My mother insists I wear the high-necked tee shirt tucked into my K-mart jeans. “Belly skin leads to sin,” she likes to say about the girls showing their navels through fringe-bottom shirts. I’d give up my pinkie toe for one of those. When I turn the corner at the end of our street, I tie the front of my shirt into a knot and do a Grease-style hustle the rest of the way to school. The badness fires me up. I’m Olivia Newton-John, supercharged by black lycra and red lipstick. John Travolta grovels for a kiss of my stilettos. The looks I collect from old men, driving by in family sedans, are like low-hanging apples on our neighbor’s tree. I’m sixteen and even in shit jeans my ass is a prize. Most kids hate school. Not me. Monday through Friday, from 7:30 am to 3:00 pm, I’m free. My parents can’t take that away.
The hall is already full of boy stink, the metal locker doors slamming and vibrating with teenagers cussing out the morning. Olga and I meet up in the bathroom before first period. She hands me an eyeliner. “Kermit wants to see me about next year’s classes,” she says, rolling hot pink gloss over her lips.
“Don’t let him dick you around.” I draw thick black circles around my eyes. “My meeting took all of two minutes. I handed him my list of classes and told him that’s what my parents expect. He signed it and that was that.”
“Yeah, but I’m not you.” Olga heads out.
Olga is way smarter than me but she’s in ninth-grade math because some teachers pretend they can’t understand her. When we first met it took me a minute to cut through her accent, but I figure if I can do that, they can too.
By lunchtime my stomach is gurgling like a trumpet full of spit. The usual cafeteria shitheads sneer at my get-up as I sashay between the tables. Peter Wasoski is watching me. The way I watch him every Saturday, when I go grocery shopping at Bi-Rite with my mother. He bags, and I imagine him pressing up against me behind the football field bleachers, his hands under my shirt and in my pants. He mops floors, and our mouths are locked in a wet Hollywood kiss. He slaps $1.99 price stickers on mangos, cupping them in a firm grip, I imagine.
Passing Peter’s table, I say, “Hey,” so only he can hear me. He turns to the other boys, pretending he wasn’t looking at me. The knot of my t-shirt feels like a giant stop sign on my middle.
Still, I don’t mind school. It’s my time to think about sex, to flex my mating muscle, to size up adventures I may not be up for today but will want to try tomorrow. It sure as hell isn’t about biology or calculus. I mean it’s fucking 1985! And my parents plan to keep me locked in their ugly house next to their Hummel angels until I shrivel into a marriageable package they can deliver to one of their church boys.
Olga is already sitting at our table, the one by the garbage can. She looks relieved at the sight of me. In a school of two thousand, we eat alone. She’s the commie girl from the Soviet Union who talks like she’s rolling a marshmallow around her mouth, and I’m the Southern Baptist with a soap-washed face, whose parents wrote a letter to the principal to keep me at home when we covered the reproductive system.
“Hey Heidi,” Olga says, pulling a sandwich from a crumpled brown bag.
I dump my books on the table. “Was he looking at me?” I ask.
“I met with Kermit,” she says, ignoring my question. “He wants me to start cosmetology in the fall.”
That’s when I notice the tears. They don’t start coming down her cheeks until she says the words.
“What a dick.” Everyone at our school calls Richard Kagle, our guidance counselor, Kermit, because of his lobster-shaped hands, floppy lips and the green sport coat he wears every Friday. But I call him Dick.
“Those C’s I’ve been getting on pretty much everything…” Olga takes a bite of her sandwich. “My parents don’t know English is my only A.”
“I get it. Mr. Danbury is totally hot. I’d sit on his face for an A.” I unwrap my egg salad sandwich, but it smells like fart so I put it back and eat the carrot sticks my mother packed. “Hell I’d do it just to say that I did.”
“It’s not like that,” Olga says. She’s looking past me and I know she’s in one of her far off, romantic fantasies. “It’s like Mr. Danbury is Daisy and I’m Gatsby and he’s the only one who sees inside me, who knows what I’m made of.”
I don’t tell her about the way our English teacher looks at me or at the other girls who have the hunger in their eyes. Maybe it hasn’t hit her yet. The sucking need in your body, the random uncontrollable urge to roll your hips, the disembodied images of Olympian parts, seizing your brain and turning it into lust central, like a starved porn junkie. Instead, I nod like I understand. “So what are you gonna do?”
“I don’t know.” Olga shrugs. “My parents keep bragging to their Russian friends about how I’ll be the first one to go to college in America.” She tosses the rest of her sandwich into the garbage can. “If they find out I’ve been lying about my grades, I’m dead.”
The bell rings. We’re on our way out when Kermit a.k.a. Dick saunters into the cafeteria for his daily visit with Mrs. Jones, the lunchroom lady. His brown polyester pants are static-stuck to his kneecaps. He surveys his fiefdom of adolescent insurgents, the sickening scent of menthol layered over cigarette smoke trailing behind him. At the lunch window, Dick turns around to face the cafeteria, as if afraid to turn his back on us and, leaning against the ketchup-stained tray slide, says, “Anything look good to you today, Patrice?” Mrs. Jones hands him a king cone, the same one she hands him every single day, with the same eye roll he never seems to notice. He’s supposed to help us figure out our shit, but he can’t even figure out his own shit. Same as my parents, and Olga’s, and the rest of them. They got maybe twenty, thirty years on us, but what does that mean? It means they can be as dumb, blind, and sinful as God can make them, and they still get to call the shots.
At the end of the day, Olga and I ride our bikes home. We take side streets to have more time together, because once I get home, there’s no going out, no phone calls. I’ll be doing homework and getting ready for my bible study group that meets in our church’s basement. After the group is finished, zit-faced Derek and I will put away the bibles and make-out in the closet. I don’t like him, but he gets hard in the folds of his jeans the moment he sees me, and I’ll take that rush.
“Maybe if I can do summer school and get better grades?” Olga says.
Her surrender is so pathetic I want to jump off my bike and throttle her. I turn my head to tell her she’s out of her fucking mind, giving up her summer for some stupid grade, and that’s when my bike hits something in the road and I’m no longer on it but above, looking down as I fly through air, with Olga’s surprised face, the string of bungalows, and the crowns of the trees with budding May leaves, all passing me at weird angles.
When I open my eyes, my cheek is pressed into the pavement next to a glob of greenish yellow muck. My skull must have cracked open.
“Don’t move, the ambulance is coming,” I hear Olga say. Her face comes into focus. She’s lying on the ground next to me, holding my hand, looking more terrified than I’ve ever seen anyone look.
“Is that my brain?” I ask.
She laughs. “It’s your egg salad sandwich.”
The ambulance shows up like she promised. After poking around my body, the cute paramedic tells me I’ll be okay, but that they have to take some pictures of my head to be sure. He lets Olga ride to the hospital with me. When we get there, I hear the doctor talking to Olga for a long time about what happened and how to get in touch with my parents. Her voice is steady; there’s no trace of the accent she usually has.
A few hours later, we’re on our way home in my dad’s station wagon. “The nurse said you did all the right things,” my mom chirps from the front seat. She’s been talking to Olga nonstop—not counting the bouts of weeping—since my parents got to the hospital. “She said you ran from house to house, knocking on every door until you found someone to call 911.”
Olga and I look at each other in the back seat. She doesn’t say anything.
“You were so brave,” my mom keeps going.
“The Lord was watching over you,” my dad says, his eyes on the road.
“We’re so blessed.” My mom turns to look at us between the seats. “The doctor said you shouldn’t sleep for a while but to let you rest,” she says. “Olga, maybe you’d like to come over and sit with Heidi for a bit? If your parents don’t mind.”
A wave of nausea comes over me. They said I might feel this way from the concussion, but I think it’s my mother’s voice. Olga’s never been to my house, because my parents didn’t need her kind there.
“Thank you, Mrs. Klaus,” Olga says.
“You don’t have to,” I whisper.
My family is eating dinner downstairs while Olga sits on the floor of my bedroom. She’s already been educated on Hummels and is now looking at the miniature white-leather-bound bible I got for confirmation. “Even though we’re Jewish,” she says, “I don’t think my parents believe in God. There was one synagogue in Kiev, and if anyone saw you go in there, you could get fired from your job or beaten up in a dark alley.” She puts the bible back and crosses her legs. “It’s not like they came to America to pray, but I think they’re happier now that they can.”
“You really think Mr. Danbury has a thing for you?” I say.
“I don’t know.” Olga stretches out on the shaggy carpet between my bed and my desk. “When I work on the newspaper with him after school, he makes fun of the jocks, and of Mr. Levine’s toupee. Sometimes he reads passages from Shakespeare. Not the stuff we have to read for school, but the comedies, and we talk about how language can mean different things. He seems impressed with me. Maybe more.”
“So why don’t you ask him to talk to Kermit for you? I bet Danbury could convince him to give you another chance next year?”
Olga stares at the ceiling for a while. Finally, she says, “I feel things that I don’t want to stop feeling. It’s like we own a secret place where it’s poetry and laughter, and this sad look he tries to hide when I have to leave. As long as he thinks of me as the cool foreign girl who reads Maupassant, I’m special. If he sees the weakling nerd part of me, it’ll be over.”
Even through the throbbing headache, I can tell what Olga has with Danbury is nothing like me sucking face with Derek. Or my Peter daydreams. She’s talking about love. Maybe creepy, gross, teacher-student, married guy-jailbait, kind of love, but love nonetheless.
“Listen,” I say, sitting up. “You don’t have to be the girl who’s afraid. You weren’t that girl earlier today.”
She turns and looks at me like I’m on drugs, but interested, so I keep talking.
“What if you stopped being Olga?” I whisper. “You don’t have to be her. I mean you said it yourself—you’re like this strong, exotic foreigner who knows Shakespeare, and the Mopa-something dude.” Maybe it’s the stuff they gave me at the hospital, but I actually believe the shit coming out of my mouth. “You are not Olga!” I blurt out.
“Well, who am I then?” she asks, getting up and sitting on the edge of my bed.
I don’t know what the hell I mean, but I have to whip up something magical right-fucking-now, and all I can think of is Xanadu—that cheesy movie with Olivia Newton-John. “You’re Olivia!” I scream, jumping up on the bed. “But your friends call you Liv, because you saved my life.” Ignoring the pounding in my head, I grab a pencil from my nightstand and I touch it first to Olga’s right and then her left shoulder. “I knight you Olivia the Virility Queen of English Teachers.”
“Tell me,” Olga says, putting her palm on my forehead, “did they locate an actual brain on that scan?”
We collapse in hiccupping laughter.
Since the accident, Liv’s been hanging out at my house every night. Two weeks later I’m allowed to return to school. My dad drops me off like he used to when I was little. I head to the office to drop off the letter excusing me from gym class. Ms. Nagel is not at her desk. Lingering for a moment, I decide to come back later when the hallway door opens and Mr. Danbury comes in. “Heidi,” he says, cheerfully, like we’re friends or something. “I heard about your accident.” He reaches for my head, fixing my bangs, and the smell of his aftershave sends freaky shivers down my neck. “Glad you’re feeling better.”
I duck back. “Yep, my head’s unbreakable, like a bowling ball.”
“Only prettier.” He looks down the hall then perches on Ms. Nagel’s desk, studying me. “The paper will need a new culture columnist next year, you know.”
All the times Liv had told me the man made her feel like she was the only thing that mattered, the brightest star in the sky, I never really understood what she meant until now. The way he’s looking at me…I shouldn’t like it but I do.
“Culture?” I say, like it’s moldy cheese we’re talking about.
“Mr. Danbury.” Ms. Nagel is standing in the doorway of Dick’s office with a stack of files. “My desk is not a park bench.” She turns to me and I think she’s about to rip me a new one, but all the sternness seems to have been used up on Danbury. “And how are you feeling?”
“Good.” I hand her the letter, then add, “Um, not good enough for gym.”
That’s when Dick comes out, his bulgy eyes shifting from me to Danbury to Ms. Nagel.
There’s an awkward moment like when you walk into the bathroom right after someone else walks out and they know you smell their stink, and you know they know but no one says anything. Danbury puts his hand on Dick’s shoulder. “I was hoping we could talk.” The two of them head to Dick’s office and Ms. Nagel nudges me toward the door. “Have a good first day back, Heidi.”
I don’t know much about how these people talk to each other but there’s a stiffness in their words that feels off to me, and suddenly I’m dying to know what the hell’s going on. “Can you give me a hall pass?” I ask Ms. Nagel.
“There’s time before the bell,” she protests, just as it rings.
I go back to hanging out by her desk while she writes out the pass. A few feet away, Danbury is leaning on the door jamb of Dick’s office, hands in his pockets, pants stretched tight over his ass. For an old man he’s every bit the babe Liv sees. They’re talking in private voices, so I put on my bored face and work my ears to catch conversation scraps.
“Not everything can be measured in grades,” Danbury says.
“Numbers don’t lie. She’s like a fish out of water. Kids like that never make it. At least this way she’ll have a job.”
“No, Richard. Most of those kids could make it, and it’s our job to make sure that they do.”
Ms. Nagel rushes me out before I hear anything else. Walking to calculus with the hall pass in my hand, I mull what Liv’s told me about Danbury, about Dick, about her grades. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out Danbury went to bat for her. Not rushing to get to class, I do a little jig in the empty space between the lockers. The sensation of Danbury’s hand on the fringe of my bangs comes up on me like a pizza burp. I hear his voice telling me I’m pretty, and it knots up my insides. I don’t know if I love it or hate it, or if I dreamed the whole thing.
In September, I’m back to riding my bike. Liv rolls through the school parking lot in her rust-eaten, wheezing Ford Grenada. Whatever else was said that day in the office, Dick backed off his cosmetology plan. She’d spent the summer selling Avon door to door and her parents pitched in a few hundred bucks.
“I served my time in extra help hell,” Liv shouts from the car, “and I’m ready for the mall.”
“What about my bike?” I say, squinting against the sun.
“You mean death on wheels?”
“Pedaling is good for my ass.”
While Liv fidgets with her jammed trunk, I wheel my bike over. My sex radar tells me to look up, and there, in the second floor classroom window, is Danbury, watching us. His hand touches the glass. Maybe it’s the reflection or the concussion still messing with my eyes, but he looks like a fish jabbing at the wall of its tank.
We drive away. Liv cranks open the window and hands me a Virginia Slim. She’s carrying on about frosting her hair, but I’m still queasy from seeing Danbury’s tired face. I wonder what kind of box I’ll put myself in one day.
On the way to the mall, we catch the red light in front of the Bi-Rite where Peter Wasoski works. He’s pushing a line of shopping carts across the lot. I lean out the window, put my lips around the cigarette, he stops to look at me, lets go of the nested carts, and Shazam! My stiletto magic is back. Taking a long drag, I blow the smoke sideways. The carts crash into a parked car. Liv hits the gas, and we’re gone.
Jacqueline Feldman is Programming Chair for Literary Cleveland. Her work has appeared in Novel Noctule Literary Magazine and Raw Data: Living in the Fallout from the Coronavirus. Having moved to the U.S. from Ukraine as a child, Jacqueline often touches on themes of immigration and estrangement in her fiction. When not writing stories and essays, Jacqueline is querying agents for her debut novel. @JFeldmanAuthor