I’d never seen anyone smoking American Spirits before. She didn’t hide them either. Most kids would walk around the back of the basketball courts to where the old tetherball poles rose out of the cracked, crumbled cement. The spot was shielded from Eight Street to the west, and the open end gave way only to the white, brick, windowless wall of the middle school. Her nails weren’t painted. Katherine’s nails were always painted and I hated it. It made her look older or dirtier. It was too much against the simple, beautiful things she was made of. “I’m Erin,” the smoking girl said, taking a drag and letting the smoke ooze out of her lips before pushing it into the whipping wind where it was crumpled, tossed, destroyed. She didn’t seem worried at all about the cherry catching her hair; I would have worried about that. She held the cigarette between her middle finger and thumb as the cherry got lower. When she finished, she flicked it halfway onto the empty court behind her. It scooted around in small, uneven circles, still smoldering. The wind played with it. It rolled the way a baseball bat rolls. She looked up at me from her Indian-style position on the pavement, squinting into the sun, giving no sign of an impending smile or hand shake.
“You don’t meet a lot of Simons.” I didn’t know what to say. I’d heard it before. “Smoke?”
“I’m alright, thanks.”
“But do you smoke?”
“I bet you don’t.” She was always doing that. She lowered her hand and the sun lit her face. She reached over to pick up the cigarette pack and patted at her left pocket with her left hand. Her lighter must have been there. She was always using a different lighter, and I never knew how she got them. I never saw her buy one. They were always Bic’s, and always the bigger ones. She’d peel the little warning label off in one smooth, slow motion and then press the gooey residue away with her right thumbnail, holding the thing one-handed. I bounced the ball to make some kind of noise. “You live around here?” she asked as she stood up. She tugged at the bottom of her tank top with her free hand before using the same hand to brush off her butt and lower back. She pulled out another cigarette. When she turned to place the pack on the ground behind her, I could see the small flecks of gravel and dirt stuck against the tan, firm skin of her thighs. There was a small upside-down V above each of her knees made by the muscles held behind her skin.
“Yeah,” I said, nodding in the direction of the large blue house on the corner, which shielded my much smaller one.
“Me too. My parents just moved from back in the Valley.” I’d never heard anyone talk like that. “They think this’ll be better. Or they say that at least.” Behind her, I watched Mr. Gonzales come out the front of his place across from the large blue house. His head lowered as he leaned forward to spit into the dirt in the small unkept patch of landscaping outside his front door. He looked around, rubbed his rounded belly with both hands, patted himself there twice and then seemed to relax. His body slumped forward and he regained his usual look before padding barefoot back into the house. I felt her eyes on me again. I wondered for a second where they’d gone.
“Not sure why I said that. You’re really tall.”
“How tall are you?”
“Um, about six—.”
“Wait, wait, let me guess.” She used her free hand to cut me off, waving her palm’s bright whiteness in the early afternoon sun. She lowered the hand and took a drag from the cigarette in the other. She was staring at me. She took two steps to one side. She stopped and craned her neck like she was trying to look behind me. She took several steps the other way and repeated the gesture. “You, Simon, are six-foot-four.” I liked the way she said my name. It sounded longer, deliberate, alive.
“You look shorter than that.”
“You just guessed six four.”
“Yeah, but I had a lot of factors to consider. Those are big shoes, and I figured you were kind of strong so you look shorter than you really are.” I’d never heard a girl call me strong before. Katherine called me handsome. “Are you sure you’re not six four?” I shrugged. I bounced the ball again. “Well, are you going to shoot or what?”
“I was waiting for a couple friends. I live closer so—.”
“I’ll play you in horse.” I was a terrible shooter. Every gym teacher and friend of my parents that I’d ever met asked me if I played basketball. Anyone who’d ever seen me play wouldn’t make that mistake. I must have turned red in the face. “Come on. You play with girls right?” My stomach floated. I liked the way she said that.
“Yeah. We can play.” I tried to smile. I think it worked. She smiled. Her teeth were bright white. She wore a small hair tie on the wrist of her left arm, which she took off with her teeth. She held it in her right hand and took her last few puffs the way my dad finishes his second beer at a restaurant even if the check was paid and everyone was waiting to leave. She did the middle finger, thumb thing again and flicked it high into the air this time. The cherry exploded on the ground. I dribbled a few times toward the basket and then looked back at her. She held out both hands and bent her knees slightly. She smiled again. I bounced the ball gently right to her. She wore flip flops. Her legs and arms were the same light brown color. It looked like my mom’s doctored-up coffee. She slid the ball between her knees and held it there as she tied her hair back. Her cheeks were round and soft. I’m sure in the years since, all the woman has pushed through, but she was still very much a girl then. Her ears were small, and with the sun on her face I could see the peach-fuzz where a boy’s sideburn would be. She looked down as she pulled the ponytail tight. When she looked back up—the ball back in both hands—a few strands of hair fell out from the tie and floated together to become a backward comma against the right side of her face. Mr. Gonzales backed the Caravan out of the garage. She kicked off the flip flops. I could hear the door opening from across the soccer field between us. Mrs. G. came out in an apron to hand him something through the driver’s side window, which he rolled only part of the way down.
She didn’t shoot like a girl. She had that forward lean—just enough to get behind the ball—but she didn’t kick a leg back or shoot with both hands. She had spun the ball in both hands, squeezed it to test its firmness, and then without a dribble, she had pulled up from beyond three and left it just off the front of the rim. I expected her to smile or raise an eyebrow, but when I finally caught her eyes, she looked pissed. “Your shot,” she said. I walked to the foul line and took a few dribbles. “Pussy.”
“You’re starting there?” I shook my head left to right and tried to fight the smile I couldn’t even weaken. I felt her eyes on me again. I bent at the knees and let a soft shot go. It spiraled backwards, just as it was supposed to, before clanking off the back of the rim and the right side of the backboard at the same time. I started to move toward the ball and then froze as I felt her behind me. She moved as if she’d anticipated the miss. The ball bounced once before she collected it with her right hand at the peak of its arch. She brought it together between both hands with a smacking sound. Mr. G. waved as he passed. I returned the wave. She didn’t even take a step before pulling up and draining her shot. The net bounced the ball right back to her. She caught it in her left hand against her body and then held it out for me. I couldn’t help but match her smile. “I wouldn’t be smiling if I were you.”
“You can’t lose to a girl. Especially the new girl.”
“I can lose to just about anyone.” She laughed. I blushed. I pulled up and banked it off the backboard and in. “H.”
“You made it.”
“I didn’t call ‘bank’.”
“Weird.” She dribbled this time, right hand to left and back again in a staggered rhythm. She walked past closely. Where I’d expected to find smoke or sweat or something unknown, I smelled sweetness, spring. It was her mom’s laundry sheets, but I didn’t know that yet. The sleeve of my t-shirt flapped with what I thought was a brushing of her shoulder against my arm, but it kept flapping—the wind. “I played, you know.”
“I gathered that.”
“I mean just as a kid. I don’t play now. My dad taught me. We used to have a hoop over the garage.”
“You’re good.” I felt completely incapable of saying anything that could excite this girl. She pulled up from behind me almost at half court. The ball went sideways off the far side of the rim. I took off quickly. Balls that left that side of the court could roll for a while. I smelled her as she passed. Before I could think, she was flipping the ball toward me as if she were saving a live ball from going into the seats.
“My bad,” she said, jogging back a few steps toward me. “I haven’t shot in a while.” I called bank this time and air-balled it from three. I could feel my face burning. She let the ball come to rest below the hoop. I went to go pick it up and she kicked my trailing right foot, which caused me to kick myself in the back of the left calf. I nearly face planted. “Shit,” she said loudly. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine.” Everything had gone white-noise and blurry. The scene steadied quickly.
“No it’s not. That’s not fine. I was just trying to mess around. I don’t even know you. Jesus. Shit. I’m sorry. I can’t believe I did that.” She was talking more to herself than to me.
“Really, it’s fine. I’m fine.”
“I’m awful. We can stop. I can leave if you—.”
“No.” I said it so fast I didn’t know how strong it was going land. It exploded on impact. Only the wind could be heard. My shirt sleeves flapped. She showed her brilliantly white teeth again and then shielded them, but she couldn’t hold it at bay. Her smile leveled me. Her laughter lightened me. I bent down and rested my hands above my knees, laughing. “Sorry.” She laughed harder.
“I trip you—on purpose—and you’re apologizing?”
“I’m sorry for yelling at you.”
“Simon, that was not yelling.”
“Well, whatever. I didn’t mean to blurt it out.”
“You’re a weird guy.” I could feel my shoulders folding in toward my chest. “I like it,” she added. I could hear Zach and Stew: two basketballs bouncing up Eighth. She jogged to the ball and bent to pick it up, exposing the slim horizon of white panties above her belt-less waist. When she straightened back up she tugged up on her khaki shorts and then down on her shirt again. She looked at me with her eyes, though her head was still slightly dropped. It came off as bashful, concealing. It was out of context—out of character for this ten-minute-old person who was materializing before my eyes.
“My friends are coming.”
“We can stop,” she said, shooting the ball from the wing. It swished and the net sent it right back again.
“I don’t want to.” I was feeling brave. She turned red. It was the only color I’d seen in her face. It made her look even tanner. Warmer somehow. She smiled, but she quickly interrupted the upturning at the corners of her mouth with her own words.
“I have a feeling we’ll be spending some time on the court,” she said. She giggled. “We need to get your shot in shape.”
“Either that or you can spend all summer getting beat by a girl.” Nothing sounded better at that moment.
“We hang out here.” I felt like an eight-year-old showing my babysitter around. “At night, I mean, we usually get together around here.”
“Um.” I thought of Katherine. The night before we had shared a blanket on the porch outside her living room while her parents watched X-Files inside. She was so soft in my hands. I smelled her in the morning as I brushed my teeth. “There are like six or seven. Me, Stew and Zach.” I nodded toward the sounds of dribbling and laughter approaching unseen from behind the court. “Katherine, Kelly and some other neighborhood people.”
“Right. Yeah. Maybe I’ll come by tonight?”
“We’ll be here.” I had talked to no one about this. She dribbled a few times and picked up the ball. She squeezed it again. She shot me a pass. I fumbled when it caught my left ring finger straight, but I wrangled it and held the wince in.
“Don’t tell anyone.”
“I don’t know. Don’t tell anyone that a new girl is coming or anything, OK? I’ll probably be here. I’ll come, but—.”
“Yeah. No problem. I’ll introduce you around when you get here.”
“Cool.” She bent over again, and again her panties winked. Another tug at her shirt as she pulled a fresh cigarette out with her teeth. She patted at the lighter before pulling it out. It was blue, like her tank top. Her white bra strap slid off her left shoulder as she put the lighter back into her pocket. She smiled, exhaled and began to walk away. She was strong and lean. Her shorts held my eyes. I turned when I heard a shot go off the rim behind me. Zach smacked Stew in the ass and ran by him, launching his own loose, off-balance skyhook as he jogged toward me.
“Who’s that?” I tried to think of something. Her name kept jumping to mind.
“I mean I don’t know.” He stood close—too close—in that way he always did. His toes nearly touched mine. He looked into my eyes as I tried to look past him. His head moved from side to side. He finally relaxed back on his heels but he kept looking up at me.
“OK?” I tried to sound sarcastic, mocking.
“I know you’re lying, but I don’t know why yet, so, OK.” He smiled. He shrugged and then turned on one heel to meet a bounce pass from Stew intended for either of us. We were bad. Zach missed the entire basket, clearing the top of the backboard on the first shot. He didn’t hesitate for a second before taking off in a dead sprint for the ball. Stew tore off after him. They met in the grass of the soccer field six feet before the ball. Stew connected with Zach’s midsection and they pitched to the left, falling with an audible, “humph.” Mr. G. honked as he came back toward his house. His garage door roared to life again. I turned to look left over my shoulder for the blue tank top and the khaki shorts, but she was out of sight around a corner. I wondered where she lived. I picked up my ball and drained a shot from the left elbow. The ball came straight down and the bouncing noises grew more and more rapid until they stopped all together. The ball hung on the edge of the pavement just off the grass. The wind pushed it over.
go to part two here.
go to part three here.