It's while watching Connie Carter attempt to light the Bunsen burner that you realize how badly you want her, and how innately, almost like instinct, the lie unfolds. You two are standing silent as always on opposite sides of the table as she dangles a match in the hissing invisible gas, her ample body squeezed into a one-size-too-small fire apron. You're stealing glances down her black Metallica T-shirt at the mounds of flesh underneath, experiencing the same daydreams you've been having since Connie became your sophomore chemistry partner five weeks earlier: where she is standing completely naked in front of you except for her blue combat boots with her hands at her hips, her moon-belly jiggling just enough to send ripples throughout her legs and torso, squinting at you like you're somewhere far off in the distance, like you're not quite coming in clear. Connie never catches you staring like this, never looks you in the eye or gives the appearance she is aware you exist, making you reach for the microscope when she is done instead of passing it over, which makes you feel uneasy about even talking to her. But today is different. Today you take a few steps back as Connie keeps messing with the burner, waiting until she has it lit before you lie and tell her that you of all people won't have the lab report done on time.
Even as Connie stares at you with suspicion through the bluish-tipped flame, scanning your body up and down searching for any trace of the lie, you think about the stories, about the rumors that surround her. Connie Carter has a reputation at Bellman High. She is known for her perpetually torn skirts and spike-studded bracelets, for the way she curses and struts down the hallways with authority. You know—or at least think you know—that she has made it with upperclassman, the kind of guys who have mustaches and let cigarettes dangle from their lips; you know she's made it with underclassman too, boys that still carry backpacks around, boys like you. You know last year it was rumored she had gotten some kind of STD that nearly killed her and a few months before that there was a pregnancy scare. Whether these things are true or not, you choose to believe almost all of them.
"I thought you were really smart or something," Connie says. "I thought all you quiet guys were like geniuses." She adjusts the flame between you two, turning it down, and running the blade of her finger right through the tip.
"I'm just a little behind," you say, embarrassed that Connie Carter thinks you're smart. "It shouldn't take too long. Maybe we can finish it after school?"
Just as Connie frowns with what you imagine to be uncertainty at the thought of spending time with you outside of class, a skinny brunette in tight jeans with an exposed midriff crosses between Connie and the next table over, and like a shot hisses the word bitch into her ear. Connie whirls around to see the brunette flashing a devilish grin as she proceeds to her lab table on the other side of the room, and while you consider asking her what that was about, you know from the rumors this girl is pissed at Connie because she let this girl's boyfriend touch her boobs under the bleachers during last Saturday's football game. It wasn't long, maybe thirty seconds, maybe less, but as Connie wipes the back of her hand against her lips and says, "That girl's got it coming," you love how she's the indignant one.
The skinny brunette, glaring at Connie the entire time, walks to the back of the room now where Mr. Jance, the chemistry teacher, is standing in front of a giant black cabinet doling out different colored solutions for the experiment. Connie keeps pace with the brunette's stare until she's out of sight, until she is waiting in line for her chemicals, and then Connie tiptoes over to the brunette's lab table. She picks up random beakers and swishes them around, running her hand through her spiked blonde hair and smiling wildly as you watch in awe at her quickly mixing together the brunette's solutions without fear, pouring red liquids into blue liquids and vice versa.
You wonder what reactions will take place or how screwed up the brunette's results will be when a terror-pain strikes your gut as you realize Connie is waving you over. You don't move, paralyzed, staring at her, at her thick, pasty forearms outstretched toward you as she whispers, "Come the fuck on," and because of how serious she sounds you sneak across the room to her. You look down at two beakers Connie has placed in front of you and then back at her. "C'mon," she says, her eyes bulging, darting to and from the back of the chemistry lab. You think the only thing worse than admitting to her that you might be smart is chickening out, so you swallow your concerns and close your eyes and empty a white liquid into a another white liquid, creating a milky substance that immediately crystallizes and sticks to the side of the glass.
When you open your eyes, Connie is smiling again. She's looking at you, bracing her hands against the vinyl lab table, resting her teeth on her bottom lip. "OK," Connie says with an approving lilt in her voice. She leans closer to you now, your entire world consisting of nothing but the deep, pooling freckles at the base of her neck. "We can finish the report thing together. Come over after school." You feel a tinge of excitement in your stomach that quickly morphs into fear as Connie reaches out and holds her tightly-clenched fist under your nose, the veins in her doughy underarms suddenly visible as she flexes and says, "But if you tell anyone what we did to that skinny bitch's experiment, I'll fucking kill you."
Connie Carter's basement, which is also her bedroom, smells funny. It's an old, stale smell of wet twine or hay, a typical Midwestern basement musk that you've smelled before in friends' basements but for some reason, like everything else, is intensified in Connie's. You wait for her to return with two Cokes, looking around the small square room, poorly lit by a single lamp that sits on a table next to you draped with a blue T-shirt, shrouding your lab report rendering it unreadable; you close the report and slide it off your lap and onto the floor and into the darkness.
As you hear Connie close and latch the door at the top of the stairwell, you can't help but stare at her bed in the corner opposite you pushed up against the wall. It's neatly made with the blankets tucked in and the pillows spaced evenly across the mattress and what strikes you about it is that whenever you pictured Connie's room, her bed specifically, you imagined it to be chaos, where each piece of clothing scattered about the floor was some form of protest, some way in which Connie was rebelling. You envisioned her sheets to be messy, crumpled, each wrinkle holding a memory, conjuring up a wild image of dark rooms and sticky skin that makes her cheeks dimple in a coy sort of way, one that suggests even you can become one of those wrinkles, a cotton memory.
She stands in front of you now and puts a sweaty Coke in your palm, the blue tint of the room blowing shadows over her plaid-skirted legs and bare arms.
"What are you looking at?" Connie asks.
"Nothing," you say. "You've got a cool room is all."
"What's so fucking great about it?"
"It just has more personality than my room, I guess."
"Thanks," Connie says, like she really doesn't mean it. "It's a basement. Besides, most of this stuff isn't even mine."
"A club," you blurt out. "That's what it reminds me of. Like where bands play."
"A rock club," Connie says with a grin. "You ever been to one?"
"Almost," you say, visibly wincing, thinking about Stacy Boulda, who you almost tried to sneak into a club with on her sixteenth birthday but whimped out on at the last second. Stacy Boulda: a shy, quiet girl, someone like you who you met at a party and who at the end of the night, after you two had shared a bottle of Arbor Mist she had stolen from her mother's downstairs refrigerator, kissed you sloppily on the front lawn with everything from her swirling hazel eyes to her toned calves like she was praying, leading you to believe that you had found something, a connection. Stacy Boulda: a shy, quiet girl you like who you dated for six months after that and who you loved until she blew some college freshman one night at a party two towns over, a party to which you were not invited.
"Almost," Connie says snickering. She shakes her head at you.
"What?" you ask.
"Nothing," she says. She repeats the word almost again in a way that makes you feel small and lame.
It's quiet for a moment as your nose begins to tingle from something wet and prickly in the air. You wrinkle it, taking deep breaths, trying to hold back but you sneeze anyway, quickly forming a triangle of hands around your nostrils. You look over at Connie hoping that somehow she didn't notice and see that she looks anxious, her cheeks becoming flushed as she taps the top of her Coke can with a metallic snap.
"Everything OK?" you ask.
"Was that because of the smell? That sneeze?"
"You know what smell," she says. "You can't miss it." She fidgets some in her seat. "Do you want to know what it is?" Before you can answer, like she didn't care if you wanted to know or not, she whispers "It's wigs."
"Wigs," Connie says.
She rises and disappears into a dark corner of the room from where you hear shuffling like the sound of hands being rubbed together. She returns holding two wigs, one on each hand, an electric black one and a stringy blonde, both short and moppy like Beatles haircuts. "Told you," Connie says. "They're from when my mom had cancer."
"Oh," you mumble, unsure of what to say. "I'm sorry."
"What for? You didn't cause it."
You nod. "How many does she have?"
"Tons," Connie says. "She bought a shitload of them."
"She wanted options. You know, keep things fresh. She said that if she was going to die she didn't want to look the same all the time. I mean, she didn't die, but isn't that cool?"
Connie readjusts on the couch now, tucking her legs underneath her and tossing the wigs on the floor. She tells you about how she and her mother used to put the wigs on and pretend to be different people: how they would talk in different accents and eventually create a different character for each wig, a different persona to slip under when they wanted to. They gave the characters names, talked about them like they were real people. Claus Van Houten for a brown, bushy, German looking wig. Natasha Dietonzitski for a long, black one. Suzie O'Connor for a blonde updo. Connie tells you that's how her mother and her dealt with her father leaving right after he found out about the cancer, right around the time when her mother's hair starting falling out.
Connie's powder blue eyes suddenly look sick, the sides of them puffing up, and you realize that there is something sad about Connie Carter, something secret and painful that she buries away. You think about her as a little girl putting on the different wigs, assuming these different made-up people, and you think about how heartbreakingly cute she must have looked. You think about her now with strands of chopped hair and a lip ring, about her sitting alone somewhere experiencing tremendous heartache, maybe right here in the basement, maybe in bushes on the way to school, and it scares you, shakes you to your core like seeing a parent weep. You don't want to think about Connie this way. You want her to be a type, a concept, emotionless.
"My fucking old man," Connie says shaking her head and pounding her fist into the couch cushion. "I could kill him sometimes. Just kill him. And sometimes I could kill for him, you know? My mom says I have to let it go though. She says she has but I think its bullshit. I don't think you get over stuff like that."
"I don't either," you say.
"I knew you'd understand. I can't imagine what it must be like for you, having your personal shit in all the papers and everything."
"Yeah," you say. "It's sucks," curling the fingernails of your right hand into your damp palm.
Confession: Your parents are divorced. They have been for a few months, since the end of your freshman year. Your father was running for school board president and had an affair with another woman who was also running, which is why it was in the paper, which is how your mother found out, which is why she spent the night in the hospital when she tried to kill herself with pills, which is why you hate hospitals and secrets, which, along with the whole Stacy Boulda thing, is why you don't think love exists. You've spent the last few months being shuffled back forth between their new houses on weekends, adjusting to two beds, two kitchens, two distinct types of breakfast foods—one sugary and unnecessary (your mother) and one made with whole grains and organic ingredients (your father)—and two different types of conversation most of time circling around how you think the other parent is handling everything or how the newspapers really blew the whole thing out of proportion, almost wishing you had a brother or sister for no other reason than to know someone else who felt as out of place or uncomfortable or as sad as you, to have someone to share the misery with.
Another confession: You've started to think maybe you're depressed. You think there might be something seriously and clinically wrong with you. You cry, randomly and most of the time for no real reason. Sometimes it's because you're thinking about something sad but other times it's completely inexplicable to you. In order to counteract this, you've started taking the train downtown to Chicago after school or on weekends to the Conservatory, the place where your parents used to take you together. You spend all day there sheltered underneath the giant steel domes. You walk the grounds pretending like you haven't seen any of the exhibits before, pretending that you don't know the layout of the facilities by heart. You stroll through each section, looking at the different kinds of foliage, reading the informational placards carefully, savoring each word. Then when you find yourself mostly alone, when there are no tourists or guides to speak of, almost like habit you take one last look around before disappearing into the brush, hiding amongst the palms and rare plants, pretending you're someone or something else, some kind of rare wild animal or a guerrilla fighter in some jungle combat zone. You sit watchful as families stroll by—couples holding hands or maybe a father with a little girl perched on his shoulders—whispering BANG to yourself, pretending to shoot them, and you feel quiet here, hushed in some sort of calm, the kind you imagine people get who regularly attend church or who believe in something. You close your eyes thinking that will help you blend in, ignoring the passersby who spot you, who whisper to themselves about the teenage boy who may or may not be crying in the exhibits.
"So did you find out about it when everyone else did?" Connie asks. "Did you just open a paper and POW! there it was?"
She inches closer to you now, the cushion between you two cut in half. She is sitting on her knees waiting for your answer and as painful as this is, as horrible as talking about this makes you feel, you can tell by a strange, voyeuristic gleam in her eyes that right now you have her attention, that for the first time in the last five weeks you have her completely in your grasp.
"Pretty much," you say. "A friend of mine cut the article out and showed me one morning at school. My parents didn't say anything to me. Sometimes I wonder if they would've."
"Did you know your old man was fucking around?"
"Not then, but there were probably signs."
"Really?" Connie says, grinning at something you do not understand, something in a clandestine language only she can translate. "You should've said something, man. You should've told somebody. Why didn't you . . . "
"Shut up," you say, seeing it in her eyes that now you've lost her, the gleam slowly fading into a big, black nothing. You let the silence wash over both of you a little upset by what Connie has suggested. She laughs awkwardly for another moment or two, scratching her fingers across her forehead, a light gloss of sweat suddenly visible on her cheeks and the slope of her nose. You just sit quietly while she mumbles to herself and rocks back and forth on the couch.
"I'm sorry," Connie finally says in one breathy shot. "Sometimes I just say stuff and I don't even realize what I've said until it's like too late, you know? I feel bad for you, though. I do. People like to complain about everything, but I think you and me have real shit to complain about."
"It's fine," you say, even though it's not, even though you feel a little disappointed in her.
"How big of a bitch was I?"
"Really?" Connie says. "'Cause I think I was a bitch. You can tell me."
You don't say a word and after a few beats Connie finally says, "You're way too nice," with bashful grin fixed to her face, which at first you take as a compliment but then she adds, "Too fucking nice," which you understand to be a bad thing, a quality of someone not in control of their own life.
"That's what people say about you, you know?" Connie says. "They say you're nice. Nice and quiet. Nice and . . . I don't know. Just nice."
"Is that a bad thing?" you ask.
"I'm not sure," Connie says, cocking her head to one side. "It could be. Do you?"
"Sometimes," you whisper. "Sometimes I think so."
Connie slides closer to you still, the cushion that once separated you two vanishing as the couch creaks here and there. You can smell her now, her skin, her shampoo, her perfume, all of it coming together in an aroma that you imagine could only come from her. You feel a zap as your knee brushes against hers, both of you quickly breaking your glances elsewhere. In the stunted silence, you spot the lab report hiding in the shadows and consider picking it up, maybe just to break the tension, maybe because you realize that even though you want this to go somewhere, want the rubbing of her knee against yours to only be the beginning, you're scared of what it could lead to, of not knowing what to do or how to react.
"Can I ask you a question?" she says. "Did you seriously need my help with this lab report thing? I mean I know you always finish like everything on time."
"Not everything," you say. "Honestly though?"
"Yeah honestly," she says. "But it doesn't matter. I knew it was a lie."
"I didn't mean to. It just slipped out."
"Why'd you do it?" Connie asks. She doesn't look angry or upset like you thought she would. Instead her cheeks fill with color, hues of red and white.
"I don't know," you say.
"Yes you do," Connie says. "You just don't do things. There's always a reason."
"You just said you say stuff all the time without a reason."
"No, I said I say stuff without thinking. There might be a reason, I just don't think about it."
"Why'd you have me over if you knew I was lying?" you ask.
"I asked you first," Connie whispers.
"I . . . like you." You mumble and stammer through trembling lips. "I . . . I just fucking like you. I know why. I don't want to talk about it, but I know why."
Connie doesn't say a word. Her eyes fill with what you can only perceive to be stars as she looks up at you now, and like that, like you said the secret password, Connie Carter is kissing you. You let instinct take over, cupping her cheeks, rapidly switching back and forth from kissing her neck and kissing her mouth. You two move to the floor almost by accident, nearly dry humping each other off the couch, and Connie, lying next to you and rubbing your crotch, pulls away for a moment and takes off her T-shirt revealing a neon pink bra. The fluorescence of it shocks you, forcing you to squint in order to see her.
"You OK?" Connie asks. "Your eyes just got really narrow."
"Your bra," you say.
"What about it?" Connie tilts her head down, examining it, fingering fraying bits of the elastic strap.
"That color just doesn't seem like you."
She smiles, lets a laugh slip. "There are a lot of things you don't know about me," she whispers. "Things you could never know." She sounds cocky like this, and then pauses for a moment, her voice shrinking. "Things you would never want to know."
Suddenly everything is still. What were hard deep breaths just a moment before now come effortlessly as you both just stare at each other until Connie says, "Do you like it though?"
"I love it," you say.
Connie abruptly sits back on her ankles now and slouches, looking off into the dark corners of the room where she tossed her T-shirt, where the boxes of wigs lie. She takes a deep breath and shaking her head says, "Don't use that word again, OK?"
"Why? I just meant—"
"You just can't," she says. "You just can't throw it around like that and hope something good happens."
"OK," you say, sitting up.
"OK," you say again, emphasizing the K.
You watch Connie refocus as she sinks her teeth into bottom lip. You think about what she said, about being careful with that word, about using with discretion. You think about all the times you've said it, about all the times you've actually meant it, and how both numbers don't add up, how if you think real hard you're not even sure if you know what it really means.
You watch Connie reach her arms behind her for the clasp of her bra, and just as you hear it unsnap, hear the elastic start to give and uncoil, you feel Connie's words pound inside your head. You suddenly feel all these people and all these things quickly fill up your chest in a tight, numbing sensation, one that's all too familiar, one that leaves what you imagine is a hole in your heart where they've burrowed through. You feel Stacy Boulda. You feel your mother and father. You feel the woman your father was in love with, the picture from the paper, her curly red hair and sharply pointed nose. You feel the entire Conservatory: each brick on the floor, each plant, each placard, each family who you pretend to shoot, the new PLEASE KEEP OUT OF THE EXHIBITS sign freshly posted near the entrance that you swear is meant only for you. It's dark matter, and as Connie Carter is just moments from pulling her bra free of her body, you look up at her, at her blooming dimples, pinning her bra to her chest with folds of flesh bursting over her forearm wall, as a stray tear begins to work it's way down from your bottom eyelid, making a path for the rest as you hold your head in your hands and begin to inexplicably weep like you do.
The moon is up now in the sky outside, shining in through a small, rectangle window carved into a space where the ceiling and wall butt up against each other. Penetrating through the blue tint of Connie's room, it shines a spot between the two of you as you sit quietly facing each other, flashing soft bittersweet grins as Connie reaches out and places one of the wigs from earlier atop your head, the ones her mother and her used to hide from cancer and loneliness. She's fixed you with the puffy blonde one that curls in the back and at the sides, saving the black one for her because she didn't want you to have a wig of the same color as your hair.
"You'll really feel like someone else," she says, her arms outstretched on either side of your face, working gently to straighten the wig, to tuck your true real hair underneath it. "There, all done," she says, sitting back down on her butt and plopping the sleek black wig on her head.
"How do I look?" you ask.
"Like you're from the seventies," she says half-laughing, you following suit. "You feel any better though?"
"Maybe," you say, shrugging, when what you really want to say is: thank you.
Connie Carter didn't freak out when you started crying; she is a better person—a nicer girl—than you thought. She didn't ask you to leave or make fun of you, instead quickly refastening her bra and hopping off you, resting one hand at the base of your neck and the other on your thigh like she was holding you down, like she was keeping you from exploding. Maybe it's because she can tell that what's troubling you is serious, or maybe it's because when she asked you what was wrong you weren't even able to verbalize it. But either way she didn't ask any probing questions; she didn't pretend to have any answers for you or think that she could help—she was just there for you, letting you be.
It's then that the wig starts to itch, the coarse material on the inside of it rubbing against your skull. You fidget with the wig, readjusting it, hoping that will help, when you feel a strand of your hair slip from underneath it and dangle against your forehead, close enough to your eyebrows that you feel it's there but still just out of sight. Connie looks on silently with a smile as you jerk this way and that, running your fingers along your forehead and picking at the strand, attempting to stuff it back beneath the wig. But after much maneuvering your fingers are too big to fit and you give up and let the hair drag against your skin. It's an annoying feeling at first: this coil of hair you can't see that reminds you with a tickle that it's there, that you can't get rid of it, yet after a few moments, after you sit still and let the loose bit of hair settle against your skin, you find yourself growing accustomed to the way it feels.
Connie, giggling some, says, "Here, I'll help," and reaches toward the gash of hair with poised fingers.
"Leave it," you say, leaning back on your tailbone, not wanting her to touch it.
"Just let me fucking fix it."
"That's OK," you say. "I think I kind of like it."