simple math

A short story by Nancy Freund

Johnny Bowen, Tommy McConihe – who I would have to marry because we had sex behind his house – and me, were in my playroom saying who could skate all the way across our ice, who could run through our trees, who could ride Tommy’s dog, who’d go out, no pants. It was Johnny’s turn to wear my tutu. A day the moms made us stay indoors.

He was big, but it had stretch. My grandma gave it to me, sequins, satin, lace, to make me more girl. My mom said wear it for chrissake; don’t break her heart. So I showed her. I even put on lipstick. Tommy too. But that day was Johnny’s turn. He took off all his clothes except his underpants. Boys and girls, no matter who, have to wear their undercrackers with my tutu. That’s a rule, like when you try on swimsuits. I make up our rules. I put the lipstick on him, made him stretch his lips flat against his teeth like ladies do. It was my Aunt Mary’s shocking pink, a nub left in the tube she gave me. Pink like you mean business. Johnny smacked his lips, and his face look bright. Aunt Mary taught me shocking.

People think boy parts, private parts, are messier than girls, but anyone can have an accident. Like Lesley-Number-Two. I feel bad, how they all called her that at school. I didn’t know what to say to help her, like “hey, it’s just an accident!” Anyway, she’s not my friend. My friends are the boys around the pond.

Our mothers put us in the playroom unless we’re in the kitchen with avocado pits and toothpicks by the window or games with balls and sticks and leaves and dogs. Summer mud’s the best, then the pond. We go in, in our clothes. I wear purple shorts. We throw things and grow things and have important conversations. We shout sometimes but never shriek.

They were bragging, saying they’d run across the ice in sneakers. I said I would too even though instead, I could have said, “hey, that’s stupid.” Braggers usually want someone smart to put the right idea in place. But then Johnny went and did it. I always thought you’d shoot straight back up if you fell through, like when you’re swimming, but under ice, your body goes into shock, and then the hole isn’t where you thought it was. One full minute under, you’re normally a goner.

He was wearing only normal clothes, obviously no lipstick, but I imagine him under the frozen murk with his bright pink face. Like he was magic under there, big pink fish lips, gills and fins, and he could breathe and swim. Mermaid tail with sequins. The mothers say I have too much imagination. But I say I’m what saved him, sequin lipstick fish. They pulled him out alive.  

Our moms cried — happy tears, my mother said. But they looked like normal tears, not shimmery zigzag hopping bubbles down their cheeks like I think they should have been. Wondrous rainbow, purple sparkles. Johnny didn’t even get brain damage which kills your imagination and simple math, which people need.

The ladies cried, holding mugs with both their hands. We got in their way and they didn’t mind. Their tears could have just been pearls or glitter streams or ruby starshine dewdrops. All of the above. I watched and watched, but they were only clear.

Tommy asked what it was like down there, but Johnny said all whispery mysterious, he didn’t know, he really didn’t know. I said, “hey, he doesn’t have to say.” They both stared at me. We went up to the playroom to give the moms their space, but Johnny refused to put on my tutu. I held it up by its sequin straps and danced it, but even Tommy shook his head. I threw it behind the dress-up box, and I never cried any color tears.

Nancy Freund writes fiction, poetry, and essays. Her novels ‘Rapeseed’ and ‘Mailbox’ were shortlisted for several prizes. Her writing has been published in numerous countries, online and in print. She earned her BA-Creative Writing at UCLA and is now completing her Masters in England at Cambridge. She lives in Switzerland.

Umbrella by Carol Palmer Brilliant