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The Suburban Strange (Suburban Strange)by Nathan Kotecki
through the looking glass
At the quiet beginning of a clear day, a black sedan rolled slowly down the empty street and came to a stop in front of Celias house. She had known it would be coming, but it was a tiny shock to see it there, even so. She opened the front door and took long, slow strides down the walk to meet it.
The cars metal and glass glinted in the morning sun. In the passenger seat window Celias reflection looked back at her: a tall, thin girl wearing a little black cardigan over a gray dress. Her skin was pale and her long, straight brown hair disappeared behind her shoulders. She looked past the glare on the glass and found a second girl sitting behind the steering wheel, who was not much older than she. The drivers razor-sharp black bob shifted and then fell back into place as her gloved hand lowered her sunglasses and she looked out at Celia.
Around them the houses seemed to slumber on their lawns. The morning smelled of dew and grass. Soon it would be fall.
Celia opened the door and took her place in the passenger seat. The air in the car held traces of a perfume that reminded her of forests and spice cabinets and Christmas. “Are you ready?” the driver asked when Celia had closed the door.
“I think so.”
The driver put the car in gear and eased away from the curb. They glided out of Celias neighborhood at a stately pace, and in the amber light she felt as if they were driving through honey. A gloomy song played on the stereo, with ringing guitars and crashing drums, and a man singing: One cold damp evening the world stood still
I watched as I held my breath
A silhouette I thought I knew came through
And someone spoke to me
Whispered in my ear
This fantasys for you
Fantasies are in this year . . .
“Who is this?”
“The Chameleons,” the driver said. “You like it?”
The warm light flickered through the trees as they rode. Celia tried to imagine what she might have been doing, where she might have been instead, if she hadnt . . . She wondered which thing she might have done differently, which decision would have sent her in a different direction. It was hard to guess. At this moment she felt as though she had never had a choice, really. There were so many questions she couldnt answer, but it all seemed so inevitable, regardless. She turned around and looked at the back seat. A gray cashmere blanket lay there on the tan leather, neatly folded, waiting for the first cold snap of the fall.
They drove into a neighborhood Celia didnt know, where the houses looked expensive and the lawns were wide. The car stopped in front of one of them, and soon the front door of the house released a handsome boy wearing a dark shirt and trousers and a brocade vest. His blond hair was short on the sides and swept into a fifties-inspired peak on top. “Thats Brenden,” the driver said. Brenden waved in their direction before he got into another expensive-looking black car parked in the driveway.
“He isnt riding with us?” Celia asked.
“Thats not how it works. Youll see.”
Brendens car pulled out in front of them at the same slow pace, and they followed him into another neighborhood.
My whole life passed before my eyes
I thought what they say is true
I shed my skin and my disguise
And cold, numb, and naked
I emerged from my cocoon
And a half-remembered tune played softly in my head . . .
They arrived at the curb in front of another house. Once again a boy emerged: olive-skinned with loose dark curls, he wore a slim gray suit jacket over a matching pair of knee-length shorts, and black loafers without socks. “Thats Marco.” The boy waved to them; then he climbed into the other car. Through its rear window Celia could see the two boys greet each other with a kiss.
“Youre not dating anyone, are you?” the driver asked Celia.
“Me? No! Ive never dated anyone.”
“Why is that?” The driver sounded surprised, and Celia wished she had managed to sound nonchalant instead of alarmed.
She shrugged, trying to play it down. “Im taller than everyone.” She looked down at her long legs shrouded in dark tights, and her feet in buckled shoes with higher heels than shed ever worn before, and she thought that now even fewer boys would be able to look her in the eye.
“You just need to date someone older,” the driver answered simply as they followed the other black car down the street, sounding complimentary and slightly bitter at the same time. It was such an obvious solution, now Celia thought about it, but she never had tried to solve the problem. Telling herself she was too tall was one of the ways she made sense of not getting more attention from boys, but that couldnt obscure the deeper truth: Celia wouldnt have known what to do with a boy even if he had been delivered to her in a shipping crate with breathing holes cut into the top.
I realize a miracle is due
I dedicate this melody to you
But is this the stuff dreams are made of?
No wonder I feel like Im floating on air
It feels like Im everywhere . . .
“Last stop. Were late. I hope theyre ready.” The two black cars pulled up in front of an imposing modern house with a huge bed of ivy in place of a lawn. This time two people emerged through the front door. “Thats Liz,” the driver said of a shorter girl with a wavy bob, black with deep blue highlights, wearing skinny black pants and a button-down shirt with long tails. A rosary hung from her neck. “And thats Ivo.” Celias guides voice grew warmer as Ivo walked with Liz to yet another black car. He was tall and thin with his black hair severely parted and combed, wearing a black shirt and suit. “Theyre fraternal twins. Theyre the whole reason the Rosary exists.”
“I didnt tell you? Thats the name of our group.” The driver turned to look at Celia.
“Are you . . . religious?” Celia asked.
“No. Were a set of small black shiny beads who string around together, finding beauty the rest of the world has overlooked.” Celia thought this was a description she should remember, but she couldnt make sense of it. The driver continued, “The Rosary is just the name weve given ourselves. But to describe us, Id say we are the cognoscenti.”
“I dont know what that means,” Celia said.
“The cognoscenti are ‘the ones who know. ” The girl behind the wheel gave her an appropriately knowing look, but Celia still had no idea how to respond.
Ivo and Liz were pulling out of their driveway in a third black car, and suddenly the image of shiny black things strung together wasnt just a metaphor. Celia felt as if she were riding in a funeral procession, and a familiar pain flared up in her. Only recently had her heart grown closed around what felt like the shards of a bullet that had lodged there when her father died. The pain wasnt sharp every day now, but the shards were always there. They would always be there.
Like when you fail to make the connection you know how vital it is
When something slips through your fingers you know how precious it is
And you reach the point where you know its only your second skin
Someones banging on my door . . .
“What are you thinking?” the driver asked.
“I . . . well, it feels like were going to a funeral.”
“Good,” her guide said. “I suppose were a little melodramatic. You know, In the midst of life we are in death, and all that. But thats what makes it interesting—most people only think about dark things when theyre forced to, even though dark things can be very beautiful. You understand?”
“I think so.” It all sounded rather deep to Celia. For the moment she was relieved that the pain that had flickered in her seemed to be passing. This ride and the memories it evoked werent cutting into her the way she had feared. Today there would be no casket awaiting her when they reached their destination. Still, she hoped the time would come when she understood it all.
The procession crept along and turned onto a road that approached a sprawling building arching into the sky like the armor of a stegosaurus, halls and wings poking out in all directions. It stood by itself, with open fields on either side and across the street. But at its feet, cars of other colors and people in conventional clothes moved quickly in every direction, and the stark serenity of the drive began to evaporate. The Rosarys three black cars filed smoothly into the midst of it all and finally stopped side by side in the parking lot. Celia opened her door and the dreamlike feeling of the journey was gone instantly, like a hubcap clattering to the pavement. She put her feet back down on the ground and stood up, looking around, nervously waiting to be introduced to the others.
“Hello, Regine,” Marco said to Celias driver. “And finally we get to meet Celia.” He looked at her with curious, kind eyes.
“Here she is.” Regine presented Celia by touching her elbow, and Celia wondered if she should step forward. “Marco, Brenden, Liz, Ivo, this is Celia.” They all nodded at her. She didnt know what she was supposed to do. But in the next moment they began to speak to each other, and she felt as if she had faded away like a ghost.
“You saw the new wing?” Ivo pointed along one side of the huge building. “As if this place werent large enough already.”
“You wont be swimming in the new pool, then?” Brenden said to him, and Ivo feigned horror.
Their conversation was dotted with names and topics that were foreign to Celia. She forced herself not to fidget.
“Do you have a mix for us?” Liz asked Brenden.
“Of course I do.” Brenden opened his bag and pulled out a slim stack of jewel cases. “Everything is better with the right soundtrack.”
“Even something as depressing as the first day of school?”
“Especially something as depressing as the first day of school.” Brenden passed the CDs around.
“We have to make the most of it—its our last year together,” Ivo said, studying his copy. “You put ‘The Headmaster Ritual on here! Thats perfect!”
Brenden turned to Celia, one CD left in his hand. “I thought you might like one, too,” he said, smiling.
“Thank you!” Celia accepted it and studied the track list along with the others. Few of the artists were familiar to her, and those only because Regine had begun her initiation into the groups musical tastes a few months earlier.
“I have a good feeling about this year,” Marco said. “Its going to be great.”
Celia looked around. Other kids who had parked nearby were staring curiously at her group. It was obvious, though, these five dark friends didnt care. When the Rosary started toward the building, they walked purposefully and slowly, just as they had driven, carrying themselves with a careful indifference. They didnt look at the other kids, and they spoke quietly so no one else could hear. Celia did her best to mimic them. She was surprised to note the intrigued, even mystified respect from the others for the Rosary. Before she had met Regine, whenever she was in public, Celia had wished to be invisible, but there was no point in holding on to that desire now. If this morning was any indication—the procession of cars, the austere clothes, the deliberate manner—the Rosary cultivated mystique deliberately. And if it werent for a chain of unlikely events, Celia would have been on the other side, the outside, staring at this group, unsure and alone. By some strange chance, here she was in their midst, and she hoped she looked at least a little as if she belonged, even though she felt like an imposter. It was completely new, and a little thrilling, but she was scared she would drop something, or fall down and be exposed as a fake. Then they would just walk smoothly away from her . . .
Suddenly, ahead of them a girl broke away from her two friends, zigzagging across the pavement with her head ducked and her arms flailing around her face. “No, no, no!” she shrieked. Collectively the Rosary stopped walking, and Celia stopped with them.
“What are you doing?” the frantic girls friends called, laughing and confused.
“Ai!” The tormented girl jumped, her whole frame tensing. Then she came down, knees bent, and turned around slowly to look at her friends with wide eyes. She had left them behind, and they stayed put, unsure whether they wanted to be associated with such spastic behavior on the first day of school.
The girl had stopped near a jock in an orange T-shirt. “Hey, Elsie, whats wrong?”
“A bee stung me!” Elsie held one hand to the side of her neck. “Im allergic!”
“Whoa—we have to get you to the nurse!” The boy took her arm, but she sank to the asphalt. Her hand waved around her face again as she gasped for air.
Celia glanced at her group. Each of them stood calmly, unaffected by the girls plight. Where she was sprawled, the stung girl blocked their path to the school, and the Rosary only seemed to be waiting for the way to be cleared before they continued. Even from twenty feet away, Celia could see that Elsies face was swelling noticeably. The girls two friends had rushed over, and the jock had dropped to his knees next to her, his hands hovering uselessly around her as he scanned the parking lot. He called out, “Help! Somebody get the nurse!” Several kids took off running into the school.
Still the Rosary didnt move. Celia couldnt fault them for not getting involved. There wasnt anything to do that wasnt already being done, and there was no point in crowding the poor girl. But Celia was bothered by her feeling of helplessness and her friends seeming indifference to Elsies plight. Everyone else in the parking lot had stopped in their tracks, too, but they screamed and pointed, telling each other what was in front of them.
“Whats going on?” A young teacher came running toward the heaving girl.
“Shes allergic to bee stings!” the boy in the orange shirt told him as the teacher crouched next to him. But the teacher didnt seem to know what to do, either. He stared at Elsie, and after another moment the jock urged him, “We have to get her that shot, whats it called?” He looked around again and shouted, “Does anyone have that shot for allergic reactions?”
“I have an EpiPen!” Another boy came running out from a row of cars, digging in his satchel. He pulled out a small plastic case and handed it to the teacher on the ground by Elsie.
But the teacher stared at him, saying, “Ive never . . .” The boy took the case back, popped the cap and pushed Elsies skirt up her leg, then jabbed the syringe into her thigh and held it there. He spoke in a low voice to the girl, who nodded and gasped. The boy tried to keep her hair out of her eyes.
The tension began to drain from the air. The spectators began to move again, and Elsies body started to relax. The nurse lumbered into the parking lot and looked relieved to find that the critical help already had been administered. In another minute the nurse and the teacher helped Elsie to her feet, one on each side, and escorted her into the building. Her friends collected her things and trailed behind her.
The jock stood up, his bright orange T-shirt the last bit of crisis left in the parking lot. He said something to the boy who had provided the EpiPen, and they nodded seriously at each other. The boy went off toward school, but the jock looked over in the direction of the Rosary. “Hey, Liz,” he said. “That was kind of intense.”
Liz opened her mouth and spoke a few syllables that didnt add up to words. As if on cue, the Rosary began to walk again. Liz strugged to maintain their sedate pace as they stalked past the jock, who looked disappointed, but not surprised. Celia couldnt decide what was strangest: that such an alarming thing had happened right in front of her on the first day of school, that this gloomy clique had been so aloof throughout it, or that a jock would feel as though he could engage Liz in a conversation.
They reached the school lobby without further incident, and Celia listened for them to comment about what had happened outside. “What did you say about it being a good year?” Ivo said to Marco. “If that was any indication, this year is cursed already.” They traded wry smiles, but in the next moment this group to which Celia was both a stranger and a ward had moved on to more unfamiliar names and things she didnt understand. She gave up trying to follow the conversation and looked around.
Suburban High School wasnt nearly as dark and glamorous as she suspected the Rosary would have preferred. The tile walls and textured plaster ceiling looked antiquated, and their colors were too drab to have names. When the group parted ways and Regine walked her upstairs, Celia found that the sophomore hall had all the sophistication of a strip mall or a jail. Against this backdrop Regine looked even more exotic than she had in the black sedan—even more exotic than she had in the summer drawing class where the two of them had met two short months ago. Celia glanced down and reminded herself she looked exotic now, too.
“So you see how we are, right?” Regine said to Celia. “Some kids might give you a hard time, and some kids are going to want to be friends with you just because youre friends with us, and all Ill say is you should use your best judgment. You decide if theyre smart enough, and if they look good enough. You decide who is worth your time.” Celia had never thought about it that way. She always had been on the receiving end of those evaluations. She had a hunch that if anyone else at Suburban met the standards Regine had laid out, the Rosary would have befriended them already.
“Do you know that girl?” she asked Regine, who looked at her uncomprehendingly. “The one who got stung?”
“Not really,” Regine said.
Celias concerns shifted away from sympathy and back toward herself. In a moment Regine was going to leave her, and the prospect of continuing alone floated up the same fears Celia had forced down several times already that morning.
She said goodbye to Regine and turned to her homeroom door. The room was full of kids in jeans and sneakers and brightly colored shirts who all fell silent when she walked in, looking her over. The air seemed to change, becoming drier and hotter. No longer could Celia pretend to be exotic—she was simply out of place. She considered running back out the door, but she was sure Regine would disapprove of such a display of weakness. This new moment had all the substance of a nightmare, and the next moment would be even worse. What are they going to say? she thought, realizing she had stopped cold a few feet into the room.
Celia knew her outfit was a little morose, and her dark eye shadow didnt help. She knew she wasnt making herself any more approachable than her sloppy jeans, faded T-shirts, and hunched shoulders had made her at her old school last year. She had spent all of ninth grade—all of middle school, even—trying to disappear but never quite succeeding, and that impulse still lurked just under the surface. During the summer, with no other kids around, Celia had been able to ignore the risk she was taking by making these bold changes to her appearance. Now she felt the risk like a blast from a hair dryer down her back. It was the same hot gust she had felt whenever more than one of her old classmates had looked at her at the same time. It was the precursor to something bad. If they were merciful, it was only ridicule: She was too tall. She wasnt savvy enough to conform. She wasnt strong-willed enough to defend herself. Her best friend was a sketchbook.
Celia had hoped a new high school would somehow be different, but now she thought of course it wasnt—at least, not in the ways she needed it to be. Had she made a fatal miscalculation with the new strategy she had chosen? These dark clothes? Her dark straight hair, carefully blown even straighter, which now reached midway down her back? The hours spent in front of the mirror learning to make her eyes look smoky instead of blackened? She might match the blackboard now, but she couldnt expect to fade into it.
The misgivings she had entertained at home less than an hour ago were nothing compared to the panic and despair she felt now. This was not at all like walking into the studio at the art institute. She was alone in a crowd of kids who looked exactly like the ones she had fled at the end of last year. Stork, she thought; pencil-girl. Ghoul—there would be new names for them to call her now: goth freak, vampire. The epithets careened around inside her head, and she waited to hear them.
No one said anything to her. She saw a seat off to the side and willed herself to walk as deliberately as possible over to it. Her ankle wobbled a little, but she pretended everything was fine. She sat down and heard the conversations around her start back up. Then she pulled her sketchbook out of her bag, opened it to the first blank page, and wrote, What is going to happen? She looked at the question for a moment, then crossed it out and wrote another.
What is happening to me?
Celia summoned back the confidence she was trying to learn from Regine, and memories of the recent times shed succeeded in feeling mysterious and exotic, qualities she never had possessed before. She pushed her shoulders back a little farther, hearing Regines voice in her head admonish her for slouching. She thought back to the summer drawing class where she had met Regine.
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