Natasha attended her first Halloween party dressed as a French kiss. She wore a beret with a piece of crepe paper labeled Hershey’s Kisses on it, and made a dress out of aluminum foil. Underneath, she wore a black dance leotard. Molly had come over and they got ready together. Molly wore braids and carried a mug of hot chocolate. She was Swiss Miss, from the hot chocolate box.
Natasha’s sisters lived in the awkward phase of being too young to attend pubescent Halloween parties, but claimed to be too old to go trick-or-treating. They planned on spending all night watching Hocus Pocus on ABC Family and eating Reese’s Pieces from the neighborhood CVS. They helped her and Molly get dressed.
I’m so excited for you! You’re going to kiss a cute boy! crooned Lucy.
A girl in Natasha’s grade named Tatiana hosted the party. Natasha played her first game of seven minutes in heaven. She christened heaven as the backyard. A boy named Ben Shmirker picked her out. She had barely even noticed him before. He told jokes about everyone else’s mother and made obscene gestures with his mouth and fingers during class pictures. The way Natasha’s mind worked was that she typically noticed quiet people more than people who relished in the center of attention.
Earlier in the night, Natasha had left her remains in the bathroom: all of the aluminum foil had fallen off at that point, thin and shiny layers. She was left in her dance leotard. Ben grabbed her hand by the wrist. His thumb and pointer finger overlapped. He was almost two full heads shorter than she. He called her honey. Natasha thought me? They kissed.
Take off your shirt.
Pardon? Natasha asked. Her first kiss felt like nothing, like bumping into somebody while taking public transportation, any setting when she would neither want to thank someone for touching her nor feel violated. She didn’t want to take off her shirt. She felt like she was in class, or in church. Anywhere where it would be inappropriate.
You heard me.
I’m not comfortable. Natasha had always been taught that whenever you’re in a situation where you aren’t comfortable, you should let people know. The other person might not know this. Though, Ben seemed like he knew this. How could he not? Natasha was blinking twice the amount she usually blinked. She kept brushing her sleeves, like she had invisible beetles and crickets on her.
Come on, said Ben. You know you want to.
Not really. Natasha felt how chilly it was in the backyard. Why did they name heaven the backyard? Why was heaven so cold in October?
This is what you’re supposed to do.
I don’t feel good. When Natasha was a baby, every time she was embarrassed, she would tell her parents that she had a stomachache. I can’t go to school today. I have a stomachache. I can’t play with Lucy and Carly. I have a stomachache. Natasha would never admit that she didn’t want to do anything, just that she was physically incapable of doing it because of her stomach. In reality, Natasha’s stomach worked quite well. She had a fabulous metabolism and great digestion.
I have a stomachache.
Yeah right. You’re a dyke, and everyone knows it.
Oh really? She left the backyard and went back inside, through the sliding doors of the basement. It seemed like all teenage saturnalia occurred in people’s basement, as though they had to retreat to those depths in order to explore themselves with sex and drinking at their grandest capacity.
Molly put an arm around her best friend. How was he?
He was all right, said Natasha. She didn’t want anyone to think she was a prude. Or a dyke. But what was so wrong with being gay? Uncle Sawyer and Uncle Noah were gay. Maybe it’s different for girls, she thought. But the more she thought about it, the more she knew that it wasn’t.
She thought to herself, am I gay? She didn’t think she was. She had thought she liked boys, but at this point couldn’t really picture liking anybody. She thought that maybe she was asexual like the fungi and plants they studied in science class. People were probably asexual, sure. It was most likely a birth defect. Oh well.
With the luck she carried for the night she did not want to continue the game. She’d had enough. Instead she went into the living room upstairs and watched It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, with an Sri Lankan immigrant boy in her class named Ajay. Ajay hadn’t wanted to play either, but he had been invited. A pity invite, Natasha thought. Natasha sat with him, not speaking, waiting for her father to pick her up at eleven.
The American culture was so different from Ajay’s home culture, which nobody had ever asked him about. Natasha and her peers convinced themselves that they had nothing in common with Ajay. Even sitting next to him on the couch that felt stubbly like kitty litter, Natasha believed that she could not be friends with him. Did Ajay get homesick? Last year, Natasha went to astronomy camp for two weeks and cried into her pillow every night, thinking about how much she missed home. She made lists of all the things she missed. Lucy’s hair. Eating pineapple in Tupperware on the kitchen counter. The sculpture of Adonis in our bathroom. She realized that this feeling of homesick granted her an identity that she had never realized in a finite sense before. Leaving home allowed her to understand who she was. Maybe Ajay was the most self-actualized person her age, with regards to his personal Diaspora.
At 10:00 p.m., she pictured herself kissing Ajay because she was bored and kissing was on her mind. So maybe she wasn’t asexual.
What’s Sri Lankan food like? Natasha’s breech of silence was abrupt, like a sandpiper swooping down to grab lunch.
None of your fucking business, said Ajay. Two months of being ostracized at an American school left him hardened and suspicious of anyone who asked him a question that had a purpose other than transactional. He yawned very loudly, accidentally. Natasha studied his mouth. The way he yawned was human adjacent with the intensity of his words.
Claudio had been listening to old Halloween music loudly in the car ride home. The B-52’s.
Turn it off, Daddy.
I hate you. Why did you have to pick me up so late?
You could have called me. Mommy and I were just at home watching movies with the girls. Did something bad happen?
I had a stomachache.
Claudio reached into his pocket. Want some Pepto-Bismol?
Natasha paused. She didn’t want her father to know she had been lying, but didn’t know what would happen if she took medicine on a perfectly healthy stomach. No.
With his eyes on the road, Claudio reached over to dishevel Natasha’s hair. She ducked.
Don’t touch me anymore, Daddy. I’m too old to be touched. Besides, you’re going to have an accident.
Penguin, I used to drive a stretch limo all over New York City, said Claudio. You don’t need to worry about me driving.
Accidents happen all the time, said Natasha. That’s why they’re called accidents.
When Natasha got home, Lucille and Carly ran to her. Their tongues were blue and their hands had ring-pop residue. Carly asked her, did you kiss a cute boy?
I kissed someone, but I can’t remember if he’s cute. Natasha could not picture his face. She remembered how his breath felt waxy, like parchment paper, but she couldn’t even remember if he had freckles or the color of his eyes.
What was he dressed as?
The Monopoly man. Actually, Ben had been dressed as a vampire, but Natasha didn’t want to think about sucking or nighttime. Vampires seemed too sexual to her. She wanted to picture Ben as a fat old man with a monocle and two giant bags of money that he carried over his shoulder like a tramp and his bindle.
One week after she had her first kiss, Natasha volunteered at a retirement home. She had to complete ten hours per semester as a requirement for her middle school’s National Junior Honor Society. She was matched with a ninety-year-old man named Roy. Roy didn’t want to play checkers, and every thirty seconds or so he kept turning to Natasha and telling her that she was the prettiest girl he had ever seen.
You’re so sweet!
I love you.
You have pretty hair.
You have beautiful lips…I’d love to kiss ’em!
Roy was persistent but harmless, so Natasha let him have his fun. She noticed that he had a wedding ring on.
Samantha, he told her. We were married for fifty-two years. She was my first kiss, you know. First and last.
Do you ever get lonely? asked Natasha.
Once in a while. Then I think about being buried with her. It’s not so bad, thinking about that. Samantha used to bite her lip all the time. We didn’t get to have children, which maybe would have made it a bit easier. I could’ve remembered her in the way our son could’ve laughed or the way our daughter’s chin could’ve looked. My memory’s not so great now, you know, and every time I think of her she gets fuzzier and fuzzier. A pretty girl here and there like you helps spark the old memory. Would you believe that sometimes memory can be the best medicine?
CHRISTINE REILLY lives in New York. She got her MFA at Sarah Lawrence College. She has been nominated for the Best New Poets Prize, among others. She has been published in over forty journals. She likes wearing shoes that make her the tallest person in the room. She hates hokey people, the Disney channel, and not much else. She bakes a mean cookie-brownie hybrid. She reads an average of 100 books a year. She used to work at a mental hospital. She currently teaches writing to hospital patients in the city. She loves rock and roll.