The Space Between

by Janice Lichtenwaldt

 

Cindy should have been suspicious when Ronnie stopped her before third period asking for help with a “personal issue.” Nobody ever came to Cindy with issues, personal or other. So when Ronnie asked for help Cindy jumped at the chance. They were to meet in the northeast girls restroom 10 minutes before the ending lunch bell rang. The location couldn’t have been more appropriate for the eventual utter humiliation the Honey Hive inflicted on Cindy; a run-down, rust encrusted little-used room of waste elimination.

The actual event of shame was so run-of-the-mill. So ordinary. So basic.  She should have seen it coming, but Ronnie seemed so damn concerned. At the appointed hour, Cindy met Ronnie in the bathroom. Ronnie led her into the wheelchair stall and when she turned around her pupils where so big Cindy couldn’t tell the color of her eyes.

“What’s wrong Ronnie? You’re scaring me,” Cindy said.

“I….well….I…,” Ronnie squeaked out. In retrospect, Cindy realized Ronnie wanted to be there as much as she did. She wasn’t under her own power in this situation, which spoke to a spark of humanity in her.

“What Ronnie?” Cindy was actually getting scared for her friend.

Ronnie’s phone chimed with a text. She glanced down at the screen and the color washed from her face. She stiffened her shoulders and said, “I have a problem. A girl problem. I…I think there is something wrong with my vagina.” It all came out at once, rushed, almost rehearsed. Cindy missed that part because she was deeply concerned for her friend.

“Something wrong with your vagina? What do you mean?”

“I mean…I think it is deformed. I know that sounds strange but I really think there is something wrong with it. The problem is I don’t know if it is just me or if that is how they all look. I’ve never seen another girl’s vag.”

“Huh. I guess I haven’t either. What does it look like? The thing that is wrong?”

“Well, that’s just the thing. I don’t know. So…this is why I need your help.”

Cindy wasn’t catching on to what was about to happen. She was so engrossed in trying to figure out the situation with her friend she missed the signs. Like when Ronnie’s phone spewed forth a harbinger of chirping texts flying in like the wicked witch of the west.

“Cindy. I need you to show me your vagina. I need to know if yours looks like mine. I don’t know who else to ask. Here,” and she handed Cindy a skinny, pink plastic hand mirror. Cindy accepted it without thinking.

“What? You want me to what? I…I can’t do that.”

“Why not? You said you were my friend. You said you’d help me. I NEED you to do this, Cindy. Please.”

It was the last “please” that pushed Cindy over to the yes column as freaked out as she was. The desperation in Ronnie’s voice was unmistakable. She’d heard the same tone from her mother when she was on the phone with the insurance companies about her father, trying to sort through the labyrinth of medical jargon, requirements, pre-existing conditions, and co-payments. Sometimes it was just too much for her mother. She would simply collapse at the kitchen table among all the bills and medical instructions and sob.

“Ok, Ronnie. It’s ok. It’s going to be ok. I promise. I’ll show you.”

Cindy, being the true friend she was, unzipped and dropped her knock-off Levi 501s (real ones had buttons) to the bathroom floor, she hooked her thumbs, one hand still holding the pink plastic hand mirror, around the elastic of her yellow and white daisy print cotton underwear, took a deep breath, and dropped them down as well. She locked eyes with Ronnie and they simultaneous tilted their heads forward and both seemed to be in a bit of shock at the sight of the exposed undies in such a public location. The pink hand mirror traveled the distance to the a place no one had seen in 14 years other than Cindy’s mother. Cindy spread her legs like a cowboy riding an untamed bull. The same amount of tension fill the bathroom stall as in a rodeo shoot before the gate flies open releasing bull and rider.

“No. Stop!” Ronnie whispered. “Don’t do it.”

But it was too late.

“What the fuck is this?” screamed Honey Bristol from the top of the stall. How she had hoisted herself up there, without Cindy hearing, was a feat worthy of recognition. “What in holy hell are you doing? That is fucking gross!”

The mirror shattered as it hit the stained white tile floor. Slivers of glass stuck in the cracks of ancient grout. Cindy scrambled to cover herself, knocking heads with Ronnie who was simultaneously trying to escape the locked stall. Arms and legs twisted together in shameful, humiliating haste. Cindy finally stopped, took a deep breath, and gently crab-stepped to the side of the toilet bowl allowing Ronnie to leave. Ronnie graciously closed the door behind her, giving Cindy a moment to dress. She pulled up the zipper while resting her head on the mint-green stall wall. The coolness of the metal spread across her forehead. For one brief millisecond she felt ok.

Bang! The stall door crashed in just missing Cindy by an inch. “I want to know what the fuck you were doing in there.”

Still using the metal wall as a prop, Cindy eked out, “None of your business.” While she was 99.9% sure Ronnie had set her up, Cindy wasn’t going to betray her if there was even a slight chance Ronnie really was concerned.

“Bullshit. You know exactly what you were doing. If the principal or the school nurse finds out, you’re fucked. You were EXPOSING yourself. How is that going to look? I suppose like father, like daughter.”

Cindy whirled on Honey slamming both hands into the walls of the stall and glared holes into her tormenter.

“Leave. My. Father. Out. Of. This.” The words had weight to them. They had form. They had a physicality that simmered in the air.

The energetic potency of Cindy’s words forced Honey to stumble back. Here uncertainty only lasting a single breath.

“What…whatever. Just know I know what you’re about, freak.” Honey spun on her jet-black boot heels and stormed out of the bathroom. Cindy sensed Honey hadn’t gotten exactly what she was looking for but she got enough. The threat to her father removed, the energy that had compelled Cindy dissipated. Cindy leaned her whole body against the mint wall and started to slide down in exhaustion as the tardy bell rang. It let her know she’d be adding a late slip to her pile of humiliation that day. Figuring she was already going to be late, she took the time to pick up the broken mirror and larger chunks of glass off the ground and threw them in the trash.

School came to an end without any additional mortification to navigate. Cindy had passed Ronnie in the hallway between periods six and seven but Ronnie refused to make eye contact. On a positive note, no one in the hallway was pointing fingers at her or whispering as she walked by. Cindy guessed Honey had kept the incident to herself…for now. She bundled up in her raincoat and red and black hand-embroidered scarf and began her two-mile walk home immediately following the last bell.

Her walk always included a swing past her favorite store, Fanny’s Fabulous Finds Dress Shoppe. The shop owner altered the window display regularly so there was often something new and beautiful to long for. Today was no different. Cindy stood mesmerized in front of the shop’s plate-glass window. Her sights focused past the reflection of the window through to the pink satin and off-white lace dress hanging on the headless mannequin. Cindy’s scarf snapped in seeming approval of the frock, encouraged by the strong winds of early March. Cindy didn’t notice. She was smitten. She closed her eyes and imagined herself swaying back and forth at the school Spring Dance. She saw the lace trim of the dress matching the lace trim of her socks. Her black paten leather shoes reflecting the lights brought in by the DJ, colorful bright Easter eggs of illuminated dots dancing across the rounded tops of her shoes. In the vision she caught sight of Bobby with his clutch of friends in the corner. His hair just a bit too long, requiring the more than occasional brush of his fingers to his bangs. Cindy’s heart fluttered each time he did it. Their eyes meet. The left corner of his mouth tugs back. He breathes in deeply, slowly lets it out, turns his shoulders and begins to cross the floor to where Cindy is. It seems to take an eternity for Bobby to cross the polished wood gym floor. He hits the painted free throw line, and then enters the center circle. Closer, closer. He keeps his eyes locked on Cindy. Her heart speeds up, her eyes sparkle, her lips part ever so slightly. He crosses the point of no return. He can’t pretend he isn’t coming to her….

“What the hell are you looking at? That?” said the shrill voice of Honey Bristol from behind Cindy. Nervous tittering speckled the air around the voice. “Your toothless mother and shit-for-brains father could never afford that dress. Here, I’ll help you out.”

Honey pushed past Cindy and through the shop door, a small bell announced her entrance. Before the saleswoman could get the words of welcome out, “Hello! How can I…” the dress was ripped off the mannequin by a white hand with perfectly manicured French-tipped nails. The door closed tightly keeping Cindy from having to actually hear the inevitable. Fighting back tears, Cindy turned to leave, feeling the rough tread of the sidewalk through her sole bare shoes.

“Whoa. Where do you think you’re going?” asked one of the hive of titterers. “Honey’s going to want you to see it.”

“I’m sure she will, Frankie, but I need to get home to help my toothless mother with dinner,” Cindy said. Not with malice, but with resignation. She also found that reflecting was sometimes a great defense.

The majority of the pack parted giving Cindy enough space to pass through, except one, Ronnie. Their eyes met and Ronnie was the first to look away. Cindy kept moving. Just as she broke through the flesh circle, her head jerked back. Gasping for air, Cindy clutched and clawed at the scarf that had been pulled so tight against her throat she couldn’t breathe. She spun around toward whatever had caught her scarf only to find Honey’s bright blue eyes framed by bouncy blonde curls staring at her. The scarf released with the spin and the Aryan beauty laughed as she released the fabric into the wind. Cindy leapt up to catch it and felt the cloth as it slithered off the top of her fingertips and disappeared down the street.

The Titters erupted in full-blown laughter following the cue of their leader. Cindy was surrounded again. She could feel her life force become smaller and smaller. The shame of being the object of ridicule yet again seeped from her core and snaked its way up her torso, down her arms and legs, reaching her finger tips and toes. The blackness circled its way up her neck, spiraling over her chin, past her right ear, over the top of her left ear. When it reached the top of her head it was as if a giant egg had been cracked pouring yolk and whites down her entire body.

Cindy slowly collapsed to her knees unable to meet the eyes of her torturers. The hive surrounded her, laughing, pointing, mocking. Cindy felt herself vibrating with humiliation. What had she done to deserve this? She wished herself invisible. She wished herself to dematerialize. She wished she would die.

Something was listening to her. She could feel the space between her cells drifting apart. Becoming unconnected. Panic began to set in. No…NO! This isn’t want I want I don’t want to die. Not really. No, stop. But the incantation had already been put in motion. The hive of girls couldn’t see what was happening. They couldn’t feel the cosmic falling apart that was happening at their feet. Cindy could almost feel the wind blowing between her DNA. The world started to blur. She could feel the ground giving way beneath her. Her voice had been taken from her. She screamed silently, begging the Universe to stop.

Cindy heard from above, “What the fuck are you doing, bitch?”

“Get out of my way.”

Light broke through the circle landing on Cindy. The brightness of the sun blocked out the face of the person coming to her. Cindy felt her scarf being placed in her hands.

“Here, Cindy. This is yours,” said Ronnie from bended knee.

Ronnie slowly stood up, taking Cindy’s hand and helping her up. The energy that had been pulling Cindy apart snapped out of her like a rubber band.

“I’ll walk you home, ok?” asked Ronnie.

“I’d appreciate it,” said Cindy as she wrapped her grandmother’s red scarf around her neck.

Cindy didn’t look back. Had she, she would have seen the Hive dissipate into separate directions leaving Honey standing alone holding a dress she’d likely never wear.