A Way of Life

I.

One thing Sarah hates about Todd is that he’s always late. She’s been sitting at McKinney’s for half an hour. She’s watching a basketball game between Duke and Kentucky, not quite sure which team is which. A man with a neatly trimmed goatee and too much Calvin Klein is trying to explain the intricacies of the zone defense and why it’s bullshit that it was banned in the NBA for so long. Sarah nods, and declines his drink offers politely. At 9:27 she excuses herself and goes to the bathroom. At 9:31 she emerges, wiping at a water stain on her silver blouse which makes her look like she’s lactating. She can hear Calvin Klein’s nasal voice rising as she reaches the corner. He’s arguing with someone. Not angrily, but with glee. His words are cut off by another man. Sarah knows it’s Todd from the easy going arrogance that smothers his words. Duke is a joke, but you know that, right? They won’t make it out of the Sweet Sixteen this year, if they get that far, he says.

She stands at the corner for a moment, out of sight. She wants to make Todd wait now, to let him feel the dread of a potential cancel press down on his chest. A short Mexican busboy walks by her. He stares openly at her, a woman he’s a bit taller than, standing in the dark corner near the bathroom. Sarah sees him and half-waves, half-shoos him away. When a waiter walks by and asks if everything is okay, she decides to find a new hiding spot. There’s no way she can make it to the dining area without going through the bar and being spotted by either Calvin Klein or Todd. She decides instead that Todd will foot the bill.

Todd sees her first as she turns the corner, and opens his arms in an exaggerated gesture. Calvin Klein’s face noticeably darkens, but he spins his stool back towards the television out of respect. Sarah also dislikes that Todd greets her with a hug instead of a kiss, as if she is a cousin that he is not particularly fond of. He’s told her time and again that it’s not her, it’s him, he’s uncomfortable with public displays of affection. But Sarah likes them. A lot.

Late again, Sarah says

Helps build the anticipation, he says.

Glad you think so, Sarah says. Hope you don’t mind building the anticipation for a few more days then.

Todd laughs. I can hold out longer than you.

Sarah doubts that. Before she’d started seeing Tony again, it had been so long that she’d started using the word celibate to describe herself. It made her feel like a nun at first, but she’d grown to enjoy the reverence it earned her among her female employees. They were all middle aged women, each from a different Old Country. She was the woman who chose to resist the pleasures of the flesh, righteous and pure no doubt thanks to her own immigrant parents. It also made her the main target of her male employees, and the unwitting subject of a betting pool regarding how long she’d hold out.

They sit at the bar, next to Calvin Klein. Todd finds out that his name is Walter. He’s in town for an aviator’s show at the convention center. He works for Granville Brothers Aircraft in East Boston. Todd asks him what it’s like to fly an airplane. Walter doesn’t know, he works in sales. He’s afraid of heights. Sarah concocts a joke pointing out the irony, but thinks better of it. It is an irony that has been pointed out to Walter hundreds of times. She imagines that his coworkers harass him about his fears. They will call him Walt to really put the screws to him. How was the drive to Hartford, Walt, they’ll ask. They’ll laugh at him. Sarah doesn’t want to laugh at him too.

The game ends. Duke 57, Kentucky 63. The three have been chatting amiably, but now Walter pays his tab and stands. He has enjoyed their company, but he must get to bed as the show kicks off early the next morning. He tosses a couple of dollars on the counter and says goodnight, his scent lingering long after he has exited the restaurant. Sarah watches as the bartender sneers at the tip he’s been left and grabs the bill. She is now very glad she didn’t take a drink from Walter. She doesn’t want anyone tipping poorly in her name.

She looks over at Todd. He is nursing a Sam Adams Octoberfest. The mouth of the bottle disappears beneath the scruff of his facial hair as he puts it to his lips. Old chickenpox scars dot his brown skin. The arms of his wireframe glasses rest not on his ears, but in the jungle of hair on his head. Sarah feels the warmth of the alcohol and her desire rising in her, filling up her head like a balloon. He turns to her.

Ready to go?

Yes.

For Todd, a display of affection is not public as long as there is no one around to see it. There is no one in the parking lot two hundred feet from McKinney’s. He presses Sarah against the driver’s side door as he kisses her and runs his hand underneath her blouse and around the waistline of her pencil skirt. He has told Sarah that she is the first woman he’s touched since his divorce, and that he sometimes feels guilty. If he’d shown this much interest in his ex-wife they would still be married. She became fat when she got pregnant, which he expected. She stayed fat after their daughter was born, which he hadn’t. Her double chin became permanent. Her belly protruded from beneath her engorged breasts.  At first, his ex-wife’s weight gain excited him in a way he couldn’t explain. It was like sleeping with a new woman. Sarah thought that was strange, but hadn’t said so once he’d explained it. It was one of those secrets he needed to dump without judgment.

You drive, Sarah says as she gasps for air.

The ride is quiet. Sarah focuses her attention on the radio’s digital display. 93.7, radio FM. Chaka Khan- Through the Fire scrolls across the readout. She marvels at this technological leap forward.

Todd does not like silence. If you were a mutant, what would your name and power be, he asks.

Rogue Rain, Sarah says. I’d control the weather.

That was fast.

I’ve thought about this several times. What would yours be, she asks. Name and power.

The Black Watch. Time Traveler.

That sucks. There’s already a black guy time traveler.

Yeah, but that’s not his power. He just time travels. Like how Wolverine’s powers aren’t actually his claws.

It still sucks.

They reach Todd’s apartment complex, a bland box built with sandy yellow brick. Todd attempts a U-turn into a parallel park right in front of his door and fails miserably. He instead maneuvers his late-90’s era Honda Accord in a sloppy K-turn, earning an obnoxious horn honk from a car forced to go around him. Sarah chuckles. Todd is always talking about how good of a driver he is, that he’s never had an accident. She chalks that up to the good sense of the other people on the road.

Upstairs, she makes herself comfortable on the ratty cranberry loveseat on the far wall of the living room. The furnishings are hideously mismatched. Todd’s computer desk and TV stand are the austere black of Wal-Mart’s mid-line offerings. The sofas look like they belong in a low-budget stoner film. There are no curtains. There is also nothing on the walls, save for a single picture of Tahira, wearing her favorite purple dress in a year-old school picture. Sarah forgives Todd’s lack of imagination because he keeps his bathroom and his kitchen spotless. A dirty toilet is a cardinal sin.

Todd sits next to her on the loveseat and takes her hand in his. The air has been let out of her balloon. She is tired and content to feel the warmth of his body next to her instead of on her. The room is silent. Sarah can hear the pounding of feet on the floor above them. The upstairs neighbors keep strange hours, clomping about at inconsistent and random times. Todd and Sarah have turned their behavior into a game, attempting to match their noisiness with exaggerated shouts of pleasure during their sessions. Even when they are watching a movie, Sarah echoes their stomps with screams and Todd grunts in between stifled laughs. The police have been called twice, with some embarrassed patrolman asking Todd and Sarah to keep their lovemaking sessions quieter. Tonight, Sarah can’t muster the energy for another round of the game.

I think I want to change my mutant name, Sarah says, laying her head on Todd’s shoulder.

To what?

Katiana.

That’s a nice name.

It’s my real name. I mean, my Christian name. I have my legal, boring American name, and the name I was given at my christening.

What does it mean, he asks.

I don’t know, I never asked. I like the mystery.

So when Adrian comes over and you two get married, which name goes on your marriage license?

The legal one, duh. But they’ll probably call me Katiana during the church ceremony.

Am I invited?

Do you want to go?

Sure, why not.

Then sure, why not.

Todd turns on the television. Out of consideration for Sarah, he turns the channel from SportsCenter. Late Night with Jimmy Fallon is about to begin. Sarah almost wishes he’d left it on ESPN. Instead of complaining, she closes her eyes. The beer and the sofa take care of the rest.

II.

It’s Friday morning, and Sarah is happy. Her father is out of the restaurant for the day. Her mother is in the store room, doing inventory. She is left alone to man the register. The Marias are working the tables today, three women who somehow manage to always get scheduled together despite the difficulty their shared name causes. They also share a similar appearance, short and dark skinned. Sarah believes they are mestizo, a word she learned in her Spanish Empire history class but never dares to say out loud. Sarah has taken to calling them Maria Uno, Dos and Tres.

Sarah is often confused as being Hispanic. She is not, although in college she did go on a date with a boy whose mother was born in Ponce. All Sarah remembers of the boy is this odd fact, and that his shoulders were double-jointed. He demonstrated this by holding a pen with both hands in front of him, then bringing the pen over his head and behind his back without letting go. He performed this feat at the table in a Mexican restaurant as the waiter brought out their dishes. She asked for the check less than fifteen minutes later, leaving half of her chimichanga, half of the bill and a generous tip.

She thinks this is why the Marias like her so much. Her big, kinky brunette hair and toasted complexion reminds them of their own daughters, left back home in Ciudad de Mexico and Bumbona and Pedregal. They bring her arroz con gandules and tortillas and flan for lunch, and must remind themselves not to speak to her in Spanish when they greet her in the morning. Sarah has started going to Zumba classes three times a week instead of two to combat the fat creeping into her hips and thighs.

In fact, she is Greek. Her parents left Marathos in 1979 to come to the United States. They opened a restaurant like any good Greek immigrant family, a pizzeria, in 1984. On January 11th, 1986 Sarah Katiana Milonas was born. She has worked for her parents since she was tasked with refilling the napkin dispensers at age two. Two years ago they added her name to the lease, and she began working with her parents as a co-owner. Her job has remained exactly the same: whatever her parents tell her to do. But now her requests of the other employees are commands as far as they are concerned. She enjoys this more than she likes to admit to herself.

Sarah glances at the Peanuts calendar on the wall. November 17th. Adrian will arrive in one month and two days. Just in time for Christmas. They have been video chatting since the summer, and she is looking forward to seeing him in person again. When he arrives, there will only be seven months until the wedding, and there is much to do. Plans have to be finalized. They have to find a place to live. She has to learn if he drools in his sleep. How he likes his coffee. Whether or not he’s circumcised.

Until then, her main concern is keeping the pizzeria open. The city of Hartford has, in its wisdom, blocked the only road which passes in front of the shop. Aside from city construction workers who call Sarah mamacita, business has slowed to a trickle. She misses seeing the young couples and the groups of boys come into the dining room for lunch. They were teenagers, skipping out on Salisbury steak and fish sticks at their school’s cafeteria. They scraped together their money, not enough for two slices and a drink, so Sarah gave them water for free. One couple consisted of a girl with long hair which was red at the tips. Sarah usually refrained from using the word beautiful, a habit which grew out of a rant from her creative writing professor. This girl qualified. Her skin was as smooth and even as a bar of dark chocolate. Her fingernails were perfectly filed and French manicured with a fresh coat of clear lacquer every day. Her boyfriend was a pimply, homely mess with a bad fade and chapped lips. Sarah wasn’t sure if she respected the girl even more, or pitied her. It has been weeks since Sarah has seen this couple, or any students. The pizza is not worth the trouble of them crossing the no-man’s land of construction equipment and exposed hazards between the high school and the pizza shop.  They’ve laid off four people in the last two months. Sarah leaves this task to her father. It’s her least favorite part of being one of the bosses.

Mr. Giorgios still comes in every day at 12:30. He orders a single slice of cheese pizza to justify talking to Sarah’s father for hours about the good days back home and how Chancellor Merkel is a Nazi trying to finish what the krauts started seventy years ago. He hobbles up to the register, the result of drunk driving, scanning for Sarah’s father. She sees the disappointment in his eyes when he can’t find him.

Kalispera, manari mou, he says.

Good afternoon, Mr. Giorgios. The usual?

Please.

Sarah grabs the slice from the display case. She opens the top door of the pizza oven, bracing for the blast of heat and soot against her face. She feels nothing. The oven is not on. She hasn’t sold a piece of pizza since 4:49 yesterday afternoon. She apologizes to Mr. Giorgios for the wait, and explains that her father is down at city hall, raising hell to get the giant concrete barrier strangling their business removed. Mr. Giorgios nods. It is getting increasingly difficult for him reach the shop.

Enough about that, he says. What about you? How are you?

I’m good. Well. I am well.

Good. How old are you now?

27.

My word! I remember when you were born. Your mother had your swing set up right there, near the sink.

Sarah tunes out of the conversation at this point. She checks in from time to time to make sure it is going exactly how it has for the last four years. Mr. Giorgios talks about her as a baby, then talks about his own daughter, Anastasia. He recalls her big blue eyes, like marbles made of sapphire. Sarah automatically hands him a napkin as he reaches the part of the story where he tears up, the part where he admits that he hasn’t spoken to her in almost ten years. Not since she eloped with that frog with greasy hair and expensive clothes. He concludes by dabbing at his eyes and lamenting the fact that he’s never met his grandson, and that he would like to, if he only knew what to say. Sarah has heard this story one hundred and thirty eight times, the precise number of times her father has been out of the restaurant when Mr. Girogios walks in. She comes back into the conversation, ready to answer the inevitable next question.

So my dear, when are you finally getting married? Don’t elope. Get married, yes, but don’t elope.

Soon. Next July.

Opa! That’s wonderful, he says. He casts a glance down at her ringless hands. Sarah feels the heat radiating from the oven. She turns to toss the slice of pizza in.

I’m engaged to be engaged, she says. I’m waiting for him to arrive in America.

What’s the young man’s name?

Adrian Mihalopoulos.

Ah, a nice Greek boy. How wonderful.

Yes. Very Greek.

Mr. Giorgios launches into the story of how he met his wife, which Sarah has also heard one hundred and thirty eight times. She hoped to escape the story this time, now that she can answer his marriage question in the affirmative, but no such luck. As Mr. Giorgios describes Katalina Giorgios as the most beautiful woman in all of Athens in 1972, Sarah wonders if she will one day say the same thing about Adrian to younger people bored with her stories. It was possible that he was the most handsome man in Marathos. It wasn’t a very big town. They’d met during her eighth grade summer break in Greece, when Sarah was initially forming her ideas about who was attractive and who wasn’t. Adrian fell somewhere between the two groups that summer. He’d kicked a soccer ball into her grandparent’s yard. Sarah noted that his nose was too big, like a tent set up in the middle of his face. She’d already wholly disqualified blondes as an interest group, so his dark brown hair was a bonus. He had freckles, which she thought were cute, the appropriate word for any feature she could take or leave. Most striking was his mustache. It fascinated Sarah. It made Adrian seem like a cool teenager. That feeling of excitement kept her nipping at his heels for the rest of her stay.

By the time she went back again in the summer before she went to high school, most of the boys already had their own facial hair. Adrian was far less exciting, but he was in the thick of puberty and growing into his nose somewhat. He’d successfully made the jump into Sarah’s handsome category. Adrian was the first boy she kissed, while trying to escape the heat of the July sun in the shade alongside her grandparent’s house. Not content with a simple peck, they went all in. It was awkward and unsatisfying. Neither of them knew what to do with their tongues besides flick them about randomly. They never mentioned it again, although they tried several more times with better results.

Mr. Giorgio’s story ends just as Sarah pulls his pizza out of the oven. With a can of Coke, the total comes to $3.25. He walks to his favorite seat, a booth on the far side of the restaurant next to the window. It once offered a good view of a small park up the street. Today, an orange cement truck meets the eye. The Marias descend on him, partly out of sheer boredom and partly out of genuine affection. Sarah suspects that Maria Dos is in love with him. She watches as she laughs at his jokes and rests her hand on his shoulder. Maybe it’s a Panamanian thing. She’s the one from Panama, Sarah thinks. Or is it Maria Uno? Either way, Mr. Giorgios is married to the most beautiful woman in Athens circa 1972. Sarah’s not so sure about how beautiful she is now. She’s never met Katalina. Sarah is at least sure that she’s a sweet, nice Greek woman. Maybe, though, Mr. Giorgios might be tired of sweet. He might be in the mood for a new taste.

III.

Sarah wonders if she should respond to Todd’s email. It arrives in her inbox on September 4th, only two weeks after she’s returned from Greece. Her parents and Adrian’s parents have decided on all the details. He will arrive at JFK airport on December 19th, and there will be a small civil ceremony in the new year. The official church wedding will wait until next summer. Family from all over the globe has to be gathered. Sarah’s sister Diane is in Australia, uncle Nikos is in Paris, and cousin Michalos is somewhere. Anyone not invited would hurl incriminations and threats for years to come. Better to wait until everyone was dug up and had their invitation in hand.

Sarah opens her email to try to reach great uncle Thomas. She sees the message from Todd Jackson, almost deleting it before recognizing the name. Hello Sarah, how are you, it begins unimaginatively. Todd briefly recounts his divorce and a few memories of Sarah from high school before getting to the point. This isn’t the ideal way to do this, but I want to take you on a date sometime. What do you think? She thinks he is right, that an email is the wrong way to ask for a date. The last time she’s seen Todd was almost two years before, when he came into her pizza shop with his wife. What made him decide to write to her now? She wants to know. Dear Todd, I’m unavailable for dating right now, but I do want to see you, it’s been too long. How about this Friday?

They go out to an Afghan restaurant and order kabobs and an Afghan drink they both hate. They talk for hours about high school, old friends they’ve lost contact with, whether it is healthy to eat watermelon seeds. Sarah tells him about her time at Quinnipiac University and her useless major in political science. A bachelor’s degree isn’t a requirement to work in her parent’s restaurant, owner or not. Todd shares the pathetic way his marriage flamed out. No dramatic fights or accusations of infidelity. It just took four years for he and his ex-wife to realize they didn’t like each other very much.

What made you contact me, Sarah asks as she stirs her fried ice cream.

Remember when we saw each other at your restaurant? That wasn’t a coincidence. I wanted you to meet my wife.

I figured.

I got into an argument with her that night. She accused me of disrespecting her by taking her there, that you were all over me the whole time and I acted like she didn’t exist. I told her she was crazy and hormonal or something.

That is crazy. I was working the whole time. I felt bad for barely talking to you two.

Anyway, I was thinking about that last week, and decided to find out if you were flirting with me then. Were you?

Probably.

The owner gently throws them out at 1:03 AM. They keep talking on the drive back to Sarah’s parents’ house. She is embarrassed to be a grown woman still living at home. It is 2:58 AM. He wants to kiss her, and she wants him to. Neither makes a move, and they settle for a hug.

The first move comes a week and a half later, the first time Todd takes Sarah back to his apartment. They’d spent the evening playing pool and listening to Billy Idol and drinking a new import beer they’d discovered, Young’s Double Chocolate. Todd is sitting on his sofa, a cranberry monstrosity he’d acquired from a neighbor who was getting a black leather sectional. Sarah comes out from the bathroom and stands a few feet away. She stretches, and her shirt lifts to expose her midriff. They are both giddy from the games and the alcohol.

That beer was good, but damn it makes me pee. I love chocolate, she says

Me too, he says.

Those were the last words they spoke. They are both topless on the sofa less than three minutes later. Todd considers pulling her pants off right there, but decides against it. He hasn’t as much as Febreezed the sofa since he got it. They dash across the open windows in his kitchen to his bedroom. His queen sized bed sits directly on the floor, a gift from a friend who said it had been in storage for over a year. Todd hasn’t Febreezed it either, but it at least has clean sheets on it. Sarah’s breasts are small and pointed, like oversized gumdrops. Her sexiness is in her lower body, in the way her hips bend out from her waist like parenthesis, in the thickness of her thighs and the curve of her buttocks. Sarah marvels at the leanness of Todd’s body. He is skinny, but in a way that reveals the muscle beneath his skin and gives him a look of strength. She laughs at his pubic area, as unruly as the hair on his head.

Sarah doesn’t mention Adrian until after the third time they have sex. Todd traces his fingers across her ribs, circling around her belly button and down to the V formed by her closed legs. Her body shudders and she slaps his hand away.

Wanna be my girlfriend, Todd asks.

I can’t. I’m kind of seeing someone.

I see, Todd says. He moves his hand back into position.

Well, not exactly. It’s hard to explain.

I have all night.

She starts at the beginning, all the way back to her parents, who had never slept with anyone besides each other. They’d known each other their entire lives. They grew up in the same Greek town, went to the same Greek college. Sarah was always looking for The One, who would allow her to replicate her parent’s improbable story. She found him in their hometown, a boy named Adrian Mihalopoulos.

But Sarah was not just Greek, she was also American. She lived in an American city, went to American schools, and had relationships with American boys in college. Some failed, and some failed spectacularly. Her mother was genuinely surprised when she found birth control in Sarah’s room during winter break of her junior year, and Sarah was genuinely surprised by her mother’s naiveté. What about that nice boy back home, Adrian? What about him, Sarah replied. He lives an ocean away.

Her mother tried to understand at first, Sarah said. They lived in America now, and things were done differently here. Their daughter had been raised not just by them, but by this culture which was about money and sex and work. Her father would have none of it. He demanded to meet every new boy, and laid out what he expected of them. Someday they would move into his home and stay there with Sarah, under his watchful eye. They would not be allowed to move out until marriage, and then the entire family would work in the pizzeria. When he and his wife died or retired, Sarah and her husband would take over the business. The plan scared away all of Sarah’s suitors except one, a 28 year old named Will. He got along swimmingly with Sarah’s father, until he was caught raising his hand against her during a particularly loud argument which shook the bedroom’s walls. After that, her parents decided that the only hope for her was a nice Greek boy, from back home, who knew how to behave and how to respect a woman and her family.

So is this an arranged marriage, Todd asks.

I guess. I mean, I like Adrian. He’s a good guy.

This is insane. Like some shit from a movie.

Sarah shrugs. It’s how my parents think. It’s a way of life.

Then why did you answer my email?

I wanted to see you.

Now Sarah spends her days with Adrian and her nights with Todd. Adrian is dutiful in contacting her for video chat, and she has plenty of time at work to hear about the semi-chaos that is gripping Greece. After work, she meets up with Todd. She has sex with him and then they go out, or they go out and then have sex. There are two rules: condoms every time and no hickeys. Their arrangement isn’t cheating as far as she’s concerned. Todd knows about Adrian. In his words, he’s getting it while the getting’s good. Adrian doesn’t know about Todd, but he’s 5,825 miles away. If he’s having his last hurrah too, Sarah doesn’t mind.

IV.

On the morning of September 11th, 2001, Sarah is fifteen years old. She is in Mrs. Bellogio’s Western Civilization class when the announcement is made that an airplane has crashed into the World Trade Center.

This is so cool, a fellow student named Janice says. It’s like a movie or some shit.

People are dying, you fucking moron, Sarah says in response.

Both of them are asked to leave the class. Sarah stomps down the hall, unsure of where to go except as far away from Janice as possible. There is another student in the hall, a boy with an unkempt afro and basketball shorts. He is standing in front of his locker, rifling through his book bag. Their eyes meet for a moment, then shoot involuntarily upward as the fire alarm blares. Students and teachers pour out of the classrooms. An electric fear grips the building. The terrorists have hit the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania. Hartford Public High School is obviously their next target.

Sarah, Janice and the boy find themselves sitting outside Vice Principal Rodriguez’s office first thing on September 12th. They were in the hallway just before the alarm was pulled, so they are the prime suspects. Sarah’s armpits are drenched. The most trouble she’s been in during her two years in high school is the time Mr. Thompson gave her a zero on a homework assignment after accusing her of copying off another student. There was a long speech about academic integrity and a call home. Now she faces expulsion, and perhaps terrorism charges?

We’ll be fine if we stick together, the boy says. Just tell them we were all standing near my locker when the alarm went off.

All right, Janice said.

Sure, Sarah said. Wait, what’s your name?

Todd.

Mr. Rodriguez takes Todd in first. Sarah immediately blanks on his name. Ted? Tony? John? She considers asking Janice what his name is, but her fear of being caught in a lie cannot overcome her rage at Janice for getting her into this in the first place. Janice is scratching at her hands. They are dry and cracked, as if she’s been holding chalk. She watches Janice pick the flaky skin off her knuckles, anything other than dwelling on what is happening to Terry right then, and what will happen to her soon. Whether she is blamed or not, Sarah is certain her parents will be receiving a phone call. Her stomach twists into a ball and she feels the acid burn of bile rising up her throat. She fights down her breakfast, wondering if Janice is afraid, and who she’s more afraid of, Rodriguez or her parents.

Todd emerges from behind the frosted glass door after nine minutes. Sarah notices a grin on his lips. She is convinced he has blamed her in exchange for immunity. Her mind races past the office and the school, to a small pizza shop in the north end of the city where a balding man is taking dough out of the freezer for the lunch crowd. His mustache twitches as he senses in the air that his daughter, his baby girl, has committed an unspeakable act and faces the end of her education. The vision is so vivid that she hasn’t noticed that Janice has been called into the office or that Todd is now sitting next to her.

Mr. Rodriguez is on his usual bullshit, he says, unaware that Sarah is no longer in the building.

She hears his voice a few seconds after he speaks. What did you say to him, she asks.

What I told you I would, that the three of us were standing near my locker, talking, when the fire alarm went off. Then he goes all, ‘I already know who did it, so just tell me and save yourself,’ so I know he has no idea. If you and Janice stick to the story, we’re all set.

Sarah snaps back to the school. She isn’t going to be expelled, not as long as she sticks to the story. She asks for his name again, and repeats it over and over to drill it into her mind. The stress has given her a throbbing headache. Her mouth is dry and her lips feel like sandpaper. Lick. Todd. Lick. Todd. Lick. Todd. She is beginning to relax when she hears Vice Principal Rodriguez shout in his office. Panic seizes her again. She doesn’t know Todd, but she trusts him. She doesn’t trust Janice because she knows her. What is she saying in there?

Todd places a hand on her knee. He can feel the tension coursing through her body.

Don’t worry, he says. It will all work out in the end. That makes Sarah feel even worse. She begins shaking.

What about the meantime, she asks.

The door opens and Janice slinks out. She sinks into her chair, her arms crossed and her face frozen in an angry frown.

Come in, Ms. Milonas, Mr. Rodriguez says. She stands and walks into the office without looking back. She can feel Janice’s eyes burning into her.

There is a large glass window in the back of Mr. Rodriguez’s office with the blinds drawn shut. Sunlight creeps between the cracks. Sarah glances at a metal bookcase on the wall. There are more pictures than books, and among the few she sees a copy of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Child & Adolescent Psychology. Mr. Rodriguez is in most of the pictures, with a gorgeous black woman with full lips and blazing eyes. The woman is far too attractive for Mr. Rodriguez. He is bald with a thin mustache that gathers only at the corners of his mouth. His nose is long and bulbous, and always red with blood. He is better known to the student body as Mr. Ratriguez.

Sarah sits as Mr. Rodriguez reaches into his desk. He pulls out an orange and begins peeling it with deliberate motions. He asks Sarah if she would like some. She quickly shakes her head no. He tells her she has nothing to worry about, that it’s standard procedure for him to question any student in the hallway when a fire drill is pulled. He is certain it was Janice, possibly Todd. But not her. She is a model student, the kind he wishes he could have an entire school of.

Does this mean you won’t be calling my parents, Sarah asks, still on the verge of bursting into tears.

No, there’s nothing to tell them, so I won’t be contacting them.

At this news Sarah does cry, just a little, and quickly wipes the tears away before Mr. Rodriguez looks up from his orange. Tears of relief are a new experience for her. She feels the stress draining from her body, through her feet and into the blue-gray carpet. She is not a suspect, she will not be expelled and ejected from the learned world. Should she say anything at all? Is Tim still counting on her to back up his story? Did Janice go along with it? If she told Mr. Rodriguez she was talking to the boy at his locker, it wouldn’t exactly be lying.

The bell rings before Sarah makes a choice. You can go to your next class. Enjoy your day, Ms. Milonas. Guilt wells up inside of Sarah. If that boy was counting on her, she’s let him down with her silence. Just as well though, better to keep her mouth shut than go out on that limb. As she leaves the vice principal’s office, she decides to at least tell him that Mr. Rodriguez thinks it was Janice. He is gone though, and so is Janice. There is only Sarah’s black Jansport bookbag. She grabs it and steps out into the hallway.

                                   

Janice has not been in class for three weeks. Sarah does not understand how expulsion works and believes that she has seen Janice for the last time. The boy, Terrance or Tom or something, pops up randomly. He nods to her from across the hall. They stand next to each other in line at lunch. She sees him running around the parking lot after school with the cross country team while she heads to volleyball practice. Todd cannot find anything to talk to her about that doesn’t involve the fire alarm incident and, indirectly, the deaths of 3,000 people. Sarah cannot remember his name.

She asks her best friend Erica. Erica is plugged into the school’s social network, and always knows where the party is, who has the best weed and which dudes have beef over which girl. The two have been friends ever since Ms. Hill’s second grade class at Annie Fisher elementary school. They are something of an odd couple. Sarah plays clarinet in the band and is the treasurer of the school’s Model United Nations program. Erica engages in the cool kid activities like the homecoming and yearbook committees.

His name is Todd, Erica informs her as the two of them watch him walk by from a distance. And he is so damn cute. Sarah agrees, but not too enthusiastically. She has read the subtext of Erica’s words. Besides, Erica is probably more Todd’s type anyway. She has long, unmarred legs she shows off at every opportunity and black hair Sarah helps her dye once a month. Erica is quite popular with the boys in school, but her strict adherence to the sexual morality of Jehova’s Witnesses has put her out of reach. Most of the boys have moved on to greener pastures.

Todd. Hm, okay, Sarah says.

Why? You like him?

No.

You sure?

Yes.

Good. Cause he’s mine, and I will cut you.

There are only a few good looking boys in their school as far as Sarah is concerned. Omar McHale is the most popular, an All-State point guard who will undoubtedly go to a Division I college on a scholarship. Sarah does not like basketball though, and is unimpressed by Omar’s big ears and the clumps of acne that erupted on his face over the summer. There’s Corey McDonald. He’s tall with a broad smile and his signature diamond stud earring, but he’s often stumbling around the school in a weed-induced haze. Joey Smith isn’t bad looking, except for a cold sore that rumors say developed after he went down on Laura Roberts. Given their slim pickings, Sarah understands why Erica is so taken by Todd. And why she’s a bit taken as well.

After school, Sarah heads to her Model United Nations meeting. She is not looking forward to it. Their school was selected to represent Japan this year, and the boys of the club have turned the process into a joke. Their proposals for the upcoming plenary meeting include resolutions to increase funding for giant robot construction and instituting an exchange program for large-breasted Japanese schoolgirls to “study” in the United States. She walks in to find Randall, John and Ben arguing about Pokemon cards. And Todd is there too, declaring definitively that Charizard is not a dragon type.

What are you doing here, Sarah asks, a little flustered.

Gotta catch em all, Todd replies.

No, I mean at the Model U.N. meeting. I’ve never seen you here before.

My guidance counselor says I need more extracurriculars. Junior year is the important one for colleges, I guess.

I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be rude. I just never thought you’d be interested in something like this.

I’m not, Todd said. But I saw you in here a couple of times, so I figured I’d give it a shot.

Sarah can feel her cheeks burning with flattery. Her chest swells and her heartbeat pounds in her ears. There is a warm sensation, a feeling of contraction between her legs. Her imagination reconfigures the day they met. Instead of walking by him, she sees herself squeezed between the locker and Todd’s body, her hands in his back pockets groping his ass as he runs his tongue along her jugular.

That’s so sweet, she says to him.

Mr. Shaw calls the Model U.N. meeting to order, and spends the next forty three minutes shooting down suggestions from the more active male members. Todd doesn’t say anything other than hello when he’s introduced as the newest member. He sits back and laughs at the argument between Mr. Shaw and Ben over the necessity for Japan to bolster its military with psychic super soldiers. Sarah is unusually quiet as well. She is torn between the increasingly erotic images filling her mind, and feelings of guilt for being attracted to Erica’s crush. It’s fine, she tells herself, as long as it all stays in her head. She can’t help her feelings, but she can help what she does with them. She says goodbye to him once Mr. Shaw has had enough, and quickly heads for the bus stop to go to the restaurant. Sarah decides to skip volleyball practice. She is not sure she can look Erica in the eyes right now.

Todd becomes more active in the club as the weeks pass, joining Sarah and Mr. Shaw in the battle against the cartoon and hormone fueled fantasies of the other boys in the Model U.N. At lunch they sit together with Erica and discuss how much of a creep John is. Sarah sees the way that Erica hangs on Todd’s every word and laughs at references to events she wasn’t present for. She is annoyed by her, but knows that she claimed this territory first. Sarah tries to dial back her own fawning, but blushes madly whenever she catches Todd looking in her direction while Erica is talking, which happens often.

The cool breezes and long shadows of October give way to the short days and hard cold of November and December. The plenary meeting is upon them, a two-day session of the Model United Nations at a nearby college where the various schools of the region gather to represent their nations in a mock General Assembly. The club has managed to put together a serious package of resolutions, including a call for non-signatory nations to finally join the Kyoto Protocol and a request for the Chinese to relinquish their claim on the Senkaku islands. Mr. Shaw promises that if the other two pass, he will allow Ben to submit a third resolution asking for the establishment of a New World Government in “Neo-Tokyo.” Sarah is approaching the dark blue van that Mr. Shaw will use to take them to the meeting when she hears a horn honk behind her. Todd waves to her out of the driver side window of a gold Geo Prizm. The front bumper is askew, and she can see a Black Ice pine tree air freshener hanging off the rearview mirror.

Nice car, she says as she jumps into the passenger seat.

Only the best for me, Todd responds.

They pull into the college. Todd tries to whip his compact into a parking spot just inside of the driveway and misjudges the spacing and his speed. He slams on the brakes, sending Sarah hurtling towards the dashboard. His arm shoots out to brace her instinctively, landing on her shoulder. They sit silently for a moment, afraid to look at how close they came to slamming into the Toyota Corolla in front of them. Sarah realizes that Todd’s hand is still on her, and his arm is just grazing her chest. She wants him to touch her more. Todd realizes his arm is on her chest too, and he snaps it back to the steering wheel.

Are you all right, he asks.

Yeah, I’m fine.

He leans over to inspect her, as if expecting to see some wound or bruise she is trying to keep hidden from him. Sarah can smell his cologne, sweet and lightly worn. His hair feels rough and coarse as it grazes her face. Todd looks up, satisfied that she is not injured. Their eyes meet first, and then their lips. Todd is only the second boy that Sarah has kissed, but it goes much better than her first attempt. Still, she pulls away.

I’m sorry, she says. I can’t.

Why not?

Erica likes you. She’s my best friend.

She does?

Yeah.

I couldn’t tell, Todd says. She’s never said anything.

Not to you. But she has to me.

I see.

Maybe one day, when she’s moved on, we can, you know, do something. Okay? Sorry. Sarah doesn’t know what she’s saying, but she feels she must say something.

Yeah, I hear you. I’m sorry too.

The plenary session goes without a hitch. Todd is active the entire weekend, almost belligerent. He argues forcefully for the Kyoto Protocol, and accuses the Chinese of trying to steal sovereign Japanese territory without having the guts to go to war for it. He laughs off counterarguments and speaks as if only a fool can disagree with him. Sarah finds his arrogance more attractive than off-putting. Despite their efforts, both of their resolutions fail. Sarah is disappointed, but she is also glad to be spared the embarrassment of having to present Ben’s proposal.

At lunch on Monday, Sarah and Todd act as if nothing happened. They keep their attention locked on Erica, waiting for any small sign that she is going to make her move on Todd. They wait for days. Weeks. Model United Nations ends for the year. Sarah joins the indoor track team and finds that Todd is already there, running on the distance team. She averts her eyes when Todd takes to the track in the tank top and short shorts the boys wear during their races, although she is sure Todd is not doing the same thing when she runs past him in her leotard. Erica never says or does anything, preferring to admire Todd in silence. Sarah wonders why she is allowing someone else’s choices to dictate her own.

V.

Sorry about the lamp, Sarah says as she walks into the bathroom. She dances on the linoleum floor for a moment before her feet adjust to the cold. She stops in front of the mirror when she sees something near her neck.

I should have known better than to put it next to the bed, Todd says. Things get pretty crazy sometimes.

Todd has violated the second rule of his agreement with Sarah. She frowns as she examines the purple bruise on her collar bone. He is standing next to her, peeing.

Look at this, she says.

Todd leans forward, examining the hickey. He kisses it. There, all better, he says.

Sarah slaps him on the shoulder. It’s not funny. Adrian will be here in two days. What do I tell him?

The truth? Or that you bumped into someone at Zumba. Make some shit up.

You did this on purpose.

I certainly did not. Like I said, things get crazy.

Yes you did.

Todd flushes the toilet. Relax, it’s not like he’s going to see it.

And how exactly would he miss something like this?

How does he know what a hickey looks like? Isn’t he some hero Greek virgin or something which is why your parents are so gung-go about him?

No, he’s not a virgin. He’s a nice Greek boy.

And I’m not, Todd says. He crosses behind Sarah, running his hand along the small of her back. He sits down on the bathtub. Are there even black people in Greece?

Yeah.

So I could theoretically be the nice Greek boy your parents want you to marry, right?

Sarah stops examining herself in the mirror and turns to Todd. He is sitting with his legs wide open, and his genitals are hanging comically between them. His hands are clasped on his knees. She laughs at him and the suggestion that her parents would approve of him before she can catch herself.

Sorry, you’re not nice enough.

Because my name isn’t Todd Hippopotamus or whatever?

What’s the matter with you?

Nothing.

Sarah also hates this about Todd. He doesn’t talk about his feelings at all. She has known for a while that their relationship was about more than just sex for him, although he cannot bring himself to say it. Their sex is combative, with rib pokes as common as kisses, and trash talk uttered almost as often as pillow talk. Still, Sarah can tell the difference between fucking and what they are doing. Despite the aggressiveness, Todd runs his fingers around her shoulders and down her arms slowly. He traces the outline of her spine. He buries his face in her hair when they are finished. He is making love to her.

It is more than just sex for her as well. She finds herself with Todd even when she is unable to sleep with him. She stops by his apartment on the first day of her period, bloated and miserable, for assurances that she is still beautiful. They talk on the phone on nights they can’t see each other. She’s cooked for him on more than one occasion, chastising him for surviving on frozen foods and cereal. Sarah has her reasons for keeping her feeling to herself though, unlike Todd. He has nothing to lose. For Sarah though, acknowledging anything more than the physical part of their time together is impossible. It would cause too many doubts, raise too many issues.

Let me ask you a question, he says.

Shoot.

Where do your parents think you are right now?

At my friend Jenny’s house.

Do they have any idea that you’ve been seeing me since September?

Of course not.

What would they do if they found out?

Sarah stopped touching the blemish on her neck and turned towards Todd.

Is that a threat?

What? No, it’s not a threat. I’m just asking. What are you so afraid of?

Nothing. Sarah looks back into the mirror. She traces her fingers along her collarbone, and out onto her shoulder. She has a birthmark on the left one, just like her mother. Her nose is long and pointed, like her mother’s. Most people have said she looks more like her father though. They share the same soft jaw line, the same high cheekbones, the same small ears and widow’s peak. Sarah wears glasses, just like him. Without them on, her vision is blurred just enough that if she squints she can see her father looking back at her, his perpetual frown spread across his face. She has only seen him smile when she is doing something to please him. He smiled when she declined to go to American University in Washington, D.C. Quinnipiac’s program was just as good and right down the road, she’d told him. He was grinning ear to ear when Sarah became a co-owner of the pizzeria.

His frown was deeper than usual when Sarah had told him she was thinking about moving out. It was two days after her twenty-fifth birthday. Erica had just finished her enlistment with the Air Force and was looking for a roommate for a two bedroom place in the city. It’s perfect, she’d said. It’s in a nice neighborhood, it’s not too far from work and with the two of us we can afford it with money to spare. She was still talking when her father began shouting at her, demanding why she wanted to leave the house, that this was not the way they’d done things back home. Who will protect you from men like Will he yelled, spittle flying from his lips. Her mother stood off to the side, nodding along with what her father was saying. In that moment, Sarah was more afraid of being struck by her father than she’d ever been afraid of being hit by Will. She told him to calm down, that it was just an idea, that she would never betray or dishonor their family, that she was glad to have a house to come home to. As Sarah looks into the mirror, she sees the man who has dominated her life and will continue to do so, until he passes her off to the man he’s chosen to dominate her once he’s gone. She begins to cry.

Hey, what’s wrong, Todd asks. He stands up and gently grabs her by the shoulders. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you.

Sarah can’t speak. She is seized by a fear that has been with her since infancy. Her stomach is a cold rock, her head throbs. She is having a panic attack. Todd sits her on the toilet and fans her with his hand. Eventually her breathing becomes less shallow, and the pounding against her skull subsides. She stands, grabs a robe off the door rack and walks into the kitchen. Todd follows her, but does not speak.

I have to do this, Sarah says after a few minutes. It’s my only way out.

You’re working where they want you to. You’re marrying who they want you to. Doesn’t sound like you’re getting out of anything.

Maybe not now. But someday. Maybe.

They dress without a word to each other. The ride back to Sarah’s house is also silent, but Todd bears it instead of trying to lighten the mood. Sarah glances at the radio. 103.1 FM, Englishman in New York- Sting. They pull in front of her parent’s house before the third verse begins. It is a slouching yellow colonial in need of a new gutter and a repaved driveway. Sarah sits in the car, waiting for the song to finish. She wants Todd to kiss her, but she knows he won’t. Instead, he puts her hand in his as the saxophone hits the highest note of the song. They sit hand in hand until the song ends, and then another, and a third. Finally Sarah turns to him. He steals a glance at her, then continues to look forward.

I’ll see you around, he says.

Yeah.

VI.

Adrian does not know English. Sarah has always known this, but during the summer nights in Marathos, where gossip and compliments and news was traded between a dozen different family members coming and going, it was easy for her to forget that she was speaking Greek, in Greece. Now, Adrian is speaking Greek, in America. She feels embarrassed as they pass through the airport, like a tourist in her own land, groping for translations of words that don’t cross the Atlantic.

She has left her parents at home. They insisted on being there to greet Adrian, but Sarah told them their job was to prepare the home for his arrival. Her mother is making pastitsio. Sarah wanted to introduce Adrian to America with an American meal, like Cornish hens. Why would Adrian want to come here to eat what he’s been eating his entire life, she’d asked her mother as she watched her whisking the béchamel sauce. Her father was in the bathroom, wiping down every surface with a bleach-soaked sponge. The mixture of smells made her feel faint, and she rushed out of the house and into her car. She sat there for a long time, trying to make sense of the combination of anticipation and dread that constricted her chest and made it hard for her to breathe. She drove to New York with the windows down, forcing air across her nostrils and into her lungs.

Now she is standing face to face with her fiancé, or rather at his side as they walk through JFK together. His dark brown hair keeps falling into his eyes, and he sweeps it away with a practiced hand gesture and a slight shake of his head. His nose is not quite as pronounced as it once was but it still dominates his face, especially without his mustache to draw attention away from it. His clean-shaven face and long hair make him look even younger than he did when they first met. He has many more freckles than she remembers. Isn’t that a sign of skin cancer, she wonders.

He looks down at her as they walk. It’s so good to see you, he says in Greek.

You too, she says in English, then Greek.

How far away do you live from here?

About two hours.

In Connecticut, right?

Yeah.

That’s a cool-sounding name.

It means Big River I think.

Cool.

Yeah.

They are similarly awkward in the car. Sarah tries to point out some of the landmarks of the city, but begins speaking in English and has passed them by the time she corrects herself. Adrian begins to talk about what his family has been up to since the summer, but stops abruptly. There is no good news about them. There is no good news about Greece in general.

Okay, how about this, Sarah says. If you were a mutant, what would your name and superpower be?

What do you mean?

You know, like X-Men. But, not like an actual X-Man. You can make up your own name and power. What would it be?

I don’t know, Adrian says. I’ve never thought about it.

Well, you have the whole drive to come up with something.

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