A String of Paper Dolls - Uncharted

A String of Paper Dolls

By Sage Tyrtle

We all agree that Michelle K. gets first dibs on the new boy.

Her hair’s the longest, and besides, her last boyfriend had a Corvette and was in university. When Michelle K. was going out with him Lisa was all, “But why can’t a twenty-five-year-old find someone his own age to date?” and we were like Lisa shut up oh my god.

Anyway. The new boy Bill Cicero is kind of short but he makes up for it with his Simon Le Bon eyes. And his denim jacket and the way he leans against the brick wall of the school entrance. And his hair, which is exactly the right amount of tousled. When the bell rings for lunch we run to the cafeteria and stand in line. We’re sure Bill Cicero will be sitting with the varsity football guys but he’s not even in the cafeteria. I mean, we look.

We’re halfway through lunch and about to give up when Lisa says he’s probably grabbing a cigarette with the stoners behind the gym and we all finish our chocolate milk at the same time and get up to go and Lisa looks up at us and is like, “I didn’t mean I wanted to go find him,” but we don’t listen because he belongs to Michelle K. and what if another girl gets there first? We can’t let that happen.

On the way to the gym we check the skaters, the drama kids, the goths, even the chess club — we know he’s not going to be with the chess club but we are being thorough — and there is no Bill Cicero and lunch is practically over. Then Michelle B. has to stop and get a drink at the drinking fountain and we are very worried we’re not going to find him. We wonder if we imagined him but we check and we all remember him existing this morning.

Lisa is like, “This is embarrassing and I didn’t even get to finish my lunch,” but we ignore her. When we make it to the stoners they are listening to Loverboy on a boom box and laughing their dumb stoner laughs. They look like they all went to Goodwill on the same day and by the time they were done, there were no ugly black jeans left. We’re kind of scared to go over there and ask if they’ve seen Bill Cicero but we don’t know where else to check so Jessica says she’ll go, she kind of knows them because her brother was a stoner last year before he got into Irvine and started wearing Izod shirts. But she comes back and says they haven’t seen Bill Cicero either and we are like AUGH! but on our way back to the cafeteria we see him in the middle of the football field. He’s spinning in a circle, then jumping forward, then doing it again. And maybe… crying?

Stephanie is like I don’t think we should go over there, I don’t care how long his eyelashes are he is acting like a total weirdo and we all agree but then Bill Cicero sees us and comes running over. He doesn’t even fix his hair or say hi. He looks at Lisa like we don’t exist and says, “What year is it, okay? Just, fuck, tell me what year it is. Tell me your name is Emily.” His face is red and we are pretty sure now that he was crying before.

Lisa says, “Um… what year do you think it is?”

He doesn’t answer, just says, “I need a phone,” and even though he’s wigging out we can see that if he and John Travolta had a Best Lips competition Bill Cicero would totally win.

We all point to the gym where the payphone is that we call our moms on after school and say we’re going to each other’s houses but really we go to Steve Pratt’s house and drink wine coolers.

Bill puts his hand in his jeans pocket really slow like we are five-year-olds and says, “I. Need. A. Phone.” Then he holds one hand out in front of him and pokes the air with the fingers of his other hand, and we’re the dumb ones?

We stare at him.

Bill Cicero sits down and puts his head in his hands.

Stephanie twirls her finger in the air next to her ear and we all nod really hard but Lisa sits on the grass next to him and she touches his bare arm which we think must feel like tiramisu tastes. Lisa says again to Bill Cicero, “What year do you think it is?”

He looks up at us. “Um, can you tell them to quit staring at me and go the fuck away?”

We don’t know why he’s being so rude but we don’t have to stick around for it and we turn at the same time and walk away. We think Lisa’s going to follow us but she doesn’t. She doesn’t even come to Algebra and she’s always in Algebra.

After the last bell, we find Lisa waiting by our lockers and she’s just looking at the ground. We are like, what happened, did you touch his arm again, did you kiss, are you guys going together now, oh my god, Mrs. Lisa Cicero! and Jessica sings the wedding song and Lisa just goes, “What classes did we have last year?”

Which we did not expect her to say.

Michelle B. is like, last year we took Pre-Algebra and… but then none of us can think of any other ones. Stephanie says history but it’s a guess and we’re starting to worry but then Michelle K. is like, too many wine coolers at Steve Pratt’s house and we all laugh but then as Jessica is putting her hair in a ponytail Lisa goes, “What does your bedroom look like?”

We don’t know why she’s asking these dumb questions and we are like, what, and Lisa says, “Can anyone describe their bedroom?”

And Michelle B. is like oh my god fine a pink canopy bed and a Rob Lowe poster he’s in a tank top and Stephanie is like me too but then so does Jessica. We all look at Michelle K. She is like, okay, but lots of girls have pink canopy beds. And that Rob Lowe poster. Tons of girls.

Lisa says, like she doesn’t want to, “Is there a stuffed hippo on the bed? And lacy white curtains and a scratch-and-sniff strawberry sticker on the mirror?”

We all nod, real slow.

Lisa says, “Your moms all have short curly brown hair. Brown eyes. Big tortoiseshell glasses and hoop earrings. If you try to picture her, you can only imagine her in a green Christmas sweater.”

Michelle B. slams her locker and says this is stupid and who wants to go to Burger King and we do want to go to Burger King but we also want to know what Lisa is talking about and how she knows that we can only imagine our moms in a green sweater. So we stand and stare at Lisa for about a hundred years.

Lisa says, “This isn’t real. We’re all in a movie.”

We keep staring at her.

Lisa says, “I know it sounds crazy. But Bill Cicero says he’s an actor. Like, a big deal actor. And he showed up to film a movie that’s set in the eighties. And then… he spun around on the field as part of this one scene and… and there were no more lights or cameras or director or anything. He was inside the movie.”

We are like, yes, that sounds crazy and she should not talk to Bill Cicero anymore.

Lisa says, “Okay! I know! But he described your moms! He described your rooms! He said that stuff was in the script, that you guys were ‘thinly drawn caricatures’ and that the two main characters were, were him and me —”

Michelle K. slings her backpack over her shoulder and says she’s going home, and if Lisa wants a weirdo like Bill Cicero for herself she can have him without making up stupid bullshit lies and we are all about to stomp off to Michelle K.’s house when Lisa says, “Fine. Where do you live?”

Michelle K. opens her mouth but doesn’t say anything.

Lisa says, “Where do any of you live?”

We look at each other. We can’t remember where we live or the classes we had last year and Lisa keeps asking and asking and we can’t remember what we had for breakfast or what Steve Pratt looks like even though we have been to his house a hundred times and Lisa says, “Bill Cicero thinks that if he and I re-create the scene, the one that got him here, he’ll go back to where this is a movie.”

And that is it, we can’t remember if we have a dad or not and we’re supposed to help this stupid guy? Stephanie and Michelle B. say fuck Bill Cicero and we are about to walk away from Lisa but we remember again that we don’t know where we live and Jessica starts crying first and then we are all crying.

Lisa mutters, “I can’t believe I never noticed how you all cry. One tear? Trickling down to your chin? That is… I should have noticed that.”

After we have all cried silently for a while Jessica hands out Kleenex and we all wipe our one tear. Michelle K. re-does her lip gloss. Okay. Okay. We can do this. We ask why Lisa isn’t in the field helping Bill Cicero right now and Lisa says, “Because all of you were in the scene too. That’s what he told me. It’s got to be all of us and in the scene, you were watching us, and me and Bill Cicero were — were dancing. On the  field.”

We say that sounds like a really stupid scene, and if she really were dancing with some boy on the field we would have better things to do than watch her and Lisa kind of laughs and we laugh and it’s nice, laughing together. We say okay, that we’ll go with her to the field and do whatever it is we’re supposed to do because Lisa is our friend, after all. We walk past the drama kids who just keep saying, “Rhubarb rhubarb,” to each other and we are like, oh what a weird drama exercise and Lisa says, “What do you mean?” and we’re like they’re talking gibberish and Lisa says they’re rehearsing Our Town and our stomachs are fluttering but we don’t say anything.

When we pass the chess club and they’re saying, “Watermelon cantaloupe, watermelon cantaloupe,” we can tell that to Lisa they’re talking about chess and our breath is catching in our throats. But we know it’s okay because we’re going to help Bill Cicero. And then everything will go back to how it was. And we ask Lisa how long it will take to remember our lives after Bill goes back to wherever he came from.

We’re still walking and Lisa isn’t saying anything and we’re trying not to notice how blurry the quad is even when we look at it directly and it takes Lisa a long time to say, “You don’t… there aren’t lives to remember. You’re like —“ She doesn’t say anything else.

We quit walking so she does too. We tell her to finish her sentence and she won’t and we say finish your fucking sentence Lisa and she won’t and we surround her and we never noticed how short she was before and we hiss that she needs to finish her sentence and she says, craning her neck to look up at us, “You’re like… paper dolls.”

And we see, all at once, that if Lisa wanted to run — why would she want to run, we are her friends — but if she wanted to run she couldn’t and she is so small that anyone walking by chanting about cantaloupes wouldn’t be able to see anything.

We want her to consider the ways in which we are not made of paper, and we start by touching her hair which isn’t permed like ours, it’s just straight — she probably can’t even get a spiral perm at Supercuts, and speaking of that why are we allowing a girl who gets her hair cut at Supercuts to talk to us, much less sit with us at lunch — and for fun Jessica pulls Stephanie’s spiral curl and it sproings back and we laugh in a merry way and we pull Lisa’s hair but it’s straight and it’s Supercuts so it just comes out, leaving a bloody spot on her head and we laugh louder.

Lisa whispers, “Don’t,” but we close in, we touch her face, avoiding the pimples we don’t have, we slap her face a little bit, just to explain that we are not paper dolls — except why can’t we remember what rain feels like, what the dark is — and Michelle K. smashes her a little bit on her face and breaks her nose, we think, and there is a lot of blood. Lisa is squatting down and trying to cover her face and she is crying but not like we cry, not pretty. Lisa’s face is covered with snot and blood and her mouth is open and she is whooping sobs. And we never thought about it before, but Lisa has never had a boyfriend, never even been kissed, and boys don’t talk to her, boys don’t even register her existence, and we’re the paper dolls?

We turn, all of us at once, we turn to see if anyone heard her but they’re just walking by — and didn’t we see that boy in the band uniform walk by already, eating the first bite of his sandwich already, no, shut up, shut up — and when we turn back Lisa isn’t there and she must have crawled between our legs when we weren’t looking and we’re pretty sure we know where she’s going. She’s going to the football field, she’s going to try to help Bill Cicero get back to his other world and we are thinking maybe we could go, we are thinking we might be real there, we might have something more than choosing whether to hate ourselves or eat lunch and we start running together.

Lisa is so far ahead but we are fast, we are together and she is alone and Stephica’s kitten heels tear and Jessichelle’s arms are ripping but we are still gaining on Lisa, who is almost to Bill Cicero who isn’t looking at her at all, he’s looking at us and he is screaming, “Run faster,” and his mouth is open and his hands are over his head and we think there must be something so scary behind us so we turn and look but there’s nothing and Michephanie B.’s hair has never been this textured or this glossy and Lisa is running across the grass and the wind is whipping and it’s getting darker and we are so strong, we are so powerful and maybe in Bill Cicero’s world there would be something more in our heads than that June 9 is Michael J. Fox’s birthday. Something more than whether to wear Ultra Pink Cream or Flaming Fuchsia Frost on our nails to the dance on Friday and we are making eight-legged leaps toward Lisa and Bill Cicero who are both screaming, who are both crying, and Lisa is saying, “We have to dance, we have to dance,” and Bill Cicero is shaking his head, he curls in a ball on the grass and puts his hands over his ears and closes his eyes and Lisa does that spin and twirl that he was doing before, she does it twice by herself and on the third time — she’s gone. She’s gone.

And the sky turns back to a cloudless blue and the sun is rushing across the sky, from the west to the east, and then perches a little above the horizon. And for a moment it feels like we are falling but maybe we are just remembering that our necks are long but not that long, just a little bit longer like models’ necks, and Michelle K. helps Bill Cicero up because she has first dibs on him. And Jessica fusses over his hair and Stephanie and Michelle B. brush the grass off the back of his denim jacket. And we wait, because it feels like usually at this point someone else would say something, but no one does.

And the bell for first period is ringing so we help Bill Cicero find his schedule in his pocket. At first, he is straining, trying to get away from us, looking around like something’s after him. But we just wait, smiling with our half-open lip-glossed lips and he moves slower and slower until he stops. And he nods at Michelle K. and flutters his Simon Le Bon eyelashes and says, “Hey.” And everything is good and everything is right and we don’t know why we ever worried, of course, Flaming Fuchsia Frost is the right colour for the dance on Friday.

All of us walk across the football field and the morning dew on the grass is sparkling. It’s almost like we’re in slow motion. Over by the gym, the stoners are blasting The Smiths on their boom box. And we just feel like laughing, we don’t even know why, as we walk together toward the school and the sun shines.

About the Author

Sage Tyrtle's work is available or upcoming in Apex, X-R-A-Y, and The Offing among others. She's told stories on stages all over the world and her words have been featured on NPR, CBC, and PBS. She runs a free online writing group open to everyone. Twitter: @sagetyrtle

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