It spoke to me, that anger. I didn’t realize how angry I’d been until it was in the air, infecting everyone. But as always, I held it inside. While I walked down the hallways—alone in a crowd, my books held close—I listened to the two groups taunting each other, the boys in black leather yelling out, Here, chicky-chicky, to the girls in pleated skirts, who bristled and walked away faster, their gazes hot with superiority.
On the Monday after the accident, I remember being in home ec, listening to Mrs. Peabody drone on about the importance of a stocked cupboard for a young housewife. She positively glowed when she told us how we could impress our drop-in guests with only Vienna sausages and a few other handy ingredients. She promised to show us how to make a white sauce, whatever that was.
I barely listened. I mean, who cared? But the “it” girls—the ones who spent their days draped in lettermen’s sweaters and tossing their heads like horses in the starting gate, they were perched on the edges of their seats, taking notes.
When the bell rang, I was the last to leave the classroom. It was always better that way. The popular kids rarely bothered to look behind them.
I made my way cautiously through the minefield that high school hallways could be for the unpopular.
It sounded like traffic buzzing around me, only it wasn’t cars making all that racket, it was the popular kids, talking all at once, making fun of everyone else.
I walked woodenly to my locker, hearing their voices raise. Not far away Judy Morgan stood by the water fountain, surrounded as she always was by her bouffant-haired pep-squad friends. A golden virgin pin decorated her Peter Pan collar.
“Hey, Hart, nice to see your hair is growing back in.”
My cheeks flamed in embarrassment. I put my head down and fumbled with my lock.
I felt someone come up behind me. Suddenly the hallway went quiet. I turned.
He was tall and broad-shouldered, with enough curly black hair to set my mother’s teeth on edge. He’d slicked it back, but still it wouldn’t be controlled. His skin was dark—unacceptably so—and he had strong white teeth and a square jaw. He wore a white T-shirt and faded jeans. A black leather jacket hung negligently from one hand, sleeves draping on the floor.
He reached for the pack of smokes in his rolled-up sleeve. You don’t care what a bitch like her thinks, do yah?
He lit his cigarette, right there in the hallway. The glowing tip sent fear slicing through me, but still I couldn’t look away.
She’s crazy, Judy said. Perfect for you, greaser.
Principal Moro came bustling down the hallway, pushing through the crowd, blowing her silver whistle and telling everyone to get to his or her classroom.
The boy touched my chin, made me look up, and it was like seeing a different guy altogether. He was just a kid with slicked-back black hair, smoking a cigarette in a high school hallway. I’m Rafe Montoya, he said.
Dorothy Jean, was all I could get out.
You don’t look crazy to me, Dorothy, he said. Are you?
It was the first time someone had asked, really asked, and my first thought was to lie. Then I saw how he was looking at me and I said, Maybe.
The smile he gave me was sadder than anything I’d seen in a long while and it made this ache start up in my chest. That just means you’re paying attention, Dorothy.
Before I could answer, Principal Moro was taking me by the arm, pulling me away from Rafe, dragging me down the hall. I stumbled along beside her.
I didn’t know much about life back then, but I knew one thing for sure: good girls from Rancho Flamingo did not talk to boys with dark skin named Montoya.
But from the second I saw him, I couldn’t think about anything else.
It sounds cliché, but Rafael Montoya changed the course of my life when he said those words to me. It just means you’re paying attention.
I said them over and over in my mind as I walked home from school, studying them from every possible angle. For the first time ever, I wondered if maybe I wasn’t crazy or alien. Maybe the world was as unbalanced as it felt to me.
For the whole next week, I moved through my ordinary routine in a daze. I slept, I woke, I dressed and went to school, but all of that was a camouflage. I was always thinking of him, looking for him. I knew it was wrong, dangerous, even, but I didn’t care. No. That’s not right. I embraced the wrongness of it.
I wanted to be a bad girl, suddenly. The good-girl thing had been such a disaster. I thought that being bad might break me out.
I agonized over my hair, straining to make it look like the popular girls’. I ironed it and curled it and teased it. I plucked my heavy brows until they were perfect arches above my eyes. I wore one pretty Peter Pan–collared dress after another, with coordinating sweaters tied casually around my shoulders and belts cinched tight to show off my small waist. I bleached my tennis shoes until they were so white they hurt to look at. Instead of being the first into every classroom and the last out, I did the opposite, not caring that kids stared at me when I rushed into class with the bell. Everyone noticed the change. My father’s eyes darkened every time he saw me, but he kept his distance. He was afraid of me now, as afraid of me as I’d once been of him. I was unstable and I let him know it—I was crazy enough to do or say anything.
Boys started following me around, but I barely cared. I didn’t want the kind of boy who wanted a girl like me. I hovered in the hallways, looking for him.
I felt myself changing. It was as if, in his absence, I took myself apart and reorganized the pieces in the image of what I imagined he would want. It sounds crazy—hell, I was crazy—but it felt perfectly sane to me. Saner than I’d been in years.
My father watched me closely. I felt his observation and refused to wilt beneath it. Desire had given me a new strength. I remember having dinner one night, sitting at that mustard-flecked green Formica table, eating my mother’s tasteless Welsh rarebit with tomato slices and little sausages. My dad smoked through the whole meal—alternating a drag of his cigarette with a reach of the fork. He talked in staccato sentences that sounded like gunfire.
My mother chatted into every silence, as if to prove how happy and normal we were. When she said the wrong thing—asked me about my new hairdo—my dad slammed his fist on the table, rattling the white Corningware plates that were my mother’s latest purchase.
Don’t encourage her, he hissed. She looks like a tramp.
I almost said, You’d like that, wouldn’t you? and the thought of saying it scared me so much I lurched to my feet. I knew that one wrong word could send me back to Loonyville. Just wanting to speak scared me.
I ducked my chin into my neck and began clearing the table. As soon as the dishes were done, I mumbled something about homework and bolted into my room, shutting the door behind me.
I can’t remember now how long it went on, me waiting and hoping and looking. Two weeks at least, maybe longer. And then one day I was standing by my locker, concentrating on the numbers, when I heard him say, I’ve been looking for you.
I froze. My mouth went dry. As slowly as I’ve ever done anything, I turned around and found him standing too close, towering over me. You looked for me?
And you looked for me. Admit it.
H-how do you know that?
In answer to my question he closed the space between us. The black leather jacket he wore made a crinkling sound as he slowly lifted his arm and used one finger to tuck the hair behind my ear. At his touch, I felt this flare of longing. It was as if, for the first time, someone saw me. Until that second, I didn’t know how much my invisibility had hurt. I wanted to be seen. More than that, I wanted his touch, and wanting it terrified me. All I’d known of sex was pain and degradation.
I knew it was bad to feel the way he made me feel, and dangerous to be excited by this boy who was wrong for me. I should have wanted to turn it off, to look away, to mumble something about it being wrong, but when he touched my chin and made me look at him, it was already too late.
His face was all hollows and planes beneath the hallway’s harsh light. His hair was too long—greaser long—and almost blue in places, and his skin was too dark, but I didn’t care. Before I met Rafe, a suburban-wife future lay open to me.
And then it closed. Just like that. Anyone who says that one second can’t change your whole life is a fool. I wanted to break the rules. Anything for him.
He was the picture of cool, standing there smiling cockily down at me, but in him I saw the same emotions that had turned me into someone new.
Dangerous. That’s what we would be together. I knew it to my bones. We would push each other every second to feel like this again.
Be with me, he said, reaching out. Don’t care about what they think.
“They” were everyone—my parents, the neighbors, the teachers, the doctors who had treated me. None of them would approve of us. It would scare them all, and I was crazy, too.
Dangerous, I thought again.
Can we keep it quiet? I asked.
I could tell my question hurt him, and I hated that. It wasn’t until later, when he took me to bed and taught me about love and passion and sex, that I told him all of it, every sordid detail of my barren, ugly life. He held me and let me cry and told me he’d never let anyone hurt me again. He kissed the tiny constellation of starburst scars on my chest and arms. Then he understood.
For months, we kept our relationship quiet and hidden … until I realized I was pregnant.
People think high school girls didn’t get pregnant in my day, but we did. Some things in this world are givens, and teens hav**g s*x is one of them. The difference was that we disappeared. There were always rumors and innuendos. Girls were simply gone one day—off to visit an elderly aunt or an ill cousin—and back sometime later, thinner, usually, and quieter. Where they really went, I never knew or cared.
I loved Rafe; not in the breathless schoolgirl way of our first meeting, but thoroughly, utterly. I didn’t yet know that love was fragile and your future could turn on a dime. One night in late May of my junior year, my father came home, uncharacteristically smiling, and informed my mother and me that he’d been promoted and that we were moving to Seattle. He showed us a picture of the house he’d purchased and gave my mother a peck on the cheek. She looked as stunned as I felt.
On a dime.
July first, Dad said. That’s the day we will be leaving.
I had to tell Rafe everything. There was no more time to worry or plan. My future—unless Rafe changed it—would be in a place called Queen Anne Hill in Seattle.
As scared as I was to tell him, I was excited, too. Maybe even a little proud. We had made this, created a child out of our love, and wasn’t that what I’d been raised to do?
He didn’t loosen his hold on me, that night I finally told him. We were seventeen and eighteen, respectively; kids. He had less than a month of high school left. I had more than a year. We lay in “our” place, in a bower we’d made in Old Man Kreske’s orange grove. There, we’d left out an old sleeping bag and a pillow. We kept our bed in a garbage bag and tucked it into a hedge when we weren’t there. After school, we laid out our sleeping bag and crawled into it. On our backs, always touching, we stared up at the sky. The air smelled of ripening oranges and fertile soil and dirt baked by the sun.