Belladonna

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June 22, 2022 by The Citron Review

by John Salter

 

If Elvis had parachuted into a convent, there would have been less chaos than when you arrived in our seventh-grade classroom, Donna. “Short for belladonna,” you said, when Mr. Price made the introduction, “which means beautiful lady in Italian.”

“And the name of a plant,” Mr. Price said, “also known as deadly nightshade.”

You were a mid-semester transfer and alluded to some trouble at your last school. Within an hour, all of us boys had forsaken our regular crushes, and all the girls hated you. How could we not? Your figure had developed, as the old ladies might say, and you exuded the kind of worldliness we’d rarely seen, even in our older sisters and their friends. Your hair was like a roller coaster with its curves and hills and valleys, and your blue-shadowed eyes swallowed us whole.

You had the desk next to mine in the rear of the classroom, and I was so transfixed that more than once, Mr. Price had to bark my name and say, “Eyes forward.” You were prone to loud outbursts of laughter at odd times, like when Laura Moran was shyly reading her poem aloud, or when Michael Vincent was struggling with an equation on the chalkboard.  We boys huddled around you in the lunchroom, lavishing you with gifts of chocolate milk and peach cobbler, slices of pizza. We gladly went hungry just to get those store-bought eyelashes fluttering and your husky voice saying thanks honey.

You didn’t live in our neighborhood. You came from somewhere we’d never been, getting picked up after school in a two-door Impala with tinted windows and a bad muffler. Sometimes I waited at the corner with you, smoking cigarettes, trying not to say much because real men didn’t say much. My little girlfriend, Gina, turned to glare as she waited to cross the street one day and you looked at me and said, “What you need is a nice Catholic girl like that.”

“I like the bad girls,” I said, and you laughed and pressed your cool hand against my cheek.

Mr. Price had a hard time keeping things on an even keel. We’d been humming along at a good clip, turned the corner at Christmas, and had graduation in our sights. This was the last time we’d all be together in one school before we scattered to various junior highs. Mr. Price had been working us hard, wanting us to hit the ground running wherever we landed, whether in public or parochial school. We’d knocked out Animal Farm and most of us halfway understood it. We’d been dabbling in algebra. He wasn’t a complete hard-ass. Though he expected a certain amount of order, he allowed us some adolescent exuberance. But you, Donna, you tested the integrity of the rivets holding it all together. One day I looked over and you had a blue condom which you were blowing up like a balloon. Very few of us had ever seen a condom and certainly not a blue one. Nor had we seen one get loose and spiral through the room and land three feet from Mr. Price’s desk. He used a yardstick to flip it into the garbage can and while he may have wanted to use the yardstick on you, too, he simply sent you off to the principal’s office.

I tried everything I could to make you mine, including getting myself into trouble to show you I wasn’t a little boy like the others. I brazenly let a full pack of Marlboros bulge from my shirt pocket, but Mr. Price simply confiscated it and thanked me. “Now I don’t have to buy smokes today.” No detention, no principal’s office, nothing to set me apart. I lamented my small stature and the absence of anything resembling puberty bubbling within me. Still, I tried to win you over with what I had. I made you laugh, and I let you copy my test answers. You liked to yawn and stretch dramatically so that your bosom threatened to burst your Ramones t-shirt, turning to smile at me while you were doing it, and I mistook this for true love.

But not long before you left, we were in the stairwell, lagging behind the others on the way up to Spanish class. It was just the two of us and the air took on a new weight, something more than anticipation, almost approaching destiny. I maneuvered to be a couple steps above you so that we’d be of equal height when we kissed. You were not going to be the first girl I kissed but the first one for whom kissing was no doubt the start of something and not the destination. But you scampered past, and like in a music video, pointed down at me and belted out some Meatloaf: I want you, I need you, but there ain’t no way I’m ever gonna love you. Then you ran off. I climbed the stairs, lead-legged with dejection. Mr. Price was on the landing, arms crossed. “Two out of three ain’t bad,” he said, deadpan.

You vanished as suddenly as you’d appeared. One Monday morning you just weren’t there, and Mr. Price refused to explain. We had only our lurid speculation. The class moron suggested you were pregnant and although this wasn’t a bad theory, I walloped him, and we fought on the slushy ground. I was defending your honor but you weren’t there to see it. You left behind a wake of Aqua Net and broken hearts. My girlfriend forgave me my sins but when we were at her house after school and she started to tease out her hair, making it look bigger than it really was, I said no, please, don’t.

 

John Salter is the author of a novel, A Trout in the Sea of Cortez, and Alberta Clipper, a story collection. His short fiction has appeared in Massachusetts Review, Chattahoochee Review, Third Coast, Chiron Review, New World Writing, Florida Review, Meridian, and elsewhere. He lives in Fargo, North Dakota.

 

 

 

 

 

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