“Miranda, I’m in love,” Clea said.
“Love,” I echoed, as if a poison arrow had gone into my side and taken away my breath.
“With Stephen.” Clea pushed her short, auburn hair away from her eyes.
Just then we walked past a dead cat.
“Oh my God” said Clea. She knelt down by it. A car honked and two boys yelled, “Want a ride, sweetie?”
I ignored them, and squatted beside her. Except for a smear of blood beneath its throat, the cat was perfect. Its lovely green eyes were open, its gray fur unmatted, its legs poised as if in the middle of a race.
“What shall we do?” Clea moaned.
We walked, like we’d done a million times before, past Rexall, past Western Auto, and over the Summer bridge.
“I didn’t realize it would be hot this early,” Clea said.
“It’s like this even at 6 o’clock,” I said. “When I’m sacking those collard greens, my arms turn red and welty. Then I wish for people who buy peaches and plums only.” I pulled down on my shorts. It was my first summer home from college, and the only job I could find was in an outdoor market.
“You should apply at the Pancake House. Then we could work together,” Clea said.
I wiped the sweat from my forehead. “Maybe I’ll do that. You’re the reason I came home this summer, and I’ve barely seen you because of this ridiculous job.”
Clea took my hand and we swung arms like little kids. At college, I would never hold hands walking down the street. But here, I didn’t care who saw me or what they thought.
“Let’s sneak into the church and get a drink of water. I’m parched,” Clea said.
We ran up the lush lawn of the Colonial Presbyterian Church. Clea followed me as I tiptoed down the pale, polished hallway, past the huge sanctuary, vivid with stained glass, down dark, prayerful corridors, and down again a set of stairs. The silence pressed against us, like a properly gloved hand over our mouths. In the basement I saw the white porcelain shine of a drinking fountain. Water splattered my face as I drank.
“You girls ain’t allowed in heah.”
I jumped, spilling icy water over my blouse. A wizened old black man was standing in front of us, leaning on a mop, a cigarette dangling from his lips. Inside his crisp, green uniform, he looked dingy as a pile of leaves.
“Just getting a drink, sir.” I wiped the water off my chin, and stood at firm, respectful attention.
“Get your drink and then y’all get on out. Ain’t nobody allowed heah on Saturdays but me. Me and Jesus.” The old man laughed until he coughed and cigarette ash sputtered over the shiny linoleum floor.
The heat outside smacked us across the face. I knotted the ends of my blouse, so the air could cool a slice of stomach.
A car full of boys honked and whistled as we ran across the road.
“What about you?” Clea said, as we went into the shelter of the park. “Are you in love?”
“I don’t know.” I thought of Galen, his shaggy brown hair blowing everywhere, his black sweater, black slacks, and worn sandals heaped on the floor as we made love in his tiny apartment. Did I love him? “I finally decided to sleep with Galen, but I’m not sure I love him.”
Clea hugged me. She had been waiting for me to shed my virginity so we could talk — really talk — about love and sex.
“At last,” she said, using Boris Karloff’s voice, “you are a wo-man: What is he like?”
“He’s weird, Clea, but he appeals to me.”
“And sex?” She chose our old path through the woods, still barely marred by beer cans.
“The first time, I felt like I was crashing through a plate glass window, into a new life. I was too scared to pay attention. But now, it’s wonderful. I understand what you’ve been talking about.”
“Miranda, I really love Stephen. And he loves me. He’s on my mind all the time. These two weeks of summer have been torture without him.”
Clea brushed off a log before sitting down. I looked at my friend as she crossed her legs Indian-fashion, took a deep breath, and closed her eyes. She was beautiful, a woman in love, and although she sat so close to me that our knees touched, so close that our sweat mingled in the brittle, buggy grass, she was far away. Far away in the arms of her Stephen.
I closed my eyes. From the distance, the rushing cars sounded like a roaring stream. The hot beat of the sun and the bright splash of birdsong felt warm and familiar.
“This must be where God comes on Saturdays when he’s done at the church,” I murmured.
We sat, long enough so the hoots of horny boys were lost under the jumping squirrels and slithering chipmunks, so the sting of collard greens faded, so the image of my body under Galen’s was gone, and there was only Clea and I on a summer walk.
“Let’s find a snow cone and an elephant,” Clea said, and we ran down the path, back onto the winding streets. We ran until the ache in my side stopped me.
“Wait,” I said, to keep Clea from streaming ahead. “Wait for me.”
The zoo smelled of peanuts and unwashed Africa. I bought two cherry snow cones. Clea and I walked past the wild balloons and rowdy kids, past young lovers stuck together by something hotter than summer, toward the elephant.
I stopped at the water fountain. Dirt and cherry syrup ran down my legs. I splashed water on them and on my face. My eyes were clogged by droplets when I heard the voice.
“Hey Miranda, hey Clea. What’re y’all doing here?” Francis Lawter put his big hand right on my shoulder. I ducked away. I saw the bosomy tattoo on his upper arm, the dog tags flashing down the front of his T-shirt. He smelled of shaving lotion turning stale. He smelled of cruel secrets stashed in damp basements.
“Hello, Francis,” I said. Clea was walking toward the elephant pen. “How are your parents?”
Francis lived down the street. He always had a huge orange parachute spread across the front yard. He let his motorcycle fall just over the boundaries of his mother’s prized garden. People on our block spoke in hopeful tones of his moving away, settling down somewhere else. I figured someday Francis would rape and kill ten or twelve people, then blow his own head off, leaving behind his dear mother canning tomatoes in the kitchen, and his sweet father, raking the leaves, even in July.
“They’re fine. Let’s you and me go out sometime.” Francis raked his eyes over me, and leaned close, too close.
“Have to go,” I said, and ran after Clea.
“What could slime like him want at the zoo?” I could still feel his breath on my neck, could still hear the click of the mint against his teeth as he talked.
“Piece of ass,” Clea answered. “I can’t believe how he’s been after you all these years.” She held out her palm to the elephant, but he ignored her.
“I’m scared he’ll follow us. Let’s get out of here, go to the art gallery.”
Clea took the secret way, behind the giraffes and over the fence. I followed her, remembering the times Francis babysat for me when I was little — how he used to open my door every half-hour and say, “Have to go to the bathroom?” All night, I stayed awake, scared I would wet the bed. All night, I felt the evil shadow of Francis hovering over me.
“Hey” — Clea put her arm around me as we walked up the steps to the gallery — “he’s not going to hurt you. He’s just a stupid over-muscled redneck. I’m sure he has plenty of girlfriends his own age. You’re making too much out of this.”
I nodded, as if I agreed. But inside I was still shivering.
“I really missed you,” I said, as we walked through the cool hush of paintings.
“Everybody seems trite compared to you,” she answered. “Stephen does, too. But what can you expect from a man?”
What can you expect, what can you expect, the slap of my sandals against the floor seemed to say. I didn’t know. I didn’t know what it felt like to be straight-bound true in love. So in love that neither person would want to leave it. So in love that the poetry of a stranger’s hips could not turn the gaze, could not stop the sentence.
I wasn’t in the mood to study the paintings. I cruised the rooms, restless, as if I were hunting for something, ready to pounce on the first thing that freed me, that opened me, made me feel rich and good again. Outside we sat on one of the marble benches.
“What would you think if I got married?” Clea said.
“Married?” A knot in my voice.
“Stephen and I want to live together next semester. I don’t think my parents could stand it if we weren’t married.”
“Would I still see you?” I asked.
“Stephen could never replace you,” Clea said. She shook her hair into the wind, and bit on a fingernail. She looked sexy, grown-up, like somebody’s mistress, like one of the women we used to read about, and yearn over.
I wondered what I looked like.
“Don’t get sad on me,” Clea said. “I’m just thinking about it.”
I pulled a piece of grass from between my toes. “I feel old today.”
“You’re taking the world too seriously. Forget it. Let’s play. Come on, see if you can catch me.”
Clea ran toward the playground, toward the swings, the slides, and the old fire truck trapped in the sand. I chased after her, forgetting my sandals were about to come off, forgetting I was Galen’s lover, a woman now, not a girl.
I erased my image of Clea pulling long, scarlet fingernails through the rich brown hair of a man, and saw instead the wild-headed girl I’d always loved. I had to catch up with her. I ran faster than I could go, and tackled Clea just as she reached the playground. I grabbed her shirt, and we both fell in a heap by the side of the road, the dry grass scratching at our legs and arms, laughter pushing its way out, past everything.
“You idiot,” Clea said, and we rolled over and over in the grass, our hair catching leaves and twigs, our legs dizzy with dirt and abandon.
“Watch out,” Clea cried, and pulled me to a stop. I had almost rolled into a dead squirrel, a flat smash of squirrel, hot and bloody.
“Oh my God,” I screamed as I jumped up.
“I’m going to be sick,” Clea said.
A car honked. “Y’all want a ride?” It was Francis, driving a thundery green car, all dented and bashed, with dice bouncing from the mirror. Francis’s tattooed arm hung from the window, and he licked his fat lips as he stared at me.
“No,” I said, dusting off. “NO.”
I raced past Clea, to be the first one on the swings, the first one up into the air, over the burning tops of trees, over dead animals, to a high secret spot where no one, not even Francis, could ever get me.
Soon Clea caught up, pumping hard into the wind. We moved in rhythm, heads back, sun at our throats, kicking our legs into an open sky.