My name is Anna. Just plain Anna.
No casual spelling. I don’t excise an ‘n’ to make it sound more European, like a lusty Spaniard saying, “Ana,” with passionate longing as I walk by. The only Spaniard I can name is Antonio Banderas, and if he ever whispered my name, I’d drop dead.
My life isn’t so glamorous, although I like to pretend it is. All the time. It’s kind of a problem, actually. I used to get in trouble for my daydreams. Dramatic music plays in my head while I cross the road, for example, which means I’ve almost been hit at least five times. Violins crescendo when I make eye contact with a stranger in the grocery store, so I’ve walked into my fair share of freezers. I stride around with an extra hop, imagining my hair billowing out behind me like it does in shampoo commercials, and end up twisting my ankle.
“Anna! Go get some more batteries for the remote. Quick! I’m toggling between stations and need to see the score.”
Pop’s bellow startles me from my reverie. I slide the pages of my favorite magazine, World Traveler, closed and stand with a sigh.
“Sure thing, Pop.”
The chug of the washing machine fills the air as I slide into our laundry room by the garage door and reach for the highest shelf. Pointless. I’ve never been tall enough to reach.
“Anna Buchanan, what are you doing here?”
Ma enters the laundry room with all the finesse of a hurricane. She’s always been like that. Instead of walking into a room, she blows through it, talking to everyone and no one at the same time. Despite the chaos that tends to follow in her wake, everyone loves her. The chime of the dryer completing a cycle betrays me.
“Laundry. It’s too expensive to pay for it,” I say.
“But you’re supposed to be a responsible college student.”
“I am. I’m saving money. It’s one of the perks of going to college in my hometown. How much more responsible does it get?”
“Are you going to come here and do laundry when you’re married?”
“No, because I’ll be thirty by then and have my own place.”
She rolls her eyes, but I know she isn’t annoyed, and barrels past me into the kitchen, her short, reddish hair reeking of new perm. I lift one chubby leg to climb on the washer, extract the batteries, and toss them on Pop’s lap while I follow Ma to her bedroom. I pass our mustard colored drapes and tremendously large yellow lamp on the way. My parents haven’t redecorated since the seventies.
Why redecorate? Pop always grumbled whenever asked, his black mustache bristling. Everything is still functional.
Ma would always purse her lips and stare at me in response, a look that clearly communicated her opinion.
Money doesn’t grow on trees. Until it does, we’ll only replace the necessities.
“How was your second week of college?” Ma asks. She sets a bundle of clothes on her bed and moves into the bathroom, waddling in a big-hipped middle aged woman kind of way. I plop onto her bed.
“Meet any boys?”
“No,” I say immediately, though I blush because it’s a lie. I did meet a boy in my art class. Tony Ortega. A certified dream beau that put Spaniards like Antonio Banderas to shame. I wanted to swim in Tony’s dark brown eyes. But I don’t want Ma to know anything about him because she’s always on my case about dating.
“You’re lying,” she calls back. “I can tell by your voice.”
Being an only child really rots sometimes. There was never a younger sibling to distract my parents.
“No one, Ma.”
“What about that Taysom fellow.”
My forehead furrows. “Taysom Jenkins?”
“Yes. I liked him.”
“He’s just a friend.”
“Your father and I were just friends.”
“Taysom is gay, Ma.”
“Oh, really? That’s too bad. He would have made a lovely husband.” She leans out of the bathroom and lifts an eyebrow. “Have you even tried meeting anyone else? Or are you just spending all your time daydreaming about travelling to Africa?”
“I’ve been busy with classes.”
“How will you get married if you never date?”
“It’s only been two weeks!”
“It’s never too early to start. You could meet one of your Mr. Right’s on the way to class, you know.”
The phrase one of my Mr. Rights rings through my head. Ma doesn’t even believe in the theory of meant-to-be. Any two people can make it work, you know, she always tells me. So there’s no reason to be picky.
“Who says anything about marriage?” I grumble, picking at a piece of lint on my pant leg. The word marriage leaves a bad taste in my mouth. “Can’t I just worry about getting through this semester?”
“Marriage is what you do when you get out of high school. You go to college, find a mate, start a family, and take over the sewing business so I can retire. We’ve already talked about his, Anna. Your father and I have had it planned out for years.”
“But what about what I have planned?”
She sends me a piercing stare. “You mean backpacking through Europe? Haven’t you seen the movies? Where are you going to get the money, anyway? We’re only paying for two semesters of college, then it’s up to you.”
My reply stalls on my tongue. She has me in her crosshairs now. I don’t have any money. Pop is a janitor, Ma a seamstress. We barely made ends meet month to month. Just how I’m going to take myself to the Italian coast, I have no idea.
“I don’t have any money yet,” I say with a stammer. “But I’ll get there.”
“When will you start? How will you pay for it? Where will you go?”
My heart speeds up a little. “I’m going to go everywhere. Anywhere but here. I’m so tired of this town. Nothing ever happens here in Montrose. Or even the state of Indiana.”
“Everywhere is expensive.”
“Look, Ma, I don’t have a plan yet, but I’m only nineteen. I’ll get money and a plan . . . eventually.”
“Sure you will,” Ma says primly. Her expression softens. “Anna, you’ve never really been an organizer. That’s why your father and I have planned things out for you. You’re too much of a dreamer.”
She forces brevity into her tone, but I know she means business. Ma wants me to run the sewing shop, but not just so she can retire. She wants to pass on the family business. Never mind that I can’t stand the smell of denim and refuse to learn how to properly oil the sewing machines.
“What if I don’t want to get married? It’s not the fifties anymore, Ma. I plan to have a life. To see the world. To be interesting.”
She shakes out a pair of pants and lays them across the bed. Although she works from six in the morning until six in the evening, she brings home more work to do while Pop watches ESPN and eats TV dinners. Day in, day out. It’s her life.
“Don’t be crazy. You’re not like those girls who think that a career is fulfilling. You’re a classic type, Anna. Sensible Anna. That’s why we gave you that name.”
Sensible Anna. I wanted to tear the letters apart.
“It’s okay to have dreams, baby girl,” Ma says, putting a cold hand underneath my chin and tilting my head back. “What with all your travel magazines and big plans to visit castles in Russia—”
“Whatever. You’ve always had big ideas, and that’s okay. But you can’t let dreams overcome reality now that you’re an adult. You aren’t a child anymore.” She casts a sidelong glance at the pile of clothes she’d repair through the evening. “Dreams don’t pay the bills. In the end, dreams are just that: dreams.”
“Maybe I’ll marry wealthy,” I say, but it’s weak, a mere squeak. She smiles, but it comes out sad and a little weary. She pats my cheek and it stings.
“The higher you let yourself fly in the clouds, the harder the crash.” She glances past me to where Pop is shouting at the TV in the other room. Her tone drops. “Trust me. Reality doesn’t soften anything.”
The washing machine finishes with an obnoxious bellow, so I gratefully hop off the bed, eager to escape the depressing tendrils of our conversation that feel like chains. Talking with Ma had a way of doing that. I yank the dry clothes out of the dryer, sling the wet ones in, and start it for the fastest possible cycle before Ma ropes me into staying for dinner.
I’ve had just about all the reality I can stand.
The next day dawns dirty and cold.
Clouds clog the sky, sending a gusty wind that pierces my old denim jacket and makes my bones feel cold. I hurry up the path to my apartment, head tucked down, after working out at the gym. Meeting Tony had made one truth apparent: I needed to lose weight and tone up. My sweaty shirt seems to collect the cold and keep it against my skin. I shudder, dreaming of a steamy hot shower. A note from my landlady, Mrs. Walters, is flapping on the door when I approach, fumbling for my keys.
New roommate moving in this evening. Sophie Dannon.
I rip it off and stuff it in my pocket. Excellent. I’ve been looking forward to having a roommate in the drafty basement below Mrs. Walter’s home. Living alone bores me. Perhaps Sophie and I could become good friends. If not, it wouldn’t matter. I had a job to find.
My phone chimes with a text message from Taysom.
I toss a frozen breakfast bagel on the table, throw away the grocery bag, and flip open my computer. Netflix pops up with a documentary on a girl sailing around the world alone at fifteen.
“Perfect,” I say to myself, popping open the steaming bagel. “A girl without fear.”
I watch the whole thing, ignoring Ma’s voice as it rings through my mind.
Art class smells like burnt plastic and turpentine.
My teacher, Mrs. Maggio, is a blonde woman with an eccentric wardrobe of purple and gray dusters and black pants. She wears her hair up in a pile of blonde curls haphazardly held together with bobby pins. Sometimes it comes together and looks nice, but most of the time I wonder if her power went out.
“I’m not going to get mystical and tell you that art comes from a special place in your brain behind your right eye,” Mrs. Maggio says to begin the class. “Art is what you make it.”
I slide my backpack underneath my seat, and when I straighten, come eye-to-eye with Tony Ortega as he walks into the classroom. My heart pounds twice as fast when I realize he’s looking back at me. I hold my breath. Tony glides in with all the grace of a runner, his body lean, long, and caramel brown. A pile of messy curls sits on top of his head. Our locked gaze lasts only a second and it’s over. I let out my breath in a great whoosh, feeling dizzy. Tony walks past, smelling like a department store and looking like a Greek god. He’s all but seen through me yet again. I sigh and resign myself to another disappointing day, but keep a sly eye on Tony, who is smiling at a brunette near him.
Class continues with the endless bauble of Mrs. Maggio’s voice until she finally says, “Go ahead and start painting. You have a blank canvas, create whatever you want today. It’ll give me a better idea of your artistic personality.”
I wait until most of the class has trudged to the back, and keep an eye on Tony, who is speaking with a blonde girl with tanned skin and perky breasts. My upper lip curls, and I finger a lock of my own strawberry blonde hair. It brushes my chin, and I think about growing it out.
With great reluctance to tear my eyes from Tony—lest he give a dashing smile that I miss—I go through the motions of squeezing a few dark oil paints onto one of the palettes lining the back cupboard. Black and white should do it. My only plans involved painting a dark streak across the canvas and calling it my love life. The paint makes a raspberry sound as it flows from the tube, and I ignore the snicker of another freshmen boy on my left.
“Is that it?” Mrs. Maggio asks, looking over my shoulder with a raised eyebrow. “You’re only doing black and white?”
“I suppose I don’t need the white,” I say. “I could just use the canvas.”
She lifts an eyebrow. “Interesting,” she murmurs, and moves on. Is it? I’m tempted to ask with genuine curiosity. I’ve never been known for doing interesting things. Tony must be having an affect on me.
I turn around, a bright song acting as the soundtrack in my head, and collide right into another student. My palette tips, turns, and finally splats against a firm chest. I hold my breath for two seconds, stunned. The room quiets and everyone stops moving.
“Oh!” I cry. “I’m so sorry. I—”
My heart falls to the bottom of my feet when I look into Tony’s dark, wide, beautiful eyes. We both look down to see a gothic palette of black and white oils smeared across his chest. Neither of us move. I pray for the gods of art and mercy to take me away from earth, or let me disintegrate into the ground, but nothing happens. I’m stuck. Rooted to the spot and unable to move.
“Uh . . .” Tony starts to say but stops. He reaches down and touches the paint with his fingertips. It smears the tips like ink from a wet newspaper. I stare at him in abject horror.
“I didn’t see you!”
“Oh, dear. I . . . here.”
I grab a fistful of paper towels and shove it at the mess, but only succeed in smearing it worse. My teeth bite so hard into my lower lip I can almost taste blood. I’ve gone and done it now. Nothing but burning the shirt will erase this disastrous moment. Mrs. Maggio appears at my side. Her lips twitch. If she starts to laugh, I’ll melt into the floor in a puddle.
“You may be excused to clean yourself up, Tony,” she says. “Anna, I suggest you pick up the palette before it smears something else.”
“I’m really sorry!” I say again. The gathered crowd begins to disperse. My cheeks are so hot they’re going to catch on fire. “Can I . . . buy you a new shirt?”
Or lunch? Or a wedding to me? I add in my head. He gives me a tight lipped, but kind, smile.
“No, it’s fine. I’ll go clean up.”
The grace in which he leaves the classroom makes me want to crawl into a hole. Tears burn at the back of my eyelids. I slink back to my seat with my muddy palette. The white has smeared into the black, creating thin streaks of gray like little hairs.
“Don’t worry,” Mrs. Maggio says after setting a warm hand on my shoulder. “It happens more than you’d think. You might as well start your piece. I’m quite interested to see what you’ll come up with now.”
I sink to my chair, vaguely aware of the tittering of my classmates, and slap a blob of black on the fresh canvas. It spreads out, taking absolutely no form or shape.
There, I think with a grim sense of satisfaction. My love life.
In the midst of the horror of spilling paint all over Tony, I forgot about getting a new roommate. Just as I lift a leafy forkful of Caesar salad to my mouth, the front door blows open like one of those dramatic moments in movies where leaves swirl around and the music crescendos.
“Uh . . . can I help you?” I ask.
“Sophie,” a girl says, stepping inside. “My name is Sophie.”
A small conglomerate of boxes and suitcases are congealed around her feet, clotting the doorway and the path. Her eyes, which look chocolate brown, are already running around the apartment, studying every visible nook and cranny. A pair of sunglasses sit on top of her head, so wide they must take up half her face. She’s small and slender, more like a young girl than a college student. I’m instantly jealous of her pert little nose.
“Oh . . .”
“The new girl,” she says, brazenly plowing forward and leaving all her belongings outside. Her smile lights up her whole face, as if she were reuniting with a lost friend. “You must be Anna. I hope you like the Rolling Stones.”
Sophie brushes past me and walks through the doorway that leads to the back. I follow the scent of cloves that trails behind her. Locks of dark black hair billow around her shoulders as she walks. Her hair is cut with dramatic layers, but it doesn’t look chaotic. Her skin is pale, almost white.
“Well, it’s, uh . . . nice to meet you.”
She smiles over her shoulder saying, “Thanks, I get that a lot, ” and walks right into the empty bedroom on the right, as if she’d known it would be hers all along.
“Are you from around here?” I ask.
“Florida,” she says, standing in the middle of the room, her lips pulling up. A fly keeps banging into the window in a half-hearted attempt at suicide or freedom. Neither of the bedrooms are very big, but at least we didn’t have to share. Travel posters and maps take up all the wall space in my room, and I wouldn’t take them down for anyone.
“This should be our music room, don’t you think?” she asks. Before I can ask what her definition of music room entails, she slips past me like a breath of wind and lets herself into my room.
My protest stops there. She’s standing in the middle with a smile on her face. It lights up her eyes, which look like chocolate saucers against her black hair and pale skin.
“This will be a wonderful room to share together!” she cries, clasping her hands in front of her. She whirls around to face me, grinning. “And I think you’ll make a lovely roommate. Excuse me. I need to find my music. We need to get the music room set up right away while we have help.”
Music room? I think as she moves past. Help? The smell of cloves overwhelms me again, making my mouth water for a hot cup of wassail and a snowy night. I follow behind her, still reeling.
She speaks as she walks, ignoring my plea. “I brought everything just in case I needed it. We’ll need to do a bit more redecorating.”
“What do you mean by everything?”
She trails the tips of her fingers along the textured wall. If she were any brighter, light would have followed in the wake of her fingertips. Despite my annoyance over her profound entrance, I can’t help but be intrigued by her.
“Everything,” she repeats. “I brought everything. It’ll spice things up around here. Every student apartment needs a golden Buddha.”
“We aren’t sharing my bedroom,” I manage to say. “We have private rooms.”
She starts rooting through the boxes still obstructing the walkway outside. “I won’t do anything without a little music. Chopin?”
Did she ignore me on purpose?
“Uh, Sophie. We aren’t . . . uh . . .”
Her hair whips behind her when she whirls around, grinning so wide I can see the lines between her teeth, which are perfect and white. She holds a CD in her clutches. “Forget Chopin. What was I thinking? This day is perfect for Tchaikovsky!”
“Sophie?” says a male voice, “Where do you want this box?”
My mouth drops open when I look into the doorway and see who’s standing there. The words rush out of my mouth before I can stop them.
“What are you doing here?”
Who is standing in the doorway? Is it Anna's friend Taysom, or her gorgeous crush Tony?
If there's a book you really want to read but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.