Out of the Strong, Something Sweet
Always, the three of us. One brown girl, two white girls in the sun—those clicky striped vinyl lawn chairs from 1985-ish that Claire's dad still had in their garage for whatever reason. We were in the backyard, not the front. Last time we were out front, Mandy's asshole brother stopped in his red Stang and asked us if we knew what a pussy was before skeeing off and running the stop sign at the end of our street. Hannah had sat up and pushed her sunglasses atop her head. Of course we know what a pussy is, asshole. We were fourteen. Mandy's asshole brother was seventeen and thought he knew the world because his dad gave him that car. Because next year he'd be a senior. Like it mattered. What mattered is that he'd scared Claire and Claire had told her mom and Claire's mom had told Claire's dad and Claire's dad had walked over to Mandy's house and told Mandy's parents what her asshole brother had said to us. Claire's dad told Mandy's parents he'd better never catch her asshole brother ever talking to us again. Claire's dad could be scary. He always had a knife in his pocket, he rode a motorcycle, he looked like he'd done everything at least once. Claire's mom told us to lay out in the backyard instead. Never the front. So we did. And none of us were friends with Mandy anyway.
I wasn't trying to get tan the same way the white girls tried to get tan.
How they'd hold their arms up against mine and say I'm almost as dark as you and I wouldn't say anything because everyone knows white people want to be black and no white person wants to be black. It's hard to understand because it's both. I just liked how hot my skin could get out there. How good it felt to spritz water all over my arms and legs and lie there and smell like coconuts and think about boys and the stack of romance paperbacks I had waiting for me when I got back home. And Hannah and Claire and I actually liked each other, which my mom had told me was very rare, ever since the three of us met in elementary school.
My mom actually liked both of their moms too and my mom didn't really like any of the other moms because they're the kind of women who grew up only wanting to be moms.
They don't want anything else. There's nothing else up here she'd said, tapping the side of her head and rolling her eyes. When I grew up I wanted to be a mom like my mom and not like the other moms. Not like the moms with nothing else up there. I pictured empty rooms filled with empty cribs and empty bottles of milk rolling against one another—a creepy, dirty mobile sputtering out a slow “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” on almost-dead batteries.
Hannah had a black boyfriend. Claire's boyfriend was from Mexico. I liked a boy called Milo because his name was Milo. I didn't know where he was from. He was friends with their boyfriends. Our plan was to sneak out of Claire's bedroom window once her parents had gone to bed and meet the boys by the railroad tracks. We wanted to be out when the moon was full and high. Midnight. We weren't allowed to stay out past eleven. We'd been feeling dreamy all day, drunk on summer sun and tart strawberries and fizzy water. It was July and the day was dangerous; the word twenty-second made my mouth move like a kiss and a bite. Claire's house was big and her parents never woke up until morning. We'd showered and sat on her bed listening to music and watching the clock until it was time to leave.
Reach back inside.
Seriously, shut UP.
“Where is Milo from?” Hannah asked quietly as we walked through Claire's neighbor's wet grass.
“Shh,” Claire said.
“I'm whispering,” Hannah snapped.
“It's not a question you need to know the answer to right this second. You can never chill,” Claire said.
“Shh,” Claire said again.
“Your shushing is louder than our laughing and whispering,” Hannah said.
Claire laughed too. We were at the end of the street and finally Claire felt free. We all felt free. Somehow, her face was even frecklier by moonlight and I stood there looking at her, her purple hood pulled all the way up, the little black and white shorts we passed between the three of us like an accidental Sisterhood of the Traveling Black and White Shorts. I loved Claire. I loved her so much. I loved Hannah too. I felt blessed by them and felt blessed to know it. I was one thing when I was alone. I was another, better thing when the three of us were together. We were walking quick but I still prayed all lit up under the streetlight that we'd be friends forever. I was thinking amen when I heard Hannah's boyfriend psst us in the darkness. Ampsstmen. We'd all hung out so much, I even recognized his psst.
“Baby girl,” he said to Claire.
I saw him reach for her when we were in the light. I heard the chain fence rattle next to me. Milo's black hair, full moon-white skin. Hannah had already smashed herself into her boyfriend's arms.
“Hey,” Milo said.
“Where are you from?” Hannah asked him immediately.
“Spearfish, South Dakota,” he said.
“Who's from South Dakota?” Hannah asked, laughing.
“Me,” he said plainly.
I decided I was in love with him.
He cupped his hand and lit a cigarette. His hair twitched across his face. I begged for mercy. He whipped his head back to adjust it. Mercy denied. I decided I would die for him—slit my neck and bleed out on top of him. Soak him like some Shakespearean tragedy. You know, if he wanted me to. Like, for love.
“Come up here,” Claire said from the train tracks stage. The moon, a spotlight.
We went up there and the boys talked about some other places we could go. They creeped us out talking about the Pope Lick Monster that haunted the railroad trestle bridge on the other side of town. Made people fall to their death.
“But that's not real,” Hannah said.
“Trust me, it's real,” her boyfriend said.
They started kissing. Claire's boyfriend asked her if she was scared of the monster and she said yes. Milo ignored them and told me he liked my watch. I pushed the little button on the side so he could see it light up. The blue of it, coloring the tip of his nose.
If we were feeling bold, but not bold enough to challenge the Pope Lick Monster, we could hop the next train. Maybe we'd make it and disappear. I'd start calling Milo Moon and I'd change my name too. I'd be Dakota so I could always remind him who he was, where he came from. He'd grow his black hair out and I'd braid it down his back, find a thin ribbon and tie it there. We'd all get matching tattoos, some inside joke we hadn't even dreamed up yet but when we got to the tattoo place it would come to us and the tattoo would always remind us of that night, that summer, that year, that specific gauzy feeling watering our eyes and warming our cheeks and numbing our tongues and tingling our faces when we were together.
If we were feeling violent, we could go to Mandy's house and beat the shit out of her asshole brother. Ask him if he knew what a pussy was. Take him to the bathroom mirror and tell him he was looking right at it. That's what a pussy was.
If we were feeling sad, we could sit in the rocky grass by the tracks and ask questions about God and why the world was the way it was. We could talk about evil. How it's inescapable and endless. How it's like death.
I could kiss Milo's neck or ask him to kiss mine. Have sex with him and get pregnant and be one of those moms I never wanted to be.
I could watch Hannah and Claire kiss their boyfriends and wish I had one. I could ask Hannah and Claire and their boyfriends if they wanted to kiss me. I could tell Milo I thought about him once in my bed. Under the covers. Okay, twice. Okay, three times. Fine, every night.
I could do it. I could do anything. We could do anything. Anyone could do anything. We didn't need to escape from anything in order to escape. Escape for escape's sake. We could run and run and run and run and run. We could be running. We should always be running.
The train was coming when we saw Claire's dad walking towards us through the grass. The train was coming when I heard Hannah say shit and when Milo put out his second cigarette and kissed me on the cheek before hopping back over the fence. The boyfriends were running right behind him. Claire's dad didn't seem angry. His face was calm. He looked like an oil painting, the colors around him both bold and dark—the amber glow of the lamps lining the road, the pitchy midnight sky, his beaming white t-shirt and whatever color pajama pants. The orange tip of the cigarette he was smoking. That moon, that full moon, bewitching us. I even thought I saw him smiling. Or maybe it was the train making the lights flash his face. I was between the girls and we were holding hands. Claire was crying. Claire was always the first to cry. Her dad motioned for us to come towards him. His arm, a wing spread wide for us to hide under. We felt most like sisters with Claire's dad. He treated the three of us like a one-hearted girl. The boys were probably halfway across the neighborhood already; boys were always running. Claire said Daddy. Hannah said shit again. Claire shushed Hannah and I resisted the urge to tell Claire it was too late to shush us. It didn't matter anymore. Claire's dad's mouth was moving but I couldn't hear what he was saying. The train was too loud, too violent.
Fiction: Leesa Cross-Smith is the author of Every Kiss A War (Mojave River Press) and the editor of WhiskeyPaper. Her writing can be found in The Best Small Fictions 2015, and lots of literary magazines. She lives in Kentucky and loves baseball and musicals. Find more at her website.
Illustration: Jazzmyn Coker is a Senior in the Communication Design BFA program at the University of North Texas. Since the summer of 2015, she has been sharing her illustrations on social media in efforts to connect with other artists and celebrate people of color.