Pop and Giovanni are close, but can Pop's secret disease tear them apart?
| Before the rain stopped falling, there was the music--always pounding, throbbing, pulsing through the air as if it was alive and bleeding freely. Bass thick as smoke rushing through lungs and drums loud as car crashes splitting the air, guitar slitting skin and piano pouring blood. The music is breathing, a wild thing that jumps and moves like it is moshing.
Pop and Giovanni are 16 and 17, respectively. They are the musicmakers. They go to the same highschool, while Giovanni is a senior and Pop is a junior. Pop plays drums while Giovanni plays bass in their band, their two-person cacophonic symphony.
Pop has a jet-black flattop and Giovanni has a bleach-blonde mohawk. Pop wears faux leather, chains, fake fur, and rhinestones on bolero jackets, cigarette pants, and long flowing skirts. Giovanni wears plaid, hound’s-tooth, argyle, and checkers on tight vests, second-skin t-shirts, and skinny jeans.
Giovanni is small and wiry, curved shoulders always hunched and tense as if he’s constantly prepared for fight-or-flight. He’s short, and seems even shorter because of his immense hair. The top of his head fits perfectly under Pop’s chin when they hug.
Pop is bigger, tall with wide hips and shoulders. She has long legs and hands that never stop jumping and big teeth that are always flashing with her grins. Everything about her is plump like potential blooms. She never crosses her legs when she’s sitting and she trips a lot when she walks.
Together, they hop trains and wander down streets that are better left unwandered. With a maddened glint in eye they catch taxis and escape without paying a cent towards feeding the hand-to-mouths workers of the nation. He is too short to jump and smack the street-signs, so she intuitively knows to do it for him vicariously. They do a lot of things vicariously, it turns out.
Giovanni nearly flunks out of school because he spends so much time doing things besides going to class and doing schoolwork. Pop almost fails, too, but everyone turns a blind-eye to her discrepancies because she smiles and flirts with the right people. Pop never gets caught like Giovanni, and sometimes it almost makes her jealous. Especially when Giovanni is spending lunch with their principal and teachers, who ignore Pop’s existence almost entirely except for when she’s performing with Giovanni on stage.
So she screams and flings her sweating body around on stage, kicking punching clawing at the air as if she can fight with her own shadow. Sometimes at night, when Giovanni has gone to his own home, sometimes she stands in front of the mirror. She’s naked, fearful of her reflection, this pale-skinned mass of flesh that she finds repulsive. Pincer-fingers plucking at pieces and places that she wishes would just disappear.
Miss Take, her greedy ego always wanting and needing. She writes the songs full of hate and lust, wanting nothing more than to leave her self behind. She loathes the self more than anything.
Giovanni notices that something is wrong before there are any signs of something being wrong. He can’t put his finger on it, so he keeps playing.
Pop is happy here, on stage. Full of bright lights and rainbow prisms refracting every ounce of pureblooded joy that’s singing in her bones. She’s hovering, levitating with her drumkit. She feels better for a moment, but that’s all it is—a moment. Then practice is over and she’s sitting in the passenger seat of Giovanni’s ’67 GTO, the same swollen red color as her eyeshadow and lipstick. She checks herself in the rearview mirror, and sure enough, her mascara is running through the crevice-creases underneath her eyes. Giovanni snaps his fingers in front of her face viciously, startling her from her reverie.
“Can you make a run?” His voice is gravel-deep and full of promise, like sunrise and volcanoes. He hands her five dollars and kisses her on the shoulder, then starts up the car and they race down the streets towards one of the only groceries in the city that sells cigarettes without ID and without overcharging. Giovanni is still too small to get away with it, but Pop looks almost old enough and the storeowner licks her lips every time she walks to the counter, so no one is really going to start busting anyone on their own terms.
Pop swings out of the store with the crappiest cigarettes she can buy in her hand, hoping that if they’re bad enough he might want to quit. She keeps trying, but she knows that he won’t quit unless he really wants to.
That night they sleep on a picnic table at the beach, wrapped up papoose-tight as cocoons and pupae in their sleeping bags glitter-written with David Bowie lyrics. Their bodies meet in the cold, holding hips and hands. When they wake up in the morning, Pop gets mushroom-and-avocado sandwiches out of the car for breakfast, with sparkling pink grapefruit juice and tiny umbrellas in coconut cups. They decide that this is a much better idea than staying home or even going to school.
Pop lets Giovanni lie in the sunlight while she surfs, body curled and poised gracefully under the seafoam. Giovanni is a great audience and laugh- track, always hooting and hollering at the appropriate times for her performance on the waves.
Afternoon comes and they go downtown to Miss Muffit’s for lavender tea and bowls of freshly sliced strawberries, cantaloupe, and honeydew melon, with a whole basket of grapes that they attempt to toss into the air and catch in their mouths. Pop flirts with the chlorine-green-haired waitress while Giovanni jots down hypothetical lyrics on a whole stack of napkins.
Eventually they leave and go to visit Pop’s mother in the hospital. She’s hooked up to tubes and wires, with sweat glazing her porcelain-pale skin. Her eyes are heavily lidded, and her lips are coated in bright magenta gloss. Somehow she’s talked the nurses into doing her makeup at least a little. She can’t stand to be without her makeup. Pop hates it—she’s dying and she’s still so self-conscious.
“Hey, Mom.” Pop plops down on the bedside chair, while Giovanni hovers anxiously in the doorway. He hates hospitals.
“Hi, honey,” Pop’s mom manages to croak, “How are you? Looking healthy. I’m glad to see some meat on those bones. I’d been worrying you’d just waste away while I was in here, kicking the old bucket. How’s that boyfriend of yours?”
“Great, ma’am,” Giovanni almost shouts, “I’m keeping an eye out for you baby.” He grins at Pop, who looks distracted and mortified, still mulling over her mother’s comments. She snaps out of it, finally triggered.
“Mom, he’s not my boyfriend.” She sounds resigned to the fact that her mother will never listen.
“You two broke up?” Her mother’s voice cracks a little. She seems crestfallen.
“We were never unbroken to begin with!” Pop could scream, that’s how frustrated she is. Part of her wishes that her mother couldn’t speak, that she was sick enough that Pop didn’t have to hear her voice. So shrill, Pop thinks, so incapable of understanding.
“Pop, just let me believe.” Her mother is on the verge of tears, and her eyes are squeezed shut now, her lips a tight line of faith across her yellowed teeth.
Pop and Giovanni leave her like that.
Giovanni doesn’t hate people, he hates that they don’t understand, or even know what it’s like to really live-- to run as fast as he can down the streets at night like he’s being chased in a one-person game of tag, skip down the train-tracks across the cityscape, wake up on the ground in the places where woods meets concrete jungle, hop fast trains from one block to the next. People never understand the sketchy-carnival that he finds in the crawlspace of run-down cities—no one except Pop.
Giovanni thinks that Pop is the coolest, from her septum ring to her golden sandals that lace up around her round calves. When he first met her, she had a copper-red glam-mullet and wore leopard print pants and torn fishnet gloves. Giovanni wrote her tiny love letters and put them through the slats in her rusted locker, anonymously. When he finally got the courage, he sat next to her at lunch and did magic tricks, pulling roses out of thin air and coins from her titanium-ringed ears. She laughed at him as she nibbled on soynut butter and jam sandwich, sipping pomegranate juice out of a Hello Kitty thermos.
“Come with me.” He held out his hand, and she took it.
They left school after lunch that day to go to the arcade and play old-school pinball machines, then read poetry to each other in the library, picking out authors and poems from the bookshelves based on their crazy names and titles.
They became friends, thick as thieves.
“Let’s do this as often as possible,” Pop said, sliding out of Giovanni’s car, which he had named Lester.
“Lester and I would love that.”
They went to all the clubs, dressed rockabilly in checkers, pearls, and creepers. They tangoed through the pits, wrecking fiercely. They drank neon-rainbow drinks in test tubes through bendy-straws and whatever was leftover by people who were leaving.
One night, at a drive-in, they were holding hands in Lester and chewing chunks of black licorice when Pop turned to Giovanni suddenly and said, “I have something to tell you.”
She paused, took a deep breath then whispered, “I’m gay.” She dropped her head, too ashamed to look Giovanni in the eyes. But he grasped her chin gingerly and lifted her head, forcing her to look at him.
“It doesn’t matter. I love you, babe.”
Pop nodded fiercely, “And I still think you’re the coolest.”
Lester’s engine revved happily, and they left the movie early.
“I’m sorry, but we couldn’t help her any longer. Your mother passed away early this morning.” The doctor has sad eyes like pearls, and he lisps a little. His face looks tired, and Pop wants to apologize to him for having him apologize to her. For minutes, it doesn’t sink in, even as Giovanni is taking her into his arms and rocking her tightly.
Pop goes home alone, her aunt buzzing around and arranging things in alien formations. The house had never been kept straight, and seeing things so clean is ostracizing. Pop climbs the stairs of the noiseless home and crashed on her bed. Her eyes feel heavy and her muscles feel weak—she falls into a deep, deep sleep.
When she wakes up, Giovanni is at the foot of her bed, his eyes red and his jaw clenched. He strokes his mohawk nervously, wanting to run. Loss makes him uncomfortable.
“Want to go out?” he barely whispers. Pop eyes him numbly, barely hearing his barely-whispers. She barely nods.
“Why not?” She gets up slowly and trudges outside, nearly collapsing as she angles herself into Giovanni’s car. They drive aimlessly down roads they’ve never driven down before, ending up in rich and poor neighborhoods. They go out to eat at some local shack and Giovanni orders a strawberry milkshake for them to split, but Pop shakes her head at her straw and says she isn’t hungry. Giovanni frowns, but he slurps down the milkshake and doesn’t say anything.
Pop sleeps fitfully; She dreams of her mother’s eidolon and drowning in milk and honey while Giovanni sits idly aside. She wakes up sweating and gasping, feeling smothered by her blankets and by the air itself. Rising from bed, she stands in front of her mirror. She analyzes every curve, every swell. She twists every which way in an attempt to see her body from the perfect, all-seeing angle.
Suddenly she’s hungry. She tiptoes downstairs, deathly silent in the darkness, and goes to the kitchen. She opens up ice cream, cookies, chips, brownies, muffins, chocolate, cake… minutes speed by quickly as she sits hypnotized in front of the TV, eating her way through each food at a racing pace.
Suddenly she’s looking in the mirror, kneeling in front of the toilet, cool porcelain floor smashing her knees and ankles while she does something she’s only heard about in health class and locker rooms. Then she’s in bed, the taste of illness seeping through her mouth while she sleeps without resting.
Pop wakes up the next morning horrified, ashamed of herself for having done what she did. She vows to never do it again. She feels bloated, heavy, sagging… she vows to eat less to make up for it. She’ll keep it a secret, even when Giovanni asks why she’s so quiet and her aunt asks where such-and-such food has gone.