The Mundane Habits of the Opposite Sex
WE HANG out in the cemetery after school, smoking cigarettes and setting leaves on fire with plastic lighters. Jaime and I sit on the slate stone wall a few feet from Sal; Nate and Evan stand beneath the bare birch tree cracking jokes. The afternoon is white: the sky, the trees, our breath in the air. I twirl the crisp stem of a half-burnt leaf. Sal wears fingerless gloves, and his fingertips are raw pink in the cold. I pull my rainbow wool scarf tighter around my neck as Jaime whispers Evan’s fly is down and I erupt with laughter—it’s forever bubbling over, ever present when the five of us are together. Maybe because when Sal’s around, the whole world feels charged: he’s gorgeous and cool in an I-don’t-give-a-shit kind of way, with his hair grown out long and his flannel button-down with the hole in the sleeve. Jaime and I laugh and look over our shoulders at Evan until he realizes what’s going on and pulls up his zipper with mock indignation. When fully zipped, the pants pull at the sides; they’re plaid and two inches too short. Evan found them at Salvation Army, but he doesn’t want to hear it. “I’m wearing long underwear, goddammit!” he yells at the blackbirds gathered on the branches above. They scatter, relocating to thick power lines across the street.
“They’re watching us,” I say.
“They watch the dead,” Sal says with a lift of his brow. He has an easy smile and a good amount of stubble on his face for a boy in the tenth grade. He owns exactly two pairs of pants: jeans and brown corduroys. The tip of his cigarette burns red as he inhales. He sees me watching and offers me a drag, which I accept. I have asthma and sometimes get winded at school when climbing the stairs to the second floor, but I never turn down a smoke when Sal offers. And I don’t even like cigarettes. I have a sudden desire to touch the golden brown curls sticking out from under his knit cap just to see how cold his hair could be, but I don’t. I feel the nicotine fill my lungs and hand it back to him, I cough once—hard—but no one asks if I’m okay; I’ve never mentioned the asthma. As usual, Nate and Evan are performing for Jaime.
“Walnut Falls sucks,” says Nate.
“Sucks!” yells Evan.
“Mr. Braddy’s Chemistry class sucks."
Sal grins but shakes his head. Jaime laughs along though the routine has barely changed in the month we’ve been hanging with them. When I asked her why she still laughs, she said, “It’s the delivery that’s funny, Elma.” She swings her legs around and hops off the wall to flirt with Nate up close. When she spent the night last Friday she told me she’s still trying to decide if she likes him. He doesn’t do it for me, but I get it. Nate is tall, blonde, strapping but in a nerdy way—he wears round glasses and tight polo shirts always tucked into his jeans.
“Got any big plans tonight?” Sal asks.
Sal looks around. “Who else?”
I can tell my cheeks are flushing from embarrassment as well as our pseudo- aloneness. “Oh, yeah. Big plans, all right. Probably just dinner and television with my parents, Calc homework. Fun stuff.” My eyes drift to his forearm, where the hole is.
“Sounds fun,” Sal says.
“Why, what are you doing?” I ask.
“Nothing.” He puts out his cigarette on the wall before jumping to his feet, signaling our conversation is over. “I gotta go. See you guys around.”
“See ya,” Nate calls. Evan and Jaime wave.
We zigzag between the headstones, shades of gray and cream and white with black mold creeping over the letters. Evan hums a tune I don’t recognize while Jaime flits from grave to grave in sweeping arcs, her arms out like wings. Nate marches beside me. Evan finds a fresh bouquet of white tulips and presents it to Jaime with a deep bow. She takes it, but then drops it on the wet ground, her face twisted in disgust.
“Ew, did you take that off someone’s grave? That’s so wrong, Evan.”
“Who cares? They’re not using it.”
“Those were probably for someone’s grandma or something.” Jaime’s body language spells anger—all points and angles with one hand on her hip and the opposite knee jutting out—but there’s a falseness to her tone. I can tell she’s making a point, staking her claim for Nate.
“Yeah, Evan,” says Nate. “That’s not cool.”
“Jesus Christ, it was a joke.” Evan swipes the flowers and lays them down on the plot in front of him.
“Is that even where you got them from?” Jaime asks.
“Yes. Fuck I don’t know,” Evan says. He shifts his book bag from one shoulder to the other. He looks from Jaime to Nate to me. His lower lip quivers as if from the brisk autumn weather, but I know better: he’s lost the competition for Jaime, maybe sees that he was never in the running. I want to tell him how sorry I am, though why I should be sorry I can’t tell.
Jaime stamps her foot. “It’s fucking freezing,” she says. “I’m going home.”
Nate strides from me to her in three long steps.
“I’ll walk you,” he says. They turn their backs and head south through the far oak trees at the edge of the cemetery. Evan looks down at the ground. At first I think he’s composing himself, but as I approach I see that he’s reading the headstone, a slab of rosy-white marble.
“Mary Leonard Bates. December thirtieth, nineteen forty-nine, to March ninth, nineteen seventy-five.”
“That’s young,” I say. “She was only twenty-five.” Underneath the dates are the words Daughter, Sister, Friend, partially hidden by the tulips, their white ribbon caked with dirt.
“I can’t wait till I’m twenty-five. I’ll be out of this hellhole, that’s for sure.”
Evan sets his mouth in a determined frown.
“Walnut Falls isn’t so bad,” I say.
“Walnut Falls? Shit,” Evan says. “I’m getting out of Iowa soon as I turn eighteen. This whole state is a hellhole.”
We leave the tulips where they lay and walk west between the plots to Walnut Lake Estates, a grandiose name for a suburban neighborhood like any other—interlaced loops and avenues lined with single family homes, streets called Pistachio Court and Peanut Drive. We both live on Cashew Lane. We don’t say anything the whole way to Evan’s house, where we stand on the sidewalk and push brownish leaves with our feet, and I want to talk about Jaime and Nate, or why Sal always leaves early, or anything about Sal, but Evan fumbles with his keys a moment as if he’s going to say something. I wait, hooking my thumbs under the straps of my book bag. He doesn’t look at me.
“Bye,” Evan finally says to his sneakers before turning to walk up the driveway.
On Thursday, we conspire. After our daily jaunt to the cemetery, Jaime lies on my bedroom floor between the bed and my sea of stuffed animals and flips through one of my mother's old issues of Vogue. I load my Smashing Pumpkins cassette in the tape deck and press play. She says, "So you have Sal and I have Nate. Now we've got to take things to the next level." She rests her chin in her hand, not looking up from the glossy pages. Her long black hair falls in a curtain over one shoulder. I sit on the floor and lean against the bed frame, try to find patterns in the popcorn ceiling.
“How do we do that?”
“Would I look good in a bustier?” She points to a photo of a model with a black leather strap clenched between her teeth. Jaime would look fantastic in anything; at fifteen she is all woman—twenty-four-inch waist and size-C breasts, and with those measurements she makes jeans and a t-shirt look like something special, but instead I say, “Where would you wear it?”
“I don’t know,” she says. “We have to plan a double date that doesn’t look like a date.”
“What about Evan?” I pull a loose pink thread at the edge of the bedspread and wind it around my finger.
Jaime flips her hair to the other shoulder. “Oh, I’m still mad at Evan.”
“Yeah. What a douche. Aren’t you?” She looks up at me, her eyes wide, expectant.
“I never was.”
“Oh.” She shrugs and turns the page. “When are you going to get a CD player?” she asks.
I don’t see Jaime in the halls the next day, and after school Sal, Nate, and Evan aren’t loitering near the soda machine like usual, so I walk home by myself. I call Jaime’s number, but her private line rings and rings. I try the house line to leave a message with her mom. “She’s not home, Elma,” she says in her pitchy Midwest singsong. “She’s not with you? Well, I’m sure she’ll be back soon.” I help my mom make lasagna and cut carrots and onions for a salad. I watch television with my parents until the local news comes on at eleven and then lie on my bed with the door closed and the lights off and listen to Siamese Dream on a loop. I run my palms over the bedspread and imagine I can feel the pink even though I can’t see it, that I can feel the glassy, vacant eyes of my stuffed animals watching me in the dark. I consider calling Evan but decide it’s too late—I wouldn’t want to wake up his parents. Evan and I have lived on the same street since we were seven, when my family moved to Walnut Falls from Pittsburgh, but we never actually spoke until this year. Even so, I feel like I’ve known him for forever. He was the slightly pudgy kid on the school bus who said whatever wisecrack popped into his head, which meant he was constantly being reprimanded by teachers and threatened by dumber boys with bigger fists. I always liked him, thought he was funny. People still think of him as kind of a goof, but in the past couple of years I’ve noticed he’s mellowed; apathy plays a larger part in his act. I kneel on the carpet at my window and look at our neighborhood: pools from streetlights like holes punched through the blue-black, the stillness of naked trees in the sharp air. I pull on my jacket and boots, push the window open, and climb out into the night.
The chill penetrates my jeans immediately, and I hug myself, gripping my upper arms for warmth. It’s quiet; I can barely hear the rev of an engine speeding down Walnut Lake Boulevard in the distance. I’m the only thing moving on Cashew Lane. Minivans and SUVs rest in each driveway, abandoned by those playing at their inside lives behind drawn window blinds. I feel exposed, like anyone might be watching. Like a lightning bolt would find me and mistake me for the tallest structure. I cross the asphalt, avoiding the streetlights, and tiptoe around the hedge in Evan’s front yard as I try to remember which window is his. There’s a sudden fire in my lungs, and I crouch beside the thorny roots to catch my breath and wait for it to pass. A low light shines from the second window on the right side of the house. I flatten my body against the wood siding and slowly tilt my head to peek inside. I can tell by the posters on the walls that this is Evan’s room: Talking Heads, the Ramones, Elvis Costello. An autographed photo of George Carlin. A ceiling fan looms immobile, its blades casting shadows like far-reaching fingers. My gaze wanders among the unfamiliar shapes until I see Evan’s socked foot at the end of the bed keeping time to a rhythm I can’t hear. I knock twice softly. Evan’s light goes out, and then I wait.
I hear him before I see him, footsteps padding in the fine autumn grass. I step out from the hedge so he can see me in the sliver of moonlight. “What’s up, Elma?” he says, as if my nocturnal appearance were a regular occurrence. He’s wearing glasses and no coat. I haven’t seen him wear glasses since elementary school; they make him seem vulnerable, and I imagine him at the bathroom mirror taking out his contacts every night before he goes to bed—the mundane habits of the opposite sex always a revelation.
“Uh…nothing,” I say. “I didn’t see you guys in school today.”
“There was a field trip for Norris’s class.”
“Oh. Who went?”
“Me, Sal, Nate. Jaime.”
“Jaime was there?”
“Yep. Why, she didn’t tell you?”
I shake my head.
“Girls are supposed to tell each other everything, huh?”
“It’s not like that.”I search for the words to explain what it is like, but my brain feels numb and my fingers are beginning to burn. I stuff my fists into my pockets and step from side to side for warmth.
“Well, you missed out,” Evan says. “Walnut Falls City Hall is like the Roman Coliseum of our time.”
“I bet.” I smile, take my hands out of my pockets and cup them over my mouth, breathing hot air inside and rubbing them together the way my dad does. There’s a small whistle in my chest though I’ve barely exerted myself. “So what’s up with Sal?” I finally get the nerve to say.
“What do you mean?”
“Like, why does he never hang out late?”
“Sal’s got a lot of responsibilities,” Evan says. He grabs a rubbery leaf off the hedge and snaps it in half.
“That’s a vocabulary word.”
I roll my eyes. “Yeah, but it’s fitting.”
“You roll your eyes a lot.”
This stings slightly. "I don’t mean to,” I say.
Evan’s quiet for a moment as he looks at our street behind me. “Sal’s got to take care of his little sister when his mom works late. Make dinner and stuff.”
“That’s sweet,” I say.
“Don’t tell him I told you.”
“Oh, it’s a secret?” I ask, grinning.
“Yeah, it’s a secret.” He puts his fingers to his lips. “Shhhh.”
Movie night is Jaime’s idea. The following Friday we would assemble in Nate’s parents’ basement—Nate, Jaime, Sal, and I—under the pretext of watching some cheesy horror movie. Jaime says it’s intimate yet innocuous, the perfect formula to give the guys the nudge they need, like she’s creating a chemical compound in Mr. Braddy’s class, except that Jaime hates labs (the goggles leave indents on her nose). She did not invite Evan, yet here we sit next to a blazing furnace watching Slumber Party Massacre III, the five of us. It’s not as easy as in the cemetery, where it’s open and fluid. There the point is to break the rules. Inside there are protocols: deciding who to sit next to, speaking at a reasonable volume, using a coaster. Sal took the armchair, so I wind up sitting on the couch between Evan and Jaime, who’s wearing a deep V-neck that shows off all her assets. I feel even more flat chested than usual. Nate’s parents keep the house stifling hot, and my heart is already beating too fast. Sweat starts accumulating underneath my arms; my sweater sticks to my lower back. I dry my damp palms on my jeans when no one’s looking. We watch as the guys in the movie spy on the girls through a bedroom window and I start to feel hyper-aware of my right elbow—how close it is to Evan, if it’s out too far from my body, if it’s touching his shirtsleeve.
“Why are girls in horror movies always having pillow fights and groping one another?” I ask, my voice strained.
“You and Jaime don’t have pillow fights?” Evan asks, over-the-top incredulous. Jaime leans closer to Nate.
“I’m going out for a smoke,” Sal says.
“I’ll come with you,” I say, climbing over Evan’s knees. I leave my jacket behind in my rush to get away.
The main house is dark—Nate’s parents must have gone to bed—and Sal and I stand on the front porch beneath a yellow light orbited by fluttering moths. The sounds of their silken bodies softly thudding against the bulb accompany the wind’s low moan; a lone bird trills from the woods beyond, and we listen wordlessly, night encircling us. I feel both cold and hot at the same time, a little giddy Sal lights his cigarette.
“I’m glad you came,” I say, staring out at the dark.
“Me too,” Sal says. “Nice to hang out someplace with actual chairs.”
I laugh I look over at Sal, and he smiles on the exhale, the smoke curling around his nostrils, lips, jaw line. I wait for him to offer me a drag—this small thing we share, our thing—but instead he lifts a fresh cigarette from the pack and hands it to me along with his lighter.
“What’s this?” I say.
“Your own,” Sal says. I let him push his offering into my hand.
“I don’t need a whole one,” I say.
“It’s cool,” he says. He stubs his cigarette out on the railing and pulls the sliding glass door shut behind him.
I blink at the yellow light, stunned to be alone so quickly. I feel dizzy suddenly, my head swimming, and sit down on a wicker bench behind me. I don’t want to be out here; I have no reason to be out here without Sal, but I can’t go back inside yet. I’ll look stupid. Like I’m just following him around. I replay the noise of the door sliding shut in my head over and over again—skid-click, skid-click—and think I might throw up. I’ve been deluding myself these past few weeks—that’s obvious now. Sal and I were never going to happen. My insides turn to crepe paper, everything folding in on itself. I focus on the breath: long, steady. I stare at the fabric of the bench cushion—pale pink flowers so sweet and delicate that I wish they were real so I could shove them down my throat and choke on them. I want to break something—smash windows, dig my nails into the tender skin on the inside of my arm. I want to cry out like an animal. My head is between my knees when the glass door opens, and I look past my shoulder to see Evan’s sneakers upside down, coming at me. I sit up and feel the blood drain away from my face. Sal’s lighter and cigarette are still clutched in my hand, and I open my fist slowly to see that the paper is bent almost in half and tobacco is spilling out the middle like stuffing from a doll. Evan sits down next to me. I watch the moths round the porch light, but the only thing I hear is the blood thumping in my temples.
“You wanna go?” I ask.
“Where?” Evan asks, but I think he already knows.
The cemetery smells like all that has passed, like soil deep and dark. Things that should be underneath live on the surface here—people are buried, graves are dug, earth is displaced, and who keeps track of which shovelful gets patted down where?
I lead Evan to the grave of Mary Leonard Bates. The tulips are still there, knocked on their side, wilted and shriveling. I touch the marble and feel the worn edges; I trace the engraved letters of the epitaph as if performing a ritual. The stone’s not as smooth as it looks, and the rosy color is lost—the cemetery illuminated solely by the lights of our high school’s stadium on the other side of town, igniting the horizon in a wall of flame. Football games feel like they belong to another world.
Lying down beside the headstone, I pull Evan on top of me and into the dirt. The insides of his knees touch my hips, the outline of his body as much a part of the night sky as the silhouettes of headstones and birch trees backlit in the distance. The world is hushed: no blackbird announcing her presence, no snapping of twigs or whispering of leaves. The ground is frigid but yielding, and I imagine dirt permeating every fiber of my sweater and sticking to my skin. I want to feel Evan’s full weight on me; if I don’t have something to hold me down, I might float away from Walnut Falls and never return. I blink back hot tears pricking the corners of my eyes. I grab his belt and pull him toward me, but he doesn’t budge. I look up into Evan’s face. He doesn’t seem scared or excited, just curious: his eyes on mine, like they’re searching for something. His mouth falls into a mild O of understanding. I’m still gripping his belt, but it’s not until he places his hands over mine that I notice how icy my fingers are. He begins to unbutton my jeans—stops, starts to speak. I rest my finger against my lips.
“Shhhh,” I say.
AMANDA ZUBILLAGA is a recent graduate of Virginia Tech’s MFA in Creative Writing Program, where she served as fiction editor of Toad and The Minnesota Review. She lives with her fiancé in Los Angeles.