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I met Celeste in one of those lucky years of childhood you get before anybody significant dies-before Grandma goes, before your dad's secretary doesn't beat breast cancer, before the pharmacist gets into the car wreck. Celeste fit those years perfectly: me with my illusions of everyone living on into some hazy infinity of old age, Celeste with her surreal beauty, her otherworldly trust, her yellow eyes more gold than green, her skin, her lips, her-god!-her grace. You wouldn't believe how beautiful a sixth-grader could be until you saw her.
Having long known how babies were made-woman and man share love and bodies-I sometimes daydreamed about Celeste's parents procreating in a nonspecific way, making my friend before she existed. I had a lot of trouble imagining mine making me, my mother perpetually medicated by the time I was two, my father entirely asexual as all fathers are in eleven-year-old daughters' minds. But Celeste's parents had done the miraculous; they had made her, and I couldn't figure out the genetics of it all.
Celeste's mother, Mrs. Diamond, her face forever defiant (of what I had no idea), stood small and tight and brown as a nut. Mr. Diamond, a booming god of a man, not handsome but there in a sure, ever-present kind of way, danced instead of walked and encouraged you to eat beans and read the newspaper no matter how old you were. You couldn't ignore Celeste's father any more than you could ignore the fact that some wondrous girl actually lived up to the improbable name of Celeste Rose Diamond. No joke.
The Diamonds and my family both moved to Kansas City, Missouri, just days before the start of the new school year, hers from New York, mine from Chicago, both with the intent of placing their incredibly gifted children into the best private school the city had to offer. Celeste and I took our placement exams at the same time. We were coincidentally both young for our class, and there seemed to be some question as to whether or not we could live up to our parents' lauding. Fill in circles with pencil lead. I'd done it my entire young, non-death-filled life. Celeste, apparently, had not.
In a spare schoolroom expressly reserved for such test taking, I lifted my head from my booklet and answer sheet for the first time when the door latch clicked shut and the asthmatic proctor departed with a distinct fart. Celeste laughed out loud. I blushed.
"Hi," she said.
I glanced nervously at the closed door. I wanted to shush her. "Hi," I barely mouthed at the table. I hadn't really seen her yet.
"She doesn't care," Celeste said, throwing a hand up.
I drew the corner of my lower lip into my mouth and started to chew nervously. Studying my booklet in earnest, I shrugged and raised my eyebrows. I held my finger on my question.
"What's number twelve?" she asked.
Judas, I thought. Doughnuts. One short of unlucky. I was in test mode.
"Number twelve," she repeated.
I looked up then, and that's when I saw her, when I first truly saw Celeste, the sixth-grade goddess-to-be just sitting on the other side of the table, staring. I stared back. Years later, when I'd eaten one gram too many of hallucinogenic mushrooms and wasn't sure that what I saw made any sense, I'd blink and stare at a breathing wall in the same way. That way. Blink, blink.
"Hell-o," the beauty said.
"Um," I spurted. "Twelve is D. All of the above."
And so it began, with a perfect dozen of sorts. I had never cheated in my life, but from that first moment on I never denied Celeste an academic answer. Nor she me. I don't believe she thought that we were cheating. Somehow over the years I think she decided we were sharing. Just sharing information, maybe in the way she shared her beauty: "Take it; it's yours."
Celeste's own opinion of her physical appearance is exactly what saved her and what doomed her. Her beauty had no more to do with her inherently than a stray dog might. "Yeah," Celeste seemed to say, "Beauty likes me, but really, more, she just follows me around. She hangs out and we play fetch. Beauty drinks out of the park fountain." If her beauty left, certainly Celeste would have noticed, but her mourning would have been minimal. She had no sense of propriety about it. Astonishing, too, when you actually looked at her.
For all the years I knew Celeste her appearance changed as many times, but no matter the dye job, the ugly clothes, the awful choice of eye makeup, she remained undeniably gorgeous. I hated her for it, and I wanted to be her. If I had no other option-and ultimately I didn't-I would simply possess her. She would let me, finally, put a collar on her and call her mine.
I should begin at the beginning.
"D for twelve? Thanks." The girl smiled at me and went back to her circle filling. I glanced at her answer sheet, full of gaps like missing teeth, seemingly marked at random. She was far ahead of me but obviously not doing it the right way. I wanted to tell her that: "You're not doing it the right way." I didn't, though, of course, and thought about skipping ahead suddenly, an idea that had never occurred to me until that very moment. Ever. How had I not figured that out in eleven years of life? Look at how far ahead she was. Hurry up.
Not a minute later, the proctor still absent, this beautiful girl said, "I'm Celeste. What's forty-three?"
I looked at my answer sheet. I'd just colored in a B for thirty-nine.
"What's your name?" she asked.
"I don't know," I whispered, embarrassed.
The girl, Sellest-what kind of a name was that?-laughed again. "You don't know your name or the answer?"
I smiled back this time. She seemed very grown-up. I told her, "I'm only up to forty."
"What's your name?"
"That's so nice and normal. What's your middle name?" I watched as she casually closed her test booklet like an adult closing a magazine in a hair salon. "Lisa What Smith?"
"Wow. Lisa Michelle Smith. How normal."
She seemed to mean it as a real compliment, but my name sounded from that moment onward as bland as cornflakes with no sugar. "Yeah," I said, my voice in my own ears tinny and false. The way her face presented itself, then, right there on the front of her head, was hard to explain. She looked like a live painting. She made you stop what you were doing and pay attention.
"I can't tell you how many times I've had to spell mine or correct teachers and stuff." Her voice dropped off at the end of her sentence, and I could have sworn her cheeks colored. I wanted her to spell her name for me because I was sure that I didn't understand it any better than any of those teachers did.
Instead I asked, "What's your middle name?" and that's when the proctor returned, the door swinging open into our fledgling conversation. I looked down, my finger still on question forty. I didn't look up. I heard Celeste open her test booklet and turn pages like that woman in the salon, flipping leisurely.
The proctor cleared her throat and sternly said, "Girls."
"Hi," Celeste answered.
I continued on with my test taking but could not help glancing at the girl across the table from me more often than I should have. Certainly the proctor suspected bad behavior. But I couldn't catch Celeste's eye again.
We found out later that we'd both ended up in the ninety-ninth percentile. They were easy tests back at the start of the sixth grade.
I learned how to spell Celeste's name and how to inform other curious students as to its source, how Celeste's parents met of all places at the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the most romantic place imaginable. How Celeste was French for "heavenly," for "of the stars." In 1976, few kids our age had unusual first names in Kansas City. In Cowtown. The Dweezils and Moon Units were out there on the West Coast. Still, Celeste's name had a touch of the exotic and more than some glitter about it, and the hometown kids, both the mean ones and the not-so-mean, took a liking to Celeste right from the start. As her sidekick, I fit in well enough under the easy, wide protection of my friend's quick popularity. I wasn't ugly. On the contrary, I was cute and bright, quiet but witty, a fast runner and good dodgeball player. Celeste and I were lean and strong alike. We were both still flat-chested. Without even looking, though, you knew we would always be different.
Celeste had two older sisters in high school already. Being newcomers, too, Diana and Rachel commanded more than their fair share of male attention. Within a month of moving to Kansas City, both of the older Diamond daughters had landed steady boyfriends and would remain regularly attached to some guy or another for the rest of their stays before heading off to equally good colleges.
As it happened, Diana and Rachel helped prepare Celeste and me for our first truly tactile encounters with the opposite sex, and they are forever linked in my mind to Celeste's and my sixth-grade wilderness camp experience. Besides telling us how not to gross out when kissing for real, these wise older girls provided us with ammunition of the non-garden variety to use with our female classmates when need be. They prepped us well, gave us lots of good stuff. Gave me lots of important information.
My mom had become a ghost of a mother by the time my family moved to Kansas City. I didn't even really need her permission to go to camp-only Dad's-but she signed her name in her neat script anyway, right beneath his. Experts today might know better what happened to my mother after she gave birth to me and my younger brother just ten months later. But back then, in the waning years of the seventies' sexual and feminist revolution, nobody really knew what her deal was. I truly believe that delivering the two of us destroyed something in my mother. Postpartum depression in the next-to-last degree, just this side of suicide. My mother had no bravery in her, or she would have killed herself at some point in my early life, and then I would have trouble remembering her at all. As it is, she simply haunts my past, a filmy figure behind my father, behind Celeste, even behind those two older sisters, who helped my best friend and me through the gauntlet of growing up female. And so armed with crazy, nearly unbelievable information about male and female bodies, about reproductive systems and mating rituals, Celeste and I departed for camp.
John McFarland flirted his ass off, you could say. No, really. For some reason mooning out bus windows would soon be de rigueur in 1976 in Missouri, and John McFarland proved himself a trendsetter. Celeste and I sat next to each other in a seat near the middle of the bus. My twelfth birthday was going to fall during the week at wilderness camp, and I remember we talked about losing our digit repetition-we would have to wait till we turned twenty-two before our digits repeated again. Celeste said she would find a way to have a cake for me. I wanted to believe her, as she truly seemed to believe herself.
Mainly I just looked forward to going for days without washing my hair. And I couldn't wait to rappel. We hunkered down and propped our knees up on the black vinyl back of the seat in front of us. I picked at my chipping nail polish. A round of "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" had started earlier.
"What flavor?" Celeste asked loudly over the song, only in its twenties.
"I don't care," I said.
"Yes, you do. What's your favorite?"
I liked almost all cake. I'd had little of it, as my mom never baked, and Dad didn't eat sweets. He said they rotted the brain. "I don't know. Carrot ca-"
Suddenly a loud whoop went up in the bus a few seats behind us, and we craned our necks around. John McFarland stood on his seat dancing, lifting his shirt. Next to John, Peter Alpert clapped and whistled. My first reaction was to look to the front of the bus, where the driver was already frowning, his reflection a pinched face in the large flip-down rearview mirror. The gym teacher, Mr. Rahdart, sat behind the driver and swiveled into the aisle, standing. Celeste started yelling beside me, and I turned just in time to see John McFarland pull down his pants and underwear and stick his bare butt out the open window.
Cruising in the fast lane of a four-lane highway headed straight into the heart of the Ozarks, the bus overtook two sedans, both of which honked at the sight of John's white-cheeked greeting. Probably as a reaction to better hide the little jerk of a kid, the bus driver moved into the slow lane. John McFarland bounced and made kissy-mouth faces, winking directly at Celeste. All of us screamed and laughed. How daring! What a weird thing to do! John was the first in our class to drop trou out the window of a moving vehicle, and none of us could even believe what he was doing as he did it. How could he think-why would he think-to do something like that? Continuing to stare in his mirror, the driver drifted right. I watched as a large brown object loomed on the side of the road ahead, a half-crumpled thing that listed into the road like a drunk. I should have called out, but I didn't. And then, just like that, a sign for the Pomme de Terre campgrounds sliced a chunk off John McFarland's ass the size of a twice-baked potato half.
Mr. Rahdart reached John McFarland a split second late, yanking the boy out of the window right after the big warbling clunk of the metal sign. Peter Alpert was the first to react in a way that didn't mean hilarious, in a way that wasn't funny at all. "Jesus Christ, son!" the gym teacher yelled as Peter Alpert scrambled backward off the seat and onto the bus floor. When Mr. Rahdart held up his bloody hands, all the rest of us quit laughing and closed in, sixth-grade hyenas to injured prey.
John McFarland, his face now a slack-jawed mask, slumped as if to sit, but Mr. Rahdart held him up under his armpits. "No! No, no, son, no!"
The bus slowed, gravel pinging on the undercarriage.
"Oh, my god," Peter Alpert said, eyes wide as a doe's. I couldn't stop staring at John McFarland's penis and his testicles, soft-surfaced as fresh apricots, left hanging above his lowered underpants. As I stared, Mr. Rahdart seemed to notice, too, and awkwardly pulled on the waistband of John's underwear. John tugged too, helping the gym teacher, and then cried out like a girl as the backside of his pants scraped his bloodied butt.