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- Christmas mornings - Drive-Ins - Child Beauty Queens - Technicolor Dreams -
When I was 12, I got a BMX bike on Christmas Day, a pair of pajamas, two Star Wars collectibles – a Millennium Falcon and an Imperial Cruiser – and a note from my mother that only dad ever read, reminding him to pay the light bill on the 20th of each month and to make sure I ate all of my vegetables.
That morning, she rushed down the stairs and the last thing I remember was that she wasn't wearing her dressing robe. Instead, she was bundled up in her gray traveling coat, the edges of her favorite skirt with purple and blue flowers, peeked out from the bottom. I remember that she sported her church hair, pinned up and secured with a head scarf. It was blue. She kissed my head and whispered something I never heard, so distracted I was by my new toys.
By the time dad appeared in the living room, calling for her, I was surrounded by wrapping paper and tinsel, undecided as to which of my action figures would command his spacecraft first. I bit my lip. Han Solo was, of course, my favorite and eventually won out over my Stormtrooper. By the time Han took a spin around the galaxy and picked up Princess Leia for a joyride, dad was at the door yelling for mom. I put down my toys and wheeled my bike out the door, past dad, where he stood with his mouth open like a gutted fish.
I thought nothing of it until later that night, after I called up Tyler Crowley and told him to meet me at our rendezvous point by the railroad yard. We pinned playing cards on our bike spokes and shot off to the satisfying brrrooom brrrooom sound of our new wheels. We bisected the frozen river and crossed the bridge leading out of town. We rode until we hit a creek bed and made a fort out of icicles and packed snow.
When we got hungry, we headed back. The sun hung low and orange above the deadened trees; we had been gone all afternoon. I was going to ask mom to make me a snack – a grilled cheese sandwich, extra butter on the bread, and a mug of hot chocolate. Back in our neighborhood, Mrs. Crowley's voice rang out on the street, calling her kid home for supper.
I felt lucky, lucky, that mom didn't nag me like Mrs. Crowley. Mom never raised her voice. She was always so quiet, so still, that sometimes I'd forget she was in the same room. Sometimes I'd have to work extra hard to get her attention, turning her gaze away from an invisible point only she could see. It happened all the time, at the checkout counter, at the gas station, at the kitchen window. It was just how mom was.
When I got home, dad's eyes were red and the note hung limp in his hand. He sat in his Easy-chair staring blankly at the mess I'd made that morning. The kitchen light was off and there was no supper on the stove.
"Where is she?"
Dad curled the note in his fist and shook his head. The house was unbearably quiet and that told me everything I needed to know. Silently, I ran upstairs and slammed my bedroom door shut. She really wasn't coming back. Hours later, dad walked in with a red vinyl photo album full of mom, cradled in his arms.
"So you don't forget," he said, running a hand over the cracked spine.
"Was it me?"
He shook his head sadly, his mouth grim. He looked old. "No," he said in a voice full of pain. "No, son, it wasn't you."
She didn't leave us a clue. Not why she left or where we could find her. I couldn't think of any reason why she was so unhappy. We didn't do anything wrong. But a part of me knew, from her silent ways, that the signs were there.
"Then it wasn't you, either," I told him.
He didn't say anything else after that. Neither did I. That was all we had to say about it.
We donated mom's stuff to the local charity. We boxed up her pictures, save for a few we kept on the mantle, and threw out all of the food in the kitchen that only she enjoyed – brown rice, diet crackers, club soda, and canned asparagus. I never wanted to see another vegetable again.
We lived in a small town just north of Buffalo, NY, where everyone knew everyone's business. People talked to me like I'd lost a parent to an incurable disease, and the pitying whispers became too loud for my ears. I learned to ignore them and duck my head when sympathetic hands reached out to pat my head. I continued to hang out with my friends even when the guys got sad around me on parent-teacher days. I'd joke around with them, hanging out, and playing until evening, always the last kid to go home. I didn't want to be treated like I was special.
But those days didn't last long. Because we weren't rich, dad missed the extra income from mom's job as a receptionist at the car dealership. He picked up extra shifts at the steel mill. I was 14 when I got my first job as a paper boy, practicing my aim at four-thirty in the morning until I had to go to school. After school, I tutored for more cash, a job I kept well into high school. The paper route went away after a near-miss with a garbage truck. Dad never wanted me delivering the news again. He kept a tight leash on me by giving me extra chores, depending on me for the income, and insisting I finish all my homework. I didn't complain because all we had was each other and, eventually, I didn't have time to play with Tyler and the boys.
It was a gradual separation, but it felt instantaneous. One minute I was hanging out at the drive-in with the boys as they teased all the passing girls, and the next I was daydreaming about riding a train, clear out West, past prairies and through mountain tunnels, always moving, always going, past the state line, to the end of the country, across an ocean, and landing on another continent. They'd snap their fingers to get my attention, I'd check in with them for a while until I'd lose track all over again. We did this until they gave up on me and I'd be left in the passenger seat with my slushy, watching them pour booze into the cups of the prettiest girls. I couldn't find the energy to join them.
I was 15 when it hit me. This is how it starts: the courtships, the dates, scoring bases and feel-ups at dances, the weeknights in the parking lot of the mini-mart and weekends cruising by the lake, secluded roads and condoms long past their due date, maybe graduation or maybe a kid, a job at the mill, or a chance at community college. It could go either way, the roads each of us could take; you could roll with the punches or set your own course.
I wanted to set my own course.
And as the years passed, I buried myself in books, movies, and music, keeping busy with schoolwork and tutoring until, suddenly, my head became the most interesting place in the world. Funny how time flies when your imagination becomes your best, most constant friend. Here I was, with a broken-up dad and a head full of percolating dreams and fancies. It was no wonder my friends lost interest in me as I did them. I was happiest in my routine, taking care of dad, working, and biding my time until I left.
It was understood that all of our hard work was to get me out of here at all costs.
When puberty hit and dad had to sign a release for sex-ed, he sat me down and gave me "the talk". I was hormonal, yeah, and I had kissed a few girls but what I didn't tell dad was that I was resolved to keep my hands to myself no matter how much they tempted me with their bubblegum breaths and dangerous pouts. I'd distract them, get them to talk and they would, about everything, gossip, fashion, their crushes, their nemesis', their parents and teachers. And I listened, and I nodded, and I smiled.
I had no real connection with any of them. I had a hand and I had lotion. I had plans. I didn't want to have sex and screw up my chances of leaving town.
That's how my thinking started out, at least, until I decided to stop thinking about it at all.
And, yet, it turned out that while I had avoided sex, all of its pleasures and trappings, there were those who thought about it on my behalf. It was bound to happen. I was good-looking and single; folks began to wonder about me.
To this day, I can't tell you why it was my luck to hear about it from a former child beauty queen. I had ignored the real world and buried deep my libido, safeguarding it. But there was more to it than that.
I didn't place a name on it, until the day I met Rosalie Hale.
I was 17 when Dad sent me to see her, to tutor her, he claimed. I know, now, that he had the best intentions, but I still cringe at the memory.
"I saw her mom at the grocery yesterday. Her daughter needs tutoring." It was common knowledge that I had a high success rate, so it came as no surprise when dad told me I had a new student.
We were eating breakfast. "What kind of tutoring?" He avoided my eyes, reading the ingredients from a Frosted Flakes box like it listed the winning lotto numbers. "Something about math," he mumbled. He sent me a fast glance, and I knew when he got up, rinsed his plate, and dismissed me, that that was that.
I knew of Rosalie Hale. She attended an all-girls school on the other side of the tracks. Every guy I knew talked about her like they'd made it with her. But I thought they were taking sport in empty bragging. The girls pegged her for a slut, but no one knew her as a friend. You would have thought that with her all-American blonde beauty, she would hold court on top of the hood of a convertible, surrounded by a crew of laughing jocks and cheerleaders. But she wasn't. When I spotted her around town, it'd be at a movie theater or a bookstore. Always alone.
I went after school one Friday and sought her out. Dad never specified the subject I was meant to tutor. Too tired to think about it, I slung my backpack over my shoulder and grabbed my bike out of the garage.
I rode across town, and turned north into the cookie-cutter housing of the well-off. The neighborhoods had winding streets, unlike where I lived. The lanes were so wide; you didn't have to swerve out of the way of passing cars. Every house had a lawn held back by a gate, out of sight from the street. Rosalie Hale lived in one of those beige homes with her single mom.
Their gate was open and I took the invitation to ride up the driveway, flanked by dried up, marble water fountains and wiry bushes. I walked my bike up to the front porch and leaned it against the rail. I rang the doorbell.
"Come in," said a raspy voice, too lazy to get up and meet me. I entered and poked my head in. Around the foyer, in the carpeted living room – with the lights off – and veiled by a blue cast from the TV screen, was Mrs. Hale.
"I'm Edward Cullen. I'm here to tutor Rose?"
Mrs. Hale lounged on the couch, smoking a cigarette; a lean leg swayed from under the belt of her bathrobe. Where the hell was I? And why was Rose's mom straight out of a bad black and white movie?
I'd heard that the Hales were divorced, and it was just Rose and her mom in a giant house. Past the wall-sized windows, a dull glow touched down on a tennis court littered with leaves. All of that space to be filled up with the thoughts of a lonely woman and her fatherless daughter.
"You're Carlisle's kid. He told me about you," she huffed out between drags of a cigarette. I expected her to get up and give me a Mrs. Robinson view of her thigh when she told me in an amused voice, "Go ahead on upstairs." She said it like a dare. I nodded and headed for the stairs.
Rosalie Hale, it turned out, was Little Miss Universe in 198-, starting at the tender age of three. In her honor, picture frames lined the wall up to the second floor – youngest to oldest. At the bottom of the stairwell was a headshot of a blue-eyed doll with rosebud lips, hair and bangs I've only seen on 50's pin-up girls. Every frame grew larger and every new photo revealed more of Rose's tiny-tot body – sitting crossed-leg in a doll house, or twirling a baton. In one, she modeled a bathing suit, her hand on the tie of the skirt as if she were one tug away from taking it off. She couldn't have been older than six in that one. Even her smiles were the same, every gaze ringed in makeup and long lashes.
At the top of the landing, the hallway split left and right. I took the side with the most doors and knocked on one with a pink star framing another beauty shot of a little girl. In it she blew a kiss at the camera, offering it up with her pudgy baby hands.
I wanted to run. Rationally, I knew Rose was older now, I knew the girl on the other side of that door didn't look childishly adult; she didn't make me want to shower with my clothes on. Not really. I tried to shake off the creepiness but I couldn't look away from the picture, the glint in her eye like she'd be happy to tell me a secret.
I couldn't say that I wasn't curious.
I stood there, nervous, unused to going into girls' rooms. Instinctively, I ran my hands through my hair, trying to tame it as if I were gearing up for a date. I wasn't, and that just made me all the more annoyed with myself.
"Are you going to stand out there like a creep?"
I jumped, feeling irrationally guilty.
"No," I called through the door. She must have heard me talking to her mom. I looked at the ceiling and wished I were anywhere else.
"So what are you waiting for?"
For some reason, I needed to be invited in, as if this life I was entering, this woman-child I was about to meet, needed to offer herself willingly.
"I was going to knock and –"
"Well, then knock." It was apparent her mother didn't mind the shouted introductions; the volume of a cop show echoed through the house and up the stairs; I heard gunshots. I knocked.
"Come in," she trilled.
I entered Rosalie Hale's room.
It was dark except for the glow of a lava lamp immediately across from me on her windowsill – a Yellow Submarine-themed coned lamp, complete with Blue Meanies floating through the lit liquid.
To my left, a door opened and light spilled out from a connecting bathroom. Rosalie Hale sauntered out with golden hair, wet from a shower, hung to the waist, hiding nothing more than her back and shoulders. She swung open the doors to a walk-in closet.
She spoke without looking at me, rummaging through her closet. "Give me a second. Let me put some pants on."
Holy shit, I saw her pubes.
Ladies and Gentlemen, presenting for the Twilight Zone part of our competition, Miss Rosalie Hale. She moved around like I wasn't gaping from across the room, heart hammering in my ears like I was underwater. Quickly, I fumbled an apology and turned around to face a wall. I placed my head on my arm like I was counting down for hide & seek. I didn't come here for this.
A low chuckle. "It's okay, I'm almost decent."
"You could have been decent before inviting me in." My voice sounded like a squeak toy and I gulped, trying to regain my senses. In seconds, she threw me for a loop. No amount of extra cash seemed worth my discomfort.
She laughed, delighted by my awkwardness. It irritated me. I decided I'd just get out of there, as slowly and quietly as I could. I moved toward the door with my eyes squeezed shut.
"I'll just get out of your hair," I mumbled.
When I opened the door, two twin yells paralyzed me: "Get back here" and "Rosalie, where are my meds?"
I didn't dare open my eyes. I was in no-man's-land, between a mother and her daughter, both dangerous and mad; it made me sweat.
Rose yelled out to her mom. "They're next to your cigarettes! By the microwave!"
Then she hissed, "Get back here." Rosalie won, and I drowned out her mother's cop show with a click of the doorknob. I kept my back to the door.
"You can open your eyes now, you know." I did as she said. She was fully clothed in a Smiths t-shirt and jeans. My whole body sagged in relief. She had a look of concentration, head tilted to the side. Her eyes widened like she just discovered something. I was a specimen pinned up against the wall. I squirmed and picked at my collar and that's when she relaxed. I had no idea what she was thinking, and it was only logical that I kept my mouth shut until I had more to go on.
Rosalie pointed to a spot near her bed. "Have a seat. Don't worry about mom. She'll tire out and pass out on her painkillers, anyway."
Like a chastised child, I took the closest seat I could find. I didn't pay attention; I sat on a large rubber ball. "My yoga ball," she said, bemused, while I balanced on it, holding my hand against the wall. I felt like a show seal.
She focused on me like she'd tuned in to Edward Cullen TV. What the hell did she find so fascinating?
I was the one who had just seen her naked and she acted like she didn't have a care in the world. In the thirty seconds I took her in, I spied her pretty chest and the naughty wink of her innie belly-button. I was coiled up again, ready to spring, out the door, out the window, through the roof, away from the vision of her tits. But I didn't want to run. Truth was, I was ready to get out of there, but a part of me wanted to know what she was all about. I figured I could really let it get under my skin or I could play it off, follow her lead, and pretend seeing a girl's naked body was the sort of thing that happened to me every day.
I cleared my throat. "Nice place you have here." I looked around her room and didn't see many books; mostly magazines. Pictures of her as a kid on stage lined the walls, and two dream catchers hung from a ceiling covered in glow-in-the dark stars.
"You were expecting me, right?"
"Yes, very much so."
She smiled and nodded her head. "I said, you're right. I was expecting you."
"Oh, okay, good. If you tell me what subject you're having trouble with, I can get us started."
I smiled like I was giving us a pep talk. Dust it off, rub some dirt on it, let's move right along, erase the vision. Erase the vision. The bed squeaked (I had closed my eyes again) and when I opened them, she was cross-legged with a velvet box on her lap. She looked through its contents and pulled out a pouch and tobacco wrapping paper.
"Wait a second. Am I here to tutor you or not?"
She looked up at me like I said the first thing worthy of a response.
"Then can you tell me why I'm here? Why my dad said you needed tutoring? He said your mom told him at the grocery store – "
"It wasn't quite like that."
"What do you mean?"
"Your dad talked to my mom for five seconds. He waved, I think. Anyway, I talked to him."
I was confused. It showed on my face. "I knew he was your dad. He has the same Halloween-colored hair. It's eye-catching, you know. Anyway – "
"Yeah. Dark, but orange-y. Not quite ginger but, oh, never mind. It's eye-catching, you know? Can you crack the window open? Watch the latch."
I did as she asked and cool air seeped in. The fresh air was a relief.
"I went up to your dad and asked about you – "
"How did you – "
"Let me finish. I asked about you, told him my name, and then I told him I was worried about you."
I was about to interrupt again, but she cut me off with a tilt of her head, daring me to pipe up. I was getting uncomfortable on the ball. She patted the spot next to her, on her bed. She was fully clothed and there was nowhere else to sit so I took her up on it. I sat at the very edge.
"I told him that my friends and I were asking about you. He was confused and gave me the same squinty-eyed face as you. I told him, 'I don't know if you've noticed, Edward's dad,'" she winked at me, "'but Edward's on his own an awful lot. The girls talk about never seeing him. We miss him at the drive-in. He's never taken any of us out. What a shame. What do you suppose he does all by himself?' Your dad's jaw dropped, ha, yeah just like that, just like you're doing right now. Funny, you are so him when you grow up. Anyway, I didn't tell him anything else cause my mom was ready to go."
"Well, I did tell him to tell you I said hi. And I sorta, kinda told him you could tutor me anytime, in any subject. Then I left. And that was that, and here you are, like a little present. I expected you, but more like hoped for you."
Dad set me up. I couldn't believe it. I got up, ready to bolt, but turned around and flat out asked her. "He set me up? And you…" I paced. My mind was running around in circles. I knew I was alone a lot, but I thought keeping out of trouble was enough. Didn't he trust me? He wanted me to…what did he expect me to do here?
What did she expect me to do? "You set me up, too," I accused.
"What did you mean by walking out naked a second ago? You told me to come in and…was it funny to make me uncomfortable? Is this some sick game to you? You lied to my dad, we don't know each other." She gaped at me as I let her have it and it dawned on me that Rosalie Hale was no different than anyone else. She didn't care about anything but herself; it was no wonder I saw her alone all the time. At least in my case it was by choice.
"I've got better things to do." I grabbed my bag. As I turned to leave, I caught a pink tongue swipe along the edge of a rolled up joint. Who did she think she was?
"I don't want sex, if that's what you think. I honestly thought you were gay." She caught her words with her hand, as if it were too late to trap them behind her lips. Then she shrugged.
"That's what they're saying about you."
That was it. "I'm not gay."
"No, you're not. I'm sorry. Don't leave. It was a small test. I was having a little fun, yes, but I was curious. I wanted to see for myself and, well, I don't have a problem with nudity, I thought it'd be fun. Honestly? I didn't think your dad would even tell you about me."
"But you hoped."
"Yes. I thought I'd see for myself, and I went for it." She shrugged, nonchalant. I never would have guessed Rosalie Hale had a prankster side under that cool surface. What else didn't I know about her?
"You can cut the bad-girl act. It doesn't suit you."
"What about you? Are you an act?"
"I don't know what you mean." Of all the people to ask me, I get it from an ex-child beauty queen who had moved onto exhibitionism, and was a pot-smoker to boot.
"Your dad's looking out for you, Edward. People are starting to talk."
I didn't care what people thought. I had my plans and staying away from girls got me closer to my dreams, but she didn't know that.
Her blue eyes wouldn't let go of me. "Oh, Edward, my guess is you are an act." Her voice softened. "This is no dress rehearsal for you, the good boy. I'll guess you're still a virgin. You get great grades, and do as you're told." She cocked her head as if she were looking into my soul. I gripped my bag, my jaw tight, unmoving, as if with one twitch, she would upend me.
In the end, she did.
"If a girl asks for your number, you give it to her, but she thinks it's for a date, and really, it's to go over boring English lessons or whatever. It's boring to her. Your friends don't call anymore because they all have girlfriends and you can't relate. You're smart and you're totally what every girl desires – sex on legs. So, you're not gay. I'm guessing you probably keep your hands to yourself all the time, afraid that maybe if you let them peek out of your sleeves, they'll get caught up in a force ten times stronger than you. Who are you, Edward Cullen? What's your act? What are you afraid of?"
She sank back into her pillows and smirked. She read me like an open book and just as she cracked me open, so did all of the intensity I'd kept locked up for years.
Was I really all of those things? Was I afraid? Was I hiding? It must have shown on my face, crestfallen.
She held her hand out and offered me the joint. For the first time since my mom left, someone didn't look at me with pity or curiosity. She looked at me like she understood me from the inside out.
"No more tricks?" I asked.
"No more tricks. I'm really sorry. I wouldn't have done that had I known you'd get so upset."
I eyed the joint, wanting to give in, to have someone to talk to. I scratched the back of my head. "So, no studying then? What do you want?"
"I just want to talk." She put the joint down, dug into the pocket of her jeans and pulled out a hair tie. She put her hair up into a sloppy pony tail. Her face was naked of makeup and her fingernail polish was chipped. The little cracks in her composure, a world of difference from the pictures lining the walls of her house. "You're right," she confessed, "I don't know you and you don't know me. I don't have very many friends, Edward Cullen. No one like you."
She waved the joint at me again, expectantly. I had smoked pot for the first time right after mom left, but dad busted me when word got to him. I figured since he was the one who sent me here, why not? I reached out and grabbed it, skimming her fingers. She broke into the first genuine smile of the night and patted the spot next to her.
And just like that, Rosalie Hale and I lay on her bed, blowing smoke up at the glow-in-the-dark stars leftover from her childhood, and told each other our life stories.
Both of us had outgrown our friends. I was right: she was a loner, too. All the guys crushed on her, but none of them knew how to approach her. She was too experienced, too beautiful, and never easy. She was 17 going on 30, and smart enough to know it. With effort, we both could have had a spot with our friends, but neither of us cared about the same things they did.
Until that night, I hadn't realized that sex for me had become complicated. I had ignored the disconnect between my brain and my dick. "Like seeds that can't find ground," Rosalie Hale said to me. Thankfully, she understood me and didn't pressure me, or try to convince me that I was missing out.
"I've found phone numbers in my locker at school." I lit up and inhaled. "I don't even look at the name, I throw it away," I said, exhaling a cloud of smoke.
She didn't ask me why I stayed a virgin. I thought I knew why, I was leaving for college; I was keeping my life uncomplicated. But I was starting to think that there was something bigger inside me. I simply didn't want it with just anyone.
"Edward, be yourself. So casual sex is not your thing; that's fine. That's honorable. But you're going to have to face a sex-filled world and do one of two things. One, you can own up to it, and when the subject comes up, as it always will, you can proudly call yourself a virgin. Like, 'Hi, my name is Edward Cullen and I am a hot as fuck, 9-inch-cocked-up self-proclaimed virgin."
We both howled at that. The dreamy weed made us burst into fits of wheezing laughter and arm slapping.
"Or, two, you can fake it," she said.
I snorted. I never said I was proud; there was no righteousness in my system. Sex was everywhere, sure; there was no hiding from it. I got it, everyone else was normal; I was not. I knew I was odd, but I didn't dress differently, I could carry a conversation. And so long as a girl was wearing clothes, I wasn't nervous. I was just me.
I wanted to tell her that, but I could barely form a sentence.
Rose spoke. "Everyone, everywhere, talks about sex like the weather, and you, with your…dear God, your beautiful face, and hair that women want to tug, you are the embodiment of their wants and their needs. How are you going to get past that? What have you done to those nubile young princesses who think you belong to them? And let me tell you Edward, they are possessive of you. I hear them talk. That's why I know about you. They want you."
Princesses, women, beautiful – her story was getting better and better. They couldn't possibly look at me that way. Except, if I stopped to think about it, some girls did have that droopy-eyed look like I was a piece of chocolate cake, warmed up, and a la mode. Suddenly, I pictured myself nude and in a sundae bowl. No way, that was too funny. And that was fantastic weed we smoked.
I snatched the joint from her, my face smug and cheery. "When did you hear about me? Go on," I followed the trail of smoke swirling overhead. "Tell me the tale of the great Edward Cullen."
She elbowed my side, pointedly. "Remember that summer when you streaked the public pool?"
"I was 15 and I didn't streak. Someone grabbed my shorts by accident. Before I could think, I ran out, buck-naked. I didn't see who it was, though. It wouldn't have been so bad, if the kiddie pool was on the other side. Dad had to fight to make sure I didn't get booked on child…what, why are you laughing?"
After Rose's laughing fit, she recounted all of the pranks played on me by the women of our town, all in the attempt to get me naked.
This was news to me.
There was the time at the drive-in when I took a leak in the bushes; someone flashed a light on me and I zipped my pants up too fast. That stung a little. Then the time at a party when I passed out – for the last time – on a stranger's couch and woke up without my shirt. Someone drew a big red heart with the word 'STUD' inside. My jeans were still on, but oddly, my underwear was missing. I thought it was one of the guys messing with me. That was the last party I had attended, no longer wanting to keep up with the crowd.
"Those were all girls?"
"I think even Mrs. Mallory got in on the action that night. The details elude me."
Every one got teased for something so I didn't think anything of it. It would be a lie to say I wasn't flattered, but to me these were old stories. Stuff like that didn't happen to me anymore, not since I had pulled away.
Sure I thought about sex. My body didn't know what to do with itself. But I didn't want it with just anyone. It had become second nature to turn girls down. Any time one came up to me outside of class, they never looked me in the eye. They eyed me in a way that made me squirm. They expected something of me, and I didn't know how to handle it.
As it turned out, this perplexed more people than I could have ever expected.
Rose kept the light off and we smoked and talked for hours. The light of the Yellow Submarine lava lamp and the faded glow of the stars kept us company.
Rose told me a story.
"Once upon a time, there was a boy named E.C. who made all the girls swoon. In a small town with no secrets, where girls shared their conquests with friends, no different than boys, really, none of them could prove they had sex with him. In every girls' locker room, there cropped up a secret society of love-starved sirens, who set out like explorers to map a truth about E.C."
This story was no longer my own; I listened to Rose like an outsider, shipwrecked on an island, enjoying the scenes played out with a character whose features mirrored mine. I let her have her fun.
She told me, "They bared arms, glossed lips, and shortened their skirts. They were on a mission. The question: how could he, with the gorgeous ass and the easy walk, with the thick hair, and sun-kissed glow…"
I laughed puffs of smoke. The guy sounded like a tool, a Fabio. I wasn't ugly, but I was a tall and lanky, pale guy, really. Rose slapped my arm and hushed me, getting pleasure from her tale.
"None of the girls dared question it. Out loud. Such a ridiculous idea: was he saving himself? The girls would laugh. Is he or isn't he 1) gay, or 2) a virgin, or 3) of unmentionable asexuality. The plan was to find out which one it was. They set out to uncover the virility they knew existed, but hadn't had the pleasure to taste. They threw themselves at him with gusto – some more subtle than others – and for the rest of their high school years, E.C. was a dartboard for their sharp libidos.
But every plan failed, thwarted by his sweet personality, fending off each one politely, sending them off content and satisfied by the pleasure of his company only to realize, too late, that while he listened to their problems, not once did he respond to a sexual innuendo. He waltzed around their touches fluidly, passing one girl off to the next guy, never missing a beat. They were duped into feeling touched physically, when all he did was share his shoulder, laugh at their jokes, agree and sympathize, walking the line between consummate gentleman and perfect boyfriend. Their hearts and minds were left cherished, their bodies wanting. They had moved in to take over his body, but in turn, were sent home in the heady euphoria of existing in the orbit of a beautiful, sunny boy. It was almost just as good. Almost."
"How do you know this? Have you been stalking me?"
"You're not the only one who listens well, you know."
During Rose's story, I think I napped, in and out of dreaming. This poor loser, how sad he sounded. Would I have been his friend? I traced the patterns of Blue Meanies thrown up on Rose's wall, and sank deeply into her story of this guy who was oblivious to the women circling, skirting the fringes of his consciousness. I didn't see myself like that. But when I put my face on him, I caught glimpses of her story ringing true like an out of body experience.
I stared up at the glow-in-the-dark sky of her ceiling while she told me in a faraway voice that we were more alike than met the eye.
As if in a room all by herself, she told me about her early years as a child beauty queen. She laughed about fooling judges with her smiles – she had a good dozen for every competition – and so it was a twirl here and a curtsy there. Do-si-do with a cowgirl hat to stage left, and a baton between fingers at stage right, caravanning with her entourage from one competition to the other. Props and costumes took up their own seats in the car with her mom-manager and stylist.
The stars on her ceiling gathered above me, linking a string of lights over a stage and there, in her bouffant glory, pranced Little Rosalie Hale in front of black-velvet curtains, wearing a wide open smile and eyes as round as silver dollars.
"If you winked," her tinny voice told me from the stage, "the male judges would give you an extra point, but be careful." She shook a finger at me. "The female judges didn't like that. No sir, not at all." She twirled and giggled in a sequined leotard, and danced to her own laughter.
Off stage, she continued, she had no friends while the moms were around. "It was their competition, more so than ours. If you met another girl and wanted to say hi, or gossip about your favorite teen idol, you had to do it when our moms sat in the audience, between performances."
She stopped talking and sighed. Little Rose pouted sadly as she sat at the edge of the stage, forlorn, gazing out into an empty theater. "No one speaks to me now. Look out there, at the audience. You can't see them; it's dark. But they want you. Every one of them wants you to smile at them, to do a trick and give them a show. It's not even about you. It's about them and all of their dreams and desires wrapped up in a pretty bow that they are simply dying to touch. That's you and me."
The spell wore off and the real Rose spoke softly, hesitant. "But we can be friends now."
I understood, finally, how lonely she must feel in this big house with a head full of wisdom, a lifetime of being the center of adult attention. When her glamour shots came back at 13, no amount of make-up could cover up the "awkward setting of my new teen-age face. I'm lucky, I know, walking the halls in school. I don't look the part, but in competition, you needed to have that 'never touched' look."
I turned my head then, and took in her profile on the other pillow, regal and pretty like a figurine. I could never imagine her face to lack beauty, even the show-stopping kind. She had it.
"It wasn't enough," she said as if she'd heard my thoughts. "I was done anyway. That broke my mother's heart. All I ever wanted to do was please her, and I did, for a short while. But I wanted to play, and this may sound silly," she turned her body to me. "But my head, my scalp, hurt from having my hair pinned up all the time. I was walking around with migraines all day. I never told mom about it, but she always prided herself on saying, 'My Rose always has the option. If she wants to quit, she can do it at any time.' Then she'd turn to me so hopeful. 'But you love it, don't you Rosalie?' So one day, I took her up on it. It never occurred to me that she was bluffing. She cried when I told her that I was done and wanted to go home. Dad had already left."
"My mom left, too."
All this melancholy talk dampened our buzz, and I asked her to show me some of her moves. Gladly, she got off the bed and walked across her room in her t-shirt and jeans, mimicking the ballet poses she learned. I pictured her twirling to the sad tinkling of a music box. For all her talk, Rose missed the life. She missed the stage.
I was glad Rose had found me; she had an energy and vibe unlike anyone I'd met. I could see her fast becoming my only friend, and a shameful resentment hit me for wishing she were a guy, a buddy I didn't have to fend off as she curled into my side and ran her hand up and down my thigh.
I was growing hard.
I took her fingers and laced them with mine, giving her hand a squeeze. In the darkness she whispered, "You're the real deal, Edward Cullen. The real deal." I didn't feel real, as I lay there, silently willing away my boner.
We would become friends over the summer, figuring out who we were and who we were meant to be. And we had a kinship neither wanted to sacrifice to sex just to be like everyone else.
Rosalie Hale didn't lay waste to my dignity. She cultivated it.
I left her in her bed, asleep, and snuck out of her house, got on my bicycle and rode through the slumbering town, away from her neighborhood, onto the main drag. I got home during the coldest hour of the morning, before the sun had its say, and put my bike in the garage. I entered the kitchen where Dad was foraging in the refrigerator for food. He was up early, dressed for the early-bird shift at the mill.
He hadn't called to check in on me. Not that I was a wandering kid – by now I understood why he sent me to Rose. She had made him doubt me; I didn't think she meant any harm. It was him I was pissed at. I watched him under the fridge lamp, checking the deli meat suspiciously.
"It's fresh," I told him. He jumped.
"Hey." He glanced at the clock above the stove. "What time is it?"
I shook my head. He knew. "I think the whistle's about to go off in an hour." I stepped over and grabbed all the fixings for a sandwich. "Lunch or breakfast?"
"Breakfast. I woke up hungry. And two for lunch, if we have enough meat. I'll go to the store when I get off my shift."
I set out the bread and worked on our sandwiches. He sat at the table with his coffee. I was bone-tired, but working on the weekends meant a longer shift for dad which meant I could stay up and fix him an easy meal.
"Leave cash." Our grocery list was on the fridge. "I'll go to the store and stock up."
I hadn't forgotten about Rose and dad's role in our unconventional introduction. "Besides, you never know who I'll bump into there."
"Yeah?" His tone: it brooked no bullshit, he knew.
I packed his lunch bag and handed it to him. He was reading the paper, the Lifestyle section. He never read that. He was a Sports, Op-Ed, and Front Page guy, in that order.
I crossed my arms and leaned against the kitchen counter.
"Well, what?" he sighed.
"Why did you really send me to Rose's place?" I still couldn't say it, much less believe it. "To get me with a girl? To…what, did you expect her to be the one to…shit, dad. What do you want from me?"
"I want you to be happy."
"I want you to hang out with your friends, go to movies with girls, worry about prom dates and...Jesus, kid. You know, I'm not here half the time looking out for you, and when I was your age…"
"When you were my age, you were already a dad."
"I was 19."
"Two years, okay, let's split hairs."
"Is that it? Is this about your mom?"
Why did he always have to bring her up?
"No. I don't have some kind of weird complex, Dad. Or should I say, Dr. Freud?"
Dad fingered the handle of his coffee cup. I'd never seen him unsure. He was figuring out what to say. He never did that. "I'm not sure if you're scared or just need a shove. But I don't want you holding back or thinking you need to prove something. I see how the girls look at you, how you avoid…" He cut himself off.
Dad was lost. He was looking out for me, I got that, but I was too exhausted from all the sex talk. I just wanted to close my eyes. After a silence, he spoke. It was careful, halting, and not at me, but at the floor.
"You know Peter's kid? The one who's a preacher for the non-denominational on – "
"I'm not gay!"
"Then what is it?"
"I don't know. I guess I'm not ready." This was going to take longer than I wanted, so I gave him the Reader's Digest version of what I had only just figured out that night.
"It feels like, if it's this awesome, special thing everyone goes on about, then how awesome would it be if it was with 'the one'? It'd be like Nigel's amp going to 11. It'd be as if no time passed between the Star Wars trilogy. It should be fireworks, right? The ultimate!"
He still had a funny look on his face, but at least he was trying to figure it out, like I was a damn Rosetta Stone. I had to put it in terms he'd understand. "It would be as if the Bills won a Superbowl."
He smiled. Wide.
"You really believe that?"
"Sure. Why not? Look, I'm not unhappy. Do you see me moping around? Don't I smile and hang out with your poker buddies? Yeah, I'm on my own, but that's just me. I don't mind being alone. Hell, soon I'll be off to college."
His smiled dropped a bit, but his eyes were still bright.
"And who knows, maybe I'll find someone there, but didn't you ever just wish that it were easier? Clearer?"
He wasn't getting it.
"I'm holding out. There's the right one out there for me and…I'm holding out. There's no one here that does it for me. Like it or not. I'm sorry. I'm sorry, I can't be that guy…"
He got up and collected his lunch. He had to go. "Kid, you really believe that." It was a statement. "You really believe that there's only one girl for you?"
He made it sound like I believed in UFOs. I smirked. "You believe that picture of Elvis at the gas station? The King pumping his own gas?"
"Don't get testy. Forensics concluded it was real." He smiled, having lost the battle. "Okay, I get it. I shouldn't have judged your choices, especially...especially when they're noble." He palmed my neck and looked me in the eye. "You're a good son. Your mom would have been proud of you."
I hated that he kept bringing her up. I hated that he still loved her.
As much as I wanted to throttle him and tell him that ma was never coming back, to get over it. As much as I wanted to scream how much I hated her for all the love I used to hold, he was still my old man. He stuck by me and I by him. I could do no more than let him be. If he wanted to believe in her, then so be it.
I couldn't fight him any more than I could fight what was inside of me.
My nod was small, but it was big enough for him. "Next time, let's bond over something else. I'm beat, Dad."
He chuckled, turned me around and shoved me toward the stairs. "Go. Hit the sack."
I climbed up the stairs and looked back. I watched my dad put the food away and clean up the mess. He turned off the kitchen light and headed out the back door carrying his lunch box with him. It was the first time I wondered if he would ever stop being lonely.
In bed, I opened the window and let the breeze work over me. I was too exhausted to sleep.
I wanted to let go of the day's stress, and I couldn't get Rose's body out of my mind. Amazing how much detail I absorbed in the span of a few seconds – the s-cut of her back, the mole on her hip, the light hair between her legs.
I touched myself and a breeze tickled my ear. I wanted to let go, set loose on the wind a wild howl. I was scratching the itch raw so I wouldn't have to think about it again. Rose's face sank below my belt line where I was burning. I squeezed my eyes shut, silently asking her forgiveness, and then I stopped worrying long enough to come in giant, heaving spurts all over my stomach.
I promised myself to never picture that again. I wiped up.
I turned over and my head didn't hit the pillow when I heard the first faint strains of Dad's alarm clock. He must have kept it on snooze. I got up and went into his room to turn it off.
I passed his bed, always made, and a glint of light caught my eye. The moon shone through the drawn curtains and got tangled up on a silver chain hanging in front of his dresser mirror. Mom's charm necklace, the one he bought her that Christmas.
I had lied to dad. I didn't want to tell him that I was terrified of ending up like him. Lost and pining for a woman who didn't love me. He didn't give up hope that she'd come back to us, to him. Not me. I had bottled up what was left of my love for her and locked it away.
I left his room and got back into my bed.
I would do this, I said to myself. I had been doing it, all this time. I had been building up my life's philosophy this whole time; there was no need for me to balk from it. This was who I was.
It took a stranger to pull it out of me, to make me think about it, put a name to it. I was holding out, alright. I had a downright crazy, crazy desire. I didn't want to get my heart broken. I wanted to believe in the impossible.
I wanted a soul mate. I wanted someone to unlock the giant ball of love I kept reserved in my heart.
All I had was a dream that somewhere, I'd find a girl who would love me fiercely and never let me go, hug me and mean it, unconditionally. I had to believe that she was out there and that I was saving myself for her and only her.
When the time came, she'd never second-guess me. She would have reason to love me back.
I allowed myself the words as I drifted off to sleep: soul mate. Finally, my body sighed on the bed, ready to get pulled under.
For the first time since mom left, I dreamt in color.
S.O.U.L (Sketches Of Ultimate Love) is a labor of my love. It took me five months to arrive at this chapter after way too many false starts. This one's what I call a "road-trip fic" simply because we have one destination, and yes, we're on the road a lot. I think this chapter sets our course. Thanks to Write On Time and Immortal for making this pretty for me and pushing me. This concept started as an O/S, but faireyfan had to ask all of these questions and after so many drafts, I realized we were talking about a WIP. Thank her for this first chapter. She saw it before I did. A, thanks for being in the passenger seat and keeping me collected.