Wyatt’s retainer is red and green like Christmas and Melina lights up at the sight of it. The metal gleams. She plucks it from the plastic container and brings it to her nose. The smell of stale French fries and spit triggers a shudder of happiness to tap-dance down her spine. She puts it into her mouth. The retainer doesn’t nestle between her molars like she expects it to, but it hugs her front teeth okay. It hurts. It feels good—right, even. This is so much better than kissing Wyatt. She grins at herself in the mirror, the metal flashing across her teeth like a badge. A secret badge that will go perfectly into her collection. She closes her mouth and all but skips out of the bathroom. She keeps her lips sealed for the rest of the Wyatt’s birthday party as she digs up a “dinosaur egg” in the sandbox, pets a horned lizard in the Reptile Corner, and even rides the miniature pony Drusilla Rex with newfound joy, avoiding a sullen and confused Wyatt until Mom comes to pick her up in the Range Rover.
Melina stares up at the purple papier-mâché dinosaur mask and crumples the popcorn bag in her hand into a ball. The mask lets out a whinny and the unfortunate pony squeezed into the Jurassic-themed costume flares his nostrils like an overheated Brontosaurus and nearly topples over.
“Uh oh, looks like Drusilla Rex can’t handle the heat!” Jason exclaims.
Melina frowns up at the pony-handler and crunches on her popcorn, savoring the sharp shards jabbing her gums between her teeth. She looks down at the pony, and then back up at Jason.
“You named the boy horse Drusilla?”
“Dru for short,” the handler smiles, pulling the reins. “Cute, huh?”
Melina chews on her candy necklace and decides that she’s had enough of the ponies suffering from heat exhaustion and leaves to check out the rest of Wyatt’s birthday party, only to bump into the birthday boy himself. He’s dressed like an archaeologist, spiffed out with a beige vest full of pockets and he even has a bouquet of makeup brushes substituting for the ones used for fossil excavations. He’s holding a fresh popsicle from the cryo bar his Mom is running on the back deck.
He grins at her and she wonders when he’s going to get braces.
“You made it!”
Melina tosses the popcorn bag aside, having grown bored with it.
“Go over to the sandbox later and dig up a dinosaur egg with Arabella. They’re full of chocolate.”
When Melina doesn’t respond, Wyatt slurps on the cherry-flavored popsicle in his hand and she fixates on it.
“Can I have that?”
Wyatt makes a face and looks down at the popsicle.
“But it was in my mouth. My spit’s all over it…You want it?”
“Yes,” she says hungrily.
Wyatt hands it over and looks uncomfortable as Melina begins eating and savoring the popsicle that was just in his own mouth. He stares at her for a Moment, eyes wide and jaw slack. He buries his hands in his pocket and scuffs his sneaker against the grass.
“Do you want to be my girlfriend?” He asks, not looking up from the ground.
Melina pulls the popsicle from her mouth and gives Wyatt a once-over. He’s certainly not the cutest, but he always knows answers in math class and at least he doesn’t have red sauce crusted at the corner of his mouth like the other boys always do after they eat pizza (or anything with ketchup).
“Yeah, I guess.”
Wyatt’s face reddens and Melina yanks his hand out of his pocket so she can hold it.
“So now you’re my boyfriend.”
“You wanna ride one of the dinosaurs with me?” Wyatt asks, puffing out his chest.
“It’s just horses in goofy costumes.”
Wyatt scrunches up his face. Maybe he’s not so smart.
“Why don’t you just show me around your house?”
He hesitates. “Sure.”
His house is almost as big as her parents’ and almost as tasteful. They don’t have an espresso machine.
“Do you have a playroom with video games?”
“Uh—yeah. It’s upstairs…”
“My Mom turned mine into her second office. All my dolls live on the bottom shelf in my closet now. Tough times.”
“You can hang out in my playroom…”
He tugs her back.
“Wait, you’re my girlfriend now. I want to kiss you.”
Wyatt shuffles closer to her.
Melina pushes her palm right into his face and pursed lips, then darts away and hides in the bathroom. He doesn’t even see it coming.
“So how was the party, kiddo? Any incidents?” Mom asks, looking at Melina in the rearview mirror instead of looking at the road.
Melina shakes her head and smiles with her mouth closed.
Dad is standing in front of the microwave in the remodeled kitchen, watching a bowl of broccoli steam. He’s wearing gray logo sweatpants from the good-ol’-days of his graduate school chess league. He could have been Great. And he would have been if it weren’t for the explosive nosebleed that unexpectedly disqualified him from his final match at the Global Chess Wizards Championship in ’91 and sent his opponent/victim into shock. His T-shirt is also gray. Melina’s sister, Peyton, sits on one of the bar stools scattered around the island, texting on her phone. Mom slaps her purse on the island and gives Dad a quick, hole-puncher kiss on his cheek and then goes right for the espresso machine.
“Honey, it’s 5pm.”
“How’d the meeting go this morning? Did you get the membership?”
Mom lets out a dramatic moan and almost slams a dainty espresso cup on the counter. Dad clears his throat.
“I’m sorry, dear. I know you really wanted to join American Ladies in Flight.”
“Ugh, bunch of pearl-clutchers anyway. Who needs ‘em? I want a skydiving network with real women…I’ve heard Velocity managed to snag Nancy Pelosi and Toni Morrison. I’ve been trying to get invited for months, but they’re more discrete than whores in an opera house.”
“Oh, Melina honey. You didn’t hear that word.”
“What about my innocence, Mom?” Peyton says. “Does the purity of my ears mean nothing to you?”
Melina stands by the fridge as Mom and Peyton parlay, biting a nail and looking at the seven gold stars under the magnet with her name on it. Each one represents a whole month of her being “good,” of each month she goes without swallowing something “bad” like a stale piece of gum left under a bus seat or a cereal box toy. Her most recent notable exploit was squeezing a girl’s jawbreaker right out of her mouth at summer camp after second grade and gulping the whole thing down in euphoria. Her parents were forced to drive all the way down from Maryland to get her from the hospital, but she thinks they overreacted. The jawbreaker dissolved anyway.
“Mom,” Peyton says, bundled in her football-player-sized sweatshirt. “Maybe skydiving is too much adrenaline for you.”
Mom sips half of her espresso.
“Very funny, smart-ass. Next time I’ll bring you with me.”
Peyton smiles and tugs on her nose ring.
“Mom, I think I wanna go with you,” Melina says.
Mom looks frighteningly thrilled for half a second, but then peers down at Melina’s mouth. She pops a Mom-crouch in front of Melina and gently squeezes her chin.
“What’s going on here? Honey…you didn’t take Melina to the dentist, did you?”
Dad turns around with the broccoli. “The dentist? Nope, not in six weeks.”
A heady twirl of about-to-get-caught spirals through Melina’s chest and she tries to close her mouth.
“What? Melina, where’d you get this?”
“Did you get this from Wyatt’s house?”
Melina clams up. Mom stands and tosses back the rest of her espresso.
“All right, kiddo. Spit it out.”
It still hurts good in her mouth, so it takes Melina a minute to pull out the Christmas-colored retainer. Mom pinches it un-squeamishly and plops it on a stray napkin on the island. Melina watches Mom give Dad a look and Dad just shakes his head and sets the broccoli next to the lamb and roasted garlic quinoa.
Mom crouches down again and brushes back Melina’s hair.
“Honey, I thought we were done with all this.”
The shame in the back of Melina’ throat is bitter and slick.
“You’ve been so good…”
“I’m sorry, Mommy.”
Mom sighs. “It’s okay, but no more of this. Understand?
Upstairs you go.”
It takes a full day for the weight of the loss of Wyatt’s retainer to truly sink in and Melina is left forlorn. Melina kneels by her bed after dinnertime and revisits the purple wooden box that she keeps stashed away underneath. Her dad bought it for her during a trip to Michael’s Craft Store and helped her decorate it with safari animals. Melina bites her lip and opens the box. Inside are nine retainers, each one beautiful in its own way and displayed like jewels. Priyanka’s purple retainer reigns supreme of the nine and has done so for five months. Wyatt’s would have been the best if Mom hadn’t confiscated it so fast, because it fits better than any of the others, but as things stand now, the pecking order goes unchallenged. Melina sighs. Wyatt’s Christmas retainer would have gone so well next to Priyanka’s. She remove’s Shelbi’s retainer which is too wide for her own mouth and licks a stripe up the middle and pokes her tongue between the metal wires. It’s lost its unique flavor and mostly tastes like tangy metal and boring plastic now. Unable to resist, she bites down hard and bends some of the metal out of place. She savors the pressure that gently morphs into pain in her molars and jaw.
A rapid knock at the door jolts Melina out of her reverie.
“Melly, honey. Can I come in?”
With a pang, she realizes she forgot to lock the door. She shoves the box under the bed as her mother lets herself in without waiting for an answer. Typical Mom.
“What’s going on in here?”
“Uh-huh, I—Melly…” her mom says in creeping reproach. “What’s that?”
A sledgehammer of dread comes down on her as she looks at her own lap and sees Shelbi’s chewed up retainer resting there.
“Melina, is this another one? Give it to me. This is just unacceptable.”
She walks over with an expectant, outreached hand, and Melina reluctantly gives the retainer to her, wondering what her punishment is going to be.
“Who did you take this from? When?”
“Shelbi,” Melina says quietly. “Back in…January.”
Mom rubs her temples in digging circles.
“Melina, these cost a lot of money, you know. You could have really hurt their family. I want you to understand that.”
“I’m sorry, mommy. I won’t do it again.”
“Like you said last night? Do you have anymore of these?”
Melina swallows around a dry lump in her throat and shakes her head, hoping Mom believes her.
“Are you telling the truth?”
“Well, what’re you doing down there? Move over.”
Trying to hold back tears she can’t control, Melina scoots back as Mom kneels by the bed and runs her arm under, swiping a Barbie doll and some junk from under the bed. She snags the purple box too, and its contents go spilling across the floor, exposing her lie.
Melina starts to cry quietly and she clutches the hem of her dress with her little hands.
Her mom sighs and goes tight-lipped as she collects the retainers off the floor and stands.
“No t.v. and no allowance for the next two months. You need to know that your father and I are serious.”
The words slide over Melina like water. All she sees is Mom taking away her treasure, her months of careful collecting.
“Please don’t take them!”
Mom holds them up higher when Melina makes a grab for them.
“Just let me have the purple one and you can take the rest. Mommy!”
“Listen, Melina. You’re going to tell me whom each of these belongs to and then we’re going to each kid’s house to return them and apologize. You understand me?”
Melina cries and cries, but Mom turns and walks out the door and just like that, all of her precious things are gone.
Saturday, Mom slathers organic mulberry jam onto her toast.
“I just don’t understand why she has this obsession with shoving things in her mouth! First her thumb, now a stash of other kid’s retainers.”
“At this point we just have to figure out what’s best,” Dad says.
“I know that, James. I’m just worried that this might turn into something like what Peyton had in middle school.”
“I wouldn’t worry about that. This is a whole different animal,” he says and pauses. “I think if we push her too hard, she’ll shut down.”
Dad looks up and sees Melina standing at the bottom of the stairs. He smiles, realizing she probably heard everything by the way she hunches over.
“Melly, you want some cereal?”
Melina nods and approaches the island as Dad gets up to grab the Cheerios. She looks up at Mom, who promptly returned Wyatt’s retainer—before discovering Melina’s stash,—to his miffed parents who claimed that their son’s dental routine had become irrevocably complicated. Melina’s just happy she wasn’t forced to return it herself to her fake boyfriend. She’s pretty sure the separation signifies their breakup.
She sits at the top of the stairs after breakfast, biting the inside of her mouth as her mother slips on heels.
“You ready to get going?” She asks, dropping her purse next to her daughter so she can march to the closet and at the end of the hall where her blazers are ordered.
Mom’s purse starts to shake as her phone goes off inside and she runs back to wrangle it out, hard, French-manicured nails tapping at the screen.
“Hello? Betty? Oh hi….yes. Yes…That’s fabulous news, ha ha ha! I’ll be there for the review in 15. Yes…yes, see you then.”
She hangs up and cheers for herself, pulling down her arm and clenched fist like a train conductor.
She bangs on Peyton’s door.
“Peyton, you’re driving your sister to make her apologies! Saddle up!”
She returns after five minutes, beginning to fume, and bangs on the door again.
“Damn it, Peyton! Get out here. You can’t stay holed up in there masturbating to The Smiths or whatever all day!”
Grumbling, Peyton emerges from her den and holds out her hands for the car keys.
The drive to the first house is silent except for The Beastie Boys bleating through the car speakers. Melina clutches her Angry Birds backpack in her lap, feeling dread clump up in her chest like lemon and milk. However,
turning over the retainers isn’t as horrible as she expected it to be. Most of the parents are just confused and Peyton’s quiet moral support keeps her from backing away. Her heart hurts a little more when she returns Priyanka’s retainer and watches in horror as the girl’s usually polite father grimaces and plunks the purple marvel into the trash right in front of her.
“You need to get your sister help before she grows up,” he says to Peyton. “She’s not normal.” He shuts the door on them.
Melina tightens up her mouth and hunches her shoulders.
“Hey! Don’t you talk about my sister like that!” Peyton says, banging on the door. “She was apologizing, asshole!”
She huffs and grabs Melina’s hand.
“Forget that dude.”
Peyton’s words don’t hold back the waves of shame that engulf Melina.
Back in the car, Melina stares out the window and licks the salty tears she can reach from her face.
“I think Mom and Dad are trying to fix me.”
Peyton rubs her nose.
“Mom definitely. Who even knows about Dad.”
“What should I do?” Melina asks.
“Do you want to be…fixed?”
Peyton tilts her head and peers down sideways at Melina.
“Thought about playing an instrument?”
Melina shakes her head.
“No, like…um…an instrument you’d put in your mouth. You know.”
Melina feels her face flushing in embarrassment.
“No. I haven’t.”
“I’ll go get you a harmonica tomorrow. How’s that sound?”
Melina scrunches up her nose.
“What’s wrong with a harmonica?” Peyton asks.
“I don’t wanna feel like an old, poor man.”
“Oh…huh. Well, that’s…that’s certainly some classist baggage right there…What about a flute?”
“Well, jeeze. I don’t—”
“I want…a trombone.”
“Do you even know what a trombone is?”
“That’s what I want.”
“That’ll cost you a few hundred bucks.”
Melina gets quiet and tries to blink away the burning tears budding up in her eyeballs again.
“Fuck. Fine—fine! I’ll see what I can do. I don’t…I don’t want them to fix you either,” she adds softly.
“It’s not a trombone, but I thought this would be almost as good,” Peyton says three days later.
She hands over the gleaming golden instrument.
“Got it at the pawn shop. Had to trade all my frigging Smiths EPs and give the creeper the rest of my savings, but whatever. It’s worth it for you.”
“What is it?” Melina asks, pushing at the random buttons and staring at her house of mirrors reflection on the instrument.
“C’mon, Melina. It’s a saxophone. Alto.”
Melina looks up at her sister and smiles.
Peyton quirks her eyebrow.
“Have fun. Your mouth goes there,” she says, pointing at the top.
Melina waits until Peyton is gone before lifting the saxophone to her lips. The mouthpiece is cold at first, but it fits better than her thumb, better than any toy or jawbreaker, or even stupid Wyatt’s Christmas retainer. She fills her lungs and blows a fuzzy, perfect note that vibrates through her body, making the room oscillate and the skin on the back of her neck shiver like it’s January. This is New Years Eve. Confetti, fireworks, crowded streets—the whole shebang. This is it.
Mom and Dad are over the moon to send her to band camp for the rest of the summer. Well, Mom is. Dad just smiles gently like he always knew she would figure things out on her own, because he himself could have been Great.
In the car, Peyton hides some weird-smelling cigarettes in her pocket because Melina tried to pick one up.
“You better learn to play some good songs at nerd camp,” Peyton says after stuffing the cigarettes into her pocket.
“Duh, I will.”
“Seriously, I don’t wanna see you again until you can play Brass Monkey.”
On the first day of camp, she sits on a bench next to a boy with dark curls of hair. His name is Michael. He’s chewing blue gum and she smiles at him hoping he can see her dimples—everyone always tells her how cute they are. Michael takes out his gum and sticks in under the bench before turning to the boys behind him to roughhouse. Melina stares at the little lump of gum and bites her lip.