That Fall When We Were Gorgeous
I knew who Elena Maria was, though I was sure she had no idea who I was. She had gone to St. Clare’s school, and for two years, third grade and fourth, I sat in her desk every Sunday for CCD. She stocked her desk with glitter pencils and animal-shaped erasers, and it took everything I had not to walk away with one every week. I clasped my hands and asked Jesus not to let me be tempted, and, though I was temped, I never gave in.
The CCD kids rarely mingled with the parish school kids, but St. Clare’s school only went to eighth grade. Once ninth grade rolled around, most of them, kids who had been together for every class since pre-school, were dumped into North Side High School along with the rest of us.
They sat together at lunch and complained about the food and talked loudly about how they were going to transfer to St. Cecelia’s High in the next county over, even though it meant going back to wearing uniforms. Their moms would not mind the half-hour drive there and back.
On the fourth day of ninth grade, though, Elena Maria walked past them and plopped herself down on the fiberglass and metal chair across from me. “You go to St. Clare’s, right?” she asked.
I had a wad of fries stuck in my mouth, and it took me a second to answer “My whole life,” I said.
She waved her wrist in the direction of the her old classmate. Her sparkle-jelly bracelets flapped as she folded her hands on the table. “You cannot imagine how happy I am to be in public school,” she said. “Look at those sheltered losers.”
“I know what you mean,” I said. I didn’t. I had spent years envying every person at that table.
Maria Elena’s hair fell around her shoulders in ringlets that were both naturally perfect and indicative of a command over styling products. Low-rise jeans had, apparently, been invented specifically to fit her.
“I’m gonna get a Pepsi,” she said.
I sat there with my free school lunch of fries, pizza, and a sherbet that counted as a fruit according to the state of Indiana. I watched her walk over to the vending machines. I didn’t have change for the machine, but Elena Maria knew that. She came back and handed me a can.
“The machine gave me two,” said.
I was grateful for the lie.
“I’m Elle,” she said. “Like the magazine.”
“I’m Janelle,” I said.
I never mentioned knowing her full name.
We had gym class together, and Elle and I walked the track instead of running. We talked about people we knew from church, and she told me about the rich kids at parochial school. Elle and I discovered we both had fathers who had left our mothers, and we both had mothers who clutched their abandonment like martyrs’ palms. My mother wore her wedding ring on a chain beside her Immaculate Heart medal and Elle’s mother wore a gold Lady of Guadalupe around her neck. She told Elle that if she prayed to the Virgin, her father would repent, leave his second wife, and return to them. Her mother believed this, even though her father was in Florida and had two other kids.
“My mother won’t divorce my father, either,” I told her. “And she won’t date either.” I had never met someone else whose mother held on intensely to man so she could take communion.
Elle got quiet for a moment. I wrapped my pinky around hers. She smiled at me. Elle outlined her lips in dark maroon liner and it made her straight white teeth all the brighter.
The gym coach was yelling at us, telling us to pick up the pace. Elle rolled her eyes. “You see him?” she asked me as some boys ran past us. She pointed at a boy named Jeremy. He had gone to CCD with me.
I had my own reason to dislike him. For a few months, my family got supplemental food boxes from the church. Jeremy’s mom had brought them over, and she was nice about it. She helped me carry the food into the kitchen and then left. She didn’t comment on the house or stare into any of the rooms that way some people did, curious about how the poor lived. One day, though, she brought Jeremy with her. He stood on the porch and stared at me. Clearly, his mom had brought him along to learn a lesson about charity or gratitude. I told his mom I’d carry it in myself. Jeremy had looked at me with pity as I took the box of cans, which was bad enough, but the following week at CCD, he had asked, “How’d you like that creamed corn?” I had told him that my family did not eat creamed corn, thank you very much, even though I had heated it up for the boys the night before. I didn’t tell Elle any of this. I just told her I knew him. I was prepared to say he was cute if I needed to.
“I did him,” Elle said.
“What do you mean you did him?” I said.
She struck me with a I dare you to be scandalized by this look. “I did him,” she said. “Like, all the way.”
I blushed and Elle laughed at me. “God,” she said. “You’re as bad as the rest of them.”
I shook my head. I figured I knew quite a bit. On nights when my mom worked late and I had to stay in and make dinner for the boys, I got to watch whatever I wanted. I had seen things.
“What was it like?” I asked.
Elle pulled her hair tie off and rearranged her curls. “It was nice,” she said. “Not like some guys.”
I nodded as though I had any idea what she was talking about. She had said “guys.” “Guys” with an “s” on the end.
One of the few times the CCD kids had been together with the parochial school kids had been at the confirmation retreat. We had gone out to a camp near the lake, and as part of the evening program the youth minister had us pass around a plastic cup and take turns spitting into it. Once the cup of warm spit had reached the front of the room, he held it up and asked if any of us would drink it. Everyone made gagging noises. “If you give up your virginity to anyone other than your spouse, this is you,” he said. “You have the germs and spit on you from that person and everyone that person ever slept with. Would you ask your future husband or future wife to drink this?” Along with everyone else, I had signed a pledge to remain a virgin until marriage. I figured it wouldn’t be hard. Elle had been sitting in the back with some other girls from the parochial school. They were whispering and laughing, and the youth pastor had narrowed his eyes at them and shook his head. I had also turned around to look at them, shocked that they could laugh at something so serious. Now, looking at Elle, I shook my head again.
I went to Elle’s house a couple times. My mom sometimes had days off in the middle of the week and I didn’t have to be at home with my brothers. Elle curled my hair and gave me pink lipstick she said was wrong for her, but perfect for me. She outlined my mouth in red and tinted my eyelids teal blue. “Now you look hot,” she told me.
I blushed and had to look away.
“No, really,” Elle told me. “You are gorgeous.”
She gave me clothes to borrow—low-rise jeans, skirts that barely made the cut-off for dress code, tight sweaters. I hurried after gym class to put on my make-up so that Elle would tell me, “You look so hot, Janelle.”
I knew she talked to boys. She showed me the notes they wrote to her and she laughed as she read them aloud. I was relieved to hear her mock them.
I went to Spanish mass with her family so I could sit beside her and hold her hand as we prayed the Our Father. Afterwards, we walked across the street to buy candy and popsicles while her mom talked to her church friends. “I hate hanging around church people,” Elle said.
“Me too,” I said, though I wouldn’t know Elle were it not for church.
My mother wasn’t happy with this plan. “How am I supposed to manage your brothers on my own during mass?” she asked.
When the annual church spaghetti supper rolled around, Elle told her mom ahead of time that we were going to go for a walk down to the park after we ate because we needed to talk about our history project. Elle had told her mom we had history together, and I went along with it. I told my mom that I was always watching the boys, and she gave me a guilty look. “You’re right,” my mom said. She looked haggard. “You should get a chance to have fun.”
Elle and I sat together in the parish hall and ate spaghetti—the sauce a mix of all the jars that all parishioners had donated. The occasional lone carrot chunk made us wonder what other people put in their sauce. Jeremy walked by our table and tried not to look at either of us. He was volunteering at the dinner for youth group service hours. Elle looked at the wall for a moment and then stood up. “Let’s get out of here,” she said. She took our Styrofoam plates and dumped them in the trash. I waved to my mom, and Elle and I headed out. As we got farther from the church, Elle stopped under a locust tree, its petal-like yellow leaves already on the ground, and opened her compact to adjust her make-up. She reached up with her lip pencil and told me, “Here, hold still.” I smiled, confident that she saw me as beautiful, and we headed towards the park.
“I’ve been talking to this guy,” she said.
She looked straight ahead while she spoke. “He’s older.”
I nodded as though I understood.
“Listen,” she said. “You know I love you, right?” She leaned in and kissed my cheek and I stopped breathing for a minute. “I told this guy I was going to meet him,” she said. “Now, in the park.”
She looked at me in way that told me I needed to go along with this. “You won’t tell, right?”
I shook my head. “I won’t tell,” I said.
“I know you wouldn’t,” Elle said.
At the park, Elle headed in the direction of the cement-block bathroom. A red car, at least ten years old, sat parked in front of it.
“Wait here,” she said. “Knock on the door if anyone comes.”
The car door opened and a man stepped out. He was at least forty, probably older, white, and balding.
I sat on top of a picnic table and waited while they went inside the men’s room. I ran my fingernails along the grain of the wood and read the things people had chiseled into it: Kyle, Slipknot, SP & TM, 2010. This was better than imagining what was happening in that bathroom. I was either a chump and convenient cover story or someone Elle trusted so much that her secrets were safe with me. I hoped for the latter. Ten minutes later, Elle came out. She reached into her shirt to fix one of her bra straps. “Kevin says he’ll take us to get ice cream,” she said. Her lipstick was smudged. The man stood by the car and stared at us.
I looked at my watch. “I think I should get back.”
Elle tilted her head to one side. “Oh, OK,” she said.
“My mom will be wondering where I am.”
She started to walk away towards the car. “I’ll tell your mom you walked home, OK?”
“Yeah, whatever,” she said.
“Elle!” I yelled after her. “Elena!”
She glared at me as the red car pulled away. I sat on top of the picnic table for about five minutes. Maybe it was less than that. I thought that maybe she would come back. That the car would pull up and she would step out and she would say that she was sorry. That I was the one she wanted to be with But the car never came back.
I got back to the church and told Elle’s mom she had gone home. She raised an eyebrow at me, but I hurried over to my mom and helped her wrangle the boys. We wiped spaghetti sauce off their faces and we each held one of their hands as we walked home.
“Did you have fun with your friend?” my mom asked.
“Yeah,” I told her. “We just talked.”
Later that night, I heard the phone ring. In our ancient rental house, sound carried through the plaster. Lying in bed, I worried it was the police calling to say that Elle was dead and that the man in the red car had killed her. I heard my mom answering the phone in the kitchen.
“Yes, of course,” my mom said. “No, I don’t think so.” My mom kept trying to get a word in. I could tell she was angry and someone was cutting her off. “That isn’t something my daughter would do.” There was a long pause. “Well, how about your daughter stays away from my daughter, then?”
I heard the plastic clang as my mom hung up the phone.
My mom came into my room and got under the covers with me. She put her face next to mine and pulled me close.
“We should move away from here,” my mom said. “You deserve better than this.”
Every once in a while, all her sorrow came welling up and I was the only one who was there to receive it.
“It’s OK, Mom,” I said.
The following Monday, I sat by myself at lunch. I drank my carton of chocolate milk and told myself it was just as good as a Pepsi. At gym class, I found a group of girls who were jogging and tried my best to keep up with them. When I passed Elle, I focused on my breathing so I wouldn’t sound winded. I didn’t look at her. She didn’t look at me. When the coach blew the whistle for us to come back into the gym, a girl I was with turned back and looked at Elena. “You know her, right?” she asked. “Is it true she’s a slut?”
The coach blew the whistle again. I sprinted away faster than I thought I could.
That evening, I was home alone with my little brothers. My mom had called to say she was going to be late, so I was making the boys their dinner. The phone rang in the kitchen. I didn’t want to answer it; it might be Elle’s mom. But it wasn’t. It was Elle.
“I shouldn’t have left,” she said. “I should have gone back with you.”
“No, I should have got in the car with you,” I said.
“I’m not supposed to be on the phone,” she said. “My mom called my dad and he’s going to send the money for private school.” I heard her sigh. “Listen, I can’t talk long, but my mom says public school is a bad influence on me.” She paused for a second. “And she says you’re a bad influence on me.”
“Why am I a bad influence?” I said.
Elle sighed. “Janelle, the guy was disgusting. I don’t know why I did it.”
“Elle, you are too good for men like that.”
I heard someone pick up the other line. “I don’t want you talking to my daughter. Girls who meet men in parks have no business around my daughter.” It was Elle’s mom. “You hear me?”
I tried to say something, but she hung up the phone.
Six months later, the Diocese decided to create a new parish out in the county. St. Clare’s became Santa Clara’s and exclusively held Spanish Mass. Elle’s mom was named president of the parish council. The elderly English-speaking parishioners left in the neighborhood put their houses up for sale and moved into condo buildings with numbered parking spots and gate codes. My mom got a car, so we drove out on Sundays to the glistening white, new, modern church. I made new friends—friends who studied and who talked about homework and tests more than boys. I got rides from Jeremy’s mom to take me to youth group, where I signed chastity pledges and promised my heart to Jesus over and over again to make sure the promises stuck. I even agreed to be Jeremy’s date to a dance where we drank red punch and danced without touching.
Junior year, Jeremy stood up before the group and talked about his sexual sins. He talked about a girl who tempted him and led him astray. A girl who painted her lips and outlined them in dark colors. He talked about Jesus leading him down a new path and about being renewed. At the end, he cried, and everyone clapped. I looked around at the room of people clapping for his tears. The youth pastor told him how brave he was.
I looked at the room full of smiling girls and stoic-faced boys, and I hated them, but I clapped, too.
About the Author: Sarah Wylder Deshpande lives in Oregon with her husband and son. She holds an MFA in poetry from the University of Maryland. Her fiction has appeared in Dunes Review and Tammy Journal and is forthcoming in 3Elements Review. Her poetry is forthcoming in Fire Tetrahedron. She is currently working on a novel.