“Picking Out Knots” by Angelica Ramos – Santa

Issue 20 / Winter 2020

 

Magic Man and I walked hand in hand down the worn wood pathway, looking for the perfect musical snow globe. The ocean rose in the distance, caressing the hot sand. His thumb rubbed circles on my knuckles. Families flew bright kites on the beach, the colors popping against the cloudless sky. The tops of my shoulders and the peaks of my cheeks began to feel heated, but with the light breeze, I didn’t feel burned. Shop owners called out to passersby and a young boy played guitar, a bucket with quarters and pennies in front of him. I let go of Magic Man’s hands; he didn’t yell after me, but I felt his smile as I walked up to the boy’s bucket. I emptied my pockets of change and threw in a couple of dollars.

“You’re really good,” I said.

“Thank you,” he whispered, a small smile on his face.

“Keep practicing. Don’t stop playing,” I replied, meeting his eyes as my last quarter hit the bottom of the bucket with a soft thunk. I turned back toward Magic Man and the boy began to play a different song as I walked away. My Magic Man held my hand in his, gently, and kissed the smooth skin there. He smiled but didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to; his eyes were softened and gleaming. He was proud of me.

We watched dozens of people, couples, and families pass the boy as if he wasn’t there, deaf to the music he played. I saw him. We stood there, still in a sea of moving bodies, listening to the boy play. I leaned my head on Magic Man’s arm as his finger’s tangled in mine, a net cast out into the denim blue of the ocean. My eyes drifted upwards to meet Magic Man’s. They say the eyes are the windows to the soul; even though we were standing still, the moment his eyes met mine, we were dancing.

I

I thought I knew what love was when I turned twelve. His braces were baby blue, his eyebrows were best friends, and in middle school, he was a total catch. I didn’t really know what dating was then, but the word was tossed around so frequently in our class that I felt like I wanted to do dating with that boy. We were in choir together, and we were best friends since we met in fifth grade. Other girls talked about kissing him during water breaks in choir practice. Something warm bubbled up in my stomach, and my fists began to curl. I used to clench my jaw so hard, it hurt to open my mouth to sing.

I went home one day after the bell rang and asked if I could date. The answer was no because no good parent would let their child date at twelve years old. None of the How To parenting books would allow that and neither would the PTA. Still, my door slammed and the words “I hate you” bellowed from the acid parts of my gut. Eyebrows was the love of my life; I was convinced.

II

Magic Man did not kiss me first. We were watching Deadpool on his bed, our shoes tucked under the bed frame. Bats fluttered in my stomach every time his hand grazed mine as he reached into the popcorn bowl.

“I bet you won’t kiss me.”

“Oh really?”

“Yeah.”

We turned our gazes back to the television, but I wasn’t paying attention. My every fiber was on fire. Every time he shifted on the bed, my heart rate quickened. He sneezed at some point, and my heart almost exploded before I could say “Bless You”. The tip of his pinky finger touched mine in the bowl of popcorn, and it sent an electric shock through my body so fast I yanked my hand out of the bowl and popcorn landed on the sheets. He didn’t laugh; he just smirked, winked and picked the popcorn up and put it back in the bowl. He leaned over, and my shoulder pressed further into his biceps. He gave me a quick peck on the cheek.

“I win,” his voice was a deep, smoky sound, like the whispers of a campfire put out.

“That doesn’t count.”

“Yes it does; I win.”

I laughed from deep within the cave of my gut, where the bats dwell. “Nope.”

I thought I had balls when I dared him to kiss me, but inside I was anxious, every movement calculated, constantly thinking. He laughed at something Ryan Reynolds said, and my stomach flipped. His smile was so beautiful, his brown eyes lit by the blue glow of the television in the dark. The vein in his neck twitched, and my heart jump started. The more he laughed, the deeper his dimples became and the creepier I felt for staring at him. I couldn’t take it anymore. He probably wasn’t going to kiss me, but my body was on fire, so I grabbed his cheek and my lips met his. Magic Man smiled, and the fire inside me raged harder. I pulled away first and sat on my hands.

“I win,” Magic Man said, smirking.

“No! You lose because I kissed you, so I win.”

He laughed and reached over to hold my hand, and I felt my whole body blush. We still argue about who kissed who and who won the bet. I will die saying it was me.

III

My first-ever kiss was in a library. The second quickly followed. I used my study hall to volunteer in the middle-school library, helping put the books away, processing new books and checking them out to students. The library made me happy, made me feel safe. Some of the books were brand new and smelled like the shiny new plastic covers the librarians and I put on them. My favorites were the older ones, with their yellowed and torn pages, smelling of sticky fingers and someone’s grandmother’s perfume. Eyebrows and I had just started dating. We were eighth graders, I fourteen and him thirteen. He had asked me on a date a few weeks earlier, and my brother drove us to the movies. I thought I was the luckiest girl in the world.

My best friend at the time and I were shelving books when Eyebrows walked in. He sat down and took an Accelerated Reading test. Every few minutes, Eyebrows would look at me and wink. I’d blush, and my friend and I would giggle as we put the books on their shelves. We weaved in and out of the stacks, splitting the books in half and filing them in alphabetical order. My spot was at the darker end of the stacks, the latter half of the alphabet. When the pile of my books dwindled down to just a few, I entered the last stack for letters W through Z. I squatted as low as I could without sitting on the ground to reach the bottom shelf. I heard a quiet cough behind me and ignored it. It came back again. I turned toward the opening of the row I was in and saw Eyebrows, leaning on the metal shelf.

“Hey,” he said, smiling, his blue braces rubber bands making an appearance.

“Hi,” I said, standing up with the last book in the crook of my arm.

“So I want to find a book,” he replied, inching toward me. I took a step back, my shoulder blades ground against the white brick of the wall.

“Oh, okay. W—What kind of books do you like? We have a lot. Fiction or Nonfiction?”

“Just a book,” he said, and kept stepping toward me until his face was mere breaths away from mine.

“Okay,” I said, offering the one tucked into my arm, “This one is new and pretty popular as of late and all the—”

His hand gripped the underside of my jaw. I think he thought it was soft and that he was attempting to be romantic, but it kind of hurt. He looked me in the eye, and I pushed my glasses up because they slipped when he touched my face.

“I want to kiss you,” he said.

“Uh, I’m scared.”

“Why?” he asked, moving his hand from my jaw to my arm. I guess he meant it as a caress, but it pushed me a little closer to the brick. “I just— I don’t really know if I want to.”

“Why?” he pressed.

“I don’t know.”

“It’s because you haven’t tried it yet.”

“Well, have you?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh. I just—I’m not sure—”

He pressed his lips against mine. He pushed them out. I didn’t move. His hands cradled my head at the base of my neck. I attempted to push my lips out, and he parted his. A quick sting of pain met my bottom lip. I winced and pulled away. He smiled, grabbed the book from my arm and kissed me again. He turned and left the stacks and I stood, my back still against the wall. I licked my bottom lip, tasting blood and mango chapstick.

IV

I sat on a pale sand-covered sheet, reading Sense and Sensibility with Magic Man’s head on my lap. I was tempted to read aloud, but I could see through the dark lenses of his sunglasses that his eyes had fluttered closed. His best friend lay on the other end of the sheet, under a beach umbrella, eating a sandwich and joking with his girlfriend who was applying another layer of sunscreen to her face and shoulders. Seagulls strutted across the sand near us, trying to sneak a morsel from our hands or the open cooler.

My free hand found Magic Man’s hair. He kept it cropped short. ​Nappy hair​, he once said,​ is what people call black people’s hair when it grows out and it’s natural. ​He doesn’t like to call too much attention to himself, but I noticed other women on the beach that day eyeing his broad shoulders and chiseled jawline. I traced the wave-like pattern of his hair with my nails. I felt his body relax and heard him sigh.

I looked up from my book and saw a baby teeter into the smallest waves in her little pink-and-yellow striped bathing suit. She giggled and clapped her hands when the green-blue waves licked her toes. Her mother, I presumed, because she clapped too when the baby was excited, sat in a folding chair less than two feet away. The baby’s hair was in two dark, curly buns on top of her head, a few wet stray curls falling into her face and onto her neck. I couldn’t help but smile as I returned back to the book and placed a light kiss on Magic Man’s forehead. He reached his arm up, pulling my free hand from his hair, placed my hand over his chest where his heart would be and held it there as he drifted off again.

V

Eyebrows would text me so much, I’d have to turn off my phone in class. He, like most fifteen-year-old boys, wanted sex. It was all he ever talked about. He questioned me about when, how and where. I didn’t want to. I was raised Catholic. Sometimes I would say “yes” because that was the only way to change the subject, but when he brought it up again, I’d say no. I’d try to stand my ground.

He’d call me every five minutes until I’d fall asleep. I’d wake up in the morning to thirty-plus missed calls and text messages. Some days I would turn off my phone and claim I ran out of minutes. Most days I’d wake up to text messages threatening that if I didn’t say yes and give in, he would kill himself, so I’d say yes out of fear. I didn’t want to have sex. We were freshman in high school, and he was the type to kiss and tell. I would cry myself to sleep often; I wanted to tell my family, but he wouldn’t let me.

One day, when after-school choir practice ended, I asked if he wanted to walk me to my locker to get my coat. Eyebrows said yes, but the whole walk to my locker he was asking me to sneak out and come over to have sex. I said no.

“Come on! A bunch of girls in our class have and so have the boys.”

“No.”

“Why not?” he pushed, his volume raising. My best friend was at her locker down toward the end of the hall. I knew she could hear, so I started walking away. I didn’t want her to see. I swear I could hear her thinking about walking over and punching him square in the chest. “I don’t want to.”

“Why not?”

“I’m tired of talking about this.”

“You literally said yesterday that you wanted to.”

“Because you won’t leave me alone about it,” I whispered, noticing that Eyebrows was beginning to raise his voice, and our fellow choir members started looking. “We never talk about anything else anymore.”

“Don’t you love me?”

“Yes. I’m just…tired.”

“It’s what people in love do.”

“I don’t want to,” I almost couldn’t hear myself speak; he was so loud. We were walking toward his locker, a part of the hall where no one could see us. The whole way there he kept trying to pressure me into saying yes, trying to make me promise that I would let him, but I kept refusing.

“Look,” I said, “My grams is here to pick me up. Can we talk about this later?”

“No,” he demanded, “We’re not done talking.”

“I need to go home,” I said, turning and beginning to walk down the hall toward the main doors. He darted in front of me and shoved me backward.

“Don’t push me!” He shoved me again. I tried to walk around him, but every time I thought I was in the clear, he blocked my path and pushed me back. I tried to remain calm, to control my anger, but he wouldn’t let me through, and we were yelling at this point. I knew the other choir kids could hear us. When I finally shoved him back, Eyebrows’ face contorted. He pushed me and kept pushing until his palm was on my collar bone, the tips of his fingers grazing my throat. He squeezed as my back hit the cold metal of the beige lockers.

“We’re not done talking,” he growled.

I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket and knew my grandmother was sitting in the car, outside of the school, waiting for me to leave. I knew my best friend was wondering if I was okay and why she was hearing yelling. Eyebrows squeezed more. It didn’t hurt, so I knew it wouldn’t bruise. I knew he was talking because his mouth was moving, and he kept flashing his braces. I heard nothing. I felt nothing except the warm squeeze of his hand on the base of my throat. I don’t know what came over me, but something inside me snapped, and all of a sudden I heard a disembodied cackle. I felt my chest moving and I saw my eyes close, but the noise didn’t sound like it came from me. His squeeze loosened a little.

“If you don’t let go, I will punch you so hard in the mouth, your braces will burst through your lip,” I felt myself laugh. His hand dropped to his side, and he stepped back.

“I am leaving. I am going home. You will not stop me. You will not look at me. You will not text me.” I walked away slowly and made it toward the front door of the school. I passed our entire choir, each one staring at me with questioning eyes. Our director stood in the door of the choir room, just around the corner from what had happened. He did nothing. My best friend was angry, pacing, trying to get someone to come with her to find me, but when I walked up to her, she demanded I let her go knock him out or call her parents (her father was a firefighter). I told her to let it go; I didn’t want to talk about it. I just wanted to get home. She escorted me out of the school and glared at our director and at people for looking at me. She walked me to my grandmother’s car. I had lost feeling in my body. She opened the passenger side door of my grandmother’s P.T. Cruiser and gave my grandmother “The Look”.

“Why were you late?” my grandmother asked as my best friend walked away. I said nothing.

“Hey. What’s wrong? Why were you late?” she pressed.

“I just want to go home,” was all I could push out before the dam inside me broke, and I began choking on my own tears.

VI

Magic Man pulled the comforter over my shoulders; my head rested on a pillow in his lap. My chest felt heavy, and I wasn’t sure if I was even breathing. The day had been long, and the pile of work on my desk and in my bag called out to me even though my body screamed for a quick respite. I attempted to hide the shaking of my hands by gripping the comforter and pulling it closer to my face.

With me, you can be at peace,​ he’s always told me.​ With me, you can let the world melt away. The anxiety. The fear. I want to make you feel safe. 

He pulled the black hair tie from my hair, my bun falling apart into dark ringlets on his stomach. His fingernails gently shook the hair at my scalp and slowly ran through the rest to the tips. Once in a while I would feel his fingers snag, but instead of yanking, he gently unraveled the ball of dark curls, strand by strand.

“Does it hurt?”

“No.”

“Good. It shouldn’t. It takes patience and a gentle hand. I love your curls.”

I smiled underneath the comforter. With each strand being released, my chest felt lighter. My hands stopped shaking when he ran his fingers through my tresses, searching for another tumbleweed to detangle. I remembered how to breathe when he used his fingernails to massage my scalp knowing that I’m tender headed. I closed my eyes and felt my entire body and mind relax. I got lost in the rhythm of the strokes his fingers created and the soft syncopation of picking out knots.

 

Angelica M. Ramos – Santa is a fiction and nonfiction writer who enjoys flipping the world on its head. She believes that limits are nothing but a challenge and all art should be accessible. She spends her time binge watching ‘90s sitcoms and being a dog mom to her drama queen, Andi.

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