Note: Slate is proud to publish two of this year’s winners of the Scholastic Writing Awards, honoring the best teen writers in the country. This piece, which was part of a gold-medal-winning portfolio, is by Isabella Giovannini, a senior at the Dalton School in New York City.
You can read Anthony DeSantis’s “The Culture of Secrets,” part of his gold-medal-winning portfolio, as well.
The sunflower on my desk finally died. Each tiny stoma flared and inhaled one last time—inhaled the whole apartment: the heady scent of tired books, the spicy lunch meat Mom was unwrapping for dinner, and Dad’s hair a-burning as he worked at his computer. Then the flower shuddered, exhaled a puff of golden pollen all over my keyboard and phone, and was dead.
My gold-smeared paper towel stops midswipe. Hello?
I’ve never heard your voice over the phone before. I’m almost afraid to switch ears, afraid that in that tiny fraction of a second you’ll say, Oops, wrong number, and I’ll be left alone with the dial tone.
The phone is slippery with pollen and I almost drop it. My hands are streaked with gold where your voice has touched them.
Now even the tips of my fingers look happy.
I fall in love on a Wednesday.
Summer sizzles up from the halal cart on the corner. It leaves greasy smudges on the windows of Starbucks and steams the leaves on the trees.
You run ahead of the group and stop where the sidewalk does. One black All-Star dangles boyishly off the curb. Your white tee beams at us. My gaze snags on the slant of your shoulder blade—follows it upward—I never knew you had so many freckles on the back of your neck. Like someone sprinkled cinnamon under that russet mop of curls.
I’ve known you—what is it?—six years now. I’ve known you longer than I’ve known about deodorant. Since the days when I swore I’d never wear a bra or shave my legs, when I still had two crooked braids and teeth. Unbearably brown braids, thick and long enough for a boy to pull. Although, of course, you didn’t.
Chopping off that hair was so easy—snip, snip, snip. I thought it would be that simple. Snip, snip—let my girlish, futile interest in you fall away, sweep it into a sealed envelope with the date of the haircut.
You turn and my stomach flips. I flick my gaze away, back to Lana next to me.
We join you on the curb—Lana, Noah, Jake, and I. The light changes, but no one moves. After all, we have the whole afternoon to cross the street. Lana lights a Newport. The paper browns crisp like the edges of a pancake.
I’ve never seen your eyes this blue.
I should know by now to bring a picture to the hairdresser. Show him exactly what I want. I’ve only once walked out of the salon feeling better than when I walked in. The last time I went, I desperately wanted tousled layers—waves breaking on my shoulders, swirling down my back in rivulets. “Beachy waves,” I said. It was June.
Maybe what I really wanted was to be blond.
The hair was shorn, scattered across the floor like an Etch A Sketch had broken. The haircutter reached for the blow-dryer and brush, and I looked at myself in the mirror. This is it.
I kept looking in the mirror as I watched him pull the brush through. Watched the shiny red blow-dryer nuzzle my hair. I watched as he straightened it—straightened my beachy waves—and I said nothing.
“Volume,” I had said. “But not too big on top,” he had said. I had nodded. I had let him talk me out of what I wanted.
I keep telling myself it’ll grow out. But it’ll take months. Months of living with this straight-across cut, timidly short in the front. Hair that says, This girl wanted to be edgy but didn’t quite have the courage. Hair that says, This girl didn’t speak up. Hair that isn’t who I want to be.
You’ve begun to develop a way of walking so close to me on the street that we’re touching all down our sides. I can feel your ribs expand when you laugh—the flutter of your T-shirt against my skin. When you look at me, you look at my eyes, my lips—my whole face, as if you’re capturing the moment—maybe you’re listening intently and sometimes it seems you’re not listening at all.
I catch sight of our reflection in a shop window and try to memorize this. Your laugh fluttering and electric against my skin.
The glass is warped and our reflection is stretched like saltwater taffy. As we walk, our legs condense in thick gobs, then pull and pull until they are only connected to the rest of us by a tiny strand of jean.
I’ve never seen us together before.
You catch me looking and ask what I see. Quickly, I notice the green paint, the florist sign, the flowers behind the glass. They are small and their stalks are still pale green. They are tightly shrouded in petals and will not blossom for a while yet. They are not much to look at, so I say, “Nothing,” and your legs gob up and pull and pull and we walk out of the warped glass.