And suddenly I understand. The little girl across from me. Bored by the stultified day, at ease, the air conditioning cool along our spines. How, we bent over Lunchables, our tongues too fat to swallow. Of course, we were uninterested in the cubes of cheese, the shredded ham, the whatever excuse that passed for school lunches. Of course, we purged the shape of our youth, before we learned the laws, haughty of those hustlers and the nobodies. Abandoned what we thought was silly, trivial, the stuff that stunk of immaturity. Your nose strong, arched — a look of heritage. Us, swimming in a room of pubescent glory, smelling of just-past-the-due-date yogurt and deodorant. Yet, even amidst the dulcet steaming and dying and the almost promise of retching, we nurtured soft smiles. Our hands gripping the sides of the table even while the bell rang in dismissal. Ignored the rocket off of assigned seating. Pushed a book across the oil- dampened table. I think I finally understand the little girl across from me. “Looking for Alaska,” it’s bad. But read it anyways. An eyebrow arched, daring me to refuse.
    And I think: this
this is classic.
    Sometimes, we’d find our hands resting smooth on our stomachs. The lower part, the piece that’s soft and yields to the pressing of thumbs. the grazing of pinkies just above the hip bones— a sick reminder, a torturous contrast. We’d stand right by the pool, our toes over the water, our reflections caught in the glittering chlorine. We molded ourselves, as if we were made of clay, and somehow the squeezing and pinching and holding could shape us into something we wanted to see. Something we were happy with. Something
    desirable. And all of this would last only for a minute because the world is ringing. Because our loathing is shameful. Because this isn’t us. We weren’t meant to be the petty clichés. We weren’t built to love accessories. We weren’t supposed to grow and grow and
                                                      hate ourselves.
    But we did it. We built castles of beer bottles and wine glasses. Filled our summers to the brim with blistering sunburns, bikini top tans. We were a couple of junkyard dogs gnawing on their chains—said it was for the experience, said it was for the living. I have never felt human. And yet, somehow it felt like we were dying. I have never felt
The way we jumped in front of a mirror. Got silly dizzy by the pool. How obvious we were. How the numbers ticked in our head. Said it wasn’t us. We knew better. Knew how to take care of ourselves.
    When you laughed, I could see your little great whites poking through. You’d press your pruney fingers to my face. “Wrinkled?” Then, you’d jump back into the water. Break the surface with your hair drifting into place. It fell in static clumps. Your eyes heavy with water. You’d hold out your arms. And between your fingers. always. some version of escape. The bottle dangling.
    “Take a sip.” You’d smile.
    I’d shake my head. Suspicion, wariness collected at the corner of my eyes like unushered tears.
    “Don’t be a baby.” You’d frown. A disappointed glance. a pucker.
    Disappear under the surface.
    Today, she is desperate for love. She thinks of the mouths that she has left behind. gaping and open— wet behind the ears. How she scathed them. A withering look too many The sting of rejection padded in their little-boy hearts. But now she sits, with her mouth, her face, her slump, stuck in a silent sigh. Some rom-com flashing in the distance. Some maybe tossed in the air. Some flickering in the living
    room, where we braid hair. watch idly. watch a millions faces aflame. washed by the sickly, blue glow. Her toes rubbed silently against mine, warm, calloused. I felt it, when she startled herself skyward. Her back arched away from the sofa, snapped up so excitedly, so ready by the hit of inspiration. And she spoke of escaping suburbia, because it was everything that was wrong with us. Suburbia had crawled into us; it made us dull, smoothed over on the edges. Suburbia with its easy-lined streets and plotted trees. flat. boring.
    “The parties in the city. That’s what will cure us.”
    “We could totally get in. Leon’s friends with this wild chick. Plus, they always want more girls.” she grins. A grin that holds on sly.
    And I, caught in the dark, stammering half-syllable no’s against a background static, muttering amongst these familiar sounds. But she was so different, her voice stretching away from us. taken by excitement, taken by romantic-dizzy escape.

    I don’t know.
    But I think I’m starting to understand.
    How. We betrayed ourselves. how. we bent over promises. Swallowed them dry. Became everything that we were meant to be. You said, only the honest were brave. But our tongues have grown too fat to lie. Stayed at the playground, until the evening sun touched the swings. While our friends obeyed the curfew,
    rocketed off assigned seats.