What is Left to Say
Yayi has mastered the art of not taking up space. It isn’t that she is quiet, or shy— she fills the world with her laughter, her wide hips and round, black eyes. It is more in the way she never asks why, the ease with which she can make you love her without ever speaking to you. I’ve understood this since the moment she passed me a bottle of Jack under the bleachers of a high school football game, whispering her name in my ear.
We are in her dark blue Honda, hurdling down I-95 like a lost piece of sky colliding into the pavement, night sky an oily grey. The car seat cushions smell like cherry blossom perfume and smoke, kind of rotten, but nice when you get used to it. Sand and mint wrappers litter the floor mats. Gooseflesh dapples the skin of Yayi’s collarbones, and water drips from her hair. When she’s cold like this her veins turn a kind of black instead of blue. We’re trying to dry off from diving into the pond south of town, but we’ve forgotten towels. Driving in our bikinis, we roll down the windows, letting in the stale August heat. Scents of petroleum and pine sap cling to the air.
The pink fabric of Yayi’s bikini is stretched tight across her breasts. I rub the layer of fat over my belly, looking large and raw next to her. I feel as if each billboard man’s eyes catch me for just a second, grimacing at the cellulite on my thighs. Yayi’s abdomen stretches long like a cat’s, spine slightly curved inward, the patterns of her rib bones rippling when she inhales. She tells me that I’m not fat, but we both know I am.
“Mira,” she says to me when I’m down, “Everyone has a little pooch. You’re just well endowed.”
When we speak, her tongue sometimes slips to Spanish for a moment, quick with verbs and velvety as a lily petal. Yayi tells me English is too sharp, like a wooden block in her mouth. She prefers the lilting syllables her mother grew up speaking to her, the way her eyes wet a bit when she speaks the language. I think she started to hang out with me because I’m the only one who never asked her what the words meant. I trusted her to tell me what I needed to know.
I fish around the console for rolling papers. When I can’t find them, I settle for an old McDonald’s receipt. She giggles when she sees me grinding the last of my eighth and packing it into the waxy paper.
“You got some MacGyver shit going on there, Jo?”
“A girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.” I smile, licking the paper to close it. It tastes like salt on the tip of my tongue.
“Dame,” she cooes, wagging her long white nails around my nose. I light the end and place it in her fingers.
Before Yayi met me, she didn’t smoke. Sometimes she stole her mother’s wine and drank it in the woods behind her house, or took sips of liquor at school football games. The first time I gave her a blunt we were in this car, parked on top of a dry hill near the town line. Whippoorwills hopped out of their bramble bushes and sang to us, pinging upward to the clouds. She choked, and spilled ash on her bare brown thighs. We could see the whole town of South Oaks— two gas stations, rings of trailer parks, a brick high school, and a Dollar General. That was a year ago, right around this time of summer, when the sun bleaches the lowlands yellow. We watched the town firemen set the woods east of South Oaks ablaze, killing everything but the knotted pine trees reaching towards the sticky blue sky. That is the only time Yayi has ever called South Oaks beautiful.
Yayi’s mother, Regina, moved them to South Oaks after the recession. Before they lived somewhere in the Appalachian mountains, on a tobacco farm. She works at the RJ Reynolds cigarette factory just outside of town now, like the rest of our parents. Regina is a short woman with skin like leather and hands bent by arthritis, and the same wide set eyes as her daughter. She cooks carne asada in their trailer’s little pink kitchen, speaks to me in short sentences. Yayi doesn’t take me over much, says that Regina doesn’t really like visitors.
The air filtering in through the windows starts to feel like molasses, sticking under my arms, knotting my hair. Summer in the lowlands of North Carolina is paralyzing, so thick your lungs fill with water, forcing the world into slow motion. Yayi and I have spent our vacation months at the pond, tracing our toes against the dark water, drinking rum her boyfriend, Owen, buys for us.
I-95 begins to curve right, telling me we’ll be hitting South Oaks soon. The sky turns violet and pink as the street lamps clump together, pregnant with diesel and factory smog. Yayi sings along to a Doors song on the radio, wide cheeks flexing in and out as she pulls on the blunt, like curtains blowing in wind.
From her lips emerges a ring of smoke. It hits the windshield and disappears. Owen taught her how to do that. He is a tall boy, with acne scarred cheeks and a hook nose. Yayi met him a few months ago at the restaurant his parents own. It’s the only place to get Mexican food in town. Afterwards, she said she’d fallen for him when he asked her what she’d like in Spanish. It was something to her like cool water bubbling from a fountain. His parents were migrant farm workers like Yayi’s mother, until they settled down in South Oaks and opened up a restaurant. Yayi clings to the Spanish speakers in South Oaks like her mother clings to her rosary, white knuckled, privately. She eats dinner at the restaurant a lot, and only speaks to Owen in Spanish. She says it makes her feel less different here. Half the population is lard colored factory workers and republicans.
We hit the city limit. A thin, stiff feeling covers my forehead, and the acid in my stomach churns. I want so desperately to understand Yayi the way Owen does. But there are only so many ways someone like me can love her. People call Yayi horrible things. Old men grab her ass and call her a brown whore. She never cries. She turns her head and squeezes her jaw shut, screams when we’re alone, throws rocks with all her might into the pond water or the forest. I never know what to say so I just hold her hand. I try not to worry about what might happen to her if she’s ever in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“Hey…” Yayi flicks on the turn signal with her thumb and veers onto the South Oaks exit. “Let’s stop by the Dollar General. I wanna surprise Owen.”
I groan and sink further into my seat, fabric scratching my bare back.
“Only if, you know, you’re okay with it,” she hesitates, slowing the car down to a crawl. No cars are out this time of night. Sometimes the roads feel haunted, the way wind pushes through them so easily, unhindered. A few dozen yards away is Peach Lane, marked by a crooked street sign, faded to a sickly tan color. It will take us right to the Dollar General. Owen works a lot of night shifts there. She wants to take him to the break room, blow him, treat him well. Regina taught Yayi to surprise people with the little things. When Yayi was young, Regina folded paper cranes and hid them all around her room, with little notes written on the inside of the wing. Some say Te quiero mas que a la vida, and Mi niña hermosa. There’s a little wooden box under Yayi’s bed where she keeps them. If there’s no money, they learn to work around it. Yayi likes to tuck flasks of vodka under my pillow, make flan for Owen on Saturdays and take him out of town for picnics.
“It’s fine. Just don’t take too long.” I look out my window. Yayi is probably looking at me, squinting her eyes the way she does when she’s not sure she’s doing the right thing. She always wants to do the right thing. Yayi is afraid that she might hurt me, because of what I did last week. But we haven’t spoken of it since it happened, and I don’t want to start now. I’m afraid there are no words, or at least none in English, for why I tried to kiss her, why I love her. With my eyes peeled wide, I gesture towards the Dollar General, force a laugh.
Yayi turns the Honda down Peach and shakes her head. All the pine trees have been cut into ugly boxes, growing around power lines in a way that looks painful to me. In the dark they look like giant hands, cupping thick wire. The dogwoods have shed their rubbery petals and the pair trees shunned their fruit, yellow jackets sucking at the brown rinds melting away on the ground. The air smells like sugar and fertilized grass. The neon sign of the Dollar General colors the night around it green, buzzes ever so slightly. We park in the space closest to the doors. Owen and his co-worker, Kyle, are fiddling around the counter, keeping to themselves. Yayi and I watch them from the car, finishing off the blunt. Moths hit the lamp post light bulb in front of us, desperate to reach the glowing orb. A few land dead on the hood of the car.
“You should come in… Talk to Kyle. Owen told me he’s into you.”
“Since when?” I ask. I don’t want Kyle to look at me. I’m practically naked. The stretch marks around my thighs and stomach look like burn marks on pavement. I shift my weight, unbuckle my seatbelt.
“I don’t know… He just told me that Kyle thought you were hot.” Yayi wags her eyebrows.
“Yayi, Kyle doesn’t like Owen. He doesn’t like you.”
She blinks. “Doesn’t mean he was lying. Besides, it’s not like he’s a dick or anything.”
Kyle is a dick. When he comes to the diner where I work he complains about the Mexican he works with and his “slutty girlfriend.” Everyone knows the only reason he doesn’t say it to Owen’s face is because he’s afraid of him— Owen towers over Kyle, could beat him senseless. Sometimes, I spit in Kyle’s eggs.
“Just keep him company. It’s been so long since you’ve hooked up with someone, Jo.” Yayi is pushing this because she doesn’t want me to sit here alone when she takes Owen to the break room. She wouldn’t be able to do it if she thought it would make me sad. I’m angry that she’s pushing Kyle on me. But she only wants me to not be alone anymore, and I guess that should make me happy.
“Okay,” I agree. If she really tried, she could get me to do anything.
We crawl out of the car and slam the doors shut. Yayi skips ahead into the store, but I amble. Heat radiates from the black top, through the soles of my feet. Standing in the open air, my bikini seems to shrink. It feels as if I’ve been turned inside out, that all the vulnerable parts of me are exposed. By the time I reach the door, Yayi and Owen have already disappeared to the back of the store. I hear her giggle and squeal something I can’t understand.
The Dollar General is lit by shakey fluorescent tubes, tinged a kind of blue. A country song plays on the background speakers, and the air is stale in my nose. Aisles with knock off cereal brands and pregnancy tests run off farther than I can see. Behind the counter, an old poster of the Marlboro man is pasted to the wall. A dark horse races across a violet field, lasso flinging wildly around the cowboy’s head.
Kyle looks me up and down. He’s not very tall, not very strong. Fat hangs from his arms and his blonde hair is greasy, smoothed under a blue ball cap. Kyle’s eyes are grey and piggy, small and set back into his skull. Around his lips is the ghost of a mustache, pale and straight. I’ve known him for as long as I can remember. When we were kids Kyle’s dad used to slap him around—eventually he got a black girl pregnant, and they had to leave town, abandoning Kyle and his mother. Since he got held back, we’ll be graduating together.
“Hey, Jo,” he grumbles, leaning against the counter. Lottery tickets and lighter racks hang around his head like cheap Christmas decorations. His breath smells like beer and American Spirits. Once, at a party, he told me he smoked them because his father did.
“Hey,” I cross my arms. I don’t like his glazed eyes on my body. I imagine mine look the same, red and glassy. I inch closer.
“You here to hang while that hoe blows Owen?”
“Don’t call her that,” I say. My voice is dry and weak.
He opens his palms up in a mock surrender. “Just saying.”
Kyle isn’t handsome, or charming. Sweat stains the shirt fabric under his arms. I glance at my reflection in the round corner mirror. It distorts me, blows me up into a balloon girl. I imagine Owen’s hands wrapped in Yayi’s hair, her eyes closed lightly. Something in the back of the store clatters to the ground, she laughs wildly. I flinch, and Kyle cusses under his breath.
“I just,” I glance in the direction of the noise. All I can see are pool noodles and inflatable tubes for half off. “I thought I’d come in and see you. It’s been a while.”
“All summer.” Kyle smiles. His teeth are a little crooked, a little yellow. Some kind of laughter tickles his voice, puts a whistle in his breath.
I lean on the counter, the plastic cold on my breasts. Why does Yayi want me to be with him? She would hate him if she knew the things he says. I’ve never had the heart to tell her. We never talk about the things people say, or how different we are. She probably thinks Kyle and I are the same, the way Owen and her are the same. Both Kyle’s and my mother work at the RJ Reynolds factory, where everyone here works, putting in horrid hours for worse wage. Where we’ll both probably end up. Everyone in South Oaks either flees or works at the factory until their backs give out or they smoke themselves to death. I could be like the rest of the women here— gain twenty pounds, get a back tattoo, marry a man like Kyle and have little racist piglet children. Die at fifty on the toilet, or having sex. Yayi will run Owen’s family’s restaurant and her hands will become arthritic like her mother’s. We’ll drift when we can’t ignore that this town treats the two of us differently, or when the rum dries up. We’ll stop speaking. The divide will grow in girth. South Oaks will continue to burn and grow back uglier than before. No one here will accept Yayi’s skin, and I’ll fade into the crowd, the one it’s so clear she isn’t a part of.
My heart hits my chest bone hard. I look back towards where the laughing has been coming from. It’s quiet now. I imagine her soft, heart shaped face cupped in Owen’s fingers. Sweat beads on my lip.
Kyle searches for whatever I’m looking at.
“Are you serious?” he grunts, craning his head into my line of sight. “Why’re you messing with that, Jo?”
He laughs. “I know, man.”
“What do you know?” For some reason, I’m concerned that one of my breasts has fallen out of the black cup of my bikini. I check to make sure it’s still in place. My stomach bulges like bread rising in an oven.
“Shit, you really don’t know.” Kyle claps his hands and chuckles through his teeth. His baby cheeks turn red. “Man, that sucks.”
“Kyle,” I try to sound harsh, but my voice cracks.
“Yayi told Owen what you did last week, you know,” Kyle leans forward and pretends to kiss the air, making wet smacking sounds with his lips. His mouth looks like a cut of veal.
My chin wobbles, and the fluid in my stomach turns over so fast I feel dizzy. The blood in my arms and legs fizzles and pops, a cold rush of water drips down my spine.
“I didn’t— ”
“Owen told me you tried to kiss her. Hell, half the jumping beans around town know, the way they talk. I didn’t know you were into that lesbo shit… Kinda makes sense, though. The way you follow her around like a puppy.”
Tears pool behind my eyes. For a moment I think I might vomit. I try to push the memory down but it rises, buoyant, insisting on finding air and space.
Yayi and I had been sun bathing on the dock of the pond. It was around noon, and we were drinking golden rum and orange juice. The skin on my shoulders was red and flaky from burning. We were laying side by side, laughing about something I can’t remember now.
“Jo,” she’d sat up quickly, little curls of hair falling from her french braid. The skin of her thigh brushed mine. She took a quick sip of our cocktail from a flask. “Jo, do you think Owen and I will get married?”
I knew there would never be a better choice for Yayi. If she wanted to leave, she’d have to go to college. Regina can barely afford to keep their power on some months. She couldn’t marry a white man, she loved herself too much. Owen was kind to her. He nibbled on her ears and bought her cigarettes. He knew what it was like to be brown in South Oaks.
“Yeah,” I said. “He gives you what you need.”
Yayi laughed, wide teeth flashing like a slice of white peach between her lips. “What does that mean?”
I remember the impulse crawling all the way up from my toes to my tongue. The way her head hovered over mine, resting on her elbow, the smell of her cherry blossom perfume. I needed to kiss her so badly I thought I’d cry if I didn’t, scream, faint. “It means,” It felt like there was cotton stuck between my teeth. “It means, that you need someone who gets it. Who is beautiful, and speaks Spanish and, and won’t let this town get to you.”
She smiled, nodded ever so slightly. Yayi was the only change that ever happened to me. She pulled me from the crowd of trailer trash like an old car part, thought maybe I’d work, be something of purpose. When I was with her, I was. She held me in her strong ropy arms. Arms that smelled of coconut oil and lime. She whispered tongues in my ear and let me lay in the sun beside her for all the world to see. Her beauty made my ugliness mean something.
The sun was haloing around her head in red rings, almost a crown. Something hot released in my gut and fired up my throat. By the time my head craned far enough upward that my lips were brushing hers, she’d recoiled.
“Jo,” she murmured, covering her lips with her fingers, “I know we’re drunk and all… But I’m not like that.”
Remembering this, Kyle makes me feel more than naked. Gutted. Vulnerable. I imagine I look like a big fat fish fish stripped of its scales, gasping for air in front of him, wiping salt water from my eyes.
“Are you really crying, Jo? Why cry over some dumb slut?” He tries to reach over the counter, knock my shoulder in play, or some kind of humor. I lean away.
“Don’t call her that,” I spit. I’m losing Yayi. She told Owen, of course, she can’t love me. I’m just like the rest of of the people in South Oaks, the pale fat girls with no love. Yayi calls them gringas.
“Jo?” Yayi appears from the pool noodle aisle, hair on the back of her head knotted. She takes my side, hands resting on my shoulders. I sniff and shake her off. “Jo, what’s wrong? Niña, talk to me.” I turn my head.
“What’d you say, Kyle?” Owen asks.
“Nothing,” Kyle leans back, still laughing. “I was just joking around.”
“Then why is my girl crying, huh?” Yayi steps up to the counter, slaps it.
“Hey,” Kyle’s voice deepens, “Get out of my face, bitch.”
Owen puts a hand on Yayi’s back. The way Owen looks at Kyle reminds me of the look of a stray dog, distrustful, hungry. I feel like a child, sniveling, trying to curl in over myself. I want Kyle to shut up.
“Kyle, just apologize,” Owen tries to make peace.
Kyle’s eyes glint, and blood rises in his neck. He broadens his shoulders. “Get your fucking spics under control,” he says. Something about tonight has made him bold— maybe the beer on his breath. Maybe it’s that I’m here, and he doesn’t feel alone.
“What did you just call me?” The veins in Yayi’s neck look like they might break, so taught they’ve begun to fray.
“Shut up, Kyle!” I didn’t think I would yell, but I do. So loud my throat burns and my stomach hurts. Kyle pauses for a second, dumbstruck. If he’d just shut his mouth I wouldn’t be thinking about kissing Yayi, we wouldn’t be here. If people like him would just shut up things could be different.
“So now you’re gonna go dyke on me, Jo?” There’s a little flash of hurt in his voice. “She’s never gonna want you.”
“You told him?” Yayi glances at Owen. Owen opens his mouth, fishing around for words. He splutters something in Spanish, itching his stubbly beard. I can’t stop looking at his hand on Yayi’s waist, smelling Kyle’s dumb cigarettes. I hate that I’m still in this dumb bikini in a crappy Dollar General in crappy South Oaks.
“Jo— ” Yayi looks up at me from her thick eyebrows. The fluorescent lights pool on the angles of her face, making her look tired.
“You’re so pathetic,” Kyle snorts.
I whip to look at him. His mouth hangs open, reeking and pale. I’ve never punched anyone before. When my fist connects to the bridge of his nose and blood spurts out, I don’t feel it. There’s a crunching sound. I look at my knuckles. They’re red and warm.
“You bitch!” His arms lunge across the counter. Owen’s hand hits Kyle’s chest with a thwack. There’s a sour taste in my throat.
“Jo, we gotta go,” Yayi yanks on my arm. “Now, Jo.”
I stumble back out into the night, Yayi’s bony fingers cinched on my arms. I hear Kyle yell, “I’ll fucking kill you!” I see Owen shove Kyle back. For a moment, I am stunned he did that for me, and I stumble.
Yayi cranks the engine of the Honda so hard it screams. I slam my door, still looking at Kyle’s blood on my hand. It feels warmer out than it did before, the sky looks darker. Did a street lamp go out? As we drive off, the dead moths slide off the hood and land on the parking lot pavement. I don’t look back into the Dollar General again.
“Are you crazy?” Yayi hits the steering wheel with her palms, veering back onto the highway. Wind rips through my hair, floods my nose. “Why did you do that?” She pushes.
I lean my head out the window, let my throbbing fingers rest in my lap. There are no stars in the sky. Angling my chin up so I face the clouds, all that’s above me is purple, swaying like the belly of a pregnant cat, so close I can taste the factory chemicals. The air is so fast it feels like I’m drowning. Yayi’s hand shoves my shoulder. I pull back in.
“Jo, if you don’t answer me, I swear to God— ”
“Kyle’s a dick. I punched him. He deserved it.”
Yayi pauses, and from somewhere deep in her lungs emerges a curse, or a cackle, something between the two. Her head leans back, shaking. “Jo,” she hiccups, “If I punched a guy like Kyle, I’d be dead right now.”
I don’t respond. My mouth is dry, my stomach so empty it burns. My knuckles are starting to swell. I realize that Yayi is right. This is why she has to love Owen. This is why I am still a little like Kyle, and always will be. I’ve never had to be afraid of him.
“Drink this,” she fishes around the floor of the driver’s side, and passes me a plastic bottle. The water is hot and metallic, but I drink it all. It sloshes inside of me as it goes down. I lick away the taste of copper on my teeth.
“I’m sorry,” I start.
“I never knew Owen would… tell people.”
We are quiet, stepping back from each other in our own ways. The truth is, if I weren’t white, there wouldn’t be a painful tension between us now. We don’t know how to tell each other about ourselves. South Oaks eats us up in ways neither could explain. Yayi is loosening me like a part from an engine, trying to figure out how I work. “You know,” she hesitates, “Even if you did, like, like girls, I’d still be your friend. Te amo, Jo.”
We both know there is only so much left to say. “Will you say something else, in Spanish?” I ask.
Yayi looks me up and down, cautious. I am so large, rolled up like bunches of fabric. The blood has dried and there are pink streaks running down my face. She still occupies so little of the world. Yayi watches and loves in private, speaks her mind only when no white person can understand. She’s learning to cook from her mother, still has the taste of Owen in her mouth. There is pain that I can’t find inside of her. I am only on the edge of her world.
After a while, she whispers, “Claro.”
Yayi talks gently. Her voice is the tap of toes stepping gently on hard wood, barely touching the surface before lifting and falling again. For all I know, she could be telling me she likes lavender fabric softener more than spring breeze. Or that she doesn’t forgive me for punching Kyle, or for loving her. Or that things will have to change between us. That this is too delicate. But it makes no difference, because I understand none of it. I have always trusted her to tell me what I need to know.
We don’t have to talk about me kissing her, or Kyle, or Owen, or South Oaks. Not her mother’s weakening hands or the fact that I’ll probably never leave my trailer park. We don’t have to know that I am mad that Yayi told Owen, or that she is mad at me for not understanding.
For now, it is summer. For tonight, she’ll point the Honda towards the nearest McDonald’s. We’ll split an order of fries and neither of us will be the fat one or the brown one. We’ll dig around for a flask with some rum left in it and we’ll be together a little longer. We’ll laugh about something I won’t remember later, and that is the only shape or sound from her mouth I care to understand.
ALEXA CURNUTTE is a senior creative writing major at Interlochen Arts Academy. She is from Fayetteville, North Carolina. She has received several regional Gold Keys, a National Medal in fiction, and an American Voices Award nomination from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. She has been a Merit Winner for short story in YoungArts in 2016, as well as a Finalist in short story in 2017. Alexa was a finalist in the 2015 Charles Crupi Memorial Poetry Contest, and received The TWR Prize for Young Writers. Alexa’s work has appeared in the literary journals The Red Wheelbarrow, The Interlochen Review, Teenage Wasteland, and Polyphony HS.