The new boy in the neighborhood carried a skateboard under his left arm. When he walked past the bus stop, the skateboard didn’t flinch an inch. His elbow was like an old door needing oil to unfold it. A patch of silver duct tape hung loose near the front wheels.
Charlene and I wondered if the skateboard was broken but the boy didn’t seem to mind. He swerved up and down the sidewalk curbs anyway.
If my Barbies had not been busily exploring sex at the time, I might have fomented a crush on the new boy who rode a ramp like he meant it– like he meant to ride, but also meant something else by riding.
“What do you think?” I asked Charlene. This was right after we explained to the lesbian Barbies why they had to keep dating Ken. This was 1989. Queers couldn’t get married yet. Furtive rooftop sex was the mecca for gays, and traditional repression the only way down.
“He must be the leader of the leader,” Charlene said as she tugged nylon Barbie pants over the shiny tan plastic pubic area.
I believed her because she was grade a older than me and allowed to wear powder and lipstick on Sundays.
“Why only Sundays?”
Charlene bit her nail and giggled– she had grown a small patch of hair down there but she thought it looked pretty to shave it. “Because that’s when we visit God’s house, silly. That’s when we want to look our prettiest. Duh.”
She made a pretty, pious face to illustrate. Barbie stared up, half-dressed, from the orange wool carpet.
I guess I thought god must be a teenage boy or a lecherous old man who watched women’s legs when they lined up for communion. It was a sexy thought but hard to play out with Barbies when Charlene was around. She might roll her eyes and say my name in that irritated parent tone. My Barbies couldn’t fellate god until she left.
Things happened with Barbie often, especially after Mom got her first AIDS patient. Charlene and I overheard Mom giving directions to a hospital nurse on the phone. She was trying to dice carrots for a casserole. The nurse sounded stingy, but maybe it was just the vibrato of the speakerphone bouncing off the kitchen walls.
Mom said, “It doesn’t matter.”
Then there was silence.
Then Mom said, “We treat patients the same regardless of their sexual orientation.”
The nurse asked to be relieved from caring for the patient due to religious convictions.
Charlene knew the nurse from church– “She’s married to the elder with a mustache.”
Mom said the nurse didn’t have religious convictions. What she had was paranoia about contagion and a powerful culture of ignorance which excused it.
“The patient is not a homosexual,” Mom chided the nurse in her stern business voice. “He contracted HIV from a blood transfusion.”
Charlene went home for dinner. The aroma of feta cheese irritated her nostrils. She had food allergies.
A billboard near my school announced the end times were upon us. It was funny from a moving vehicle. A pamphlet declared AIDS to be a gay disease. If you had AIDS, you were gay by definition.
One of my lesbian Barbies contracted HIV– but only when she was being a lesbian. When she went home to Ken and her kids, she looked happy. Not gay. Not having AIDS.
. . .
“Wanna spend the night?”
The first (and only) time I spent the night at Charlene’s, we wound up at church in the morning. Her mother’s fur coat made me think we were going to a symphony but the only instrument at the church was a piano. Church left me with an aftertaste of un-refrigerated, cheap chocolate milk. Also dirty and unhappy. Baptists smiled until their chins receded into indents. Punctuation marks.
“The Song of Songs is a beautiful story of yearning and married love….”
The preacher droned onward in his white-collar shirt but I had him pegged as a jerk before the starched collar. I had him this podium-thumper pegged by his chosen sacred book.
According to the notes in Charlene’s Bible, Solomon had 700 wives and 300 active concubines. I hesitated to consider the meaning of a marriage shared with every living female in a two mile radius.
Maybe fidelity wasn’t a big deal back back then. It wasn’t a big deal for Charlene’s father, either, but we didn’t talk about that.
Charlene didn’t care so long as she got to wear lipstick.
“Mom’s been eyeing these new Sunday shoes for me– the next step, you know,” she confided. “Kitten heels!”
Clearly Baptists had invented the word “precious” to describe themselves.
“That’s great, but it’s not my thing,” I admitted. “I’m not comfortable enough with my own sexuality to be a regular church-goer yet.”
“Maybe you’re a mermaid.” Charlene’s eyes fluttered quickly as she spoke.
It’s not a joke if you say it to drown someone.
. . .
“Best cut that breath off at spigot before it turns sprinkler and soaks up the yard.”
Mom’s friends said things like that when they were drunk. If they were outside near the azalea patch or trying to pick plums.
Those were the halcyon days. Time stretched out like Hubba-Bubba on the sole of a sneaker. Not much difference between a joke and a lie.
Chowwwwwwwwder, the bullfrogs choired. The moon gleamed like worn nylon. A moon the color of apricots. The sky wide and salacious as an asylum.
Charlene and I played a joke on my little sister in the bathroom without windows and the door locked behind us. A sharp click.
“This is funny,” we said.
“It’s just a joke,” we promised.
“It’s so funny.”
Oh, don’t be a Baby.
A baby is what everyone hopes to be in secret. The child who scores the most frequent lap-sittings is envied— the baby— if only we could go back. Once there was a lap for us. Now there were jokes.
My little sister stood close to the door which was locked. Her bare feet inched near the single stripe of light, flush against the floor.
“Find a spot in the mirror and stare. Now you turn round three times really slow and keep your eyes on the same spot in the mirror. Straight ahead you look as you sing the song She likes to hear.”
We lit a leftover birthday candle.
Bloody Mary, Blooody Mary
Two steps for each syllable where six equaled one complete turn.
It was pitch dark and then we started to see fizzing so by the second turn you could sense the shadow of shoulders rotating like helicopter blades over a train wreck. The rotations were slow and grim.
Stop, Charlene commanded. Now look.
There she was, unspeakable face of horror bleeding at the edges, steam oozing across a room. We screamed with delight— the disgust muddled by fright, an adrenaline rush pummelled through our veins, frantic fingers clamored to unlock the door, the uselessness of a knob gripped by three desperate hands and too many fingers.
Our hearts raced tracks.
We gulped down a glass of orange juice in the hall. Closed our eyes. What we saw.
“Wasn’t that fun?” we said.
What does it mean? I thought. What does the woman want from us?
“How long before we try again?” we said.
And then laughed in the hallway where the echos elongated into eerie, far-off cackles.
. . .
Outside, the moon kept secrets. I hid beneath the dogwood skirts and told her everything. Things I would never spill near Charlene.
It wasn’t scary to stand alone in the unseen parts of the yard at night. Streetlights were glued in place, blueberry shrubs hunkered down, flowers hid their faces– and I invented stories, pocket-sized songs, to keep the kudzu from coming closer. I stretched across the uncut grass and whispered kudzu festivals into existence, kudzu clambering across a hedge like frozen green fire, kudzu carnivals littered with kit-kat wrappers. Propitiating kudzu, king of southern night, its arms coiling round elm trees, its whiskers cringing. Kudzu hissing, its vowels joined at the instep. Kudzu flexing its muscles on a fence.
I made three wishes and tried not to remember the bloody parts.
. . .
My little sister tattled.
Mom shook her bright strawberry-blond curls from side to side and flashed her blue eyes at me. She said it was awful. For us to play such a heartless trick on a child.
She must have meant a Baby.
“Because aren’t we all children?” I pled. “And doesn’t Charlene’s dad ride a motorcycle to work?” It seemed like a childish thing for a daddy to do. Seemed like some folks got to stay child forever.
“Baby,” we hissed at my sister from the driveway.
Good things come in threes.
. . .
There were other Marys, of course. Going to Holy Mother of God Catholic School while not Catholic exposed me to chants and necklaces invoking a virgin. Hail Mary. Full of Grace. Bloody Mary’s sister. The skateboarders played Jimi Hendrix on their walkmans– the wind cried Mary. The housekeeper kept soap operas running as she mopped the floors. On the soaps, there were magniloquent weddings with drawn-out facial expressions. Each wedding seemed to invoke the Mary who got knocked up and the Joseph who married her anyway.
Charlene said her aunt found out about the Bloody Mary and she wasn’t allowed to do it anymore. Charlene was afraid of going to hell. She was a Baptist, and hell happened to Baptists a lot if one went by mention.
I tried to summon Bloody Mary alone but nothing happened.
In Mom’s book about brains, I read that staring into a mirror in low light causes hallucinations whereby faces seem to melt or morph into wild creatures, some of which may rotate, fade in and out, or liquify.
Why did I find so much pleasure from seeing Bloody Mary’s face?
What did I want? To recognize the haunted woman in my own. The female ghost who seeks redress in the darkened world where being a Ken does not grant greater powers.
Dad said it was an illusion. What Giovanni Caputo called the strange-face illusion, this Bloody Mary in me. Dad said it was caused by dissociative identity affect which occurs when the brain’s facial recognition system misfires in a mysterious, still-secret way.
Other explanations included illusions associated with the perceptual effects of Troxler’s fading, a phenomenon related to how neurons adapt to changes in visual stimuli.
Charlene said it was the devil. His name was Lucifer.
Mom said it was self-hypnosis. Silly. Bad for your brain.
What is bad but a swarm of feelings with their needles extended. Killer bees.
I crushed a bumblebee between diary pages and wrote around the body, secured with two pieces of slender scotch tape. This was before the tape turned yellow, before the bee disintegrated into nondescript black shards.
I’ve never loved flesh as much as I loved that diary. Cherished it like first love. On the inside cover, a dedication: This journal is to Bloody Mary, a woman I hope to meet again.
I wanted that wild-eyed woman who comes when you call her.
Terrifying, tender illusion, I hunted her in countless mirrors before I learned to say my own name at night. Before my blood grew thick enough to haunt.
Alina Stefanescu was born in Romania and lives in Alabama with her partner and four small mammals. She won the 2015 Ryan R. Gibbs Flash Fiction Award and was a finalist for the 2016 Glimmer Train Very Short Fiction Prize. She is the author of Objects In Vases (Anchor & Plume, March 2016), Letters to Arthur (Beard of Bees, August 2016), and Ipokimen (Anchor and Plume, forthcoming). More online at www.alinastefanescu.com.