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Chiara, Chiara

By Anna Farro Henderson
Terrain.org 13th Annual Contest in Fiction Winner

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Anything is cool if you are fully in. One hundred percent. If you’ve got it, flaunt it. I pull clothes from dumpsters or make them from duct tape.

 
Tyler and I are the kind of virgins who shower together. Everything but. I want to. I almost told The Girlfriends we did it to break the tension of the when-will-she-sleep-with-Tyler storyline. But the story ended three weeks ago when he left for college. My life has been a desert island ever since. Welcome to my senior year of high school.

It’s the first big parents-out-of-town party of the fall. Kids overflow onto the lawn. They take over every corner and bed in the house. I’m looking for the keg with Sara when someone yells, “Whore!” It takes a moment to realize the kid is talking to me. I recognize him as a friend of Tyler’s brother.

“I heard you two did it,” he jeers.

Sara loops her arm into mine. “Excuse me,” she says. “You are blocking my way.” We push past him to go into the kitchen. A makeshift bar covers the stovetop. While all The Girlfriends are best friends, Sara and I have known each other since kindergarten. We became friends when she gave me her extra change of clothes. I had peed my pants and didn’t know what to do. Sara comes from the kind of home where they send you into the world with backup supplies.

Sara pushes empty beer cans to one end of the counter and starts mixing cocktails with the available materials. I check out the fridge door with its farmers market schedule, flyer for an art crawl, exercise goals, and our school cafeteria menu. I’m fascinated. The fridge at my house is a mess of information about my uncle’s dialysis, his parole officer’s number, expired coupons, and a note to me that I can microwave whatever frozen food for dinner. I come from the kind of home that operates best under emergency situations. I think the two years my parents split up resulted from a lull in drama. The situation fixed itself when my uncle got out of prison and needed a place to land.

“That kid was an asshole,” I say. Sara shrugs. She doesn’t make judgements of right or wrong. Her curiosity can be disarming.

“I call this drink, Wild Tiger,” she says, handing me a bright green concoction that smells of mint and grapes.

“Cool,” I say, cringing and sipping. The heat fills my chest and makes my fingers tingle.

Why do I feel shame at being called both a virgin and a whore?

Coolness for us is living in bold capital letters. The Girlfriends drink and smoke and black out and climb over walls and into backseats and then we tell each other about it. It’s cool to wear glasses. It’s cool to be fat. It’s cool to walk with a cane. It’s cool to have bad hair. Anything is cool if you are fully in. One hundred percent. If you’ve got it, flaunt it. I wear metallic eyeliner. I pull clothes from dumpsters or make them from duct tape. The more leather, vinyl, wings, massive cleavage, asymmetry, the more I feel like I’m sinking into the embrace of a plush couch. When we learned about “hypotheses” in science class, I laughed. Exactly, every day a new costume.

You might not think Tyler was cool at first glance. A boy who likes girls and wears jeans and t-shirts that tell you nothing about him. But he is all in. His thing is birds. Really, bird songs. He records them and writes them out in math equations. I know music is math, like knitting and heartbeats are math. But he can translate a sound in the forest (or the garbage dump) into symbols and numbers.

Cocktail in hand, Sara and I join head bangers in the living room. We chug our drinks to free ourselves for dancing. I want to kick the floral print on the couches. I can’t stop seeing the heckler out of the corner of my eye. Why do I feel shame at being called both a virgin and a whore?

When Sara drops me off, she waits until I’m at my front door and hold up my key before she drives off. I wait until she is gone to slump onto the front steps. Silence charges through my ears, a wave advancing and receding.

The truth is, if Tyler and I have sex, I will no longer be able to hold back from calling him. Expecting him to call me. For there to be an in and out breathe between us. I would want to be introduced to his college friends—as his girlfriend. When I imagine this, I feel equal measures of warmth and panic. I don’t trust that my heart is not insatiable: a black hole. Love, an angry open-mouth scream.

Tyler’s dream is to crack the code of how songs are passed from one generation of birds to the next. Is the music taught? And what happens to birds with shitty parents or depressed parents? The baby birds left behind, how do they learn? He believes we carry that kind of math in our cells. He comes from a nice family: father a minister, mother an engineer. They eat dinner together on ceramic plates. I don’t ask if he knows that relying on the math in our cells means carrying home on my back like a snail. Home, a concept much like a pile of sand. One that always caves in.

Not ready for bed, I turn on my phone and pull up her livestream. The Reader, a woman in Italy, has become a habit. I found her in a late-night Reddit chat that started with Mukbang videos where you watch people eat.

A halo of light shines up at me. She’s on the roof of a house. Balanced on the slightly slanted surface, knees up, book propped open in her lap, she hunches over. Dark hair falls over her face so that I only see a bit of forehead and her long sharp nose. One hand rests on the book. The other strokes orange ceramic tiles. I search for bark under her fingernails, did she climb a tree to get up there? Or did she climb out a window? The book is slim. Her lips move as she reads. Poetry, I say out loud, proud to solve the puzzle. My mouth waters watching her taste the shape of words. She strokes her neck and traces the line of her collar bone. Sexy poetry?

Words scroll across the screen: Leggi Con Me. The credits roll. I know she has hundreds—or millions—of viewers, but I am certain none of them appreciate her as much as I do. I’ve deflected my impulse to text Tyler. If I can’t sleep, I can watch The Reader. If not livestream, she has archives.

The next weekend I have a Friday night waitressing shift. I’ve been begging for weekends when tips are double. I’m in another kind of costume—no makeup, hair pulled back in a French braid, black pants and an ironed white button-up shirt. The start of a shift is like the moments before the referee blows the whistle in a soccer game. When my phone pings, I am racing to fold napkins into lotus flowers. 

4:45 p.m. Tyler: Just pulled into town. Wanna chill and grill? My parents are out this weekend. 

I slip the phone into my apron pocket. Without making eye contact, I slice my way through the dining room, into the kitchen, and pull open the door to the walk-in-fridge. Leaning my head against a wheel of parmesan, I take comfort in its funky smell. Tyler coming to town, wanting to see me, this is what I want. But couldn’t he have let me know ahead? I don’t know what to do. Diners will start as a trickle, but in an hour the restaurant will overflow in a line out the door.

The Reader sits in a field of sunflowers. Petals drip buttery light. Her dark skin and hair glow. At first glance it’s idyllic, but then I realize she’s sitting on dry clumps of dirt surrounded by hairy stalks under a hot sun. It makes me itch. Despite the cool of the fridge, I wipe sweat from my forehead. I take a breath and make up my mind. I’ve always been quick on my feet with a lie.

He doesn’t ask what I had been up to. We grill and laugh and make out until our lips are numb and our hands ache. I rest my head on his bare chest. We are on the smooth wood floor of his father’s meditation room. His dad writes sermons here with the windows open, even in winter, looking out over the tree-filled neighborhood.

Tyler suggests that we find a party. “What if we read aloud to each other?” I ask. I think he has fallen asleep because he doesn’t respond. “Just kidding!” I say. We drive to the river and swim, shrieking with the October chill. When we get in bed, he falls asleep instantly. I try not to fidget. I pull out my phone, click the sound off.

The Reader lays on her stomach. The bed is not made, and she seems unaware of the splayed magazines under her. She is deep in her book, her body left behind. I nod with approval. That is the game we are in, I think, the game of escape.

Tyler comes weekly for a while. I develop a “migraine” problem at work. Then he doesn’t call for a month. I want to stick my head in his shirt and ask if it is over. In the safety between cotton and torso—his Old Spice, sweat, and blue raspberry candy smell—I could handle finding out he has a girlfriend at college. 

One shift, a cute waiter and I run into the furnace room to eat a piece of cake. Drunk on the chocolate’s bitter tang, I kiss him. This becomes routine.

The camera tilts. I see pink and white cobblestones, and then it goes dark.

Tyler is home for a month at Christmas. I create adventures and games that send him back to college with a romcom montage. He leaves me with dreams of his green-brown eyes. The way he bites his tongue as he lays out the kindling for a bonfire.

The Girlfriends tell me it’s so obvious we’re in love. They tell me to apply to his college. To fuck him. But I’m not a great student and he goes to an elite school. How can anyone focus on textbooks when we are in the midst of a burning acidifying mass extinction? Us Girlfriends are nerdy about clitorises, the lineage of Marvel heroes, and organizing school walkouts. We don’t study.

I ask the cute waiter to take my table for a moment. He assumes I need a smoke. I stand in the dark alleyway. The Reader is in a piazza. Vespas snap through the frame. Old women clutch bags overflowing with the feathery tops of fennel and carrots. A voice calls, “Chiara!” The Reader looks up. Her eyes wide. The smile of expectation, and then she is talking fast—I’ve never seen her like this. It reminds me of coming up from the bottom of a pool and breaking through the surface of the water. The automatic movement toward air and the explosion on the calm surface. The camera tilts. I see pink and white cobble stones, and then it goes dark.

Chiara, Chiara. I look up her name. It means clarity. What if I am clear on where I should go when I graduate? Come, read with me.

I walk into the brick building that smells of paper and dust. I know rationally that my neighborhood library is much smaller than a mall or movie theatre, but it feels giant. I imagine thick roots growing out of the basement and into the cold clay soils of the ancient lake that came after the glaciers melted and before our town was built. This feeling almost makes me want to read. I’ve come to find out if I get that feeling just from watching her, or if I get that feeling watching anyone read. 

I’m self-conscious. I expect to be called out for not having returned Hatchet in third grade. I’m not sure if it was knowing my fine was getting larger and larger or the story, itself, that caused the nightmares. Falling toward the ground in an airplane. Diving into a cold lake to rescue someone already dead. Biting into raw meat with tufts of fur. I still have those dreams sometimes.

I pretend to browse a shelf of history books. I watch an older man scan the newspaper, a mother read aloud to a sleeping child, two boys share a graphic novel. Something wells up in me. It’s like the moon is in my throat, full and rising. In my head I say, I love you, I love you, I love you.

“Are you looking for something?” a voice asks from behind. I jump. The librarian smells of paper, dust, and roses. Her braid comes over her shoulder and hangs down her chest. A question spins round and round in my head. Why is it so easy to love strangers and so painful to love people I know?

I mumble thanks, and say I know my way around.

I find a women’s magazine that tells me I will know I am ready to sleep with a man when I can tell him what I want in bed. Just the word “bed” conjures my parents’ house. I think of sex in baseball fields, the forest along the river, a car. Anywhere but a bedroom. Maybe a shower.

The camera is zoomed way out, and, for a moment, I can’t find The Reader. I have a couple hours before school. Waking up before dawn is a habit I would like to kick. “Chiara?” I whisper in prayer. The ruins of the amphitheater are beautiful, but not what I’ve come for. Long slow clouds stretch, break, and reform in the blue sky. It’s her sneeze that alerts me—the slight arch of her back. She lays on mossy green steps about halfway up the amphitheater. What do you read in such an ancient place? I lay back, head turned to watch her. I imagine the moss, velvet with some scratch, and the cool of rock below. Do the rocks whisper? Or do they speak through telepathy?

You mean to tell me that sexy is just feeling alive?

I close out my last table. I don’t go to the furnace room and make out with the cute waiter. The Girlfriends are having a sleepover, staying up all night to binge Broad City. I’m half asleep before I arrive. They’re in a basement nest of blankets and pillows. They click the TV off a few minutes after I flop onto a bean bag.

“So?” They ask.

“So?” I say.

“Did you do it?” It is a question, but also a statement. This is a staged intervention. The collective wisdom of the group is absolute. There are correct answers. I deflect with a story about an older man leaving me a hundred percent tip and his business card. I’d thrown the card out, and I wonder now what it said. “Maybe he just wanted someone to know he paints houses, or he is a state senator, or a patent lawyer,” Sara says. Maybe his card is a kind of costume, a hypothesis.

I wake with the deep blue that comes before dawn. I take my friend’s dog for a walk. My mom hates dogs. Hates all animals. Sometimes I go to friends’ houses just for their pets. This dog likes to lean into me. I have to adjust my balance to not fall over. I knot my fingers into his butterscotch fur and take out my phone. She holds the book far from her face as if the words might cut her. Lips purse, brows furrow, she views the scene in the book as if she were god with enough perspective to see that the characters are not flawed or unreliable. They are lost. Utterly alone.

Sara and I walk home after breakfast. She is worried about her older brother. A few years ago, he broke his back skiing and was paralyzed. What if he is suicidal? Her mom is insanely smiley as if she can force everything to be okay. I don’t say things will get better. I know the loneliest feeling is when someone offers a fix. Like it tarnishes them for you to be unhappy.

She asks if I am okay. I tell her about The Reader. She doesn’t turn it into a joke. She gets what it is like to hurt. She asks for the link. I hesitate, worried that if The Reader looks up and makes eye contact, real eye contact, like she can see through the camera and into the screen of a viewer, as I have imagined so many times, she might see Sara instead of me. I weigh this against The Reader needing views. I want Sara to have solace, too. I text her the link.

“The thing about sleeping with Tyler, besides that he isn’t my boyfriend, has his own college life, and doesn’t make plans—”

“Aside from all that,” she says. The side of her mouth turns up.

“Aside from that,” I say, smiling. “It’s that sex is supposed to be hot, and well, sexy.” She takes my hand as if she knows that while the thoughts in my head are clear, I can’t get them to form in my mouth. “When Tyler and I are intimate—” another false start. I sound like our health teacher.

I try again, “It feels good when he touches me. It’s not that I’m not turned on. Just that what is driving me, what I’m looking for—Basically, to me, all this getting off is really just an excuse. It’s like snuggling times a thousand. My body just wants to feel safe. Like pleasure is there, but it’s back burner. What I’m really getting off on is being held. And maybe sex is not the place to go looking for safety.”

“Sweetie,” she says. She squeezes my hand. We walk in silence for several minutes. She knows a good listener doesn’t trap you in eye contact. “Forget The Girlfriends. Forget Romeo and Juliet. Sex isn’t one thing. Sex is the Joker Card. A ten is always a ten. A Queen always a queen. But a joker is assigned meaning by the context or a player. For some people sex is proof of status or making babies or wielding power. Your joker card, right now, is safety.”

“That is not a very sexy joker.”

“Are you saying your own needs don’t matter?” she asks.

“I want to be a sex queen,” I say.

“Sexy is whatever makes you feel your body in space. It is what makes you feel connected to the sky and trees and every living thing.”

“You mean to tell me that sexy is just feeling alive?”

She shrugs. That warm glow of the little moon inside me fills and fills until I think I might burst. Shivers run up and down my arms. We’re still holding hands and somehow she knows what I am about to do. We run faster and faster, pulling each other forward. I feel good, but I’m not convinced that what I feel is sexy.

When I see The Reader with friends, I feel betrayed. Apple and orange slices bob in bowls and giant cooking pots of sangria. The camera doesn’t focus on her. It is like Where’s Waldo. I find her sitting at the edge of a long table amidst the white tiled walls, open cupboards, ash trays, beer bottles, and people doing spontaneous dance steps.

One thing I love about The Reader is that she always wears the same thing—not literally the exact same thing, but it could be. It’s like she grabbed whatever cotton shirt from a drawer. Like she owns nothing but brown corduroys.

Reading at a party, she is like a ghost. Uninterested in the laughing, card playing, kissing crowd, she haunts the kitchen. Then I understand this scene is not a message of her being too busy for me, but of how alone she feels.

I make up my mind to lose my virginity with the waiter in a nonchalant way. Slip the knot. After closing out, I swap work clothes that smell of salad bar and French fries for a blue wig and a skirt I made from caution tape blowing down my street. The cute waiter and I are in the restaurant’s empty ballroom. We have a bottle of Campari. He says he wants me—tells me all the things he has dreamt of doing with me. It could be a study guide for an anatomy exam.

Following the advice of the women’s magazine, I say, “I want to feel your naked body against me while I sleep.” He laughs. I laugh. His hands are clammy against my back. He smells like kitchen grease. Suddenly, I need fresh air. To go. His tongue is too big. And, the truth is, I’d rather be watching The Reader. I tell him I have a migraine and go home, caution skirt intact.

Does she turn me on? Watching her something bounces in my stomach, chest, and up my back. Once she read in a piazza on the edge of a fountain that splashed the pages of her book. Someone handed her a coffee. I savored her lips on the ceramic edge, sipping and blowing. But I think what I feel is more like admiration. Someone to look up to. I want to be like her. To not need spectacle to feel real.

I am certain that even naked with Tyler I am still in costume.

Tyler calls ahead for Valentine’s Day. “See!” the Girlfriends say. I arrange to not work. I lay out the red dress I bought at a vintage store and get in the shower. Tonight will be the night. I am certain that even naked with Tyler I am still in costume. If we have sex, which we will, will it really be me losing my virginity?

It’s warm for February, and I let myself air dry. The Reader lays on her stomach. Blades of grass loom like skyscrapers. Silvery olive trees blur in the background. I wonder if she feels like the grass is trying to hold her down while the ants eat her alive? Or is it a bed of silk?

“Chiara,” I whisper. And I swear she smiles, skin crinkling around her eyes. I pick up the book I used as a backdrop for an Instagram post of my earrings—dangling sheets of fake diamonds that swoosh against my shoulders. The book is a hardcover, red and worn. I open it to find the title: Emma by Jane Austen. I’ve seen the movie, hadn’t realized it was a book. I lay on my stomach, naked.

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

The phone rings. I hit ignore without looking. A message pings. I turn the ringer off.

A while later I hear a car stop outside. Footsteps crunch the snow. A crashing noise brings to mind the hose left out since autumn. I’m sure mom and dad are watching TV. My uncle is in his room. I live in the kind of home where we know better than to answer the door. The footsteps go away. The car starts up.

All night we alternate between laying down and sitting up. It is daytime in Italy. The Reader laughs and cries, but mostly she is still. I laugh a little, gasp, clutch at my heart a few times. I look down at my hair, dry now, falling across my bare chest. I shimmy my shoulders and my nipples sway and dance, red gems bounce, and this is all the bling I need.

 

 

Judge Kali Fajardo-Anstine says...
“Chiara, Chiara” is a marvelously voice-driven short story about self discovery, early relationships, and the highs and lows of being a young adult who is fully present in the wilderness of life. Timeless in its humor and wit, this deeply observational short story simultaneously feels urgent and new. The narrator says it best herself: “It reminds me of coming up from the bottom of a pool and breaking through the surface of the water.” What a stunning voice and story. I miss spending time with the narrator already.

 

Anna Farro HendersonAnna Farro Henderson (previously published under E.A. Farro) has a book of essays forthcoming in 2024 about being a climate scientist and going to work in politics. She teaches creative writing at The Loft Literary Center and lives near the Mississippi River with her family in Minnesota.

Read Anna Farro Henderson’s “Out Stealing Flowers”, also published in Terrain.org.

Header photo by Orbastock, courtesy Shutterstock.

Terrain.org is the first online literary journal of place, publishing award-winning literature, art, editorials, and community case studies since 1998.