The Bread We Eat in Dreams, Page 2Catherynne M. Valente
“Fuck you, Oster” shot back Halloran. “I’m going first. You’re bigger, it’s not fair.”
Halloran got his punch in before he had to hear any more about what Justin Oster had never done and the two of them went at it, fists and blood and meat-slapping sounds and pretty soon they were down on the ground in the spilled-Coke and week-old-rain mud, pulling hair and biting and rolling around and after awhile it didn’t look that much like fighting anymore. I watched for awhile. Coyote looked up at me over their grappling and dragged on his smoke.
Just look at them go, little sister, I heard Coyote whisper, but his mouth didn’t move. His eyes flashed in the dark like a dog’s.
LaGrange almost ruined it all at Homecoming. The LaGrange Cowboys, and wasn’t their QB a picture, all wholesome white-blonde square-jaw aw-shucks muscle with an arm so perfect you’d have thought someone had mounted a rifle sight on it. #9 Bobby Zhao, of the 300 bench and the Miss Butter Festival 19whatever mother, the seven-restaurant-chain owning father (Dumpling King of the Southland!) and the surprising talent for soulful bluegrass guitar. All the colleges lined up for that boy with carnations and chocolates. We hated him like hate was something we’d invented in lab that week and had been saving up for something special. Bobby Zhao and his bullshit hipster-crooner straw hat. Coyote didn’t pay him mind. Tell us what you’re gonna do to him, they’d pant, and he’d just spit onto the parking lot asphalt and say: I got a history with Cowboys. Where he’d spat the offensive line watched as weird crystals formed—the kind Jimmy Moser (safety #17) ought to have recognized from his uncle’s trailer out off of Route 40, but you know me, I don’t say a word. They didn’t look at it too long. Instead they scratched their cheeks and performed their tribal ask-and-answer. We going down by the lake tonight? Yeah. Yeah.
“Let’s invite Bobby Zhao,” Coyote said suddenly. His eyes got big and loose and happy. His come-on look. His it’ll-be-great look.
“Um, why?” Jimmy frowned. “Not to put too fine a point on it, but fuck that guy. He’s the enemy.”
Coyote flipped up the collar of his leather jacket and picked a stray maple leaf the color of anger out of Jimmy’s hair. He did it tenderly. You’re my boy and I’ll pick you clean, I’ll lick you clean, I’ll keep everything red off of your perfect head, his fingers said. But what his mouth said was:
“Son, what you don’t know about enemies could just about feed the team til their dying day.” And when Coyote called you Son you knew to be ashamed. “Only babies think enemies are for beating. Can’t beat ‘em, not ever. Not the ones that come out of nowhere in the 4th quarter to take what’s yours and hold your face in the mud til you drown, not the ones you always knew you’d have to face because that’s what you were made for. Not the lizard guarding the Sun, not the man who won’t let you teach him how to plant corn. Enemies are for grabbing by the ears and fucking them til they’re so sticky-knotted bound to you they call their wives by your name. Enemies are for absorbing, Jimmy. Best thing you can do to an enemy is pull up a chair to his fire, eat his dinner, rut in his bed and go to his job in the morning, and do it all so much better he just gives it up to you—but fuck him, you never wanted it anyway. You just wanted to mess around in his house for a little while. Scare his kids. Leave a little something behind to let the next guy know you’re never far away. That’s how you do him. Or else—” Coyote pulled Cindy Gerard (bottom of the pyramid and arms like birch trunks) close and took the raspberry pop out of her hand, sipping on it long and sweet, all that pink slipping into him. “Or else you just make him love you til he cries. Either way.”
Jimmy fidgeted. He looked at Oster and Halloran, who still had bruises, fading on their cheekbones like blue flowers. After awhile he laughed horsily and said: “Whaddaya think the point spread’ll be?”
Coyote just punched him in the arm, convivial like, and kissed Cindy Gerard and I could smell the raspberry of their kiss from across the circle of boys. The September wind brought their kiss to all of us like a bag of promises. And just like that, Bobby Zhao showed up at the lake that night, driving his freshly waxed Cowboy silver-and-black double-cab truck with the lights on top like a couple of frog’s eyes. He took off that stupid straw hat and started hauling a keg out of the cream leather passenger seat—and once they saw that big silver moon riding shotgun with the Dumpling Prince of the Southland, Henry Dillard (linebacker #33) and Josh Vick (linebacker #34) hurried over to help him with it and Bobby Zhao was welcome. Offering accepted. Just lay it up here on the altar and we’ll cut open that shiny belly and drink what she’s got for us. And what she had was golden and sweet and just as foamy as the sea.
Coyote laid back with me in the bed of my much shittier pick-up, some wool blanket with a horse-and-cactus print on it under us and another one with a wolf-and-moon design over us, so he could slip his hands under my bra in that secret, warm space that gets born under some hippie mom’s awful rugs when no one else can see you. Everyone was hollering over the beer and I could hear Sarah Jane laughing in that way that says: just keep pouring and maybe I’ll show you something worth seeing.
“Come on, Bunny Rabbit,” Coyote whispered, “it’s nothing we haven’t done before.” And it was a dumb thing to say, a boy thing, but when Coyote said it I felt it humming in my bones, everything we’d done before, over and over, and I couldn’t even remember a world before Coyote, only the one he made of us, down by the lake, under the wolf and the moon, his hands on my breasts like they were the saving of him. I knew him like nobody else—and they’ll all say that now, Sarah Jane and Jessica and Ashley and Cindy Gerard and Justin Oster and Jimmy Moser, but I knew him. Knew the shape of him. After all, it’s nothing we hadn’t done before.
“It’s different every time,” I said in the truck-dark. “Or there’s no point. You gotta ask me nice every time. You gotta make me think I’m special. You gotta put on your ears and your tail and make the rain come for me or I’ll run off with some Thunderbird QB and leave you eating my dust.”
“I’m asking nice. Oh, my Bunny, my rabbit-girl with the fastest feet, just slow you down and let me do what I want.”
“And what do you want?”
“I want to dance on this town til it breaks. I want to burrow in it until it belongs to me. I want high school to last forever. I want to eat everything, and fuck everything, and snort everything, and win everything. I want my Bunny Rabbit on my lap while I drive down the world with my headlights off.”
“I don’t want to be tricked,” I said, but he was already inside me and I was glad. Fucking him felt like running in a long field, with no end in sight. “Not into a baby, not into a boyfriend, not into anything.”
“Don’t worry,” he panted. “You always get yours. Just like me, always like me.”
I felt us together, speeding up towards something, running faster, and he brushed my hair out of my face and it wasn’t hair but long black ears, as soft as memory, and then it was hair again, tangled and damp with our sweat, and I bit him as our stride broke. I whispered: “And Coyote gets his.”
“Why not? It’s nothing we haven’t done before.”
When I got up off of the horse blanket, marigold blossoms spilled out of me like Coyote’s seed.
Later that night I fished a smoke out of my glove box and sat on top of the dented salt-rusted cab of my truck. Coyote stood down by the lakeshore, aways off from the crowd, where the water came up in little foamy splashes and the willow trees whipped around like they were looking for someone to hold on to. Bobby Zhao was down there, too, his hands in his jean pockets, hip jutting out like a pouty lip, his hat on again and his face all in shadow. They were talking but I couldn’t hear over everyone else hooting and laughing like a pack of owls. The moon came out as big as a beer keg; it made Coyote’s face look lean and angelic, so young and victorious and humble enough to make you think the choice was yours all along. He took Bobby Zhao’s hand and they just stood there in the light, their fingers moving together. The wind blew off that str
aw hat like it didn’t like the thing much either, and Bobby let it lie. He was looking at Coyote, his hair all blue in the night, and Coyote kissed him as hard as hurting, and Bobby kissed him back like he’d been waiting for it since he was born. Coyote got his hands under his shirt and oh, Coyote is good at that, getting under, getting around, and the boys smiled whenever their lips parted.
I watched. I’m always watching. Who doesn’t like to watch? It feels like being God, seeing everything happen far away, and you could stop it if you wanted, but then you couldn’t watch anymore.
A storm started rumbling up across the meadows, spattering their kisses with autumn rain.
Suddenly everyone cared about who was going to make the Devil’s Court this year. Even me. The mall was cleared out of formal sparkle-and-slit dresses by August, and somehow they just couldn’t get any more in, like we were an island mysteriously sundered from the land of sequins and sweetheart necklines. Most of us were just going to have to go with one of our mom’s prom dresses, though you can be damn sure we’d be ripping off that poofy shoulder chiffon and taking up the hems as far as we could. Jenny Kilroy (drama club, Young Businesswomen’s Association) had done all the costumes for The Music Man in junior year, and for $50 she’d take that cherry cupcake dress and turn it into an apocalyptic punkslut wedding gown, but girlfriend worked slow. Whoever took the Homecoming crown had about a 60/40 chance of being up there in something they’d worn to their grandmother’s funeral.
The smart money was on Sarah Jane for the win. She was already pregnant by then, and Jessica too, but I don’t think even they knew it yet. Bellies still flat as a plains state, cotton candy lipstick as perfect as a Rembrandt. Nobody got morning sickness, nobody’s feet swelled. Sarah Jane shone in the center of her ring of girls like a pink diamond in a nouveaux riche ring. 4.0, equestrian club, head cheerleader, softball pitcher, jazz choir lead soprano, played Juliet in both freshman and senior years, even joined the chess club. She didn’t care about chess, but it looked good on her applications and she turned out to be terrifyingly good at it—first place at the spring speed chess invitational in Freemont, even seven months along. You couldn’t even hate Sarah Jane. You could see her whole perfect life rolling on ahead of her like a yellow brick road but you knew she’d include you, if you wanted. If you stuck around this town like she meant to, and let her rule it like she aimed to.
Jessica and Ashley flanked her down every hall and every parade—a girl like Sarah Jane just naturally grows girls like Jessica and Ashley to be her adjutants, her bridesmaids, the baby’s breath to make her rose look redder. All three of them knew the score and all three of them made sure nothing would ever change, like Macbeth’s witches, if they wore daisy-print coats and their mothers’ Chanel and tearproof mascara and only foretold their own love, continuing forever and the world moving aside to let it pass. So that was the obvious lineup—Queen Sarah Jane and her Viziers. Of course there were three slots, so I figured Jenny Kilroy would slide in on account of her charitable work to keep us all in the shimmer.
And then Friday morning arrived, the dawn before the dance and a week before the showdown game with Bobby Zhao and his Cowboys. Coyote howled up 7 am and we woke up and opened our closets and there they hung—a hundred perfect dresses. Whatever we might have chosen after hours of turning on the rack of the mall with nothing in our size or our color or modest enough for daddy or bare enough for us, well, it was hanging in our closets with a corsage on the hip. Coyote took us all to Homecoming that year. And there in my room hung something that glittered and threw prisms on the wall, something the color of the ripest pumpkin you ever saw, something cut so low and slit so high it invited the world to love me best. I put it on and my head filled up with champagne like I’d already been sipping flutes for an hour, as if silk could make skin drunk. I slid the corsage on my wrist—cornflowers, and tiny green ears not yet open.
Coyote danced with all the girls and when the music sped up he threw back his head and howled and we all howled with him. When it slowed down he draped himself all over some lonesome thing who never thought she had a chance. The rest of us threw out our arms and danced with what our hands caught—Jessica spent half the night with mathletes kissing her neck and teaching her mnemonics. Everything was dizzy; everything spun. The music came from everywhere at once and the floor shook with our stomping. We were so strong that night, we were full of the year and and no one drank the punch because no one needed it, we just moved with Coyote and Coyote moved, too. I flung out my arms and spun away from David Horowitz (pep squad, 100-meter dash), my corn-bound hand finding a new body to carry me into the next song. Guitar strings plinked in some other, distant world beyond the gymnasium and I opened my eyes to see Sarah Jane in my arms, her dress a perfect, icy white spill of froth and jewels, her eyes made up black and severe, to contrast, her lips a generous rose-colored smile. She smelled like musk and honeysuckle. She smelled like Coyote. I danced with her and she put her head on my breast; I felt her waist in my grasp, the slight weight of her, the chess queen, the queen of horses and jazz and grade point averages and pyramids and backflips, Juliet twice, thrice, a hundred times over. She ran her hand idly up and down my back just as if I were a boy. My vision blurred and the Christmas lights hanging everywhere swam into a soup of Devil red and Devil gold. The queen of the softball team lifted her sunny blonde head and kissed me. Her mouth tasted like cherry gum and whiskey. She put her hands in my hair to show me she meant it, and I pulled her in tight—but the song ended and she pulled away, looking surprised and confused, her lipstick dulled, her bright brown eyes wounded, like a deer with sudden shot in her side. She ran to Jessica and Ashley and the three of them to Coyote, hands over their stomachs as though something fluttered there, something as yet unknown and unnamed.
The principal got up to call out the Devil’s Court. My man was shaken by all the heavy grinding and spinning and howling that had become the senior class, but he got out his index cards all the same. He adjusted his striped tie and tapped the mic, just like every principal has ever done. And he said a name. And it was mine. A roar picked up around me and hands were shoving me forward and I didn’t understand, it was Sarah Jane, it would always be Sarah Jane. But I stood there while Mr. Whitmore, the football coach, put a crown on my head, and I looked out into the throng. Coyote stood there in his tuxedo, the bowtie all undone like a brief black river around his neck, and he winked at me with his flashing hound-eye, and the principal called three more names and they were Jessica and Ashley and Sarah Jane. They stood around me like three fates and Mr. Whitmore put little spangly tiaras on their heads and they looked at me like I had caught a pass in the end-zone, Hail Mary and three seconds left on the clock. I stared back and their tiaras were suddenly rings of wheat and appleblossoms and big, heavy oranges like suns, and I could see in their eyes mine wasn’t rhinestones any more than it was ice cream. I lifted it down off my head and held it out like a thing alive: a crown of corn, not the Iowa yellow stuff but blue and black, primal corn from before the sun thought fit to rise, with tufts of silver fur sprouting from their tips, and all knotted together with crow feathers and marigolds.
And then it was pink rhinestones in my hands again, and blue zirconium on my Princesses’ heads, and the Devil’s Court took its place, and if you have to ask who was King, you haven’t been listening.
After that, the game skipped by like a movie of itself. Bobby just couldn’t keep that ball in his hands. You could see it on his face, how the ball had betrayed him, gone over to a bad boy with a leather jacket and no truck at all. You could see him re-sorting colleges in his head. It just about broke your heart. But we won 24-7, and Coyote led Bobby Zhao off the field with a sorry-buddy and a one-game-don’t-mean-a-thing, and before I drove off to the afterparty I saw them under the bleachers, foreheads pressed together, each clutching at the other’s skin like they wanted to climb inside, and they were beautiful like that, down there underneath the world, their helmets lying at their feet
like old crowns.
Nothing could stop us then. The Westbrook Ravens, the Bella Vista Possums, the Ashland Gators. Line them up and watch them fall. It wasn’t even a question.
I suppose we learned trig, or Melville, or earth science. I suppose we took exams. I suppose we had parents, too, but I’ll be damned if any of that seemed to make the tiniest impression on any one of us that year. We lived in an unbreakable bubble where nothing mattered. We lived in a snowglobe, only the sun was always shining and we were always winning and yeah, you could get grounded for faceplanting your biology midterm or pulled over for speeding or worse for snorting whatever green fairy dust Coyote found for you, but nothing really happened. You came down to the lake like always the next night. After the Ravens game, Greg Knight (running back #46) and Johnny Thompson (cornerback #22) crashed their cars into each other after drinking half a sip of something Coyote whipped up in an acorn cap, yelling chicken out the window the whole time like it was 1950 and some girl would be waving her handkerchief at the finish line. But instead there was a squeal of engine humping up on engine and the dead crunch of the front ends smacking together and the long blare of Greg’s face leaning on his horn.
But even then, they just got up and walked away, arm in arm and Coyote suddenly between them, oh-my-godding and let’s-do-that-againing. The next day their Camrys pulled up to the parking lot like it was no big deal. Nothing could touch us.
All eyes were on the Thunderbirds.
Now, the Thunderbirds didn’t have a Bobby Zhao. No star player to come back and play celebrity alumnus in ten years with a Super Bowl ring on his finger. A Thunderbird was part of a machine, a part that could be swapped out for a hot new freshman no problem, no resentment. They moved as one, thought as one, they were a flock, always pointed in the same direction. That was how they’d won six state championships; that was how they’d sent three quarterbacks to the NFL in the last decade. There was no one to hate—just a single massive Thunderbird darkening our little sky.