’t stop until she sees the SUV pass her. He’s leaning on the horn, picking up speed until he screeches through a stop sign at the end of the block, continuing off into the distance. She thinks to look at his license plate but can’t see it clearly through her tears. The relief as he disappears lasts only a moment before she realizes that Joanna might be in the car, disappearing with him.

 

Rae drops to the curb and rips open her backpack, grabbing at her phone. She starts to explain, getting only a few words in before she hears her mother asking her secretary to call the police on another line.

 

“I’m sorry we were cutting,” she gasps.

 

“Rae, Jesus,” her mother says. Rae can hear that she’s getting hysterical, too.

 

When a hand touches her shoulder, she screams, her mother screams, the secretary, maybe, screams—it is surround-sound panic until Rae leaps to her feet, turns, sees Joanna standing there, leaves stuck to the side of her hair, but there, in the flesh, screaming, too.

 

***

 

Billy’s wild for the story. The girls are rigid on Rae’s family room couch, knees together and mouths set. Their mothers are bidding goodbye to the police at the front door, extracting promises that what can be done will be done, but Billy’s pacing around the house, assembling facts, a one-man crime fighting machine. He’s having the best day of his life.

 

Rae watches him zoom in circles, scribbling on a notepad, and says, “I can’t believe that a letter is going out to everyone.”

 

“Who cares that our names won’t be in it,” Joanna says. “It’ll be obvious.”

 

“Last time a letter like that went out, some weirdo had offered candy to a first- grader. An effing first-grader. We’re not some helpless little freaks.”

 

“Who’ll make out with us now,” Joanna says.

 

“Everyone,” Rae says. “The letter’s an advertisement that we’re the kind of girls who cut class and get into dumb situations. Everyone will make out with us, but no one will talk to us.”

 

“You know all about that,” Joanna says.

 

Rae flinches. “It’s not so bad, in the end,” she says.

 

“I’m going to transfer. I’ll go to that Jewish day school.”

 

“I’ll die without you,” Rae says.

 

“I think we’ve established,” Joanna says, “that we don’t really stick together in life-or-death situations.”

 

Billy hustles over and says, “I have a few more questions for the investigation.”

 

“You’re up,” Rae tells Joanna, heading for her bedroom. She pulls the quilt from her bed and throws it into the near-empty closet. She stands there for a second before climbing in after it, burying her head in the soft folds. 

 

***

 

In the park the next day, Erik asks, “So you didn’t get a good look at the guy’s face?”

 

“He was just a guy.”

 

“What do you think he wanted with you?”

 

Rae pulls back, putting some air between her face and Erik’s pointed chin. He’s grown—she’s sure of it—his chin is now level with her bottom lip. “Same thing you want,” she says.

 

He shakes his head, his fine hair flapping around his ears. “I don’t want anything,” he mumbles.

 

“Do you want to come over?” Rae asks. “My mom’s not home.”

 

“I have homework,” he says. “Homework. You should try it.”

 

***

 

As she walks home, Rae thinks that if the SUV reappeared, she’d get in. What’s the worst that could happen?

 

It’s almost disappointing when nothing does. Pretending this person or that is driving her home—her mother knows by the lack of text message beeps and phone calls that she and Joanna aren’t really speaking so she has to make up other friends, other mothers with cars—she manages to make the journey alone every day that week, walking, each day, more slowly than the last. On Friday, she even paces in front of her house for a while, until the sun sets and she worries that the SUV actually will appear. Inside the house, she pulls out her quilt and drags it over to the couch, thumbing, listless, through her assignments. She’s behind again, which is one of the reasons, Mr. Bertino told her mother, she didn’t get suspended for cutting. 

 

At a knock on the door, she leaps up, sending her phone, which she’d been keeping perched on her knee, flying. She retrieves it, crouching as she dials 9-1- and, finger poised at the final one, creeps towards the door. The silhouette through the peephole is terrifying until she recognizes the shape, the triangle of curly hair.

 

Rae opens the door. “Tell me you didn’t walk here in the dark.”

 

Joanna points at her idling car, her whole family watching them through the windows.

 

“We’re on our way to dinner,” she says. “I wasn’t going to call you, but I didn’t see you at lunch or after school, like, all week. I wanted to make sure you weren’t, you know.”

 

“Dead in the trunk of a car,” Rae supplies. “I did go to the cafeteria for a second on Tuesday.”

 

“You didn’t wind up eating in the bathroom,” Joanna says, squinting as if looking for the germs.

 

“I did,” she says, squinting back.

 

“We weren’t in a fight, right?” Joanna asks.

 

Rae shakes her head. “Just a break, I guess.”

 

Joanna holds up a finger, letting her family know she’s on her way. “In your absence,” she says, “I’ve been sitting with the Chinese kids.”

 

“What’s that like?” Rae asks.

 

Joanna shrugs. “You’ll have to see for yourself.”

 

***

 

Over dinner—whole wheat pizza, no cheese—Rae’s mother says she’s glad she and Joanna are talking again. She takes a sip of wine. “You go days without speaking to me, you know,” she says.

 

“Do not,” Rae says.

 

“You don’t notice,” she says. “But I do.”

 

Rae takes a huge bite of pizza so she won’t have to respond. She worries that there’s more coming—an indictment about her purging her room, perhaps, or some sort of ninja knowledge about her math test cheating. But her mother doesn’t say more. She sits there, staring down, her eyes and nose red around the edges. She looks like she’s been outside in the cold.

 

Rae swallows, words still failing. She reaches across the table, reaches for her mother’s hand, her thin hand with the red nail polish, which Rae is startled to see is chipped. Her mother pushes her glass of wine into Rae’s waiting palm.

 

“Just a sip,” she says.

 


 

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Nicole Haroutunian is the winner of our second annual Literarian short story contest, which came with a $1000 prize. Her fiction has appeared in Tin House Flash Fridays, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Two Serious Ladies, Barnstorm, and The Short Form. She writes the book blog “Our Books Are Better Than We Are” and co-edits the digital journal Underwater New York. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and is completing a collection of short stories.   

 

This story was originally published in Issue #14 of The Literarian.