Published in Ozone Park Journal, Fall 2009                                                                                               

 

Before It Can Disappear

 

She is running as fast as she can, cello held tight in one hand.

Two boys follow across the parking lot, footsteps sharp as gunshots.

Insults echo: her name, made strange.

“Angelos, you smell!”

“Xanthippe Smelly-Angelli.”

The cello, zipped in soft cloth, the book bag slung across her shoulders, so heavy. Cold air stabbing.

Ahead of her, Panayia School’s locked front entrance. To her right, a wilderness of empty soccer fields, fenced. 

Fast, reaching a side path, where she used to wait with Jocelyn, slapping out Miss Mary Mack until her fingers stung.

This late, Xanthippe sees no one. Not her friend, not her father, come with the car to speed home, blasting Led Zeppelin. Only a deserted street, houses quiet, empty seeming.

Fear flares. She runs faster, onto the lawn long as a football field, enclosed by an iron fence. The lawn must be crossed before she can reach the trees, the path to the street.

Her legs flow forward. The grass a bolt of brown, unrolling endlessly.

The cello swings hard on its handle, jerking her arm painfully, thudding against her thigh. Xanthippe pictures the bruise it will leave: purple, ugly. 

Unburdened, she could outrun anyone. Not holding her cello, so clumsy to carry, her book bag, so heavy.  

The boys close behind, taunting, yelling. “Ang-elliiiiii, you’re so smelly,” whooping excitedly.

Still so far from the trees, from the path to the street.

The bell in the old clock tower tolls the half hour, four thirty.

Above her the wide sky, darkening. Wind angry in her ears. Singsong voices sounding closer: “Ang-elliiiii—Xanthippe You’re So Smelly.” Their laughter, loud in the empty air.

Xanthippe knows who is behind her: Mark Pappas and Joey Mallis, the two meanest boys in the sixth grade. Boys who once stole her bag, breaking her Hello Kitty pencils and scented erasers.

Remembering, she runs faster.

Smiling, a third boy steps from the shadows among the trees. Petros Culpa, a seventh grader who was almost expelled last spring. Kids said he punched a priest.

Petros looms big-boned, his face an explosion of braces and early adolescent acne.

She screams.

The others are close behind; near enough to touch her, near enough to tug at the scarf that has all but slipped from her shoulders, and snatch it.

Panicked, Xanthippe lunges into the only open space. Lungs burning, legs weak.

The cello smacks against her side, and she clutches it closer, holds it to her body with both hands. The book bag heavy across her shoulders, the cold air that stabs.

Only one thought: escape. She sprints into the schoolyard with desperate strength.

How can they hurt her here, where she plays tag during recess, always the first girl chosen for any team, she runs so fast.

The schoolyard’s stone circle is bordered by the trees and a chain-link fence. Hugging the cello, Xanthippe slows, seeing too late what a perfect trap it makes. Nothing to help her here among the metal bike racks and child-sized stone benches used for base. No one sits inside the classrooms, their darkened windows dotted with paper snowflakes. Wind bites her fingers through worn mittens, chills her calves through cotton tights.

Xanthippe whirls in a circle, once, heart hammering. The only sounds, a far-off hum from the highway behind the fields, and her own rapid breathing.

Nothing from the boys behind her, and she feels fear, her legs weak.

The boys enter the arena unhurriedly, ringing her in a ragged circle of roving feet. 

“Can’t run so fast, now, can you, Angelli-smelly?”

“Little Xanthi-pi, pee-pee.”

“Gotcha now, Xan-thi-pee-pee.”

Her body spinning, turning as they turn, seeking the source of each sound.

Laughter, and the soft thwack of cloth on her back. Xanthippe whips around, startled, sees Joey lashing her scarf, no longer white but dirt-streaked.  Laughing, his eyes narrowed. Xanthippe remembers a valentine he made for her in third grade, with a sloppy heart and a picture of Snoopy.

Hands grip the hood of her cranberry overcoat. Mark’s hands, and she jerks free, stumbling.

“C’mon, Joey,” Mark urges. “Let’s get her.”

Xanthippe turns to face him, fighting to keep fear from her voice. “Leave me alone.”

Mark’s eyes are inches from hers, his face ugly with rage. He is breathing hard. “Shut up, smelly Angelli.”

Xanthippe holds the cello like a shield, knowing she should run.

Unbidden, another impulse sparks inside her. “Stop calling me that.”

“Smelly Angelli, smelly Angelli…”

Xanthippe finds it strange to see him this close, to realize the beauty of his green-gray eyes. She knows him mostly from a distance; when he challenges the teacher, Xanthippe laughs with the class. Only once before have they been so near to each other: in the coat closet, that time they almost kissed.

Her exhausted muscles begin to buckle; the book bag, so heavy, the cello so clumsy to carry, clutched close. Xanthippe wonders why Mark wants to hurt her, when he was the one who followed her in there, grabbing her hand and trying to touch her training bra. Pushing her away afterwards like she had cooties.

“I said: Stop calling me that.” Her voice rings out, clear in the emptiness. “You’re the one that smells.”

Almost imperceptibly, their circle loosens. Joey and Petros laugh.

“Shut up, Angelli.” Mark steps forward.

Xanthippe dodges left, moves when he does, still holding the cello close, sidestepping a shove.

Frayed from long use, the strap on her book bag snaps. Arcing out behind her, the bag opens as it falls, freeing a shower of sheet music, a biology book.

At first she feels relief. Then horror at the thought of her belongings exposed for the amusement of these three.

The cello matters most, though, and she won’t let it go to gather anything.

The boys laugh. Petros kicks the book, sends it sliding across the pavement. He runs after it, kicking again, tearing the cover Xanthippe made from a brown paper grocery sack.

Joey grabs the book bag, swinging it by the broken strap. Then he bends to pick up a binder. “Hey, check this out! ‘Xanthippe Loves Mark,’” he reads. “Aww, how sweet. Xanthippe Loves Mark. Smoochy-smoochy.” His lips smack.

 Petros gags, rolling his eyes and clutching his throat. 

“You liar! It doesn’t say that!”

“Give me that,” Mark tries to grab the folder from Joey. They struggle, calling each other loser and moron, fuck-face and asswipe.

Xanthippe flees. Bound for the street, straight along the chain link fence between lawn and trees. Heart hammering, hood thrown back.

Sound of a souped-up engine: her father’s Monte Carlo, rumbling. He will tell her he’s sorry but he had a flat, or ran out of cash for gas; he got caught up at rehearsal, the new bassist was really jamming; he clocked out as early as he could, but then the engine conked and he had to jump it.

She will tell him how she outran all the boys, and he will laugh.

But Mark follows fast, catching her halfway down the path, pushing, and they stumble, tangled in each other, falling.

Scarcely seconds to react, to cradle the cello close and protect it.

An arm flails, cold hands clumsy. The cello leaps free.

Her body falling, ground rushing up to her face. Crack, her forehead smacks pavement.

Then the brick-bag of Mark’s body, slamming against her back.

Whiteness blinds her vision. Pain radiates.

His body rolls off her. She hears him take three names in vain: Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

Xanthippe sits up, slowly. Staring as the strip of ground slides from solidity to a slick black, shimmering. Then solid earth slides back, soft at the periphery.

Sounds of running, labored breathing. A belch, and giggles. Then silence. Thick, shifting.

“Mark, man, you all right?”

“Holy shit. Dude! Check that shit out!”

Xanthippe wonders, does not want to see. Sensations return slowly: stinging skin, scraped beneath the mittens; a finger is broken, maybe. Taste of blood in her mouth.

The boys’ silence presses the air above her, so heavy.

A street lamp buzzes high above her head, making a patchwork of shadow on the pavement. Xanthippe forces herself to stand, fight the dizzy feeling.

“What are you looking at me for?” Mark’s voice holds an odd note: uncertainty. He touches something, a dark shape, with his foot, draws back.

The others watch him, not speaking.

Their half-circle parts at her approach, three bodies retreating.

What has happened must be very bad for them to be standing apart like this, so still, waiting. A torrent of grief begins within her but she fights it back with a prayer. Not to God or his Son. To a saint who was once a girl full of faith.

Dear Cecilia, Xanthippe begins, pronouncing the name as the library book explained: Chey-cheelia. Dear Chey-cheelia, please.

Xanthippe’s mittens are ruined, ripped through; she stares blankly, tugs them off to look at the skin scraped on her palms. Calloused palms she should mind more carefully, if she will make it to Carnegie Hall one day. 

Face down, the cello lies broken-backed, its graceful neck snapped.

Her cello. An old instrument, already patched. This cello she begged her father for, the first time she brought a borrowed instrument home from school and played for him.

Xanthippe hears the soft clink of a quarter thrown into the old mason jar on her dresser, the jar she filled faithfully with loose change and unspent milk money, the jar with a silver ribbon around its glass throat, ribbon on which she had written “cello fund” in black ink. 

Every coin from when her father drove her to the grocery store with beer bottles for recycling. All of her communion money, and more than her father should have spent on her eleventh birthday.

Inhaling a ragged breath, Xanthippe traces the cello’s broken shoulder. Blood blooms on her fingertip.

Xanthippe can feel Mark’s eyes on her. Moron Mark, who always seems to be watching her, in the halls or during recess, this boy she never talks to even though he is always in her class. This boy she kissed, kind of a little, that time in the coat closet, and another time just last week.

Mark. She can’t find the right words for him yet. For the color of his eyes, and the warmth that he kindles inside; for his inexplicable anger; his ugliness.

The others hover at the edge of her vision.

“Hey, check it out,” Petros says. “Check out Little Markie and his little girl friend making googly eyes.”

Joey begins to sing, “Markie and Xanthippe sittin’ in a treeeee, k-i-s-s-i-n-g.”

Mark turns on them. “Shut up!”

“Markie an’ Xanthippe…”

“I mean it, Joey, shut up.” Mark makes a fist.

“Or what? Ya gonna—”

Mark grabs him by the collar. “Shut up, Joey, or I’ll make you.”

“Dude! I’m only kidding.”

Shards of wood scatter as she unzips the case. This cello will never be replaced.

Mark is to blame. “This is your fault.”

Joey says: “Nobody’s talking to you, Angelli.”

“Why were you chasing me? What did I ever do to you?”

Mark surveys Xanthippe, as if seeing her face for the first time. After a long moment, he speaks. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Yes, you do. Why can’t you leave me alone?”

Mark’s face is an image of innocence. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. You were running and you fell.”

“That’s a lie and you know it—”

 “No, it isn’t.” His voice sounds soft, seductive with certainty.

“Tough luck, Angelli,” says Petros.

“Yeah.” A grin spreads over Joey’s face. “Tough luck.”

Their laughter crescendos, surrounding Xanthippe. Anger stirs inside her: anger at being chased, at running burdened, at falling hard.

Mark’s voice again, “Hey, Angelli—”

“Shut up!” She jumps up, shoving Mark so hard he stumbles. Xanthippe lunges after him. “Fuck you, Mark!” she yells, words her parents used to yell at each other, words her father won’t let Xanthippe use, “Fuck you,” punching and kicking.

Throwing up his hands to shield himself, Mark lets out a frightened laugh. “Angelli, jeez—”

He steps back, then stops, seeks the source of a sound from across the street.

Joey turns, takes off. Petros follows, unfurling Xanthippe’s scarf from around his neck.

“Somebody’s coming,” Mark says.

You liar, Xanthippe thinks. No one is coming for her, not her father, not anyone.

Shaking her off, Mark turns and runs.

“Hey, you kids,” a woman yells. “You keep it down over there or I’ll call the police.”

 

Stopping for help at Jocelyn Hart’s house was a terrible mistake, but now it is too late. The apartment is not far, Xanthippe has keys, wants to leave, but Mrs. Hart will not agree. So Xanthippe reluctantly tells her the name of the restaurant where her mother works as assistant manager: Damianos Dio, spelling out the last part, D-i-o. Flipping through a fat phone book, Mrs. Hart looks up the number, taking the phone out of the kitchen to talk privately.

Xanthippe buries shaking hands in the furry cat on her lap. Clouds of orange fur swirl beneath the chair, the round table covered with bright cloth.

 Jocelyn chips at her sparkly purple nail polish, seeming bored Xanthippe has stayed so long.

When her cell phone buzzes, she picks it up eagerly. “Hey, Stace! Yeah. No, not at all.”

Xanthippe knows this name, a girl in the drama club Jocelyn joined this year.

Jocelyn is heading out of the room, phone stuck fast to her ear. “Hold on a sec,” she unglues, briefly, turning to Xanthippe. “You can copy my homework if you want. Call me later.”

Then Xanthippe’s mother is there, ringing the bell. It sounds in a chime, eight times, and Xanthippe feels a flash of shame; no one who knows the house rings this bell.

Xanthippe clutches the cat, but he squirms free, lands neatly, retreats.

      Unlocking the door, Mrs. Hart lets Xanthippe’s mother and the cold wind in. The mothers talk a moment, Thraso in tones Xanthippe knows as her bright shiny glissando voice, reserved for impressing certain kinds of strangers.

“I’m so sorry I couldn’t get here sooner,” she says. “Like I said on the phone, three people called out sick today, we’ve got a big catering job—an engagement dinner, actually. It’s chaos.”

“Sounds busy,” says Mrs. Hart. “Xanthippe can stay here longer if you like.”

Xanthippe looks up, a sideways sneaky glance.

“No. It’s fine. I’ve got it covered,” says the bright shiny glissando voice. “Thank you.”

Angular, impatient, Thraso crosses quickly to the kitchen, moving as if the space between were a solid mass resisting.

All at once Xanthippe wants a mother like Jocelyn’s—cheerful, chubby. Not wearing a beaten-up black leather jacket, buttoned in a hurry; a mother people think is your sister, she’s so young.

 “Xanthippe, honey, I’m here now,” says Thraso’s voice. “Three people called out sick today and it’s chaos.”

Xanthippe looks at the fur swirled around her shoes. Thraso has a “no pets” rule.           

“Hey,” her mother says, holding a cold hand to Xanthippe’s chin. Cold fingers touch the cuts above her eye, across her forehead. Xanthippe feels glad they have been cleaned and anointed with antibiotic cream. They have long since stopped bleeding.

“Shit,” Thraso breathes, taking in Xanthippe’s scraped palms, swathed in Band-Aids. “You’re a mess. What the hell happened?”

“I was playing after school, and I fell,” Xanthippe tells the swirls of fur, the sun-yellow linoleum. Jocelyn’s mother does not curse.

“You fell.” Concern, shaded with disbelief. Dark eyes assess the damaged book bag, the torn mittens on the table. “Where’s your cello?”

Refrigerator hum, dishwasher’s whir. Thraso has been working late a lot lately. She might not have remembered the cello.

“I left it at school,” Xanthippe says finally.

“I hope you left it somewhere safe. That fucking thing cost a fortune.”

“I know.” Looking up, Xanthippe stares into the bottomless black at the center of her mother’s eyes. “I’m sorry you had to come get me.”

 

Outside, the engine dies. In her mind, Xanthippe did not say goodbye; she is still sitting in the warm kitchen with Jocelyn and Mrs. Hart, listening to a clock count out the seconds as they slide by. She is not here, in the front seat of her father’s car next to Thraso, feeling frozen and afraid, feeling full of rage. There is no way Xanthippe can tell Thraso about the cello, not now, not tomorrow, not the next day. She treats the cello like a burden on money and time, a waste.

Thraso’s fist jerks the key forward again but the dashboard does not light. Xanthippe listens for the engine’s growl, hears only a scratching sound, then nothing.

“C’mon,” Thraso urges, turning the key again, black boot pressing the pedal down.

Skitch, skitch, skitch, skitch, skitch, skitch. Then nothing.

“C’mon, c’mon, you piece of shit car,” Thraso says, punching the dash with her free hand, jerking the key forward another time.

“Stop doing that,” Xanthippe says, almost to herself. “You’re just flooding the engine.”            

The Monte Carlo is older than Xanthippe, but if you’re patient it mostly runs fine. If her father were here, they would already be off and driving.

“Piece of shit car!” Thraso frees the keys, crushing them in her fist, pounding the dash again.

Xanthippe looks out the window.  Rubbing a clear patch in the condensation, she watches a man walk by, head down, shoulders hunched against the cold.

“Shit!” Thraso pummels the dashboard once more, harder this time. “Piece of shit Monte Carlo. I never liked this fucking car.”

Already the place where Xanthippe pressed her palm to the glass has filled in with fog. Her hand still feels cold and she scrubs it over the scratchy wool of her coat until her skin stings.  Xanthippe couldn't say why, but she likes this feeling, and she drags her palm over the rough wool until the bleeding begins again. 

Cold seeps through her clothes, surrounding her. The scrapes on her face, on her hands, ache. She runs her tongue over two loose teeth.

“I never liked this fucking car,” Thraso repeats.

Xanthippe thinks: It’s your fault for flooding the engine.

As if from a great distance, she hears a car passing, slowing at the corner before turning. With the doors closed, the windows rolled up, every sound in the Monte Carlo seems amplified: take-out bags and fast-food trash under her feet; Thraso’s breathing. Even though it’s cold the air feels thin and stale, as if there is a limited supply they are rapidly using.

Thraso grabs her purse, clawing through it. She pulls out a pack of cigarettes and lights one.

Xanthippe coughs, just a little louder than necessary. But she knows better than to open her window. 

“Man, Jocelyn’s mother has gotten fat.”

This is clearly an invitation to agree. Xanthippe risks silence.

Thraso drags on the cigarette, exhales, and drags again deeply. “So are you gonna tell me now, or do I have to wait?”

“Tell you what?”

“What the hell you were doing after school today. How come you’re all banged up.”

“I told you. I fell.” Xanthippe enunciates carefully, like she would for someone stupid.

“Look, Xanthippe, I’m here now. You found a way to make me come and pick you up. So why don’t you tell me what you’ve really been up to?”

Xanthippe thinks of the cello, fights tears. With Thraso, crying gets her nowhere.

“I was playing, I told you.”

“Playing with who?”

“Some boys.”

“Why didn’t you walk home?”

“I wanted to stay with the boys.”

“What boys?”

“A whole bunch of boys. I was kissing them in the parking lot just like you used to.”

“You little brat.” Thraso tries the ignition again, and the engine sputters before failing. “You weren’t kissing any boys. The only thing you’re interested in is that cello.” 

“The only thing you’re interested in is fucking stupid Damian Dio.”

“Don’t you talk to me like that.”

The slap sounds like a loud snap. It feels like a burn, fire splashed across her face. Tears well up and she fights them back.

“You little bitch,” Thraso hisses. “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Xanthippe sits very still, not touching the burn across her face.

Abruptly, Thraso cracks open the window and chucks out her cigarette, still lit.

Xanthippe imagines it rolling down the street, lighting a stray leaf, setting a fire that spreads quickly. Consuming the parked cars, the empty street. Burning the Monte Carlo, everything. Leaving only ashes behind. Ashes, then nothing.

“Piece of shit Monte Carlo,” Thraso says, cranking the window closed. “I never should have agreed to take it instead of the support he owes me.” Then a bitter laugh. “I hope he’s freezing his ass off in Chicago riding around on that stupid Harley.”

Xanthippe says nothing, staring straight ahead. She hates it when Thraso acts mean and then moves on to a new conversation like everything is OK.

“Of course,” Thraso continues, “If it wasn’t for the Monte Carlo with the big back seat I wouldn’t have my Xanthi.”

 Xanthippe knows this is the nice part, the trying-to-be-funny Thraso; knows also that this loathsome old joke is all Thraso’s going to give her instead of an apology. For the slap, for the forgotten promise to pick her up today.

With one finger Xanthippe traces a grace note on the window. She watches the edges blur and smear, then rubs out the note herself before it can disappear.

“Try starting the car again,” she says. “It’s been long enough.”

Thraso nods, but does not turn the key.

They sit for a time in silence, listening to each other breathe.