Zap Arnaud knows how to fill a doorway. You should see it—he takes that space and keeps it for his own. Zap stands in the doorway of classroom 201 and the painted wooden beams frame his body like they were built that way, like he commanded the door to assemble around him and it listened.
I prefer to slink. Alice, Mom always says, stand up straight. Did those years of ballet teach you nothing?
When Zap walks, he sinks into his lower back and adds a sort of swing to his step—it’s not a swagger; he’s not that kind of guy. I bet his mom still buys his pants. Zap’s mom gets blonde highlights every month, she has no wrinkles, and she calls everyone sveetheart. She’s French. So is his dad. They moved to America at age eighteen, and met in the French Student Alliance at Yale. They’ve been in love ever since. Real love. Mr. Arnaud buys Mrs. Arnaud flowers on his way home from work, and sometimes they hold hands in public.
His name isn’t actually Zap. It’s Antoine, pronounced Ant-won. He’s gone by Zap since the fourth grade, though, because one day he came to school dressed in a gigantic lightning bolt costume he’d made from a cardboard refrigerator box. It was the week after the flash flood of 2004 which killed 12 people in the town over. He painted the lightning bolt yellow and harnessed it on with a pair of suspenders. All day he went around saying Zap, Zap, Zap, passing out fun-sized Snickers bars. He was a force of nature, he said, but the kind that brought joy instead of harm. I thought this was so great. Everyone did. After school, he and I went to the lake behind his house and watched the clouds roll toward the mountains in surrender.
Zap plays soccer. He can play any sport—sophomore year he was recruited for the football team—but he’s best at soccer. At the game last week, they announced his full-ride soccer scholarship to Penn State. I wasn’t there, but I heard. He’s the only one accepted to college so far.
Zap, take a seat, my math teacher says. He strolls to his desk and slides effortlessly in. I fumble with the awkward metal bar that connects the chair to the tiny wooden desk—but Zap doesn’t notice these things.
His girlfriend plays soccer, too. Jenna is beautiful. She has long blonde hair and a body that’s both round and thin, in the correct respective places. Jenna got a 17 on the ACT (out of 36), so her parents hired a full-time tutor and she took it twice more. She got a 17 again. And again. They might be in love, Zap and Jenna, but it’s hard to tell with pretty people. They naturally look happier.
Zap and I were best friends once. But now his shoulders are too broad and his teeth are too straight and his hands are tan and smooth, the veins traveling across them like rivers on a map. In April of our seventh grade year, he was barely five feet tall, and by September he’d reached six feet. He stopped calling every night. But I understand. That’s how things go sometimes. Anyway, you should see how Zap Arnaud stands in doorways—I promise, you’ll know what I mean.
Alice, my dad yells up the stairs. Hurry up!
The mirror in my bedroom is covered in dust, but even in the blurry reflection, I look like a girl made of sticks. My elbows jut outward, bony and awkward, my chest is flat, and my hair just lies there, brown and thin against my scalp. I’m wearing a sheer purple shirt, the most feminine thing I own, and it hangs shapeless and boxy around my waist.
Mom and Dad are fighting by the front door. Not now, Mom says. Do you really want to do this in front of the Arnauds? Mom’s been sleeping in the guest room for the past year because of Dad’s “cough.” Not now, Janine? Dad says, laughing his meanest laugh, hearty and deep. You brought this on yourself.
In eight months, I’ll be in a dorm room somewhere. Stanford, maybe. Maybe my roommate will be vomiting in the bathroom because maybe we’ve gone out the night before and we had a lot of fun.
I spread light pink blush over my cheeks. I only wear makeup on the first Wednesday of every month, when we go to dinner at Zap’s (which has been a tradition since the flood all those years ago. Community building, my mom said). Makeup doesn’t do me much good. I try to remember what Miss Amy, my old ballet teacher, used to say about vertebrae alignment and how it makes you look more confident, but I swear I can’t tell the difference between slumping and standing straight.
What are you all dressed up for? Dad snorts when I come down the stairs.
You look nice, Mom says.
I suddenly feel extremely stupid in my childish purple shirt.
In the car, Dad laughs sarcastically to himself every few minutes and Mom fidgets with the radio dials, switching from classical to country and back again. Could you pick a goddamn station already? he says. She sighs. Come on, Richard. Let’s try to have a nice night.
Zap’s mom buys everything from the Pottery Barn catalog. My mom shops in the clearance section at Bed Bath and Beyond. The difference is noticeable.
Lovely to see you. Zap’s mom hugs me. She and his father both speak with strong French accents. Antoine couldn’t make eet tonight. He’s off working on a big group project. Eet’s due tomorrow.
Zap and I are in all the same classes. We have two exams tomorrow, and a kickball tournament in P.E. We don’t have any group projects.
As the parents migrate to the dining room, I mumble, Bathroom, and take off for the stairs.
The Arnaud’s upstairs bathroom belongs in a Hilton Plus Rewards Suite. The hand towels match the bath towels and there’s a golden tray for the bar of soap. I pluck a paper towel from the basket next to the sink, run it under cold water, and rub it across my cheeks. Zap isn’t coming, but I don’t care. I swear I don’t. I just wish I hadn’t bothered with the makeup. It’s caked to my skin—the more I rub, the redder my face gets. So I sit on the bathroom floor listening to the clink of silverware and my Dad’s nicest laugh booming from the dining room.
Once, when we were twelve, Zap said, I bet you can’t beat me in a wrestling match. We lost ourselves in each other’s limbs on his bedroom floor, shrieking and pinching playfully. He always won. One night he pinned me down and counted one, two, three. After three he didn’t move. We stayed that way, panting. His hot breath painted my collarbone, sweet and ragged. Bits of the scratchy rug tickled my spine. Sometimes it’s like I can still feel the weight of him, straddling my stomach, breathing hard, all the muscles in our bodies tense with apprehension and confusion and some sort of love. It’s incredibly heavy.
I know his house by heart, so I creep across the dim hall and flick on the lights.
Zap’s bed is unmade. The blue sheets are balled at the foot and the beige pillowcases are crumpled halfway down the pillows. I imagine his body flung along the length of it, warm with careless sleep. Clothes are strewn across the floor and school papers are piled on the desk in messy stacks. His soccer trophies line the far wall and a framed photo of Zap and Jenna sits on the nightstand.
Against the far wall is a carefully constructed model airplane, hand painted and land bound in a clear glass case. I’ve never seen this before—when we were younger, Zap never expressed an interest in model airplanes, or in airplanes at all.
This breaks my heart. I couldn’t tell you why. I guess that’s the difference between loving someone—really loving someone—and doing it from afar. You can know exactly how their hands look. You can count the lines on the palms that shoot upward in math class, and you can know those knuckles. They’re thick, mountains rising from a plain. But those hands have created something delicate, a miniature and impeccable combination of glue, paint and sticks. This took care, precision and a certain level of tenderness—all of which you didn’t see.
I fake a headache at dinner. I feel very young.
The letter comes in the mail the next morning.
I tell my English teacher. She tells everyone else. They say things like Congratulations and Wow, that’s so awesome, Alice.
Zap finds me after math class. He’s wearing a soccer jersey with his name printed across the shoulder blades. Jenna stands a few feet away, laughing with a group of friends.
Congratulations, Alice, Zap says. I can’t remember the last time he spoke my name. My mom told me this morning. Stanford, huh?
Thanks, I say.
I want to mention the airplane. I don’t know what I would say. Maybe that I want to pin him down on the scratchy rug and count to infinity—no, not that. It’s simpler.
Let’s get together sometime before you go, Zap says with an empty shrug. He glances distractedly over my shoulder. We should celebrate.
I remember what the water looked like the day after the flood. The banks were overflown and muddy—the lake didn’t have the capacity for all that rain. The lightning had scared away the ducks and the fish were too afraid to jump, even though the storm had ended and a pinprick of sun peeked nervously through the curtain of clouds. The lake was black, uninterrupted, like a pool of blood spreading away from a wound.