by Valerie Fioravanti
Nikki's Uncle Pete was sprawled across the hood of an old Chevy parked in front of the bar, bullshitting with another half-dozen men taking a breather from their barstools. She tugged her shorts down to cover more leg, but felt a thin band of air hit her waist. She stamped her foot, then froze. It was worse when she moved too freely. Nikki needed her own clothes instead of hand-me-downs, but her mother didn't see the harm in baring a little thigh or midriff. She said, "It's never too soon to show off a figure like yours," when Nikki complained."Let's cross," Nikki told her cousin.
"He's my Dad, you shit," Rae said.
"It's not a skeevefest for you."
Rae replied with an emphatic double finger.
Uncle Pete slid off the car. His shirt reflected the blue neon Pabst sign in the window. The corner reeked of ground-in beer and urine, the sidewalk layers as revealing as tree rings: proudly serving our fourth generation. "Baby girl, keep walking if your Mama sent you down here."
"Nothing wrong with her lungs," Rae told him.
Uncle Pete planted a yeasty kiss on Rae and then Nikki. "You two sneaking off to meet boys?"
Nikki gasped, and Rae kicked her. "Just playing handball with Mikey and Tim."
"Hand ball," some drunk said. "I'd sure like me a game of that." Nikki didn't look too hard to place him. He was bound to be somebody's uncle or brother. It was better not to know.
Hand ball man took an elbow to the neck from her cousin Tommy. "Show some respect." Tommy caught his sister Rae by the waist and spun her, spilling beer from his bottle in an impressively round circle.
"That is one sweet, juicy apple offa Grace's tree." Nikki looked away, tried not to connect the voice to her friend Karen's father. That sucking teeth sound was bad enough from the boys. It gave her gooseflesh on the inside when the old men tried it.
"Watch that talk," Uncle Pete said. "Girl's just fourteen."
"She's twelve!" Rae swatted her father, enough to set him stumbling into Tommy. "I'm older."
Uncle Pete squeezed Rae's cheeks in retaliation. "Sorry, baby. It's easy to forget."
Tommy grabbed Nikki by the neck and messed up her hair. "Nope, still pretty."
Rae's hands balled into fists. "Come on already!"
Nikki followed behind her as she kicked at every piece of trash in sight. "Told you we should've crossed."
"I don't see why they've always got to be looking at you." Rae whizzed a juice bottle her way, and it shattered between them, adding new shards to the already glittering street.
Rae attacked the curb with both feet. "I'm sick of hearing him say your name!"
Nikki climbed onto the mailbox and waited for Rae's tantrum to end. "Just kiss him yourself."
Rae played balance beam with the curb, moving too quickly for control. "My mom says you have to play love smart."
Nikki didn't see why she had to be a part of Rae's love game with Mikey. The mailbox bolts were loose, so she rocked it, taking comfort in the motion. "Don't make me do this."
Rae pulled her off the box. "Let's go, we're late."
Mikey leaned up against the wall of the old cardboard factory, cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other. His dark lashes rimmed the lightest green eyes, but Nikki figured he'd join the crowd at the bar sooner than most. Nikki couldn't understand why Rae didn't see this. It made love seem dumb, not blind.
"Tell him to go home and brush his teeth."
"I brought a pack of breath mints," Rae said.
"Don't let him stop at one."
"Don't be such a princess." Rae skipped off to meet Mikey.
Tim waved his ball in greeting, then slapped some hard shots against the wall. The old cardboard factory was their main court, although nobody played after dark. The block-long walls were full of private nooks and quiet corners.
"We're not here to play, moron," Rae said.
"Really?" Tim pointed at himself and then Rae. "What are we supposed to do?"
Nikki laughed as Rae launched another double finger. Tim was an easy boy to like, and Nikki didn't mind his dark red hair at all. What they said about red-haired boys just wasn't true. Nikki knew Tim wasn't a fag. She caught him looking all the time, whenever Mikey's attention was somewhere else. If Mikey would just turn in the right direction, they could all be kissing.
"I'll play a quick game with you." Tim's smile never made her feel dirty.
"Go stand over there," Rae commanded. Tim looked away, and Nikki baby-stepped into position.
Rae had her hands on Mikey's shoulders, and his head bobbed as she talked. Nikki didn't understand why someone as bossy as Rae couldn't tell Mikey that she'd be handling the kissing, now and in the future.
Rae nodded her way, and Nikki leaned against the wall and looked in Mikey's direction just as she'd been coached. Mikey swaggered forward, chest puffed out and arms swinging goonishly. When they were nose-to-nose, she laughed, her reluctance finally bursting from its cage. Mikey froze long enough for Nikki to see his eyes water. When he sped off toward the far side of the factory, Rae followed.
Rae had warned her not to mess up, but that probably meant she would ignore Nikki for a while. A break from Rae was like a vacation from noise.
"You can't ever do to that to a guy." Tim's ball punctuated each word. "Mikey really likes you." Nikki was tired of feelings being so important when nobody much cared about her own. Tim pushed her up against the wall, his own macho showing as his ball slowly bounced away. "He likes me now," she said. "You've always liked me."
Tim's bangs fell in his face as he tried to avoid her eyes. Nikki swept them back into place, and her fingers buzzed from the contact. "I like your hair."
Tim's hands slid from her shoulders to her waist, and she shifted her hips from the wall as his arms reached around her. He checked behind him for signs of Mikey or Rae, and his whole body quivered as his lips touched hers. When his mouth opened it was warm, and his tongue was slow and gentle. Gradually Nikki slid down the wall with him, but he broke away when they heard Mikey and Rae skipping trash can covers down the street.
"It'll be worse than just Mikey," Tim croaked. "Every day I'll get pounded." Nikki nodded. Tim wasn't the boy the other kids feared. He was the boy who helped pick up your books once his friends were done tormenting you. He wasn't the boy who was allowed to get the girl.
Tim pulled her to her feet. "You know those books you hide behind fashion magazines?" "Like you hide science magazines behind comics?"
Tim tucked her hair behind her ears, then thrust his hands deep into his pockets. "You don't need to pretend. Smile some more, and they won't mind you're a little bit different."
"Smiling is pretending."
"Your life is so hard." Tim's lips curled, but he didn't smile. Nikki could tell it was a struggle.
"You know, I've heard that subway thing actually leaves the neighborhood. Two people could get on and meet up somewhere safe."
Tim's cheeks flushed as dark as his hair, and he couldn't hide his teeth any longer. "Smart chicks are hot."
Nikki's cheeks matched his, but they could hear Rae and Mikey trash-talking. Tim chased down his ball as Nikki held up the wall. Mikey approached more cautiously this time, and Rae raised her fist in warning.
Mikey kissed like he walked, all hard swagger. Nikki opened her mouth, but she couldn't bring herself to move her tongue. Mikey used his own tongue more forcefully, shifted positions roughly, pressed harder against her body. Always more of something, never less. Eventually he stopped. Nikki remained silent, and he nodded as if he finally understood.
On the way home, Nikki said, "In the future, all my kissing decisions will be my own."
Rae jumped in place, her full-body version of a nod. "Mikey got to be your first."
"No one will ever say he wasn't."
Rae stopped. "What does that mean?"
"Not everyone is showy and loud."
Rae raced ahead and slapped the stop sign three times, proving she was proud to be loud. "One day soon they're all going to notice what a freak you are."
An hour ago Nikki would have shivered and backed down. Instead, her mouth curled upward, slowly but not unnaturally.
Valerie Fioravanti's fiction has been published in North American Review, Hunger Mountain, Pindeldyboz, and Cimarron Review, among others. She teaches for the UCLA Writer's Extension and hosts the Stories on Stage reading series in Sacramento.