by Timothy Boudreau
Oranges remind me of Delia. Especially the way your hands smell after you peel one, how bits of that soft white stuff stick under your fingernails. The best part of eating oranges with Delia was how sloppy you could be. We always bit right into them like they were apples, we never broke them into sections, and we’d sit there chomping our way through them as if we hadn’t eaten in weeks, just to see which one of us could make the biggest mess. If the juice flowed down our faces, we just let it flow; if there were seeds, we’d spit them at each other across the room. We usually ended up getting in plenty of trouble for it, but to tell the truth, we didn’t much care. They were the best oranges we had ever had.
There was a little depression between my parents’ house and her parents’ garage, and in the winter sometimes it’d freeze over and we’d go ice-skating; Delia in three or four pairs of corduroys, one on top of the other, and her flapping striped scarves, and me in my big brother’s bulky parka and my father’s winter cap. Delia could only make it from one end of the pond to the other by taking a running start and hurling herself headlong across the ice with a blood-curdling scream. The scream seemed to help—she almost always ended up on her backside without it—but her method was really all about momentum. I guess she figured that the slower she moved, the longer she had to worry about keeping her feet underneath her: if she made a single crazy charge it cut down the time she’d have to actually maintain her balance. And, in fact, she tore across the ice in such a blur, all flailing arms and spraying ice, that she barely had time to worry about falling. When she did she was usually already safely across, and she simply landed headfirst, with a tiny, triumphant cry, into the soft snow banked around the pond.
That was the thing about Delia: she very rarely did anything the way anyone else did. When we were eight or nine or so we suddenly became concerned with the way we looked, especially our hair. Our mothers had always been concerned with it, of course, brushing and braiding and trying, without too much success, to keep it neat and lady-like. My hair was very long then, thin and extremely blond, especially in the summer. Delia’s was a different story. Her hair wasn’t as long as mine, but it was such a wild and strange rat’s nest of curls and waves and snarls, it just wasn’t natural, her hair. It looked like a special effect. It looked like something you’d have to work on for hours and hours every morning, though I knew for a fact, having spent many summer nights with her in a tent in her backyard, that all she had to do in the morning was open her eyes and roll out of bed—or in this case a sleeping bag—and her hair always looked that way. Her mother used to say that it made her look like a witch. “Why don’t you try and brush it out a little, Dee?” she used to ask her, and Delia would take the brush her mother handed to her and touch the tip of it to one or two places on her head and then laugh and say, “It does make me look like a witch, kinda.” But at that age, I couldn’t think of anything better than to look that way. She had very large, very round pale blue eyes, and a snubbed little nose, and a round white face, and in the winter, when we came inside from ice-skating and she pulled off her hat and let all that static-charged hair tumble down around her shoulders—well, she did look like something supernatural. But at that age, what could I do but love her for it?
One day we were talking about the way we looked, what we wished we could change about ourselves, and what we liked about each other, and she said, “You know, Jen, the boys at school will never kiss me with my hair like this.”
“What?” We must’ve been in fourth or fifth grade by then, I guess, and we used to talk a lot about boys and kissing and other subjects that we really didn’t know very much about, but liked to pretend we did. “What do you mean by that?”
“Oh, you know. Just what I said.” That was a phrase of her mother’s that she’d picked up, just like my “What do you mean by that?” was from my mother; we were always picking up phrases our mothers used when they were bawling us out and trying them on each other.
“You can’t be serious,” I said.
“Sure,” she said. “It’s the witch thing.” She smiled, showing her tiny white teeth. “Boys don’t like it.”
“Sure they do. Look at Charley Watkins.”
“He doesn’t like me,” she said. “Who are you kidding? He likes you.”
I blushed; this was true. I just didn’t know anyone else knew about it. For about a month now, Charley and I had been meeting behind the bushes across from the monkey bars to kiss. We even exchanged notes in class. Lots of the girls were getting kisses at that point, too—hot, quick, sharp pecks from embarrassed and over-anxious boys whose only previous experience had been kissing their moms and their grandmothers. But as far as I knew, Delia had never had any.
“That’s not true,” I said. “Lots of boys like you.”
“Name one.” She rested her chin on her fist and looked at me calmly with those huge wet eyes, brushed back a lock of hair and smiled. “See? It’s true. I’m just too weird.”
And it was true. Delia was weird. But her main problem was that she wasn’t weird in school the same way she was weird at home. For some reason, the bigger audience made her shy. Out on the playground, she’d just sort of plant herself near the swings or the slides or the monkey bars, and stare and mimic people under her breath, or maybe stand alongside the jump ropers and chant strange variations of their songs to herself, so you could only hear her if you were very close. Everyone else just thought she was odd: the tiny girl with the wild hair and bug eyes, her arms folded and her shoulders hunched, watching people so closely it was as if she expected them to grow wings and fly away. But as soon as we walked home together from school, as soon as we were away from all the other kids, back in our own dooryards again, she was apt to explode into a strange high cackling laugh and sprint down the driveway flapping her arms like wings, and take a flying leap into a pile of leaves.
It was too bad that her stubbornness—her Delia-ness—had to get in the way of our friendship, but it did. When I started joining in in the jump rope and kickball, instead of just standing on the sidelines with her with my hands in my pockets, Delia was so disgusted with me that she let herself drift even further from where the action was. Sometimes, at the end of recess, when the bell rang and the rest of us sprinted back across the playground to the door in a gale of laughter and catcalls, I’d see Delia wandering slowly down from the hill behind the swings with her head down and her lips moving, her hair falling across her face.
I remember the first time it came to the surface how things were changing for us. One day I walked into the bathroom with one of my new friends, Becky Ryan, and saw Delia standing over the sink, making faces into the mirror. When she saw me come in, she smiled, stuck out her tongue and said, “I’m practicing for my big date with Charley Watkins.”
It was a joke, but when she noticed Becky standing behind me, she instantly blushed and dropped her eyes, and before either of us could say a word, she hurried out, silently brushing past us as if she had mistaken us for someone she knew.
That afternoon was the first time Becky mentioned her to me. “Didn’t you used to be friends with her or something?” she said, pointing Delia out to me across the parking lot: the short bent figure with the blowing hair, mumbling to itself as it scuffled along.
“When I was small I was,” I said, blushing a little, ashamed both that I had once been friends with her, this girl who as we watched her now reminded me of a turtle, and that it took no more than a comment from Becky Ryan for me to betray her.
“I don’t know how,” Becky said. “That girl’s a freak.”
“She’s definitely strange,” I said, quoting my mother. “No question.”
“And what was that scene in the bathroom?”
I shrugged. “She’s shy. She used to be a lot different, I guess.”
Becky shuddered. “She’s just too freaky for me.”
At least I left off at calling her a freak, but it was a despicable performance, all in all. Deep down, I felt terrible about how I was treating her, but I just didn’t know what I was supposed to do about it. It was up to Delia to make herself presentable to the rest of us, and if she didn’t—well, what did she expect us to do?
But as time went by, I didn’t have much chance to think about it. In seventh grade, I went out for field hockey and basketball, and made both, and was instantaneously lifted to a thrilling new social level, further from poor old doddering Delia than I’d ever been. Sometimes I’d see her leaving school alone, with her knapsack dangling from one arm, bouncing against her shins as she walked, while I went off to practice with my new teammates, Tasha and Pam and Sonya and Nancy. Under their influence, mainly Pam’s and Tasha’s, I gradually let my studies slide, and as we entered eighth grade, a bunch of us smoothly down-shifted into all of the “B” courses, while Delia struggled steadfastly along in the gradually dwindling “A” group—a lifetime member of the nerd herd. The only class we had together anymore was study hall, and I sat clear across the cafeteria from her, surrounded by six or seven chattering, giggling girls, all as popular as I was. In a back corner, Delia scribbled fiercely in a notebook, sometimes mouthing the words as she wrote, wearing giant silver hoop earrings so huge they almost touched her shoulders, and a checked flannel scarf tied around her head, like she wished she was a gypsy.
One day that year, I bumped into her on my way to a class and started to mumble, “I’m sorry,” before I even knew whom I’d run into. When I saw it was Delia, I started. She stood there in an ankle-length denim skirt and a baggy gray-green sweater, a gold bandanna around her head, hugging her books to her chest with both arms, slowly running her tongue over her bottom lip. She seemed tinier than ever; I was a good six inches taller than she was, and there was something in the way she hesitated that made it seem as if she half-expected to be punched in the mouth. “I’m really sorry, Delia,” I said again. “I didn’t see you.”
“Hello, Jen,” she said finally. She shook a lock of hair out of her face and sniffed. “Long time no see.”
“I’ve, you know, been pretty busy—”
“Sure,” she said. “How’s basketball?”
“Good.” I had no idea what else to say to her. “Very good,” I added, looking away.
“Well, I’m glad to hear it’s going well,” she said, with just the hint of a smile. “I see you cut your hair, finally.”
This made me mad—who was she, all of a sudden, to talk about my hair? “Yep,” I said, as coldly as possible. “Last month.”
“Looks good. Mine’s still the same as ever, as you can see.” She gave her head a little toss. “Maybe we’ll walk home together one of these days, if you don’t have practice.” I couldn’t tell if she was kidding, or trying to make fun of me, or what.
“Uh, sure,” I said, taking half a step down the hall.
“Great,” she said. “Sounds good. See you then.”
As I watched her disappear into the restroom, clip-clopping away in her hideous clogs, her skirt swishing, I suddenly hated her, just for standing there, daring to talk to me. “It’s not my fault, Delia!” I wanted to call after her. “You’ve done this to yourself! Just look at what you’re wearing, for God’s sake! What do you expect people to think?” But I knew it wouldn’t do either of us any good, even if I tried to explain it to her.
One Saturday afternoon, that same January, I was on my way to meet Sonya and Pam at the town skating rink, and when I came down our front steps, I looked over and saw Delia making miniature figure eights on our pond. When she spotted me, she called to me; as she tottered across the lawn in her skates, I waited in front of our house and tried to smile.
“Hi,” I said quickly, hoping to get the conversation over as soon as possible.
She grinned up at me, her cheeks, nose and chin cherry red, her big blue eyes watering around the edges, her improbable hair spilling down her back from under a backwards baseball cap. “Going skating?” She looked at the skates I had slung over my shoulder. “Stupid question, I know. There must be something going on at the park today, huh?”
I hesitated. “Kind of.”
“And I wasn’t invited?” she said.
No, you weren’t, I felt like saying, and you never will be, don’t you understand that? Everyone hates you now, Delia. Everyone hates you. “I really have to get going,” I said.
“All right. That’s okay, I guess.” She shifted her weight from one skate to the other, and touched her earlobe with her finger, and that “A” group arrogance, or poise, or whatever it was she’d had when we were talking in the hall, slipped away from her, and suddenly she seemed about eight years old again. “But you don’t—you don’t want to try the skating here?” she said. “Just for a second? Once or twice around? Just for old time’s sake?”
“I’d just really rather not,” I said. “I’m late as it is.”
“That’s okay. I know you’ve got other plans.” She was struggling to keep the bitterness out of her voice, but it wasn’t really working. “Well, have a good time anyway,” she said, and tried again to manage a smile.
“I will.” I looked away as she bit her lip. “You too.”
“I will,” she repeated softly, hollowly, more to herself than anything, turning to walk back across the lawn to her house, turning the cap around and pulling the rim down over her eyes. “Thanks.”
When I got to the top of our driveway I looked back over my shoulder, thinking that I ought to at least wave to her or something. But she must’ve already gone inside. I stood there for a second, trying to make out her footprints across the yard, watching the snow falling lightly over our pond, where one of Delia’s scarves lay in a sad little tangle of red and green. At first I almost didn’t want to move. I just stood there, shivering, squinting through the snow at Delia’s scarf. But then it got too much for me, it was too absurd, like something out of a movie, and I snapped out of it. I zipped my coat all the way up to my chin and continued on my way to the park, to my friends.