The place where you came from ain’t there anymore,
and where you had in mind to go is canceled out.
—Joyce Carol Oates,
“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”
“A guy’s looking at you.”
Lexy knew better than to turn around. The swings were twisted up to the steel frame, the soles of her flip-flops planted in the dust.
“Use your phone.”
They leaned together; a piece of Lexy’s hair fell over Bri’s shoulder. Her mother called it dirty blonde. They pouted. Lexy angled the phone and there he was behind them, arms resting on the low, chain-link fence.
Across the playground were two toddlers in the sandbox, a girl and a boy, and two young mothers: Orthodox Jews with glossy wigs, ankle-length dark skirts, and long sleeves under their blouses in spite of the heat. There were a lot of them in this neighborhood, which was called Castle Heights, even though the houses were smaller and at a lower elevation than in Cheviot Hills, where Lexy lived. She was fifteen, and all of a sudden she had new ideas about even the most familiar things.
“Watch,” she said. She let the chains unwind, then pumped until they groaned in protest. She dipped way back on the return, so that her hair touched the ground. He was still there. The third time she did it she saw him crook a finger at her. She kept going, but slower.
“Are you going over?” asked Bri.
“I’ll go with you.”
She thought he probably went to the high school in Palms. Tanned face in the shadow of a blue trucker’s cap, threadbare T-shirt, and dark, low-slung jeans. He wasn’t tall, but he had a thin, muscular body, motorcycle boots even in the heat. It was only when she got closer that she saw that she had misjudged his age. The hair escaping his cap was somewhere between blond and gray, and there were deep lines around his eyes. She could smell him, too—not totally unpleasant, but ripe. He was wearing silver Beats around his neck, and there was a military-style backpack resting against the fence at his feet. His hands were dirty, the nails bitten—like hers before she put the treatment on them—but his eyes were the bluest she’d ever seen.
“Yes?” It was a little less casual than she wanted, a little prissy.
“Lexy,” he said.
“How do you know my name?”
He tipped his chin toward Bri, who was watching them from her swing. “She said it.”
“When you came in. You come a lot?”
“No.” They came here almost every day, after lifeguarding at the public pool.
He took off his hat, held it in one hand, and shaded his eyes with the other. “You live up there.” All the houses where he was looking were surrounded by vegetation, only the tips of roofs sticking out.
“Who are you?”
He looked mildly surprised, as if he’d expected her to know. “Dean,” he said. “I’m Dean.”
“Excuse me!” One of the women was coming over—the older one. The other was watching from the bench, her arms wrapped around the girl protectively. “No adults except in the company of children.”
“Her or me?”
“Who’re you talking to, her or me?”
He grinned at Lexy. “Where’s her kid?”
The woman expelled a sharp breath between her lips and put one hand on Lexy’s arm.
Lexy shook it off. What right did either of them have—to touch her, to talk to her? She didn’t have to stand here listening.
“Bri!” She wanted him to know both of their names. “Come on.”
Bri jumped up and followed her. She opened the miniature gate, but Lexy swung one leg over, then the other.
“Don’t look,” Bri said, as if Lexy needed instruction. They started up the hill in their terry shorts, flip-flops slapping the hot cement. Young girls meant sex, they were the symbol for it, so everyone got hot watching them—that was another new idea, one so embarrassing that she had to pretend she’d always known it.
They didn’t stop until the T junction, where the hill continued up to Lexy’s house. Then they turned around. The women’s heads were bent, collecting their children’s things. Dean had continued along Beverwil, where it widened south to Culver City. There was another chain-link fence around the basketball courts on his left. All of a sudden he pounded his hands against it, slamming out a rhythm they could hear all the way up here. Ba-da-bam-bam.
“Crazy,” Bri concluded.
It was the finality in the word that Lexy hated. The women on the playground talked that way, and so did her mother. Now Bri was doing it, too. Not just as if they’d figured something out, but as if everything in the whole world was figured out already. If you didn’t get it, you were already way behind. You might as well not bother.
Lexy’s mother didn’t actually talk anymore, but the family still said things like, What did Mom say? or, Did Mom tell you . . . ? What they meant was that she used her AAC to respond to questions or give instructions. She had continued to socialize after she got sick, hosting dinners and even an annual Christmas party. It was interesting to see the way new people responded to her, the difficulty they had in making themselves sit there and wait for her eye muscles—among the few that still functioned—to find the letters she wanted on the screen. Sometimes someone would excuse herself to get a drink or to use the bathroom (things her mother had not been able to do on her own for several years) and never return. And then afterward, Lexy would find something sarcastic on the screen, like Well, anyway . . . or, As I was saying . . . Lexy didn’t entirely blame them; it was hard to remember—when you saw her useless arms, her wet mouth hanging open, the plastic brace supporting her head—that Lexy’s mother could see, hear, and understand everything that was going on.