THE FIRST time I knew about Oscar—I mean, knew that he was solid gold and not just some shy kid waiting for all the bullying to turn him into one himself, was down in the gulley. I was seven, he was nine, and even taking him down into that big, litter-strewn ditch bordering the back end of the trailer park was risky business. What if he made fun of the idea that a muddy stream gushing through a culvert could be a kid-ruled kingdom of its own, or what if he decided he was the king, and claimed it as his? Among other things, I liked to go down to the gulley after school to rinse out the bottles and cans to redeem at the liquor store. I could make five bucks a week that way, when I could get Leon to take them to the redemption center for me. Os had been trailing me for weeks since his folks moved into the double-wide on the dirt lot a few over from mine. He didn’t talk much, just slipped into my shadow like that was the very thing that brought him to Wayside, marking my trail and giving me an audience for all of my secret missions and make-believe. After a few weeks I figured that if he was gonna be lurking around like that, I might as well put him to work with the bottles and cans.
I’d found a mossy green glass Rolling Rock bottle and rinsed it out in the post-storm surge of water coming through the culvert while I told Oscar about Cassie Bickerman, an eighth grader rumored to be pregnant. Getting knocked up young happened regularly in Benbow, like every girl in town got a bull’s eye stamped on her back on her thirteenth birthday. Mama Dot cried when she heard the news from her church lady friend Mae—a kitchen phone call I wasn’t supposed to overhear from the depths of the recliner in Dot’s living room, but of course I did. The walls were thin as fly strips. I lounged there half listening, half watching Saturday morning cartoons, trying to figure out how something like that could happen. I didn’t even know how sex worked. I imagined Cassie caught a baby from sitting on some boy’s lap while his pants were dirty. I pictured Dot in the kitchen, flapping her hands in front of her face until the loose flesh on her arms that she called “bat wings” stirred the air.
“Sad,” I tsked in my best imitation of Dot and her church lady friends, shaking the water in the Rolling Rock bottle to rinse out the sludge.
“This happens here,” Oscar observed, picking up a mud-caked Miller Lite bottle from the pile. “But not where I am from in Mexico. There would be too much trouble for everybody.”
“What kind of trouble?” I asked. All I could picture was Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner duking it out in the desert, or Jerry from Tom and Jerry in a sombrero and curly mustache. “Like a shoot-out?” Oscar looked up at me in alarm, then laughed for the first time since I’d known him. It was a machine gun kk kk kk sound, and it made me smile, even though I thought that maybe he was laughing at me.
“No, not like a shoot-out,” he protested. “I’m not from a city where there is drugs and guns. It’s small, like here, only people aren’t so separate in their own houses and doing things just three or four together. If a young girl got a baby from someone, the whole town would punish the boy. It would be shame for him and his family.” Oscar dunked his bottle into the rain-swollen stream, shook it with a thumb over the mouth, and poured the gritty water out onto the ground at his feet, just missing his sneakers. “Here it’s hard to know what is shame,” he murmured, making an imprint in the mud with the sole of his shoe. The brim of Oscar’s Goodwill Orioles ball cap hid his face, and I saw that the button on top was hanging by a thread. The cap was a little too big and pushed his ears out.
“‘Shame,’ like, what are the rules you mean?” I asked. Oscar’s English was better than that of his parents and brothers, but it was still hard to catch his drift sometimes. He turned the clear glass Miller Lite bottle over in his hand and scraped some caked mud off the neck with his thumbnail.
“Yes, rules, but what to feel bad about also. Like my father and my mother who came here to work so hard in the fields and help your farmers and our family in Mexico but that is shame here. People get mad.” I knew he was talking about the blue spray paint on the Jimenezes’ trailer, fresh and drippy this morning, that said “Dirty Spics Go B—” The rest had already been scrubbed into a blue cloud by Oscar’s dad, Miguel, whose eyes must have been burning from the paint stripper, judging from the tears running down his face. Oscar rubbed his thumb across that bottle so hard, just like his dad, though there wasn’t any mud left.
“Some people are just stupidheads,” I said, flinging down my Rolling Rock bottle for emphasis. “It’s not a rule that you can’t be here! Dot said, and she knows everything, so….” I trailed off. Oscar was still looking at his bottle, blinking fast.
“What means ‘Dirty Spics’?” he asked quietly. “Papi wouldn’t say, and my brothers told me it’s nothing for me to know.”
I shrugged and stomped on a Coors can so that the edges wrapped up over my muddy sneaker.
“Danged if I know. Maybe it’s like ‘spit’? Like how someone spits on you when they’re being mean?”
Oscar nodded mutely, wiping a trail of snot inching toward the creased border of his upper lip with the back of his hand. “Is this normal here, to do like that with the paint if you’re mad?” he asked, looking at me with swimmy eyes.
I didn’t know what to say. I wasn’t used to older kids asking me stuff—wasn’t really used to talking to other kids much at all. No, it wasn’t normal to mess up somebody’s new house with ugly words as far as I knew. Just seeing it made me feel all scared, and it wasn’t even my trailer. One thing I’d learned about my new friend in the few weeks I’d known him was that Oscar had a thing about “normal.” It was probably because that was the last thing he ever got called. “Harelip” and “wetback”—that’s what he got stuck with instead. Nobody even knew what “wetback” meant, and the harelip part wasn’t even accurate. A surgeon in Nogales repaired Oscar’s cleft palate on his family’s way north. He just didn’t do a very good job.
“It’s just some dumb kids being bored,” I said, prying the Coors can off my sneaker. “Don’t kids get bored in Mexico?” Oscar just stared at me, waiting for me to say something that made sense. “Hey, let’s swim!” I yelled, spurred by a crazy urge to keep him from crying. From the very beginning, something about that boy made me want to throw myself between him and all the sharp edges. We couldn’t really swim. The water was running fast, so we’d have to hold on to the top edge of the culvert and dangle, but it was close enough.
“We don’t have swimming clothes,” Oscar pointed out, biting his lip as he glanced at the churning mud.
“You mean suits? Mine’s hanging up at Dot’s,” I said. “If we go back, she’ll know what we’re doing and stop us. Let’s just go in our underwear.” I whipped off my T-shirt and threw it on the ground.
“You should keep your T-shirt on,” Oscar said, frowning at my smooth torso as he shucked off his own shirt. “Girls are supposed to cover on top.” I planted my fists on my hips, my little kid belly sticking far out beyond my flat chest.
“Well, I told you I don’t have my suit, and I’m not going back for it,” I said. “Besides, I look the same as you on top. Why should I have to wear a dumb shirt and you don’t?”
“Because I’m a boy and you’re a girl,” Oscar said. “This is normal.”
“It’s not my fault!” I shouted, stomping my foot into the tangle of discarded clothes on the ground. I didn’t even know what I meant by that. It just came out.
Oscar looked baffled. “This is a silly thing to say.” Tears boiled behind my eyes and stung the back of my nose as I wrestled my shirt back on. Oscar followed me as I flailed back up the slope to the trailer park, blinded by tears. “Wait! Roy!” he cried, grabbing at my heels. I tried to haul myself up by some exposed roots, but upset made me uncoordinated and I kept sliding back. I pounded a fist into the embankment and pressed my forehead into the rock-strewn soil.
“It’s not silly,” I gasped.
“No, no, okay,” Oscar said. “It’s not silly, okay?” He laid his hand on my back and rubbed small circles like a little mother. That kind of sweet, unthinking gesture was what got me about him, though no one but me saw it once the boys at school starting parroting their older siblings by calling him “homo” and “fag.” After Oscar’s brother explained what the bullies meant, Os stopped being his whole self around anyone outside of the trailer park. Those names just clammed him right up.
“Let’s do swimming, okay?” Oscar urged, tugging at the hem of my T-shirt to coax me off the slope. “You can go however you want. How you do, I’ll do too, so we’re the same.” I turned my shoulder into the slope and looked at him, the hem of my T-shirt still pinched between his grubby fingers. Oscar’s wide-open beauty struck me. He probably had a ton of friends back home, boys he could laugh and run around with whose skin and accents matched his own. But in Benbow, all Oscar had was me.
IT SURPRISED me to hear a girly voice coming out of my mouth after Oscar’s began to change, and it wasn’t about preferring blue to pink or playing football to baking cookies. I actually hated football and fart jokes and the rough, stupid way boys bashed on each other because they didn’t know how else to be. It was more about how I thought of myself when I didn’t have a reflection in the mirror telling me different. It didn’t matter to either of us, at least not until we were thirteen and Oscar tried to hold my hand on the walk home from school. It was just a regular Tuesday and I never saw it coming. I did not handle it well—jerked my hand away, squawked something about needing to pee, and hightailed it the rest of the way back to the trailer park. I just left him there on the side of the road, looking run over.
I knew holding hands meant something. Doing it was like wearing a T-shirt that said “Property of” with an arrow pointing to the person beside you. Girlfriends held hands with their boyfriends. When I slammed into my trailer that day, I felt like I’d been drop-kicked and landed on Mars, my head a zero gravity mess. I couldn’t be a “girlfriend,” could I? That word did not exist in the known universe of which I was the center. “Friend,” sure, but the awful alchemy that occurred when you slapped the word “girl” in front? No. No no no. But Os was mine, and I wasn’t about to share, so didn’t I have to be? Was I already his girlfriend and didn’t know it? If it all ended up with me liking Oscar back the way he liked me, did it even matter? Of course it did. Because somewhere in there was the real me, and no step away from that person would lead anywhere good. I spent the whole week hashing it out on canvas in the trailer, painting like I had to have the Sistine Chapel done by the five o’clock whistle. When I ran out of acrylics and excuses, I sought Oscar out at his dad’s garage and started yammering away as we walked back toward home. Everything spewed out, sense and nonsense alike, and Oscar took it all in without a blink.
“So, you’re like… gay?” he whispered when I was out of words, even though it was a weekend and the stretch of road was mostly deserted. The word “gay” sat there between us like a hot, steaming turd no one wanted to scoop up. Nobody was gay in Benbow, even if they were.
“I don’t think so,” I said. By then kids at school had added “dyke” to their repertoire, calling me “he-she” and “sir” when the teachers weren’t listening, but they were nothing to me, the bullies or the words. Nothing at all. “I don’t know if there’s a name for it, Os, but I do like you. Like like. I’m just… not a girlfriend. I can’t be that word.” I stopped to breathe, watching the stray gravel on the asphalt skitter ahead of us as we tromped toward the intersection of Main and old Route Nine.
“Why didn’t you say anything before?” Oscar asked, scuffing his ratty old Nikes along the white line, his shoulder bumping mine in our old rhythm.
“Because I never thought about it,” I said. “I always assumed everybody was different amounts of this and that. I never had to choose.” Oscar pulled me farther onto the shoulder as a refrigerator truck barreled past.
“Who to be.”
“And that is?” His voice cracked on the question like an egg on the rim of a mixing bowl.
“Just… me, I guess.”
Oscar exhaled and tilted his baseball cap back so I could see the white scar at his hairline from falling off a rocking chair when he was four. Oscar’s body was a landscape of scars and bruises, from the rough times his family had coming north, but also because he didn’t seem to have a sense of what could hurt him. He’d throw himself toward home plate as though surfing on a foamy white wave, all trust. When he stood up scraped chin to shins, he always looked surprised at the bloody streaks on his uniform.
“Whatever, Aurora,” he said at last, yanking that old Orioles cap back down over his eyes. I socked him in the bicep, though not as hard as usual, and as easy as that we were all good again. At least for a while.
REENIE NAMED me Aurora after the Northern Lights she’s going to take me to see one day when we’ve got the trailer paid off and something with enough horsepower to hitch it to. “Aurora” helps her remember her dreams, she says, and what really matters in life. For Reenie, it’s freedom, but for me it’s about what happens when an eye lands on something that creates a spark in the brain. There’s the right word for that somewhere, besides “art.” That one always reminds me of some sad-sack used car salesman at his fifty-year high school reunion, drinking a White Russian and making eyes at the former head cheerleader with her new Realtor’s license and her bad boob job. Not exactly what I’m going for.
Our neighbor Mama Dot insists I’m named after the princess in Sleeping Beauty, on account of how “pretty” I am and what a good sleeper I was from Day One. Even now I can put my head down on one of the old cafe tables at the charity shop where she works and fall dead asleep. Reenie can call me what she wants, but my real name is Roy and always will be. I never could pronounce Aurora as a baby, and “Roy” stuck with everyone but Reenie. I guess that’s her prerogative as my mom. She still gets ticked off when people call me “Roy,” though she never could get anyone to call her by her real name either, which is Irene. Mama Dot tries to use “Aurora” in front of her when she’s around, which isn’t much. “Born without a sit-still,” as Dot says. No matter how much Reenie complains about her back and the long hours, we all know she wouldn’t give up trucking for anything but a topped-up retirement fund, and only then so she could hit the road on her own terms.
Mama Dot is Reenie’s opposite in every way. Our trailer’s just up on blocks, like some docked rocket ship waiting to launch, but Dot’s sits on a thick cement slab like a real house. It’s a double-wide with a deep redwood deck and raised garden beds her husband, Leon, dug up around back. Her trailer is like an extension of her body, and that’s not a fat joke, though the woman’s got more rolls than a jumbo tube of Pillsbury crescents. As far as Dot’s concerned, the edge of the earth drops off at the town line. She doesn’t even think the Aurora Borealis really exists, though she’s seen Reenie’s pictures of those freaky green and purple lights a million times.
Dot doesn’t believe the sky could look any better than it does here in the Shenandoah, and she prefers her Sleeping Beauty story about my name to Reenie’s anyhow. But I knew it then, and I know it now: if I’m anyone in that dumbass fairy tale, it’s the prince.
A lot of people tell me how good-looking I am, and I’m not being stuck up by saying it. It’s just true, or true for them, and I know enough about aesthetics not to waste hot air on false modesty. My face is almost perfectly symmetrical, my eyes are what’s called “cerulean blue,” and I’ve got the kind of face just oval enough to work with any kind of hairstyle, though I keep it short so it stays out of my way. I’ve got good hair, though it’s been said around town that I could do with a perm. It’s not the tomato red it was when I was little, but it’s still got some nice auburn tones. I’m not skinny or fat, and my skin hardly ever breaks out on account of Reenie being a total health nut and keeping us on a rabbit diet to offset the diesel fumes she sucks in all day long.
I like to look good, as long as it doesn’t get in the way or take up too much time. What I don’t like is not being taken seriously. More specifically, I don’t like it when people don’t take my art seriously. When you’re pretty, people act like everything you do is some kind of “Praise Jesus” miracle, like a cat learning to use the toilet. This is bullshit, though Leon would call it a “high-class problem,” which means it isn’t really a problem at all. The only people who don’t treat me like a potty-trained cat are Mama Dot (who says being too big for your britches reflects bad character), Leon (who agrees with her), and Oscar. Oscar’s in love with me, but he doesn’t let it affect his judgment of my work. He’ll be the first to say if I’ve gotten it wrong, or crossed that line between the perfectly flawed and downright ugly. Unfortunately for him, it does affect his judgment in other ways. Like I said, he’s way too trusting.