Cucumber Melon

Sonja Vitow's Y2K-era story of an intense Hebrew school friendship is a runner-up in Hey Alma's fiction contest.

On Tuesdays after school I go to synagogue to eat pizza and have confirmation class, and on Thursdays after school I go to synagogue to eat pizza and listen to Mrs. Schneider say I just don’t know what to do with you confirmation class kids over and over until she figures out a task for us. Today she has me parceling out snacks for the younger kids, which is fine. I like watching 8-year-olds practice their blessings so seriously over Dixie cups of grape juice and graham cracker crumbs.

None of my friends kept coming to Hebrew school after our bar and bat mitzvahs. Ilana’s mom says confirmation in Reform temples is a scam designed to keep kids going to synagogue, and Abe’s mom agrees. I’m the only freshman left, and I know what to do with myself about as well as Mrs. Schneider does.

Just head downstairs, Evy will get you up to speed, Mrs. Schneider instructs me. In the basement there’s an older student loading plastic jugs of juice onto a cart. Evy introduces herself and asks me my name when I forget to tell her. I pretend like I don’t know who she is either, even though I’ve known about her since the Noah’s Ark project, which was like two years ago and kind of unforgettable. I mean, it was a big project. Every grade, even kindergarten, was supposed to vote on an animal and make two of them for this enormous papier-mâché ark in the entryway to the synagogue. Evy caused a big stir by campaigning hard for the eighth graders to do Pikachu, and the vote was unanimous. Mrs. Schneider tried to shut it down, but according to everyone, Evy told her she’d said they could vote, and made a big deal about the democratic process, and basically called her a hypocrite if she didn’t let them make what they wanted. The ark is still there, two of everything collecting dust in the entryway: hippos, penguins, tigers, Pikachus.

Evy has blue hair and wears ripped jeans to synagogue which my mom would never in a million years allow, and pretty soon we’re making snacks and everything just feels easy like it hasn’t in a long time. I learn that Evy lives alone with her mom who she says is on sort of a “How Stella Got Her Groove Back” journey, that she doesn’t care what Evy does as long as she gets good grades and goes to Hebrew school. I learn that her mom doesn’t believe in Y2K but her zayde thinks the world will end on New Year’s Eve at midnight.

I say I’m not sure if it’ll end or not but I don’t care either way, which isn’t true but sounds cool and earns me a smile from Evy.

Evy smacks the radio Mrs. Schneider keeps in the basement until we get music. She sings along to everything, but I haven’t heard most of the songs before. When one finally comes on that I recognize, I tell Evy, oh I like this song, turn it up, and I sing the only words I know: I’ll be your flying soldier.

Evy laughs so hard it sounds like sobbing.

What? I say.

Crying shoulder, she manages to get out. What did you think a flying soldier was? And then I realize my mistake and I’m laughing so hard tears are streaming down my cheeks, and that’s how Mrs. Schneider finds us when she comes downstairs to see if snack is ready, all laughter and tears.

When it’s time to go home, Evy tears a piece of paper from her notebook and scribbles her screen name, n3v3rBth3sam3Aga1n, and says to IM her later. She says, It’s from a Guster song, what do you mean who’s Guster? I’ll have to make you a mix.

When I get home, I’m grossed out by my screen name, which I came up with in sixth grade when I was a literal child. There’s no way I’m IMing Evy as horsefriend1986. I make a new one: Fly1ngS0ld1er. I copy and paste the same IM to everyone on my buddy list: Sup it’s Leah I have a new screen name, Sup it’s Leah I have a new screen name, Sup it’s Leah I have a new screen name. It’s like 20 people, camp friends and cousins and classmates I haven’t seen since I switched schools. Some people don’t respond. One person says, Leah who?When anyone asks what Fly1ngS0ld1er means, I reply, It’s an inside joke, you had to be there.

I message Evy, Sup this is Leah, and she says, YooooooOOOOOOOOOO, and pretty soon she’s inviting me to hang out with her that Tuesday before Hebrew school, and then every Tuesday before Hebrew school and Thursdays too, and my mom is OK with it because she’s so happy I made a friend that she’s forgotten all about her no-junior-license-drivers rule.

Sometimes we do our homework in the park behind her house, which is usually pretty empty and has a cool creek. When we’re bored, we hunt for stuff, interesting rocks or coins or bottlecaps that Evy smashes flat and turns into earrings that my mom says will probably give me tetanus. We go to Minella’s most weekends to split fries and people-watch, and we dye her hair in her mom’s basement bathroom, first pink, then green, then purple.

Mostly we talk, about her parents’ divorce, or Joe Weissman, who felt her up in Suburban Square and then pretended to lose her screen name, or why I really switched schools, about my ex-best-friend, Ali and the new girl, also named Ali, and everything that happened that day at Villanova Skating Arena, how I’d hid behind a dumpster in the parking lot so nobody would see me cry, crouched down and trying to balance in my rollerblades until my mom came to get me, how I sobbed the whole way home about how I wasn’t an Ali, and not only wasn’t I an Ali, I was the kind of person who could never be an Ali no matter how hard I tried.

Evy says, Fuck them and I laugh and say, Yeah, fuck them.

Evy shows me how to turn my camp t-shirts into halter tops, how to make purses out of duct tape, how to do my eyeliner just like hers, a thick black outline that my mom says, with my round face, makes me look like a raccoon. We go as Buffy and Willow for Halloween, even though at least three people say, Aren’t you a little old to be trick-or-treating? and close their doors without giving us candy.

I listen to the mixes she makes me of her favorite bands, Guster, Weezer, Dispatch, the Goo Goo Dolls. Pretty soon I have them memorized and we drive around singing at the tops of our lungs, If you want to destroy my sweater (whoa whoa whoa), hold this thread as I walk away (as I walk away). Evy likes the way I sing, so I do the main part and she does the backup, the whoa whoa whoas and the walk away.

Most nights we stay online until almost 1 a.m., chatting and placing bets on if the songs we’re downloading off Kazaa will be what they say they are. Once, we thought we were downloading “Kryptonite” and got Backstreet Boys instead, so there are real risks to this system. Sometimes when I’m falling asleep at night, I think about what it must be like to be her, to be Evy, and I wake up touching myself. 

In December, Evy goes on a temple youth retreat with the other Jewish teens from her school and I’m left at home. Evy spends the week leading up to it talking about the friends she hasn’t seen in a year and the shit they might get into.

Honestly, once you get through all the prayer and philosophical discussion, this retreat is the horniest weekend of the year, Evy tells me. I nod and pick at my nails, which I can’t help doing when I’m nervous, even though my mom says it’s gross.

That weekend, I put up an away message that says I stick loneliness/your lips/and the two coins of your eyes/into my pockets ~ DiSpAtCh, and I distract myself by cutting up old copies of YM and Seventeen to make collages of women with objects where their faces should be: books, house plants, toasters. The trick is picking out objects that look lost, if that makes sense. The other trick is gluing the hair just right so they look like real people.

On Sunday night, Evy finally comes online with news: She has boys for both of us, brothers, a sophomore and a freshman, like us.

Seth is super hot in a Dashboard Confessional kind of way, she types, which I know is the absolute best way a guy can be hot. He plays guitar in an emo band, she goes on and on. He has this cool spiky hair and wears black nail polish. His brother seems smart. I told him all about you and he was into it.

I don’t know, I say.

Come on, she types. Don’t we want someone to kiss on New Year’s Eve? Suddenly that seems obvious, of course we want someone to kiss on New Year’s Eve, especially if it’s the last one before the world ends. She tells me that the Jewish Youth Federation is throwing a big Y2K party at Wynnewood Lanes called “Bowling into the New Millennium.

I already told them we’re going, she writes.  

My mom will never let me in a million years, I write back, and she responds that she bets my mom will say yes because it’s a temple event, and there will be chaperones, and of course she’s right. My mom says she’s happy I’ve been invited to a party, and even gives me $25 to buy something to wear. That Saturday, Evy and I head to the King of Prussia mall and fight our way through the masses of Christmas shoppers so we can look for going-out tops at Wet Seal.

Sequins are the only way to greet the apocalypse, Evy says, as we paw through rows and rows of satin and lace.

On Sunday, Evy invites the brothers to Minella’s. We get there early so she can do my eye-liner in the parking lot. I watch our breath while she fixes me up, spearmint clouds that join together and then evaporate into the cold air.

Oh, they’re here, says Evy, shoving the eyeliner into her duct-tape purse as an old, blue station wagon pulls into the lot blasting something loud and unfamiliar.

Seth shows up exactly as described, his hair gelled into spikes, his ripped black jeans hanging low around his hips. His brother, Jonah, is also as described, in that he wears glasses and that makes him seem smart. In the diner, Seth and Evy sit on the same side of the booth. They press up against one another like the booth is a third its size. I slide in across from them and push myself as close to the wall as I can get.

When the waitress comes, Seth orders a Coke for himself and a Diet Coke for Evy, and then afterwards, says, Is that good? Chicks love Diet Coke, and Evy smiles and nods yes even though I’ve never seen her get a Diet Coke once, we go to Wawa at least twice a week and she always gets Mountain Dew, which she says is like Sprite on steroids. Jonah asks me if I’d like a Diet Coke. I shake my head no and order a Sprite and fries for me and Evy to split like always.

When the waitress leaves, Evy says something I can’t hear, and I say, What? but she doesn’t repeat herself and I realize I’m not involved in whatever is going on over at their side of the table. Jonah asks me if I like “Star Wars,” and I say no, and he goes on to tell me how he dressed as Luke Skywalker for Halloween five years in a row, how his mom made an Ewok costume for their bichon frisé, how disappointed he was by “The Phantom Menace,” saying, I wanted to sit shiva but my mom wouldn’t let me.

On the ride home, Evy tells me she felt Seth’s dick under the table.

You gave him a hand job? At Minella’s? I say, more shocked than I want to sound.

Calm down, Leah, it wasn’t a hand job, my God. I just felt his thing through his jeans.

She describes the feeling of denim growing under her hand, and I think about this video we watched in science class, a time-lapse of fungus growing on a log after rainfall, the mushrooms coming up slowly at first, how they kept coming until the whole log was covered.

When she asks me how I liked Jonah, I say that he seems nice, and she says, Good, because he’s definitely into you, and then, Come on, Leah, it’s so obvious.  

Before break, Evy asks me if it’s cool if I get a ride home from Hebrew school on Thursday. I do my best not to look disappointed, but I’m relieved on Thursday when she greets me there with a new mix, bands I haven’t heard before that she swears I’ll love: Saves The Day and Good Charlotte. My mom picks me up and I pop it in the CD player and she winces the whole way home, saying that Evy’s other mixes sound like moaning, and this one sounds like whining, and somehow the moaning is better. 

On New Year’s Eve, Evy picks me up to get ready at her house, where we blast our music and ceremoniously put on our sequined tops over nice jeans. Evy parts my hair for me, a complicated zig-zag that never works when I do it. For her, my hair stays, and we declare it a New Year’s Eve miracle.

You look hot, she tells me, and paints my nails with black Wet ‘n Wild we got from CVS. I walk around the room blowing on them and fanning myself while Evy spritzes both of us with a cucumber melon spray that smells good but makes me sneeze.

Wynnewood Lanes is famous around here because it’s the only bowling alley in town and because the woman who works there has the longest mullet any of us have ever seen. When we walk in around 9:30, Mullet Lady gives us her trademark glare and gets us bowling shoes and a lane and reminds us to make good decisions.

No drugs or alcohol, she says. You can bowl until midnight, but if you leave, you can’t come back in. Those are the rules.

The guys show up around 9:45 and by 9:46 Evy is sitting on Seth’s lap even though our lane has two empty seats. She bowls first, knocking down seven pins.

Maybe next round I’ll give you some pointers, Seth teases.

Yeah? Let’s see how much better you can do, Evy says.

Seth only knocks down five pins, and Evy taunts him with his own words. Maybe next round I’ll give you some pointers, and then Seth pushes her a little, and she pushes him back, and then he pushes her again and Jonah and I are just kind of sitting there trying not to look at them.

When it’s my turn, I walk around them to bowl a spare, and Jonah gives me a high five before taking his own turn, two aggressive gutter balls that I pretend not to see.

The second one almost knocked down some pins, I say, feeling generous.

Evy is back on Seth’s lap and the two of them are so close that it’s impossible to see either of their faces through the veil of Evy’s hair.

You’re up, Jonah informs them, louder each time, and it goes on like that for two games, Seth and Evy emerging only to take their turns, groggy like bears coming out of hibernation. Neither of them seems to notice when one game ends and another begins, or when Jonah finally knocks down some goddamn pins, or when Mullet Lady comes by to tell them, Break it up, come on now, you’re in public, don’t make me tell you again.

At 11:55, Evy pokes her head up and tells me they’re going to step outside for a few minutes.

But it’s almost time for the countdown, I say.

Hey Jonah, Seth says, nice bowling ball, a blue ball makes a lot of sense for you. He cracks up and Evy cracks up and Jonah just sits there holding the ball.

I don’t get it, I say, and Evy says, Of course you don’t.

Jonah, why don’t you explain it to her? Seth says with a smile I don’t like, and Jonah turns bright red, which is probably why Seth said it, I decide, as he motions for Evy to follow him to the front door.

They’re not going to let you back in if you leave, I remind Evy.

Stop worrying so much, we’ll be right back, she says, laughing and taking Seth’s hand.

When? I ask. How? and she calls back, God, Leah, soon, and then I hear her say to Seth, This is what I get for hanging out with a freshman as they leave the bowling alley laughing.

Hot, wet shame floods my body like lava. I slip down awkwardly into the hard cradle of the vinyl chair, gripping the sides as tightly as I can.

My brother is kind of a dick, Jonah says apologetically.

Fuck your brother, I say, closing my eyes, the countdown to midnight echoing all around us, the thunder of counting and shouting and bowling balls exploding into pins and gutters washing over me, while I hold on tight and wait to find out if this is the end of the world.

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