This isn’t one of those cheesy stories where the dog dies, and everyone cries, and then at the end everyone’s happy for one reason or another. In fact, the dog’s already dead. But why dwell on the past?
This also isn’t one of those girl-meets-boy stories. But don’t get the wrong idea, either. It’s not a coming-out story, where the parents get upset, and then everyone cries, and then everything’s okay at the end. That also happened already.
I’m not sure what type of story this is. It just is. I mean, I’m just going to start by telling you what happened that day. The day I met Her.
I was waiting outside the main office on a Friday afternoon. I had a dentist appointment, and my mom was picking me up from school. And no, I don’t have braces. Not all of us teenagers have braces. It was just a check-up and cleaning. I love my dentist. He’s also a clown when he’s not filling cavities. Seriously. You can hire him to make balloon animals and stuff. Not that I ever have. So I was standing there, leaning against the brown tiled wall, wondering why anyone would choose to decorate one wall—never mind our entire school—with brown tiles. My mom came out of the office and said, “Let’s go,” so we did. And there She was.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Forget it. This isn’t one of those music-playing, spotlight-shining, birds-chirping moments. But it was pretty close. She was coming up the steps, very late for school—the day was over in two hours—with Her floppy blue faux-hawk flying, boots stomping, and mouth chewing gum. She was a senior; I could tell by the color of Her skirt. It was all grey—not the terrible plaid we sophomores had to wear. And no, She was not the new girl. I mean, I’d seen Her before—passing in halls, at school assemblies, waiting at the bus stop. I just never really noticed Her before. That day, with the way the sun shone, or the wind blew, or the leaves flew, or one of those other clichés…I don’t know what it was, but it was the first time I noticed She was beautiful. Hot, even, in that “Gay or Punk?” type of way. And those boots! Man, those boots. I definitely have a thing for girls in boots.
But I didn’t do anything except sneeze. And Her eyes didn’t even glance in my direction. I kept walking; she kept walking. And I had two cavities.
My parents are so old-fashioned. They still think that the NYC subways are the way they were in the eighties—covered with graffiti and filled with criminals waiting to mug/rape/bother their teenage daughter. While all my friends go into the city and buy awesome shoes and see awesome shows, I don’t. Well, I did once, but that’s another story, and I’m not allowed again until I’m sixteen, and that’s still three months away.
So when I can convince my friends to stay in Brooklyn, we take the bus to Park Slope, eat some Thai food, buy coffee and brownies, and walk the Avenue until we get back on the bus to go home. We spend more time traveling than actually being there, and I know what you’re thinking: What’s the point? But trust me, it’s totally worth it. Our neighborhood is in the middle of nowhere, there’s nothing to do there, and we’re sick of hanging out in each other’s basements listening to music. Park Slope is different. Freer, somehow.
So this day, the day I met Her, I was taking my must-have Friday nap after the dentist when my phone rang. I knew it was going to be either friend A or friend B, since I really only have two good friends. It was A, who always likes to have a plan, calling to find out: 1) when we were leaving, 2) what I was wearing, and 3) what time I had to be home. We made our usual deal: 7:30 p.m. at the bus stop. We hung up so she could call friend B, known for keeping us waiting, and tell her 7:15.
We waited forever at the bus stop, as usual. First for B, then for the bus. The ride took forever, as usual. But when we hopped off the bus at Flatbush and 7th Avenues, we were invincible. Three teenage girls on a Friday night, walking shoulder to shoulder like I’ve seen in ’80s movies where their steps are perfectly in sync and there’s synthesized music over the montage. A and B tapped out cigarettes and lit them. We were far enough away from home to be safe from discovery.
We were so cool. I know, I know. We would have been way cooler if we were in the city. But we weren’t. Thanks, Mom and Dad.
We ordered the usual at the restaurant: pad Thai all around, one without meat for B. A got a Thai iced tea. I stuck with water. B got a green tea.
We ate. We paid. We left.
We stepped off the curb and started to cross the street, heading toward the coffee shop. I stopped walking and started staring. There She was. Her head was half-turned, so She didn’t see me. She was with a couple of girls, a few doors down from Café T. And they were cool, hands-down cool—smoking, drinking coffee, and talking loudly, not-even-trying-to-be-cool cool. They put our shoulder-to-shoulder walk to shame. Immediately I was lost in thoughts of who these friends were, and how they knew each other, and, of course, how She would never be interested in me. Not with friends who looked like riot-grrl rock stars.
A horn honked. A and B turned around and yanked me the rest of the way across the street, the same side of the street that She was on. A car sped past, giving one last, long honk. B gave it the finger as she pulled me closer to the curb. I looked up.
She had witnessed the whole thing—me, standing in the middle of the street, almost getting hit by a car, staring in Her direction. Any essence of non-dorkiness that I had left had faded with the sound of that honking horn as the car drove away.
A and B laughed and walked ahead, and I should have just shrugged it off, laughed at myself and continued on, too. Maybe pretended like it didn’t even happen. But this is me we’re talking about, and “adding insult to injury” should be stamped on my forehead. I started babbling incoherently about how I’m such a klutz, and how this type of thing happens to me all the time, and how people need to learn how to drive. Her friends had taken a step or two back. They were staring at me, eyebrows raised. A and B had continued on ahead, oblivious. I was officially a fool. I looked both ways, then at Her. She was still looking at me. My face was on fire.
“Hey,” I said. Nothing left to lose, right?
“Hey,” She said, tossing Her cigarette butt on the ground and stepping on it.
I was about to walk away, catch up with A and B, who had finally noticed I wasn’t with them and were waiting, when She continued. “You go to OLPH, right?”
I gulped. “Uh, yeah. I’ve seen you there.” Damn. I was already giving away too much.
“Yeah,” She said, brushing her hair out of her eyes. “You look familiar. Looks like your friends are waiting.” She motioned toward A and B, who were standing in front of G&Y Realty. Instead of looking at the listings, they were eyeing us. Their mouths were agape.
“Um, yeah,” I replied. “Bye.” Why was I only able to mutter one-syllable almost-words?
I caught up with A and B, who were both giving me the same odd look. “Who was that?” A asked. “Did you get a load of that hair?”
“Um, 1985, anyone?” B said with a laugh.
Okay, just wait a minute. I know what you’re thinking here. That my friends are judgmental, and why do I hang out with them? Well, they are judgmental—most teenagers are—but they’re my friends. And have been for years.
I met A in 6th grade, after rescuing her from a kid making fun of her haircut in the stairwell. “Who’s that, your boyfriend?” the jerk asked.
“What if I am?” I responded, trying to look tough. He walked away. A said thanks; we’ve been friends since.
B and I have known each other since first grade. Our parents became friends when our younger brothers joined the same T-ball team. We were Brownies together, but realized what crap it was early enough to never have to live through Girl Scouts.
Plus, I don’t have any sisters, so I need them. So what if they’re mean every once in a while. Everyone is.
“Do you know her?” A asked, brushing her long bangs out of her eyes to look at me.
“Sort of. I mean, She goes to my school.”
“Oh, God. That school keeps getting weirder and weirder,” B said. B hates the fact that I go to Catholic school. I think it’s because she wanted to join me this year, but her parents wouldn’t pay for it.
“She’s okay,” I said.
“Uh-huh,” they replied simultaneously as we entered the café.
“Double latte and a brownie,” I said to the girl behind the counter.
“Whoa,” B said. “Are you sure about that?”
“Yeah,” A agreed. “Remember the last time you had coffee?”
I don’t react well to caffeine. It makes me shaky and crazy and gives me a stomachache. It’s not pretty. But I had just completely humiliated myself in front of Her, then actually talked to Her, then listened to Her get dissed by my best friends. I needed something.
And the last time, well, the last time doesn’t count. So what if I made a myriad of prank phone calls and stayed up until 3:00 a.m. on a school night? X had crushed my heart that day. I was in a state of distress. That has to count for something.
“I do remember,” I told them. “I will take responsibility for my actions.”
“Fine, then,” B said. “Same for me.”
“Me too,” said A, and we sat down and waited for our drinks.
I was picking at my brownie crumbs when the caffeine began to take effect. My hands started to shake a little, my tummy felt weird, and I had to pee. When I returned from the bathroom A and B were standing up, ready to go.
“Why the rush?” I asked.
“Um, in case you haven’t noticed, it’s almost 8:30, and we have practice in the morning,” A said.
We’re not in a rock band or anything cool like that. We’re in a concert band. And we’re in a bowling league. You know, with rented shoes and button-down old-man shirts. It’ll all look good on our college applications, or so they tell us. Bowling is usually Fridays after school, but since I had to go to the dentist, I missed the game yesterday. We were going to practice on Saturday after band so I wouldn’t get behind on my training. I’m pretty serious about bowling. Teenagers are not exactly busting the doors down to join our league, but we like it. I’m not a great bowler. Well, actually, I am. But that’s a story for another time.
We exited the café and turned left, heading back to Flatbush to get the bus. I stopped dead in my tracks; A bumped into me from behind. “What is it?” she asked.
“I need to pee again,” I said, heading back into the café. A stayed out front and lit a cigarette. B followed me.
“What’s up?” she asked as we stood in front of the bathroom door. A bell rang and I looked to the front of the store to see if maybe She was walking in.
B stared at me. Her eyes told me she knew I was lying.
“Okay,” I said. “That girl. The one with the hair. I think I like her. And She’s still outside.”
“Oh, geez, Angela. You always do this. We’re all out having a nice time together, and then you see someone you like and freak out.”
“I do not freak out. Maybe later, when we’re home, and I’m replaying the entire night in my head. Take it back.”
“Okay, fine, you don’t always freak out.”
“Well then, maybe I should talk to her. What should I do?”
“What do you mean, what should you do? Leave it alone and come home with us. Now.” She walked out. I was supposed to follow.
B is still not comfortable with me being gay. If it was a guy I was interested in, she would have said go for it. If she were interested in a guy, I would have said go for it. So B’s advice—advice on this, anyway—doesn’t matter. I’m going for it. I walked into the bathroom to check myself out in the mirror. I hope she likes Mediterranean girls with zits about to bloom on their noses.
Back out on the sidewalk, A and B were passing a cigarette back and forth. She and Her friends were still up the block.
“I think you guys should go home without me,” I told them. They looked at each other. “I’m not tired, and I don’t have to be home for another two hours, and I just want to walk around a little before sitting on that damn bus for an hour, you know? Especially since I might need to use the bathroom again. And can I have a cigarette?”
“You don’t even smoke,” B said.
A shrugged her shoulders and passed the pack. I took one out and tucked it behind my ear, like James Dean does in one of those awesome old movies we like to watch on rainy Fridays.
B wouldn’t give up. “Listen, don’t think I don’t know what this is about. Go ahead. Stay. Flirt, even. But don’t come crying to me again when you find out she’s just punk and not gay. I had enough of that with your whole X debacle.”
“Don’t worry. I won’t.”
“I’m not sure you’re her type,” A said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I said.
“Look at them, Angela. They’re so…old. Older than us, clearly.”
“So I’m just saying be careful, okay?”
I watched them walk away toward the bus stop just like we’d arrived, shoulder to shoulder without me, their shared cigarette burning down to the filter.
I sat down on the bench outside of Café T, wishing I’d asked A for a lighter before she left. I really don’t smoke, but maybe this was a good time to start.
I picked up the free weekly paper from the pile near the door. I strained my neck to look over at Her, over the paper. She was smoking a cigarette.
I wasn’t always shy. Or scared. But one day I came home from my summer job at the Little League field, and my house was still smoking from the fire that had just been put out. My entire family had been out and someone (me) had left a fan on. The fire marshal said the motor overheated and melted the plastic, which dripped in flames. The plastic set a bookshelf on fire, and, well, you can imagine the rest. We were lucky that our nosy neighbor noticed the smoke. Otherwise we would have lost everything, and not just the living room.
I missed my dog, too. This was the worst part—the part I couldn’t even think about, let alone talk about. Dogs and smoke don’t mix. Smoke doesn’t really mix with anything.
After that, I couldn’t leave the house. I was constantly worried that something would happen while I was gone. I felt guilty about ruining our lives—although my mother reassured me we weren’t ruined, that the damage was repairable and the water-damaged stuff was replaceable. That our hearts would eventually repair themselves, too. But when I did go out, I jumped at the sound of sirens and began to panic. What if it was my house again? The world would become fuzzy, my teeth would hurt, and my fingers would tingle. I would immediately need the bathroom.
A and B were around to comfort me and didn’t make me go anywhere if I didn’t want to.
When school began that September, I was starting high school. Away from A and B for the first time in my school career, I felt lost. They would call me every day to see how I was and invite me over. I usually said no, and they said they understood.
One day B had had enough. “All right already. We know you’re sad. We’re sad, too. But you can’t stay in your house dwelling on the past every day. Come out with us. It’s a Friday night. We’re going to the Slope.”
Initially I said no, but after some cajoling I gave in. I went. I left the house, got on the bus, and had a good time. That was the beginning of our Friday night ritual. I still get scared, though, like at any moment something might go wrong and someone might get hurt and it will be my fault. That’s how I was feeling, sitting on that bench, cigarette tucked behind my ear, pretending to read that paper.
Wanting more than anything to talk to Her.
I tried to look without looking. I wanted to know if She saw me sitting there. What could I see from behind my paper? Three girls. Two standing, one sitting on the steps in front of the building a few doors down. Very hip girls. Super hot short haircuts and ultra-cool shoes. The kind of girls who can break hearts, and they know it. And I know it, too.
X was one of those girls. She stormed into my life—faux-hawk, boy jeans, steel-toed Doc Martens. Oh, those boots. Whenever I think of X, I think of those black boots stomping all over my heart. How corny is that?
But maybe She is different.
Maybe She’s not even gay. I got nauseated when I thought that.
A and B have warned me to stay away from any girl who is not clearly a lesbian. “Look for the five signs,” they’ve advised. “Surefire signs that tell if she’s a lesbian. Short hair, cool glasses and/or shoes, nose ring, thumb ring, and short nails. A wrist cuff can replace any of the above except short nails,” A had said, “but there must be five signs. Any less, walk away.” I don’t know where they got this from—probably the Internet—and I think it’s a load of crap, but I couldn’t resist trying to look for signs on Her. I couldn’t really see her arms.
I had to get closer because I had to know if my obsessing was useless.
Or maybe this whole thing was useless. I mean, even A has five signs on some days, and she’s not a lesbian. Me, I’ve got five signs without even trying.
Couldn’t I casually walk by and ask for a cigarette? I mean, I know they’re expensive and all, and I don’t really smoke, but that would be a good way to tell if She’s at least a little interested in me, right? Then, I could just light up and hang around and check for The Signs.
I sat on the bench and debated. I looked at my watch. I had to be home in an hour and a half, and I needed at least 50 minutes of travel time. I looked over at the group again.
They were gone.
I had missed my chance. I ran my fingers through my hair, and I knocked my James Dean cigarette onto the floor. Thank God I hadn’t gone over to ask for a cigarette with one right behind my ear.
I bent down and looked on the floor, under the bench. Damn. I didn’t see the cigarette, and I definitely didn’t see someone walk over and stand right in front of me. Finally, I saw the cigarette and grabbed it. I looked up and saw a silhouette in front of the streetlight. It moved over and sat next to me.
It was Her. Right there.
This is not another one of those moments, but I swear, the way her faux-hawk was waving and her nose ring was gleaming, it could have been. And instead of my head imploding as you might expect, my heart exploded. In a good way. I got chills. Her ripped-denim-clad knee was next to mine.
“Beth,” she said, sticking out her hand—short nails, thumb ring, wrist cuff….
“Angela.” We shook. I swear there were sparks, and not the static electricity kind.
“You smoke?” she said.
Half hyperventilating, keeping cool, I responded, “Sometimes. Why?”
“Eh, just never saw you smoking before, and now you have a cigarette.”
“When have you seen me to see me not smoke?” I asked.
“At school. After school. At the bus stop. On the avenue.”
Wait a second!
Had she been watching me? It sounded like she had been, but I didn’t know if I should ask. Would it be flirty? Or presumptuous? And why had she come over? The girl practically went out of her way to avoid me earlier in the day.
“Have you been watching me?” I asked, trying to sound coy, or something.
Was that a blush creeping up her neck? She chewed on her bottom lip for a second. She took a Chapstick out of her pocket and played with the cap. Her dark blue nail polish was chipped in a cool way. Kind of punk.
“Uh, maybe. Why?”
“Um, ’cause you pretty much ignored me this afternoon outside of school.”
“I didn’t ignore you!” She leaned closer to me.
“No! I was nervous. I get shy sometimes. And wasn’t that your mom or something?” She picked at the polish on her right thumb and rubbed the ring on her left thumb.
“Yeah. I had a dentist appointment. Two cavities. Totally sucks, you know?” Pause. “So the faux-hawk and nose ring are just a front? You’re not really a mean punk?”
“Punk? God no! Dyke chic is more like it.” And then she laughed. It was a wide-mouth, head-back type of laugh. It was nice.
I’m sure you’re thinking that this is where we slow-mo kiss or something. You know, the camera zooms in, and the picture begins to fade to black, and a heart-shaped frame envelops us as “The End” writes itself across the screen.
That didn’t happen. I was so shocked she had just come out like that, not a breath or anything, like it was no big deal. I mean, anytime I’ve even mentioned the words gay or lesbian or dyke to anyone, it’s been this taboo. You know, my mom’s all like, “It’s okay that you’re gay, honey, just don’t tell anyone we know,” as if it’s an embarrassment to the family or something. As if it will reflect badly upon her. A and B are less uptight about it, but still.
So, get this, Beth says, “You know, I thought you were, like, straight until a few hours ago.”
“Well, I’ve seen you in this neighborhood on Friday nights. And you’re always with those two girls, who may or may not be gay. But this is a gay neighborhood, you know?”
I looked up and down the street. I turned around and checked out the café. I just came to the neighborhood because it was cool. And not my neighborhood. I had no idea. But I played it off like it did.
“Yeah, I know. We just like the food. But you’re right, about me, I mean.”
Beth leaned her head to the side and smoothed over her hair. The faux-hawk was overgrown, and it flopped in front of her eyes, almost reaching the freckles you couldn’t see unless you were this close. She pushed her hair back, and it fell again.
“When I realized you weren’t straight,” she said, “I figured one of them was your girlfriend.”
I nearly choked with laughter. A and B were going to love this. Or maybe not. “Then I thought they were a couple. And tonight, when they left without you, when you stayed here, I figured they’re just your friends. And that you wanted to stay for a reason.”
I gulped. “I did.”
“Why are you sitting here?”
“Why haven’t you left?”
“Why haven’t you?”
We both laughed. I smiled a little, because, well, I hadn’t felt like this since X.
Beth reached over and touched my hand.
“But how did you know?” I asked.
“You know, that I wasn’t straight?”
“Well,” she said, running her fingers over mine, “my two friends over there….” She motioned down the street toward the girls. “They were reading this article on a website. It’s like Cosmo for gay girls. Anyway, they found this article called ‘The Signs.’ It had…”
“…surefire signs that tell if she’s a lesbian!” I finished.
“Exactly! You’ve seen it?”
“My two friends…” I began, trailing off.
“Huh.” She smiled. “Well, whenever I saw you I’d start counting signs. One: short nails,” she said, touching the tips of my fingers.
“Two: wrist cuff.” Her fingers passed the top of my hand and encircled my wrist. Her hands were warm.
“Three: nose ring,” Traveling up my arm and over my shoulder, her finger tapped the stud on my nose. I shivered, but not because I was cold.
“Four: short hair.” She brushed my forehead. “Then I’d get stumped. You never wore glasses or a thumb ring. And I think Converse are neutral. So today…”
“When I wore the Docs…”
“When you wore the Docs….” We both looked at my feet and laughed.
“And my glasses! I usually wear contacts but I was having allergies this morning.”
“And your glasses. I figured that was, like, six signs. I came out tonight to look for you, you know.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Well, I did.”
“Well, I’m glad you did.”
“Me too.” We smiled again. There was way too much smiling going on.
We sat there for a while like that. On the cold wooden bench outside the café. Watching people and dogs and cars pass by. Her friends looked over every once in a while.
“Oh, shit.” I jumped. “I gotta go. I’m gonna be late.”
“Relax. I’ll walk you to the bus.”
“How do you know I take the bus?”
She smirked. “I know a lot. When I like someone, I really like her.”
“Huh,” I said, suddenly knowing what it’s like to have someone really like you.
We walked toward Flatbush Avenue in silence, holding hands.
I guess that’s it. That’s how the story ends. It’s not particularly riveting, but it’s the start. It’s our start. I made it home in time, but just barely. And I only realized just now, thinking about it, that on our way to the bus that night, a fire truck passed by. I guess I was too busy to notice or too happy to care.
I think it’s a sign.