This story is by Kimberly Canzoneri and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“It’s for you, Malcolm,” said Mom on that awful August night, the phone pressed to her cheek. She cupped a hand around her mouth and whispered the last word: “Sophie.”
It took about a century for me to stand up from the dinner table, or at least that’s how it felt. Based on Mom’s bug-eyed expression, whatever Sophie had to say wasn’t something I wanted to hear. Still, I scrambled my feet, heart throbbing. Then I was across the room and holding the receiver to my ear. I could hear muffled sobbing on the other side.
“Sophie?” I said.
“Malcolm!” she cried, then she burst into tears.
“Sophie, what’s wrong? You’re scaring me to death.”
“We’re moving,” she said. “To California.”
She sounded so upset, I did my best to stay calm. I arranged to meet her at the 24-hour diner on the Turnpike, and fifteen minutes later, I was sitting across from my gorgeous blue-eyed girlfriend at a booth topped with Plexiglas, scanning over the plasticky menu. Sophie was too distraught to order anything—her face was blotchy and her eyes were raw—so I ordered a plate of waffle fries and a chocolate milkshake to share.
“Are you even upset?” she asked, once the waitress went away.
“Of course I’m upset!” I said. The truth was, it hadn’t sunk in, and plus I’m a boy so I can’t go around bawling unless I wanna get punched in the face. “But I—I just think there must be some way to work it out. That’s why I’m not crying yet. I’m just trying to think positively.”
“You really believe that?” she asked. I curled my hands around hers.
“Yes, absolutely. But first, you need to explain why you’re moving.”
“Dad got a position at UCLA. He says the students will be better, and they’ll pay him more, so he’s got to go! And he’s known for weeks. He didn’t want to tell me because he knew I’d be upset, and he was right. It’s absolutely terrible.”
“There’s no way you could convince him to stay?”
She shook her head, solemnly. Her golden hoop earrings swung back and forth. “I tried, Malcolm, you know I did. But it’s settled. It’s all settled! We’re moving forever. He says he doesn’t think we’ll ever come back.”
So, we drank our milkshakes and came up with this plan. For the next two years, we’d write long, romantic letters to each other and talk on the phone once our parents went to bed. Then we’d apply to the same boarding school and the same college and we’d be married by 22, on a California beach. She got so excited about it—by the time Mom came to pick me up, she was smiling and laughing. She moved to my side of the booth, and I slung my arm over her shoulders and played with her hair. She had a pixie cut, and her hair was pale, pale blonde, like the color of the moon.
I got two letters from Sophie. She talked about how beautiful it was in Los Angeles, with palm trees on street corners, and beautiful beaches with soft golden sand, and how she pictured me everywhere she went and it made her heart ache.
The second said she’d met a boy at school, a guitar player with long hair and an earring, and she loved him now instead. “But I’m so happy we got to have such a gorgeous summer together!” she wrote at the end. I tore it to pieces. Soulmates my ass.
I only asked Dana Kumamoto to the Halloween Dance ‘cause my friends wouldn’t let up—I was still figuring out how to pull together five hundred dollars for airfare to LA. But Benny J and Charlie thought it was silly to pine. “It’s time to move on,” they’d say.
Dana was quiet, so I’d never really noticed her, especially with Sophie being everywhere, laughing and smiling and lighting up the whole room. Dana mostly just hung with Gabby Clark, their elbows locked together, whispering in each other’s ears. I figured she was OK-pretty; she had soft-looking black hair that was miles long, and little dimples when she smiled.
So after stalling for a week, I asked her to the dance and she said Yes. She seemed thrilled about it, even though you could tell she was trying to tone it down so she wouldn’t scare me. She knew about Sophie, after all, so she had to realize my heart wasn’t all there.
“So, do you know—do we wear costumes to the party?” she asked. We were standing in the school parking lot where I’d asked her. It was a little chilly and gray out, a good day to be talking about Halloween. I jammed my hands into my pockets to keep them warm, and so Dana wouldn’t get any ideas about holding them. What if her hands didn’t feel anything like Sophie’s? What if they felt just the same?
“You’ve never been?” I asked.
“I was too nervous to go last year.”
Last year, Sophie went to the dance dressed as an angel, with a white gown that glittered like icy snow in sunlight, and two shimmering white wings, with real feathers tipped with silver.
“You wear a costume, but you wanna find one that looks nice, you know? Like, you don’t want to go as a cowboy and wear boots and ratty blue jeans.”
“Oh,” she said. “Maybe I could go as a ballerina.”
I was honestly surprised. It seemed like a good idea. “You dance ballet for real?”
“Mhm,” she said. We were picking our way through the dry grass now, toward a little path in the woods that apparently led to her house. Two gorgeous yellow trees guarded the entrance, dropping petals now and then, like gold tears.
“Can you—can you show me?”
We paused in the woods, on this pathway coated with acorns and dead brown leaves. She slipped off her backpack and nestled it in tree roots. Then she got this serious face, turned out her toes, and bent her knees, so her legs made a diamond shape. She held her arms out in front of her like she was holding a big bowl. Then she rose onto her toes, took two leaping steps, and hurled herself into the air, her legs kicking up, like she was a bird and those were her wings. For a second I thought she’d just keep flying, up and up into the clouds.
It was beautiful the day of the dance—the sky was clear with just a few skinny clouds like Halloween ghosts. Autumn was in full swing now, and so the lawn was covered with a fine gold carpet, like the leaves had soaked up the sun. I was standing by a tree in the yard, feeling as self-conscious as hell, ‘cause when she said she’d be going as a ballet dancer I’d decided to go as one too. So here I was, wearing a billowy white shirt tucked into black pants that were basically tights for boys. You could see every curve of my legs, including all the junk between them.
I was this close to running upstairs to change when the car pulled up. I could see her face in the window, giving me this big smile. Even through the glass, I could see she had dimples for miles. When the car stopped, I went up like a robot and opened the door for her, and she was all elegant getting out. First she dipped just her pink-slippered toe into the leaves, then slowly she eased down the rest of her foot, like she was checking to see if the ground was too hot. Then out came the other leg, wrapped in white tights, and she was standing. Feeling star-struck, I closed the door.
She wore a pink leotard, her hair tied up in a bun so tiny you wondered how it all fit. A couple weeks back, when we were apple picking, she’d told me she never got her hair cut her whole life. It just grew and grew, and now it hung down to her waist. I reached my hand into it. I’d never touched it before and it was even softer than I imagined, like real silk.
“You want to take it down?” she asked, trying not to laugh.
“Is that alright?”
She smiled. “It’s alright.”
I kneaded my hand through her hair, feeling the bun loosen, and the soft locks gliding against each other, until her hair was tumbling down, a great black waterfall of hair.
For half a second, I thought of Sophie, ‘cause the last time I felt this way, I’d been standing across from her. It broke my heart a little to think about it. But then I took Dana’s hand, which was small and soft, and thought maybe I’d gotten this whole soulmates thing backwards after all.