Leon drives us back to town in silence.
I watch the night rushing by outside the window and imagine the window is a projection frame like the one in the water; I imagine scenes playing out in glowing color on its surface. I imagine it’s earlier this evening and I’m looking with disdain at Walter’s car. I imagine it’s this afternoon and I’m looking at my face in the mirror before it’s ready. I imagine the simple light streaming through my window when I first woke up. Rewinding and rewinding, all leading up to now.
Leon stops the car short of my driveway, keeps his foot on the brake. Perhaps it’s embarrassment—showing up a different person from the boy who took me from here five hours before—or perhaps it’s courtesy, not wanting to wake my grandparents with headlights in the windows. Though he can surely see that the lights are still on.
I feel like saying something. “Thank you,” I say. “I had a good time. I’m glad we got to dance.”
Leon nods but does not look at me. He puts the car in park.
“And you know—I wish it had been that way from the start. I wish we had spent more time together. I do regret turning you down,” I say. There is a tugging in my chest when I say it, a fluttering of stomach. I become suddenly aware of how fleeting this evening could prove to be, how easily we could part for the night, return to our homes and our prior lives, and never speak again. I realize I am scared to get out of the car. I realize I am scared to see it pull away.
“Leon,” I ask, “will you kiss me?”
And though he’s not sent me a glance the whole ride back, though he’s gone all silent and stiff, he turns toward me now. His seat creaks as he shifts his weight over. He plants one hand by my thigh and tilts my chin up with the other so our lips meet level. His are cool, gentle, just a little over-dry. It is good. He is good at it, like I thought he’d be. I leave my eyes open during, which I have never done. I want to see it. I want to remember, so I can replay and replay.
Leon’s brow as he kisses me is furrowed, sweetly set and serious. We finish and his eyes flutter open. They meet mine. They are distant, almost anxious. They send a thrill through me, as I try to meet them with a look of my own, a look that says Stay. Stay.
Leon shies back.
“What?” I ask. “What is it?”
Leon says nothing to me and he does nothing to me either. He looks out the windshield and wipes his mouth once, absently, with the back of his hand, curling it up to his mouth like an animal with a wounded paw.
I become bold. I have to. I reach over, put my hand at the side of his face, and his face beneath my hands is smooth and soft like a girl’s ought to be. “I want to,” I say. “Don’t you?” Because this is the only way to keep what we saw safe. Because what happened tonight won’t survive him taking his car and leaving. “You didn’t just want to be my prom date,” I say. I can hear the new edge in my voice. “Don’t you want to be with me?”
“I did,” Leon says, almost a whisper. “I did want to,” he says. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
I can see in his eyes that it troubles him. He will duck his head after a moment, and he won’t look at me again.
It makes me wonder what mine could have said back to him, what they’re saying now—now that he has all the secrets I kept in me, now that they are his as much as mine.
When I open the front door it is like Christmas has come for my grandfather. He sits cross-legged on the floor, surrounded by tools and by crumpled peaks of packing paper. The biggest tools are furthest from him, and as I tiptoe closer on my blistered feet I see why—the ones he is using are miniscule; he must have had to empty the toolbox just to find them. A tiny screwdriver is in his hand. “Look what I got,” he says, and holds up a new video camera like a trophy.
“You already have one, Grandpa,” I say.
“Not this one,” he returns, and launches into a defense of its many innovations and improvements; there is a power zoom, an auto-release something-or-other. He does his best to sound excited, though I can tell there is something wrong.
“What about the old one?” I say.
He puts the new camera down. “It broke,” he says remorsefully. “We didn’t get anything of you getting ready earlier. I don’t know what happened.”
I bend down to rest my feet, put my hands on his shoulders. “It’s all right,” I say. “The video’s not important to me.”
“But to your mom and dad.” He is smiling apologies at me, as everyone does when they talk to me about my mom and dad. “They’re being relocated back to the island, but they’re making a stop in the capital first. We were going to send your video to them while they have access to mail,” he says.
I use his shoulder as leverage to get up. “They’re not my real parents, and if they wanted to be, they could come live in the same part of the world as me,” I say breezily, and as I say it I feel it’s true: that I belong to no one, now; that they and everyone should come to me from now on, if there’s something they want out of me.
“Is she back?” calls my grandmother from somewhere else in the house. After a moment her feet come scuffing against the kitchen floor and into the living room. “There’s our girl after her first formal!” she exclaims, approaching with her arms open wide.
“The floor is cold, Grandma,” I say, accepting the hug, wrapping her round with my arms. “Put on socks.”
“I dance better without,” she says, and twirls me under her arm though she’s shorter.
“I’m about danced out,” I say, slipping off my shoes, turning my toes out to show the blisters.
“Oh my,” she says. “Do you need medicine?”
“No,” I say. “Just rest.”
“Did that Walter step on them?” barks my grandfather.
“No,” I say, picking my shoes up from the floor, retreating to the hallway. “It turns out Walter doesn’t dance.”
Which leaves them, I imagine, rather confused—I can picture them in the room after I leave it, my grandmother standing in her bare feet amid the piles of packing paper, tightening the sash on her nighttime robe; my grandfather steadying his screwdriver, tinkering with the new camera without looking at it. And the worst part, the thought that makes my eyes well up as I shut the door to my room, is the way I imagine they look at each other—the way they say nothing and still trade worries about me with their eyes.
My room is terrible and clean, the dress bag folded and this morning’s clothes hung, the bed made, as if nothing has happened. I guess that here, nothing has. I pass by the mirror. I expect damage to have been done to my dress, dots of mud and a ripped hem.
It’s pristine. It’s the same. Leon kept it safe. But I was so sure it could not be worn again.
Of course, you only need to wear it once. But.
I am suddenly miserable at still being dressed. My shoes make a cheap clatter where they fall, though they are made of real leather and silk. I step over them and collect the bag and hanger for my dress. Out of habit I move to the window to close the curtains. The window gleams before me, black, black. It shows me my ghost double, soft curls past the shoulders, dress nicked and lake-spattered, stretched out and lived-in. This is how I should look. No need for the rigid hive of curls, no need for the crown, which lies abandoned in Leon’s car. I wonder when he will find it. I wonder if he will keep it, forever, to remember when I was his dream.
I wonder how many secret movie screens exist in the world. I look into the black of my window now, reaching back, drawing down the zipper of my dress. My ghost is watching from some detached and distant world, slumping, contorting to escape the glimmer of satin, the bright of brassiere, bare skin near invisible in the windowpane, only the eyes left, glowing, watching. The expression hopeful and angry and longing and denying all at once.
I look at it and heave half a laugh.
Nothing has changed, and everything is easy. I will go to school on Monday; Leon will be too scared to say anything to me; Walter will accept my apology. Being alone, being the only one who knows me—it’s my imagination. I have never been left alone. It was funny, the look he accused me of wearing, wasn’t it?
I hadn’t understood—how funny it was.