by Ella Lerner
When I was younger I liked playing the game. I liked teasing and being teased and how my knees shook and how his hands trembled. I liked feeling like a princess from the fairy tales my dad used to read me; when I was six in pink tutus and braids. Now I wear short black dresses that make my mom raise her eyebrows. Sure everything’s a little darker and a little less fabric but what’s a costume change in a search of a little magic.
When I was younger magic was teenage boys with weekend jobs at the mall. Pizzas and cokes, whatever’s cheap; whatever will make this the least awkward tomorrow at school. It was nice, the free food and sparks when he touched me, but my dad always told me- go big or go home. Sparks weren’t enough and I don’t like pizza.
I’m still not quite sure what magic is. I know it’s not fancy Chinese food or a Subway sandwich or even his grandmother’s sauce made in a kitchen he owns. They do have kitchens though, some of the guys I date now, which has to count for something. Kitchens, or advanced degrees in film, or suits they wear to their day jobs in business, or stories from some town in the east they ran away from. It’s not magic, but it’s a start. Plus, it makes me feel something, and not much does that anymore.
The high school in my town is too big to know everyone but small enough to care when there’s someone new. I heard whispers all summer about the new kid joining our class senior year. I’ve been in school with the same kids since the seventh grade. None of them have much magic at all. The whispers say his name is Lance and he’s been living in Germany because his dad’s in the Air Force.
The whispers are wrong. The second day of school I learn his name is Ryan, he moved from Ohio, and he walks differently than anyone I’ve ever seen.
The third day I learn his voice is smoother than the silk on my grandmother’s sofa.
On the fourth day he runs after me as I head home. He looks surprised when our eyes meet.
“You’re beautiful” he says, and then, “You’re scared”.
I laugh, “I’m too far gone to be scared of any person”.
The fifth day is Friday, the only time my mom still pretends to care. Picks me up from school and feeds me takeout on real ceramic plates.
The last bell rings at 3:07 but I know without checking my phone that I have time to waste. My mom can rarely arrive before four.
I jump the fence of the next door elementary school’s playground, and head for the swings, dropping my bag as I go. Swingsets always make the world speed up. Always make me think about being six. About being allowed to not have anywhere I’m going. I watch the woman across the street mow her lawn and then I watch Ryan walk down the school steps. When he sees me he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a scrap of paper. Folds it once, twice, three times then lobs it over the fence. I bend over to to pick it up and by the time I have straightened he’s gone.
A paper airplane post-it note. 6783453. His handwriting is awful, but anyone who can make something fly must have at least a little magic.
I text him at 12:02 on Sunday morning. He is the only person I have ever texted first. Hey it’s me, I’m bored. He doesn’t text me back.
But he pulls up in front of my house five minutes later in a beat up pickup truck that looks ready to fall apart. It’s late, I’m tired, and we get to the interstate before I ask where we’re going. He laughs and pulls over to the side of the road.
A single car passes, one headlight flashing and then going out. I doubt there is anyone on this road for miles. Why would there be? I tense, not in fear so much as expectation. I don’t know what to expect, or what to wish for.
He shrugs himself out of his jacket and drapes it over my shoulders. Our eyes meet and he smiles with teeth like a Colgate commercial. I bite my lip, wonder if he will kiss me. Wonder if I want him to. Wonder if just getting in his car, just texting him means he has permission to do as he likes.
I know it doesn’t. I also know I will let him do as he likes.
Wonder what I will say after my breathing slows and his hands return to the steering wheel.
His hands never reach me. He pulls away and fishes a cigarette from under his seat. He reaches across me to the glove box and pinches a lighter between his fingers. We speed back onto the highway as smoke fills the car.
He hasn’t answered my question. It’s dark, I don’t know him, and I’m wearing sweatpants and a t-shirt under his coat. But we’re sixteen and he’s handsome in a movie star way you can’t expect a small town boy to be.
I let the smoke burn out my eyes as I listen to him take shaky breathes through his burnt out lungs. He turns on the radio, a song I’ve heard a thousand times, but it shakes and bumps in rhythm with his drags and with the car. And for the first time in a long time I start singing.
When the song ends he claps– long, slow, happy claps. We swerve two lanes and he grins. He grabs the wheel with one hand and offers me his cigarette with the other. I take it, “You want me to stop singing that bad”. He blinks, then laughs. I swallow the smoke like water.
After a minute he reaches out his hand, “Darling you know I’m addicted to the nicotine”. I smile, hand him his cigarette. I think I could get addicted to the burning.
Somewhere in some town that seems too much like home we decide to get drunk. He finds a rolled up twenty under the back seat and someone else’s fake I.D. on the dashboard. He turns up his collar and buys a six pack of beer.
He meets me in the patch of trees next to the strip mall, his face already flushed drunk with pride, and constructs me a throne out of dead leaves, fitting. The legs of my pants get wet on the ground and I chug half a beer before I look him the eyes. I swirl the brown liquid in the bottom of the glass container and tell him that I’m bored. Bored, bored, bored. Or sad, or tired maybe. I’m done searching for words that fit right. I tell him I need to leave. He gestures, “We’re out of that town.” I sigh, look at my hands. “It’s not far enough.” He laughs, a loud laugh like everything is alright, and pulls me to my feet. “Then let’s keep going.”
When we speed up the ramp onto the Golden Gate Bridge I realize why my classmates join sport teams, or theater, or want to move to New York City. He pulls over into the emergency lane halfway across the bridge and I realize I could live for this. This is what life is supposed to be, something to be hopeful about. He helps me out and we stand together, looking over the bay. The sun has slipped below the horizon but the sky is still burning and the river is a thousand colors drifting beneath our feet. I turn my head and our eyes meet, it seems like he is always looking at me, “Thanks.” He nods, and I look back at the river. For a second it is all shining clear, I don’t ever want to leave this place. I breathe in, breathe out; a car speeds by. I blink and shake my head, the spell broken. I force a laugh and push back to the car.
He parks in a handicapped space and we dance down the walk of fame to the music in some nightclub a few blocks down. He spins me and I feel like I’m flying. Magic.
He breathes and I can smell the liquor. When he stumbles I let go of him and he falls backwards. I watch him reach out to the brick wall behind him to steady himself and then I look around.
I know every inch of my hometown but I don’t know the name of the street I’m standing on.
I hear shouting. A girl in a dress just like mine emerges from the nightclub. A man follows her, reaches for her wrist. She pushes away. Ryan steadies himself, grabs my wrist. Pulls me back to the car.
We speed down the narrow streets, the car swerving, the wind mingling with our flavored breath. He takes a sharp right too fast and the Hollywood sign is shining in front of us. He pulls me out of my seat and we lie on the grass of someone else’s yard. Under the light of the stars I kiss him and he whispers in my ear.
Maybe I fall asleep or maybe time just falls away but suddenly we are back in the car, back on the interstate, back at my house. I get out of his car and tumble back into reality. He has taken the right at the end of my street when I realize I’m not wearing shoes. I watch the place his car has disappeared from until I shiver inside his coat. I click my heels, and close my eyes and wonder when the night lost all its magic.
When I get to school on Monday he has another girl on his lap. By the time we graduate half the girls at the school aren’t speaking to him. We make eye contact at some kid’s graduation party and that night he finally texts me back.
I want to text him. Of course I do. I want him to pick me up and get me drunk and tell me that I’m magic. But I don’t, I delete his text, and go to sleep, and never hear from him again.
If he showed up to my house tonight I’d slam the door in his face. And if he found me 20 years from now in some run down bar I’d pretend not to know him. But I’m living now, in a house overlooking that river. I still get drunk some nights. Get lost in the streets I walk every single day. Look out over the water and think I don’t ever want to leave. Look out over the water and believe that I can fly.