What everyday is like is this. I hear an ambulance and I think it’s coming for somebody I love. Babette called me “old soul,” and she called Tatiana Eleanor Cruz “little punk bullet.” What that meant for me was I was in a perpetual state of stress and it showed on my face. Tatiana, she was smart and sassy, but one day she’d have a temper. There’s a fun way of being beside yourself with the riffraff of hating another girl, but when she invited me to her fourteenth birthday party, things blew up.
How it started was this. My dad made me go and buy her a present with my allowance and said I had to spend the day. He said unless I got the stomach flu (which I wouldn’t, not this time of year, dad said so), I had to get happy about it and zip my trap. So what she was getting from me was a mood ring I bought at Kmart. How us girls knew each other was just one of those things. I was an ugly girl but Tatiana wasn’t, she had full-pouted red lips and luminous brown hair like a fresh coat of paint. The boys looked, and Babette called her eyes sultry, and that meant she was looking good for twenty-five, way too good for fourteen.
Her birthday happened this way. We were on a car ride to the ice skating rink. Me and her big brother, Rudy, in the backseat, and Tatiana and her mama Babette up front. Tatiana told me on my birthday a few weeks ago that she wanted her party at the skating rink. She wanted a cherry-red flavored drink at the movies, AND an ice cream buffet at the lake, and that would be that. She cried when Babette said no to most of it. “The skating rink is fun by its own,” I’d said, and Tatiana snapped and said, “I didn’t ask you, Abby, nobody asked you!” And the way she’d said it was like she was riding a motorcycle and I was riding a tricycle alongside her.
But what she started doing was this. Tatiana turned around to face me in the backseat. She showed me her popped-up veins below her tongue. “You’re gonna be a ugly bunny,” she said to me and I agreed, laughing hard so nobody in the car would think being an ugly bunny bothered me, even if I turned that way and cried about it, whatever, I didn’t wanna look bothered.
“She ain’t ugly,” Rudy said.
He was teasing me! He was! His real name was Richie or something, he was big like a grown man. He played football and smiled all the time like he was always having fun. He was twenty, and that was like an age that didn’t seem real because you were either a baby or you were a teenager, or you were old, but here was a guy right in the middle where it must be the most fun.
Then what happened was fart sounds. Tatiana made a sound with her lips and Babette told her to quit it, that was gross. “I thought you were fourteen now!” Babette had a husky voice like a country singer. She wasn’t a girly-girl, she was a hard woman, liked to rough talk and hit me in the shoulder. My dad said that Tatiana’s mama looked like a woman that came out the wrong end when she was born. What he meant was the asshole, not the front side.
“You look like you wanna say something to me,” Rudy said.
“No, I don’t wanna say anything,” I said. Now I was getting embarrassed! I’d known him a long time but now his voice was talking to me.
“Where’d you get the purple short-things?”
“What you’re wearing on your bottom. Where’d you get ‘em?”
They weren’t short-things! They were just shorts! Why did he call it that? “I got them at Kmart,” I said.
“They’re cute,” Rudy said.
“They’re not cute, pervert!” Tatiana said, looking back at us like she was gonna explode.
What happened then was this. Babette told Tatiana she was driving and to keep it down back there. Rudy winked at me like we had a secret together. He wasn’t a pervert, he was being nice. Babette pulled up to the ice skating rink and there were no cars in the parking lot, and the four of us had a bad feeling. She read the sign – Closed For Maintenance. “Are you sure it’s closed? Let’s drive around back,” Tatiana ordered, and Babette got mad and drove around to the back of the building where it was deserted except for industrial garbage cans.
“How’s I supposed to know?” Babette said, but naturally Tatiana wanted to go today not next time. She turned her face out the window facing the sun looking beat up with anger. Her face was that of a girl carved out of everybody’s brains when they think about what their little girl will look like when it’s born. She was little punk bullet, and I was no one.
“Where you gonna drive to?” Rudy said. His legs were hairy and giant, a reddish-sandy color like the hair on his head that was like a mop. “Why don’t I take over?” And what he meant was the wheel.
“I don’t want you doin’ nothin,” Babette said, making a full stop. “Bullet, where you wanna go? You wanna go to the lake?”
“Did kiddo bring her bikini?” Rudy meant me, the kiddo, wrinkling his nose like it was gonna run, scratching his hairy leg that I couldn’t stop glancing at because I’d never seen a grown man’s leg before. I told Rudy I did bring my bikini. What was his point anyway? I didn’t want anybody thinking I didn’t pick out my own bikini! My own clothes!
Then that got me pretending. Babette announced she was driving to the lake and did anybody have to use the bathroom before. Nobody did, but even if I had I would’ve kept it to myself. Sometimes people like Tatiana always thought the worst. We were headed down narrower roads to get to the lake, nothing like highway hot blowing our hair in the end of summer drive.The car ride was taking forever, all the bends, every beat of the turn signal.
“Abby, how many boys have you kissed?” Tatiana said.
“Not so many,” I replied.
“I’ve kissed five,” Tatiana boasted.“Mama, is that a lot?”
“That’s a good peck of puckers,” Babette said, without consideration that maybe it was too many for fourteen, maybe too little even. I’d never kissed a boy, I was too shy, too ugly, there was nothing I could do about it. Even right now I’d catch my look in the rear view mirror, wishing I hadn’t seen that ugly girl looking back at me, like sitting across from a tiger.
“How many boys line up to kiss you?” Rudy asked. “She’s laughing like I told a joke.”
“Don’t embarrass that girl,” Babette warned.
“I’m not gonna embarrass nobody, all I asked is who was lined up to give her a kiss on the lips,” Rudy said.
Tatiana said heatedly, “Mama, he’s being a pervert!”
“He grew up to be a man, your brother,” Babette replied. “There ain’t nothing we can do.”
Rudy was kidding me! This was what it meant to be a tease. A pervert, I don’t think so! See, Rudy was a man, even Babette said so. “There’s no one I like,” I said.
“There’s no one you like, that’s all that’s stopping you?” Rudy said. “You gotta like somebody, everybody likes somebody.”
I giggled again, feeling funny. No one had ever talked to me like this before. “There’s no one to like,” I said.
“I don’t believe you, little girl.”
Babette told Rudy to leave me alone but I didn’t want him to leave me alone, it was hard to say. He was cute, kind of. I said, “How many girls have you been kissing, Rudy?”
Then something awful happened and I should’ve known better. Rudy laughed at me and then Babette laughed, too. I laughed, then, trying to keep up with everyone. Rudy threw his head back he laughed so hard. “She wants to know how many girls I’ve kissed,” he said. Why did he repeat it, didn’t everybody already hear?
“I was only joshing,” I said.
“Why you wanna know, little girl?”
What happened was suddenly it felt like no one understood me. “‘Cause you asked me first,” I said, and then Babette could tell I was upset because she told Rudy to leave me alone and mind his own beeswax. Rudy was nice to me again a minute later, saying he couldn’t remember how many girls he’s kissed. He said he lost count after fifty, but I couldn’t tell if he was jostling me or serious. Fifty was so many lips, it couldn’t be true.
“I wish the weather was different,” Tatiana said. “Maybe it’s too hot to go swimming.”
“The lake is cold at the bottom,” I offered.
Babette said she wanted to give her backside some shadow.
So we drove through the woods to the lake for Tatiana to decide what she wanted to do. She wanted to go swimming but maybe there was a better choice. “What else is there?” she asked. The lake looked so welcoming and sparkly like it was filled with jewels.
“I think Abbey Road has an idea,” Rudy said, yawning the biggest yawn I’d ever seen. All of his teeth showed.
I got the Abbey Road joke by now, dad explained it to me one day but sometimes it doesn’t feel like a joke and it hurts my feelings. Old people liked to joke like that. Why did Rudy have to say that?
What happened was Babette said maybe we should all get out of the car and get our feet wet so Tatiana could decide that way, but it didn’t happen because now Tatiana didn’t want to get her feet wet if she wasn’t going to get the rest of her wet. That made sense, I thought. I was glad because there were other cars parked around ours and I didn’t want anybody seeing me just putting my feet in. Maybe they’d think I didn’t know how to swim or something and how crazy would that be.
“Go put your bottom in the water and tell us how cold the water feels,” Rudy directed, sticking his thumb out at the lake.
“Pervert!” Tatiana said.
Why was he saying that? It was mean of him, talking about my bottom so everyone in the car could hear! That was how twenty-year old guys like Rudy played with you.
“Are we swimming or are we driving?” Babette wanted to know right now, and Tatiana looked out at the lake once more, and asked, “Could we come back later when it’s cooler?” Babette said no and Tatiana pouted so we drove away. We didn’t have a destination now, it was up to Tatiana who didn’t have a clue. This time Babette drove down the correct road because she saw a cop car weeding through the trees real sneakily.
I tried my hardest to keep up with her, like I was running next to her in the sand with a pail of water in both hands, eager to please, so eager to please being thirteen.
We drove along the canyons, like big macaroons roasting in the sun.nBabette was smoking a nasty cigarette. I thought about maybe putting on the mood ring to see what color it would be, but it wasn’t my birthday, not my ring, not my mood to wonder about.
“No boys coming to your door,” Rudy said. “How do you practice kissing?”
“I don’t practice,” I answered. Rudy was getting private again. He was like that, very mature.
“Where can we go?” Tatiana let her hair down, sticking her head out the window like a canine. “Let’s drive to a place we’ve never been.”
“Bullet, you gotta give me direction,” Babette said.
As I was watching the canyons out my window, I could feel Rudy watching me. “Do you know a place?” I asked him.
“You wanna know how many girls I’ve felt-up?”
I was not wondering that, didn’t cross my mind one time, but I had to giggle and pretend it was funny otherwise I’d look babyish. “You can tell me if you want to,” I said.
What happened then was Rudy touched me. He touched me so weird I thought I was getting carried away, like I was going to start crying! He flicked me there, on my boob that was hidden by the seat belt, his fingers made a snapping gesture and it was there.
“Someone help me think of a place,” Tatiana said impatiently.
Had Rudy really done that? He hadn’t meant it that way! Rudy was so mature, this was the way it was! I wiped my eyes really fast so nobody would see.
“Nobody is helping me think,” Tatiana moaned.
“Rudy, help your sister and stop talkin’ to that girl back there,” Babette said. She checked around for cops and then threw her cigarette butt out the window. She reminded us not to litter, you could get a ticket.
“At what time do I get my presents?” Tatiana asked. Babette said whatever time she wanted but could she please pick a direction and a place so she didn’t feel like she was driving in circles.
Rudy smiled gently at me now, like a nice guy, maybe. I think he saw me crying, I was so embarrassed. We were the only car on the road now, our hair blowing and the canyons there looking mighty magnificent. I stared at the birthday ribbon Babette tied to the hood antenna the whole way down the highway, trying to feel a happy way.
What happened then was Rudy tried to explain. “A guy like me only touches a girl if she’s three things.”
“Keep it to yourself, we don’t care,” Babette said.
“I make sure a girl’s not gonna take my money. I make sure she’s not a psycho, and I make sure she ain’t ugly,” Rudy said. “What do you think about that?”
I’d felt better hearing Rudy say those things.
“You’re smart,” I said, hoping I hadn’t gone too far. I didn’t want him thinking bad things about me.
“I wish there was a water park,” Tatiana said. “Please, mama, please!”
Babette and Rudy couldn’t think of a water park within seventy-five miles of our highway riding. I pretended I was thinking of one even though I didn’t have any idea. I’d never been to a water park before but it sounded fun, more fun than the lake. “What about a movie? Is there a movie you want to see?” Babette asked, but there wasn’t one movie out Tatiana wanted to see so bad. “Well, what do you want to do today?”
What happened then was Rudy touched me again, and this time I didn’t think I made it up, and I didn’t think he was being very nice! He’d cupped my thigh in his hand and asked if I’d like to learn how to kiss.
“Mama, he’s being a pervert!” Tatiana said.
Babette turned around roughly, hollering at Rudy, telling him, “Don’t touch that girl! What the hell-sake do you think you’re doing?”
My heart was beating fast like I’d been running. Did he like me? I didn’t like him, not anymore! Rudy couldn’t have liked me because I was an ugly girl and that was one of his rules about girls, they can’t be ugly, so what was going on here?
“I wanna show her how to kiss, help her out,” Rudy said.
Then Tatiana started laughing, smiling a smile with a cruel bite. “Do it, Rudy, show her how to kiss,” Tatiana said.
“Get lost,” I said.
“You’ll like it after, that’s how it always is,” Rudy said.
“You kids don’t make that girl kiss,” Babette warned, driving, driving, all we were doing was driving! She looked like a hotdog sticking out of a bun from here in the backseat.
“It’s my birthday,” Tatiana said.
It happened fast like it didn’t happen at all, and I was petrified, but he asked me! He was teasing, always teasing me! He squeezed my bare thigh again like it didn’t even belong to me, it belonged to him before I felt his wet lips on mine. He was laughing so hard with little punk bullet that it was over and done with, and I didn’t cry, I refused to cry. It was going to be one of those things.
“See. You’re smarter than an ugly girl trying to look pretty,” Tatiana said.
What happened then was I opened the gift bag by my feet and slipped the mood ring on my finger, deciding to keep it for myself.
Kayli Scholz is a short story writer from Ft. Lauderdale. This is her first publication.