About the Author
Nova Ren Suma was a fellow in fiction with the New York Foundation for the Arts and received an MFA in fiction from Columbia University. She is the author of Imaginary Girls and she lives in New York. Find out more at novaren.com or follow her on Twitter at @novaren.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
What Would Rita Hayworth Do?
A slow fade-in on my life:
There’s this little mountain town, smack between two long highways that go nowhere in either direction. There’s the one supermarket, the one movie theater, the one Chinese restaurant. But there are twelve different places to buy junk for your lawn.
It’s summer, so the days are longer than you can stand. If you want air-conditioning, walk to the convenience store on the corner and take your time searching for an ice pop.
There’s this girl. She’s thirteen, but if I say she’s going on fourteen it might sound better. She’s nobody really. You probably wouldn’t notice her if I didn’t point her out. She’s got brown hair to her chin, and bangs that need cutting, and when she reads she has to wear glasses. Today she’s got on a tank top that says SUPERSTAR, but that’s a big lie so go ahead and ignore it.
She’s sitting up on the roof of her house, because that’s the only place where she gets cell-phone reception. She checks her phone, finds no messages, not even a text. A truck drives by, doesn’t honk. A mosquito sticks its fang in her knee, she smashes it.
Are you asleep yet?
She’s me, I’m her. And we’re both bored to the gills.
If this were a movie, I would’ve walked out by now.
So let’s cut to black. Roll the credits. Drop the curtain, if this place even has a curtain. Kick the slimy dregs of popcorn under the seat and head home.
Except that would be too soon. Because—just like a movie—there’s about to be some big drama when you least expect it. Mine begins when my mom pops her head out the upstairs bathroom window.
Her eyes are puffy—I see this first. Not a good sign.
“Danielle,” she calls. “Come inside so we can talk before you go.”
“I can’t,” I say. “I’m sunbathing.” Notice I’m flat-out ignoring the fact that she said I’m going anywhere. This is because I’m not. Going, that is. I’m staying right here.
“Sunbathing? It’s four thirty in the afternoon and you’re in the shade. You haven’t even started packing yet. Don’t tell me you’re out there waiting for Maya to call....”
Maya—she’s my best friend. Or she used to be. We met the second day in seventh grade: Fourth-period gym, she held my ankles for sit-ups, I held hers. She was from Willow Elementary and I was from Shanosha Elementary, but soon it was like we’d known each other forever, like her ankles were my ankles and mine were hers. We were inseparable. But ever since she moved an hour-and-a-half away to Poughkeepsie three months ago, she forgot about all that. She’s never online anymore and she never calls.
So what if I’m up on the roof waiting for her to call? Or for anyone to call. Even my older brother, Casey, who’s away at soccer camp—I wouldn’t want to talk to him anyway. If he called maybe I’d pick up and say thanks for leaving me here all by myself to rot, and then I’d hang up on him. But Mom doesn’t have to know all that.
“Come inside,” she says. “We need to talk.”
“Talk to me out here,” I say. “I can hear you just fine.”
“All right. If you won’t come inside...”
The mosquitoes hover.
It’s a battle of the wills and I win. It’s at this moment that she asks the dumbest question ever: “Dani, do you need help packing your socks?”
Socks! In summer! “Is that what you wanted to talk to me about, really?”
Her voice tightens. “No.” But she doesn’t say what else it could be. She just says, “You should get packing. Your father’s on his way here.” Her face gets all crumply as she admits this.
Obviously she’s trying to keep from crying. It must be because she just talked to him on the phone. This happens every time he calls: She gets bright pink, her eyes go leaky, and then she holes up in her room.
She’s been like this ever since Dad left. Most of the time, like at the newspaper in town where she works, she’s a perfectly normal person you wouldn’t feel mortified to be seen with. But when she’s home with me, she’s this other person. She’s not my mom anymore but a wobbly pink-headed impostor walking around blowing her nose and pretending she’s my mom. I don’t know how to act when she’s like this. It makes me say things maybe I shouldn’t.
Like now. She says, “Come inside, Dani. Please? Your dad’s almost here.”
And what I could say is Okay. I could cut her some slack, you know I should. But instead I say, “And that has to do with me because...”
But I’m allowed to be sarcastic. I’m at a “difficult” age, in a “difficult” situation, and you’re a liar if you think you wouldn’t milk it.
“Because I told you. He’s on his way to pick you up right now. You knew this was his weekend. Stop stalling.”
This is when the scene goes dark and the music gets loud and, I don’t know, thunder crashes in the sky over my head or something. This is when you’d see a close-up of a mouth and hear the scream.
Because I’ve been telling her and telling her that I’m not going. I’ve told her like twenty million times. I haven’t packed a single thing for the trip, and I’m sitting out here on the roof pretending to get a tan but really catching malaria from all the mosquitoes and does this look like I’m going somewhere, does it?
They can’t make me go.
Someone will have to drag me kicking and screaming down the driveway, and if the kicking and the screaming don’t work, I’ll just do one of those nonviolent protests where you play dead so you’re as heavy as possible, like a sack of bricks.
I’ll make myself like bricks just how Gandhi used to do. At least, I think that was Gandhi, or maybe he was the guy who didn’t eat. Anyway, if I have to, I’ll pretend to be Gandhi, and who could possibly force me in my dad’s car then?
My mom ducks down to grab a tissue. Then her head pops back up, and that’s all I see of her, her head, bobbing there like a hot-pink balloon.
She bats her eyes to keep from crying, except all it does is make her nose drip more. She’s a wreck. Just listen to her:
“Danielle, you have to go.” Sniffle. “Even if it’s not what I want, you know the judge said...” Sniffle. “I know your dad moved in with that”—she stops herself—“with Cheryl, but that’s where he lives now.” Sniffle. “Dani, can’t you understand? You have to go. It’s the law....” (Here a loud, wet honk as she blows her nose.)
The way she’s talking makes me think that what she really wants is for me to not pack my socks, to not go.
Then she leaves the window and heads out of sight—I figure to lock herself in her room and soak her pillow. I can make fun of how often my mom cries, but that’s because I picked her. In the Cooper-Callanzano divorce of this past winter, let the record show that I chose my mom’s side.
Now that my mom has given up, now that no one cares and no one’s looking, it gets a little boring out here on the roof. Another truck drives by, doesn’t honk. I swat away one last mosquito and climb through the window back into my room.
I take a seat on my bed. My mom put my suitcase there—it’s open, empty, waiting for me to shove it full of stuff to take with me. I look at it, and I’ve lost all the bars on my cell phone, and no one’s calling anyway, and I ask myself the only question worth asking:
What would Rita Hayworth do?
Rita Hayworth was this old Hollywood movie star—all glamour and mystery like in those black-and-white movies people like to call “films.”
Most of my friends at school have no clue who she is. When they think of a big movie star they think of someone like Reese Witherspoon. But if Reese and Rita Hayworth were in the same scene and the cameras were rolling you’d forget Reese was even there. And that’s not to dis Reese Witherspoon.
All I’m saying is Rita Hayworth was something. Say there was this movie and both Rita Hayworth and Reese Witherspoon were in it. Reese would say her lines and she’d be great like usual, but then it would be Rita Hayworth’s turn.
Rita Hayworth would toss her hair (red in real life, but in black-and-white it could be any color). She’d blink super slow, like she was underwater. Then she’d turn, finally, and settle her eyes on Reese. It would take a few seconds but feel like forever and you wouldn’t be able to stop staring. Then Rita Hayworth would say maybe one word, drawing it out, making it sound like the most beautiful word anyone could say, like, in any language, ever. The word could be “hi” or “mayonnaise,” it doesn’t matter. And before you know it, Rita Hayworth will have eaten Reese Witherspoon alive.
That’s why I think of her. Rita Hayworth wouldn’t let anyone push her around, not even Mom and Dad. She’d do what she wanted, and no sorrys after.
Rita Hayworth could hide her emotions down where you’d never find them. She’d make you think she didn’t care when, really, she cared more than anything. And if someone told her to go someplace—because it’s the law and the state of New York says so—what she’d do is wait till you weren’t looking, and then she’d leave for someplace else.
So I decide to make things a little more difficult. Not for myself—for my dad.
Cue the daydream sequence: Dad’s car pulls in. He honks from the driveway because he doesn’t want to come into the house. He waits and waits and his car’s leaking oil and he’s all spazzy under the seat belt because he’s got that bad back—but I still don’t come out of the house. I never come out because I’m not home. It’s the first court-ordered visitation and I’m not here to go. That’ll show him.
Cut back to real life, and I’m still sitting in my bedroom. Dad hasn’t made his way here yet. What I have to do is find a way out before he does.
If this were a movie, I’d jump out the window. A good enough plan, I guess. But if this were an old movie—like from the 1940s before all that color, the kind of movie called a “film,” one where you’d find someone like Rita Hayworth—I wouldn’t even have to jump.
It’d be nighttime, of course, not 4:42 in the afternoon. There’d be this killer bright light coming in from the window, but in it you’d see only half my face. It’s more cinematic that way. My hair’s dark—no other word to call it but brown—but in this movie it would be pitch-black. It would shine. And I wouldn’t be wearing shorts—I’d have on some long, sparkly dress. Oh—and heels like the spiky ones my mom keeps in the back of her closet even though they hurt her ankles and who knows why she still has them. Plus a hat. I’d have to wear a hat. Back then, girls always wore hats.
The room would be dark and you’d get a tight close-up of just my face. That’s when I’d do this whole series of expressions with my eyes.
You’d see fear.
Plus lots more stuff I don’t even know the words to.
Then I’d take a few steps out of frame and the shadows would swallow me. And no one would be able to find me after that.
But this is no movie and I’m just me, Dani Callanzano, not the kind of name you’d see on a marquee. It’s a summer afternoon in upstate New York and I’m thirteen-going-on-fourteen wearing plain shorts and a tank top and sneakers. I’ve got a cell phone with no bars, an empty suitcase on my bed, and a bug bite on my knee that I can’t stop scratching.
So I don’t jump out the window. I take the stairs and walk out the back door. I’m not about to let the scene fade out on me—not now, and not without a fight.
And for that, I’d like to thank Rita Hayworth.
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