Photograph by Taek. Words by Perah Ralin. All rights reserved.
Cigarette smoke slipped from her lips as she talked, floating past crusty lip liner and dissipating in the muggy summer air. Her elbows and arms fluttered when she got excited, her frail body shaking with the movement. She reached for her worn navy backpack as she stood up, spilling the contents of it across her lap and towards me, inciting a small expulsion of air from her nostrils. I help her collect her wrinkled math homework, and my fingertips brush hers. She looks up at me for a second, expression unreadable, before she bares her teeth in some sort of uncomfortable smile. Once, I made a joke and she laughed.
When I get home, I lie in my ancient sticker covered bunk bed and imagine her laugh. I imitate it into the dark, and I almost get the gravelly sputtering start right, but I stop when my father comes in and tells me that I’m disturbing my mother’s sleep.
The next time I see her, sitting in the same spot she was last, I plan to walk straight past her without breaking pace, or even looking her way, hoping she’ll notice my new shoes and call me over. She doesn’t, but a girl in math does, saying that my feet look like little blue cows. I want to tell her that they’re actually waves, and that the original laces were white instead of red, but she turns away from me to talk to the beautiful red haired boy behind her before I can.
Another time, she told me to count the math teacher’s shirts. He only wears four, she claimed, barely able to explain through her self-induced laughter. I see him every other day, and so far, I’ve counted two shirts. I mark another tally on the chart next to my notes, and my hand cramps up a little bit. It’s okay, though. We’ll have something to talk about the next time I see her, especially after the concert.
My neck hurts from bobbing up and down, and I can’t tell if anyone else in the crowd is bobbing with me anymore. The band is too loud, their singer’s drunken warbling drowned out by too many clashing guitars. My little cow feet hurt in their too-small shoes, and I’m filled with the feeling that I am a fraud, for being the youngest one here, for dragging a group of people I barely know two train switches and a long walk just to see a mediocre show.
There’s a girl twenty feet away hypnotized by the music, the only one actually dancing. The tassels of her hat swing with her hair, catching the light, and for the last few songs, I watch her instead of the band. It’s mesmerizing, and I try to bump into her on the way out, but my friends are hungry and I am whisked away by them and the crowd and the noise all around us.
On the sidewalk, I think I smell her brand of cigarettes and maybe her perfume as we brush past the throng huddled by the bus stop, but when I look, it’s a bearded old man wearing a tattered camo jacket. He leers when we make eye contact, vulgar tongue slipping past wet red lips, and I look away quickly, the hungry glint in his eyes stuck in my mind throughout the train ride home.
I want to tell her tonight that the concert was great, and for her to be fooled by it. I want her to believe that it wasn’t my first concert, that I got to talk to the band and that we stayed after. But it was, and we didn’t, and even if we could have, I wouldn’t have wanted to, because they sucked. I try to go find her, but she and her friends aren’t in their usual place, and for a while I just sit and stare at the worn wooden floorboards, taking in the scent of musky perfume and stale cigarettes and ginger candies and incense before I walk home in the dark, a shattered vodka bottle illuminated by the streetlights momentarily blinding me along the way.