Image © Amanda Gibbs 2019
|by Kelly Craig||July 9, 2019|
Before they are friends Kyle asks her to go under the bleachers with him at the homecoming football game. She says no. Their team loses. She drives herself home with the windows down. It’s still hot. Las Vegas, late September. She wants to feel a chill but the windowsill where her arm rests has retained the heat of the day and she feels nothing but the stickiness of her thighs from sweating on the metal bleachers. She doesn’t talk to Kyle again until the next year, senior year, when their AP government teacher assigns them seats next to each other in the front row. She says hi to him, feeling her friends watching her in rows behind. She pretends she doesn’t recognize him as the guy who asked her to go under the bleachers. He tells her his name is Kyle and acts like this is the first time they’ve met even though they’ve been in school together for three years and she already knows his name. She doesn’t tell him her name and he doesn’t ask. She is never sure if he knows it. He never says it out loud.
In government she discovers that Kyle is smart, like her. The other students in the class speak on politics with trepidation, confusion, arrogance. When Kyle raises his hand he gives thoughtful, gentle answers. She didn’t know he was smart — this gentle kind of smart — the night he asked her to go under the bleachers. He asks her to study with him for their first government test, since they’re both bright, he says. They ask their parents for money and sit with textbooks and double doubles and vanilla shakes at a table with an umbrella outside the In-n-Out Burger on Centennial Parkway. The table is next to the drive-through lane, and it is hot and bright and loud and no good for studying. She can feel her legs sticking to the red painted plastic bench that will leave diamond shaped imprints on her thighs when she stands up. She feels like her shorts are too short, like the red plastic diamonds pressed into her skin make her look fat, like he’s noticing the soft white hairs on the uppermost part of her thigh that she always forgets to shave. She remembers feeling like this the night he asked her to go under the bleachers. She doesn’t remember thinking about saying yes. It would have been sweaty under the bleachers, hot and bright and loud and no good.
Before the weather cools down she starts giving Kyle rides home from school in her 1995 Buick Roadmaster, inherited from her grandfather. Kyle has gym last period, so he’s close to the parking lot. She leaves her car unlocked during the day so he can get in and wait for her. It’s oven-hot inside the car, so he waits with the door open and one leg out, dirty white Chuck Taylor resting on the pavement. She takes the side hallways to get to the car faster. She’s breathless on arrival, but they still wait in traffic. They wait with the windows down because her AC doesn’t work, but the heat on their arms resting on the windowsills feels good after the air conditioned school. People in cars nicer than hers wave at Kyle. His friends from student council, or the swim team, before he quit sophomore year. Kyle waves back. They probably think she is his neighbor, his cousin, his tutor, that circumstances of acquaintance beyond his control require him to ride in her unfortunate car.
They sit in traffic every day but Wednesdays. On Wednesdays after school she’s in the garden club. She spends an hour each week in a patch of dirt behind the baseball field with some quiet kids who aren’t in any of her AP classes, trying to grow vegetables in the late warmth of Las Vegas fall. The broccoli goes straight to seed. The spinach crawls with aphids. Mostly, they get zucchini. She brings Albertsons plastic bags full home to her parents, where they eat some and let the rest rot in a bowl on the kitchen counter next to the coffee pot. Sometimes she sees Kyle outside in the parking lot spray painting giant pieces of white butcher paper with school spirit words, and goofing around with friends she doesn’t know, he doesn’t talk about. They make eye contact but they don’t wave until they meet at her car an hour later than usual.
When they get to Kyle’s house she comes in. Kyle lives in a recently built neighborhood at the north edge of the desert, and his parents don’t get home till five. They sit in his backyard with their feet in the pool and talk about where they’d rather be than there on the cool deck with each other. They make worlds in the closed-in backyard, projecting future selves onto the cinder block wall that turns dark, cool, deep gray as the sun lowers in the west, earlier each day as they inch closer to winter. Kyle imagines college at a school in the south where his dad went, a school with a big football team to cheer on. She wants to go to Boston, where the houses are made of real red bricks that are not hollow like the ones in the cinder block wall, where everyone wears a stiff coat and walks quickly without being in a hurry, braced against brisk air. They decide that nothing is ugly in these places the way it is in the drab backyard where they sit with their feet in the pool. On the other side of the wall, desert spreads north through miles and miles of Paiute reservation, national wildlife refuge, military test site. A whole world laid out in a ripple of basin and range, hiding nothing. Kyle tells her about the fight they had in student council about the prom theme. She agrees with him that Hollywood Nights is obviously better than Tropical Trip. She reclines on her hands into the patchy stucco cool deck. She can feel tiny pieces of plaster pressing into her hands and when the pool gets too cold they look together at the imprints the stucco has left in the fat of her palms.
Late in October, winter comes to the desert, and it is too cold to sit by the pool. She borrows one of his old swim team sweatshirts and they go for a walk in the desert. If he gives her a boost they can climb over his back wall, only five feet high on the backyard side. When they land on the other side of the wall in the sagebrush they land in a Las Vegas they don’t hate. The desert in winter seems thoughtful and gentle, like Kyle answering a question. They can see the Paiute Reservation golf club building, a mirage painted onto the desert in sunset colors. It is here in the place where nothing hides that he tells her he doesn’t really like the people in Student Council even though they are popular; where she tells him how sad she feels when the garden club advisor tells them a plant has gone to seed, will yield nothing. They look back at the solid line of cinder block that marks the neighborhood and they project futures where efforts always yield. They kick rocks and walk and fall silent in the deep stomach feeling of futures not here. She thinks about asking him if he remembers that he wanted to kiss her once, under the bleachers at the homecoming game junior year, but they’re back in the neighborhood before she gets around to it. The wall is at least eight feet desert side, so to go home they find where the street dead ends into the desert and walk back in dusty chuck taylors. She doesn’t understand how the wall can be so much taller on one side, how it can hold back all that desert from seeping in to Kyle’s backyard.
Over winter break they sit together on his bedroom floor and submit their college applications, then they drive around the rich gated neighborhoods near the high school to look at Christmas lights. Kyle knows the codes for some of the areas where his friends from student council live, and he reaches over her on the driver’s side to punch them in. In neighborhoods where he knows no one, they speed down the street to tail cars through the gates. She drives slowly past the houses on streets with names like Heather Ridge and Peaceful Wood and Wandering Pine, words that long to name streets somewhere lush and green. They look out the windows at rainbow lights strung up on the highest parts of tall two-story houses, at inflatable Santas that wave their arms, at teddy bears popping out of gifts, but they don’t really talk about the lights, or even think about them. They drive up to the end of Centennial Parkway and park in the dirt next to a half-built neighborhood. She notices the raised pads for houses and understands how Kyle’s wall works. They look out at the city, lit all year round, and agree that at least now they don’t have to be afraid of staying here and feel that deep stomach feeling of leaving.
In April they open their letters together. She doesn’t get in to her school in Boston, so she decides to go to one in California instead. He gets offers from two schools in the south and they take a walk in the desert and weigh the pros and cons of each. In the end he chooses the one with the smaller football team because he feels like his cheering might make more of a difference there. He is optimistic about California for her. She feels excited to live in a place that is warm and wet, where there might be a chance of growing something. He predicts that she’ll fall in love with a surfer and get tattoos. She conjures up a pageant queen for him, with a former pageant queen mother who only ever got runner up. She tries to imagine coming back to this spot in the desert with her surfer and her tattoos, but she can’t see anyone but herself with anyone but Kyle. When they get back to the house he says that he doesn’t want to walk in the desert anymore. He doesn’t want to walk in circles.
The next day at school, Kyle hangs a painted piece of butcher paper over the stair railing and asks a girl to prom. Her name is Tiffany and Kyle has never talked about her. A crowd gathers to watch them hug when Tiffany says yes. She stands apart from the crowd and watches from her locker with her friends, who tell her that Tiffany’s in student council and on the JV dance team even though she’s a senior because she’s not very good. Tiffany wears false eyelashes to school and goes to the salon to get acrylic nails. Her friends tell her that she shouldn’t drive Kyle home anymore, but after school he’s waiting for her like he always waits for her, one leg out the door.
Nobody asks her to prom but she goes anyway. She has a floor-length dress that makes her look sophisticated and skinny. She has friends to dance with and only a few more weeks left in Las Vegas. She agrees to drive Kyle and Tiffany. She picks them up from his house where they have been taking pictures. His mom makes her get out of the car so that she can get a picture with Kyle too. Tiffany stands off to the side, pretty, uncomfortable, and watches. She has a spray tan and fake nails, but she did her own hair and makeup.
When Kyle’s mom snaps the photo she calls them best friends. Kyle slides his arm from around her shoulders and goes to stand awkwardly next to Tiffany who is waiting with her hand on her bony hip. Kyle and Tiffany sit together in the back seat of her car, and she is glad that it is spring and sunset and that they’re driving northwest so she can wear her sunglasses and Kyle and Tiffany can’t see that her eyes are welling up with tears.
She loves her dress and she looks beautiful and her friends tell her so. They stand in big circles and dance and sing along with the loud music the DJ pumps out of his bulky speakers perched on skinny stands. During the first slow dance she cries in the bathroom. She watches the sunset on the patio. Nothing moves but the light, in a dark sheet, across empty space. When the light grows cold she feels a chill and shivers. Kyle finds her out on the patio to tell that he and Tiffany are going back to someone’s suite at the Paris. He tells her they’re going to ride in the limo, depriving her of the chance to tell him that she will absolutely not chauffer he and Tiffany all the way to the Strip. He lets a long silence pass before he asks her if she wants to come, and she waits no time at all to tell him that she doesn’t. They look together back to where the line of cinder block walls marks his neighborhood at the edge of town. He says it looks different from this angle and goes back inside.
After prom, when Kyle and Tiffany start dating, they don’t really talk anymore. He stays after school for student council most days. He stops showing up at her car for rides home. When they see each other in government they talk about government. He doesn’t tell her anything about how it’s going with Tiffany. She wishes she had something to not tell him about. She spends the afternoons she used to spend with him scrolling through her college’s website, hoping that she’ll be placed in the newest dorms and filling out her roommate match questionnaire and deciding if she wants to major in biology and imagining herself — spending every second imagining herself — on the shaded campus pathways in the pictures, arm-in-arm with better friends than she ever had in high school.
She graduates. She passes the summer imagining. In August, Kyle texts to meet up and say goodbye. She picks him up at his house and they drive to the spot where the road dead-ends into the desert. It’s too hot to leave the shade of the car. He flies out in a week. She’s driving to California tomorrow. He tells her he and Tiffany decided to break up. He tells her he is heartbroken. He talks about how he’s excited to leave, how he’s never coming back, how there’s nothing for him here. She listens and does not try to pretend that her feelings about leaving can be explained in such unthoughtful and ungentle words.
They don’t keep in touch while they’re at school. She sees pictures on Facebook of Kyle in Las Vegas with his family at Christmas, but she doesn’t reach out. She bumps in to Tiffany at the grocery store when her mom sends her to buy another bag of chips for their New Year’s Eve party. Tiffany has a six pack in her hand that she’s buying with a fake ID. She’s still wearing fake eyelashes and looks skinnier than she looked in high school. Tiffany is kind to her. She remembers her name. They ask each other what they’re doing now. Tiffany calls herself a dancer, but she doesn’t say where. They ask each other about Kyle but neither one knows anything about him anymore.
Kyle reaches out. He’s back in Las Vegas for the summer even though he said he never would be. She’s back too, working at the front desk of her aunt’s real estate office. Kyle’s doing nothing. When she picks him up in her parents’ car at his parents’ house it’s July and 117. She’s coming from work, wearing a tank top tucked into a pencil skirt that looks silly without the blazer but it’s too hot. She puts the blazer back on anyway and texts that she’s outside. He comes out in shorts and a t-shirt from his school football team and he looks exactly like he did in high school. His mom steps out of the dark, air conditioned house into the doorframe to wave at her.
She wants to drive out to the desert and take a walk like they used to but he suggests going for dinner at a pizza place they’ve never been to before, so they go and nothing is normal. While they eat she notices the hair tie around her wrist and wishes she had taken it off. It makes her hand look puffy and it catches the grease that drips from the pizza in an orange wring. She tries to wipe with a napkin but her wrist still feels greasy. She pulls the hair tie off and lays it on the table, but it has left an imprint.
Kyle tells her that he doesn’t really have any friends and he isn’t sure about his major and the only person he talks to is his roommate who has a hamster hidden in their bedroom. She spins the hair tie in circles on the red and white checked tablecloth and tells him he can talk to her if he wants. He says he might transfer home, go to the community college in North Las Vegas till he figures out what he wants to do. They have no football team. He admits that he was wrong, that they were both so wrong. He misses the desert.
She misses it too, but she doesn’t feel like she was wrong. She loves California. She doesn’t really have friends either but she’s majoring in environmental studies and she has a job in the registrar’s office where she works with middle aged women who dye their eyelashes and wear too many rings. She loves them and they love her and they tell her she is their favorite student worker.
They pay for their pizza and get back in the car and drive to the edge without talking about it. It’s getting later now, but still too hot to walk, so they stay in the car with the AC running.
Kyle tells her he is proud of her and she doesn’t feel any differently than she did before he said it. His t-shirt looks limp and dirty.
She asks him if he remembers asking her to go under the bleachers with him at the junior year homecoming game. He says no. She drops him off at home.
Kelly Craig is an emerging writer originally from Las Vegas. Currently, she lives in Salt Lake City where she’s working on a Ph. D. in Literary and Cultural Studies at the University of Utah. Her fiction has been published in Litro Magazine, Bodega Magazine, Sakura Review, and elsewhere.