Today Lana learned about how the planet is dying.  She pictured the planet shriveling like a raisin in the sun.  And then she pictured it molding over and shrinking down like the orange in the sped-up video her teacher had shown them in Science last week.  She also learned that the planet was dying because of what people were doing.  That wasn’t exactly what her teacher said, but she couldn’t remember exactly what her teacher had said.  Now the ground beneath her feet felt less solid – almost mushy, like picking up an orange and realizing it was rotten.

To be fair, it was not only the Earth’s imminent demise that had Lana down.  She had also learnt that every other student in her Catholic school class was both traitorous and cruel.  Although she wasn’t really sure if traitorous was the right word, because she was pretty sure that they all hated her anyway, so they couldn’t really be considered traitors.  And if she was really and truly honest with herself (which she was perhaps too often for a little girl of only eight years), there were plenty of reasons why they would hate her.  But she was angriest with herself, because this had all come about because of her own stupidity.

You see, Lana was a bit of an early bloomer.  That is to say, she was in love.  Nicholas had simply stolen Lana’s heart.  It wasn’t just that he had such a perfect face and lovely smile, but also that he was never mean to her and even kind of defended her once.  Not outwardly, of course – no one would risk that – but he didn’t say anything to encourage the other children’s cruel remarks, and she felt that he had intentionally changed the subject to deter their attention.  Now, whenever she had a moment to herself, he was there in her daydreams, professing his love for her (which was, many psychoanalysts might say, really just Lana’s own suppressed self-love and acceptance manifesting in the imagined sweet nothings of a clueless – and likely still-girl-hating – eight-year old boy) and telling all of the other kids how wrong they’d been all this time to make her feel bad because she was really and truly a wonderful, kind, and even quite beautiful girl.

It should be noted that there would be many similar fantastical relationships to come in Lana’s childhood, but Nicholas was her first.

And so it passed that her parents were out the night before, and so were all of her older siblings, one of whom would ordinarily have been given the task of looking after her in her parents’ absence, which meant she was left with a babysitter – which was very exciting, because she could not remember having ever had a babysitter before – who happened to be the very pretty (Lana thought beautiful) Native American girl from up the street who had very long hair and bangs and a slender waist and breasts and very good fashion sense by Lana’s eight-year-old standards.  Lana knew her family was poor because they had very foil in their windows to keep out the heat and old cars that did not work sitting in the parking lot and collecting rust, and that was very unusual for California, because Lana’s father always said that he’d come to California because that’s where cars didn’t rust and Lana always thought that was a strange reason to move so far away from one’s own mom and dad.  And Lana also thought it was very strange that poor families so often had so many cars, and Lana’s mother and father were always arguing about car payments, so she suspected that cars must be very expensive, and so how could poor people afford to buy so many of them anyway?

(Like all children, Lana assumed her own life to be one of all things median – neither rich nor poor, happy nor sad, functioning nor dysfunctional.  It was against her own family that all others were compared, though Lana was oblivious to the fact that her parents’ own poverty was on par with that of the beautiful Native American girl up the street)

Diana, who pronounced her name with a “dee” at the beginning rather than a “dai,” and an “ah” in the middle just like the a’s in Lana’s name, arrived at 7:15 pm, just as her mother was putting on her lipstick, which was always the last thing she did, even after putting on her earrings.  Then she slid it into her purse as she always did (for touch-ups), and was just shouting to Lana’s father that it was time to go (he was telling a very rude joke to Diana that Lana thought maybe Diana was too young to hear, even though she was two times older than Lana herself and Lana had heard it dozens of times), and they were off and Lana was alone in the house with Diana who was so pretty and dressed so well and she thought she might explode with happiness.

“Well, Lana, what would you like to do?  Are you hungry?”  But Lana was definitely not hungry, which was unusual for Lana, who was often hungry, or rather always hungry, but right now she couldn’t think of eating a single thing.  “I don’t know,” she replied, suddenly very nervous and shy and anxious, because she really wanted Diana to have a lovely time babysitting her and she hadn’t planned any activities for the evening.  She simply didn’t know what one was supposed to do when one was babysat.  She wished she’d have asked one of the other kids at school, but then they’d have laughed at her straight away.  You’ve never had a babysitter?  What a dork!  “I have some dolls…we could play a game?”  Diana sat down at the kitchen table so that she was eye-to-eye with Lana.  “Would you like to just talk for a while?”  And Lana could have melted.  Instead she just scooted herself up onto the wooden bench next to Diana’s chair and there they sat, for the whole evening, talking about everything, but most especially Diana’s boyfriend (she had a real boyfriend) and Lana’s as yet unrequited feelings for Nicholas.

And then Diana reached into her backpack – had it been there all this time? – and retrieved a spiral-bound notebook that was well-worn and missing several pages, with some of the wire coming out of its spiral coil so that it stuck and made it hard to turn the pages.  On the cover there were lots of drawings and signatures – the same one written over and over again in different ways:  “Diana Mendoza,” only Lana knew that Mendoza was Diana’s boyfriend’s last name and not her own, and so now Lana knew that Diana so loved Antonio that one day they would get married and live happily forever.  “I write poetry,” Diana told Lana, which sounded so sophisticated and important that Lana thought she wouldn’t know what to say, but as usual she found her words: “Could I read some?”  Diana was all too happy to oblige.

“Would you like to read the one I wrote for Antonio?”  And Lana felt like Diana was letting her walk right through the doors into her soul in a way that no other girl had ever let her do, and she could hardly control her excitement as she replied, “Oh, yes, definitely!”  And it was such a lovely poem!  The loveliest poem, perhaps, that Lana had ever read, and she had read many, many poems, because she had to participate in a poetry contest every year at her school, and she had now spent three years at that school, and that entailed reading all sorts of poems because Lana was very particular about the poem that she chose in the end.

But this poem was something special indeed.  In fact, it could not have spoken more of the feelings in Lana’s own heart for her own Nicholas than if she had she written it with her own hand.  And she told Diana just that, perhaps not in that way exactly, but something along those lines.  And Diana got a sparkle in her eye and her lips turned up into the prettiest smile, and she said, “Do you want to copy this poem and give it to Nicholas?”  And in that moment, Lana could not think of any other way of convincing Nicholas of her profound love and devotion and she just knew that tonight was very special indeed – it was the night that was to end all of her sadness and loneliness, because she would copy this poem tonight, and when Nicholas read it tomorrow he would fall deeply in love with her and everyone would see that this wonderful and very-good-looking boy who was also quite popular had seen her beauty and kindness, and they would love her – or at least not hate her – finally, too.

But then Lana stopped herself – what if he didn’t like her back?  And what if he didn’t like the poem?  And so she asked Diana, who did not seem concerned at all:  “Just don’t put your name on it.  If he wants to know, he’ll find you.”  And that sounded so incredibly, inconceivably romantic that Lana reflected back upon all the flowers she had de-petalled trying to discover if he loved her or loved her not and thought they were distinctly destined to be in love just like in the movies, most of which Lana had not yet seen because she was too young.  So she wrote the note in a different person’s handwriting – no one would know!  Even if the other students had known her for half of her life and very likely knew her handwriting, they wouldn’t know this one, because she would disguise it!  And she wrote slowly and perfectly – more perfectly than she’d ever written any letter or anything before.  And when she was finished Diana came to inspect it and said that it looked beautiful.  She also suggested that Lana should write S.W.A.K on the outside once it was folded and when Lana asked what that meant, she said, “It means ‘Sealed with a kiss!’  And then you should put on some of my lipstick and kiss the paper so your lip-print will be there, too!”  which was just too much all together and sent Lana giggling hysterically, not because she found it funny, but because it was simply the best plan she had ever heard in her entire life and she followed it to the letter.

The next morning Lana thought she might explode with excitement.  In her heart she knew that this was to be the day – the day of all days – the day that would change everything for her at school.  She could virtually feel Nicholas’ hand holding hers, his eyes gazing into her own, but mostly she could feel the letter in the small pocket of her backpack, as though it was hot, might burn a hole in her bag.  And all of a sudden she was confused.  What was the plan?  How should this go?  When would she have the chance to put the letter in his desk?  How would he know it was there?  She felt so alone!  She needed help!  Who could help her, though?

Just then, Jennifer Livingston came to see her.

It is simply so strange, isn’t it, how things come to pass in this life?  No one had spoken to Lana for seemingly days – even weeks!  But today Jennifer wanted to talk.  About what?  Nothing special.  Just wanted to say hello.  And she did!  She spent five, maybe seven minutes speaking with Lana before the bell rang for class!  And Lana was overcome with the anticipation of it all and just couldn’t help herself and so said something along the lines of this:  “Can I tell you a secret?”

And of course it was the most wonderful idea she’d ever had – asking Jennifer Livingston for her advice – because she was far more worldly and certainly more popular, and of course the prettier and better-liked girls in the class knew more about these things than Lana – why wouldn’t they?  And Jennifer figured everything out – Lana would just busy herself with something right before recess and slip the letter into Nicholas’ desk after everyone had left.  And then Jennifer would make a point of letting Nicholas know that the letter was there – of course she wouldn’t say who it was from!  Never!  And then he would read it and then…

And Jennifer played with her all through recess, which was the first time in a long time that anyone had bothered to play with her at school, and Lana knew that this was definitely a sign of good things to come, and maybe Jennifer would even want to be her best friend one day, and years later, when Nicholas and Lana were engaged, they could all look back at this day and giggle and sigh because it was, after all, the most romantic love story anyone had ever heard, really.

As she lined up for class after recess she could feel her heart pounding in her chest.  Jennifer had walked right over to Nicholas – how she wished she could hear what they said!  He was smiling, but his smile was nervous.  She tried desperately not to look at him so he wouldn’t know it was she who’d sent the letter, and nonchalantly ignored Jennifer as she got back into the girls’ line.  She stood and looked straight ahead and then all the students filed into class, and the boys sniggered and giggled at what Nicholas was saying.   Lana sat in her desk and used every last ounce of willpower she could muster to not look in Nicholas’ direction.  She looked straight ahead at the teacher, the blood pulsing through her heart so rapidly she could almost hear it whoosh like waves at the beach.

And then from the corner of her left eye she saw Nicholas walking to the front of the class.  And she noticed the letter – her letter! – right there in his left hand, held out in front of him as though he didn’t want to even touch it.  And then the teacher was reaching for it – but wait!  He hadn’t even read it yet!  It was still folded!  And Lana felt the blood that had coursed through her veins so fluidly before run straight to her head, to her face, until she knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that her face was exactly the color of a perfectly ripened tomato.  But she forced her face to remain still, motionless – if she’d known about poker, that’s what she would have called it then – a poker face.  And then the teacher took the letter into her hand, and she opened it up in front of everyone.

And then she read it.  Out loud.  While smiling.

And while the whole class giggled and snickered, Lana wanted to die.  She also wanted to join in on the giggling and snickering lest she be found out, but she couldn’t bear it – that beautiful poem being read aloud like this, utterly ruined.  She remembered her religion classes and she remembered the word “blasphemy” and could think of no better word to describe what was happening.  And she felt so sorry – she wanted to see Diana and tell her she was sorry – that this should never have been done to her beautiful poem, but how could she ever look Diana in the eye again?  She just couldn’t.

(And in fact, she wouldn’t.  That fateful night was the last time Lana would ever see Diana)

And just as she thought that things could never, ever possibly get worse than they were at that precise moment, her teacher – the one everyone loved, the teacher all the older kids at school had promised they’d like, looked at everyone in the classroom, not especially Lana, and said, “I know who wrote this poem.  I recognize the writing.”  But how!?  She’d been so careful!  “And I know you would all like to go out to P.E. right now.  But until the person who wrote this letter confesses, I’m afraid we’re all going to have to sit here and wait.”

And Lana’s face grew even hotter – so hot she thought she might faint, although she’d never fainted before, or maybe pee in her pants, although that had never happened either – and while neither of those things came to pass, she did come to realize that every single eye in the class was on her, because everyone knew that it was her.  And they’d begun jeering – although not directly to her, Come on!  Let’s go!  We want to go to P.E.!  Hurry up!  And so, with her eyes planted firmly on that mushy ground beneath her feet, and with every remaining ounce of strength left inside of her, she slowly raised her hand and said, “It was me.”

2 thoughts on “SWAK

  1. ron says:

    ann, i feel many of us will recognize ourselves in lana. she very nicely represents a type of child who exists outside the circle…a difficult, painful place to be, but necessary because of who she is…and will become. you created a character to care about, and one whose continuing story piques my interest.

    1. Ann says:

      oh, i don’t know if we’ll hear anything more from lana…or the others, for that matter. it’s like my relationship with them sort of ends when the story finishes…hehe…forgive me if i sound cliché 😉

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