Ask for Pain

(Julia Fullerton-Batten -- Getty - )
By Julie Orringer
Sunday, February 10, 2008

The hotel was in the wine country, in St. Helena. We were there that first Friday of June because my mother was marrying Della's father. The next morning, three weeks before my 16th birthday, Della and I would become stepsisters. We would be family, though I could hardly bear to be in the same room with her for 10 minutes. Maybe that was why I'd chosen that day to tell her about what existed between me and Javi Penaflorida. Maybe I wanted to drive a permanent wedge between us, a reminder that whatever our parents had decided, whatever vows they made, we would never be sisters.

We'd come straight to St. Helena from our last day of school, both of us still wearing our uniforms. I watched her as I lay on the bed in our shared room, watched her standing at the window in her blue skirt and knee socks, staring down into the garden, where jumpsuited men were erecting the tent in which our parents would be married. Della had inserted herself between the sheer curtain liner and the glass, had draped the liner over her shoulders as though she were a bride herself. In the angle of her hips, in the vulnerable stitch at the backs of her knees, I could read her thoughts; she was imagining a different wedding altogether. She'd been in love with Javi Penaflorida for the past four months. But in another minute I would tell her the truth about Javi and me; I would tell her as soon as she turned from that window.

IT WAS DELLA'S FAULT OUR PARENTS WERE GETTING MARRIED. Two years earlier she'd signed up for a cooking class at Lucca, the San Francisco restaurant where my mother worked as a pastry chef. Five Cakes and a Tart: That was the title of the class. Della noticed my mother didn't wear a ring, and one day when her father picked her up she introduced them. By the end of the summer they were engaged.

Della's father hadn't dated since he and Della's mother had gotten divorced. At first, he'd been too heartbroken, then too busy with his law practice. In the three years since my father, a writer, had died of a ruptured aneurysm, my mother had gone on a few disappointing dates and then had sworn off the whole thing. But Solomon changed that. My mother got her hair cut in a loose sexy style, went around the house singing the old show tunes she used to sing when I was little, and hired an apprentice to work Sundays so she'd have more free time. She stopped brooding for hours in my father's study, stopped hugging herself in his cane rocking chair, the one where he used to sit and rock me when I was little, both of us looking out over the cypresses of Golden Gate Park. I wanted to be happy for her, and I told myself I was. She was living her life again. I knew it was what my father would have wanted. But when I saw her with Solomon -- watched them kneading bread in the kitchen with Della, or heading off for a hike in Marin or sitting on the sofa with the crossword -- all I could think of was that her happiness meant that my father was dead, really dead, and he wasn't coming back. And I suspected my mother was starting to love Della, too -- Della, who liked to cook and was good at it, and who, let's face it, was often in a better mood than I was.

The next summer my mother moved us out of our sunny flat in the Haight and into Solomon's enormous hillside house in San Anselmo, half an hour from the city. Since I'd have to change schools anyway, my mother said, I might consider going to boarding school with Della in Menlo Park. She acted like I had a choice in the matter, but I didn't. What was I going to do, live in San Anselmo with my mother and Solomon, just the three of us? At school, at least, I could avoid Della, make friends with people who had nothing to do with her.

And it worked out that way. We scarcely saw each other. But one afternoon in February I found myself in Della's dorm room. Our parents had sent us a Valentine's package -- chocolate tarts and pink-frosted cookies and boxer shorts with conversation hearts on them, TOO HOT and KISS ME and I'M SURE -- and we'd gotten together after our last class to divide the stuff. We were sitting on her bed with the box between us when Javi and his father came in to replace the screens in Della's room.

Javi had come to live with his father at the beginning of the term. We heard he'd been kicked out of his public high school in Santa Rosa. Speculation favored arson or an affair with a teacher. He was 17 and had dark eyes, copper-colored skin, black hair that hung to his shoulders. He wore a leather jacket with the words ASK FOR PAIN written across the back in safety pins. That afternoon, Mr. Penaflorida came in carrying the new screens under his arms, and Javi followed with the toolbox. As if under a spell, we sat on Della's bed and watched Javi and his father take the windows apart and put in the screens. Every now and then, Javi would look up at us; once, when he met my eyes, we stared at each other for an uncomfortably long time. I blushed, remembering something I'd read in a book: If someone looked into your eyes for more than five seconds, it meant they were either going to sleep with you or kill you. Javi flashed a smile and glanced away. When the screens were installed, Mr. Penaflorida gave us his usual nod and spoke a few words to Javi in Tagalog. Javi frowned, picked up the toolbox and left. Della followed him with her eyes. That was the beginning of it. She didn't have to say anything; I knew.

ONE NIGHT A FEW WEEKS LATER, I was crossing the field to return a bag of soccer balls to the equipment shed when I saw Javi standing beside the door of the riding-mower garage. I'd thought about him a few times since that day in Della's room, but I wasn't thinking of him then; instead, I was thinking about the game, about the goal I'd scored just before time ran out, my first of the season. I was smelling the cool eucalyptus scent of South Bay dusk, feeling the hard sweet afterburn of soccer in my back and thighs. Suddenly, there was Javi beside the garage, taking the net bag of soccer balls from me, his eyes meeting mine. He stared at me, and I stared back, and then he put a hand on my wrist, carefully, as if he were asking a question. I stepped closer to him, and he bent to me and kissed me, and then I was following him into the shed.

AT 16, DELLA WAS 5-FOOT-10, tongue-tied, owlish behind her glasses. She hung out with a group of girls who read sci-fi novels and published a weekly literary rag called the Orb. At dances I'd overheard guys making fun of Della and her friends: Ask one of those space aliens to dance. No, man, you do it, I'll give you $20. It might have made me feel bad for her if the situation between us were different. I told myself she must have known she didn't have a chance with Javi. But if she knew, it didn't stop her from thinking about him. Every poem she published in the Orb that spring was addressed to him: You hover/just outside the borders of my life/asking for pain/never sensing mine.

Meanwhile, Javi and I were meeting in the riding-mower garage two or three times a week. It wasn't just physical; we would talk for hours, sometimes all night if I could get past my dorm monitors. I told him things I'd never told anyone: that I'd lost my virginity at 14 to one of the servers at Lucca; that I'd walked to the Golden Gate Bridge one night not long after my dad died, and stood there imagining what it might be like to jump, until I realized that if my dad could see me, he'd think I was being ridiculous -- he'd tell me I was just feeling sorry for myself, and that the last thing my mother needed at that moment was a dead kid. In return, Javi told me about his own mother, who'd divorced his father and worked as an aide in a nursing home; he told me about his grandfather back in the Philippines. When I finally worked up the nerve to ask why he'd been kicked out of school, he laughed and looked almost flattered. He hadn't been kicked out, he said; he'd graduated early. He'd come to work with his father to make money for college. He'd already been admitted to Berkeley.

I smiled. "Everyone thinks you're a degenerate."

"It's the jacket," he said. "Appearances deceive."

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