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Short Story: Dust
By Diana Rae Valenzuela
Juanita is furious that the Montreal Mall isn’t in the center of the city. Goodness, she and Lorilia are forced to hoof it out to the wharf whenever they need to shop, feet slapped raw by thin sandals before they even reach the parking lot. They can’t hitch a ride or take the bus because they inevitably encounter some man with big eyes mooning over girls like this or that.
“People who didn’t get any in high school,” Juanita opines, “are the worst.”
Rather than walking along the highway, Juanita likes to cut across Old Town where gangly white guys sit on the curb seeping sunlight, drunk and square-faced. They fire off air kisses like gunshots when girls stroll past.
“People who got too much in high school,” Juanita opines, “are almost just as bad.”
It’s late July and Juanita and Lorilia have been spent the last six weeks conducting massive Saved By the Bell marathons and talking shit about Katie L. They funnel their pocket money into matinees and flimsy little purchases that they’ll soon realize are meant to be stolen: plastic zebra keychains, rhinestone bracelets, lighters and diet pills and skinny purple pens.
“We’re meeting Serge Halmedes by the way,” Juanita says. Sunlight bleaches her words into the horizon rapidly, not deigning to lend them the conspiratorial shimmer she’d intended.
“Huh?” Lorilia grunts.
“I called him before I left for your house,“ Juanita says. “Lucy’s sister gave me his phone number. I told him to meet us outside. In the parking lot.”
“Huh?” Lorilia grunts.
“I said I told him to meet us outside.”
Juanita is wearing a thin sundress that is probably intended for the beach for it is made of terrycloth. She saw a wide-mouthed girl named Joanna at the grocery store last night wearing the same dress in lime green but the look of the thing was different. Joanna was laughing hoarsely, clutching a box of Creamsicles while Lucy lifted her into the air from behind.
Juanita walked home and sat in the dark of her living room until three in the morning, crunching her way through thirty three spoonfuls of raw sugar.
“He’s probably already there,” Juanita says. “I would have asked him for a ride but I think he thinks that I’m older than I actually am, you know? I don’t know. He was mumbling.”
Lorilia nods. Juanita has never formally met Surge Halmedes and neither has Lorilia. Still, he knows the both of them.
Juanita and Lorilia always come in that order, pronounced “Juah-nee-tah and Lor-uh-lia.” There is a whining injustice to Juanita’s name, the unavoidable valley-girl voice one will adopt to call her to dinner. Juanita embraces this nasality, allows it to bleed into her personality.
Lorilia is far less high-pitched, as a person and as a concept. Her name drops off at the end moodily, a disappointment.
“Lorelai?” people will ask hopefully, encouragingly.
No. That isn’t it.
Lorilia herself might be moody, but she blurs into the Montreal atmosphere too sweetly for anyone to tell. Milky-blue hair matches milky-blue skin, a little scummy, like wet rabbit fur. She has been Juanita’s best friend since they were seven.
Half our lives, Juanita likes to say.
Last year Lorilia discovered that her menstrual blood comes out white. She will die at seventeen.
“Do you like Surge? I saw him at the Santa Cruz Diner last week. He was sitting at the counter.”
Lorilia squints her eyes against the sun. She makes no mention of the fact that she was at the Santa Cruz Diner with Juanita last week. Surge was eating pancakes and ducking his head to hide a face-full of glitter. Juanita, for all intents and purposes, ignored him.
“He looked nice,” Juanita continues. “He got rid of the silver hair. Remember when we were young and he had the silver hair? You remember. He and Lucy aren’t dating anymore but I think that’s good. Lucy’s kind of a dingbat.”
They’ve reached the wharf; the mall looms in the near distance. Juanita glances to the water, vaguely noticing that the blue of the waves--that laundry-bleached yellow-blue--is the exact color of Lorilia’s eyes. Juanita will forget this chromatic resonance until Lorilia’s death, when such matters (the feel of terrycloth, the taste of pancakes, the look of a pat of butter) are suddenly crucial.
“I’d do him,” Juanita says. “I would...pursue him.”
“I’m not joking. Dating him would be better than dating a boy from our grade. They’re so immature. Surge has a car.”
Lorilia checks her arms, paranoid about a sunburn that will never materialize.
“I would actually fuck him,” Juanita continues. “I would. He’s gotten all tan. Plus I’ve never dated a boy that tall. I know Lucy hates him now. You know her--she’s no fun. Lucy’s sister says Surge liked to drop by their house at five in the morning and just walk in like it was no big deal. I love that. Lucy’s sister says he used to take her for rides. She went to St. Mary’s and apparently at their graduation the principle forgot her name. Only like, six kids go to St. Mary’s.”
Lorilia cannot remember Lucy’s sister’s name either (for Lucy’s sister is a grey child with a blurry body and who could possibly remember?) but she does know the girl’s face. The glitter has recently started to fade but it’s still hard to look at her in direct sunlight. Surge must have been taking her for rides.
“No, but I would actually fuck him. I’ve been single for three months you know. Summer is so boring in this town. I mean that’s not why I called him of course.” Juanita peers at Lorilia sideways. “You know. I just think that if he’s going to be around that we should. That I should. I can.”
“My parents will get mad if they see glitter on my face, “Lorilia whispers. “They’ll send me to Catholic school or something.”
“You’re not Catholic,” Juanita laughs. “Don’t call it glitter. You’re such a kid.”
Juanita and Lorilia reach the east side of the Montreal Mall, a great ship of a building that reminds Juanita of a dishwasher. When Juanita taps it with her palm she can feel
its innards move.
“I kind of like Surge and I want him to buy me a milkshake,” Juanita chirps. She turns to lead Lorilia in a stunted arc towards the back parking lot.
“He said he’d be right by the building,” Juanita whispers. She grapples with Lorilia’s elbow and rearranges the two of them so that they can walk arm-in-arm as a single entity. Juanita discreetly cranes her neck, attempting to identify Surge’s silver car amidst the dozens of red roadsters that are so popular in the city this year.
Lorilia vaguely wonders if Juanita is lying about this attraction to Surge, for Lorilia knows Juanita is supposed to be a certain type of girl, perhaps an outlaw or a pirate. Lorilia thinks Juanita must be the type to roll her eyes and grumble, Do you really want to know? but she also seems the type to eat food off of the floor, even when other people are looking. She probably wants everything.
Juanita spots the toothy spark of a greying sedan and leaps straight up into the air. “It’s him, it’s him!” she spits through gritted teeth. Even from a distance Lorilia notices that Surge is slumped low in his seat, digging his face deep into a plastic bag.
Juanita forgets herself and runs across the lot, dragging a heaving Lorilia along like a sack of trash. When they reach the car, Juanita raps on the passenger window and wiggles her fingers in an impromptu wave. Surge rips the bag from his face, throws it in the back seat, and leans sideways to open the door.
“Hey, girl,” he says.
Juanita slides into passenger seat and pulls Lorilia in on top of her. The two of them squish their legs together, Juanita wrapping her arms around Lorilia in a swift and muscular fashion. They are close enough to act as a single creature again, just one girl.
“Hey, hey, hey,” Surge chatters. “Hi Juanita. Hey, girl. What’s up? I haven’t seen you all summer. Where have you been hiding?”
“Does your radio work?” Juanita replies laughingly.
“Hell yeah it does, whaddya think I am?” Surge’s voice is naturally squeaky and nervous like the look of a neon street sign. He rests his fingers on his chin so that he can chew up his nails on a whim.
“God,” Surge says, turning on the radio by fiddling and smacking, smacking, smacking at the thing. “God.”
Surge wears a Red Sox hat without a brim. Greasy layers of tightly-curled hair bunch near his ears. Lorilia is vaguely impressed by his smooth skin and the look of his chopped up football jersey. Tomorrow she’ll assert to Juanita that “He looks like the jock in an eighties high school movie.” Her tone will be more lilting than usual.
“I’m glad you called me,” he says. “Let’s drive around the lot a bit, just for a minute, girl. Right? Let’s catch up.”
“Sure,” Juanita chirps.
“Yeah. I was thinking about you. I brought you something.”
Surge tosses a flower in their general direction, a fuzzy thing that’s fresh and quickly dying. It falls between Lorilia’s knees but Juanita snatches it and sticks it in her hair.
“Yeah, I was thinking about you.” Surge starts his car. “Yeah I was wondering where you’ve been. You hang out with Lucy’s sister all the time right?”
“Not really.” Juanita suppresses a soft urge to roll her eyes. She only talks to Lucy’s sister in private (behind burger joints or near the fairgrounds) so there’s no way Surge has seen them hanging out. Maybe he’s the type that just knows.
“Well, I see you around with her. She’s cute sometimes. We used to dust together. She never pays for food though, so she’s not hot shit or anything.” Surge’s sedan chugs itself awake, gulping and sputtering at the prospect of moving.
“Like she and I used to go to Subway and I’d try and be nice and pay but we’d go three or four times a week sometimes and I wanted to gouge her eyes out with a blunt object, girl. I’m not tryna pay for that much shit.”
“Oh God, I hate it when that happens,” Juanita grumbles sympathetically. The car begins to cruise around the mall at about five miles an hour and Lorilia wants to roll down her window because Surge smells very strongly of chapstick.
“Yeah. Yeah, I mean we had fun. Would you like a mint? I think I also have bottled water.” Surge reaches into the backseat. First his fingers grasp the plastic bag but his hand twitches away fast. After a few moments, he pulls back a can of orange soda.
“Well, it’s basically water.” He smirks and hands it to Juanita. “I’ll buy you a milkshake or something if you want. We can drive downtown to Santa Cruz and get pancakes as well.”
Juanita murmurs something indefinite through a mouthful sugared fizz and Lorilia suppresses a groan. There is something so pitifully outrageous, Lorilia thinks, about Surge suggesting that they all get breakfast.
In a year or two, Lorilia will realize that she isn’t moved by the inherent sadness of pancakes but the strain of a lengthened business transaction, a certain type of drug dealer’s insistence that everyone pretend to be motivated by friendship.
For now, Lorilia sinks into her best friend and accepts a lukewarm soda that tastes of metal.
“Well, if you see Lucy’s sister tell her to call me.”
“Sure,” Juanita huffs. “Hey, why’d you stop hanging out with Lucy?”
“Girl, she was being such a drag. She only wanted to go to the quarry a few times a week you know?”
“And girl when you got a job you got to commit to it, you got to really commit. I was saying we gotta go out for at least three hours a day, I mean it takes enough time to bag the stuff and you’ve got to bag it right after you’ve harvested. After it’s dusted off the mother rock it will get dry and stale almost immediately if you don’t bag.”
“Who wants dry dust? It’s gotta be kinda moist otherwise you end up choking on the stuff and the high gets weird you know and I make good stuff, the best and I charge for it.”
“I ain’t tryna rip anyone off. So Lucy gets uppity and pretends--”
“I just don’t want it on my face,” Lorilia interrupts.
“Relax,” Surge replies, his chin glinting in the sun, “it doesn’t stick to skin. Girl.”
Juanita hopes that Surge isn’t the type who believes quiet people only speak when they have something important to say. Instead of focusing on Lorilia’s anxieties, however, he keeps his eyes on the road.
“Lucy’s a dick. She just didn’t want to do any work, you know. I’ve been camping up by the quarry lately just to make sure that she won’t come buy and graze my shit. I have my camera out and running right now. It’s in a place she can’t see.”
“What about battery power?” Juanita giggles and Lorilia can see that she finds this situation sincerely funny.
“Girl, I got it covered. Anyway if she tries to play me I’ll fuck her up I mean really fuck her up.”
“Like, beat her up you mean? Right?” Juanita asks.
“Not even. Much worse, much, much worse.” Surge grins. “I got her I mean really got her.”
“No but really no one even knows. I really got her. Girl, you don’t even know. Piece of shit. Never go near her. I’d kill someone before I let you go near her.”
“Ever heard of a girl called Katie L.?”
“God you just wish you knew, girl. You can’t even guess.”
“Bet I could,” Juanita chuckles.
“She fucked her,” Juanita claims. “She would. I mean, you know--someone fucked someone.”
“Ha. No. That’s easy. No. It’s worse, way worse.”
“Well, what did they do?”
“Ha. She gave that chick some dust, that’s what.”
“That’s not bad,” Juanita yelps. “That’s not bad at all.”
“Nope, it’s not.”
“So what’s the problem?”
“It’s how she did it.”
“How she did what?”
“How she gave her the shit.”
“The way Lucy gave Katie L. the stuff?”
“Well yeah, that’s what I said.”
“Okay, how did she give it to her?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“I can’t. It’ll steal your innocence.”
Juanita pleads with Surge for three whole minutes, clutching his arm with her right hand moaning Please, please tell. Lorilia sticks her nose flat against the window and watches the parking lot. She wonders how many endless loops Surge will string them into before he gets carsick or drives them downtown.
“I’m not gonna tell you,” Surge says, his voice kept kind and clear. “You just need to never go near her, that’s all.”
“Fine,” Juanita says. “Why don’t we go get pancakes then? Or a milkshake?” Lorilia can tell that Juanita really wants to talk shit about Katie L.
“All right. Better yet, let’s drive out of the city. This smog is getting to me, you know?”
“Where can we get pancakes outside of the city?”
“We can go to the Denny’s in San Mateo.”
“Oh, we can go to the water park there too.”
“Yeah, I guess. Yeah. I haven’t been since I was a kid.” Surge reaches over Lorilia and gently tugs a lock of Juanita’s hair.
“Yeah. God, we should pick up Lucy’s sister.”
“No but really, I like that girl. I need a girl like that. Someone who doesn’t fucking talk, you know? Someone who listens. Someone without any ego.”
“She’s got fat little arms, too. She can play the piano. She looks really good, playing the piano. God, those arms.”
“I play the flute,” Juanita sighs. She does not sound confrontational.
“Yeah. We’ll all go to the water park and then we can go to the Denny’s or even Subway. I love girls’ arms, you know.” Surge places his hand on Juanita’s knee, flicking a finger at a thumb-sized scab.
“Yeah. See, I’m a nice guy. A nice fucking guy. I care about women, I mean I actually care.”
Most guys are dingbats, you know? They never think before they talk. They only like skinny girls and they’re just plain mean to them. They never really want to know a girl. They can’t be a friend.”
Surge pulls his quivering hand from Juanita’s leg and begins to snap her bra strap around with an index finger. Lorilia is worried because Surge is hardly looking at the road and there are children crawling through the parking lot just waiting to be run over.
“Plus they’re never surprising. Girls appreciate a man who’s surprising.”
“I can’t go to the water park,” Lorilia says.
“Who says we’re going to the water park?” Surge places his hand on the crown of Juanita’s head.
“I have to get home early.”
“Chill out, girl. We’re gonna spend the day together.”
“Juanita wants to spend the day with you.” Lorilia can see that Surge is the type who believes that quiet people only speak when they have something important to say.
“I might go home with Lorilia,” Juanita murmurs, “but I might not.”
“We’ll see,” Surge says. “I kinda think you should come out to the quarry. Let’s just get this started. I don’t want you girls wasting my time.”
While he grabs the bag Juanita rolls her body further back into her seat so that her skin no longer sticks to Lorilia’s. Though obstructed by sunlight, Juanita’s gaze is overtly unguarded and pliable. Lorilia wonders if Juanita is that mythical type of girl who can take a ride out to the quarry and let the stress of the experience roll right off of her.
“I really do feel like pancakes,” Juanita muses.
Surge places the bag in Juanita’s lap, the tiny mound of tan dust at the bottom shimmering sharply.
“Just stick your head in.” Surge palms Juanita’s knee again, shooting her an exasperated smile.
“You do it first,” Juanita whispers to Lorilia. “You’re closer.”
“Okay.” Lorilia opens the bag and let’s the weak, chalky fragrance waft over her. She can immediately tell that the dust isn’t moist at all.
Lorilia glances back at Surge, intending to ask how much she should inhale but he’s too busy drowsily surveying Juanita. His mouth curls in sincerely and a fourteen year-old girl with brown, spotted skin has suddenly become the answer to some brown, spotted problem.
“Hey, girl,” he growls, relieved.
Lorilia will mull over Surge’s conflicted, oblivious tenderness at dawn tomorrow after she has walked home from the quarry, shoes in hand. It will be so difficult for her to understand Surge’s intentions, how a man is different from a boy merely because he decides to be older. She will mull over oblivious tenderness in school this fall as she chews the erasers on her mechanical pencils and sits with Katie L. and Juanita at lunch. How does it work? and Why isn’t it me? For years she will quietly debate the soft little idiosyncrasies of mall love, the type of love that Juanita begins to excel at by virtue of origin, genus, and species.
Before Lorilia happens upon some key epiphany, however, she will succumb to her own tender hemorrhage, a death by way of arching rivers of white, creamy blood. Drained of life, she will finally gain color, a sheepish grey that Juanita will inexplicably attempt to mask with cover-up before finally calling an adult, someone who can pretend to handle such an unabashedly milky predicament.
“Just do it.” Juanita jams Lorilia’s neck down into the bag with a firm hand. “We don’t have all afternoon.”
It takes a few moments, but Lorilia finally works up the courage to inhale and yes, it’s as good as they say.
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