Quarter Past Midnight | Marie-Helene Bertino | Granta Magazine

Quarter Past Midnight

Marie-Helene Bertino

‘Flute-like, gauze-filled, late-afternoon sunshine. Rainbow bracelets on the carpet. They use their tongues to wet their lips. Girls.’

Through the cavities of a demolished house, Ben and Sarina can see the first few trees of Fairmount Park. A mutter of bushes.

‘Does that park make you sad?’ Ben says. ‘It makes me sad.’

‘It’s just a park,’ says Sarina.

‘Ornery,’ Ben says, ‘is what I would call it. Better-him-than-me kind of park. I’d bet even the animals who live in it are defensive and mean. Grumpy foxes. Depressive robins.’

‘Owls that are always talking about themselves,’ Sarina says. ‘Without ever asking about you.’ ‘Put a sock in it, owl,’ Ben says. Sarina’s mother calls: Sarina!

‘Should we go in?’ he says. ‘Or, shall we continue our tour of the city’s fountains?’

‘Pardon?’ Sarina says.

With a sweep of his hand, Ben showcases the city. ‘Our tour . . .’

‘Sarina!’ her mother yells. ‘He’ll be here any minute!’

‘I’ll be right down!’ Sarina bows her head in prayer. She is twenty years younger and standing in front of her bedroom mirror. She wears her grandmother’s dress, whisper-soft and yellow.

Ben, twenty years younger, races his older brother Jeff’s ’65 Mustang up the road to Sarina’s house. He was allowed to borrow the car only after promising to uphold several conditions spelled out while Jeff clutched his wrist so tightly the veins protruded. He will not punch the brakes, he will not throttle the gears, he will not drive over sixty-five miles per hour.

He has it up to eighty-five, gut in throat, suit jacket folded on the rumble seat beside him, underneath a yellow wrist corsage his mother picked out. Houses flash by. The meadow that borders the road is gold in grain. Perspiration coats the back of his neck. He fumbles for napkins in the glove compartment and applies them to his neck, taking each corner slowly, all windows down, so he is dry when he reaches her house.

He parks, gets out, and tucks in his shirt using the window as a mirror. He is halfway up the driveway when he realizes he forgot the corsage. He runs back to the car. He has almost reached her house again when he decides he should wear the suit jacket. Back to the car.

Sarina’s mother and sister sit on the window seat, drinking tea. They watch the boy return to his car for the second time. ‘The corsage,’ her mother said, on the first go-back. ‘What is it now,’ her sister says, on the second. ‘Oh, the suit jacket.’

Sarina’s mother made the teacups out of found glass. She made the window seat’s cushions from discarded fabric she found in a neighbour’s trash. Her mother sees all objects in the world in two ways simultaneously: what they are and what they could be. She never gives up on anything, simply repurposes it. She had tailored her own mother’s dress to fit Sarina’s petite shape, happy that her daughter wanted to go to her prom and wear something other than black.

When it seems the boy plans to complete this trip to the house, her mother calls out: ‘Sarina!’

‘I’m coming!’ Sarina descends the stairs, careful not to catch her heels in the thick carpet. Her mother and sister sit with Ben Allen in the family room. How strange to see him in the room where she eats dinner, watches the news with her father, reads while her mother talks on the phone, or does homework. Her father had outfitted the windows with delicate lighting and low, wide sills, where she would sit and wish for a different family. Up until now she has hated this room; however the new fact of Ben in it, sitting in her father’s chair, makes her understand that even it is capable of beauty. Up until he asked her to the prom, Sarina had been certain high school would hold no bright spots.

Her mother stands when Sarina enters the room. The teacup clatters on the plate. ‘Beautiful.’ Her eyes go to Ben. ‘You took your piercings out,’ he says.

Her mother takes a few stilted photos. They walk to the car. Ben wants to tell Sarina she looks as pretty as a yellow rose but hears Jeff say, Play it easy, man. Don’t be the guy who trips all over himself. Ben and his brother have spent hours analysing the Pretty Girl, specifically this one, and have come up with a few guidelines. Never tell the Pretty Girl that she is pretty. You will be like every other fool. Compliment every other girl in front of her, but never her.

So instead Ben says, ‘Try not to slam the door.’ Realizing it’s the first time he’s spoken to her directly, he adds, ‘It’s not my car.’

They meet Georgina McGlynn, Bella Harrington and Tom Venuto at the school’s main entrance. Tom’s date is the girl from Ben’s Advanced Lit class. Georgie and Bella are each other’s date. They wear strapless terry-cloth dresses in pink and green, respectively. Feathers clipped to their hair. Their glittered eyelids ascend when they see Sarina.

‘Are you wearing makeup?’ Bella says. ‘Where are your piercings?’

‘Your dress,’ Georgie says. ‘Vintage?’

Girls, thinks Ben. Flute-like, gauze-filled, late-afternoon sunshine. Rainbow bracelets on the carpet. They use their tongues to wet their lips. Girls. They pretend to like each other. Dotting their i’s with hearts, arching their backs, manipulating their confusing hair with flat irons, curling irons, glisten, extra, ultra hold, hold my purse, hold me close, no duh, bubble gum, gym socks, tube socks, tubes of gloss, tube tops, purrs, pert collars, full hair, full tits, just the tip! Their sound, the upper notes of a xylophone. Their legs, downed in fur. Girls.

The one from Ben’s Advanced Lit class says, ‘That dress is vintage. You can totally tell.’

‘It was my grandmother’s.’ Sarina checks to see if Ben is listening to people compliment her, but he is accepting a flask from Tom and finalizing the plans for a concert they will attend later in the summer.

He leans into her, creating a sacramental space between them. Finally, Sarina thinks, he will say something sweet to me.

‘Isn’t Georgie something?’ he says, as if they are locker room buddies. ‘She is so foxy.’

A hard knot pushes against Sarina’s breastplate. The envy she feels for Georgie in this moment will evolve into a feeling of inadequacy the origin of which she will be unable to remember.

The gymnasium sparkles with the dresses and accessories of their classmates. The shots of whiskey have calmed Ben down. He feels like the president of the prom. His chest swells like when he finishes writing a poem, or runs a block at full speed. Ben doesn’t know who Sarina hangs with. She doesn’t have a group like he does. It must bother her. He has given her a ride in a classic car and a group of slick looking cool people. He is proud of himself for helping her out and hopes her gratitude will take the form of a killer blow job. He imagines her unzipping his pants in the front seat of the Mustang. Speaking of, where is Sarina?

He finds her outside, repositioning the straps of her dress near a group of nattering lacrosse girls.

‘You forgot me.’

Had he perceived her wounded tone, he could have recalibrated the alignment of his tactics. However, the insight Ben needs to fix this situation is the insight he will gain after screwing it up.

Inside the gym, the DJ plays a new indie band covering an old indie band’s song.

Georgie squeals. ‘We must, must dance!’

Ben says he doesn’t dance, they know that, right? He never dances, you dance, though. They leave him, sputtering on the side.

Bella performs her version of dancing: planting her right leg and cranking her arms like a wind-up doll.

Georgie performs her version of dancing: swinging her head back and forth. Periodic exclamations of glee.

Tom Venuto’s version: wagging his ass out of time, looking askance. I might not be dancing, I might just be walking by with pep.

The girl from Advanced Lit’s version: Hop hop hop.

Sarina’s version: knees bent, motioning outward and outward, shooing away the whole world.

If you were to judge the dance floor solely on merit, you might linger on Georgie, whose family’s attic is stuffed with boxes of feathered masks and bedazzled headbands. Pictures of Georgie in ballet or character shoes, holding batons, hula hoops, crystalline balls, or simply one flexed hand up to the camera’s flash. However, the dancer you’d watch would be Sarina Greene. She is by no one’s standards talented, but it is obvious when watching her that she loves to dance.

At the end of the song, Georgie squeals, ‘Wasn’t that the best? I am having so much, so much fun!’

Ben spends the night in earnest conversation with other girls he would never on other occasions be interested in. Party girls. Sports girls. He talks a theatre girl through a rough patch of night after a song reminds her of her dead grandmother. Without notice, she kisses him. Her tongue is down his throat before he can extract himself.

Sarina sits near the back of the gym, her hope falling like a helicopter leaf, halting, not quite reaching the bottom, not quite reaching the bottom, not quite reaching the . . . She pre-worried for tornadoes, fistfights, drunk driving: scenarios for Ben’s heroicism to shine. She didn’t anticipate the dull slap of being ignored.

She spoons a melted sundae she’s too sad to eat and counts the minutes until she can ask to be taken home without sounding like a bitch. If he still planned to take her home. He canoodles with a theatre girl at a table near the dance floor, where Georgie and Bella enact big scenes.

What will she tell her mother, who sewed every bead on the gloves she is wearing? Who said, Try not to think of your father tonight. No one at school knows her father is gone and Ben has nothing to do with that grey man loading suitcases into his smoking grey car in the middle of the grey night. He was a don’t-say-anything-that-takes-more-than-four-words kind of father. When looking at the world, he saw only how it was. Whatever he saw when he looked at Sarina and her mother and sister, he didn’t think he needed.

Sarina had hoped for an exchange with the universe: a good prom for a gone father. But she will receive no coupon. Drab girls named Sara have as much chance for divinity. This realization sucks, brick by brick, ascending into a wall inside her that will from this day forward allow her smile to open only so big. She is not special or pretty or chosen or royal. She is fatherless, only.

Boys. Tender with their cars. Feet that smell like churned earth. Sparse bureau tops, loose change, and a dry-cleaning ticket. Dirty jeans, sun-faded socks. Upsetting smirks. Forearms dusted with freckles. Limbs long with no effort. They pretend to not care how they look. Her father’s shelf in the medicine cabinet was empty except for a roll of bandages and a comb that smelled like firewood. Boys. In packs at the edges of fields, hitting each other over some new level of video game, obscure band, skate trick, lit crit, rebound, offsides, descending line, whammy bar, pickup, layup, Walkman, eight-track, on the bench, down the line, over the shirt, under the bra, fumbling toward the clit. Boys.

Another suited jerk stops in front of her table. ‘Sarina?’ it says.

It’s Michael Lawrence, the scrawny guy who sings in the school’s musicals. He takes several steps as if forced back by her beauty. ‘You are stunning. Jean Seberg, if she was a brunette.’

‘I’ve never heard of that actress,’ she says. ‘Jean Seberg. From Breathless?’

How nice to have another boy treat her like a worthless thing, this time for not knowing a movie. Then he is wrenching her from her chair, does she not want to dance? Sarina doesn’t want to dance, no she can’t explain why, well then, let’s dance, you and me, oh Michael, oh, fine. Sarina rests her hands on his shoulders. They take one stiff step to the right, one stiff step to the left.

Across the room, Ben watches his date dance with Michael Lawrence, the human equivalent of not playing it cool. The song is about not understanding the person you’re with even after all these years and even after being given every opportunity. It lasts for three minutes and fifty-three seconds. Over the course of it, Sarina and Michael cover one square foot of gym floor.

Ben, however, travels to hell and back.

The song finishes and Sarina thanks Michael for what will be her only dance. Next to her, someone clears his throat and for the first time that night, Sarina turns to find her date by her side.

‘I’ll take it from here,’ Ben says.

The smile Sarina extended to Michael dies. ‘You can take me home.’

Ben goes numb. Any thought she might be joking fades as he trails her through the parking lot to the Mustang. She gets in and shuts the door. He gets in and shuts his, sealing out noise from the outside. On another day that would be considered another killer feature of this car, but now the silence makes Ben’s suit feel a size too small. He suggests waffles at the diner.

‘No,’ she says.

The shape of his error grows and sharpens, causing his throat to close, his stomach to leaden. He cannot let her go home. He must rebound. Rally to overturn the momentum. He puts his mouth on her earlobe, sliding his hand under the strap of her dress. She forces him away. ‘Home.’

The Mustang rumbles to life. Ben is too upset to appreciate it.

Driving out of the parking lot, they pass the open doors of the gym, where a couple necks underneath wilting balloons. The boy bites the girl’s shoulder while she stares at the ceiling.

The balloons are black and grey, in coordination with the prom theme: Goth Night. Ben glances over to see if Sarina is watching too, but she is staring at the soccer field that in the fall is dotted with the banners of rival schools. Ben eases around each corner, so as not to further upset her. Her neck glows like the mussel shells his family collects on shore vacations. When they reach her street, it is quiet and carless. The Mustang shudders to a halt in front of her house.

Through the bay window, Sarina can see her mother napping on the recliner. The creak of the front door will awaken her and she will want to know everything: how the dress went over, what the other girls were wearing, how it was to dance with him, whether summer picnics will include him. Her mother will want to know whether in a world of unreliable fathers this boy is going to stick. How will Sarina tell her no?

Sarina’s hand pauses on the car door. She needs to gather herself into a girl who can lie, It was great! This terrible boy would not understand. After ignoring her all night he can at least allow her this time, unexplained. Around her the chirruping bugs, the dilations of stars, the smell of the rose bushes, even the arrogant moon seem to pause.

How would she have said goodbye to her father, even if he had stayed to hear it?

Sarina will move to college and tell this story at parties, her mouth spiced with alcohol. What was the name of that guy who did that thing? her girlfriends will say. At your prom? She will take a bong hit and yell: Ben Allen! in smoke. She will meet and marry a gorgeous man whose first language is Spanish. Finally – restitution from the universe. They will have sex on unpronounceable beaches. They will move to Connecticut where nothing has edges. One day, her sister will call and say come back, Mom’s dying, and Sarina will drag what’s left of this home to this curb in boxes they bought at the Shop and Save. In that moment, she will have gone far enough to measure how little progress she has made.

In this moment, through the bay windows and over the wide sills, Sarina watches the woman in forty-watt light readjust her chin in sleep. Ben Allen watches, too.

She says, ‘That’s my mother.’ ?




Photograph courtesy of Stephan Geyer

Marie-Helene Bertino

Marie-Helene Bertino is a writer and author of two novels 2 a.m. at the Cat's Pyjamas and Safe as Houses. Her work has appeared in Guernica, Electric Literature and Time Out amongst others.

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