issue 40: January - February 2004 

 | author bio | spanish translation

Leelila Strogov

I don’t think there’s much in the world that should surprise anyone, really. Not the murder of that six-year-old in Palisades Park, not the huge inheritance that nurse in Sayreville got from some rich-as-a-pharaoh patient of hers, certainly not me doing what I did with Jay Wiederman. Beneath this cute white tee from Malice in Wonderland and these butt-loving Diesels, I’m a girl who believes in possibilities. A girl who believes anything can happen. This is what I told Nikki Rhodes in the dressing room at Macy’s when she asked me how could I have.
      "With Fatso, of all people," she said. "He must be the grossest guy in Jersey." Bra off, she was pulling a light blue Arden B. tank over her head. With the shirt covering her eyes, I could tell she’d been tanning topless in her backyard while slow-reading the books Mrs. Wacker had assigned us over the summer: Moby Dick, This Side of Paradise, The Turn of the Screw. She worked the blue tank over her belly button and gave herself a frown in the mirror.
      "Sometimes things just happen," I said. I was taking off the Diesels, about to try on a pair of faded Blue Tattoos. I told her you just never know. That one day she might get run over by her very own mother, the life knocked out of her by that massive Land Rover as it runs a red light at Terrill and Cooper. That Mrs. Wacker might show up to class one Monday with swollen eyes and tell us she’s cancelled our comprehension test because her husband just up and left her. That she didn’t have it in her to write up all those questions. She might even tell us all about the other woman too. Not some pretty blond thing, but a midget who sat beside Mr. Wacker on a flight to LA. A midget off to audition for a remake of The Wizard of Oz. A midget who hated books and had a cute smile. It’s all possible, I said.


The way things happened with Jay Wiederman is pretty simple if you look at the big picture. People don’t like to admit it, but things that happen to you today or tomorrow have as much to do with the here and now as things that happened long ago, to you or even to somebody else, things you might not even remember, things you might know nothing about. This is what most people will never admit. This is what Nikki Rhodes will never admit. That she twirls that baton of hers the way she does because of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade four years ago, when her older brother said he thought the left-most baton-twirler in the front line was the finest specimen of our species he’d ever seen. Nikki claims he never said this, not according to her ears, but I know he did, because I was there. I also know I saw Nikki looking hard at that girl, taking it all in: the tiny green skirt, the white cap with a chinstrap, the baton whirling high above her head as if it were light as a pencil. But like most people, Nikki likes to think the past can’t explain a thing about her. She likes to think she was struck one fine morning with a sudden talent, a gift having to do with a metal stick with two rubber ends. And who am I to tell her otherwise?
      But the issue at hand is Jay Wiederman. And me. How I allowed it. How I allowed it even though he could wrestle a whale. Even though his hair sticks to his head like it’s been painted on and he wears corduroy and wool when it’s eighty degrees out.
      It all started with my Uncle Walter dropping dead. He was in the hospital getting his ticker worked on. Something minor, supposedly. Maybe not minor, but definitely no emergency. A scheduled thing. Something he was supposed to be able to walk into and out of, no problem. But when it came time to give him a blood transfusion, which they knew he’d be needing ahead of time, they accidentally gave him the wrong kind of blood. The wrong blood type. One his body didn’t recognize and didn’t much want to get to know either. And after everything began shutting down – his liver, his kidneys, his lungs, even the ticker he came in to have serviced in the first place – those doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong. They just kept pumping that blood into him, until all of him shut down for good. And then one of them finally figured out that the blood was supposed to have gone to the guy in the room next door. That was a Tuesday. I got to skip school the rest of the week on account of the mayhem. The funeral happened on Friday.
      I knew the funeral was wacky because practically all of the women there were wearing red. Some wore red dresses, some red skirts. Some had little red scarves tied around their necks and one had on red shoes and a matching red bag. Almost every one of them had at least something red on, which definitely seemed very unfuneral-like to me. Meanwhile, my uncle was lying in his casket looking more serious than ever, wearing a white shirt and a little red bow tie, an outfit my aunt had picked out for him like she’d done on all their special occasions.
      Anyway, in the middle of all this, I recognized Mrs. Wiederman, Jay Wiederman’s mom. She was by herself, the only woman I could spot without a stitch of red. She had on a black dress, pointy black high heels, and a black hat with one of those mesh things covering her face, which I have to admit I don’t really get the purpose of, and she was dabbing at her eyes under the net with this small off-white handkerchief. She was a lot more dressed up than I had ever seen her at any school function including the talent show. But, recognizing her as I did, I walked up to her and said hi and asked her how Jay was, figuring I’d be polite. She got all uncomfortable, though, glancing over her shoulder, eyes peeled for something, sticking her handkerchief in her purse, telling me Jay was fine and that she’d read about my uncle in the newspaper and thought she’d stop by and pay her respects.
      Then she bolted. I didn’t think much of it except that she was just weird, which at the time made perfect sense to me since I knew she was Jay’s mom and Jay was at least as weird as he was fat, with the little shivers he always let out in class and the way he sat alone at lunch reading comic books no one ever heard of. Then I even thought about the whole nature-nurture thing we talked about in Bio, wondering if Jay was weird because he had his mother’s weird genes or if being raised by a weirdo mom was enough to make even someone with regular genes a weirdo.
      I finally got the low-down about all that red from my dad. My mom had gone off with my aunt in her car to console her since they’re sisters, so it was just my dad and me together in the car, and he’s the kind who’s pretty good about answering my questions without telling me everything interesting is none of my business, like my mom usually does.
      Bottom line: my aunt pulled a Sherlock Holmes on my dead Uncle Walter. She’d suspected for a long time that he’d had someone on the side – a lover, my dad called it – but she never knew for sure and was determined to find out once and for all. So she told everyone she invited to the funeral that the women should come wearing something red. She said it was my uncle’s favorite color and that he would have wanted it that way, would have wanted his funeral not to be a somber occasion, but a celebration of his life. Then she put an obituary in the paper giving the details about my uncle dying and the location of the funeral. She figured she’d be able to trap my uncle’s lover that way, assuming if my uncle really did have one, the woman would be distraught enough to come dressed in black.
      "So did it work?" I asked my dad.
      "Seems like it did," he said, sounding tired and sad.
      "Way to go, Aunt Netty," I said, but my dad gave me his look that said this was no time to be kidding around.
      "Sorry," I said, and I was. "So it was Jay Wiederman’s mom?"
      "Yeah," my dad said. "Mrs. Wiederman."
      "For sure?"
      "Walter had been calling Coldwell Banker a lot. That’s where Mrs. Wiederman works."
      "Oh," I said. "I guess Aunt Netty must be pretty upset."
      My dad let a silence gather, and for a while I thought he was done wanting to explain things. Then, at a red light, he pulled the car lighter out of its socket, looked at the burning hot rings of it, and put it back.
      "Courts award millions of dollars for the sort of mistake that happened in that hospital," he finally said. "Your Aunt Netty’s going to be a very wealthy woman. So I think she’s feeling a lot of things all at once right now, you know?"
      "Yeah," I said. But I wasn’t sure if I knew or not. I was just imagining my Aunt Netty wearing a mink coat and flying a private jet to some mansion in Aspen while my Uncle Walter decomposed underground. I tried to think of everything in the world I ever wanted and then multiplied that by two and imagined Aunt Netty having it all.


Saturday, the day after the funeral, at around five o’clock, I got a call from Jay Wiederman. Totally out of the blue considering we hadn’t said more than five words to each other all year. He told me he noticed I’d been out of school the whole week and offered to come over to my house to bring me all the notes and homework assignments I’d missed. Even though we only live three blocks away, I’d never been to his house and he’d never been to mine and the whole idea of him coming over felt too strange. Then I figured his wanting to come over probably had something to do with his mom getting caught being my Uncle Walter’s lover and all, and it’s not my way to make people uncomfortable, so I said okay, that it would be nice if he’d stop by with the notes. Jay’s at least as smart as he is weird, I thought, so his notes had to be at least three times as good as Nikki’s, and I couldn’t be that bad off having him over.
      I took out the trash and washed the two dishes in the sink and wiped the dust off the TV screen in the living room even though I didn’t know why. I remembered a story Jay wrote in English class the year before that our teacher had made him read aloud. It was about a boy on the football team with lots of friends who spent his whole life certain he was his father’s favorite kid until the old man was about to die. In the hospital, his father could only muster enough energy to pay attention to the boy’s older sister, though, a girl who didn’t talk much and had a boyfriend named "Bad John," and who refused to use the word love because she said the word meant nothing to her. The boy kept cleaning out his father’s mouth with Q-tips and getting him tissues, but the father still focused completely on his older sister, saying goodbye only to her, telling her he’d miss her. The teacher had thought it was a great story and I remembered thinking it was too, even though I hadn’t said so in class.
      "Hey," I said, after I opened the door to let Jay in. His jeans looked big and stiff and too blue and his sneakers were cheap, like something his mother had picked up on sale.
      "Hey," he said back, his shoulders kind of hunched over, and I showed him up to my room.
      Jay was real quiet, busy taking all the stuff out of his backpack, all his different-colored notebooks, placing them on my bed and explaining all of the different assignments while I was copying as much as I could down. Every time I asked a question about his handwriting or the handouts, I looked at his face, saw how freckles covered it almost completely and how his big nose had these wide, long nostrils, and then I began thinking about my Uncle Walter, who had been a plastic surgeon, and what he would have done with nostrils like that. How he would have turned them into something smaller and more oval and nice. Then I imagined a whole bunch of Jays and female equivalents of Jay walking into my uncle’s office the following week only to learn that he was dead. I imagined them holding on to these pictures of models and actors they’d torn out of magazines, people they’d hoped to look like one day, and then I began to feel sorry for everyone involved, the male Jays and the female Jays and my dead uncle and the models and actors whose pictures were no longer in those magazines and this Jay who was sitting on the chair next to my bed, still as a houseplant.
      "Sorry about what happened to your uncle," Jay finally said, breaking the school-only talk we’d been having. "I know what happened with the blood and all."
      "Yeah," I said. "I’m still trying to sort it all out."
      "Kind of a hard thing to make sense of," Jay said. "A mistake like that, I mean."
      "No," I said. "I mean for real trying to figure it out."
      "I’m not sure I understand," Jay said. His voice was quiet and polite, as if I were explaining myself perfectly and he was the stupid one even though his IQ is probably twice that of my whole family’s combined.
      "I don’t get why the other guy in the hospital isn’t dead also," I said. "He got the blood that was supposed to go to my uncle and his surgery went fine. He’s walking around in house slippers right now while my uncle’s underground wearing that stupid red tie." I felt this pain between my throat and stomach just thinking about it. I’d liked my Uncle Walter. He’d brought over stacks of movies for me to watch whenever I’d been home pretending to be sick with a virus or the flu. Whenever my parents had gotten upset about my report cards, he’d list off names of famous people who’d flunked out of school.
      "Walter must’ve had type O blood," Jay said, and we both kind of froze that he’d said my uncle’s name even though I hadn’t mentioned it once during our conversation.
      "What do you mean?" I said after a mini-pause, after I’d regained my calm.
      "O is the universal donor," he said softly, probably embarrassed about having let my uncle’s name slip. "Type O blood can go to anybody, even to someone with type A or type B, but people with type O can only get blood from their own kind."
      "Oh," I said. "How do you know that?"
      He shrugged. "I just do."
      I went back to looking at Jay’s math notebook and asked him some questions about the problems we had due. If there was any extra credit for Monday. If the test on Friday included the stuff in Thursday’s homework. He said no and no.
      "So how long did you know my Uncle Walter?" I finally asked. Jay’s parents were divorced. That much I knew.
      "About two years," he said. "But I didn’t know he was married or related to you until just yesterday." He ran his hand over the feathery collar of a sweater I’d left on my desk.
      "Did you get along? You and my uncle?" I was trying to imagine my uncle and Jay together. I wondered what they’d talked about, if they ever hung out together. I wondered what my uncle had liked about Mrs. Wiederman that he didn’t like about my aunt.
      "Yeah," Jay said. "I liked him a lot. I think he liked me, too." He picked up the sweater and looked closely into the collar before putting it down.
      "These look like little white tarantulas," he said quietly, as if he were talking to a ghost. Then he stood up, took the latest school yearbook from my bookshelf, and flipped through it at my desk.
      When I was done copying all his notes, I asked him if he wanted anything to eat or drink. I ran a finger under each of my eyes to make sure none of my eyeliner had smeared.
      "Sure," he said. "What do you have?"
      "Lots of stuff," I said. "Pretzels and potato chips and chocolate chip cookies and Coke and Sprite and lemonade. Come down with me to the kitchen. Have a look for yourself."
      When we got downstairs, I opened the fridge and then the cupboards one by one to show him everything.
      "Where are your parents?" he asked. We weren’t facing each other. We were looking into the cupboard with the cereal and Pop-tarts and these sick-delish three-layer lemon bars my mom buys from some bakery in Fanwood.
      "At my Aunt Netty’s," I said.
      "I was wondering if I could ask you a favor," he said, his voice a little shaky.
      I didn’t look at him. I looked inside the Pop-tart box instead, pretending to check how many were left.
      "I wanted to ask you to please not say anything to anyone at school about my mom. About my mom and Walter."
      "No problem," I said.
      "Thanks," he said, and then he pointed to a green apple sitting on the countertop and asked if it were okay if he had it. I wondered if he really wanted it or if he were just embarrassed to let me see him eating real food on account of his weight.
      "Sure," I said, and I took the apple from the counter and handed it to him.
      "Can I borrow a knife?" he said. "I like to remove the skin." By then he was looking at me and I was looking at him. His eyes were the same color green as my uncle’s, and his lips were cracked, like someone with a fever.
      I got him a knife and a paper towel, and we both sat at the kitchen table while I thought about my Uncle Walter. How just two weekends earlier he and my aunt and me and my mom and dad had smushed into my uncle’s red Saab convertible and gone to New York for dinner. How my uncle didn’t seem all that happy with my aunt; how she kept pestering him about the timing of his turn signals.
      I looked at Jay knife-peeling the apple. How a perfect single coil curled off and slid onto the paper towel. And I don’t really know what it was about that coil; maybe it was the perfectness of it, but watching it made me remember something that had happened a long time ago. Something my parents had told me about, had joked about for years, but that I hadn’t remembered myself until just then. How at my seventh birthday party, my father asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and how I said, without any drama, that I wanted to be God. As if that were a choice, like being an architect or a dentist or a librarian. Of course everyone laughed and laughed. My father and my mother and my aunt and uncle and my grandparents. And I remembered laughing too even though I hadn’t known what was so funny. And in the middle of all the laughter, my Uncle Walter waved a finger at me, telling me that if I did grow up and become God, that I’d better be kind to all my fellow creatures; that I’d better find beauty in every one of them.
      "Jay?" I said then, and he just looked at me as if he knew something was different. As if he knew I was thinking of something important.
      "Yes?" he said, and he put the apple on his plate and wiped his hands on his jeans.
      "Do you think I’m nice? I mean, in school, would you consider me a nice person?"
      Eyes on the apple, he inhaled and sighed. "I think you’re nice enough for a pretty girl," he said. "I think you’re nicer than Nikki Rhodes."
      And that’s when it started. I put my hand over his, and after a few seconds, he laced his fingers through mine. Then he leaned into me and we kissed, first with him in his chair and me in mine, then with me pressing up against him on the fridge, then up in my room where he took off my clothes as if his hands were so light you could barely feel them. As if water were taking everything off me – my shirt, my bra, my white miniskirt, my purple cotton panties.
      "You’re gorgeous," Jay said to me when we were finally both naked on my bed, after we’d pushed all our notebooks onto the floor, and he sounded as if he were about to cry.
      And for a second we both stopped to catch our breaths, lying on our sides and looking at each other’s bodies. At my white breasts and my tan stomach and the small mound of hair I’d shaved into the shape of a Dorito. At his ruddy arms and his pudgy chest that had a strip of hair across it, and at the doughnut of flesh around his waist. I ran my hand down the center of his chest, then over his belly button, a large gaping thing that reminded me of a swimming pool, and then I moved it lower until he closed his eyes.
      "I just can’t believe how gorgeous you are," he whispered.
      And then I climbed on top of him and took him inside of me, and I felt a wave come over me, of wonder and craving, something extraordinary and unforgettable. A feeling that told me if a ten-car collision happened right outside my window, that it wouldn’t have distracted me even one bit.
      "You’re gorgeous too, Jay Wiederman," I said. "You’re gorgeous too."

© Leelila Strogov 2004

This story may not be archived, reproduced or distributed further without the author's express permission. Please see our conditions of use.

author bio

Leelila StrogovLeelila Strogov is a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her work has appeared in publications such as Before and After: Stories from New York (W.W. Norton, 2002), Phoebe and Other Voices. She is currently working on a collection of short fiction, and is the editor of Swink Magazine.

      To contact the author:Click here



issue 40: January - February 2004  

Short Fiction

Mary Woronov: George and Shoe Store
Leelila Strogov: Fatso
Simmone Howell: Golden
Connla Stokes: The Splurgy Shore
picks from back issues
Lynn Coady: Jesus Christ, Murdeena
Pedro Juan Gutiérrez: Buried in Shit
and Stars and Losers


Manuel Vázquez Montalbán: 1939 – 2003
The man and his work
Two reviews
: An Olympic Death
and The Buenos Aires Quintet


Ilan Stavans


John Steinbeck
answers to last issue’s 18th-Century English Literature

Readers' Poll

Readers’ Poll Results - Best/Worst of 2003

Book Reviews

Demonized and The Devil in Me by Christopher Fowler
The Epicure’s Lament by Kate Christensen
Blind Love by Mary Woronov
Lizard Dreaming of Birds by John Gist
Dreamland by Newton Thornburg

Regular Features

Book Reviews (all issues)
TBR Archives (authors listed alphabetically)

Home | Submission info | Spanish | Catalan | French | Audio | e-m@il www.Barcelonareview.com