A to Q: Quixotic

The celebration of a lifetown—lifetime, rather. Michael McClane’s entire family flew out to West Merrimack for his and Bonnie’s wedding. His father James entered the banquet hall with his eyes raised at the chandeliers. The size of small cars, they were, made of what looked like sharpened ice. James wondered if they were real crystals. He wondered how much it cost. Probably less than the flight.

Michael stood at the altar, shifting in his shoes, searching his side of the church for something to comfort him. His family was busy talking about the beautiful chandelier and the lack of stained glass, the lot of them disappointed at the secular affair. There was Aunt Mary, her blonde dreadlocks piled like spaghetti on top of her head. Uncle Ernest, Uncle Bradley, there was grandma, there was mom and dad in the front, mom dabbing at the corners of her eyes every time she looked at her son. There was Sue Anne, too, hair grown out to her chin. He caught her eye and smiled. She smiled back, mouthed “Good luck.”

“I always said I’d be at your wedding,” she told him when calling to RSVP. “Either in the audience or the aisle.”

Well, she was honest, if nothing else.

Then it began, a parade of their closest friends and family. Cousins, high school friends and mutual friends from college, matching dresses, matching ties. Craig Wu, Bonnie’s married friend from home. He and Michael had played cards together once, and now he was in his wedding. Well, a wedding is for two people, Michael thought. He was so busy watching the paired couples he nearly missed Bonnie’s appearance. She was gorgeous. All in white, wearing only one color for perhaps the first time in her life.

After the ceremony and photos was the reception, the part they’d all been waiting for. Michael and Bonnie had their first dance, reminiscing about how they met. She spun, but her hair was too neatly pinned to flutter against his chest.

After their dance they barely saw each other the whole night—they were whisked away to dance with fathers and mothers and little children, to change into smaller dresses and kiss elderly relatives goodnight. They ate briefly, laughed at the toasts, sipped cocktails when they had a spare moment.

Cut the cake? They whispered greetings to each other, giggled about the craziness of the wedding, ate the cake, and were pulled away from one another yet again.

Quixotic. Colors, flowers, smiles, sounds, songs, everything tailored exactly to them, the newest and youngest Mr. and Mrs. McClane.

Symbiotic. Bonnie shivered all night, hopping from space to space. Her high heels hurt her feet, her hair was getting in her mouth. She couldn’t find the bartender, and needed to order a drink for her grandmother, who was allergic to so-and-so and couldn’t stomach such-and-such. Craig saw her worry lines from a room away, as Michelle chittered on about the centerpieces.

“One sec,” he whispered to his wife, kissing her cheek. “Bonnie needs help.”

Michelle responded by finishing Craig’s drink and slamming the empty glass on the tablecloth. She went to the bar to get another.

“Hey,” Craig said, placing a hand on Bonnie’s back.

“Oh, so nice to see you,” Bonnie said, hugging him. She was acting on anxious routine, the phrase and hug programmed into her wedding dress.

“I’m here to help,” Craig said. She smelled like rose perfume, hairspray, and sweat, but it was the sweat that made him feel faint. It smelled like their long summers, like their short recesses in elementary school, like her skateboard tricks and her—damn. Here she was, wearing a wedding dress. And here he was, wearing a wedding ring that didn’t match hers. He wanted to feel something, but he didn’t. He needed to help grandma with a drink.

“Thank you so much, Craig,” Bonnie said, then immediately had to run, to dance, to find her new husband. Craig found the perfect drink at the bar, without so-and-so or such-and-such, and returned to his wife, wondering if he was missing jealousy or happiness, wondering why he couldn’t decide.

Erotic. Michael was at his sixth drink and was dancing with his beautiful Bonnie. Bonnie McClane. That night was spent in a little hotel room, tousled under the sheets, cycling between two or three different sets of lingerie Bonnie was given at her bachelorette party.

Exotic. The island, the trees, the heat, the salt water. The McClanes, busy, happy, hearty. Exploring like children, sunning like lizards, sleeping like rabbits, they spent their two-week honeymoon in inexplicable happiness.

Neurotic. I’m happy, Bonnie told herself in the mirror. Quixotic. “I’m so happy,” she told Michael in the kitchen. “I’m really happy,” she told Craig over the phone.

Five years into what Bonnie told herself was a happy life, she found a gray hair. She pressed her lips closed and plucked it.

A to P: Painting

In over twelve years of dancing, Bonnie had never taken a partner dance class, not due to lack of interest but due to lack of male dancers. Her roommate Sam convinced her to sign up for one a few weeks into college. It was free at the school gym, and since using her gym membership so many times gave her a free credit she figured there was no reason not to.

She didn’t have time to straighten her hair, so she just pulled it into a high ponytail after class and raced to the gym. She was nearly late.

The room was trapezoidal and only one wall was mirrored, which was strange. There were about ten people in the room, with an expected majority of women. In fact, there were only three men in the room, one of whom was the teacher. The girls were all chatting in a circle on the floor, stretching lightly. Bonnie tugged her tee shirt and plopped on the floor near one of the guys, who was sipping at a water bottle, one hand shoved in his pocket, If she was going to partner dance, she wanted it to be with someone who wasn’t friends with other people in the room. She preferred a man, anyhow.

“Everybody up!” The teacher said. They went through a quick stretching routine, which felt great in Bonnie’s aching muscles. He then ordered they find a partner.

“I’m Michael,” the man next to her said. She glanced up at him for the first time, and liked his amber beard and bright eyes. His voice had a southern twang, rather charming.

“Bonita,” she replied, arranging her arms on his body as the teacher was demonstrating. “Or Bonnie.”

He put his hand on her waist as told, and held his fingers stiffly, barely bending the fabric of her shirt. They began waltzing around the room, doing steps that Bonnie had done by herself for her whole life. They felt clumsy with her arms attached to someone else—someone who had clearly never danced before.

“You’re really good,” he whispered, and twirled her. Her hair pattered like rain when it hit his chest.

“Thanks. I danced forever,” she replied. “Like, competitively.”

“This is my first time dancing.”

“I know.”

He twirled her again, and when she came back to the front she shot him a smile in case he didn’t catch she was joking—he did. She leaned into his hands until she could feel their warmth through her clothes, then stopped before he could notice. No one had ever held her like this before. He twirled her again and she giggled; they had gotten closer, and now so much of her hair whipped his chest she could feel it.

“My hair keeps hitting you,” she said, her eyes shining. “Sorry.”

“I like it. I like all your hair,” he said, stuttering. “I keep feeling like I’m going to step on you.”

“Me too. What made you want to try a dance class?”

“I’ve been trying everything. There’s so much to do here.”

The teacher circled the room, adjusting people here and there. “The man is the frame,” he announced. “And the woman is the painting.”

Bonnie snorted.

“We can both be paintings,” Bonnie said when the teacher was out of earshot. “I hate when people say ‘the man is the frame.’”

“But you’re so much prettier than I am. Even your name is pretty,” Michael said and twirled her again. She whipped her head and raised onto her toes so he got a facefull of bouncing red hair. They both giggled loudly, and the teacher had to hush them.

At the end of the class, Michael said, “Coffee?”

The second the word formed in the air Michael thought of Sue Anne and Bonnie thought of Craig. Subtle regret, unsure hesitance. Bonnie paused for only a moment, forcing herself to remember….

“Yes,” she said. “Coffee, yes.”

A to O: Over

Bonnie was never satisfied with boys in high school. She would date them for awhile, get bored, and complain to Craig that she felt there should be something “more.”

“I know it’s just in movies,” she would say as they walked together in the hallways. “But the movies have to be based on something, right?”

Craig would nod, thinking of mud pies and skateboards, back when Bonnie would tell him talking about boys was stupid. He would nod until she began doubting the existence of love.

“No,” Craig said, hands pulling the straps to his backpack. “Love exists.”

Of course, though, how would he know? He dated exactly one person, a girl a grade above them with buck teeth and body odor, who he only really began dating because she asked him out and he didn’t know how to say no. For three months he held her hand when he was told, then finally wrung up the courage to tell her he didn’t love her. The break up was a disaster.

Bonnie, on the other hand, was far more successful (so to speak). She never asked people out, but was also never dumped. Always the askee, the dumper. She dated boys like she was eating cherries, taking what she liked and unceremoniously spitting out the pits.

After graduation but before college, acquaintances began fading away. It was clear within weeks which friends Craig was going to stay in touch with and which ones he would ignore until a reunion. Bonnie was without a doubt one he would stay in touch with—the two of them were inseparable that summer, the first summer Bonnie was single since eighth grade.

“College,” Bonnie announced one June day, her voice gravelly. They were licking ice creams at a park picnic table, their skateboards rolling back and forth under their feet.

“Yeah?” Craig responded when she didn’t go on, smiling behind his ice cream. She still looked like a kaleidoscope , but perhaps a more organized one. Her mane of curly hair was in something of a bun, and a loose blue tank top draped over her lanky body. Her shorts were hot pink.

“It’s stupid. I don’t want to go to college. I want to go to a conservatory.”

Three conservatories turned her down. The fact hung in the air, a stoppage to her complaints. It was easier to complain about not going places before, when it was all someone’s parent’s fault. Now it was her fault, and hers alone.

“I mean, I don’t want to go to college either,” Craig said, though in truth he was rather excited. He only wished his college was closer to Bonnie’s.

June left, and July began. They celebrated the fourth of July with the traditional West Merrimack fireworks. They laid in the grass together, cheering for the small ones and booing the big ones, laughing with each other at themselves.

“Why isn’t everything this easy?” Bonnie whispered at the smoky sky. She scooted closer to Craig and rested her head on his bicep. She did this sort of thing now and then. It was nice.

July, then August. They were both moving out next week and had to spend most of last week packing, so now they sat in Craig’s living room, suspended in limbo, Bonnie’s head resting on Craig’s shoulder. The television was on, but muted, and neither of them watched it.

Craig wondered why she leaned on him, why she led him by the wrist places, why he always followed. She had led them into every fad and every interest since before they knew the times tables. Had he introduced anything? Oh, yes, they were big bikers for awhile, and he got her into several television shows. Spicy food, too, and bocce. He was sure they were about even. Pretty even friends.

“I hope college is fun,” Bonnie said, breaking the solid silence. “But, I don’t know. How could it possibly be better than this? I don’t hate anything in my life, you know? Except my hair,” she added, and the two of them smiled.

“I’m really going to miss you, Bonnie,” Craig said, hugging her with one arm.

Bonnie shifted to her knees on the couch looking at Craig, her hair a blanket of red around her. “Is this all over? Our whole friendship, our whole lives?”

“No,” Craig said. “We’ll still be friends. We’re both coming back here for Thanksgiving, and Christmas, and all of the summer. And I’ll visit you on weekends.”

“Should we have dated?” Bonnie asked suddenly, her eyes shimmering, her shoulders curved.

She asked these rhetorical questions now and then, often when she was in the sort of mood that made her lean on him. Craig sucked on his teeth, studying his kaleidoscopic best friend.

Why had they never given into everyone’s wishes and dated? Why had he never asked her out, like all the others? Maybe it was because he had seen her suck the life out of every boyfriend, turning them into desperate zombies before cutting them loose. Dating Bonnie meant becoming a part of Bonnie’s body, an object for her to use as she pleased, a thing to hold her hand and her backpack. Craig turned a blind eye to her boyfriends because they may as well have not existed. When Bonnie had a boyfriend, she and Craig hung out nearly the same amount as always, just with a sunken-eyed leech attached to her arm.

Maybe, instead, it was that while he believed in love he didn’t believe in love with Bonnie. He liked her a lot. They were best friends. He supposed, if love didn’t exist, he could see marrying her, living with her. It would be great fun to just hang out with Bonnie all the time…but wasn’t there more? Like they said in the movies?

“No,” Craig said, and as he said it he realized he was right. “We work better as friends.”

Craig felt confident in his answer. He knew, no matter what, that Bonnie would be here next year, whether she found another leech or not. He knew he would be there too. What he didn’t know was the strength of Bonnie’s question, the fullness of her heart, the condom in her backpack, the stunted confession in her stomach, the stinging tears she was fighting to keep from falling. She leaned on his shoulder again, and Craig took it as a sign of contentment, perhaps of relief. Bonnie held her breath to keep from shaking.

“Summer is over,” she said in as even a voice as possible.

“Yes,” Craig said in a wistful voice. “A new adventure awaits us!”

A to N: Nutella

Bonnie ran her fingers through her fully straightened hair. Flatter, longer, darker. It made her face seem bigger. Fatter…she pinched her cheeks, then the skin around her ribs, then the ring of fat pushed up by her tight jeans. Freshman fifteen? Not…already, right?

She got so close to the mirror her nose touched it, and changed her focus to her face. Skin so light you could see through it, so starchy white her teeth looked yellow. Blackheads across her nose and chin, a sizable red spot above her right eye. The way her mouth drooped, the closeness of her eyes, the bushiness of her eyebrows. She prodded and stretched her skin, her hair. She coated her face in moisturizer. She sat, exhausted and disgusted.

She could have at least fixed her eyebrows, if she had remembered to pack tweezers.

Sam wouldn’t be home for awhile yet, probably. Bonnie glanced at the door, then tip toed to Sam’s side of the room with a dancer’s lightness and began poking around in Sam’s make up. There wasn’t a lot, it was mostly for her hair, which was short, jet black, and startlingly obedient compared to Bonnie’s stubborn locks. Tweezers, tweezers…Sam had to have tweezers, her eyebrows were always perfect.

The door handle clicked, and Bonnie leapt across the room to her side, searching frantically for something to do. She picked up the lotion and squirted some in her hand.

“Hey,” said Sam, in her uniform for the museum where she had been working since halfway through high school. It was a much longer commute now, but as an art history major it seemed silly to quit. She looked exhausted but beautiful all the same, much like how she always looked.

Bonnie said hi, watching Sam with stiff curiosity. They hadn’t had time to bond much since move in about two weeks ago, with Sam working all the time and Bonnie trying to keep herself occupied, but now here they were together, both awake at a reasonable hour, though it was dark.

Sam fell onto the bed face down and groaned into the pillow.

“You’ll never believe what just happened,” Sam said, reaching into the food drawer and pulling out a jar of Nutella and a spoon. “Seriously, I barely believe it happened.”

Bonnie finished putting on the second layer of moisturizer and hopped into her bed, opposite Sam. Sam was very much the opposite of Bonnie in appearance: very dark skin, spotless complexion, short hair, an hourglass figure that made Bonnie’s thickening boyish body seem even uglier.

“I had to pick up bagpipes for the museum—which is crazy enough,” Sam began, eating the Nutella like ice cream. “But whatever. So I’m on my way, I miss the bus, I’m pissed. And this old guy sits next to me, and just starts like, swear to God, playing my bagpipes!”

Bonnie’s face flushed. There’s no way that happened…had Sam seen her dancing? Did the RA from the floor below tell Sam that Bonnie was being disruptive? Bonnie laughed with Sam, decided to play it by ear. Maybe, just maybe, this ridiculous and coincidental story happened to be true.

“Hey, mind if I borrow your tweezers?” Bonnie asked after listening to Sam’s story.

“Oh, sure.” Sam dug around in the makeup and hair products and produced a black set of tweezers. “You can just use them if you want, you don’t have to ask about tweezers. Tweezers should be a fundamental right, in my opinion.”

“Sure,” Bonnie said. “Thanks.”

She rose the tweezers to the top of her eyebrow.

“Whoa! Hey,” Sam said, bounding across the room. “Mind if I help you out?”

“Not at all.”

Sam taught Bonnie plucking techniques, how to only pluck from the bottom unless in a dire emergency, how to find the arch angle by laying a pencil across your nose, how to tell where the borw should begin and end based on the size of one’s eyes.

“There you go!” Sam said as Bonnie finished her right side. Half pretty, Bonnie thought. Amazing what a difference those little hairs could make. “Hey, I like your hair like this. It must have taken awhile, no?”

“Yeah, quite awhile.” Bonnie sighed. “I wish I had nice, natural hair like you do.”

“You do,” Sam said, then quickly, “Hey, um, can I talk to you about something?”

“Sure?”

“I kinda go by ‘they,’” Sam said, mixing around the Nutella with the spoon. “Not ‘her.’ If like, that’s okay I’d rather you call me by ‘they.’”

“’They,’” Bonnie repeated. “Sure, Sam, no problem. Why didn’t you tell me earlier?”

Sam shrugged, then reached into their bag and pulled out a jar of Nutella. “Wanna be a classic college kid with me?”

Bonnie smiled, but her hand went to her side, grabbing at her skin.

“Oh, shut up, Skinny,” Sam said, smiling. They jumped up and grabbed a spoon out of their top drawer, tossing it at Bonnie. “Come on, let’s bond.” Sam patted their bed, and Bonnie sat beside them.

Bonnie scooped the Nutella into her mouth. Delicious, sugary, fattening…oh well. She needed a friend more than a pretty body. They talked for hours, until the Nutella jar was empty and their bellies were full. They talked and talked, and soon Bonnie began to loosen up.

“I tell you what,” Sam said. “You ought to start dancing again if you miss it so much.”

“Well. If I agree to dance again, will you agree to take that drawing class next semester?”

“That’s barely fair! That’s a lot of money for a drawing class.”

“But you want to, right?”

Sam twisted their mouth up, scratched their chin. “You got it, Bon. I’ll draw, you dance.”

“Deal.” They clicked their spoons together.

A to M: Museum

As the plane lifted off the runway, James McClane latched onto the arm rest with one hand and his wife’s hand with the other. She smiled and adjusted her fingers so her wedding ring wasn’t pressing on her uncomfortably. Their son Michael reached over her lap and caught his father’s eye.

“Dad, you okay?” he asked gaily.

“Shut up, Michael,” James said through his teeth, then the plane dipped and he squeezed Betty’s hand even tighter.

Soon the plane leveled out, and James could enjoy the tops of clouds for the first time. The plane wasn’t as bad as he’d thought. Betty and Michael had both been on trips to Florida and California before, but James never had, always having to stay on the farm. Seeing the New York University was something James couldn’t pass up though, not now that his son was chosen to go. Besides, he had always wanted to see New York, especially the museum.

As James watched the clouds out his little porthole, he could see in their shapes the museum his father took him to long ago. Mary liked the little diorama people, and his mother liked the animals. James liked it all. He was looking forward to going to one again. He wondered how the New York museum would be different.

New York was like nothing James had ever seen before. His heart leapt into his chest whenever Michael left his side, even to throw a bit of paper in a trash bin. James relied on Betty to navigate, even though she swore she had only visited the place once as a little girl and didn’t remember much. The buildings were taller than James could ever imagine a building being. They saw the place they show on television during New Year’s. It looked smaller in real life. They passed flashy billboards and huge American flags and people of every shape and color, speaking languages James couldn’t even identify.

James felt small. Surrounded by his amber waves of grain he felt big, the tallest thing for miles, the ruler of his farmland kingdom. Here, in his nicest jeans, he felt like a grain of rice.

The week-long trip before school started at the university was both the shortest and longest of James’ life. Betty led them across the world, from the Statue of Liberty to the Empire State Building to Central Park, places James had seen on television and overheard about at the diner, places he felt a nervous star-struck feeling being near. They shelled out to see a show, why not? And all the color, sound, and music was so much James expected it to leak out of the auditorium.

Was this not America? Did the family truck not pale in comparison to brilliant yellow taxis, worming subways and double-decker tour buses? What was their ramshackle house with only one sink, compared to glimmering towers stretching higher than the sun? Was not every work song improved upon by Broadway? Was not their town comprised of less than fifty last names like a loaf of bread compared to New York’s so-called melting pot?

The longer they stayed in New York, the more cheated James felt. His mother had taught him to appreciate his amber waves of grain, but never told him the secret wonder of a city. Perhaps she was too dull to know. No…she had to have known. She was selfish, keeping him close, depriving him of shining seas and purple mountains.

The day before last was to be spent in the museum. James had been successful at keeping his mulling to himself all day, letting his family enjoy their week in paradise. At night in their hotel room he would stroke the silken curtains and look out at the city, heat tumbling in his stomach from a mixture of envy and whiskey. The lights outshone the stars. Was this not a marvel to be proud of? Was this not America?

He would then think of Michael, who would soon make a home among the starlike lights and world-famous streets. His own marvel.

The museum was wonderful, filled with sacredness and huge, quiet halls. Dinosaurs, important papers, dioramas, stuffed animals, paintings, jewelry. This place had it all.

The three of them stopped before a beautiful golden crown, propped on a red velvet pillow behind a box of glass. It was polished so it was shiny and dark, nearly black, and the gemstones shone far brighter than Betty’s wedding ring.

James, tears brimming, suddenly put one arm around Michael, his other arm around Betty. “I’m so proud of you, Michael, getting into this school,” James whispered to the crown. “God, I wish at your age I was as smart as you are.”

A to L: Left

He loved her so much, but she was so perfect and he was terrible at everything. He knew he could barely write a word, and while he could type alright it was nothing compared to how her calligraphy scrawled across the page, how she could sketch perfect faces, how she could handle chopsticks with an amount of ease he could never even manage with a spoon. He would stay still, holding a phone or a drink or simply hidden from view as she made grand gestures, the life of the party and the focal point of the board room.

At home, she was just as lovely, chopping vegetables for Saturday lunch as he did nothing but hold the bowl, wishing he could help. After lunch they relaxed with television and he handled the remote, but when it started acting up she took control and clicked each perfect button with finesse.

They had a date at the museum to go to that night after lunch and television. After dressing he painted her nails for her, messy, all over her cuticles. She didn’t mind, and painted his, perfect, clear and smooth. He tried to fix hers a bit but they were out of time.

The left in love with the right, the wrists not having a clue, the rest of the body nothing but a vessel. Both hands run through their owner’s hair then sit folded in her lap, the left over the right, holding her tight while he can.

The woman with the loving hands met her boyfriend at the door and extended her perfect right hand for him to hold. Of course, the right…The boyfriend shook his head and spoke softly, the woman raised both hands to her tearful eyes. The boyfriend dropped to his knee and took out a small box. The two hands tried to dry her face but the tears came too quickly.

Then, to both hands’ surprise, the boyfriend took the left in his, delicately lifted the third finger, and slipped on a diamond ring.

Every person, every hand, every jewel in every crown in the museum admired him and his new diamond ring. The world changed for the left hand…he was the star of the night and the rest of the year. He got shown off to people, now.  He still couldn’t hold a spoon, but he sported such a beautiful ring. He still couldn’t use a pen, but he gleamed with importance.

Best of all, in left’s happy new life, the right hand held him more. She entangled their fingers together, she played with his ring, she squeezed him tightly. And later, when he was granted a second beautiful ring, she helped him carry a bouquet of flowers into their new, married life.

A to K: Kaleidoscope

“Do we eat sushi?” Craig Wu asked his mother in their old apartment. She was boiling water to make him Mac and Cheese while he fumbled on the floor with his older sister’s Barbies.

“You want to try sushi? I don’t think you’ll like it, you don’t like fish.”

“No! I don’t want to try it!” Craig said. He raised Barbie’s arms in alarm, then had her bend stiffly at the waist. She was throwing up at the thought of sushi. “Sushi is disgusting.”

“Now who told you that?”

“The boys at school.”

His mother nodded, rubbing her neck.

“What else do these boys say about you?”

That night as Craig and his sister Louise listened at the wall between their room and their parents, the words “move” and “commute” and “West Merrimack” seeped through the insulation. Louise, arched above Craig’s shorter frame, deflated, and her hair got in his eyes.

West Merrimack was lovely, with rolling hills and single-story houses connected by dainty power lines. The lawns were rectangular and well kempt, some with gardens and bird baths. Craig thought gardens were only for museums and farms. He was amazed at the thought of owning one himself.

Dogs were tethered to the front stair or roamed around a fenced back yard. Trees let the sun down in speckles that were easy on the eyes and dotted the street like stars. They were on a spaceship, Craig decided. He sat up straighter in his chair, adjusted his seat buckle, and was prepared for landing on the moon. He lowered the window slightly, then shut it, pressed several imaginary buttons on the back of his father’s seat, and let every bump in the uneven road serve as a comet striking the hull of the ship, or an alien attack, starboard. He fought them off with a blaster.

“An alien!” he shouted at Louise, then shot her with his hand held like a gun.

She shook her head at him. “Not now.”

Louise hadn’t wanted to play with him for awhile. She only wanted to be with her friends, lately. Maybe in West Merrimack she’d play with him more, since none of her friends were here. Mom said she’s getting a little too old for Barbies. Maybe she was getting too old for Craig, too.

The house was twice the size of their apartment, with a backyard lined with actual, real life trees with branches low enough for climbing and high enough for hanging swings from. The kitchen could hold enough food to feed a giant, and indeed the ceilings were so high Craig felt he was Tom Thumb. He couldn’t even see over the kitchen table here. Mom called the chairs “bar stools.”

He and Louise got separate rooms in the new house. Louise was happy about that, but Craig was a little nervous. What about their toys? Or talking late at night?

Craig didn’t get much time to think about it. School started the next day. This was when he was asked about karate. His mom told him that if kids pulled at their eyes they were being mean, but the kids in West Merrimack didn’t pull their eyes.

“No, but I want to,” Craig said.

“Can you use chopsticks?” another kid asked.

“Yes! They’re easy,” Craig said, and the kids all gasped, shot down his claim, asked him to teach them.

“Do you want to play on the swings with us?” asked a little girl. Her bright red hair was curly and hopelessly tangled. She was in overalls with two green buttons, a pink shirt, and yellow shoes. She looked like a kaleidoscope.

“Sure,” Craig said, with as straight a face as he could manage. Back in the city, none of the girls wanted to play with him, and he didn’t want to mess up. He knew he should remember her name from when everyone introduced themselves in the morning, but he couldn’t. “Um…what’s your name again?”

“Bonita,” she said.

Craig wondered if he had to marry Bonita someday. They swung together, and it was fun, so he decided he loved her. She was pretty, after all, and talked to him, so he was closer to marrying her than anyone else.

Over time, he realized that at this school the boys and girls didn’t treat each other like ugly wallpaper and actually played together in groups. He supposed this meant he didn’t have to marry Bonita, which was fine with him. He wasn’t yet ready for the married life, anyhow. He un-decided he loved her.

Craig and Bonita’s favorite game, which no one else much liked to play so they were often alone in it, was making mud pies. Only when they grew older did they realize their misphrasing, but as little first graders it was all in innocence. They would sit on the ground at recess and dig under the woodchips to the good stuff. They’d create a circle of mud, then frost it with woodchips, shove sticks and grass into it for candles and bugs for “A bit of crunch!”

They would then run around the playground with handfuls of their dessert, asking children and teachers to try a sampling of their mud pie. The teachers would overreact and the kids would double over laughing.

Their friendship evolved past mud pies and into writing horoscopes, then into drawing, then making paper cootie-catchers, then ghost hunting, then earthworm hunting, then pretending the playground set was a pirate ship. They thought long and hard about their pirate names.

“You should be Craig the Cruel!” Bonita said.

“You should be Bonnie the Brave!” Craig said, and Bonita wrinkled her nose.

“Bonnie? Only my dad calls me Bonnie.”

“It sounds more like a pirate than Bonita, though.”

Bonnie the Brave. The name ended up sticking, the first part anyway, even after their pirate phase. Soon they were in fifth grade, and the pirates were now interested in skateboarding and television shows their parents didn’t approve of, the two of which they did whenever Bonnie wasn’t at dance, which was far too often in Craig’s opinion.

Bonnie snorted at the other girls in class, who bragged at recess about how long they got ready in the morning. The boys played touch football, glancing at the gaggle of girls nearly as much as the girls glanced at them. The boys and the girls were in a stalemate, never speaking to one another, all except Bonnie and Craig.

“They’re so stupid,” Bonnie said as she and Craig sipped on Coca Cola on the curb of Craig’s street. “You know Meghan’s mom got her a bra? Meghan doesn’t even have any, like…” Bonnie sniffed instead of saying one of the words that always caught in her throat. “You know she like-likes you?”

“Meghan M.?”

“Yeah.”

“Gross,” Craig said because he was supposed to, but he was burning inside. Meghan M….

“You don’t like-like anybody, do you?” Bonnie asked.

Bonnie always said that it was possible for a guy and a girl to be friends, that they won’t ever fall in love, that all this dating stuff was stupid. Craig wished things were easier. Her scabbed knee, purple shorts, green helmet, brown shirt, and ponytail mess of orange hair made her look like a kaleidoscope.

“No,” he said. “Wanna go on the swings, and forget about those lame-os?”

“Heck yeah.”

A to J: Jerk

Michelle drove in silence as Craig finished calling his boss. The car was hot, the sun was bright, peeking over the horizon, turning the morning sky red and yellow. The flight was early in the morning, so they’d left before dawn, clutching coffees and wiping their eyes, turning the radio off to avoid headaches.

Craig hung up. “I swear, my boss has a stick shoved so far up her ass it’s gonna come out her ear someday.” Michelle didn’t laugh. “Hey, come on, sweetie. It’s just a week. We can do a week apart, can’t we?”

Craig knew just as well as Michelle did that there was no way to prove that. They had been inseparable since they met, lucky enough to have been from cities less than half an hour away, and choosing to live on the same dorm building every year through college—usually on the same floor. And now, living together in an apartment just out of town, they hadn’t had more than a weekend apart in over four years. A week for work? Why was it necessary for him to go all the way to New York anyway?

“Honey, be happy for me,” Craig said, running his hand along her forearm. “If this goes well, I could—”

“You’re not going to see her, are you?”

“My boss?” Michelle shot him a look. “What? Who’s…Bonnie?” Craig shook his head, incredulous, and took his hand off her arm to slide it down his face. “Michelle, what do I have to do for you to understand that Bonnie is nothing to be jealous of? No. I’m not going to see Bonnie.”

Craig slid his phone into the inside pocket of his jacket while Michelle was focused on the road. She didn’t need to see the text messages he and Bonnie had shared about catching up over coffee. Besides, Bonnie had Michael.

“Okay.”

“Seriously.”

“I believe you,” Michelle said, her hands straining on the wheel. “It’s just…I don’t believe me.”

Craig dug his nails into his palm. He hated when she pulled this nonsense, this Lifetime movie drama, whining about stupid non-issues full of self-doubt and wistful angst.

“I’ve never been alone,” Michelle said, and god help her, she started to tear up. “Not except for the summer before I met you, and I’m scared about what might happen.”

Never been alone. Craig sipped his coffee, tried to slow down his heartbeat. Oh, poor thing, never been alone. It must be so difficult to be beautiful, to have everyone you meet trip over themselves to kiss you. Yes, naturally, it’s worse than torture, isn’t it, Michelle?

“I know,” Craig said, the most neutral phrase he could manage.

“You’re the first person I’ve ever loved.”

Bullshit.

“And I just don’t want to mess this up by spending too much time apart,” Michelle continued. “I don’t…like, trust myself.”

“Should I trust you?” Craig asked. His thumb was denting the side of his Styrofoam coffee cup. “Then, if you can’t trust you, should I trust you? Is this you saying you’re going to cheat on me, like all those other people, like how you said you wouldn’t, ever again?”

“I don’t know,” Michelle said, her voice small and garbled. “I just wish you didn’t have to go.”

“Well, I do. I have to go, and you have to take this opportunity not to cheat on me for seven days. Can you do that? Seven days, for our five goddamn-year-goddamn-long relationship?”

“I want to…”

“Do you?”

“Just stay…”

“Stay? I dampen my career because you can’t keep your pants on?”

Michelle jerked the steering wheel to the right, slamming on the breaks.

“Stay!” she screamed, leaning into the spin. The left back corner of the car rammed into the guard rail and sent the car careening off the road and over the shoulder, tipping onto two wheels and landing sideways, its right side stuck a few feet up the side of a tree.

It was dizzying, loud, crunching metal, screeching tires, the two of them screaming, tugging the wheel, the tree and guardrail groaning, the world spinning like they were inside a blender. Craig’s fingers impaled the Styrofoam of his coffee cup and the scalding liquid splashed onto his thighs, his feet, his stomach. Branches forced their way in through the open windows, covering them both with pine needles and tiny scratches. The air bags went off in the middle of all this, smacking them both in the face hard enough to make the spinning seem to reverse direction. They sat frozen for a minute, stuck on the tree at a forty-five degree angle, silent, dazed. Through the cracked windshield, the hood of the car was crumpled like a wad of paper. Craig then realized he was burning and began smacking the coffee off his reddening skin.

“Are you okay?” Michelle asked him.

“Yes…are you okay?”

“Yes.”

“You jerked the wheel,” Craig muttered. He touched his lip—his nose was bleeding.

“I was avoiding something.”

A to I: Isthmus

Sue Anne had to look up “Isthmus“ in the dictionary before she moved to Nahant, Massachusetts. She’d lived in the hot, flat country her whole life and yearned for the ocean, for a small town. Nothing smaller than the smallest town in one of the smallest states, connected to the mainland by a strip of land the size of her pinkie.

She was thirty when her mother joined her father in the cemetery. She hadn’t visited him since they buried him there when she was eighteen. She waited until her mother’s coffin was in beside him, then had her Aunt drive her to the airport.

“You don’t have to disappear,” her Aunt said after a long silence. “I can help you with the baby, you don’t have to be alone.”

“Thank you,” Sue Anne said after another pause. “But I do.”

Her hands rested on her swelling belly. Only five months in. She did it artificially, which bothered her mother, but Sue Anne was desperate for children and not very desperate for a spouse. She was running out of time, and she knew that. She was running, and she knew that too.

Nahant. One square mile, though far from being square. It hung off the side of Massachusetts like a splinter. Surrounded by strange, Massachusetts-y sounding towns like Swampscott and Saugus and Peabody, it was easy to find from Boston. Sue Anne had bought a little, crumpled white house that was just far enough from the water that she would have to walk to the beach. She had only seen the house online, but in person it seemed even smaller. Perfect. She needed small.

It came fully furnished, smelling of moth balls and the old couple who had decided to drop everything and retire to Florida. The overcast sky and September chill made Sue Anne wonder if they had the right idea. No matter. A living room, a kitchen, two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a spare room. Perfect for her little family.

She didn’t like the furniture, but she didn’t bother buying anything new. It was free, after all, and the sailboats and fishing net décor did go well with the ocean and seagull sounds outside. She had a little yard, with a birdbath and a small brick border where a garden probably was at some point.

She spent the night sitting on her porch in an old rocking chair, sipping at a glass of wine—the wine came with the house, too. One glass per day, the doctor had said, though she wasn’t sure if her fancy new Boston doctor would have a different idea. She rubbed her tummy. It pushed back.

She held perfectly still. Nothing…she rubbed her stomach again, firmly, and her stomach pushed back. Yes, definitely, that was her baby. It kicked her. She leaned back in her chair, and her baby settled down again. Sue Anne began crying, her tears as salty as the ocean air.

As she rubbed her tummy, holding her breath for another movement, a couple walked by her new house.

“Hello, neighbor!” The man said. “Are you moving in here, then? Do you need help?”

Sue Anne waved. “Oh, no, I’m all set, thank you.” Small town, Sue Anne, small town. “Would you like a glass of wine?”

They talked on Sue Anne’s porch for about an hour, and even made plans to have dinner the following weekend. Sue Anne kept feeling her stomach, waiting for more kicks, but her baby must be asleep.

The woman noticed first, and asked with careful words if Sue Anne was expecting. Yes, she was.

“There’s no father, before you wonder,” Sue Anne said. “I wanted a baby but I didn’t need a husband.”

They all laughed. As the couple left, to go pick up their children at school, they realized they had never exchanged names.

“I’m Suzie Quentin,” Sue Anne said. “They used to call me Suzie Q.”

As she said it, she remembered how the name used to make her furious, how it was the name her dad called her before Alzheimers made him call her a stranger, how she wanted Sue Anne because he never said that unless he was yelling at her, how Michael McClane, her high school sweetheart, broke up with her over the phone and said that he wished he could have his Suzie Q back. She realized, now in this tiny town with boxes to unpack and a fatherless baby in her belly, miles and years away from her father and her mother and her Michael, that she was ready to have Suzie Q back, too.

“Suzie Q,” the man said. “That’s a great name.”

And so, with everything else fighting for her to become an island, the name “Suzie Q” became a welcome isthmus.

A to H: Him

Him. Him. Him. Him. Michelle measured her life in a string of Hims, Hims harmonizing, crescendoing and fading like they were strapped to a wheel, mowing her over. Him. The first, brown hair, blue eyes, first kiss, soft lips, on the stair after a middle school dance, ears ringing, heart beating, she could feel the imprint of his hand on her cheek for hours. Him. Black hair, dark eyes, red lines hashed into his wrists. Test cheater, weed smoker, sneaking joints from his older brother’s stash. Him. Second kiss, a week after her first. She never broke up with that first boy, he just faded away, like the cuts that barely broke her skin, she dragged the sharp paper clip edge into her forearm until it was pink, until specks of blood appeared, then stopped, pinching her arm, numb, is this right? Is this how they did it? First smoke. First time, shirt on, pants at her knees, in her second boyfriend’s older brother’s car. Then the older brother, about a month later, same spot. She still hasn’t broken up with anyone. Third boyfriend, three years older. Boyfriend? Strong word. They fumbled in the backseat of his car, parked behind the high school. High school, now, fourth, fifth, sixth. One week of being single between sixth and seventh, and she felt like she couldn’t breathe. Is this love? Is this sex? Should it hurt this much? Should I be so indifferent? Do I want this? Do I want you? Eight lasted weeks, then months, coming on a year when his best friend asked her if the rumors were true, if she did it at thirteen. Eight was still a virgin. Seventeen. She was fine with it. Best friend was not. Eight. Then the best friend. Then eight was done, so on to nine, or was it ten, now? Floating from man to man like a piece of pollen, like a dandelion wisp, like a ragdoll being tossed hand to hand across a playground. No, not tossed. She threw herself, she leapt from body to body. Ten, eleven…she just wanted to be happy. Twelve and thirteen at the same time, then thirteen and fourteen at the same time, then fourteen and fifteen at the same time. She would leave one house and drive to the other. Always looking for more. Always getting bored. Him. Him. Him. Her? First year of college, she started back at one. One girl, long blonde hair. Curly. Blue eyes, an All American girl. One cheated on her with who would become four. Michelle didn’t mind. This sort of thing happened. Two. Sixteen. Seventeen. Three. Then four, at a party. One was a bit angry. Michelle smoked a lot now, but didn’t bother counting her joints. Michelle burned through joints even faster than her lovers. She was in the dozens, then likely the hundreds by the time she was nineteen, always high, her thumb calloused from sparking the lighter, her lips dry, her eyes perpetually red. Eighteen boys, now, and only five girls. Now, a game. Six. Seven. Eight and nine, at the same time. Ten and nineteen at the same time. She grew her hair long, she worked out, she did poorly in class, she showered less. Eleven. Twelve. Thirteen. Back to twelve. Fourteen. Fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen all in one night, and then eighteen, nineteen, and two twenties all in the same room. She had done it. Forty people, an even split. She bought herself an ice cream cone. She was happy with herself. She didn’t need love. She didn’t want to limit herself to one person. She was a giver. She was a lover. She liked doing things, she liked meeting people. She liked being an individual, even if she was always in at least one relationship. Summer. Long distance? No. Single…single…single…she had already burned through all the boys at home, and no girls were interested. Single…single…single…Michelle was going crazy. Withdrawal, from weed and people. Phone. Scrolling. Names, numbers. 1-20F, 1-20M, she lists them in her head as she reads their names. She needed someone to keep her busy. She hesitates on a few, then keeps scrolling past. Drying out, this summer, like a 12 week program. She laid on the couch with a headache, watching cartoons. Her parents worried. She didn’t bother to worry. Who is Michelle? What do I do, beyond other people? What do I want, beyond being Undeclared? There was no direction to go, so she laid still. There was no one to love, so she began, slowly, to find a way to love herself. Relapse, boy number twenty-one, she met at an ice cream shop. Disgust. Get over it, tell him you want to be alone. First break up…she felt good. Good. Single is good, I need to learn myself before I learn someone else. I don’t need someone else. Michelle went back to school determined to stay single. She would break her cycle. She had beaten her addiction. New boy, a freshman, down the hall, into skateboarding and theatre. New boy. Craig Wu. Twenty-two. Him…him…specifically him. She invited him to smoke, first smoke, first boy in months. I know myself enough now, I suppose.