The night Jess left us, I sat on the front step twirling my little brother Dicky’s top round and round. As I sent it spinning down the walkway and the black circles blurred into gray, I wanted to believe the stripes were really disappearing, that it was magic, but I knew it was an optical illusion. I was drawn to things that were not what they appeared to be. Sometimes I thought everything was an illusion.
I wiped the back of my neck, damp with sweat. It was getting late, but not a bit cooler. Darkness was erasing the green from the grass, the blue from the sky. The palm trees that lined our street looked like black cutouts. The swing sets were still. There were no more shouts of “olly olly oxen free.” The younger kids who’d been playing hide-and-seek had all gone inside.
The time of day right after dinner sometimes made me lonely, but that August night I had something to look forward to. I was going to the drive-in with Jess and her boyfriend, Tony. My sister was seventeen, two years older than me, and she was in love with Tony. I couldn’t wait for him to show up, take her hand and then mine as he turned to my dad and said, “I’ll bring your two princesses home before midnight, Mr. Galvin. Promise.” All the girls loved Tony, but he belonged to Jess, and when he took my hand I couldn’t help but feel he also belonged to me.
I squinted at the distant place where the road met the desert, willing his gold car to appear. Behind me a door creaked open.
“Come in, Caroline. It’s like an oven out there,” Mom said. It was hot, but it had been hot ever since we’d moved to Tucson from Boston a year ago. I wanted to stay there and wait for Tony, but my thighs were already sticking to the step. I dragged myself up before I became a sweaty mess.
Mom and Dad sat in front of the TV with their scotches, Dad in his leather recliner, Mom on the sofa, smoothing her flowered dress. I stretched out next to Dicky, who was lying on the living room carpet, coloring. Spending summer nights with my parents bored me to death. I couldn’t wait for my real night to begin.
We were going to the new Elvis movie, Tickle Me, and I was dying to see it. It didn’t matter that Jess and Tony were only taking me to the drive-in because they had to. My parents actually believed I could prevent my sister and her boyfriend from making out. They didn’t know that Tony was at least eighteen, and had dropped out of high school, and that I usually got out of the car to get candy and waited a while before coming back. Watching the movie from the snack bar was better than watching them kiss. I loved seeing the story unfold on the big white screen with cars in front of it, and the trees, moon, and stars behind it. It was magical when someone walked by and for a second became part of the picture. Sometimes I wished I could step out of my life and into a movie.
My parents didn’t know any of this, and I’d never tell because everything that happened when I was with Jess and Tony was a secret. We even had secret names when we were with him; he called her Jezebel and me Twinkle Toes. Jess said if Tony gave you a secret name it meant he liked you. All I knew was that a glance from him could take my breath away.
I looked at my watch. Dicky bore down hard with his blue crayon. The ice clinked in Dad’s glass. If Jess didn’t hurry up, she was going to make us late for the movie. She made us late for everything. She didn’t understand that events like sunset and darkness falling wouldn’t wait for her to get her makeup right.
When she finally came downstairs her blonde hair was held back with a blue headband, and she wore pinstripe capris, a blouse knotted above her bellybutton, and white Keds. She stopped in the middle of the room and stared past us as if we weren’t even there. Then she opened her big red purse and gazed into it as if contemplating the mysteries of the universe……………………………