Passing Each Other in Halls
by Matt de la Peña, recommended by One Teen Story
EDITOR’S NOTE by Patrick Ryan
Who watches all of this? These silly little lives we lead? asks the narrator of Matt de la Peña’s story, “Passing Each Other in Halls.”
Rereading those lines, I’m struck all over again by what a powerful, voice-driven story this is.
The story follows the course of one loopy night in Los Angeles, as the narrator and his friend P.J. prowl the streets and the clubs, talking tough but feeling vulnerable. Matt’s narrator is — perhaps secretly — into vulnerability. He’s an aspiring poet; a keenly observant, wanna-be tough guy; a romantic who still isn’t confident in his kissing abilities.
When he and P.J. stumble upon a group of girls and “join forces” for the evening — palling around, flirting with one another — it’s because that’s what young people are supposed to do. When the group falls into the tracking beam of a spoiled, semi-rich kid named Lawrence, and ends up at the house of his dying great-aunt, and commences partying only to discover that Lawrence is a Class-A jerk and his great-aunt wants to have the lot of them arrested for trespassing, it’s because that’s the kind of muck young people barreling toward adulthood can expect to find on a rambling, adventurous, and possibly ill-conceived night on the town.
Matt de la Peña writes with a forward lean that sends us, as readers, right from the beginning to the end — but with the crazy, zigzag path of a Magic Bullet. His dialogue is pitch-perfect. His characters are sometimes drawn with a minimal amount of detail, and those details are always high-yielding. The result is that, upon finishing this story, you’ll want to go back and read it again just to see how he does it. Matt’s at the top of his game here, and I’m happy to be the editor of the magazine that ushered this story into the world.
Editor, One Teen Story
Passing Each Other in Halls
Matt de la Pena
This is late Saturday night. In a booth in a dark bar. This is some girl, Holly, who I’ve known roughly ten minutes, leaning over my boy PJ, her eyes big and brown, and asking will I kiss her.
And I’m against this kind of behavior in theory. Locking up in public. Lobbed a dry biscuit at a couple kissing in the high school caf during sophomore year — and when that didn’t stop them, I threw a half-eaten fish stick. But Holly’s cute. And we’re both buzzing on the good stuff. And my real girl recently called down from her fancy Ivy League school to tell me she met someone.
You’re broken up a few days, a few months, doesn’t matter — the shit ain’t real until you hear those words.
It’s some dude she met in finance class. Started a couple weeks back, but she’d been afraid to tell me. Oh, you’re seeing someone? I said. Is that right? A frat boy from Westchester, you say? So, basically some money-hungry, future Wall Street weasel who longs to watch himself tie a tie every morning in the mirror. And what’s this dude drive? Talk to me about that shit, Jasmine. Guess you’re too good for me and my skateboard now that you’ve been brainwashed by that stupid-ass sorority.
She, of course, hung up. The click cancelling our two years together.
I, of course, kiss this girl. Holly. Her lips like two cigarettes, but soft.
When we separate, Holly tells me there’s something different about her. Something dark and mysterious. Something even the people closest to her will never understand.
I nod. Me and PJ share a quick look. Who watches all of this? These silly little lives we lead? “I can already sense it,” I tell her. “This darkness.” She reaches out and touches around my stitches.
Then we start kissing some more.
Earlier in the day I caught a nasty elbow from PJ. We were playing pick-up down by the beach, and I was serving his ass, scoring buckets on his subpar defense at will — and then we just happened to collide going after a loose ball near the sideline? We ended up sprawled out, side-by-side on the hot pavement, the rest of the guys hovering over us with their hands on their knees, asking if we were okay. PJ got up holding the side of his head. I wiped my shirt under my left eye, watched the blood slowly crawl across my cotton.
I shot dude a skeptical look. “Damn, my bad,” he said, helping me to my feet. I started back to the wing, assuming I could play through it, but one of the old timers stopped me short and held me by the chin to study my cut. He shook his head, told me: “Gonna have to go get this one closed up, young fella.”
PJ apologized profusely and drove me to Emergency where an ancient-looking doctor sewed me up without uttering a single word. No lie: fifteen stitches, zero small talk. He just sewed and breathed old-man style in my ear and snuck occasional glances at PJ. I could read his mind in the mirror, though…So the black one just happens to accidentally elbow the Mexican one in the face? That’s the story they want to tell? Come on, guys, I’ve read about these race riots going on in the streets. I sat there trying to ignore all the numb tugging taking place under my left eye. My pops has been in and out of this same hospital for the past year and a half. I used to sit in the waiting room with Jasmine, watching TV news, knowing his ass wouldn’t tell me anything when they wheeled him back out — and I wouldn’t ask. We’d just ride back to the pad in silence where he’d resume his life and I’d resume mine.
I fully understood he wasn’t gonna last much longer, but how the hell are you supposed to bring that shit up when your old man doesn’t believe in talking?
Sitting in PJ’s car on the way back from getting stitched up, I started reassessing the uneven damage. “Hey, P,” I said. “You sure you got a headache?”
PJ turned down his radio. “Got a little something, kid. Why, what’s up?”
“I don’t know,” I told him, lightly touching the area around my stitches. “Just taking a little inventory, I guess.”
“I think my ear’s red, too. You see it?” He cringed a little as he rubbed the top of his ear. “Oh, damn, right there, kid. Shit’s mad sore.”
“Not seeing a whole lot of red,” I told him. “Not seeing any, uh, stitches either.”
He played ignorant. “Got this weird ringing sound, too. Isn’t that one of the signs of a concussion? Damn, I’m not so sure I should be behind the wheel right now.”
“Lemme get this straight, P. I get a piercing shot of Novocain, fifteen stitches, and a lifelong scar — you take two children’s chewables and twenty minutes later everything’s cool?”
PJ whipped a quick right down a residential street and pulled to the sidewalk. “What, you wanna get me back, kid? That make you happy?” He turned his right cheek toward me and pointed. “Go ‘head, boy! Pop me one! I’ll turn this motherfucker around and go right back to Emergency!”
I rolled my eyes and looked out the window.
Guy’s barely three years older and he has the audacity to call me “kid.” Kid! I’m damn-near eighteen years old. A grown man.
I pulled down the passenger-side visor again, checked my face in the tiny mirror.
“Look,” PJ said, dropping the attitude. “We’ll hit the bar later, and I’ll pick up all your drinks. That fair? You’re about the only cat I know who’s got a fake ID he never uses.”
I turned to him and said: “Fine, but I’m getting good shit, P. I’m going top shelf on your ass.”
A smile spread across PJ’s face, and he held out a fist. “You know I got ya, kid.”
I guess this is how it sometimes happens with hoops. Best friends lose their minds on the court, go after each other with blood in their eyes, then as soon as they kick off their hoop shoes, it’s buried.
I gave PJ’s fist a quick bump, and he slowly pulled back onto the road.
We were in the nicer part of Brentwood, on a tree-lined street called Avondale Lane, and the houses were straight-up daunting. Three-car sloping driveways holding Jags, BMWs, Benzes, Range Rovers. Huge landscaped yards with actual fountains. Windows that took up entire walls revealing giant paintings and sculptures and custom furniture.
Tall gates designed to keep people like us away.
“Maybe one day me and you gonna live on a street like this,” PJ said. “Your first poetry book gets one of them Nobel Prize stickers on the front. Couple of my scripts get optioned. This what’s waiting on the other side of the rainbow, kid.”
“I don’t want it,” I said.
“Who needs this much?”
“Shit, you looking at him.”
“I spit on these peoples’ lives.” He grinned.
“See, now you just acting up.”
“A rich kid from Westchester, P? Some silver spoon punk who probably never handled a shovel in his life?”
“Oh, so you dug a lot of ditches in your day?” PJ laughed a little under his breath.
“I’m making a point, man.” I shook my head, trying to forget. But I couldn’t. “She used to drive me to see my old man in the hospital,” I told him. “She used to bring his ass flowers.”
“It’s hard,” PJ said. “I know it is.”
I took a deep breath to calm myself and watched PJ turn his attention back to the mansions. He stared at them in awe. Both his knees pushed all up against the dash. Big-ass feet hanging off the worn pedals.
Left elbow — the one he popped me with! — halfway out the window so he could maneuver the steering wheel. It’s always amazed me that such a big dude would choose to buy such a little car. But PJ’s like that. He came to Los Angeles over two years ago to study philosophy at Cal State LA, but like everyone else who moves here, he’s secretly chasing the movies. Starring in, written by, director of, producer for, voice-over man — doesn’t matter as long as his name one day rolls in the credits.
About five hours later, after we both showered and changed, me and PJ were parked in a metered spot off Main Street, two blocks from the bar, chugging 25oz. cans of Foster’s in his flea-bitten hatchback. Picture me in my best shirt, and PJ in the same black sweater and beanie he always wears.
The guy’s Ford Festiva is in such bad shape, his passenger’s side door no longer opens wide enough to let in his passengers. I have to climb my ass through the driver’s side, over the bent stick shift and cracked center console, whenever I want to go where PJ’s going. Not that I’m complaining. I’ll put up with just about anything these days if it gets me out of the house. It’s one thing to lose your girl, it’s another thing to lose her and be stuck inside a tiny Mar Vista apartment with your pissed-off old man, listening to him cough his way through Telemundo.
“Yo, wrap your shit in this,” PJ said, pulling a loose t-shirt from the back seat.
I fingered the fresh stitches under my eye for the two hundred and fiftieth time and took the shirt. “This so cops don’t see what we’re doing? Or females?”
I wrapped my can in the shirt and took another swig.
As we drank our shirt-covered beers, PJ talked about the cold winters he spent back in Brooklyn as a kid, how he’d sneak into the basement and watch old DVDs, drinking his mom’s leftover merlot straight out of the box. He talked about the Star Wars Trilogy, Hitchcock, Woody Allen, Coppola’s Godfather movies, parts I and II. He talked about how proud it would make his people back home if he ever hit it big, became a “somebody,” ended up with a star on the Walk of Fame instead of locked up like his older brother.
I talked hip hop versus spoken word, the new burrito spot opening up a block from Samo High, those incredible siestas everybody supposedly takes in Spain, anything and everything, really — all of it so I didn’t have to think about Jasmine. But eventually I slipped up, stumbled into a ten-minute rant about the myth of romantic love. How it’s just movies and advertising. A self-centered dream that lasts six days, six weeks, six months, but one we all wake up from.
Eventually. I was sitting there talking a mile a minute, passionately, pulling every word from deep within my chest, but at the same time I was thinking, too. About us. Me and PJ. Sitting in his bullshit car drinking beers wrapped in shirts. I wondered, Is anyone else doing this? Kids from the better families? Kids from the better schools with their sights already set on the better jobs? And how am I supposed to feel about this?
It hit me pretty hard, I guess, and I ended my rant a bit off topic, telling PJ: “Look at us, man. Hell of a long way from Avondale Lane.”
But PJ was real cool about it.
He took a slow hit off his Foster’s can and looked me dead in the eyes, like all along he knew I’d come around to saying this.
“It’s about patience,” he said. “All of it, kid. Shit’s about patience.”
I looked away from PJ and took another swig of beer, watched a young couple stroll by arm-in-arm, laughing. I shrugged a little and fingered my stitches and thought about that word.
We’re inside the bar ten minutes tops when this glitter-eyed white girl slinks up in her little blue sundress, her three friends straggling behind. She puts her fingers up to my stitches theatrically and says: “Oh, honey. Sweetheart. How did this happen?”
And this is where the night begins.
This is where I open my eyes after a two-year dream. Find myself alone, unrecognizable, lost, with this girl I’ve never met touching me, uncovering my sagging heart with her stare.
And here we all are. Me. These people around me. All of us dressed up, dressed down. All of us angling and projecting, inventing ourselves as we go. A cover band playing cover songs. These pretty girls dancing sex in the middle of the room and these dudes posted against walls, watching. These smells magnified by the heat of the bar: spilled beer, sticky sweat, a hundred love-starved young folks exhaling all at once. This loud music thump thump thumping deep inside our chests. And these lights — turned low enough for us to spread our secrets, even if they’re mostly lies.
“Hey!” the girl shouts, waving a hand in front of my face. “Hel-lo. I asked you what happened.”
“Hit by a pitch,” I say. “Stumbled down some stairs. Motocross crash. What does it matter? I’m hurt.”
“Oh, you poor thing,” she says, mockingly. “I’m Holly.” She turns and gives her name to PJ, too.
Here’s me and PJ and Holly and her three straggling friends all handing out our names, as if any of this will matter once the sun comes back.
So, yeah, Holly, the youngest of three, grew up in Santa Barbara and both her parents are psychiatrists.
Both her brothers, surgeons. One of the stragglers is recently divorced, and there’s a pale halo around her ring-less finger. Yeah. And I’m Shy Lopez. For real, I tell Holly, it’s my God-given name. Check my papers if you don’t believe me. Oh, and those were all lies I told back there about my eye. Truth is, PJ attacked me on a hoop court. He did, he did. Peep the man’s elbow. See that red spot there? That’s from when he cracked me in the face. And now we’re all laughing and getting on. And everyone has a drink in hand, sipping, clinking glasses. And, sure, I tell the bartender another Grey Moose and tonic, and to put it on PJ Walker’s card. “That’s PJ Walker!” And PJ laughs his deep laugh and tells the bartender: “He means Grey Goose. Not Grey Moose.” Tells her: “See this kid right here? My boy ain’t got no culture.”
And eventually we land a booth in back and all squeeze in tight.
And this is where Holly asks me, leaning over PJ, will I kiss her.
I meet her halfway.
“I got a 4.5 in high school,” Holly says, flipping her long brown hair from one shoulder to the other.
“That’s interesting,” I say.
“I’m the black sheep of the family,” Holly says, batting her long eyelashes. “The only one who’s not yet a doctor.”
“Most men are intimidated by me,” Holly says, running a fingernail down my jean-covered shin. “Because of my intelligence. That’s what happened with my last boyfriend. We’d get into these impromptu political debates and he’d simply run out of shit to say.”
“Wait, are you serious?” I ask her.
This entire conversation takes place over PJ’s shoulder, and most of what I say is for his benefit.
“So, what you’re telling me,” I say. “’Cause I wanna get this straight. Make sure everything’s a hundred percent clear. You’re, like…smart.”
“Oh, my God,” Holly fires back at me. “I’m fucking brilliant!”
After they shoo us out of the bar, we stand around the sidewalk outside, refusing to go home. Holly’s lipstick is now in clumps, her white bra straps are peeking out from beneath her wrinkled sundress. Seeing her less put together like this makes me soften toward her and forgive a lot of the bragging. PJ has switched from rational philosophy student to the kid raised in the Bushwick Projects. He taps every passing girl on the shoulder and hands out bad line after bad line: “Girl, I be lucky to be them shoes, carrying sweet feet like you got.” “Girl, that dress was made to wrap around you so fine.” And whenever a girl ignores him and walks right on by, PJ holds out his hands like he’s pleading to a referee: “That’s what’s up, girl? Black man like myself can’t even meet you?”
Holly’s three straggling friends, they’re still the same: three plain, white envelopes.
Holly leads me behind a bus stop billboard, pulls a pack of cigarettes from her bag and lights up. “I don’t want tonight to be over,” she says between drags. “I’m having too much fun. Aren’t you having fun?”
I nod and turn to everyone bunched together in small groups, talking. I used to spy my old man standing outside the bar down the block from our building. I’d duck behind a bush, watch him laughing with a group of random smokers. Middle of a Tuesday, when he was supposed to be out working some landscaping job. Even after his ass got sick I’d find him there.
Holly waves a hand in front of my face, says: “Excuse me, someone’s trying to talk to you.”
“I’m listening,” I tell her. But even when I try, my mind keeps drifting to faraway places. I’m here, Holly, but I’m not really here.
She takes a long drag, blows it out the side of her mouth, then she pulls my face into hers.
This kissing thing, I gotta say.
Maybe I haven’t found the right girl. Maybe I unconsciously objectify females by always wanting to cut to the chase. Maybe I’m too selfish, in too much of a hurry, or I’m too aware of time passing. Maybe I don’t understand romance. In all these categories, I may fall short. But while Holly’s all up in my grill, eyes closed in concentration, I’m mostly thinking: When do I swallow? How do I get a deeper breath? Am I really any good at this? And what are the chances Jasmine’s doing this exact same thing, all the way across the country, with her new dude? And if she is, what’s secretly going through her mind?
After a minute or so, Holly pulls away, asking: “What’s the matter, Shy?”
“Nothing,” I tell her.
“I’m an extremely perceptive person,” she says, lowering her eyes. “I’m afraid you don’t like me.”
This is what snaps me back to the present. It’s the first time all night Holly has shown herself as an actual person. She’s just alone, like me. And she’s scared it might be this way forever. These days, it seems like a girl has to rip open her chest and reveal her vulnerable heart for me to be able to see her.
I wave her off, saying: “No way, Holly. That’s crazy talk. It’s a fine line, you know, between brilliance and insanity.”
Her pretty smile creeps back onto her face. “My poor, poor, Shy,” she says, touching the skin around my stitches again. “If only I’d have been there to protect you.” She pulls another cigarette out of her bag and lights up.
Sometimes it trips me out how we’re all here together. Breathing. Taking up space. Passing each other in halls. It’s pretty amazing if you actually stop and think about it. I’d try and explain what I mean to Holly, but I doubt she’d wanna hear about Jasmine.
Over Holly’s shoulder, I watch this clean-cut blonde dude step out of an illegally parked Range Rover and walk toward us. “Hello, ladies,” he says to Holly’s friends, dropping his keys into his jacket pocket. “I’m Lawrence Bernard Oswald. Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“Hey, I know you!” one of Holly’s friends says. The guy stares at her, trying to place her face.
“The Super Diamond concert at the Greek Theatre? Two Halloweens ago?” She turns to her friends, says: “He was friends with this guy Marcus I dated for like fifteen seconds.”
“That’s right!” he says. “Marcus Evens from Salt Lake City. Jesus, small world.” Lawrence is 20-something and tall, his blond hair combed into an incredibly straight part — like a ruler may have been involved. His Polo shirt is tucked into expensive-looking jeans and he backs up everything he says with elaborate hand gestures.
“So, how we doing, ladies?” he says, clapping his hands together. He pulls a ChapStick from his pant pocket, uncaps it, smoothes it across his pale lips.
Me and PJ share a look.
“Here’s the situation,” Lawrence says, stashing the ChapStick. “I’m down here on a business trip from San Mateo, and as your friend probably remembers, I like to party.” He snaps all his fingers and brings a loose fist into an open palm. “I’m crashing at my great-aunt’s beautiful home just a few short blocks from here, and I’ve got plenty of alcohol. What do you say, ladies? Shall we move our night indoors?”
Holly has spun away from my stitches to see where all the chatter’s coming from.
I watch Lawrence turn to her and drop his grin. I watch Lawrence fall in love with Holly, right here on this dirty sidewalk, under the buzz of a dull yellow street lamp.
Real love is like this, I think. It’s aimless and hard to see. It lasts two seconds between strangers and dies before it begins.
“We’re not going anywhere,” says one of Holly’s girls. “Not without the boys.”
“Yeah,” says the girl who’s already met him. “We’re a group.”
“All or nothing,” says the divorcée.
“Of course.” Lawrence pulls out his ChapStick again, though this time he only plays with the cap. “My sentiments exactly.” He turns from Holly and looks me right in the eyes, his grin quickly returning. He never looks at PJ. “Gentlemen?”
PJ does the same.
“Sold to the lowest bidder,” Lawrence exclaims, and he motions for us to follow him across the street, to a taco shop.
There’s definitely something off about Lawrence. It’s right there, in his jittery eyes. And the way he keeps looking back at Holly. For all I know, he’s already got a couple bodies stashed in the trunk of his ride. But one of the girls knows him. And I’ve decided my job tonight is to watch over Holly. And what are we supposed to do? Hide in our little rooms, protecting our precious little lives? What’s the point of being here if you’re not willing to stick around long enough to find out what happens?
On the walk from the taco shop to his place, Lawrence keeps referring to the girls as “ladies,” and I wonder if this is a geographic thing.
“I modeled some,” Lawrence says. “Back when I lived in Cleveland.”
“I was married for eight months to a six-foot Swedish actress,” he says.
“What can I say, ladies?” Lawrence says. “I like nice things. I like Prada and Donna Karan and Armani…” And on and on and on.
At first, I’m laughing at this dude. With everybody else. All this bragging and boasting. His strong hair part and excessive use of ChapStick. Ha ha ha. What a blast. But then I start picking up on a subtle shift taking place. The girls go from laughing to listening.
They go from rolling their eyes to competing for his attention.
“Hey, P,” I say, tapping him on the shoulder. “Is it me or is this guy a serious douche bag?”
“Ah, come on, kid,” he says. “L’s all right.” L? PJ catches up to the group and interrupts one of Holly’s friends. “But how does it affect you come tax time?” he asks Lawrence. “This summer place in Ibiza?”
The whole money thing. Somehow, somewhere, it has shoved me into the gutter. And while I’m stuck wondering, Damn, can I really afford this new pair of shell tops, guys like Lawrence are racing around on the paved roads above to places I’ve only seen on some sixth-grade globe.
Lawrence unlocks the door to his great-aunt’s beautiful three-story home on 7th Street, and two well-groomed bulldogs come padding across the shiny hardwood floor to greet us. All the girls coo and kneel to rub the dogs’ ears and their sagging little faces.
PJ raises his eyebrows at me and motions down the wide hall, where there’s a full suit of armor, the metal hands gripping a sheathed sword. “Yo, when I make it big,” he says, “I’m getting me one of those. Watch.”
“Sweet,” I tell him, rolling my eyes.
Lawrence has everyone take off their shoes by the door and the girls lose two inches each. I consider challenging the shoe thing — my socks, I’m guessing, have holes the size of mousetraps — but PJ’s quick to fold so I ditch my shoes and my socks.
Lawrence then takes Holly by the hand and leads her into the house — the rest of us tagging along behind. We walk through the long hall and into the massive living room where Lawrence puts on the stereo. A ceiling fan hovers above the fully-stocked bar at the end of the room. Mounted on the wall is a flat-screen TV the size of PJ’s car. Behind the couches is a pool table and large rotating bookcase filled with books that appear to have never been read. Lawrence then shows Holly the connected dining room, where a series of large, abstract paintings are hung on the walls, each with its own fancy little light attached to the bottom of the frame. Behind the large wooden table and chairs is a life-sized statue of Ronald Reagan, smiling.
Most of us settle in the living room, on the most comfortable, poufy, white couches I’ve ever plopped down into. The heat from the automatic fireplace feels nice. Holly and Lawrence are standing near the poser bookcase, talking. I watch how he leans in close when he speaks to her. How he lights her cigarette inside the house and laughs whenever she laughs. The word “stalker” comes to mind, but she seems like she’s sort of into it, so I turn back to Holly’s friends who have plenty to say.
Girl 1: “Looks like someone has a little competition.”
Girl 2: “Did you hear what he said on the walk over? He wants to fly her to Paris over Thanksgiving weekend.”
Girl 1: “God, how romantic. Holly loves European fashion.”
Girl 2: “Some guys genuinely understand the way to a girl’s heart.”
Girl 3 (coming back from the bathroom): “What’d you guys just say about Paris?”
“Yo, I need everyone to back up a few steps,” PJ announces as he ducks behind the bar. “It’s about to get serious up in here.”
“Make whatever you want,” Lawrence shouts from behind the bookshelf.
“That’s the plan,” PJ calls back, pulling a vodka bottle off the mirrored shelf.
I get up and wander back into the dining area and stand in front of the largest of the abstract paintings. It’s full of reds and purples and takes up almost half the wall. It makes about as much sense to me as little-kid scribbles. Why is it that the richer people get, the shittier the art they hang on their walls?
In the reflection of the glass I spot Holly sneaking up behind me. She squeezes my hips and says: “Did I scare you?” I turn to look at her and she smiles.
“Oh, man, you did,” I say.
Lawrence is right beside her, puffing on a cigar. He moves up to the painting and tells Holly: “It’s a Sam Francis, this one. See the textures? The use of light? It’s organically similar in form to Clyfford Still. Echoes the atmospheric color veils of Mark Rothko.”
Lawrence tilts his head a little and guides a hand in front of the canvas. “I bought the piece in Barcelona for my great-aunt, but apparently Francis died right here in Santa Monica.”
Holly says: “I love the freedom of the abstracts. God, it’s absolutely refreshing.”
Lawrence says: “Yet controlled.” “Exactly.” Some people, they sound like this. Holly turns to me, wanting something, anything, so I tell her: “Last night, I took a pair of my old man’s clippers and trimmed the hair around my genitalia. I don’t know if you guys are aware of this, but more and more dudes are cleaning up downstairs.”
This is funny to Holly, and she bursts out laughing.
This isn’t funny to Lawrence, but he attempts to laugh a little, too. He pulls out his ChapStick again, uncaps it, smoothes it over his pale lips.
All of us turn around suddenly when a hunched, old white woman staggers out from the hall with the help of a walker. She’s half asleep and hideously thin. Stringy gray hair falling down stooped shoulders and a face so washed out it’s hard to make out her features.
“Lawrence!” she shouts in a hoarse voice. “What the hell is this!”
The girls are all frozen, staring at the woman.
PJ sets down a whiskey bottle and quietly steps away from the bar, out of sight.
“Auntie Marilyn,” Lawrence says. “I’m just having a few people over.” He seems less certain now. Like a kid caught sneaking a cookie.
“That’s just great!” she shouts. “It’s exactly how I wanted to spend my goddamn night!”
“But you said I could — ”
“Shut up, Lawrence!” She wipes a wrinkled hand down her face, then turns and looks directly at me.
I hold my breath and stare back, mesmerized by the disappointment I find in her eyes. It’s the same thing I see every night when my old man turns away from the TV long enough to look at me.
The woman shakes her head, then turns her back on us. We see the back of her robe and the red slippers shuffling along the floor. A door slams shut a few seconds later.
“That was my great-aunt,” Lawrence says, slipping his hands into his pockets and trying to maintain his grin. “She’s dying.”
The room goes quiet for several uncomfortable seconds.
This whole night, I realize, I’ve only been going through the motions. But the old woman’s presence has forced me awake. The thing I just said about my pubic hair, I wish I could take it back. I feel the heat of shame come rushing into my face. I picture my old man back home, hooked up to his oxygen machine and trying to sleep.
We sit in traffic, measuring movement by faces on billboards. We sit in coffee shops. We sit on the sand at the beach, waiting for the prettiest girl to get up from her towel and walk toward the water. We laugh with friends on nighttime cell phone minutes and meet up to watch emotional season finales. And all the while, people are dying in their lonely little rooms.
Not us. Not us. Lawrence breaks the silence by clapping his hands together. “Look, it’s a beautiful night,” he says. “Why don’t we move this party out underneath the stars? Who’s with me?”
We all just stare at him in silence.
He smiles and says: “Great, now who needs a drink?”
After we’ve been outside for an hour or so, Holly takes my hand and pulls me away from the patio where everyone’s sitting. She drags me past the Jacuzzi, past the redwood sauna, past the statue of a little boy pissing into a pond. We climb a ladder up to a tree house and she closes the door behind us.
“We shouldn’t have come back here,” I tell her. “Not with that lady.”
“Are you sure you’re 21?” she asks. “My friends think you look a lot younger.”
“She seemed like she might die any minute.”
“Speaking of young,” Holly says. “In seven months I’ll have a masters in cognitive psychology. I’m barely 22 years old. Do you know how insane that is?”
“We really need to leave,” I say, still shaken up by the glare I got from the old woman.
“Blah, blah, blah,” Holly says. “All you ever do is talk. Why aren’t you kissing me?” She pulls her sundress halfway up her thighs, points at herself and says: “If this body doesn’t turn you on, dude, it’s safe to say you’re playing for the wrong team.”
I have to admit, her legs do look pretty damn good. Toned as hell, like she’s a runner or something. And I haven’t cupped a female thigh since before Jasmine left for college. Damn. Sometimes I wonder if the female body is the inspiration behind every single advancement man has ever made.
Out of the corner of my eye I see Lawrence marching past our tree house, back through the sliding glass doors.
I place my hand on Holly’s leg, which is just as warm and soft as it looked, and I tell her: “Jesus, Holly.”
She slides my hand slowly toward the promised land, saying: “It only gets better, little boy.” Then she pulls my hand up to her mouth and softly kisses my fingers, one at a time.
I look into Holly’s glazed eyes, wondering if she’s sober enough to know what she’s doing. Don’t get me wrong, I’m far from a hero. I’m not trying to stop nobody. But why has she chosen to be in this tree house with me? Back at the bar, she seemed to genuinely single me out, but now I’m pretty sure I could be anyone. All she wants is a pair of hands on her smooth thighs, a pair of ears on her accomplishments. Or is it the same with all hookups? Strip away the music and the talk and the buzz and you’re left with two solitary people longing to be “seen.”
Just as Holly leans in to kiss me again, I spot Lawrence re-emerging from the house holding that damn sword out in front of him. Our eyes meet for a fraction of a second, then he makes a beeline toward the tree house.
I jump away from Holly, knocking my head against the low ceiling. The sudden movement brings back the pain from the stitches on my face. “What’s wrong with this guy?” I say, pulling her further into the tree house with me.
“What are you doing?” Holly asks, her eyes widening.
“Look at your boy.” I point at Lawrence right as he swings the sword at the thick tree holding us up. The blade gets lodged in the bark.
“Oh my God!” Holly shouts, wrapping her thin arms around me.
We both stand there, slightly hunched over, watching Lawrence as he tries to pry the blade out of the tree. But he can’t do it.
“Get away from here!” Holly’s voice is frantic now.
Lawrence looks up at us, still grinning, then goes back to work on the sword.
“You heard me!” Holly yells. “Go!”
“I just want to talk to you, Holly.” He finally gets the sword loose and holds it by his side, looking up at us. “Why won’t you talk to me?”
“Back off with the sword,” I tell him. “The shit’s not funny, man.”
“What, this?” Lawrence says, running his fingers along the blade.
I hear the faint sound of a police siren in the distance.
Lawrence swings the sword at the bottom of the tree house this time, jarring me and Holly. “I just want to talk,” he pleads, trying to, once again, pry the thing out of the wood. “We have so much in common. You said so yourself.”
I see that PJ’s already on his way over. The other girls are screaming and holding one another. They’re calling out to Holly and she’s crying and calling back to them.
My heart’s thumping inside my chest.
PJ pulls Lawrence off the sword, whips Lawrence’s right arm behind his back and pushes him against the tree below us. “You need to chill out,” PJ says in a low, serious voice. “You hear me? Just chill out.”
“Exactly,” I say, leaning out the tree house window so I can see them better.
Lawrence starts making strange grunting sounds as he tries to look up at us, but PJ keeps his head mashed up against the tree.
“Oh, my God, oh, my God,” Holly repeats in my ear. After a few seconds, she sits down and looks up at me, wiping tears from her eyes. “Don’t leave me, Shy. You won’t leave me, will you?”
Before I can answer, Lawrence’s aunt sticks her head out of the sliding glass doors and shouts: “I called the cops, you bastards! Now get off of my property!”
Lawrence manages to turn his head enough to see her: “But Auntie Marilyn,” he pleads.
“Everyone!” she shouts. “Including you, Lawrence!” She gives us all a look of disgust before turning and shuffling back inside.
Holly stands up, then thinks better of it and sits back down.
Her friends are all grabbing their bags and hurrying toward the house.
“You cool?” PJ asks Lawrence, smashing his head against the tree again. “Huh? You gonna be cool if I let you go?”
“I’m cool,” Lawrence mumbles. The siren sounds much closer now. PJ lets him go and Lawrence stretches out the arm
PJ had pinned behind his back. He looks up at me, says: “I’m cool, I promise.” Then he turns to PJ. “Look, we really need to get out of here. Now. She’s called the cops on me before.”
“Let’s go, Shy,” PJ calls up to me.
Once Lawrence starts toward the house, I help Holly to her feet, then guide her to the ladder. I hop down behind her and stare at the sword still stuck in the tree house — definitely not what I envisioned for the night.
The siren sound gets even louder by the time me, PJ and Holly have moved through the house and out the open front door. Lawrence’s aunt is standing on the front porch with a cell phone pinned to her ear, shouting at us: “Go on, get out of here! Leave me in peace!”
I have the urge to apologize to her for coming over, and everything else, but I keep my mouth shut.
Everyone’s putting their shoes back on in silence, everyone except Lawrence, who comes up to me and PJ and says: “I get carried away sometimes. No hard feelings, right?” He holds out his hand to me and PJ. When neither of us take it, he shrugs and grins and turns back to the girls. A cop car comes creeping around the corner and pulls to the curb across the street, its lights now flashing without sound. The cop steps halfway out of the car and says something into his radio.
“Cut through the alley behind the house,” Lawrence says. “I’ll talk to the police.” He starts down the driveway.
PJ motions to me, Holly, and the girls and we slip out of sight along the side of the house, start running toward the back alley. But I stop suddenly and watch them go.
PJ turns around, shouts: “Come on, kid! Let’s move!”
“I gotta get my socks!” I shout back. He waves me off and continues on, ducking into the alley with the girls. I creep back toward the porch. Lawrence is talking to the two cops down by the squad car. I climb the porch stairs, scoop up my socks, and look up into the glare of Lawrence’s aunt. Her face goes sour and she says: “You need to get out of here. I’ll tell them to arrest you.”
“My dad’s sick, too,” I tell her.
She stares at me for a few long seconds and says: “You heard me. Get out of here.” She starts rubbing her temples, like she’s trying to calm herself down or something.
“He doesn’t have much time,” I tell her. “Go,” she says under her breath. I stand at the edge of the porch, staring at her.
Because this is what the world is really like. People should be here to see it.
Without thinking about what I’m doing, I take a few slow steps forward and reach out and hold my hand over her thin shoulder, her whole body now trembling.
“I’m sorry,” I tell her.
The words I’ve never been able to say to my old man.
“I’m so sorry,” I say again.
And I lower my right hand onto her shoulder and touch her, the way I’ve never been able to touch my old man. We continue staring at each other. Me and this woman. Her eyes full of fear and mine full of remorse. Then the cop yells up at us: “Hey!”
Before he can even push off of his squad car, I’m racing along the side of the house, over a fence and through someone’s yard, clutching my socks, one in each hand. I pop out onto an unfamiliar street and keep running, though there’s no sign of PJ or the girls.
The sky is just starting to show morning. My head’s fuzzy from the alcohol. From the throbbing pain around my stitches. From the feeling of the old lady’s brittle shoulder under my hand and my old man sitting in front of the TV trying to breathe and the sound of Jasmine’s perfect voice on the phone. I feel like any second I might run myself off the road, into a ditch, where I’ll be lost forever. But I don’t stop running.
I won’t ever stop running.
About the Author
Matt de la Peña is the author of five critically-acclaimed young adult novels, including Mexican White Boy and The Living. Matt received his MFA in creative writing from San Diego State University and his BA from the University of the Pacific, where he attended school on a full athletic scholarship for basketball. de la Peña currently lives in Brooklyn, NY. He teaches creative writing and visits high schools and colleges throughout the country.
About the Guest Editor
One Teen Story is a literary magazine for young adult readers of every age. Each issue features one amazing short story about the teen experience. We publish 9 monthly issues from September to May. Eight of these stories are written by top young adult authors. The final story of the year showcases the winner of our One Teen Story Contest, open to writers ages 14–19.
“Passing Each Other in Halls” originally appeared in One Teen Story and is reprinted by permission of the author. © Copyright 2013 Matt de la Peña. All rights reserved by the author.