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Saturday, August 10th, 10:50AM

Saturday morning. In my room. Just me...and Vanessa and Roland making love on the canopy bed. I love watching them do it. The way Vanessa rolls on top and dangles her hair in his eyes and mouth. The way Roland presses his fingertips into her shoulders, so she'll lean closer and kiss him, with tongue, just as her hair swings free of his mouth.

"Nicole?" My mother knocks on the door.

"Yeah?" I click the TV off and grab a book from the bed table.

She comes in, a pile of fresh towels propped up on one hand like a tray-carrying waiter. "For your bathroom," she says, making her way in there.

"Uh huh." I flip the book open to the middle and pretend to read.

"What's on your agenda for today?" she asks.

Since I don't feel like explaining, I just shrug and turn a page.

"You can always put in a few hours at the hospital."

Volunteering on a Saturday? Is she crazy? I fake a smile that tells her to leave. Thankfully, she does.

My agenda, as she calls it, has been the same for every Saturday morning this summer. Sleep in till nine. Shower, dress, and breakfast until nine-forty-five. Watch the TiVo'd Friday episode of Sands of Time (since I'm busy volunteering at the hospital on Friday afternoons), taking full advantage of the extra thirty-minute window I've left open to rewind over the juicy parts. Tame down my frizzy hair with a few squirts of spray gel (this needs to be done hourly) and apply a fresh coat of lipstick (Nude Glow --- my favorite shade). And then, just before eleven, I fetch a tall, freezer-chilled glass of raspberry iced tea, my mother's pair of pearl-plated bird-watching binoculars, and do a stop over at the mirror on my way to the window.

Since it's about that time now, I hustle through the preparations and then take position in front of the window to watch Him mow the lawn next door. To watch those calves. I love his calves --- dirty and sun-bronzed, the most adorable wisps of short, honey-colored hair that make capital C's and inverted J's at the front and back of his legs. The look-out-David, Michelangelo-sculpted cuts.

Him = Sean O'Connell. The one, I truly believe, I was put on this earth to be with, to make real, live soap-opera love with. Except, he's my best friend Kelly's boyfriend. Reason #47 on my list labeled Why-I-Shouldn't-Even-Bother-to-get-Up-in-the-Morning.

He looks more tired than usual today, like the sun has drained all the blood from his body and replaced it with boiling water. I wonder if he's hungry, if I should bring him something to eat.

I edge the curtain open wider and watch the white of his T-shirt wilt to a pale peachy color as sweat drips down from his shoulders and neck. I study the way his teeth pinch his bottom lip each time he looks up toward the sun. His shoulders round forward as he turns the mower away from the house, and the small of his back slopes downward like half of a valentine heart.

After a couple weeks of watching him at the window, I commented to my mother about the Harris's well-maintained lawn and shrubbery, the perfectly square holly bushes, and how the sidewalk has been shaved of the dandelion patches that used to sprout through the cracks. I suggested that she hire him to do our yard too. But she was able to see through that suggestion, and told me she wasn't ready to throw away good, hard-earned money so I could get chummy with my best friend's boyfriend.

I sit back on my bed and imagine what Sean might want to eat, what I might bring him. A popsicle? But the juice would probably drip all over my fingers by the time I made it over there. A couple of oatmeal-and-raisin cookies? But those are from a box. Lucy, my velvety-white cat, trots into my room and sits on the square patch the sun has painted on the hard wood floor. I click my tongue for her to come and join me, even kick the bubble of covers down to make room for her on the bed. No deal; I have to resort to force. I snatch her up from the floor and plop her onto my lap, doing my best to scratch at her cheeks the way she likes and rub behind her ears. But she jumps off, taking her place on the window perch in the other room, like the traitor she is.

The other day I sat on my bed, trying to conjure up a list of all the ways Kelly has betrayed me since we were eight. It took me four whole hours to come up with three instances. I pluck the notebook from beside my bed and flip to the page, mostly filled with doodles of three-dimensional squares and vines of daisies and roses. I read the occasions of betrayal softly to myself: 1. In fourth grade Kelly slipped a secret admirer note in my desk at school and signed it with Ricky Malick's name. When I had our friend Maria go up to Ricky's friend Mike at recess, to ask him if Ricky really liked me, Mike snatched the note and read it aloud to everyone in our class. They laughed at both of us and Ricky never spoke to me again after that. 2. In eighth grade Kelly got asked to the junior high dance by Billy Ready, the same guy I liked. I knew she knew I liked him, even though I never told her I did. But it didn't matter because the two of them ended up going together and I stayed home and played with Lucy. 3. Just last year Kelly told me she'd come with me to get my hair straightened at her favorite hair salon for the sophomore-semi. Apparently her aunt knows someone who works at one of those trendy places on Newbury Street where Kelly always gets a huge discount. But she blew me off instead. She told me that she had to help her mother clean the house, but I later found out from Maria that she went to the movies with Chuck Wagner, a senior on the soccer team.

Of course, none of these relationships worked out. Kelly only keeps her boyfriends for a few months max --- aside from Sean, that is. I think she likes the chase more than anything else. Plus, it's not like she and Sean are going to get married or anything. So they've been going out for eight months --- big deal. If she hadn't left to visit her dad, she probably would've broken up with him by now anyway.

I turn another page in the notebook. For every one of Kelly's betrayals on my list, there's an example of when she's really been great. Like the time she stayed up all night on the phone, listening to me cry over how Ferris Beckman dumped me for baton-twirling Monica Piramachi. The time she told Ms. McManus, our history teacher, that the cheat-sheet on the floor was really hers, not mine, because she was acing history anyway. And the time in seventh grade when she told the school-nurse that it was she that needed a maxi pad, super-absorbency, because I was too embarrassed to ask.

I've tried to find things to distract myself from all this. Yesterday, I cleaned out my closet and dresser and brought all my old clothes to the Salvation Army deposit box on Canal Street. And earlier today I rearranged my photo albums so they make sense. I took out all the pictures that don't mean anything to me --- pictures of my older brother's friends; a picture of a cute boy that came with the frame I'm using to hold my middle school graduation picture; pictures of my parents' friends' babies, kids I don't even know. Pictures I put in there merely to fill up the pages.

I glance at the snapshot of Kelly and me that I set aside: the two of us sitting on my front steps, playing War with two decks of cards. I remember how we used to play every Friday night in the summer, just before the sun went down. We'd sip raspberry iced tea and talk about what we would do when we grew up, who we would be. I hold the picture up and glance back toward the window.

Sean is still there.

I drop the photo back on my dresser and adjust the focus on my binoculars. He's so close, like I can reach out and touch the tag sticking out from his shirt, help him by tucking it back in. I imagine doing this for him in the hallway at school. Him, thanking me with a kiss, and everyone smiling and tilting their heads at how cute we are.

He shuts the mower off and yanks a rag from the back pocket of his shorts. Sweat drips over his pale eyebrows, along his nose, down his lip, parting his mouth, and then over the moon-shaped clef in his chin. He swipes the rag over his face and then looks up in my direction. I drop the binoculars to my lap and freeze. At first I pull away, hide behind the curtain so he doesn't see me. But then I feel myself edging back toward the screen, not caring if he does. I think he spots me and this makes my heart go off at about a thousand decibels, like one of those vibrating clocks that shakes you out of dreamland. But instead he just reaches for the water bottle on the front porch, setting the clock back to snooze mode.

Snooze mode --- just like my life.

Sean places his lips over the mouth of the bottle and tilts his head back to get a satisfying drink. I watch the lump of his Adam's apple bob up and down as the water swims down his throat, and feel myself swallow as well.

I rack my brain for just one more example of Kelly's betrayal. But the only one that keeps creeping across my mind is the one I am most afraid to write down. Was Kelly going after Sean a betrayal? She knew how much I liked him. Knew since the third grade, when I stared at him from behind open phonics books and monkey bars at recess. When I wrote his name a million times with mine inside my notebook covers --- Sean + Nicole, Mrs. Sean O'Connell, Nicole loves Sean 4-eva --- and put it in MASH games that foretold who my husband would be and how many children we'd have.

She knew it when I memorized his class schedule each semester. When I'd sit bundled up at the ice rink watching his hockey games. When, at the beginning of each year, I came up with all these elaborate schemes to try and be his lab partner, or bump into him in the hallway.

Case in point --- at the beginning of last year I was determined to finally do it. I had the plan all laid out in my mind. It was mid-October, still a few weeks away from the Sadie Hawkins dance. I would come home from school, get all my house chores done so my mother wouldn't be on my back, and then call him up and ask him to go with me.

The only wrinkle in my otherwise brilliant scheme --- Kelly insisted on coming over that day. She even helped me finish all my chores, right down to peeling the potatoes for our dinner that night despite her recent manicure --- anything, she said, to get my butt to the dance instead of parked at home in front of the tube like it'd been during every other social event.

"Okay, I'm really going to do it now," I told her, sitting on the edge of my bed, my heart practically pumping through my chest. I'd been sitting in that exact same spot for more than forty minutes, the phone receiver in one hand, Sean's phone number pressed in the other. I had looked his number up in the directory a full week prior to this and practically memorized the digits.

"Give it up," Kelly groaned, when forty minutes turned into an hour-and-ten. "It's obviously not going to happen today."

"I'm going to call him," I insisted.

"Uh huh." She rolled her eyes. "I need a snack. You hungry?"

I shook my head and watched as she hopped off the bed and bounded downstairs to the kitchen.

The perfect opportunity to finally do it.

I dialed the numbers quickly and pressed the receiver to my ear.

"Hello?" said a boy voice --- Sean's voice, I was so sure.

I opened my mouth to say something back, but all that came out was a soft choking sound.

"Hel-looo?" the voice repeated.

"Is this Sean?" I asked in practically a whisper.

"Yeah. Who's this? Danielle?"

Danielle who? I almost hung up, only I heard a weird rustling sound on the other end of the line.

"Not Danielle," Kelly's voice said through the receiver. She'd obviously picked up the phone extension downstairs.

"Then who?" Sean asked.

"It's Kelly from school."

My mouth dropped open. I sprung from the bed and flew down the stairs with the full intent of ripping the phone right out of her meddling little hands. Kelly must have heard me charging because she ran into the bathroom and locked herself in.

I pounded on the door, but it obviously didn't bother her any because she kept right on talking to him.

"So, what's up?" she asked him.

"Not much."

"Surprised it's me?"

"A little."

"Oh, come on," she continued. "I've seen the way you look at me in geometry class. Don't deny it."

"Whatever," he said.

"I'm just kidding. God...can't you take a joke?"

"What do you want?" he asked, trying to get to the point.

"Are you going to the Sadie Hawkins thing or what?"

"I don't know."

"I don't know as in you haven't been asked yet?"

"I guess so."

"I guess so what? You haven't been asked?"

"Not yet; isn't it still a whole month away?"

"Hmm...interesting," she said, ignoring the question. "So, what do you think of Nicole Bouchard?"

"I don't know."

"Do you think she's pretty?"

"Kelly!" I hissed, padding on the door, half-afraid that he would hear me, more afraid of the damage Kelly could do. "Hang up NOW!" I whisper-shouted.

"What's going on?" Sean demanded. "Who's on the other line?"

"No one," Kelly said, letting out another giggle. "It's just me."


"Are you trying to tell me that you're hearing voices? They have shrinks for that, you know."

"Whatever," Sean said. "I gotta go."

And, with that, he hung up.

"Great!" Kelly shouted. "I totally could have gotten you in!" She whipped the bathroom door open and glared at me like his hanging up was my fault.

"I can't believe you just did that," I said.

"Are you kidding me? I was trying to do you a favor."

I shook my head and bit my tongue, barely able to even look at her.

"Personally, I don't know why you waste your time on him," she continued. "Sean's so completely average. You can do so much better. How about Ferris Beckman? I can get you a date with him if you want. I know he likes you."

Feeling defeated, I agreed. And then a few weeks later, when me and Ferris didn't work out, Kelly announced that she was going to get Sean for me --- for real this time.

But instead she got him for herself.

"Nicole," my mother yells from somewhere downstairs. "I'm going down to the hospital. Are you sure you don't want to volunteer a few hours in the gift shop?"

"No thanks," I yell back. "I've got some stuff to do."

It's eleven-thirty. I still have over an hour before I'm supposed to go pick Maria up. I decide to go outside, pretend to get the mail or something, peek over, and act surprised to see him there. It's summer, for god's sake, and I haven't seen him since the last day of school. He'll want to say hello to someone from school, especially me, Kelly's closest friend. We can even talk about Kelly. That'll be fine. That'll be perfect. I can go over just to find out how Kelly is. I haven't spoken to her in two whole weeks, after all. "I saw you out here working," I practice into the mirror. "By the way, have you heard from Kelly?" I do want to know if she's having a good time. Maybe Sean has some news.

I watch my lips as I practice what I will say. I hate my lips, the top one way fuller than the bottom. I conceal it as best as I can with more Nude Glow, the way the woman at the Clinique counter advised me. I wish I had lips like Kelly, stacked up like perfect little peach wedges, lipstick or not.

I'll just go over and say hello, I tell myself, squirting down my hair with extra spray-gel. I repeat the word "hello" in my head as I make my way past the mailbox and across the front lawn. "Sean!" I shout. I raise my right arm up and dip my hips to the left, the way Kelly does when she spots Maria and me coming across the school parking lot.

"Hey," he says. "What's up?"

"Not much," I say. "I didn't know you worked for the Harris's."

He nods and runs his fingers through his hair.

"How's your summer going?"

He glances at the lawn. "It's going."

I scour my brain for something to say. For all the time I've spent imagining this moment, I feel like I should have a dozen things to say. But, somehow, I can't think of one.

"Kelly will be home in a few weeks, I guess," he says.

"Yeah, me and Maria are getting together later to start planning a surprise welcome-home party. You'll have to come. To the party, I mean." I twirl a piece of hair and bring it up to my lip for coverage. "Has she called you lately?"

"A couple days ago. She's doing good. Likes having her own pool."

"I guess so. I don't know. I only talked to her for five minutes. She had to go."

"Yeah, she must be pretty busy. I thought we'd be talking more, you know...since she has free nights and weekends on her cell-plan. My parents refuse to let me get one yet and I know they'd absolutely kill me if I called her in California." A weird gurgling sound escapes my throat when I say California. Quite attractive.

Sean shrugs and looks away. So not interested. I imagine what Kelly would do, how she would handle the situation.

"It's so hot out here," I say. "How can you work in this heat?" I grab the front of my shirt and jerk it back and forth from my chest as a fan. I notice Sean peek down at my front, then at the house, then back at my front again.

"I have to. I'm saving up to buy a new car."

"You are? What kind?"


"Sweet," I say. "Will you take me for a ride some time?" Yuck --- hearing these words trail out my mouth. I decide to come up with some excuse to leave, like having to water the garden.

"Sure," he says. "Anytime."


Maybe Kelly had exaggerated their relationship. I've caught her blowing stuff like this way out of proportion before. Like the time she said she landed a date with Derik --- captain-of-the-lacrosse-team --- LaPointe. I later found out that Kelly's mom did business with Derik's parents and, as a thank you, Derik's dad made him take Kelly to a party. Some date.

I point a hip toward Sean and churn my hands on the mower handle, like revving a motorcycle engine. "Looks pretty good." I make an effort to glance at the lawn, but end up staring at those calves. I can't believe I am this close to them.

"I'll say," he says.

I peek up at him and he's just...staring at me. Calm down, I tell myself, looking away, practically biting through my bottom lip. Think --- what would Kelly do?

"You must be dying out here in this heat," I say finally. I check my hair to make sure it hasn't kinkified on me, imagining thick and wavy locks like the Pantene girl, or straight, Barbie-doll blond tresses like Kelly.   

"It does get pretty hot."

I pull up on my shirt to expose my tan belly, the way Kelly did once at this college rush she made us crash, so she could nab a guy from Zeta House --- like Zeta House even means anything when you're a sophomore in high school.   

"Get out!" Sean says. "You have a navel-ring. Kelly never told me that."

I thread the silver loop, pierced into my naval, with my pinkie finger and smile with pressed lips, the way I did in my sophomore class portrait when everyone told me I looked so sweet. I got the navel ring with Kelly. She dared me, saying I was way too pure to actually go through with it. "I bet there's a lot Kelly hasn't told you about me."

"Oh yeah? Like what?"

I stare at him a few seconds, considering the situation and what I should do. Maybe I'm doing Kelly a favor. Maybe if she really cared anything about him, she wouldn't have left him for a whole summer, wouldn't have run three-thousand miles away from him.

"For example," I say, not able to hide my lip in the smile, "did she tell you I have an in-ground swimming pool?"   

He shakes his head and wipes the sweat from his forehead with a dry patch of T-shirt. Lifting his shirt up this way, I'm able to see the tiny golden hairs that make a woven stripe right below his navel.

"Well I do," I say. "It's in the shape of a giant curly S." I tug the strap of my bathing suit out from my shirt, and allow it to snap back into place. Ouch! "That's where I'm going right now." I pick his water bottle up from the stairs and place its coolness on my cheeks, forehead, and also at my neck, the way they do it in sexy cola commercials. Then I take a sip. "Feel like taking a dunk?"

I almost catch a glimpse of a quivering lip, but he bites it just in time. "I really need to finish up my work," he says. "Maybe another time."

"Sure." I hand him back the water bottle and the squeeze of my grip causes the water to shoot out the straw. So smooth. "Sorry," I say.

"Don't worry about it." He wipes the squirt from his face. "Just water."

"I guess I'll see you around."  As I walk away I can feel the heat of his stare press against the back of my thighs, the tanned small of my back where my shorts meet my top, and my hips as they sway from side to side, catwalk-style. Before taking a turn into my back yard, I stop to glance back at him, just to check if he's still there, watching.

He is.

I walk around the edge of the pool and dip a foot in to test the temperature. The water sparkles up at me, the surface flashing like tiny white Christmas lights. I peel the sweat-dampened clothes from my bubble gum-pink tankini bathing suit, the top of which is supposed to help create the illusion of bigger boobs. I toss the clothes to the side and imagine Sean's expression as they fall to his feet.

But when I look back, I'm alone.

I position myself on the diving board and aim my body toward the center like a dart. Not too much splash --- the right amount --- a sound that would make any neighbor jealous. I swim underwater toward the deep end, telling myself that by the time I reach the end, Sean will be there, waiting for me.

He isn't.

I paddle around on the raft for almost an hour, allowing my arms and the back of my neck to crisp and redden from the sun. Staring down at my reflection wavering back and forth in the water, I can make out my frizzy hair (wet or not), my pudgy upper lip, and through it all can see the maze of dirt at the bottom of the pool from my filthy bare feet. I'll have to vacuum before my mother gets home and sees.

I rest my head on the raft and my bangs block the sun from my eyes. I feel stupid and embarrassed. Who am I to invite Sean O'Connell to join me in the pool? I'm not anybody. Not Kelly with her good looks. Not Maria with her conscienceless attitude and nerves of steel.

I remember this one time when me, Maria, and Kelly went to a party in the next town over. Maria had been playing eye-tag with this cute college boy all night. Pissed that he hadn't actually approached her by eleven o'clock, she stormed her way over to him and said all of three words --- "top or bottom." I don't remember what his answer was. All I remember is the sight of his clunker Camaro bopping up and down in the supermarket parking lot across the street.

Not that I would ever want to be like Maria in that way. Sometimes I think if it wasn't for Kelly, me and Maria probably wouldn't even be friends. It's would be nice to have her carefree attitude for at least one full day --- to be able to take whatever it is I want and not have to worry about the consequences; to not have to worry about what everybody else might think of me afterwards.

I take a deep breath and paddle over to the ladder, wondering if Sean will tell Kelly that I invited him over. I decide I should go back inside, put on some dry clothes, and go pick up Maria, so we can start planning for Kelly's welcome-home. I should even e-mail her later, tell her I really do miss her and can't wait until she gets home. I'll send along that picture of us playing double-deck War so she can keep it by her bed.

I step one foot on the bottom rung of the ladder and that's when I hear it. Him. His voice. In my yard.

"Is that invitation still good?" he asks.

I turn around and there he is, standing only a few feet away, by the fence, turning my skin to absolute gooseflesh.

"Hi," he says.

I have no idea how to answer him or what to say. I just stare at him, my mouth hanging open, like I'm the biggest dork ever. I realize I'm doing this and that only makes it worse, makes my mouth flutter, like I want to say something. Miraculously, the word hi manages to squeak its way out.

Sean shifts his weight from side to side in a nervous-sort of dance. "Are your parents home?"

I shake my head and look away as he peels off his T-shirt.

"Do you expect 'em soon? I mean, I don't want them to get mad that I'm in your pool or anything. They might want to use it."

"They won't be back for a while," I blurt, feeling my heart load up with panic. I take a deep breath to calm myself down, trying to piece together what's really going on here. I mean, there's a good chance that Kelly won't even care. Maybe she won't even find out. And even if she does, I can just say Sean looked like he was gonna pass out from the heat. I guess he sort of does.

"Cool." He twiddles with the strap of his belt for several moments. "I probably shouldn't get these shorts wet." His hand is on the zipper of his long, khaki shorts.

I grab the raft for security and begin paddling in a circle. But before I know it, I'm facing him again. A pair of plaid boxer shorts, the cotton kind I think. A bare chest with that woven stripe of hair right below the navel.

"Just what the doctor ordered," he says, making his way in.

I let out a dorky giggle and begin making waves with the raft.

Sean pushes his feet off the wall of the pool. The blades of his shoulders slice through the skin of the water as he swims across. "This feels incredible," he says. He takes a gulp of water and squirts it out between his teeth like a fan. It hits my cheek and I laugh, a bit too hard, making a weird hiccup noise. I consider squirting him back, but that would definitely wash my lipstick off completely.

He disappears under the water and swims around me like a shark. The tiny bits of dirt at the bottom make a spiraling funnel around my ankles. He grabs my calf and yanks me under with him. I feel myself laughing beneath the surface, my mouth and nostrils filling up with water. And then our legs touch and I feel those tiny, prickly hairs that I have studied so intently, rub against the skin of my knee and up my thigh, and...I freak.

I break the surface of the water and try to catch my breath. I wonder if the touching was a mistake.

Sean comes up and looks at me, and now I'm the one being studied. I grab the raft for security, squishy from loss of air.

"Nicole?" He places his hand on the raft, thumb-length from mine. It suddenly dawns on me that this is the first time he's said my name. And it sounds so different coming from him, sort of sweet and exotic at the same time.

"Yeah?" I swallow hard, dipping my mouth into the water to hide my lip.

"Did you ever.... I don't know."


"I don't know. It's stupid."

"No, what?"

"I don't know, did you ever, you know, maybe think about you and me?"

"Sean," I say, pushing the raft away, trying to laugh it off as a joke.

"What? Did you?"

"I don't know. What kind of question is that? Did you?"

He shrugs. "I wouldn't have asked if I didn't."


"Once or twice."

I feel my insides light up like birthday candles, even though this is evil, even though we shouldn't be talking this way. And suddenly I feel sort Like, I know I've known all along, but it suddenly hits me. Kelly isn't here. It's just me. And Sean.

"Maybe," I say.

He edges in closer and I can smell the heat of his breath, like freshly cut grass. "Nicole?" His lips are too close to mine to speak, like they might bump together by forming words. And before I know it, they are kissing mine and I'm feeling this tiny, tingling sensation in my right pinky. The tingling sparkles through my veins and down my spine and encourages me to kiss him back. I do.

Our legs touch again and I feel myself float toward him. Thighs bumping thighs. Calves weaving through calves.

He covers my lips with his kiss again and it tastes salty, and wet. I press the inside of my knee against his outer thigh and feel the web of bristly hair crawl up my leg.

"Sean," I whisper. I place both palms on the side of the pool and lift my body up to sit on the ledge. "Come on." I take his hand and lead him over to the garden where it's all pretty and magical, and where no one can see. I look down at his boxers, the button-fly kind, dripping wet, the cotton checks sticking to his...thing. Sticking out a bit. And I can't look, have to turn away, feel my cheeks get all firey-hot. It suddenly occurs to me that if I wanted to I could call this whole thing off, tell him that I have to go inside, that I have to go and pick up Maria.

But I don't.

And so I find myself lying on the ground with him, feeling the cool and peppery soil at my back and in the strands of my hair. He rolls himself on top of me and the wetness of his skin slips against my legs. I slide my hands down his back and glide them up and down his hips, trying to imagine the way Vanessa does it on Sands of Time.

Sean moves his hand in between my legs and I think it's the first time he notices my bathing suit has shorts for bottoms --- tight, spandex shorts. He rolls us over, sort of on our side, facing one another, and I feel his hand at the back zipper. "Is this cool?" he asks.

I sort of give a nod. It's so easy for him, like he's done this before, like it's no big deal.

I think about Vanessa's first time. How she and Roland had come so close so many times, but then decided to wait. Then, on the anniversary of the day they first met, Roland surprised Vanessa by recreating a scene from Night Falls in Star Land, her favorite storybook. He took her to the planetarium, after hours, because it was winter and too cold outside for a picnic at night. And then they made love right there under the Big Dipper. I think how it was Roland's first time too.

I feel my shorts being tugged down my hips, but not getting very far. "Can I have some help here?" Sean asks. I lift up my butt and feel the shorts slide down my legs. I kick them from around my ankles with my heels.

And then Sean gets up. He walks over to where his shorts are and scrounges through the pockets. At first he takes his cell phone out, and for a brief but humiliating second I think he's going to make a call, but then he just clicks it off and I get this exciting little jolt up my spine. Like, at least while we're together, he doesn't even care if Kelly calls. He fishes through the other pocket for his wallet, plucks it out, and pulls out a condom.

And I can't believe this is happening. I mean, I've seen condoms, have had them thrown at me during various be-safe assemblies at school, but I've never actually held one outside the package. I've heard of girls putting the condom on for the guy, some sort of romantic gesture. I wonder if he'll let me try.

Sitting with his back to me, he throws the torn package into the rose bush and puts it on by himself. I want to see it, to see him --- to see what one looks like up close. But his boxers are still on and I can't see anything through their dark, green-plaid print.

He slides himself back on top of me, pulls his shorts down just far enough, and at first it's all hot and urgent between my legs, and I can't believe I've waited this long to be with him. But then I feel a sharp piece of mulch jam into my right butt-cheek. I try to readjust, but then Sean pushes himself inside me --- a stinging, ripping, ouching pain. I almost cry out but catch myself before any sound escapes.

I try to relax, to tell myself that this is romantic, in the garden, between the tall and purple irises, the lazy-eyed susans and the pretty rhododendron, that Sean must really like me. I look up into his face, to see his eyes, and what they're thinking. But they're closed, like he's concentrating hard, and his lips are parted with breath.

The phone is ringing inside my house. It's probably Maria, wondering where I am.

I look up into the sky, at the puffy white clouds, and wish it were night or that we were in a planetarium. I wonder if Kelly looks up at the ceiling and thinks these same things. I clench my teeth, wondering when it'll be over, when I'll be able to clean myself up of this dirt and mulch. The phone is still ringing. The machine beeps, but I can't quite make out the voice.

"Nickie," Sean whispers into my ear, followed by a long and laborious moan. And I think how this feels and sounds so different than TV. How nobody but Kelly ever calls me Nickie. How nobody but Kelly ever calls me, period.

Sean rolls off me and pulls his shorts back up, lying on his back, trying to catch his breath, like he's just run a marathon or something.

He looks over at me and smiles. I smile too.

Now what? After Vanessa and Roland make love, they usually hug and kiss each other for the rest of the show, tell each other secrets. I rest the tips of my fingers against Sean's dirty cheek and kiss him full on the mouth.

He smiles at me when the kiss breaks and then looks away. "I should probably get going," he says. "I haven't finished with the hedges yet." He wipes a smear of dirt from my forehead, and then kisses the spot before getting up to fetch his clothes.

I pull my shorts back up, noticing droplets of blood between my thighs. I wipe them as best I can with my fingers and then stand up, feeling dirt slide between my legs, noticing how sticky I feel, hiding my dirty hands behind my back.

Sean has already dressed. He turns to leave but then stops. And for one relieving moment I think he's going to say something really great. But instead he just smiles, lingers a few moments before turning away.

I watch him leave before washing myself off with the garden hose. A few moments later I hear the lawn mower turn on next door, the sound of the motor revving, like it never even happened --- like Sean was never even here. I decide I will clean myself up and then vacuum the dirt out of the pool before going to pick Maria up, so we can prepare for Kelly's welcome-home once and for all.

by by Laurie Faria Stolarz

  • Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
  • hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Hyperion
  • ISBN-10: 078683854X
  • ISBN-13: 9780786838547