Before the sun rises, Natalia bathes in the dark with cold water. She dresses in silence. All her clothes are plain-black pants and blouses, grey turtlenecks in the winter. Her father buys her clothes. Natalia has no time to pick them out herself.
She doesn’t mind. She and her father are, after all, still in mourning. And this way, she can dress in the dark without risking a fashion disaster.
Today, however, she left her clothes out hanging on the wardrobe door. Today she wants to wear a dress.
Natalia gets ready and does her chores in the dark, with her eyes closed. She started to pretend she was was blind when she was five, maybe a week after her mother died and her father lost his eyesight in the fire. She can find her way around now, almost as well as the legally blind. At least in her house. She does it better than her father, who almost never leaves the study.
So. She puts her room in order, first. Then she folds the clothes she left in a pile last night and washes the dishes from her father’s dinner-he always goes to sleep so late. Lastly, as the sun starts to rise gray behind her eyelids, she makes omelettes for breakfast.
Natalia opens her eyes to use the stove. She left the stove on once, when she was five. She’d gone down in the middle of the night to warm some milk for herself. She left it there by accident, and it boiled over. Her mother was upstairs. When her father arrived home late and turned on the hallway light, the house exploded. Natalia still isn’t sure how she survived.
So Natalia always opens her eyes to use the stove.
Her father pads downstairs, waving his cane. Natalia kisses him goodbye before skipping out the door.
The school day seems to crawl by. Natalia does her best to focus only on her studies, not on her classmates or her friends, and definitely not on the tall new boy with the wide, toothy grin sitting two seats behind her.
Recess finally rolls around, and Gino-because that’s his name, the new boy’s name-takes her hand as soon as the bell rings, like he’s been waiting three periods to do it.
They walk together to the benches outside the lunch room, their linked hands swinging between them. Natalia left her red hair loose for him today, just as she wears her knee-length dress.
Yesterday, Gino asked her to be his girlfriend. Natalia said yes; she hasn’t said a word to her father about it.
“You don’t have time for a boyfriend, Natalia.” He would say. “Focus on your studies, then come home to your chores. There’s too much to do.”
It’s true. Since her mother died, Natalia has to do everything she left behind-it’s only fair.
But Natalia will make the time. She’ll see her boyfriend during recess. Gino seems ok with it.
“Why do you always wear black?” Gino asks, tugging on her dress sleeve.
Natalia lives in a small town-she’s never had to explain herself to anyone, they all know what happened. She’s surprised to find she doesn’t want to answer Gino’s question.
No, that’s not true. She does want to answer his question. She wants to lie to him.
“I’m inspired by you.” She deadpans.
Gino laughs. He kisses her, and sparks run down Natalia’s skin.
That’s the thing about Gino-everything makes him laugh, even the things he takes seriously. And she likes the way he kisses her. Other boys have tried to kiss Natalia, hesitant boys or eager, pushy boys. She never liked the idea.
But Gino’s kisses are like lightning. There and gone like a really, really good secret.
“Tell me the truth, Talia.”
Talia. No one calls her that but him.
“That is the truth.” She swats his hand away, the one still fiddling with her sleeve. “Just not the answer to your question.”
“You look good in black.” He says-a compliment for a compliment, that’s the game they play. He’s good at it, too. He’s never let a single of her compliments fly by unanswered, and his are always crazy original, are always about her.
So Natalia tries every day to find more things she likes about Gino. She’s going to be as good as he is at this game; better, if she can.
“I know.” She smiles.
Gino wiggles his eyebrows. “You’re not going to tell me, are you.”
“Not today, boyfriend.” She laughs, and swings their linked hands again.
After school she goes straight home, washes dishes, makes lunch, washes again, sweeps, mops, and cleans the windows, because it’s Monday. Then she settles down to homework, but Gino stays in her mind, like an annoying little firefly on a still, dark night.
She stays up with her father for a while, tells him about her day while he smiles and takes tea.
“Are you sure you don’t want to go back to work, father?”
Her father had made a fortune when he was young, but he enjoyed working in the coffee shop by the public library, so that’s what he had done-until the fire.
The owner of the coffee shop, Calpurnia, had expressly asked Natalia to persuade her father to return.
“I miss his humor. My new boy is wonderful, but he’s rather quiet.” She elbowed Gino and winked at Natalia; because Gino works in Calpurnia’s shop. And she can see him every time she buys coffee for her father.
“No, thank you, Natalia. I’m quite happy where I am.” Her father lied pleasantly. “Besides, I would drop and spill everything, likely-bump into everyone. Calpurnia would be upset with me.”
“She would not.” Natalia laughs. “Father-“ she hesitates. Then she bites her lip and says it anyway. “Calpurnia thinks you’re ‘quite the gentleman’. “
Natalia’s father stiffens. Then he laughs nervously and says. “I hear there’s a new boy in your school; a young man from the city.“ her father raised an eyebrow. “What’s he like?”
“I wouldn’t know.” Natalia hears herself say. She stands up and takes the empty cup from her father. “His name is Gino...” she looks at his milky eyes, at the sad, serious lines on his face. She can’t tell him; he’ll hate it, he’s just too old-fashioned. He’ll think she’s irresponsible, too young to date and kiss boys and be away from home. He’ll feel lonely.
“He doesn’t talk much.” She kisses her father’s cheek and turns out the lights. “Good night, father.”