‘Good With Boys’ by Kristen Iskandrian: ZYZZYVA No. 109, Spring/Summer Issue

If you wanted a boy’s attention, you had to get it. You had to take it.

After dinner, I kept my eye on Esau. His mother was talking to Ms. Green and the two other parent chaperones. With a few other boys he headed toward Ornithology, which was fortunate, since it was adjacent to the Mineralogy wing, where I wanted to spend my time. I had some money to spend in the gift shop tomorrow and I was definitely going to get a few new polished rocks and minerals for my collection. Some agate, maybe. I did not want to lose sight of the educational purpose of this trip. I knew, deep in my bedrock layer, that Esau Abraham would come and Esau Abraham would go. I knew I had to keep a firm hold on my interests outside of boys. I stood looking at an exhibit containing necklaces of jade, peridot, and pink topaz, right next to the clusters of Mississippi pearls so creamy they seemed edible, and I felt stirred, filled with longing.

My desire for boys and my desire for certain other things—often inexplicable, sometimes beautiful, frequently plain, occasionally attainable, like a tiny plastic fifty-cent notebook charm complete with even tinier pencil, for my charm bracelet; sometimes not, like these exquisite jewels that came from places in the earth that no longer even exist—were knotted together as intricately as a DNA double helix. I wanted and wanted and wanted. I believed, like my great Aunt Jill, that objects had the power to protect me from harm—the harm of loneliness and my own impermanence—and I believed that boys had the same power.

My little voice told me, take what you want. Take what you can. Heal in the long shadows of the taking. My little voice and Aunt Jill’s little voice, maybe, were the same.

Always get the last word.

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I realized I was standing with my hands and forehead pressed to the glass. I heard a few people enter the room and then Esau’s voice, “Adam— wait up!”

“Where are you guys going?” I asked, straightening up.

“Adam wants to go to the dinosaur room, right?” Esau asked. Adam was a shy boy, shyer than Esau, and obsessed with Abraham Lincoln.

“I’m not sure we’re allowed upstairs. I think we’re supposed to stay just on this floor,” I said, unsure of why I was taking the rule-abiding position, especially since I was planning on breaking a few unspoken rules later that night.

Esau looked at Adam. “I could ask my mom,” he said.

“Let’s just go,” I said. Being alone with Esau plus Adam was better than being alone without Esau. And it was fun to take the lead, exciting. “We can pretend we didn’t know.”

The three of us walked quickly to the lighted exit sign. I opened the heavy door to the stairwell and held it for Adam and Esau. I saw Mrs. Abraham craning her neck behind a few kids wandering between Botany and Mineralogy, looking, surely, for her son.

We hurried up a flight of stairs, laughing, which was the sound of our nervous bodies trying to expel their nervousness.

The Vertebrate Paleontology wing was cold and very dimly lit. We fell silent immediately upon entering, tiny insects beneath the impossibly tall ceilings. The air smelled liked stone—no, like bone. For a minute we stood there without moving, just inside the entrance. I felt a tingle in my body like a sustained high note, like I myself was an echo chamber for our collective giddiness. This would be a double trespass, I thought to myself. Once for being a forbidden area, twice for being an ancient era. We were moving through time in two directions, forward and backward. I wanted to be in charge of this moment, of being in this ideal place alone with two boys, like some better version of From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, one of my all-time favorite books. Surely it wasn’t too much to ask, to believe, that here under the spell of these skeletons and this flattering lighting they would both fall in love with me, and that although I would choose Esau, we would all remain friends and vow to undertake future adventures together. What good was a relationship, after all, with nobody around to witness it?

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