Luciana in the Summertime.
The paper, translucent, was made of onionskin, she said.
We should be careful not to go so fast as to let the paper tear. We should write in cursive as cursive was more elegant than ordinary script. We should concentrate, she said, so we didn't lose our place. Dip the tip of your index finger. Write with the sharpest point of your nail.
We did as instructed, silently writing the letters of our names. When we were done, our pages looked blank. Luciana said let the pages sit, then we'll take them outside to warm them in the sun, which she did an hour later, using wooden clothespins like the kind our grandmothers used to hang wet bedsheets outside, clipping our bright blank pages to the clothesline in her backyard, which was full of weeds and wildflowers, a mix, who could tell which was which.
They looked like bed sheets for tiny perfect dolls, fluttering in the dry summer wind.
Now what? Leah asked. Now we wait, Luciana said.
Luciana had moved to Salt Lake at the start of summer. Our mothers had told us she had only her mother, no father, who knew why, and she was Catholic, which we understood meant we should befriend her, take her in.
I had the impression she was poor because my mother had said Luciana's mother was renting the Caldwells' old house. The Caldwells were an older couple whose kids were all raised, married, and with children of their own. They'd gone on a couples mission to Peru, brought back tiny wooden Christmas ornaments for everyone in the ward, little trees and stars and churches with pointy steeples that didn't look like ours, and shortly after they had returned, they decided they didn't need such a big house anymore. Or Mr. Caldwell did.
Word was, he'd fallen in love with the simple life when they lived in Peru. We knew this because one Sunday afternoon he bore his testimony that he didn't want to take care of a yard anymore, that he was sure the Lord had better plans for him, that he believed everyone else in the ward should be living the simple life too. So the Caldwells moved to a condominium in a high-rise building above Hogle Zoo but kept their house, had it remodeled, and rented it out. My mother said that was Mrs. Caldwell's doing, the renting-out part. The poor thing just wasn't ready to let her house go, my mother told me when I asked why Mrs. Caldwell, who technically wasn't even in the Garden Park Ward anymore, still came to our church and sat in the back row, crying. Sometimes when we drove past the house, which, now that it had renters, always had weeds, my mother said, No wonder Mrs. Caldwell's crying. Look at how her yard has gone to pot.
But when we met Luciana, she didn't look poor.
She had thick black curly hair and tanned olive skin. Her mother brought her to Denises house. We all stood in the foyer staring at her against a gold-mirrored wall. She was wearing a white dress with brightly colored embroidery at the neck and strappy sandals, the kind Jesus wore in the pictures at church. And earrings. She wore long silver earrings. I'd never met a girl my age who had pierced ears. The rest of us--even Leah, whose family was Lutheran--had to wait till we were sixteen.
We were eleven that summer, Luciana twelve. She introduced herself and told us how to pronounce her name--Loo-chee-anna-- four syllables. We all tried, laughing as we did. We didn't know why. Then, as we introduced ourselves to Luciana, saying out loud our plain and ordinary names, she smiled and one by one, touched our arms by way of introduction and lightly kissed our astonished cheeks.
We ate at that same pine table in the living room on the day we wrote our names in invisible lemon juice, waiting while our onionskin messages dried. I'd never met anyone who had a table in place of a couch in the living room. For that reason and more, Luciana's house was exotic, surprising. When she had us over for lunch, she served things we'd never had--or heard of--before: hummus in pita bread with slices of avocado to the side; spinach salad filled with raisins and red kidney beans; slices of apple wrapped in soft cheese as desert.
She arrived at the end of June. By July we'd begun spending much of our time at Luciana's house. Her mother was never there. She owned a hotel downtown-that's why they'd moved to Salt Lake City, Luciana said--but she promised that some time before the end of summer, all eight of us could have a sleepover at the hotel, stay in one of the biggest and fanciest rooms for free, one on the highest floor where we could stare at the cityscape at night and order room service, which I imagined would be French toast and scrambled eggs at three in the morning, served on silver trays.
Luciana's house was beautiful in ways our houses were not: simple but arresting; spare but not sparse. The living room did not have a couch, as all our living rooms did, but that large pine table around which Luciana's mother had arranged ten wrought iron chairs, the kind the rest of us were used to seeing outside on a patio, the kind that were too heavy to move easily.
It was there that we often took our lunch. That's what Luciana called it: taking lunch, which seemed like the best way possible to put it once I heard the phrase, though I never would have thought of it on my own. We ate off brightly colored orange and green or red and yellow plates that Luciana said came from Portugal. Each meal was a surprise, featuring something we'd never heard of before: one day, vegetable kabobs, which her mother had prepared and cooked for us in advance, she said, and were easy to throw in the oven to warm up; pasta salad with garbanzo beans and artichoke hearts.
What's an artichoke heart? Anne asked.
Vicky rolled her eyes.
It's the inside of the artichoke, Luciana said, eating one whole. The heart's the best part.
Suzanne backed her up, saying she loved them too. She was the only one among us who'd ever eaten artichokes before. Her mother served them sometimes as a special Friday night dinner with hollandaise sauce and small seared steaks to the side. I knew because I'd slept overnight once two years before and eaten artichokes with Suzanne and her family, relishing the tang of the hollandaise sauce, which I dipped my steak into besides. But the insides of artichokes were dangerous, Suzanne's mother had said. We mustn't eat them. She said to watch till we got to the see-through leaves, to stop if we saw any hint of purple. Because if we got to the heart, or the choke, as she called it, it was so prickly we could die.
I wondered when Suzanne's mother had let her eat the hearts and why if Suzanne had eaten them, she'd survived. I wondered if they were safe to eat today. I wondered how Luciana managed to make them so we didn't choke. Because no one did. And the hummus that day was delicious--so much so that I scraped my bread to soak up what remained in my little bowl, marveling at another of Lucianas dear gifts: bread in the shape of a little pocket! Who could have imagined such an inventive thing!
When stomachs had settled--Luciana always insisted on this; that we sit at the table and digest our food, something her mother clearly insisted on too--she said we could go outside. And there on the clothesline, against the backdrop of the sun, we could see on our lemony sheets of paper the bare outline of names, shadows of the real thing: Leah, Katy, Suzanne, and Denise. Vicky, Anne, and me, Elizabeth.
All summer Luciana joined us in what became our routine: to meet at Denise's house, in her backyard on the trampoline, to plan our luxurious summer days. Scavenger hunts or Monopoly tournaments or swimming in the pool at Liberty Park.
Sometimes we played at Suzanne's house because she had the biggest family room, the largest TV, the biggest collection of board games. Sometimes we went to mine, where my mother brought us snacks of watermelon slices or snickerdoodle cookies but didn't pester us beyond that. No one ever wanted to go to Leah's house because Leah's house was a mess. Her mother cleaned houses for a living so we figured maybe she came home too tired to clean her own. And Leah seemed embarrassed by her house, relieved that we never asked to go.
If we weren't at one house or another, we were riding our bikes to Foothill Village to buy thin mints from Fernwoods or grab bags from Erikson's. One year, we all got grab bags for a quarter that had candy necklaces and Lip Smackers inside. We were all over the moon that year. But sometimes you just got ChapStick and a cheap plastic ring, the kinds of things you'd never pay a dime for, let alone a quarter.
Sometimes we played jump rope or hopscotch in front of Denises house because Denise said we would and no one wanted to talk back to her.
And now that Luciana had joined us, lovely Luciana, our summer took on an added layer of anticipation and sheen.
Luciana who promised us she would take us to her church, where Mass, we were told, would be spoken in Latin, and where there were candles and incense and a courtyard. Luciana who led us into her mother's bedroom one morning and opened a drawer where delicate lacy bras in pastel colors--peach and pink and pale baby blue--bloomed like a bouquet of paper flowers. Luciana who, on another afternoon, painted our toenails a color none of us had ever seen on anyone before: navy blue.
On that day we sat at Luciana's table and lifted our legs; our bare feet rested on her capable lap. She took toilet paper and twisted it expertly around, snaking it around our toes. To protect them, she said. I was mesmerized by what followed: how she unscrewed the cap of polish so casually as if she'd done this a thousand times before, then quickly glossed each of our toes. Leah giggled. She was ticklish on her toes, she said. Vicky said, Why are my toes so fat when the rest of yours are perfectly thin?
I walked carefully with my newly decorated feet to the bathroom and when I was done, I slipped into Luciana's mother's bedroom to open the drawer of lacy underthings. There on the top was a red plastic nametag bearing Luciana's mother's name: Florence. I slipped it into the pocket of my jeans shorts and shut the drawer and fingered it repeatedly the rest of that afternoon, even as Luciana sang a song I'd never heard before, something about a king sitting on a sofa, asking his maid to tell him a story. I listened for what the maid's story would be, but if there was one, Luciana's song never revealed it. Yesterday, such elusiveness would have been appealing but today it was frustrating. I stared at my new dark toes and said nothing.
As for writing our names in lemon juice, Luciana told us we'd do it again, writing our invisible names on the thin delicate sheets of paper, but next time, she would show us how to do it even better, holding a candle under our invisible letters to bring our names more distinctly into light. The heat, she said, would cause our letters to darken. We couldn't do that now, she explained, because her mother didn't allow her to light candles when she wasn't home. It was too dangerous. But next time, she'd have candles, she promised, and we'd write not in lemon juice but something better: white wine.
I held my breath when she said this, and when Luciana looked at me, her face so lovely and so dreamy I thought my heart would explode, I smiled and mouthed "thank you" into the clean summer air.
That afternoon, we sat at the same pine table we always had but now the table was outside, on the back porch. Luciana had arranged before we arrived black lacquered bowls that were different colors inside. Mine was the color of jade. It reminded me of one of my mother's rings, something she'd bought in Mexico on a trip with my father before I was even born. Anne's was hot pink, the color of bubblegum. Vicky's was yellow. You have a sunny personality, Luciana said to Vicky and she was right. Vicky did. Denise's bowl was blue inside. The rest were red. Luciana said these bowls were made in China. And sure enough, when I turned mine over, I saw the letters: MADE IN CHINA.
She poured from a tall bottle of wine. I'd never been so close to anything made of alcohol before. She smelled of lilacs that day. I still remember that.
I'm not allowed to do this, Katy said.
Do what? Denise asked.
Drink wine, Katy said. You know, because of the Word of Wisdom. It's against the rules. It's against our rules.
But you're not going to drink it, Denise said.
For the first time, I noticed Denise's face, how there was a small cluster of pimples beginning to appear on the right side of her nose, making her look like she had a cold.
Luciana's skin, by contrast, was luminous.
Luciana seemed unconcerned by what Katy said. She nodded when Denise spoke, said to all of us, that's right. You aren't going to drink this. You're going to write a name again. Just like last time. But this time I want you to write the name of the person you love most in the world.
And just like that, everyone went silent, thinking of all the people we loved most in the world.
Mother. That was my first thought. This would be easy. I'd write Mother. We'd all write Mother. Or Mama as Leah still called hers (in secret) or Ma, which Denise sometimes called hers (as a joke, pretending to live on a little house on the prairie, a nickname her mother hated and told Denise so, which made Denise say defiantly, who cares, Ma, I'm eleven, I can call you what I please).
Or would we write the names of boys?
I felt a small stab of worry in my chest. Suddenly the answer to the question was entirely unclear.
Wait, what are the rules here? Denise asked. Are we talking boys or anyone at all? She picked up her bowl of wine and Katy gasped.
But Denise was just smelling the wine, not drinking it. She set it down carefully, then eyed Luciana, waiting for an answer.
Luciana said very simply, very calmly, it's up to you. You can write the name of anyone you want. Or anything, she added. Anything at all.
Now I began to panic. Not over boys. Which boys we liked and which ones we didn't was common knowledge. But we were a different story. I began to panic over us. Between us, affections were complex and shifting and I wondered, what if one of us wrote the name of another and no one else did? Or everyone wrote the name of everyone but Denise? Or everyone wrote the name of one girl except me?
Four of us had known each other since we were babies and thought of ourselves (secretly) as closest--Denise, Vicky, Leah, and me. Vicky's father called us the Sidewalk Girls because we drew pictures in colored chalk on the sidewalk all summer when we were little. He said, when in doubt, he could always find all four of us there. The other girls were girls we'd picked up along the way: Suzanne when she moved into the ward in first grade and said so authoritatively that she preferred to be called Suzanne, not Suzy, if we pleased, and we fell in love with her definitively; Katy in second when she transferred from Bonneville and flattered us by saying our school was six million times better than Bonneville (which it was, we agreed); and Anne, who was there all along but somehow we had never noticed. Anne was the smallest of all of us, our tiny seventh bird. That's what we'd begun to call her--our tiny bird--when she invited the six of us over last summer for her mother to make us strawberry pie.
What if everyone chose a girl and someone--Anne, our little bird, say--got hideously left out?
Don't think, just write, Luciana said, handing us paintbrushes.
I felt drunk with the pressure of it, the smell of wine mixing with worry, but I did what Luciana said to do, writing in cursive, quickly, hoping no one would recognize my writing once our secrets came to light.
When we finished, we thought Luciana would bring a candle out, show us how to burn our invisible notes into light, but she said once again we would have to wait.
Waiting makes things special, she said.
She placed a smooth oval rock at the top of each paper, weighting it down so our secret loves would not blow away.
The next morning, when we'd gathered on Leah's trampoline, waiting for Luciana to arrive, thinking this would be the day we could see what'd we'd written in ink, who loved who the most, Denise asked, what do you think she is?
Twelve, I said. She said so when we first met her--don't you remember?-that's she's twelve. Unless she's had a birthday that we didn't know about. I felt a knot of worry starting in my stomach. How had we failed to ask her when her birthday was?
No, I'm not asking how old she is, Denise said, stretching her legs out. I mean, where does she come from?
Los Angeles, Anne said, bouncing lightly. She talks all the time about Los Angeles. Remember? Liz asked her if she'd been to Disneyland and she laughed and said Disneyland is for little kids.
I remembered. We'd been sitting under this very trampoline. It was early June. We'd just met Luciana. I thought maybe she was making fun of me for asking, but the way she said it was kind, not cruel, like she didn't see me or any of us as little kids somehow.
No, Denise continued. I'm not talking about where she moved from. I mean, where is she from-from?
My chest tightened. I understood. She was talking about Luciana's dark hair. Her olive skin. The fact that she wasn't from here.
I think she's Argentinian, Vicky said. Vicky's grandparents were German. Her family opened presents on Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day.
She would know, I thought. We should trust what she said on this. But she pronounced it Argen-TINE-ian to rhyme with lime, which even to me didn't sound right.
That's not how you say it, Suzanne said.
No, it's not, Leah said, backing Suzanne up.
But no one could offer an alternative.
We all turned quiet. Everyone stopped bouncing on the trampoline. I wanted to remember where Argentina was. Was it in Europe? Or South America? I honestly wasn't sure. But I wasn't going to admit to Suzanne or Leah, let alone Denise, the one who'd lived in Garden Park the longest, since she was two.
Finally Denise said--and she spoke slowly, with great authority, so much so that I froze as she spoke--if we were Luciana's real friends, then we had a right to know where she was from.
She stood up on the trampoline, lost her balance and sat down again, then bounced up onto her feet again. Towering over us, the sun overhead blacking out her face, she said: I don't believe her, what she says about her mom owning that hotel.
I held my breath that day when Luciana came over, but nothing out of the ordinary happened. Denise said it was so hot she couldn't think straight. Suzanne said let's compare toes and see whose nail polish had lasted longest. Everyone's by then was a little chipped. No one asked about our invisible paper loves. After taking a vote, we went swimming at Liberty Park and got lost in game after game of Marco Polo that day, then scattered in the early evening to our respective homes, our hair still damp when we sat down to dinners of salmon fritters and tater tots. I looked all over my room for Luciana's mother's nametag, in every pocket of every single pair of shorts, but it wasn't there. I must have lost it sometime earlier that summer. Who knew where.
That night I dreamed I was in a canoe at Bear Lake with Luciana, and all the other girls were waving to us from the shore. I couldn't tell if they were waving goodbye or if they were waving to bring us back to shore. The canoe was filled with raspberries that we'd picked. My feet and hands were stained. So was Luciana's wide mouth.
The next morning we met on the trampoline as usual and voted to go swimming again, and then later we went to Luciana's house, where we French-braided each other's hair while it was wet.
Leah complained her hair wasn't long enough to make it worthwhile, and it was true, her hair popped out of its braid within half an hour, refusing to stay put. She looked like a cartoon character, pieces of her hair sticking out as if they were Pixy Stix.
It looks good, I told her, like it was meant to look like that, like you're a TV actress or something. I wish I could get mine to do that, in fact, I told her, hoping she wouldn't be able to detect such a straight-up lie.
Luciana stroked Leah's crazy hair and called her a pretty girl. Suzanne suggested a game of hot potato but no one responded. Denise stared out into space with an angry and inscrutable look on her face. I desperately wanted Luciana to go over to Denise to stroke her hair soon. I was convinced if Luciana called Denise a pretty girl, Denise would calm down. But that isn't what happened.
Instead, Denise pulled her legs into her chest and stared at Luciana with cold hard eyes and said, I thought we were going to finish our invisible messages today. And when Luciana said, no, not today, but soon, soon--and she spoke with her characteristic enigmatic calm--Denise got up and left without saying a single word.
We all looked at each other, then at Luciana who didn't even look up. She just kept petting Leah's crazy hair.
The next morning, I woke up feeling sick. I was sure I had the flu. My mother took my temperature and put the back of her hand to my forehead and pronounced me fine. But the metallic taste of the thermometer lingered afterward in my mouth and I told her, temperature or not, I felt sick to my stomach and I was one million times certain I was going to throw up.
Maybe it's too much sun, she said, handing me a big red plastic bowl to keep at the foot of my bed. Why don't you stay home from the pool today.
I called Leah, said in a weak voice I was too sick to play, then settled myself in bed with The Happy Hollisters to read, the one about the secret to the lucky coins.
Leah was the one who called me that night, after dinner, to report to me what happened: how they'd all met at the trampoline, sitting underneath to stay in the shade, how she and Vicky voted to go swimming again, how Denise had balked, said it was time to finish the invisible loves project, to find out who they'd all voted on as the person they loved most.
It isn't a competition, Luciana said.
Well, it's time, Denise continued.
Now the girls had begun rolling out from under the trampoline, onto the grass.
Leah suggested they go inside to make lemonade. Anne said we could pool our money to see if we had enough to take the bus downtown to see a matinee.
But Denise wouldn't give up, Leah said.
Why are you holding out on us, she said to Luciana.
And then, the question we all dreaded: Where, exactly, are you from?
Luciana just stared at Denise, Leah said. It was terrible. She looked as if she wanted to cry.
I held tight to the phone as Leah spoke, willing the story to come out some other way.
What did she say? I asked.
Nothing, Leah said. Nothing. So then Denise said, I think you're from Mexico. And I don't think your mother owns a hotel. Here Denise paused, Leah said. It was as if she meant to be cruel. She threw something at Luciana, Leah said--and I knew the minute she said it, it was the name tag I'd found and lost so many weeks before--and then she said, I know about your mother, Luciana. Your mother's a maid.
We never saw Luciana after that. She never took us to her church, as she promised. She never lit the candle under our secret notes. She never showed up in September at our school, where we'd promised her we'd eat lunch with her every day.
I asked my mother some years after Luciana moved away, did she know where Luciana's mother was from? Or where they moved to?
My mother was knitting a baby sweater for my brother's first child, who was due any day. The sweater was a mix of blue and yellow and pink because back in those days, you didn't know what you got till you got it. You had to wait to find out. You had to wait for everything.
Italy, I think, my mother said. Her husband had been older and died suddenly of a heart attack. What terrible pressure she must have been under, my mother continued. I think she had family--an aunt and uncle maybe?--who lived in Salt Lake. So she must have thought it would be good for her daughter to live here. Around family. I don't know. We only talked a few times. She was so busy. She worked in that swanky hotel downtown. I forget the name of it. Not Hotel Utah. The other one. Little America, maybe?
I didn't ask my mother anything else.
In the weeks after Luciana and her mother left town, Denise convinced us she'd been right all along: that Luciana had lied to us, that she was Mexican, that her mother was a maid at the hotel, not the owner as she'd said, and that's why they rented. They couldn't even afford to buy a house like the rest of us.
No one believed her. I see that now. But no one contradicted her either. Denise was one of us. We were a group. We always had been. We always would be. We had to live with her and live with each other and live with ourselves, whether we liked it or not. That's just how it was.
In December, I received a packet in the mail addressed to me, Elizabeth, in cursive. Was it Luciana's writing? Or her mother's? I didn't know. There was no name on the return address, but the postmark said Los Angeles. Inside were seven sheets of plain white paper and the faint hint of wine.
I asked my mother for permission, then set up seven candles in hurricane glasses on the picnic table on our back patio. We'd been hit by one of the heaviest snows in Salt Lake's history that year. Mounds of snow surrounded the porch and the porch was dirty, even after I swept it several times.
I'd invited the girls to my house for a Saturday night, pre-Christmas sleepover. We ate homemade pizza that night, individual ones on which we each got to put exactly what we wanted, whether it was black olives or pepperoni or all of the above plus green peppers and pineapple. We drank Swiss Miss hot chocolate. Added logs to the fireplace. Played a long game of Monopoly, which Denise won.
Then I told them I had a surprise.
Put your robes on. Or sweatshirts, I said. Put on your boots. I handed them blindfolds--bandanas that each girl wrapped around her eyes. They waited inside while I prepared our table outside, lighting the candles one by one with the matches I'd borrowed from my mother's kitchen. One by one I led each girl to the back porch. Situated her in front of a candle. We all shivered in the blast of wind on that winter night.
Then I told the girls they could take off their blindfolds.
In front of each of them was a candle, blazing now, and a sheet of white paper held into place by a wrapped candy cane.
Hold the paper over the candle, I said. Be careful not to burn yourself.
And there in the dark of the coldest winter night, our invisible notes revealed the one we loved the most.
Luciana, Luciana. Seven times her name came into focus that bright winter night: Luciana whom we'd loved the most, Luciana whom we'd lost now forever. We watched in amazement as her name lit up again and again, Luciana in the summertime, Luciana in the wintertime, Luciana whose name was written inside of us now. Our fingers burned, our cheeks were wet and full of longing and shame as we held our pages close to the candle's dangerous flame.
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|Article Type:||Short story|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2018|
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