STROPHE, Chapter XIV: Piercing
Saturday, October 13, 2001
The mall’s amped-up atmosphere reminded Naomi of her high school. The stares were worse, the whispers more intense, the chance that she might run into someone practically unavoidable in what was St. Placid’s only social hub. To avoid most of what she hated about the mall, she wore her plain brown contact lenses, which bothered her eyes and made them itch, and she had Gavin at her side.
They passed by a kid about their age—maybe a few years younger—who had a portable CD player in his pocket and a single earbud shoved into his right ear. The way he had his hand tucked into his pocket around the shape of the CD player reminded Naomi of Alex. “He’s acting so weird,” she remarked to Gavin.
“Who?” Gavin said, but Naomi knew that he knew. She kept talking.
“Yesterday at school, he didn’t take his hand out of his pocket at all. And he was mumbling to himself. I tried to get close to hear what he was saying, but he smelled like he hadn’t showered.”
Gavin said nothing and abruptly stopped in front of the dark, narrow entry of Spencer’s Gifts. Two tiny girls who looked no more than twelve rushed out of the store and darted around him, giggling. One of them carried a bag and was looking furtively at her purchase.
“You OK?” Naomi asked. She squeezed Gavin’s hand. He didn’t squeeze back for a long time, and when he did, the sweat from his palm touched hers. She pulled her hand back without consciously realizing it.
“Fine,” he said. “Just wish I knew what the deal was with him, that’s all. But it’s his business. And if he doesn’t trust us, then he keeps it his business. You know how Alex is.” Gavin looked directly at Naomi when he spoke those final words, and she knew that the conversation was closed.
They began to walk again, and she tried a different tack. “I hate to seem like I’m gossiping. I’m just as bad as Brandi. Has Stefan talked to you at all since you saw him that time?”
“Nope,” Gavin said. “I don’t know what to say to him. He’s been out of commission for so long that I don’t know where to start with him. Like when you’re playing a video game and you stop because you get frustrated, then you have to practically re-learn the game when you start playing again.”
Naomi wondered if he said that because they had just passed a video game store. He did not look at her and lowered his head so his hair flopped over his eyes. Talking to him was so different from talking to Alex—at least, the old Alex—she felt like she had to measure her words carefully.
Her hand strayed to the class ring around her neck, but Gavin took her hand and threaded his fingers through hers. He no longer felt sweaty. His grip was light yet firm, and when she smiled at him, he returned her smile.
They wandered through the food court and investigated all the choices until they decided to keep it simple and get McDonald’s. Naomi felt perverse pleasure in eating double cheeseburgers and fries when Giuliana had always forbade her from having them. You need to watch your weight if you want to stay on that squad. Naomi never wanted to mention that several of the cheerleaders were overweight and out of shape—but their spunky personalities and enthusiasm made up for what they lacked in physical attractiveness. She had neither the spunk nor the enthusiasm for the sport, at least, not anymore. It was getting to the point where it was hard to even fake it.
Gavin had a frown etched into his face. I don’t understand, she thought.
She poked him. “Hey. Distracted?”
He put his arm around her waist and hugged her. She smelled fries and salt and felt more comfortable. Now it wasn’t much different from when they were eating together in the high school cafeteria. But with the gift of the class ring, everything had changed. “Not anymore. Let’s go.” He got up and stood behind her. “You know what? I feel like spoiling you. What do you want? I’ll buy it.”
“Food was good enough. I’m not a gold digger,” Naomi said. She meant it jokingly, but Gavin looked hurt.
He put his hands on her shoulders, and they were quiet for a little while, watching the hubbub of the mall. A mother pushed a stroller carrying squealing twin girls while the father walked behind them, examining a pager in his hand. Three teenage girls wearing garish makeup exchanged gossip as they moved past. A jingling sound heralded the arrival of several men in Harley Davidson jackets and chain pants. One of them was eating a hotdog covered with chili, which fell to the floor in red globs. He didn’t appear to notice.
“What a redneck,” Gavin scoffed. “Did you see the rebel flag handkerchief in his back pocket?”
“We live in North Carolina,” said Naomi. “What do you expect to see? Harvard graduates with tweed overcoats?”
The small moment of tension passed, and Naomi stood up. She slipped her hand into Gavin’s, marveling at how the gesture felt more and more natural, and the two wandered out of the food court.
They progressed toward the mall’s exit, but a kiosk by the doors caught Naomi’s attention. Pierced! read the banner over the kiosk. Various body modification implements and silver jewelry gleamed from inside a glass case.
She looked with interest at the collection of tiny arrows, dragons, hoops, and fake gemstones, recalling something she had told Jenny after her first freshman year cheerleading practice. I can’t wait until I can get a piercing. Maybe my tongue or my nose.
You can’t have one, Jenny had said, always practical. Coach won’t allow them. Ears only. And only conservative piercings. You know, the boring ones.
At the time, Naomi had really meant to get pierced, because she had spent enough time in the presence of Toni Morton, who had several piercings that she’d had to remove before joining the Army.
Now she looked closer at the shimmering silver and touched her ear. Piercings look so trashy, Giuliana said. You don’t want to look like a slut, do you? Anger at her mother made her even more certain. Naomi met the eyes of the large-figured woman running the kiosk, who, strangely enough, did not have a single piercing (at least any that were visible).
“Do you want one?” Gavin asked.
“Yes,” said Naomi. “And I’m not gold-digging this time. I want a silver one.” She half hoped Gavin would refuse her request.
Gavin laughed. “By how bad that joke was, you’ve successfully taken back your previous insult. That’s a win in itself.”
Naomi said to the large woman, “I want one of those barbells. In my right ear. How much?”
“Forty bucks, girlie,” the woman said in a heavy foreign accent. A bolt of emotional pain shot through Naomi upon hearing it. Yiayia. Pappou. I miss them…
She looked at Gavin, who nodded his approval. There was something almost parental in that nod. He was already taking his wallet out.
You can’t have that, her father said, dragging a tearful six-year-old Naomi past a row of FAO Schwarz stuffed animals. You think I’m made out of money?
“My friend’s sister had one,” Naomi said to the woman, more to drown out the memories than to make any substantial conversation. “She’s in the Army. I’m doing it for her. To support her.”
“Ah,” the woman said. She shook her head. “What a shame, in New York.”
Naomi said, “Tell me how you’re going to do the piercing,” and the painful subject faded away. The woman sat her in a chair in the center of the kiosk. Gavin held her hand and she kept her grip tight, not because she was afraid of the pain, but because she might cry. Every time the woman spoke, more memories of Yiayia and Pappou arose.
Where we lived in Greece, we saw all the stars in the sky. We did not have big lights like here. There is no nature here. Even less in New York City. When we were dating, before your father was even a thought, we would walk outside at midnight. Your Yiayia was afraid of the dark, but the moon was so bright, we didn’t notice the darkness at all.
The woman applied disinfectant to Naomi’s ear and said, “This will hurt. Not like a normal ear piercing. A lot of hurt, for a long time.”
“I’m a cheerleader,” Naomi said. “I fall flat on my ass at least three times each practice session. I’m used to pain.”
Gavin spoke up. “That’s a lie. She’s the best on the squad.”
Naomi’s cheeks burned, and the woman laughed. “He supports you. You have a good man.” She marked Naomi’s ear in two spots to determine where the piercing would go through and held up the gun. “Ready, girlie?”
She nodded, and the gun was applied to her ear. A bright firework of pain blossomed before gradually diminishing, and the fresh wound leaked a trickle of blood.
Gavin had amusement in his voice when he said, “You practically broke my hand.”
“Sorry,” she whispered and breathed out.
“There. How was that?” the woman asked, cleaning up the blood and holding up a mirror. “Check it out. Looks hot.”
“It does,” Gavin agreed.
Naomi ran a finger along the length of her piercing. “Sweet,” she said. “I love it!” The pain, now a dull ache in each piercing site, was instantly forgotten. She stood up from the chair and hugged Gavin. “Thank you!”
“Hey, no problem, silver-digger,” Gavin teased. His eyebrows were still raised in a bewildered expression.
After the woman gave Naomi a bottle of cleaning solution and a small pamphlet about caring for her piercing, they left the mall.
The pain—and the fact that she had gotten something she’d waited a long time for—felt freeing. I can’t wait to tell Jenny that I actually did it! But I’ll have to keep it covered at practice.
“Let’s go to Alex’s house and show him,” Naomi said gleefully. “Freak him out of his depression a little.”
Gavin shrugged. “Sure.”
“Check it out,” Naomi said upon entering Alex’s house. She tucked her hair behind her ear.
“Like Toni’s,” Alex said, less impressed than Naomi would have liked. He stepped back and let her and Gavin inside. “Mom’s sewing. That means we basically have the whole house to ourselves.” Usually, that pronouncement would have come with happiness because it meant the three of them could raid the refrigerator and turn the volume all the way up on the television console when they played video games.
This time, it worried Naomi. Erica didn’t notice how pale Alex looked? Now that she really thought about it, he had always been pale, and his slender face was always slightly peaked because he often stayed up late into the night reading novels or studying for a test he had procrastinated on. Erica was preoccupied with many things: her small sewing business, worries about Toni, taking care of Patrick, who liked to overwork himself, and of course, dealing with all of Alex’s ordinary issues.
Gavin cuffed Alex on the shoulder. “You like it or not?”
“Her earring? Yeah, it’s great.” Alex yawned.
“Sleeping till four in the afternoon on a Saturday?” Naomi teased. They followed Alex through the house as he trudged in his sock-clad feet. As they passed Erica’s sewing room, they heard the humming of her machine. Patrick’s home office was vacated; he often went out with friends from work on Saturdays. Damn. Like he doesn’t see them enough at the office, Alex would always say.
Gavin reached for Naomi’s hand, but she squeezed it once and let it go. Her own hand returned to her ear.
Alex paused at the closed door to his bedroom. He looked like he was having trouble remembering how to open it. “Door’s locked,” he said. “We can’t go in there.”
“Why not? Did your mom lock you out of your own room?” asked Gavin. He reached for the knob, but Alex slapped his hand away.
“Stop that! I said it’s locked and we can’t go in there!”
“But why?” Gavin’s mouth opened in shock. “Are you hiding treasures? A beautiful woman? Sorry, Naomi.” He winked at her and she smiled in spite of herself.
“Alex, you’ve got real bad issues,” Naomi said. She waited for him to put his hand into his pocket, but he didn’t. Instead, he crossed both his arms over his narrow chest and leaned against the closed door. In the light filtering in from the narrow window at the end of the hall, he looked even more wan.
“I don’t know why you came here,” Alex said. “You didn’t even call first.”
“Your mom said we could stop by anytime,” Gavin said. “We wanted to take her up on that. She always feeds us something besides doughnuts, too. That part’s only a bonus, I swear. We wanted to see you. Well, Naomi wanted to show off her piercing—that I bought her.”
Naomi again ran her finger over the silver length and fingered the ball at the top. Her ear still ached, but the pain was worthwhile. “I’m not a gold-digger. I’m a silver-digger,” she said, laughing. Usually, Alex would have called her out on the corny joke, but he only seemed to get more pale in the fading afternoon light.
“You guys should just go home,” Alex said. “I’m sick today. I think that’s why she locked me out of my room. She didn’t want me puking on the quilt she sewed for my bed.”
“Then why didn’t you say that in the first place?” Gavin demanded, backing away from Alex. “I don’t want your disease!”
Naomi waited until he was halfway down the hall before saying to Alex, “I don’t really think you’re sick. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. I really am sick. That’s it. You guys can leave.”
“Fine,” Naomi said. “I have to go to practice anyway, and didn’t you and Gavin have to work tonight?”
“I puked my guts out earlier. I’m not going.”
“OK. Hope you feel better and get over whatever it is.” Naomi turned to go down the hall. She didn’t even see Gavin anymore. He’d probably gone all the way out to his pickup, his chivalry overruled by paranoia about catching an illness that, in her opinion, Alex had invented.
As she walked down the hall, she could have sworn she smelled smoke, and when she looked back, she no longer saw Alex. He had gone into his room.
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