Gina Willner-Pardo has written short stories published in Berkeley Fiction Review, Bluestem, Pleiades, Five on the Fifth, Mad River Review, Origins Journal, The South Carolina Review, Streetlight Magazine, Summerset Review and Whetstone, which awarded her the John Patrick McGrath Memorial Award (1999). She has written seventeen books for children, all published by Clarion or Albert Whitman. Willner-Pardo’s book Figuring Out Frances won the 1999 Josette Frank Award. Gina has a BA in English from Bryn Mawr College and an MBA from the University of California, Berkeley. She has studied with James Frey. When not writing, Gina enjoys running, hiking, kayaking—and she makes a mean blueberry custard pie.
I noticed Reg the first day, before Seever even started talking. I didn’t pay any attention to all the stuff about office hours and reading lists and quizzes because I couldn’t stop staring. Reg was tall, with shaggy hair and thick black-rimmed glasses. He was thin but paunchy: the kind of guy who doesn’t play sports, who sits a lot. I imagined myself putting my head on his stomach, just resting it there: the way it would be soft and warm.
Then Seever looked at me and said, “Ms. Melman, is it? Do you have a question?” and I laughed because I didn’t know what he was talking about, and then I realized and said, “I was just twirling my hair,” and laughed again. And two girls in the row in front of me looked at each other and I knew they were the kind of girls I’d stopped trying to be friends with in seventh grade because what was even the point, and I’d sorta hoped community college would be different, but I guess not.
Reg swiveled around and we looked at each other for a second. I smiled and waggled my fingers. He turned away, slouched down in his seat, stretched out his long legs. He was wearing black PF Flyers. I twirled my hair and missed everything about Fundamentals of 2D Animation.
She had curly red hair that she played with all the time. It could have used a wash. And black jeans and a T-shirt with some band insignia on it. The first time we talked, out in the hall when Seever was late, she said her favorite game was Alice: Madness Returns.
Her laugh was a keyhole you could look through and see every bad thing that had ever happened to her.
“What’s your favorite?” she asked.
“War of the Monsters,” I said, a little embarrassed.
“I love being Preytor!”
“I can see you as Preytor. Except you should have eyestalks.” I was just being funny.
She laughed that laugh, then said, “Praying mantises don’t have eyestalks!”
“I know. I just really like eyestalks. I think it would be really cool if people had them.”
She nodded her head hard. “Like, we could see over things! We could hide and see at the same time!”
We talked about shit like this for three weeks.
A few weeks after the semester started, I said we should get coffee at Surf City, and he followed me there in his rusted-out Volvo.
Over turmeric tea, we talked about the most underrated games ever. We’d already talked about this a few times, but we were always thinking of more games to put on the list.
“Vampire: The Masquerade—Bloodlines,” he said.
“Oh, my God, how did I forget that one? Except I don’t really like vampires.”
He took a noisy sip. “It was my girlfriend’s favorite.”
I twisted a curl hard around my finger. “What girlfriend?”
“My high-school girlfriend. Briana. It totally made sense that she would like vampires, but I didn’t get that until later.”
“Because she was really good at sucking?”
“Because she sucked the life out of me.” He shook his head. “You don’t have to laugh about everything.”
“You sound like my mother.” I thought, Maybe this isn’t going to work out after all.
“My mother wanted me to play basketball,” Reg said.
“Because I’m tall.”
I laughed. I didn’t hide it. Fuck him.
He smiled a little. “Yeah, I know.”
I worried he thought I was laughing at him. But I didn’t want to say sorry.
In the parking lot, he said, “Want to come over tonight and play War of the Monsters?”
I nodded, my heart beating fast. I thought maybe he would hug me, or even kiss me, but he just ducked his head and unlocked the driver’s-side door of the Volvo.
I watched him drive away. My phone buzzed. He’d texted me his address. Come at 8, he wrote.
I didn’t know what to think, what to prepare for. Maybe he just wanted to play War of the Monsters. Maybe he’d told me about his old girlfriend for a reason: so I’d know he knew what it was like to be wanted. Maybe he said eight because it was late enough so I wouldn’t think we were going to have dinner, which would have felt more date-y.
There were a lot of possibilities. A lot of ways this could go.
When she knocked, I looked at her through the keyhole, standing in the hall. She was twirling her hair, but otherwise she seemed pretty relaxed. I just stared at her for a few seconds. It was easier than looking at her when she was looking at me.
When I opened the door, she laughed and said, “I brought Bugles!” and pulled them out of her backpack.
“I figured they’d go well with monsters that feed on radioactive waste,” she said, walking into the apartment, shrugging off her jacket. “I figured since I don’t have eyestalks, I could bring snacks.” She looked around the room. “Do you have a roommate?”
“Yeah. Ed. He has a girlfriend who lives in Santa Cruz. He’s almost never here.”
Her free hand hunted for a curl to twirl. A flush darkened her throat and for a second, I thought I would lean forward and kiss her there. Instead I said, “We’re all queued up.”
On the couch, I watched her thin, freckled fingers as she made Preytor leap from building to building. They flicked and fluttered with knowledge.
“Have you played this recently?” I asked.
She shook her head, not taking her eyes off the screen, watching as Preytor splayed herself against the face of a skyscraper, then lightly began to climb.
“Your fingers look like her arms,” I said.
“Raptorial legs,” she said, fingers flying.
I was Congar, the giant ape. He started life as a NASA chimp, orbiting Earth in a capsule, until the alien fuel leak caused him to mutate. Now he was a raging gorilla with fangs, bent on revenge. I liked that you could start out flying around in an egg—little and useful—and end up loud and angry and not caring about being useful at all.
We got into some good battles. Preytor jumped and flew with unnatural delicacy and regurgitated parasitic lifeforms, but I was stronger and better at punching. Also, my sonic roar was deadly.
“You have really good blade strikes,” I said when Preytor lay flattened and squashed on the sidewalk.
She kissed me softly. My lips felt the pillowy pressure of hers. I tasted salt and cornmeal.
This was not what I expected. I thought she would be shy, wanting me to show her. I thought she would be grateful for attention, for me choosing her, and that would be good when I told her that we should just be friends, because no one expects the first time to turn into anything, so she wouldn’t be too disappointed.
But she kissed like someone who knew how to kiss. It made me wonder if she kissed better than I did, which made me almost not like her. Who else had kissed her, anyway? Was she the kind of girl who had random sex with all the nerd boys in high school and figured I was just some loser who needed kissing experience?
Before we even got around to sex, Briana decided she wanted to be with girls. She said my tongue was violating her mouth.
Elaine whispered, “I’m very fast, but fragile.”
After I kissed him the first time, he got weird. In Seever’s class, he didn’t even turn around to see if I was there. After class, he bolted for the parking lot.
But the next Friday, he texted, War of the Monsters? I didn’t know what he wanted. I didn’t know if we were moving forward or stuck here, just being friends.
When I got to his apartment, he brought out cheese and crackers so we could eat while we played. Something was different. Congar beat his chest and roared a lot, but Preytor killed him twice. One time she impaled him on a radio antenna.
“Are you letting me win?” I asked.
“You’re just good,” he said.
We only played five games. This time, he kissed me first. We kissed for a long time, until he pulled my T-shirt partway up and let his lips roam over my stomach. I kept expecting him to pull my shirt higher, but he didn’t. I liked that. He wasn’t the way boys were supposed to be.
I put my hands on his cheeks and angled his face toward mine. “Come here,” I said.
When he slithered over me, I felt him there, and then it was like another barrier had been breached, another river forded, because now I knew something he wouldn’t tell me: that I was wanted. Something I could use.
After kissing some more, he pulled away a little, pushed himself up on his arms.
“Do you want to?” he asked, out of breath.
I thought for a second. (Only a second. I am very fast.) Did I want to? I wanted to walk to class with him holding hands and not letting go because other people were around. I wanted him to take a selfie of us at Bean Hollow Beach, my hair blowing in his mouth, and then post it on Snapchat. What I really wanted was for him to want to, but not just because he was missing that Briana person, or because I was the only girl he knew who might say yes, or because he’d already spent so much time kissing me and didn’t want it to be for nothing.
But if I said any of that, it would probably ruin everything: He would think I was pushy or needy or demanding and maybe I would lose that power I knew I had right now. Power was not something to just throw away.
“Yes,” I said. “I want to.”
Later, when we were naked, he said, “It might hurt a little,” and my heart burst, spraying party confetti in my chest, because that is not something he would have said if the only thing he cared about was all that kissing going to waste.
After, I thought, She’ll always be someone I remember. And then, I hope I don’t end up hating her.
She slept a little, curling herself against my side, head on my outstretched arm, over which her hair spread like moss. I stared at the ceiling, taking stock, seeing if I felt different. My dick was sticky, shriveled: a Health Status bar after too much damage. Depletion, defeat.
She opened her eyes, put her hand on my chest. “Hey.”
I glanced down, then slid my arm out from under her. “It’s falling asleep.”
“So,” she said after we readjusted ourselves, “did I suck?”
“Do you want me to go?”
Her pale hip was spattered with freckles. I startled myself, wanting to be the only one who knew they were there.
“Did it hurt?” I asked.
“Why would it hurt?”
“So, you’ve done this before?”
“It’s hard to explain.”
“What does that mean?”
I waited. I thought, If she says something about riding a horse, I’ll know she’s lying. Elaine did not seem like the horse-riding type. Also, they said in Sex Ed that was a myth.
But all she said was, “I don’t want to say right now,” in a way that made me lean over and kiss those freckles. Her skin was warm there. It smelled like soap, but not the flowery kind. The kind that when you used it, you really knew you were clean. Then I started thinking of all the lather.
“I don’t want you to go,” I said.
She raised herself, eased one leg over me. She looked down at me and I almost laughed, because I’d just been thinking of horses, but I didn’t know how to tell her that.
At one point, I grasped her arms and pushed until she raised her head. “Is my tongue okay?” I asked.
“Like, is it okay in your mouth?”
Smiling, she leaned back down, her lips opening against mine, and it just blew my fucking mind that this girl who talked so loudly in Surf City that old ladies gave her dirty looks knew how to answer without speaking.
Most days, he waited for me at the bus station and walked with me to class. He didn’t offer to pick me up, though, and we didn’t hold hands.
One afternoon, in Surf City, he said, “That lady is pissed that you’re so loud.”
I laughed. “So?” But it was like he’d thrown a spear through my back.
“Just, you know. It’s a public place. People work here.”
I sipped my tea. “My mother wanted me to be feminine,” I said.
“I didn’t say—”
“She wanted me to wear skinny jeans and sing with the sopranos and try out for volleyball because they were the cute ones.”
“I don’t get what this has to do with being—”
“I like being comfortable. I’m a natural alto.”
He didn’t say anything.
“I suck at sports. The only sport I’m any good at is caving.”
I could tell he just liked the word. “People who do it call it caving.”
After a minute, he said, “I like all those things about you.”
I nodded. Then I said, “When I wouldn’t be that girl, she wanted me to be invisible.”
We were both quiet.
“I think our mothers are weirdly similar,” he finally said. “Mine wanted me to be popular.”
He said “popular” like it was the same thing as “radioactive.”
“They probably just wanted us to be happy,” I said. “But it ended up feeling like—”
Around us, the other patrons of Surf City studied their tablets and laptops. I stared at the opposite wall—papered floor to ceiling with obscure album covers. More out of Life: The Dick Anthony Family. The Clebanoff Strings: The World’s Great Waltzes. Tangos in HiFi: Boris Sarbek and His Orchestra. Remnants of someone’s old life, barely remembered, not wanted anymore.
I said, “When I told her I was raped, she said not to tell the police because they would just find a way to make it my fault. Then she made me switch schools so I could start fresh.”
I don’t know why I told him. It was stupid—risky—to say something like that and not know how he would take it.
He sat for a moment. Then he stood up and grabbed my hand. “Come on,” he said.
He unlocked the Volvo and opened the door to the backseat. “Get in,” he said. He slid in after me and closed the door. Then he put his arms around me.
“It’s okay,” I said.
“Just let me,” he said, pulling me to his chest.
We sat like that for a long time. I didn’t know what to feel. I tried out words in my head—“grateful,” “happy,” “loved”—but none of them was exactly right.
Finally, I pulled away. “I’m never going to be invisible again,” I said. “Just in case the point of that whole story wasn’t clear.”
We started spending almost every night together. Sometimes at my apartment, sometimes at hers, which was a studio up in the hills. Really, it was an old shed at the end of a long dirt driveway. Someone had rehabbed it enough so it could be lived in. There was a sink and a mini-fridge and a hot plate for cooking. It was freezing at night, so we moved the mattress away from the wall into the center of the room, where it was warmer. Also, she had a lot of blankets.
She had really spotty Internet access up there, which was a pain in the ass. But I kind of liked it too. There were owls in the hollow trees out back. Also, when we stayed at my place, we played War of the Monsters a lot, which meant we were always fighting and killing each other.
I started thinking about telling her I loved her.
Lying awake at night, listening to the owls’ raspy shrieks, I strategized. I knew she would hate me saying it in public: She wouldn’t know where to look, and she wouldn’t like everyone staring. Also, it would bug her if I just randomly blurted it out, like, in the middle of a game. She would laugh and say that being Congar was just fucking around with my testosterone.
One Sunday, I went to the deli and got sandwiches. Then I drove up to her place. I didn’t call ahead of time. When she heard the car on the driveway, she opened the door and watched me park, pulling her ratty bathrobe close. Her hair was wet from a shower. I worried that all the dust I’d raised would settle in it.
I kissed her. “Get dressed.”
“You’ll see,” I said, which I thought might make her mad, because she didn’t like surprises, but then I thought, Fuck it. Surprises can be nice, is what I was thinking.
I drove to Bean Hollow, a beach up the coast. It’s windy there and too cold to swim, but we both like the rock formations, which look like how you think the surface of another planet might look. Tafoni, she says they’re called. I thought maybe she would like me telling her I loved her in a place surrounded by tiny caves.
We spread out one of the blankets on the sand. There was almost no one there: The wind was stiff. I pulled the other blanket over us like a kiddie fort and pulled the sandwiches out of my backpack. “Turkey for you,” I said like a gallant butler.
She took a bite. Then she leaned forward and kissed me. “Everyone’s going to think we’re fucking under here.”
“I didn’t want sand to get in the food.”
“Good thinking,” she said, taking another bite.
She smelled of shampoo and cranberry sauce. I couldn’t wait anymore. “I love you,” I said. And then, all in a rush, “I’ve never loved anybody and I’ve never had sex with anyone except you and now I love you.” I caught my breath. “I love you.”
She put her hand on my knee. “You didn’t have sex with that high-school girl? That one whose name I can’t ever remember?”
“Briana. She ended up being a lesbian.”
Elaine laughed. It hurt my ears, under the blanket. “Wow. That was inconvenient for you.”
I took another bite of my sandwich. If she wasn’t going to say anything about me loving her, I would just finish eating and take her home.
But then she leaned in close and kissed me sweetly. Pulled back and met my gaze and kissed me again. “I will love you for the rest of my life,” she said. “Don’t get all weird about my saying that. It’s not like I think we’re going to get married. But I know—I know,” she said, putting her half-eaten sandwich up to her heart, “that I’m always going to love you.”
We finished our sandwiches. It was getting hot under the blanket, so we pulled it off and watched the waves roll in and out. The fierce wind blew her hair into a mad, red tumble. A strand of it whipped my cheek and slipped into my mouth. It tasted the way pomegranates smell. We both laughed.
I broke up with him right after finals. I knew for weeks that I was going to do it, but I didn’t want to mess up his exams.
We both got all As.
I knew it was over when I told him about being raped, the way he was so sweet. I knew I was broken and damaged and telling him was like targeting him with a dirty bomb and then watching from the top of a skyscraper as it detonated, obliterating him.
Also, I’ve never been caving in my life. I’ve read about it and thought I’d like it—being underground is oddly appealing to me—but I’ve never actually done it, and I didn’t want to have to explain to him that I’d lied.
“Don’t hate me,” I said when I told him it was over.
He shook his head. “I will never hate you.”
It still hurts, even though it’s been a couple months. I’m trying to look at it the way you look at a game you’ve been playing forever, and then suddenly you beat the level where you’ve been stuck. You miss it—the well-traveled paths, the familiar monsters crouching under dense jungle foliage—but you’re propelled into a different world and you have to gather your wits to find your way, to survive.