Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsFall 2017  Vol. 16 No. 2
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Here, Beauties

In the fall of 2002, while we were walking through Central Park, my best friend, Anja, told me she’d had sex with a space alien. At first, of course, I didn’t believe her. I just said, “Ha ha.” I was distracted by the pre-storm zing of ozone I smelled as Anja and I circled Turtle Pond. If it rained, we would have to share my umbrella, since Anja had forgotten hers in Queens. We didn’t fit beneath my umbrella as comfortably as we had a year before in eighth grade. That same year, we’d grown slightly bigger boobs and slightly bigger brains and taken many standardized tests and watched endless clips on TV of planes hitting the World Trade Center. Our city went fiery, then smoky, then back-to-normal-but-not-really. Later, as an adult, I’d be surprised that these events of growth and destruction weren’t things Anja and I ever talked about much. We let the new emptiness in the skyline speak for itself and we let the new heft to our bodies speak for itself.

“I’m not kidding about the alien.” Anja stuck out her pointed chin. “We promised we’d tell each other everything, including about our first times, right? Don’t tell anybody, but I lost it to a pegaterrestrial.”

Pegaterrestrials were fiction. They were winged Pegasus-like aliens, the heroes of a YA book series, and Anja and I were both obsessed with them. More than obsessed. In 2002, the Pegaterrestrials series was a way of life for us. We talked about the series on the subway to our new high school, we talked about it between classes, we talked about it during Small Group Time in Global 1, we talked about it in the girls bathroom, in our separate stalls. Sometimes Anja and I even read the same book at the same time, striving to synchronize the saccadic movements of our eyes, to stay on the same page, sentence, word. When we weren’t reading together, we would discuss the socio-environmental issues Pegaterrestrials presented. The pegaterrestrials had been the benevolent colonizers of a planet much like Earth. But then an evil space invader (the smogalathons) descended from foreign skies and there was a war and the atmosphere got smogged up, which made life difficult for the pegaterrestrials, because their primary foodstuffs were sunbeams and cirrus clouds. By the time I entered high school, I could admit it was a corny premise, a kind of ecoconscious My Little Pony in space, but Anja and I kept reading the series anyway, kept assiduously avoiding all spoilers, kept discussing its main characters, all the time. For Hanukkah that year, I planned to ask exclusively for Pegaterrestrials books (except for the paperbacks I’d been given for my birthday, I had to borrow the books from Anja or from the library because my mother was sure we would lose our rent-controlled apartment any day now, was sure the lawyers were gathering, and we needed to save up).

The point being, I was a huge fan of the series. Still, for all my pegaterrestrial passion, I knew the things were fantasy and you could not have actual sex with a fantasy. Our public school sex ed had taught me that much, at least. Anja, for some reason, was trying to mess with me. Instead of responding to her right away, I breathed in, and realized the pre-storm odor had faded. In its place, the smell of Sterno—Anja and I were passing our favorite pretzel vendor. The year before, the vendor had bought several dozen miniature American flags and bedecked his cart with them. But his supplier must not have been very good, because the flags’ colors had bled out after just a few months. Their red color had turned brown, their white color had turned light gray, their blue color had turned the shade of an abandoned aquarium. Now the cart looked postapocalyptic. The vendor, who was Egyptian, didn’t know what to do. He was scared to throw the flags out, because if anybody saw him dumping a handful of flags into the trash, they might accuse him of something. So he kept the flags up. At least they made his cart memorable.

He had told Anja and me all of this one day—somehow my request for extra mustard had elicited the flag-decay chronicle—but he had not told us his name, and we hadn’t asked. New York could be that way. Many people were willing to give you their story, but they didn’t want to give that story a name. Just because we didn’t know each other’s names, though, didn’t mean the pretzel vendor didn’t know us. Whenever we walked through the park (to go to the Met, or the Reservoir, or the Great Lawn, or Belvedere Castle), he would take out two pretzels for Anja and me, and say—not in a creepy way—“Here, beauties!”

Now, as we passed, the vendor lifted two pretzels high in the air, but Anja shook her head and walked on. I followed. I was the taller of us two, but my face back then appeared younger, softer, my features what people might call less pronounced—a gentle euphemism for sort of mushy.

We still had a little ways to go before we’d reach the Met on the east side of the park, where Zack was waiting. Zack, Anja, and I were all in the same freshman Art Appreciation class. Ms. Apuzzo had assigned us to go to the Met to prepare for a group presentation responding to the spatial language between forms. I had a big crush on Zack, but nobody knew it, not even Anja, because she thought Zack was kind of gross. I didn’t care what she thought, not on this topic. Zack gelled his hair into gravity-defying spikes like an anime character, and he had nice arms and, also, he’d had a few discussions with Anja and me about Pegaterrestrials. It turned out Zack was a huge fan too—which, on the surface, might seem unusual for a fourteen-year-old guy, because of the interstellar pony thing. There was more to the series than ponies, though. There were fiery explosions in almost every book, and there were dangerous black holes that stretched characters back in time, and there were secret code words that pegaterrestrials had to keep hidden from smogalathons, and there was a ferocious dude-pony called Brimstone Bone who took no prisoners but who also had a strong moral compass.

Because of all that, the series did have its share of fervent male fans. Once, in Art Appreciation, Zack and I had had a really good conversation about what Brimstone Bone’s childhood might have been like. “I bet he has older siblings who gave him shit all the time as a kid,” Zack had guessed. “That’s why he grew up so tough.” Zack asked if I’d ever written Pegaterrestrials fan fiction and I said no, I didn’t read any of that noncanonical stuff because it seemed to me it went against the author's, C.M. Roan’s, vision, and besides, I didn’t feel I had the right to inhabit and change another’s creation.

Zack, very solemnly, had replied, “You, Phoebe, have all the right.”

If Zack and I got together, maybe we would coauthor Pegaterrestrials fan fiction?

“Phoebe,” Anja said. “Phoebe. Are you even listening?”

I shifted my backpack straps up my shoulders as we passed a homeless man asleep on a park bench. Anja said she was about to share the strangest part of the story, and it would make her seem like a loser-slob, but we had promised to tell each other everything, and so I had to not judge, OK? Because friendship could only survive in an environment of nonjudgment, right? I tossed my ponytail over my shoulder, nodded, and Anja told me her story.

A month ago, as I knew, Anja’s mother and father had finally overcome their old-world Luddite tendencies and parental paranoia. They’d installed the internet in their home. (My mother had installed it months ago, because she’d said maybe it would help me research college scholarships down the road.) The last few weeks, Anja, under the screen name AnjaGrl88, had been visiting an AOL chat room for fans of Pegaterrestrials. She’d thought it’d be middle school kids in there, kids younger than us, but the people were older, and some of them actually believed that deep down they were pegaterrestrials. They’d decided C.M. Roan had not made up a new species, but rather had articulated something that had always existed inside of their souls. Initially, Anja thought these people were batshit. But as she got to know them better, as she started talking to them late into the night, every night, she came around. When she signed in online after school, they’d ask Anja about her day and tell her about their own and share their rankings of every book in the Pegaterrestrials series.

One user had been extra attentive. His screen name was xXPegaKevinXx, but Anja called him Kev. He lived somewhere in Tennessee. “At first we were just talking about our lives all the time,” Anja said. “Like I would complain about how my mom’s mean and overprotective, and he would complain about how his brother is mean and fat as fuck—his words, not mine—and it was like we just got each other, you know?”

I didn’t know.

“Soon,” Anja added, “it will be our one-month anniversary.”

Nonjudgment. I should aim for that. But she had done it before me, kept it a secret for a month, leapt way ahead on the page without asking, had not only met a guy on the internet but met up with him, slept with him. All I was up to was wondering if a boy would coauthor fan fiction with me. “So how did it happen?” I said at last. “I mean, did he come here from Tennessee? Where—” Two men in business suits rushed past, their breathy, growing-louder laughs gusting against us, and I spoke softer. “Where did you actually lose it? How’d you even get past your mom?”

Anja took a deep breath. “You can’t tell anybody about this, Phoebe.” Joggers blazed past in bright colors. “You can’t tell anybody where I lost it. If you tell somebody this, if it gets around school, I’ll seem like a reject beyond all proportions, and I don’t want to deal with that for four years.”

“Just tell me.”

“OK. So. We went into a private chat room. Nobody else there, right? And then Kev starts saying things. Like in the third person?”

“The third person?” I tried to bring back my puckered look of supportive concern but something was turning around in my stomach.

“Like, instead of using ‘I,’ he’d say ‘Kev rears up on his hind legs and gallops toward Anja with his horn pointed. Kev nuzzles her neck. Kev’s wings flutter at his sides. Kev rears up again.’ He was using this different font . . . It was sort of a more serious Comic Sans?”

I focused on a tree ahead of us, on its steady and still shape. Pegaterrestrials didn’t rear up. Not like that. They fed off sunbeams and cirrus clouds. They could not be replicated by some guy in Tennessee in a chat room.

“Then the things he started to say . . . Well, it’s private, I guess. The point is we had sex in the chat room. Just sort of by saying it. Me as a human, Kev as a pegaterrestrial. As a space alien.” She grinned. “Isn’t that crazy? Not exactly the way I expected to lose it.”

That’s how you lost it?”

“That’s how I lost it.”

“Are you serious?”

She frowned at me.

“Anja.” I shook my head back and forth. “You know that doesn’t count as sex. You know it. It’s virtual role-play. It’s not physiological.” Physiological! I was pretty sure I’d aged five years just by using that word. Feeling wiser than ever now, I said, “You didn’t lose it. You still have it.”

“Don’t be patronizing.” Anja arched her thick eyebrows. “I felt absolutely penetrated. Mind, body, soul. It wasn’t a role-playing thing. I’m in love with him.”

“You don’t even know who this guy is. He might be anyone! A Beanie Baby–collecting serial killer! A drug addict in rehab! An eighty-five-year-old midget!”

She waved my comment away and began to walk faster. “What concerns me most these days,” Anja went on, breathlessly, “is what I’ll tell our grandchildren about how Kev and I met. Like, our how-we-met story might be totally incomprehensible to them. A chat room in 2002 is bound to look different from a chat room when our grandchildren are alive. By that point”—her brown eyes now so dark and huge the scummy curve of Turtle Pond shone in them—“by that point there won’t even be chat rooms. My grandchildren won’t even know what that is. I’ll be like, ‘your granddad and I met in a chat room,’ and they’ll be like ‘what the hell is that even, Grandma,’ and I’ll be like ‘don’t curse, you little fuckwads.’” Anja tapped the space above her upper lip. “They’ll laugh a lot at that. Or maybe they’ll think I’m being lame. Maybe saying ‘fuckwads’ in the future will be like someone saying ‘whippersnapper’ now. You know?”

I unzipped my sweatshirt. Then I zipped it up again partway.

“My point,” Anja said, “is it will just be holograms by then.”


“Existence. Will be holograms. All holograms, all the time. So how will I describe my first meeting with Kev, Phoebe? What kind of story will that be? My grandparents, it’s easy. One set met at a singles dance in New Jersey. The other grew up next door to one another in their village in Russia or whatever. They passed love letters back and forth, in a basket on a string they hung between their windows.” She smiled. “Now that’s a great how-we-met story.”

I thought of my own grandparents. My mother’s parents met because they worked in the same textiles factory; my (much older) grandfather was my grandmother’s boss. Their how-we-met story was boring and a little skeevy. My father’s parents met in Germany, after the war, when they were both searching for family members they would not find, when they were both alone and trying to get by in crumbling, devastated cities, and that was all I knew because my father’s parents hated to talk about those times. Their how-we-met story was depressing and sort of traumatic, and who wanted Hitler even remotely involved in your love story?

“Of course, maybe I shouldn’t worry about the kind of story Kev and I have,” Anja continued. “I mean, I can’t even picture the town in Russia where my grandparents met, or their houses, or anything like that. So I guess maybe it won’t be that different for my grandchildren with the chat room thing. Maybe even if your family never moved, you can’t ever truly picture the place where your grandparents met. Hey, look, Cleopatra’s Dick.”

Cleopatra’s Dick was our nickname for Cleopatra’s Needle, the nearly seventy-foot granite obelisk that had been commissioned by a pharaoh in way-back-BCE. It stood near the Met but still inside Central Park. I usually just glanced at it and joked with Anja about how phallic it was, but that day I stared it down.

“It doesn’t count,” I said.

“What doesn’t count?”

A horse drawing a carriage full of tourists around the park passed by.

“You didn’t have sex, Anja. I’m sorry, but it doesn’t count. Cybersex is not sex-sex.”

“You didn’t feel what I felt.” She said, “You’ve never even kissed a guy.”

I crossed my arms over my chest and kept walking and said nothing. I wanted to turn around and go home. But Zack was waiting. I tried not to think about Anja and Kev. Instead I focused on Zack and the points of his hair. He’d told Anja and me once that he spent most of his time alternating between playing video games, lifting weights, and building houses for the needy. “Where do you build the houses?” I’d asked and he’d said, “Wherever the needy need me, ha ha.” Anja said later, “He’s probably making the house-building thing up so we don’t think he’s a narcissist-slob.”

Anja’s exhalations, now, as we walked, had a sharp, jabbing quality. When the two of us finally emerged from the park, the sky was still gray and the air smelled again like ozone, but it hadn’t yet rained. The Met rose up before us. Pigeons clustered on the building’s stone ledges, which served as urban simulations for the rocky cliffs the birds’ European ancestors had occupied. The Met’s long granite steps were crowded with people lying down, sitting down, standing up, sprawling out. A clean-shaven man had his arms deep in a bag of Utz Cheese Curls. An old woman in a sweater covered in snowmen did jumping jacks. A girl with red braids gnashed her teeth, braces and all, into the hard pith of a nectarine. For whatever reason, looking at the range of people suddenly before me made me a little less mad at Anja. We should probably make up now, anyway, because what if she said something in front of Zack that would make me look like an unsupportive friend?

I pointed to the old woman doing jumping jacks. “Anja, look.”

Anja kept her eyes on the ground.

“Anja. Look at that doofy snowman sweater.”

But Anja turned away and began to walk up the Met’s stairs. I followed. At the top of the steps, she stopped very suddenly. She whirled around, glared at me. We were bordered by the entranceway’s tall columns.

She said, “It does count.”

“What does?”

“Like you don’t know.” Anja looked out at the crowd below us, at the man with the Utz, at the snowman sweater. “I’m not in the mood for this spatial language crap,” she said. “I’m going home.”

“What?” I stared at her.

“I don’t want to be around you when you’re being weird and jealous. OK?”

“Fine,” I said. “Cool. Have just the best time cybering.”

I turned around and walked into the Met.

A guard ushered me forward. I handed over my backpack. He gripped the tiny plastic zipper and stared into the depths contained within the polyester lining. My bag contained no weapons, just my umbrella, a folder for Art Appreciation, a paperback of the newest Pegaterrestrials book (The Prophet’s Ascent), and some leaky pens. As soon as I stepped past security, Zack materialized by some gargantuan potted plants. He was wearing jeans and a gray shirt that looked like it should have some acrylic logo on it, but didn’t. I waved at him. He nodded. He said, “What’s up, Phoebe? Where’s Anja?”

“She’s not feeling well.”

“What’s wrong with her?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know.” Then, trying hard to keep my voice free of all envy and all anger and all awe, I said, “She’s in love.”


Ms. Apuzzo had ordered us to examine the language of space surrounding several art objects. One set of objects was titled Human-Headed Winged Bull and Human-Headed Winged Lion and was located in the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery for Assyrian Art. Zack and I grabbed a map from Information and figured out which hallways to go through. I wanted to feel excited to have this time with him, exploring the history of ancient art together, but instead I felt kind of lonely. Anja would be walking back across the park, or maybe she’d be going to the green trains, even though they were running with delays. Maybe she wouldn’t care about the delays. Maybe she would appreciate the extra time to fantasize in different fonts, as she traveled farther and farther away from me. But I shouldn’t think about that now. I needed to focus on Zack, with whom I was navigating a path through Asian Art to Ancient Near Eastern Art.

As we walked up the grand staircase, he said, “So who’s this guy, anyway?”


“The one Anja’s in love with.”

Part of close friendship, as I saw it then, was trying to curate the stories that got out in the world about one another, trying to limit dirty rumors and negative speculation, no matter what truth these stories might contain. But for a second I wanted to tell Zack that Anja was having space pony cybersex with a stranger. Zack and I could laugh at Anja together. In the currency of intimacy, laughing with a guy at your best friend was like giving him some highly valued rare coin with a powerful ugly emperor’s face on both sides.

“I don’t really know him.” I shrugged. “I only met him maybe once.”

“You met him?”

“Just once or twice. But I don’t like him.”

“You girls fighting about him or something?”

The way Zack said “you girls” made me feel like he had suddenly prodded me in the spine with his index finger. Only he hadn’t touched me. He was standing kind of close and sweating. That was all.

“I think the art stuff’s in here,” I said. I pointed through a doorway.

When Zack and I entered, I lifted my hand to my throat. I had expected something beautiful here, sure, but the kind of beauty that might be contained in glass or a frame.

Yet the room itself was art.

On the walls were relief panels filled with kings, supernatural creatures, stylized trees, glyptic groves, and lots of writing in a language I didn’t know, in a script I couldn’t recognize. At the doorway hulked two gigantic human-headed winged bull and lion creatures. The gallery had been arranged to look like the audience hall of a palace belonging to a ninth-century ruler. I stood, silent, in the room’s center.

Zack read the wall text in this mock-BBC voice that sounded kind of Australian: “From the ninth to the seventh century BC, the kings of Assyria ruled over a vast empire centered in northern Iraq. The great Assyrian king blah-blah-blah-blah, undertook a vast building program at Nimrud, ancient blah-blah-blah.”

I turned away, walked up to the lion-bull creatures in the doorway. They were huge, much taller than me, with long beards. They had supported important doorways in Assyrian palaces, the wall text said. Now those palaces were gone, leaving only their inanimate guards. And these inanimate guards were guarded in turn by the security guard in the room, a tiny woman with her arms crossed over her chest. Did the stuff I was thinking about count as spatial language?

Zack looked at the strange writing like he was just looking at a wall. “So why don’t you like the guy?” he said. “Anja’s new boyfriend. Is he an asshole to Anja?” Zack’s blush did not manifest in the nice neat circles of a self-conscious anime character, but came splotchy like a rash. “If he’s an asshole to her, I’ll—” He stopped.

My mouth went dry.

The soft, sweet, almost sonnetlike way he’d said “if he’s an asshole to her.”

I don’t remember asking Zack if he liked Anja but I must have done so because he scratched between the hard gelled spikes on his head and said fine, yes, he liked her, she was kind of cute and he should have acted faster.

I pulled the hanging straps on my backpack so the bag went right up against my spine. My stomach felt hollow and my heart moved like it had become a wild, wounded thing.

“My brother warned me about this.” Zack glared at the animal guards. “He said I have to be less shy and more forceful. But I never acted and now it’s too late. Now she’s in love.”

I’d read about young maidens wringing their hands in distress, but I hadn’t seen people actually do such a thing in nonliterary life. Zack, it turned out, was a handwringer.

“You know my brother slept with eight girls by the time he was my age?” he said. “Eight. And I work out about eight times more than he ever does. He’s fat. He’s fat and not as smart as he thinks he is.”

I breathed in sharply. I stared at the lion-bull, pretending to be looking into its eyes, but really I was concentrating hard. And then it came to me. Of course: PegaKev had described his brother as fat. “Fat as fuck,” PegaKev had said. Which, yeah, was a little different than just “fat.” But really not that different. And, also, Zack read Pegaterrestrials fan fiction, right? So maybe he participated in AOL chat rooms for fans of the series, too. Maybe in those chat rooms he complained about certain things. His brother. His fat brother.

Probably I was being crazy. Probably the brother thing was just a coincidence—the logical part of me knew that. But the other part of me—the suddenly wounded, suddenly wilder part—became swept away on a new story.

What if Zack was PegaKev?

What if his brother called him shy because he could only flirt with girls online? If Zack really liked Anja and recognized her in a public chat room (her screen name wasn’t a huge disguise), maybe he’d do whatever he could to seduce her in some way. PegaKev, after all, could be anybody. What if Anja had not just betrayed me by racing ahead, by falling in love? What if she had done those things with Zack of all people? If losing your virginity to a fictional alien species in a chat room was possible, then surely a coincidence like this, too, could occur.

Zack was still handwringing. I turned my eyes back to the lion-bull and gnawed the inside of my cheek, carried away by the easy commingling of passion and paranoia. I needed to tell Zack about PegaKev and try to read his reaction, to determine if he and Anja’s sex pony might be the same entity, before I made any rash moves. Of course, Anja had made me promise not to say anything to anybody. But hadn’t she broken our promise to tell each other everything? She had kept PegaKev a secret for weeks. And I had to know. I had to follow my suspicion through.

So I looked Zack right in the eye and said I had to be honest with him: I’d lied before. I’d never met Anja’s new boyfriend. I was protecting her.

Zack looked up. “Protecting her? From what?”

“Protecting her from seeming pathetic. Protecting her from seeming like some loser with no social life at the very beginning of high school.” Did Zack’s eyes glint a little weirdly? I decided that yes, they did; yes, that was a weird eye glint. Very quietly I said, “I didn’t want anyone to know.”

“Know what?”

As I stood there, in that room simulating an ancient palace, on the verge of potentially betraying my best friend, I had a flickering moment of doubt, a sort of soft fluttering feeling. Then I remembered the hard way Anja’s face had twisted when she told me I had never even kissed a guy, and I remembered my fantasy about Zack cowriting fan fiction with me—me, not Anja—and I said, “Don’t tell anyone this, OK, Zack?”

“What is it?”

“She met the guy on the internet.”

Zack’s face remained blank, unreadable. He said, “Huh?”

“Anja’s new boyfriend? She’s never even met him in real life. She doesn’t even know his last name.” I lowered my voice. “They just cyber. Constantly. She’s turning into a kind of huge freak.”

He squinted, like he didn’t quite hear me right. Zack’s face, even still, was giving me nothing to work with. If I kept saying Anja was a freak, shouldn’t Zack step in and try to protect her if he were actually PegaKev? I needed to agitate him more, maybe, to break through whatever guard he had up. I said, “The lamest part is she doesn’t even like this guy.” The rest of my story came to me in a rush of inspiration that felt warm and powerful. “She emails me their little chats. And then she calls me and just, like, makes fun of this guy for hours.”

In a way, I didn’t even feel like I was lying, but rather like I was fan fictioning my friendship with Anja, writing a new chapter about her and me, a chapter where she had never kept PegaKev a secret to begin with. Instead, in this story, PegaKev had always been the butt of a joke we shared together.

“She makes fun of him?” Zack said. “But she’s like, cybering with him too, right? She’s cybering back or whatever?”

“Right.” I shrugged my shoulders helplessly. “It’s totally messed up. She definitely needs therapy.”

Zack’s eyes were clouded over. Smogged up. Perhaps he was trying to hide the depth of his reaction? He turned his gaze from mine and pretended to read some wall text. At last he said, “Well, I guess Anja doesn’t like me then.”

I swallowed hard, shifted my backpack straps up my shoulders. “Zack,” I said. I stepped a little closer, took a deep breath. “Zack, maybe Anja doesn’t like you. But I know other people do.”

A total middle school move, but Zack understood what it meant. He shifted from one foot to the other.

I took his silence as a wordless rejection and stepped away.

“Let’s make some observations,” I said, in a low voice, my eyes swerving to the floor. “OK? For the assignment. We need to record our observations for the presentation.”

“OK.” Zack nodded. “Yeah.”

I needed to not think about what had just happened, about what I had just done. I should focus on this room. I could do it. I could breathe and I could focus and I could pretend that whole exchange with Zack had never happened. People pretended things all the time. People pretended they were pegaterrestrials. People pretended they were your best friend, pretended they told you everything. I could pretend to pay attention to the art.

Ms. Apuzzo had asked us to address spatial language. But what I experienced in this room was the absence of spaces. What kind of places had these animals guarded? Maybe the place had been desertlike but surely it did not look like the deserts on the news. The temples these guards had protected were long fallen, the landscape these two knew long changed. It might happen all at once or over decades, but landscapes changed all the time. Parts of cities were destroyed, then rebuilt, then changed utterly. Eventually even the guards were destroyed, lost, or forgotten. Eventually new people showed up and stood around and took notes on the remains. I thought of my father’s parents. Perhaps my father’s parents, when they first met after the war, had been forced by tragedy to let their guards down with one another, had catalogued their losses together, and fallen in love that way. Their how-we-met story seemed newly beautiful to me, standing here. I stepped closer to one of the lion-bull creatures, looked up at its human face again. Its eyes were blank, pupilless, yet not altogether empty.

“What’s this even actually about?” Zack asked, in a quiet voice, looking at the lion-bull too.

I tried an idea out: “Maybe it’s about seizing the moment.”

We didn’t speak for about ten seconds.

Then Zack grabbed me by the shoulders, turned me to face him, and put his tongue in my mouth.

At first I didn’t entirely realize what was happening, couldn’t believe it: we were kissing! The stuff of fantasy, this, right now, this! A kiss! My thoughts buzzed, my blood buzzed, as if my insides had turned into winged insects.

And at first, it was great. At first, the very idea of kissing Zack overtook the actual physical reality of what was happening. But as the seconds ticked by, the physical details began to get through to my brain. Zack’s mouth tasted sort of like sour milk mixed with Frosted Flakes. His teeth were hard. Which made sense, right? It would be weird if his teeth were soft. Yet still this fact of a kiss surprised me. After a few more seconds passed, he tried to put his arms around my waist but my backpack straps were so tight he ended up putting his arms around the backpack, as if he were hugging a round and lumpy person.

And then something horrible happened inside of my mind. As Zack’s hands grappled with my backpack straps, I thought: Kev rears up on his hind legs. And when his fingers grazed my neck, Kev’s wings flutter at his sides. And when his teeth clacked against mine, Kev rears up again.

No. Nope. Not happening. I told my brain to shut up. But my brain would not shut up. It said: He doesn’t want to be kissing you. It said: He wants to be kissing Anja, but you are the one in front of him. It said: He’s doing this because his brother’s kissed more girls, because he wants to catch up to him. And after a few more seconds—maybe it was my new, meaner self coming into play, or maybe it was guilt over betraying Anja—Zack’s tongue began to seem less like a tongue and more like something foreign invading my mouth, gullet-probing, wet and insistent, full of logic, of calculated objective. It was a cerebral kiss, by which I mean it was a kiss in the third person: Zack moves his tongue, Zack pulls the girl toward him. The girl is not Anja but she is the girl. He is the boy. They fulfill the story he has been told he must enact.

Only I wasn’t the girl. I was Phoebe. And Zack was trying to rub his hand along the back of my T-shirt. He was trying to sneak his hand underneath my backpack at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among the great artifacts of history, trying to feel through my T-shirt my white cotton bra made in China, and was the security guard watching? I felt pinpricks on my scalp. His tongue felt wet, too wet, his teeth too hard. Without thinking through what I was doing, I stepped back.

“What?” Zack panted. “What’s wrong?”

“Sorry.” I shook my head. “Sorry.”

“Did you not want that?”

My old sneakers looked stupid against the shining marble floor. Whether or not Zack was PegaKev, I knew for sure I was not Anja and I knew for sure that right now, standing here, my sneakers looked stupid.

“What didn’t I understand?” Zack’s face and eyes were wet. “Seizing the moment? That’s code language for ‘kiss me.’ In all the movies. That’s a code.” After a while he said, “Shit. I’m an asshole.”

“No,” I said, “it’s OK.” I wiped my mouth with my sleeve.


“It’s really OK.”

“You were just trying to be nice before, when you said the thing about other people liking me.” Zack shook his head. “I’m a total asshole.”

The former guards, the human-headed lion-bulls, said nothing. Of course they said nothing. They were not sentient. They were limestone or something. I had forgotten what they were made of and I had forgotten to write down their material. Now it was too late to look at the wall text and find out, because I didn’t want to stand here with Zack any longer. He was wringing his hands again.

“I forgot I told my mom I’d be home early,” I said, very loudly, and I left. I walked out of the room and Zack didn’t follow. What was wrong with me? Zack had kissed me. He’d kissed me. What more did I want? I passed the development of Chinese ceramics in the Great Hall Balcony and I looked at the titles: Plate with Figures in Arbor, Vase in Shape of Archaic Bronze Vessel, Dish Depicting Lady with a Parasol. Was it raining yet? I breathed through my mouth like a little kid with a cold. Would I have to walk to the subway in a storm? My lips felt shellacked in spit. I went down the grand staircase, reached the entrance hall. There the ceiling shot up so high I stopped for a second, looked up, before stepping outside.

Anja was still there, sitting on the steps of the Met, gazing not at the line of taxicabs on the street right in front of her but at the line of dark clouds in the sky. I almost stepped back into the museum—I was afraid she’d read my betrayal of her secret on my face in all the ways I’d failed to read anything on Zack’s—but then she turned and saw me, so I walked up to her and I said, “Hi, Anja.”


“You’re still here.”

She shrugged. “You had the umbrella. I didn’t want to get caught in the rain.”


She took a deep breath. “Look. I overreacted before. I know it was probably a lot for you to take in.”

“I guess let’s head across the park,” I said.

“Are you mad at me still, Phoebe?”


“You’re furious.”

“No, I’m not.” I reached out my hand. Anja took it. I pulled her up. I said, “Let’s go to the red trains.”

We walked to the park’s perimeter without speaking. There was some construction going on down Fifth, blue scaffolding and orange mesh coverings. I almost told Anja that Zack had kissed me, but thought better of it. It would be humiliating to admit that I found the kiss with Zack to be kind of toothy and slobbery and weirdly detached—especially after Anja’s descriptions of celestial cyber bliss. Of course, my kiss with Zack was real. It had that going for it. It was physiological. But for some reason, in the end, I didn’t want it to count. If language alone could count as sex, then maybe not talking about the kiss could unhappen it, could destroy the moment altogether.

“Phoebe,” Anja said, when we’d just passed Cleopatra’s Dick. “Are you actually really absolutely sure you’re not mad?”

“I’m sure.”

“Did something else happen in the Met? You’re acting weird.”

We were nearing our pretzel guy now. He lifted up two pretzels for us to buy. “Here, beauties!” he called.

“Phoebe,” Anja said. “Tell me what happened in the Met. Was it something with Zack?”

The vendor beamed at us. How could I tell her what I’d done? Not the kiss part. How could I tell her I had revealed her secret, told Zack about her cybering, and possibly destroyed the relationship she was trying to build? If Zack was PegaKev, he would now think Anja was secretly making fun of him, didn’t really like him, and he would probably stop talking to her, maybe even block her online. And even if Zack wasn’t PegaKev, he might lash out by telling the other kids in school all about her online boyfriend, branding Anja as more than a loser, but as a mutant kind of girl. Anja, of course, would know that I had disclosed her secret and would not forgive me. This walk through the park might be our last walk together, maybe. Could be our how-we-ended story.

“Tell me what happened,” Anja said again. “In the museum.”

I said nothing.

“Phoebe. You’re driving me crazy.”

I had to tell her something.

“Phoebe. What’s wrong?”

“Zack spoiled it,” I said.

“Spoiled what?”

“Zack spoiled the ending to the next Pegaterrestrials.” I looked straight ahead. “And it’s really dark. The ending.”

Anja seemed to believe me. She shook her head, slowly, back and forth. “What did he say happens?” she asked. “No, wait. I actually don’t want to know. Don’t tell me, Phoebe.”

I stopped walking. I sat down on a bench and Anja sat down next to me.

“What happens,” I said, “is the pegaterrestrials lose their speech. The smogalathons find this potion that they pour into the clouds and it takes away the pegaterrestrials’ voices. They can’t talk to who they usually talk to.” I pretended to examine the sky for more clouds. A plane flew overhead and I gripped the bench slats. “And, so, the pegaterrestrials are just flying around and around in circles I guess, and they can’t coordinate an attack.” The plane passed. I said, “They’re all totally terrified and they can’t talk to each other at all.”

“Are you sure?” Anja frowned. “That’s pretty bleak for Pegaterrestrials.” She tilted her head. “What was Zack’s source? Was it that PegaBusters site? Kev said that site’s bullshit.”

I gripped harder on the bench’s wooden slats and kept going: “Then the smogalathons shoot the pegaterrestrials down. But they don’t kill most of them.”

“What do they do?”

I wasn’t sure. I said, “Are you sure you want to know?”

“I don’t want to know.”

“They cut off their wings.” I thought a little more. Anja waited in silence. I said, “They hang their wings from all their windows, like flags or tapestries, and some of the wings they put in their museums as like, a sign of what had been alive there.”


“And then the series just ends.”

Anja drew her knees to her chest. She looked younger than me in that moment. Finally she breathed out and said, “That’s total melodrama. Plus isn’t the series marketed for middle grade? He’s definitely lying to you.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Just like he lied about the building houses thing. Zack’s a jerk.”

I said, “I think he was telling me the truth.”

Another horse-drawn carriage went past. The horse dragging the tourists around didn’t look too happy, but it didn’t look especially unhappy either.

“Don’t worry.” Anja put her hand on my forearm. “Don’t be upset. Pegaterrestrials is bound to have a happy ending. I wouldn’t trust Zack’s spoilers for a second.”

I said, “OK.” I didn’t care about Pegaterrestrials suddenly. I was cured of my pega-addiction. Hooray, hooray. Cured.

“Phoebe. Are you crying?” As soon as she asked me if I was crying, I started to cry, like the question itself was the thing that most upset me. It was a quiet cry, but there were definitely some tears and some snot. Anja put her arm around my shoulders. That was when I noticed the pretzel vendor still watching us. He had the look of a person in the middle of an important realization, a look that was both shaken-up and intensely virtuous—the kind of realization I myself needed right then. He started coming toward us. When he reached us, his hands were balled up in fists. I gripped the bench slats more tightly. Then the vendor opened his hands.

He was holding two of the gray miniature flags.

“Here!” he said. “For you two beauties!”

“Us?” Anja said.

“A symbol! To remind you that you have nothing to cry about.” The vendor smiled very kindly at me. “Plenty of other people have plenty more to cry about. I know it for a fact. There is no reason, on this great Earth, for you to cry. You are young!”

His smile grew wider. On this great Earth. Anja and I both took the flags. Then he also handed me a wad of napkins for the snot. “Thanks,” I said.

The vendor went back to his cart. A white-haired couple wearing fanny packs and cameras around their necks came up to him and he gave each of them small flags, along with the pretzels and hot dogs they had ordered. He was grinning. He had found an obvious and patriotic way to get rid of his dismal-looking flags without throwing them out. I stopped crying. The tourists with the off-color flags waved them around.

Anja and I sat together on the bench for a while longer, alien members of the same alien country, holding the same alien flags, waiting for something—an attack, an invasion, a new war, an unexpected meteor shower. But instead, after a few minutes, it started to rain. I took out my umbrella. We squeezed beneath it. We sort of fit.

I patted Anja on the shoulder. “Congratulations on losing it, Anja.” I even smiled at her.

She rolled her eyes at me, which right then was as good as smiling back. The rain hit our shoulders. “Phoebe,” Anja said, “we’ve got to walk in time. That way we don’t bump each other out of the umbrella. OK?”

For a second I pretended Anja and I would always inhabit this exact landscape, here, now. But that couldn’t happen outside of imagination. Soon we’d get to the red trains and split up to go our separate routes home. We’d watch different people on different trains do different acrobatic tricks before asking for our money. One guy could launch himself off a subway pole and for a second, with the unlit tunnel in the windows streaming past behind him, he’d seem to be flying through space. He only did that trick if there was enough room in the car, if the trains weren’t too late. I hoped everything was running on time.

Anja and I ducked our heads close together under the umbrella and we synchronized our steps by counting. “One. Two. One. Two.”

After a while, walking in this way, we found ourselves on the west side of the park.  

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