Heartache and Other Natural Shocks (24 page)

“Thank you,” she says.

“And, Julia,” I say in a smooth regal voice, “that black corduroy pantsuit really does show off your hair.”

“Thanks,” she says, clearly surprised by my compliment.

Ma gives me a proud smile. I bat my eyelashes at her. Ma sends me a don’t-push-it look. I turn back to Julia. “How about some food?” I ask. I escort her into the dining room and heap crostini and shrimp onto her plate. “Try the asparagus wrapped in prosciutto,” I insist. “It’s one of Ma’s specialties.”

“Your mom’s a really good cook,” Julia says.

“Yeah, she is,” I say, pouring us both some wine. “It’s a wonder I’m not size-elephant.” I crack up. Julia smiles
politely. In the living room, Uncle Dominic cranks up the music and starts dancing to Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’,” which is both embarrassing and hysterically funny. Mar and Deb are sitting on the couch flirting with my cousin Frank, who’s a year older than me and looks like he’s grown five inches in the last six months. I look at Julia. I could stand here and ask her about her holiday, but hell, I’ve been extremely nice already and a hostess must circulate, so when Uncle Dominic leads a conga line through the dining room, I use the diversion to make my escape. As it turns out, Frank has a couple of joints in his pocket. Marlene, Debbie and I whip upstairs for a smoke, and when I return to the party, Julia Epstein is nowhere in sight.

“One Toke over the Line”

I don’t want to go to the Cabriellis’ New Year’s Eve party, but my mother insists that I “make an appearance.” Surprisingly, Carla is actually friendly, in an overblown, maybe drunk, kind of way. She pours me a huge glass of wine and piles food onto my plate. I can’t help but wonder if she’s seen Ian over the holidays, but it’s not something I can ask. After a while, Carla disappears. Bobby and Buzz hover near the dessert table, carefully picking the chocolate shavings off a large cake. A bald man leads a conga line across the room. I decide that this is my cue to leave, so, when my mom isn’t looking, I gulp down my wine, grab my coat and duck out the back door.

Outside, a full moon hangs in the sky like a disco ball. Snow glitters like fairy dust. Everything is brushed with magic tonight, so I decide to go for a walk in the ravine. As I approach the bridge, I spot two figures huddled together passing a joint back and forth. Jim Malone and Ian Slater. My first urge is to turn back, but then, I think
Why should I be intimidated by them?
Besides, if Ian can pretend nothing happened between us, well, so can I.

Ian spots me as I get closer. “Well, if it isn’t Rapunzel,” he says. “Hey, Rapunzel, what’re you doing out, alone, in the deep, dark forest on New Year’s Eve?” Jim and Ian grin at me like a couple of lean hungry wolves on the prowl.

“I’m going for a walk,” I say nonchalantly.

“Where’s Geoff tonight?” Ian asks.

“He’s out.”

“Is Geoff your boyfriend?” Jim asks.

Ian shakes his head. “Nah, the guy’s a fag. He’s in our drama class. Geoffy Jones.”

Jim holds his crotch and says, in a mocking voice, “Ooh, Geoffy Jones.”

I don’t like Jim. I’ve seen him around. He’s the kind of guy who’ll knock you into the lockers on purpose because he thinks it’s funny. “Geoff is my friend,” I say firmly.

“Is that so?” Ian sneers.

“Yes,” I say. “And quit picking on him all the time.”

“Ooh, she’s taking you on, man,” Jim says, puffing on the joint.

Ian laughs. “That’s what I like about Jules. She knows how to fight back.” He gives me a sly smile, and his eyes glint in the moonlight.

Jim passes the joint to Ian, who takes a drag and holds it out to me. He tilts his head and gives me a mocking grin. He obviously thinks I’m way too straight to smoke, which bugs me, so I reach for the joint, take a puff, hold it in and slowly
exhale, as if I do this all the time. Fortunately, I don’t choke. I pass the joint back to Jim, and Ian throws his head back and laughs. He slings an arm over my shoulder. “Jules, Jules, Jules,” he chants. He looks at Jim. “Do you know, Jules is the smartest girl in grade eleven?”

“No kidding,” Jim says.

“I don’t think so,” I say.

“That’s what Carla told me,” Ian says.

“Carla doesn’t know my marks,” I say. “Carla doesn’t know anything about me.”

Ian leans in, so that our faces are only inches apart. He says, “Tell me something: Why doesn’t Carla like you?”

It’s hard to concentrate with his face so close. “I guess you’d have to ask her,” I say.

“I think she’s jealous.”

“Of what?”

“Of you,” he says. When he says the word
, his lips pucker and his breath comes out in a white puff of air. I stare at the tiny scar at the corner of his mouth, and I want to put my tongue right there. The joint comes around again, and we all take tokes. Jim and Ian talk about a party they’re going to. Sandy somebody. I lose track of the conversation. My teeth begin to chatter, but I don’t feel like leaving. When the joint is down to a roach, Ian takes it between his thumb and forefinger, inhales, squints against the smoke and then, instead of passing it to me, leans over and holds the roach to my lips.
I feel like I’m tottering on the edge of a crevasse. I bend my head forward and press my lips against Ian’s icy fingers. I try to suck in the harsh smoke, but I can’t breathe properly. This time I cough, and Jim and Ian laugh, but not in a bad way.

Ian passes the joint to Jim, who takes one last swift toke and tosses it over the bridge into the half-frozen stream. I listen to the gurgle and pop of the water as it swooshes over the rocks and forms channels below the ice. Everything is so calm and peaceful, and suddenly I realize that I’m stoned. Really stoned. Once, Mollie, Joe and I smoked a joint, and Mollie and I felt a bit light-headed, but this is quite different. This is mellow and pillowy, like falling backward into a snowbank in slow motion, frame by frame. I look around at the trees, the stream, the snow, and everything seems so beautiful.

“What?” Ian asks, looking at me quizzically.

“It’s so pretty here,” I say. “And I never noticed.” The guys laugh. “No, really. And you know why?”

“No. Why?” Ian asks, smirking.

“Because tonight I’m seeing it differently.”

“Because you’re stoned,” Jim says.

“No, not just that. It’s like, when you let go of your mind, your whole perspective changes because … well … you
your mind!”

The guys burst out laughing. I try to think of another way of explaining myself—because, really, this is an amazing epiphany—but when I try to put it into words, I can’t quite
grasp the brilliance of my own insight, and so I just end up laughing.

Ian pulls a bottle from his leather jacket and offers it to me. “Daddy’s good Irish whiskey,” he says. I shake my head. I don’t drink whiskey, but Ian says, “Come on. It will warm you up.”

“Pass it over,” Jim says.

“Ladies first. Where’s your fuckin’ manners,” Ian says. He eases the cork out of the bottle and passes it over. I tip it back. The liquor oozes down my throat and radiates through my chest like a brush fire. We pass the bottle around and around. A little voice inside my brain says
Jules, what are you doing? You’re in over your head
. But I don’t listen. I want to be in over my head. I like it here. It’s relaxing and fun, and people are nice, and anyway, why should I always be afraid that something bad is going to happen?

“Let’s go to your house,” Jim says to Ian.

“No,” Ian says.

“But the bottle’s almost empty, and this is good shit,” Jim says.

“No,” Ian says. “Let’s go to the party.”

I laugh because I can hardly follow this ridiculous ping-pong conversation, and the whole thing makes me giddy.

“Are you coming?” Ian asks.


“To the party.”

“Sure,” I say.

“Then, let’s go,” Ian says. He puts his arm around my waist, and I’m not sure if he’s doing this because he likes me or because he thinks I might fall over, but it feels nice anyway.

We walk out of the ravine and down the street. A car pulls over out of nowhere. Sherrie Cumberland rolls down the passenger window and says that they’re on their way to Sandy’s party and do we want a lift. We do. We pile in, and I get wedged between Jim and Ian. The ride seems to last forever, but Sandy’s place is really only a few blocks away. When we spill out of the car, I hear the thumping bass of rock and roll coming from a two-story brick house. Inside, the rooms are steamy, and people are drinking, smoking and shouting above the pounding rhythm of “Brown Sugar” coming from the basement. Jim starts playing air guitar, and in seconds, he’s swallowed up by the crowd. And that’s the last I see of him.

I dump my boots and coat on a pile near the door and look around. I don’t recognize anyone, but this doesn’t bother me. Everyone’s having a great time, and I will too. Ian has disappeared, so I cruise the house by myself. In the basement, the lights are low and the room vibrates with hot, sweaty, dancing bodies. In a side room, people are smoking joints, and two girls are playing with a Ouija board. They keep saying, “Are you moving it?” “No, are you moving it?” “No, are you?” The Ouija board spells out someone’s name, but I don’t remember whose.

Upstairs, some of the bedroom doors are shut. Sandy’s parents’ bedroom door is open, and half a dozen kids are sitting on the queen-size bed watching
. People in Times Square are waving and hooting. It’s 11:22. Double numbers. Cool.

I find Ian in the kitchen, beside the stove. He says, “Do you want to hot knife?”

I have no idea what hot knifing is, but I say, “Sure.” Tonight, I’ll try anything. I watch as Ian heats a knife blade on the red-hot coil of an electric burner, while a guy with a huge Afro pinches off a crumb of hash and puts it on an unlit burner. Ian presses the hot knife onto the hash, and as it incinerates, he sucks up the smoke. White smoke curls and twists its way into his mouth like a dancing genie. I figure that if I can smoke pot, I can hot knife. So I do. The hash fills my head like smoke in a glass jar. Smoke signals. What does this mean?

Suddenly a freckle-faced girl appears out of nowhere, yelling, “Don’t use the silverware, you moron!” Sandy, I guess. I sit down beside a bowl of salt and vinegar chips, and God, they taste good! Ian puts a cold beer in my hand, and icy water droplets trickle down the sides of the bottle. I shiver. I follow him into the basement.

I think hot knifing was a mistake. As we walk downstairs, the heat from the room swirls around me. I start to float, and time dissolves into ribbons. Music ripples through the pores of my skin, and when Ian takes my hand to lead me through the crowd, all I can think about are his fingers intertwined
with mine and how my lips had pressed against the tips of his cold fingers on the bridge.

We slip through the dancers like otters diving through a sea of salty bodies and surface on the other side of the room, in the shadows. I’m parched and my cold beer tastes so good. I turn to find Ian watching me with those eerie wolf eyes. I want him to kiss me very badly. He says something. I can’t hear the words, but when he leans over and puts his mouth to my ear, I feel the hot wave of his breath on my skin. “How are you, Rapunzel?” A whisper. An incantation. I close my eyes. His fingers trace patterns along my palm like he’s reading my life, up and down the hills and valleys of my hand, sending me coded messages, kinetically, psychically, spiritually. I’m flooded.

Someone puts on the
album, the “Black Magic Woman” track, and we watch the dancers ride the arc and twang of Carlos Santana’s Latin guitar. It occurs to me that if Ian leads me off to a bedroom, I’ll go with him. I’ll go all the way. I don’t even care about condoms, about people in the house, about the fact that we aren’t even going out. I want to be with him, even if it’s only for one night. I just want to be free and spontaneous and to stop worrying all the time.

I lean against Ian’s arm and let my mind drift across the swell of gyrating dancers. And then, like a terrible mirage, the specter of Carla Cabrielli rises up from the darkness. For a second, I think I’m hallucinating, but as she plunges across
the room, I see that it really is her, in the flesh—and if fury has a face, I’m looking at it. Her Medusa eyes are deep black pits, and her face is a macabre mask of rage. If she had a knife, she’d shove it straight between my ribs. Ian and I drop our hands like stones. Ian says, “Carla.”

Panic gurgles up my throat. Carla doesn’t speak. She grabs Ian’s arm and yanks him away. They vanish instantly. I blink, and when I open my eyes, Marlene and Debbie are bearing down on me from across the room, all fangs, poisoned claws and glittering eyes. I bolt. I duck into the Ouija room, back out again and stumble up the stairs. I grab my coat and boots and run out into the night, like Cinderella fleeing the ball. The clock strikes midnight, and people behind me scream, “Happy New Year!”

This is a nightmare. I careen through the maze of streets, lost and bewildered. Time warps. Minutes feel like hours. Every time I look into the night sky, the constellations have changed positions. Does everything always have to change? How can I possibly find my way?

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