a YA novel excerpt © Susa Silvermarie
Making Music With Words
Anything had to be better than sitting home hating Dad for giving up. Eyes closed, Joey sprawled on the top bleacher. Dad’s classical piano streamed into her earphones, but from the high school gym, a punk band’s bass pounded her bones like a piston.
A touch on her shoulder made Joey jump. She yanked off her headset.
Jane plopped down close, swoopy hair swinging. “I had to get out of there too,” she said.
“You?” Joey scooted down the bench so they weren’t close. Joey knew this junior, everybody knew her.
“I am so sick of Rob hanging on to my arm and kids sucking up to me, I could puke,” Jane said.
“What’re you talking to me for?” Joey said.
“I don’t know. I’ve watched you. You’re a sophomore, right? Josie?
“Joey. It’s Joey, ok?”
“Whatever. So what’re you listening to?”
Joey stiffened, glad her morena skin wouldn’t betray her blush. Dad’s music was not a casual subject.
“Forget it, it doesn’t matter. I wanna be alone, too.” Jane lay on the bleacher, stared at the sky, and added, “at least for one effing minute of my life.”
Jane closed her eyes and Joey copped a look. Jane’s face caught the yellow of the sodium field light. She looked tired, not fake-happy and bored-gorgeous like in the school halls, or at the newspaper meetings. She looked real. Joey eyed the soft wave of her auburn blunt cut, her classy v-neck sweater.
Jane popped up and cocked her head at Joey like a question. For a nanosecond, a steel curtain between them turned transparent as a theatre scrim. Joey glimpsed in Jane’s green eyes, not the rippling surface of a school queen, but still water deeps.
“Jane!” A male voice yelled toward the football field. “You out there?”
Jane slumped back into the shadows and touched a finger to her lips. They waited until Rob disappeared back into the gym.
“I envy you,” Jane said.
Joey was so surprised she knocked over her soda. The can bounced and clunked through the bleachers. Great. Show her how clumsy you are.
“Come on,” Jane said, scrambling.
“What,” Joey said, as noncommittal as she could. But she banged down all the rows behind Jane. Underneath the bleachers, stripes of light made pale bars on the grass. Jane found a can, set it between them and sat. “How’s your spit aim?” she said.
“What?” Joey of the excellent vocabulary strikes again.
Jane sucked in her cheerleader cheeks and arched a gob towards the can. It dripped.
“Your turn,” Jane said. “The can’s whatever you can’t stand.”
Joey got better as they named the shit they were spitting at.
“School.” Jane spit.
“Life.” Joey spit.
“Expectations.” Jane spit
“Cancer.” Joey spit.
They got quiet. Joey wished she could put the word back in the can.
“Who was it?” Jane said.
What the hell, it was already out. “My Dad,” Joey said. “He wouldn’t fight.” She stood and kicked the soda can out of their barred hideout. “He threw off his gloves and walked out of the ring.”
“Sucks,” Jane said. “What was he like?”
“A piano prince. Jazz piano in salsa clubs for a living. At home, pure classical,” Joey said. She surprised herself by adding, “That’s what I was listening to.”
“Classical?” Jane said.
“Dad playing Chopin,” Joey said. “A tape I made of him.”
“Huh,” Jane said. “Why make it hurt worse?”
Joey stared at this güera’s creamy white skin. What kind of person asked her what she hadn’t asked herself? Or waited while she considered what the hell the answer was.
“Listening makes me miss him and be pissed at him, you’re right.” Joey finally said. An emptiness yawned in her, endless as space. “But it makes me feel close to him, too. When he played, he put himself inside the music…”
She shook her head to clear the whirling. What was she doing talking about Dad to a stranger? Joey stood up. “I gotta find a grilled cheese sandwich,” she said.
“Wait, me too. I’m not going back in there,” Jane said. “I can’t stand being WonderJane in the school world for one minute more tonight. Hey, the co-op café’s still open and I lo-ooove their grilled cheese.”
They sat in a booth. Joey narrowed her eyes and looked around the café.
“You don’t like it?” Jane said.
“Reflex for a morena in Angloland. No offense.”
“Right,” Jane said, twisting her napkin. “Uh, morena?”
“Brown girl. Mexican.” Why was Jane being so nice?
“Want to go somewhere else?” Jane said.
“We can stay. If I can ask you something.” Joey said.
“I guess.” Jane said.
“Why did you say you envy me?” Joey said.
Jane stared at her deformed napkin. “You don’t seem like you’re made of pieces jammed together from different puzzles. Me, I’m part Rob’s fantasy, part my parents’ illusions, part teachers’ expectations.” Jane snorted. “You… seem like a whole picture you painted yourself. At the newspaper meetings, it doesn’t sound like you’re trying to make anybody happy, except yourself.”
Joey gripped her water glass. Attention from someone as popular as Jane Fitzgibbons was probably a trick, to get Joey to say something Jane could make fun of later to her horde of friends.
“Look,” Joey said, “When you’re not straight and only half white — there’s no way to make most people happy with who you are.” Then how come Joey wanted so bad to say the right things to this cool girl?
Jane didn’t answer.
“Awkward pause,” Joey said, finally.
“Huh?” Jane said.
“My Dad said things like that. Like we were in a play,” Joey said. “He loved theatre.” Joey held her grilled cheese over her plate and pulled the slices apart slowly. The white cheese stretched like taffy. “Talk about put together. I asked for mozzarella so I could see if this still works. I used to beg my mom to make ‘grilled rubbercheese sandwiches’… Joey put her sandwich down. “Anyway, since my Dad, you know, I don’t feel much like a whole picture. More like, just a hole.”
“That’s funny! Oh, sorry, I just meant the way you said it was funny.” Jane scanned the booths on either side and leaned across theirs. “So you’re gay?” She said it fast and quiet.
“Like I said. Why you asking?” Joey shot back, her stomach tying the mozzarella into rubber knots. It was the way Jane’s mouth moved that stirred Joey up. And she wanted to stare at the smile that turned one side of Jane’s mouth up a little higher than the other. It was crazy, crushing on a queen.
“Awkward pause?” Jane tried.
Joey folded her arms and kept her mouth shut, forbidding herself to lean in towards Jane’s scent, something distracting that Joey’s nostrils widened to identify.
“Okay, well, I guess I’m trying to figure out, um, why I don’t feel anything with Rob anymore.” Jane said. Electricity raced across the table.
The waitress, eyes flat, mouth in a line, picked that moment to slap down their check. Joey expected the waitress’s hand to jump from the electric charge. Nope, steadier hands than Joey’s, which were zinging so bad she had to clasp them firmly together under her chin while Jane figured the bill split. They walked out into the night.
A sharp clean smell off Lake Michigan snapped Joey’s tension. She breathed in the cool spring air. “Yeah, I’ve liked girls since ever,” she said. “But my experience is zilch.” Letting her guard down with Jane made Joey feel high. “I seem to be saving myself for a girl who hasn’t shown up yet.”
“Hah! Where are they all, those people who haven’t shown up yet,” Jane said. “Like, at some dance together? Omigod, do you think the dance is over? I gotta go back and find Rob.”
Joey’s armor clanked over her again.
“See you around,” Jane said.
She wasn’t even going to remember Joey’s name. Why had she told Jane anything? Joey adjusted her headset, letting Chopin float into her ears, and headed home. The tender treble of the Nocturne in E Flat Major reminded Joey of the way Jane’s mouth moved when she talked. But she’d better forget Jane. She would write in her notebook, or as Dad used to say, haz la musica con palabras, make music with words.
Sonnet to the Music Maker
I lay on my back on thick green carpet
beneath the belly of the baby grand.
He sat at the piano and poured
what never could be seen
but never could be hidden
into a sea of sound I swam within.
The music he played
rained love through my skin.
Dad in his world,
took me to mine.
Why didn’t he wait
to know me now.
Why didn’t he care