Sometimes you think you’ve won. Sometimes you stand in the middle of a crowd and think you really know your way around the world, and best of all, you know yourself. And you believe you’ve got everyone else figured out. They’re puppets in your hand.
Then the crowd parts and you find yourself standing at the top of a rail, looking down at the concrete pool below, and you realize, kid, you ain’t shit.
You’re the guy who stayed back in the second grade; who got caught every time he sneaked out of the house; the guy who, to impress some girls, lied and said he could pull off an ollie nose grind into the pool’s vert ramp, sure, no problem. You’re the guy for whose death the school will set up trauma counseling, because, dude, you’re going to die.
You look back at the crowd. Honestly, you suddenly think, who cares if those girls are hot? Can’t you walk away from this? There must be other, better girls. But everyone is chanting your name, which no one knew ten minutes ago, and you’ve been trying to make friends for weeks in this new town with no luck. So kid, it’s looking like you’ve got little choice.
You have two comforts. One, if you are stupid enough to go through with this, you deserve to die, and two, a freak skateboarding accident where your head juices against the concrete walls of the pool is no pansy death. No one will say later that you were crazy for not just walking away. It’d be rude to your memory.
You had no intention of throwing in the life towel tonight. Sure, Connecticut is freezing and no one wants to be friends with the new kid when he shows up in January and doesn’t know what “that’s brick” means, but things aren’t so bad. They aren’t “comforted by the prospect of death” bad. You just wanted to meet some nonjerks, have fun, stop missing your friends back home, stop calling New Mexico home.
You overheard people talking about the party during math and decided to go. The house wasn’t far from your new place, a couple blocks, so you grabbed your skateboard and rode down. You almost killed yourself on a patch of black ice. It was camouflaged in the dark. No one warned you about the invisibility of ice.
Inside the warm house people cliqued together. You said hi to a few who smiled but wouldn’t talk. This, you thought, standing there trying to look at ease, is exactly how you felt that summer in France when all you could understand was “hello” and “no skateboarding allowed.” Your mom, a professor, was doing research, and you, thirteen, tagged along, thinking a trip abroad would be cool, that Spanish and French were close enough, that if you wanted to, you could reinvent yourself. Instead you spent the summer learning loneliness.
You tried to explain to other kids that you liked hanging out in the park, too, and all types of music, la música, la musique, but, though the kids smiled and shook your hand, they never tried to get to know you, because, well, they already had amigos, les amis, and who wants to spend their summer dragging around some Mexican American kid who can’t communicate? Communicating felt interchangeable then with relating.
So now, in Connecticut, you think, this should be a piece of cake. You all speak the same language, at least. You’re a nice guy, fun. Your parents raised you un caballero. You didn’t think you’d succumb to peer pressure.
Looking down at the empty pool you realize that your street in Hartford, la rue de Paris, and even your grandparents’ calle en la Ciudad de México, really aren’t that different, though everyone swears they are, and then, well, it makes you happy at first, that the world feels so universal, you know, as a dying thought. But then it makes you sad that everywhere things feel the same, yet no one wants to embrace similarities. You could be a thousand places in the world right now and the buildings would all be walls and windows, the people looking out joyful or miserable.
You drank a few beers contemplating that invisible something that holds everyone together or apart. It was hard enough to be new in town without also standing alone at a party, everyone noticing you by yourself but not coming up to say hey. You gathered all your calm nerves and hung on to them like balloon strings. As best as you could, you floated over to this group of girls who were all smiling, and that seemed friendly enough.
You said something like, “Smoking, huh?” Pendejo. Two giggled, one stared, the other said, “Want to share?”
She had the joint between her fingers and held it out. You’d never smoked but understood the concept so took it, pressed it against your lips. It was damp, lipstick smudged the end pink. You didn’t cough, like so many people in the movies, and so congratulated yourself on a small accomplishment. The talker said, “What’s your name?”
“Gael. I just moved here.”
“Obviously.” They chirped and rolled their eyes.
They all stood with their weight on one foot and moved their hands when they spoke and looked stunning. You couldn’t follow everything they said, they were gossiping and you didn’t know David or Alizé.
When the conversation fizzled, probably because you were there, awkwardly listening, they turned their interest on you. You spilled all the details. Albuquerque, seventeen, only child, January, skateboarding.
“Cool! Can you do tricks?” None of the girls introduced themselves, like they’d humor you with interest but only for tonight, unless you impressed them.
You explained all your tricks. They were not impressed.
“Do you know Robin? He skates,” one said. She had long black hair. She looked vaguely Peruvian.
“No. Is he here?” Common ground, a friend?
They shrugged. To torque your mystique, you lied. You could do all sorts of tricks, just like the X Games.
Then they got excited. “Show us! Let’s go to the pool!”
Grabbing one another’s slender hands and yours, they pulled you outside into the February chill. Put there’s a pool at this house on the list of things you didn’t know.
And now here you are, with a crowd in love with your eminent demise. A list of things you thought you had:
A safety buzz
You’re scared shitless, though, so bravery is off the table as far as bragging rights in the afterlife. Why have so many people come outside? It’s cold. Isn’t there anything else to do at this party?
Time’s up. You just have to do it or be teased and alone for the rest of high school. For a second you think you can handle solitude, but then, you just kick off toward the rail and try for glory.
Every z of your safety buzz is gone, which is probably a positive. You ride the rail and a cheer barks out, but you fumble your feet and miss your board on the landing and smash against the side of the pool.
White and purple lights burst in your eyes. Pain explodes in your arm, but this means you’re alive. You’re alive.
Mierda. Dios mío. You scrape skin back onto your elbow.
It could’ve been a lot worse. Yes, everyone is laughing and yes, your elbow is gushing blood, but people seem impressed that you tried.
You call out, “Fucking ice!” and blame it on the invisible. People disperse without haranguing you too much. Or helping you at all.
You walk from the deep to the shallow end, snatching your board and cradling your arm, and this platinum blonde meets you there. She’s small, has these huge eyes.
“You did that for attention,” she says mildly. “So?”
“I’m wondering what you’ll do for love.” She doesn’t smile, which weirds you out. Is she hitting on you? She pulls a gauze pad and a thick roll of Ace bandage from an enormous purse. “What’s your name?”
“Gael.” Did she not hear people chanting it? “I’m Noelle. Sit down, I’ll do you up.”
You obey. She Halloween ghosts you in gauze and bandages, her thin fingers light as air. You want to say your names sound similar, that it’s astounding, how much each person has in common with the next, but you don’t because people aren’t sentimental, and when you are, they just think you’re crazy. Different is as scary as ghosts.
When she’s got your arm tight in its little winding sheet, she says, “Why did you want that attention?”
“Friendship.” You’re surprised it isn’t obvious. “They won’t be your friends.”
She is so bizarre. She doesn’t follow her statement up with any qualifications, about them or you, she just stares. Then she squeezes your arm.
“Ay! Dios! Fuck!” You stare at her and don’t know what to say.
People have retreated inside. You’re not sure if you should go back in or just leave. You don’t know whose house this is, or the time, or what you’d do inside. Your dad said, “Be home by midnight.” He trusted you, and imagined people would want to hang with you until then.
“You speak Spanish?” Noelle asks. You nod, wary of her hand. “Do you?”
“French,” she says. “Not very well. But someday I’ll go to France and become better.”
“I’ve been to Paris,” you say.
“Really? Tell me everything!” She grabs your hands and without exerting any pressure pulls you into the house. You tell her everything. She smiles and her huge eyes sparkle. She says she’s a senior so maybe she’ll go this summer. You say you’re a sophomore, making sure to include that you’re sixteen, not fifteen, and you’ll get your mom’s tips for her, too.
Noelle goes to the bathroom and when she returns she says, c’est étouffant in the house, giggling, so you divert to the front porch. It isn’t too hot inside and it’s obvious she’s just as uncomfortable in the crowd as you. No one says hi or calls out to her. It makes sense, she’s a trip, but you wish it made more sense, because also: she’s nice. You almost tell her that the word invisible is the same in English and in Spanish and in French, but you don’t. At best it’s sentimental to say so and at worst it’s pathetic, it reveals too much about how you feel in Hartford. You wish you could hurry up and know the score.
She’s spread her limbs across the porch steps. She’s skinny, like a palm tree, her long arms delicate fronds. She’s chattering again about after graduation. The yard is quiet. You start to feel comfortable with her awkwardness.
Then this guy stumbles outside. He’s bleeding and you wonder if he tried the pool trick, too, but laughter streams out behind him and tension sucks at the air. No one offers him gauze. He gives the crowd the finger. Noelle whispers, “You have to click with the right clique. Otherwise.” Her eyes follow the guy down the street like she knows that lonely walk.
Noelle sounds like a prophet. “In public everyone acts big. But you have to consider after the party. Eventually you have to go home and answer your questions.” She returns inside, and you follow, watching all these invisible strings tighten and break loose around you, like a bunch of balloons, like water hardening into ice.
The girls see you with Noelle. They crowd, say, “Ew, what are you doing?”
They must be talking to her; you’re the lame kid who crashed in the pool, after all—but they’re looking at you.
“Talking,” you say, unsure how to sound.
“Yeah but why to her?” the maybe-Peruvian girl says.
“She’s nice.” You’re off balance worse than you were riding into the pool. “She’s a whore.” The girl grabs your arms, pulls you close. “She wants to fuck you and give you herpes.”
Noelle is on her feet now, too, but she’s silent. These girls are not forgiving. They are more closely related to wild animals than to mothers and aunts. You picture them stalking the deserts of your childhood and it seems completely natural that you’d find them there. Long, ragged hair, sharp tongues, claws out.
“She is nice,” you say, but was she hitting on you? Is that bad? Almost everything about her is on the list of things you don’t know. And then there’s graduation. Noelle would leave you behind in June. You don’t want to be alone for the next two years.
“I am nice,” Noelle says quietly, her eyes searchlights.
“Yeah, nice to any guy who’ll fuck you,” the girl with braids says. “Don’t pick on our skateboard buddy.” She tugs at your arm and you bump against her breasts. When Noelle doesn’t leave, she says, “We said back off, you dumb bitch. He’s ours. Don’t stand near her, Gael.” She pulls you a few steps back. She pronounces your name “Gail.”
“I’m nice,” Noelle whispers, looking directly at you, her light turned off.
The four girls laugh, and it’s like a shove against Noelle’s chest. You can see clearly it’s like that.
She turns and melts away like their cruelty is a blaze. “Ugh,” one girl laughs. “Good riddance.”
“Hey, come on,” you start, much too late.
“Forget her. She’s a bitch. You don’t know her so you don’t know.”
She’s not a bitch, you know that, but you don’t say anything. Click with cliques is also something you know.
The laughing girl says, “Come meet Robin.”
Obviously they think that what they’ve just done is cool. The ladder to the top is hung with bodies. They want to collect you.
With the air the way it is—tight—you can’t figure out how to say no. It’s tight between walls, tight in your esophagus. Your heart is tight in your chest, the only muscle that’s working, because you absolutely let the girls pull you into the kitchen, away from Noelle, to meet this blond guy who looks like a skater, and who seems nice, but how can you know yet? And what does it matter when suddenly you realize: You are not nice? Are you going to let these girls collect you until it pays off? You went into that pool for this chance. In lieu of friendship, will you settle for popularity? In Connecticut maybe you’ll have things in common with people, but will you have anything left in common with the person you were before?
You’ll see Noelle drag on her coat and rush for the door. You’ll see the maybe- Peruvian girl trip her, and she’ll crash against her slender knees, and like that guy outside, no one will help her up, including you. She’ll have a hard time standing, she’ll look so confused and she’ll stumble again.
Can you blame it on the invisibility of ice? Can you even really believe that?