Dawn Abeita writes fiction and raises children in Atlanta, Georgia. Her work has appeared in a number of literary journals, including American Fiction, Fiction Weekly, and Potomac. She has received grants from the MacDowell Colony and the Vermont Studio Center, and earned her MFA from Warren Wilson College.
Two boys are following as Nina and Mae walk the two palm-lined blocks from the middle school to Mae's house. One is skinny and his blonde hair hangs limp as Saran Wrap over his head. The other one is dark and shaggy. Nina knows this because she and Mae take turns looking behind them without being too obvious. The girls giggle, and Nina tugs at her pink hip huggers. The boys are flirting with them. "Dogs!" they say, and hurricanes of laughter leave them staggering past as Nina and Mae cut up through the burnt smelling grass to Mae's door.
The girls scrounge up all the stuff they need—the needle and thread, ice and alcohol—and put it where they can on the crowded dresser Mae shares with her sister, Julie. Mae picks the bald ice cube out of its bowl and squeezes it to Nina's ear. Nina jerks away and the ice cube clunks on the floor. "Just do it. It couldn't hurt worse than that." There is the sound of Mae's mother, Mrs. C., coming home, the jalousies in the door lift and rattle and fall, the sharp tread of her walk down the hall into her own room, the door shutting. Nina lays the tiny gold-colored stud with the stem hanging off the edge of the dresser and files it to a point. Some of the gold peels off the post. She lifts the earring to her eyes to study its sharpness. Mae snatches it from her, waves it through the flame of a match, douses it in the alcohol before Nina grabs it back to push it through the flesh of her ear with her eyes closed. It makes a noise like sewing Styrofoam. The flesh has a delicate, crunchy, layered feel, but it hardly hurts.
Mae's mother's bedroom door opens and footsteps pass. Things begin to bang in the kitchen. Nina saws at the other earring, aims at her other ear and pushes it through. They hurt some when she has to finger them to put the backs on.
Mae's turn. Nina sharpens while Mae stares at herself. Her father died long ago. Nina is lucky to get to see her dad once a month. She reaches a finger out and pokes her own eye on the dusty mirror, leaving a streak. She pushes her heavy, black hair behind her ears. She takes up the sterilized, sharpened earring and goes at herself. She grimaces and grunts before she falls to the floor. Nina runs to the door, fumbles unlocking it. When she flings it open, she bumps into Mrs. C. who catches her by the shoulders. Nina can see in her eyes that she sees Mae on the floor. "Mother, Mary of God," she says.
"She fainted," says Nina.
"She does that," says Mrs. C. She is tall and skinny and tired. Lines knit her eyes down and run like ditches from her hooked nose to her chin. Mae pulls herself up by clutching the chenille bedspread. She sees her mother and starts to cry. Julie, Mae's younger sister, comes and leans in the doorway to watch. Mae's mother squats and grabs the crown of Mae's head with her hand, turns it like a knob and inspects the ear. "Not too bad," she says. "But you're done for the day. I'll take you tomorrow to get the other one done at the mall out of your allowance."
"That's not fair," says Julie. "If she's getting hers done, I'm getting mine."
"Fine," says Mrs. C. "You've got allowance too."
"See, smarty." Julie's tongue flicks out.
"I can't go to school with one earring," Mae squeaks. She sits cross-legged on the floor with her head bowed.
"Want to bet?" says Mrs. C.
Mrs. C. goes to Nina, turns the knob of her head too. "It's crooked," she says, "but it's too late now, I guess." She pats Nina on the cheek and smiles. "Stay for dinner. Call your mother."
Nina dials. The only phone starts ringing on the kitchen wall. Cindy answers.
"Let me talk to Mom."
"She's outside," says Cindy. "Did you use any of her bath oil?"
"Just tell her I'm staying at Mae's for supper, okay?"
"You're always there, and you don't get blamed."
"Just tell her," she says and hangs up.
After dinner, Mae and Nina paddle up and down in the screened-in pool. Those two boys are suddenly there leaning their faces on the screen. "What are you doing?" asks Mae.
"Nothing," says the skinny one.
The girls glide to the closest edge peeking over the rough lip. "Want to swim?" asks Mae.
"We don't have our suits," he says. “We could wear our shorts.”
"You can't, stupid" says Mae. "They're cut-offs. The strings'll get in the filter."
They go away, and Mae's brothers come out and start horsing around and dunking each other and splashing. The girls sit on the edge. "I'll kill you if you splash us," says Mae.
Then those boys are back with swim shorts on and towels slung around their necks—small, white, house towels. They let themselves in the screen door, run and leap into the pool and join the brothers, churning the water and hopping out and dripping and running on the rough cement decking and in again. "Don't run by the pool," yells Mrs. C. from the house. They stop in their tracks, streams of water leak from them to the cement. The shaggy one shakes the water from his eyes instead of wiping like normal people.
Then they sit lined up on the edge of the pool with the girls, the skinny one on Mae's side and the shaggy one on Nina's. The water slides from the boys' hair down their rounded backs. "I'm Jeff," says the skinny one leaning out over the pool to look into both of their faces, swiping his eyes. "That's Eddie," says Jeff. "He don't talk much. That's the way he is." Nina and Mae look at Eddie. There is water running down his cheek from his hair. "We've been friends since we were three because we live next door to each other. We're a lot alike."
Nina watches Eddie until he peeks at her from the side of his eyes. He slaps over his shoulder at the stream running down his back as if it itched him. Under his nails is all black. "We know your names," Jeff says. "You're popular girls and you're in the advanced classes. Not us."
"Why is it all black under your nails?" Nina asks Eddie.
"I help my father work on the car," he says. His voice is quiet.
Nina looks at him closer. "Oh," she says. "That's cool, I guess."
"Yeah," he says looking at his hands until they curl up.
Nina looks over at Mae who is watching something off in the bushes outside the patio while Jeff talks and then glances over her shoulder at the kitchen window where her mother's face appears and disappears under the florescent tube of light.
Jeff turns to look at what Mae is looking at. "We gotta go," he says suddenly, getting up, unfolding his knobby knees like a heron. "Why don't you walk us home? Eddie wants to show you his bike."
Mae twists around and yells up at the window. "Ma, we're going to walk them home so Eddie can show us his bike."
Mrs. C. comes out and stares at them. "Be back in half an hour," she says. "You better spend the night, Nina. You can't walk all the way home by yourself in the dark."
Nina's mother would be home, but she would never come get her—dark or no dark. "Okay," Nina says. Mrs. C. sweeps Nina's wet hair back over her shoulder, out of her face, as they leave.
The girl's walk with their elbows linked, following the boys. Eddie and Jeff's houses are five blocks down and one over. Their houses are just like all the other houses except Eddie's yard is full. A red racecar sits on a trailer and another sits up on cinder blocks. They both have yellow number sixty-fours painted on their sides. The carport is stacked with parts; an engine is dangling by chains from the roof. Eddie disappears into the mess, turning sideways to get through. An orange tree in the middle of the yard has a ring of bricks around it. Its leaves are black. A big wheel is abandoned by the sick tree.
"Come to my house," Jeff says to just Mae. His yard is empty and parched. "I've got a cool swing I built in the back yard from a tree. You can swing over the fence and drop into Eddie's yard like Tarzan." Jeff and Mae leave Nina alone.
Nina walks over and looks in the window of the car on blocks, first looking at her earrings in her reflection, then cupping her hands around her face to cut the outside light. There is nothing in there, just one seat and a steering wheel. The rest of the car is taken up with a lot of metal tubing. The dashboard has one instrument hanging from a wire and there is a big hole and two little ones where the radio and its dials are supposed to poke through. Even the door panels are gone, even the glove box door. A McDonald's french fry bag lays on the dirty floor.
"You take everything out like that," Eddie says beside her suddenly. "It's to make the car as light as possible. Anything extra just slows you down. And plus you gotta add all them roll bars.”
"Makes sense, doesn't it," says Nina.
He touches her shoulder and she turns. There is a motorcycle parked behind her now. Eddie straddles it. "It's an enduro, not a street bike."
There is no license plate, no headlight, only a round plastic sign where his number must go. "I race on the weekends. You don't have to even be fifteen to ride if it's not on the street." She steps up to him. She wants to say something but everything is quiet and she doesn't have anything to say. The streetlights come on, burning their little holes in the still lighted sky. He sits on the motorcycle looking down at where her hip is an inch from his leg.
She doesn't move. He ducks his head to look at her face, then he just stares down between his legs at the gas tank. "It was me, you know. Jeff, he doesn't care. It was me that wanted to get to know you. I've liked you for a long time."
"Oh," says Nina. She can look at him now; he is still looking down. He is cute, in a way. He seems to just be waiting for something, thinking about something of his own. That's the way he seemed all day so far, sweet.
"Will you go with me?" he says very quietly.
Mae and Jeff come back across the yard. "She wouldn't do it," Jeff calls. "She was chicken. I dared her, but she wouldn't." He makes chicken noises and flaps his knees in and out. Mae slaps him on the shoulder. "Quit it," she says. They are both laughing, and Nina laughs because they are. Eddie just smiles at them. "Come on, we gotta go," says Mae and starts walking off.
"Okay," says Nina into Eddie's shoulders, "Yes." She can feel him watching her as she runs after Mae. When they are walking side by side she turns back and looks at him looking at her.
"He asked me to go with him," she tells Mae.
"That's ridiculous," says Mae. "You don't know thing one about him. All the boys just like you."
"I said yes," says Nina.
Mae's forehead wrinkles up. "That's stupid," she says. "He's a greaser, a loser." They don't say anything for a few seconds. "Let's keep it a secret," says Mae. "So no one knows you're going with him. You don't have to talk to him at school. You'll never even see him."
"I like him," says Nina.
Nina doesn't see Eddie at all in school the next day. Mae's mother is home when they get there. She is sitting on the couch looking at the TV Guide, her legs crossed. She wears her nursing shoes. "Ready?" she asks. "Julie, come on," she yells down the hall. Then she stands and picks up her purse, hangs it like a bell from the crook of her arm, and walks out the door.
The mall is dead. The Lerner's store has a bunch of cheap sweaters crammed on a round rack on sale. Julie gets up on the stool at the booth that pierces ears. The lady who works there stands beside her holding the gun that shoots the hole in your ear. "They're getting 14 carat gold," Mrs. C. says. "We don't want infections."
"Three pairs of 14 carat gold starter balls," the woman says.
"Just two," says Mrs. C. “This one isn't mine.” She points at Nina.
Mae and Nina walk around the booth looking at the earrings nestled in fake gold satin in the glass cases. "I saw Jeff at school," Mae whispers. "He asked me to go with him. I told him yes. Now we're two best friend couples. Cool, huh? When I'm fourteen, I can date. We can go out together to Pizza Hut. It'll be really fun. If I had your mom, we wouldn't have to wait. Your mom lets you do anything. Oh, yeah," she says, "I almost forgot. God, how could I forget." She roots around in her purse. "Hold this," she says, and she dumps a travel pack of Kleenex into Nina's hand. "He gave me this. It's from Eddie." She dangles an I.D. bracelet from her hand, takes her Kleenex back, and replaces it with the bracelet.
Nina spends the night, but doesn't call home. She only calls sometimes. She wears Mae's jeans with the elephant bells to school the next day with her own flip-flops and one of Mae's brother's t-shirts that reached almost to her knees. Mae wears Nina's pink hip-huggers.
When she goes home after school, she does all the laundry, folds it and puts it away. She mops the kitchen floor and starts dinner—a family size box of frozen fried chicken in the hot oven, and some frozen peas and water in a pan to be boiled.
There are only two fans to cool the apartment. Her skin feels thick like it has soaked up the heat. She puts one of the fans in the back door to draw the oven heat out of the tiny kitchen. The other fan is her mother's to sleep with. Her mother sleeps on the fold-out sofa in the living room, and she'll get yelled at if she moves the fan, so she strips to her panties and lays in front of the churning, hot air.
Nina imagines that she and Mae are in the back seat of a car with the boys. Mae grabs at Jeff's hat while he tries to keep it on. The sun flickers past the windows and they are going somewhere like the beach where they can swim close together. Eddie can grab her legs as she tries to swim and drag her under water back close to him. They can talk, quietly bobbing in the lapping waves. Mrs. C. buys them milkshakes on the way home. Their little sisters will be jealous of them and her mother will ask personal questions.
The sun still drums against the back of the house when her mother gets home. She can hear the cough of the car engine quitting, her mother step-by-step coming up the stairs with her little brother jabbering behind. "Look at you," her mother says. “Why do I have to come home to this mess?" she says. "If you kids think I'm your maid, you've got another think coming." She always says this. She slaps Nina on the behind. "Get up," she says. "I'm beat. I'm taking a nap."
Nina takes her brother out and puts him in his wagon and walks around and around the block. Their road is sand, packed tight with shells. Nina imagines that a car comes around the corner and hits her but not little Jimmy. She is left in a coma and Eddie comes to the hospital on his motorcycle, chased the whole way by police, jumping curbs, running red lights, dangerously dodging between cars. He pitches a holy fit until they let him see her. There are tubes in her nose.
They eat. Flatware clatters, glasses clunk down. Jimmy bangs his cup on his highchair tray. "You kids don't appreciate what I do. You try going to work all day" says Nina's mother. "All those dentists I work with don't care if your legs hurt. My legs hurt all the time and my back, and you kids just make more work.” She holds a piece of chicken out to Jimmy. Just as he is getting his hands coordinated enough to reach for it, she distractedly throws it onto the tray. "Whose turn is it to do the dishes?" she says.
"Nina's," says Cindy.
After she does the dishes, Nina gives Jimmy his bath, washes the fat folds of his legs and puts him in his crib. Her mother is already in the fold-out bed reading her bible. "Goodnight, honey," she says.
Mrs. C. is ironing in the kitchen the next morning when Nina comes in. The nursing uniform she is wearing is crisp. Mae is standing beside her, arms folded, waiting. Mrs. C. swoops the iron and turns the fabric without looking. She is looking at Nina. She says, "I don't think you should really be wearing that to school. Maybe you better go on in there and change." Nina looks down her front along the baggy and faded blue halter and the sharp hills of her breasts.
"She can wear what she wants," says Mae. "Her mother lets her wear that. Everyone wears those."
"You don't," says Mrs. C.
"Just because of you," says Mae.
"Of course," says Mrs. C. She pulls the finished shirt from the arm of the board and flings it at Mae who catches it.
"You don't have to change," says Mae.
"I want to," says Nina and she walks down the hall toward Mae and Julie's room. She gets a nylon button front shirt of Julie's. Mrs. C. irons it for her even though it doesn't really need it. It has a sunset airbrushed on the back.
"Goodbye girls," says Mrs. C. She watches them until they are out of sight, which is almost at the door of the school.
After school, Eddie is sitting on the ground in front of the benches where they are supposed to meet. He is pulling up the grass in patches and tossing it aside. Each blade twirls a little before it falls flat. He has mowed all the grass in front of him. Jeff is sprinting along the top of the concrete benches, jumping from bench to bench as if he is being timed. When he sees the girls he stops, teetering on the edge. "Hey," he says. "Cool." Then he jumps down and goes to Mae and hangs his heavy arm around her neck. "Let's go to my house," he says.
"I can't go in," says Mae, "if your mother isn't home."
"Besides," says Jeff, "we got a surprise for you." He and Mae start across the street practically at a run. Eddie and Nina hold hands.
When they get to Eddie's, he gets his motorcycle out and starts it. The rest of them stand in the yard and watch him buzz off to the end of the street and then back even though he's not supposed to ride it on the street. The bike leans a little to one side when he accelerates then jerks itself up. He pulls into the yard and turns off the bike and sits there on it.
"Give it to her," says Jeff. Eddie sends him a mean look. "Well if you're not, I am," and Jeff digs a little cardboard box out of his jeans pocket and gives it to Mae. Eddie slowly gets a box out of his pocket, and hands it to Nina. "I got mine real cheap, real cheap, you know what I mean?" says Jeff. "But Eddie he wouldn't do it. He paid for his."
Nina turns her back so he can't see her face when she opens it. Inside the box is a ring. It's silver with a simple diamond, tiny and beautiful as sand. "They're real," says Jeff. "The real McCoy. Eddie spent a wad."
Eddie reaches around her, picks it up out of the box and puts it on her finger, keeping hold of her hand. She looks at the grease and his thick fingers and the tiny ring. Everybody in seventh grade gets a I.D. bracelet and a ring when they are going together, but she doesn't care. She likes it. She hears Mae say, "Wow, it's real. Wow. I never had a real ring from anyone before."
"Don't take it off," Eddie says. "You should never, ever take it off. It means something for real." Nina looks down at her hand. Past her hand she can see her feet, her platform shoes and her plain, sandy toes with a piece of grass wedged between them. She bends over and picks out the grass, then she walks over to the car on its low blocks. The sun glares off the windows and into her eyes. She yanks the hot door handle, gets in and sits in the low seat holding the steering wheel. Eddie gets in on the passenger side, kicks the french-fry bag out of his way, and sits cross-legged on the bare floor. They can see Jeff and Mae laughing and shoving each other a little, developing a dare, but those two can't see her and Eddie past the glare, not well.
"I'm sorry," he says. "You don't like it, or you don't want it you can always just give it back, okay?"
"No," says Nina.
"What?" he says. "I'm embarrassed."
"No," she says, looking at her hands on the wheel, the ring's glint. "I want it."
She is staring out the window. The curtains move from inside the house. The sky looks far away and cool, like it's only hot in the car. He gets up on his knees and touches her face. She jerks without thinking, and he falls back on his heels for a minute, then pops up again. He smells like warm, wet cement before he kisses her. Her first kiss. The car begins to rock.
"Hey, love birds," says Jeff. "Come out, come out." Now he is pounding on the roof with his fist. Eddie pulls away, falls back on his butt on the floor. Nina rolls her window down quickly.
"I gotta go home," says Mae. She puts her hands on top of the hot car to lean in but lifts them quickly and checks her burnt palms. "I don't want to, but it's my turn to go help with the grocery shopping. My mom will kill me if she has to wait for me. Come on."
"You don't have to go, do you?" asks Eddie. "You could stay." Eddie takes up one corner of Nina's eye, out of the other corner she sees the front door to Eddie's house open. A woman comes out and stands looking at them all, smiling. Her t-shirt says Come to Marlboro Country. Nina gets out of the car. She brushes at the seat of her jeans. She and Mae walk away. "Adios," yells Mae. Nina looks down at her ring, then turns, walks backward, and holds the ringed hand up to him.
Mae's mother is in the kitchen rooting around in the refrigerator and writing things down on a notepad. "Do we have any of those Frito packs for the boy's lunches?"
"All gone," says Mae.
"Mae, have you been to that boy's house?" Mrs. C. opens a carton of milk and sniffs, folds the wings back onto each other and pushes it back on the shelf.
“We didn't,” says Nina.
"His name is Jeff, remember?" says Mae. "But we didn't go in even though Eddie's mother was home."
"I don't think you should go there," says Mrs. C.
"We didn't go in," said Mae. "That's the rule. We didn't go in. What do you want?"
"It's not just that," says Mrs. C.
“You don't trust us. You don't trust your own daughter."
"It's just they aren't the kind of boys you need to be hanging out with."
"You can't tell me who to have as friends," says Mae. "They're my friends, not yours. You can't pick your kid's friends."
"I know that. But I can tell you when I don't like something. I can tell you when I think you've made a mistake." She pulls an egg carton out, counts the eggs. She pulls one out of the carton and slides the roundness around in her fingers, then puts it back.
"You think you know everything," yells Mae. "You don't know everything." She flings herself at the refrigerator door slamming it onto her mother.
Mrs. C. grabs it with her hand and holds it. "I got all you kids this far on my own. I must know something."
"It's none of your business," Mae screams. "I love him, and I hate you." She stomps down the hall and slams her bedroom door.
"Mother, Mary of God," says Mrs. C. “I think you better go on home tonight.”
When Nina leaves Mae's, she walks down the middle of the hot street in a concentrated daze. At Eddie's she has to stand on the cement pad that is the front porch. Some impatiens are bunched and dying in the cement planter. She sees the spare key peeking off the top of the window frame.
She knocks, wants to take it back. She doesn't want to be there. Her stomach knots and turns. His mother answers the door. "Hi," she says. "Are you Nina?" She pushes the screen wide with one arm. "Come in," she says. "We were just about to eat. You're welcome to sit down with us."
"Oh," says Nina. "I'm sorry. Could I talk to Eddie for just a minute?"
"Eddie," his mother yells, "Eddie, you got company," and she winks at Nina.
Eddie comes to the door. He looks like he just combed his hair, just washed his face. His mother flicks on the porch light even though it is still light out, and slowly shuts the door.
Eddie takes her hand. She pulls him to sit on the curb. "I didn't expect to see you again tonight," he says. He is smiling at her and sweeping his free hand through his hair trying to muss it. "I thought you never went anywhere without your friend," he chuckles. Nina just looks at the gutter under her feet where little waves of gray sand are caught. He lets go of her hand, touches her face, quickly kisses her on the cheek.
"My mother says I have to break up with you," she says.
He doesn't say anything at first. He just looks up the street in the other direction. "It's because you're so popular and I'm a greaser."
"I'm not so popular."
"I should've known," he says.
"You don't know," she tells him. "I don't want to. I can't explain."
She starts getting up. She can't sit here. Little waves of pain flow off him. "Here's your ring." She works it off her finger, holds it out in the air.
"I don't want that fucking ring," he says flatly. Then quieter, "I bought it for you. Keep it."
"It's a really nice ring. You can give it to someone. Someone lucky." Her voice strangles.
He glances at her sharply. "I don't want it," he says, and turns back to look off down the street, watching a car pull out of a driveway.
She sits back down, holds the ring out in the space between them and hangs her head. She remembers the ID safe in her pillowcase. She held it in her fist through the fabric last night while she slept. She puts the ring carefully on his knee, watching it balance there. Then she gets up, moves away from him, turns back. "We can be good friends," she says. "Can't we?"
He still doesn't look at her, but he takes the ring into his hand and throws it. She can't see it in the dusky air. She sees his arm go up and she thinks she hears the sound of it sailing past her, definitely hears it fall with a small, thin clank against the sewer grate.
She walks past the blocks of identical houses melting into the quickly darkening air. The palm fronds are rustling. Nobody could tell anything about her if they saw her just walking down the street. She remembers that she still has that sunset on the back of her shirt. It makes her feel stupid, though she's glad she's not walking home in the dark in the halter. But then she pictures how soft the blue fabric is, snuggling her face in it, crying. She doesn't know why that popped into her head. She tries to imagine something, tries to imagine flattening herself on the street so she can squirm through the sewer opening. The ring is lying right there like it is nestling in the cement. She tries to imagine bringing up the ring in her balled fist, scraping her shoulders past the grate. She can't. The dark is punctured every so many steps by the green haze of a streetlight. She balances herself dead along the centerline.
"You're home," her mother says when she drags in. "Surprise surprise.”