Romance

by Heidi Bell

You fit the box fan into your bedroom window, facing out toward the yard so you can blow the smoke from your cigarette through it, so your parents can pretend not to notice. You’re reading a romance novel in bed, a ritual that means more to you than anything that goes on at school or in the church services your parents drag you to on Sundays. Your heart aches for the heroine—this one is a wallflower, but some of them are spitfires, and all of them are just like you. Someday you, too, will fall in love with a brutally handsome Dominic or Edgar or Logan, a secretly kindhearted man with a will strong enough to tame your own.

“Charming,” he says of the brash way you talk to your friends on the phone. “Oh, darling, stop,” he says when you throw a shoe at your little sister and tell her to get the hell out of your room. 

You are saving yourself for him.

After the inevitable happy ending, after chores—scrubbing molding bathtub caulk and vacuuming nappy carpeting—you call Jane, who arrives in her Nissan with rusting edges. You are spending the night at Amanda’s house in the coulee while her parents are away—as they often are, leaving Amanda and her brother on their own. Nothing your parents need to know.

All afternoon, you ride horses bareback through the wooded hills. You are in love with the warm afternoon, with the feeling of holding the bay mare between your thighs, with the roll and ripple of her cantering under a tree while you scream and press against her neck as the low branches snag your silky hair.

As the sun goes down, you dress for the party in Amanda’s bedroom, which still has ruffled curtains and a yellow canopy over the bed. You wear Amanda’s jean shorts and a pink-striped tank top. Amanda wears Jane’s sundress and your Roman sandals, and Jane wears Amanda’s gauzy blouse and your mini skirt. None of you wears a bra. You flip your hair in the mirror. You share a cigarette and then reapply bubblegum lip gloss as cars pull into the driveway and the boys burst through the back door with the barrel.

Later, staggering into the dark leather study, passing out on the sofa. Then something pulling you up out of oblivion, and at the surface, Amanda’s brother, Craig, is breathing on your face, his hands taking off your clothes, moving your doll’s limbs. Light coming in from the hallway like the beam of a flashlight: I see you.

The next day, Craig is somehow your boyfriend, though you’ve never liked him that way, and the reflection of yourself you saw in the mirror yesterday has shattered without anyone noticing but you. The pieces of yourself are there on the ground, but when you try to make sense of them, one refracting sunbeam after another hits you directly in the eye.

Heidi Bell’s short fiction has appeared in Crazyhorse, Beloit Fiction Journal, and the Chicago Reader, among other venues. She works as a freelance book editor in Aurora, Illinois.