“Where were you?”
“Paris. We got in last night.”
There was always some reality to what Lola said, even if none of it was true. Her dark skin sat pale and stretched across her face, and the thick curls sat in rigid bumps on her head, pulled up in a bun much messier than usual. There was a blue-ish black outline around her bloodshot eyes.
She was not in Paris. I knew that. But she was up all night; she had been gone for a week.
“How was it?” Lockers slammed shut all around us, squeaking on rusted hinges. The chatter of the high school hall came over us in waves. I stared into her locker rather than look at her face. She had a pink shelf, a mirror, and a magnetized white board that read the last poem I had written there. She grabbed her science textbook. I watched the pink book sleeve scrunch under her manicured nails.
“Boring,” she said. “I missed you.”
I did not say a word. I wiped off the poem with the sleeve of my track and field sweatshirt; the powdered remains smeared the fraying edges. She wrinkled her nose, but I ignored her, popping the cap off and writing a new poem. I kept writing, filling the white with words.
“Hell, it’s almost illegible,” She said, squinting. I closed her locker. She flinched back. “What did it say?”
“You can read it later.”
There had been an age-old oak tree at the edge of the fenced-in parking lot, shoved at the corner of a knoll where the grass overtook the asphalt. The bark bit at my cotton shirt as I leaned against it. The warmth of her arm pressed up against mine made it better. She spoke to me and the words waxed out of her mouth. They flowed into the air, moving up and down and tingling at the back of my head. I tuned out the substance of what she was saying. My eyes traced the words on the pages of my book. I allowed her voice to act as another layer to the natural symphony of the schoolyard.
She stopped speaking and shoved her hand in my pants pocket. She dug around for the pack of cigarettes and the lighter.
"Thought you didn’t smoke," I mumbled. I kept my eyes on the page.
“More you don’t know about me,” She said. She struggled with the lighter for a few minutes. I listened to the metallic clicking, humming in agreement. She took my hand away from the book and thrust the lighter into my outstretched palm. The cigarette shined in her pink palm. I set my book aside, took it from her hand, and stuck it between my teeth before lighting it and taking a drag. I blew the smoke in her face and watched as she scrunched up her features like the textbook cover.
“That was mine,” She said.
“You got it from my pocket.”
She plucked the stick from my lips. I let her. I watched her turn it over in her hands as the smoke weaned off the edge in chiffon ribbons, twirling in the air.
“I breathe it in?” She asked.
She stared at it for a moment before sticking it in her mouth and sucking in a huge breath. She coughed, and it fell to the grass. I chuckled as she bent over, hands on her chest.
“Fuck that,” She rasped, still coughing. “Why do you even smoke? That was awful.”
“Why did you want to?” I asked her, even though I knew better. She shook her head and spat a glob of phlegm off to the side. I wrinkled my nose but said nothing.
“The French have a cigarette with coffee for breakfast. It sounded romantic at the time.”
“What time do you have for romance?”
She stilled, her body becoming marble. Leaned over as she was, I could see the rolls of fat pressing against the cotton of her shirt, the skin sucking it under right above the junction of her hip and the skin above her pelvis. Her face turned away from me and, as pale and gray as her skin looked under the midday cloud-covering, she was beautiful. I pressed my fingertips to her cheek and flinched at how cold the skin I found there was, cold and still.
“You look like Venus,” I said.
I pressed my lips together. I picked up the abandoned cigarette and watched the orange embers breathe with the oxygen of the limited motion. I wiped off any dirt and stuck it between my lips to take another drag. “The statue by Doidalsas.”
“You don’t make any sense,” she huffed. I smiled. That, at least, I knew was true.
She went missing for another three days. When she came back, she looked worse than before, and when I waited with her at her locker, erasing the poem and writing a new one, she did not say a word.
We sat under the oak tree. I was smoking again. It was silent, and May was approaching, and I found great appreciation in the moist breeze that blew over us from time to time; it was refreshing in the gummy heat that layered over the entire parking lot. There was a cardinal on the branch above us chirping a tune. Lola dug in the grass and threw it at the red lump, but it kept singing.
She broke the silence first.
“I want to kiss you,” She said. I turned to stare at her. Neither of us breathed. The cardinal paused its symphony for a breath, then two. Then it began to sing again, and another breeze blew over us, disturbing the ashes that had fallen from my cigarette.
“Not funny,” I said, looking back at the parking lot. I knew my face was blank, but my insides twisted like a rag, dripping raw agony, pooling in my mouth and sticking to my teeth in a putrid slime. She did not speak for a long moment; my chest was twisting. My jaw ached, so I clenched it, and the cigarette flattened under the pressure of my teeth.
“When is your next track meet?”
“The season ended in March.”
Her hair was down that day, falling in fuzzy curls that wove like wire over her face as she stared at the ground, pulling her knees up to her chest. Her thick and flat lashes fluttered like feathers of a bathing bird, and I knew she was trying to shake off the atmosphere that sank around us.
I took her face in my hand and tilted it up, making her look me in the eye. There was a scar on her chin that I drew my thumb over. I still didn’t know what it was from—every time she told me, the story was different.
“Why did you say that?” I asked.
“I wanted to go to one of your meets.”
I frowned. I watched a pink tongue darting out to touch chapped lips. I want to kiss you. The words were a patronizing echo in my mind, and she knew it. Her eyes flitted between mine, alternating right and left. I want to kiss you. She tilted her head to the left, and her hair scraped against the tree bark as she leaned against it, keeping my gaze. I want to kiss you.
I knew at that moment that if I did not look away, I would relent, so I dropped my hand and turned forward, and her head jerked at the loss of the support of my hand. I watched her wince, bringing her hand up to rub her temples. She sighed.
“I read the poem. It sucked. My least favorite out of all them.”
“The old one. 'Dover Beach'. The one you left in my locker after I came back from France.”
“That was a small part of it.”
“Is the rest of it as bad?”
“I like to think not.”
I turned, and the image of her leaning against the oak tree took the moisture out of my mouth. She tilted her chin up, her eyes were heavy with the weight of her lashes, and she looked so much like Venus that my heart quacked with gratitude that I got to see her so often. Her eyes were expectant. I fumbled to remember what she said, swallowing. I want to kiss you. “You think I know it off the top of my head?”
“I know you do.”
I rolled my lip between my teeth before thumping my head back. I drew in a trembling breath and began to speak.
“The sea is calm tonight, the tide is full, the moon lies fair upon the straits; on the French coast, the light gleams and is gone . . .”
The next time she failed to come to school, I asked the administration if they knew where she was. They babbled words like sickness, hospital, waning health, and many doctors' notes. I frowned the entire time, but under my diaphragm, there was a wriggling pain that told me that the words were true.
I did not tell her I knew when she came back. She asked me to kiss her again under the oak tree, and even though it stung, I pressed my lips to hers; I pressed and pressed and pressed until her back hit the grass and fell on the ground, gasping for breath and the whistling sound it made when she sucked air through her teeth sounded so much like the cardinal I laughed. I threaded my hands through her hair and got them stuck there, twisting and pulling, and even as my hands grew slippery with grease, I did not stop. As her hands found my hips and stuck her manicured hands into the tight pockets, pulling out the pack of cigarettes and tossing them on the ground, moving them out of the way. I kissed her and kissed her and kissed her.
The next time I saw her was in the hospital. Her parents recognized me and let me through. Machines and wires hung all around her. Her skin was paler than ever. The room looked like her locker—pink and over the top. I saw a puffy diary lying under a limp hand smeared with ink on the little finger side. I ached to read it, to flip through the pages and see if she lied there too, but then she woke up and asked me to kiss it better with watery eyes and a smile, and there was nothing to do but try my damnedest. I tried until my mouth ached with prickling needles, and I could feel her teeth biting into my bottom lip even when I pulled away. She told me she loved me, that she always has. If you asked me, it was the last lie she ever told.
The wake was at her house. I had been there before and I knew where her room was. I went upstairs on my own to escape the lulling chatter; the sight of the pink made me snap my jaw closed and clench it until my jaw ached. I could still feel her lips against mine.
I sat down on her bed and allowed it to hold me, even though the sheets were cold to the touch and sitting up straight made my back ache. That same diary sat on the nightstand. I reached for it and began to flip through it without thinking.
Inside were all the poems I wrote in her locker. They all had ratings. All the words she told me she hated sat in her perfect script, with her commentary on the different verses; there were no negative remarks, but I found phrases irrelevant to the poems. ‘I told her to kiss me, stupid!’ took up a whole page. ‘She said I look like Aphrodite,’ reads over and over and over again on another. She wrote “Dover Beach” more than once, always with the same note at the end.
‘It will always be my favorite.’