Thursday, January 28, 2010

"Two Separate Pieces " by Frances O'Brien

The Literary Lab proudly presents the winner of the Genre Wars contest and the Young Adult category:

Two Separate Pieces
by Frances O'Brien

"D'you know how to French?" Cliff asked me.

He was sixteen, two years older than I, and we'd met the previous day. His mom worked with my older brother, Rob.

"French?" I asked.

"Yeah, kiss." His gum made a wet, rubbery sound as he chewed.

"I know how to kiss," I offered.

"But do you know how to French kiss?"

We were sitting in the bleachers of an empty school football field at night. The white lights gave his tanned skin a greenish tint.

"Do French people kiss differently than we do?"

"Yeah," he laughed. "Theirs is a lot more fun."

"Oh." I didn't want to look stupid. Most of the kids I knew had dated or made out or at least knew how. I'd never so much as held a boy's hand.

"Wanna try?" he asked.

I looked out over the field. If I French kissed him would that make me like everyone else?

"Don't worry, there's no one else here," he told me.

"I'm not worried."

"We can move down there if you want, so we're not in the spotlight." He pointed into the gap between the step we sat on and the one at our backs. I could see the striped shadows of the steps on the grass below us. Our bodies made two round, lazy-looking lumps amidst all that slender, symmetrical neatness.

"No, that's okay." I looked back at him and shook the hair out of my eyes.

"So?" he asked after a few seconds.

"What do I have to do?"

"Let's make it easy," he said. "Just take the gum out of my mouth."

"The gum?"

"Don't make a face. Kiss me and take it out of my mouth with your tongue."

I remembered when I was in first grade, my friend Jillian and I wanted to know what it'd feel like to touch our tongues together. Hers was too warm, too moist and much too soft.

"C'mon, don't be a chicken," Cliff said. "I won't bite."

I shrugged, leaned in slowly and closed my eyes. Our lips touched together and opened. He put the gum in my mouth. His tongue moved in and out slowly a few times. It wasn't nearly as disgusting as I expected it to be. Then he kissed me the regular way, and we moved apart.

"Juicy Fruit," I said.

"Dja like that?"

I shrugged. "It was all right."

"Now this time you give it back to me."

I stuck it out at him on the tip of my tongue. He took it back, and we kissed a little more.

"I think you're getting the hang of it," he said.

We both leaned back on our elbows. The air in Orlando was warmer and more humid than what I was used to back home on Long Island. I loved the way it felt and was glad to be staying at my brother's during summer vacation. A bluish-green bug, about an inch long, landed on the step below us. Cliff nudged it with his foot, and it continued on its way.

"That girl at your house when we picked you up," I said, "isn't she your girlfriend?"

"Yeah," he told me. "Christina." He looked up, smiling, obviously enjoying the thought of her. "We made out one day for three hours. Didn't stop but to pee and eat some crackers."

"She doesn't mind you kissing other girls?"

"She doesn't know. Besides, I'm not cheating on her. I'm just kissing you to show you."

I sat forward and wrapped my arms around my knees.

"That bug you?" Cliff asked.

"No." It was true -- I didn't really feel anything. No excitement from kissing, no jealousy about the girlfriend and no sadness that Cliff wasn't especially attracted to me. This was hardly the way I'd imagined my first kiss would be.

"Rob asked me to show you some things," Cliff said.

My brother Rob was seven years older. He'd already asked me why I didn't have a boyfriend, and I hadn't known how to answer. I wished that he was one of those brothers who's overly-protective of his little sister. I wished he'd told me, instead, that it was all okay. I wished that, somehow, I could feel like I was normal.

"Pop quiz," said Cliff.

When he tried to give me the gum, it fell back into his mouth. We laughed a little, then laughed at the echo of the laugh in our mouths.

This is so bizarre, I thought, so uneventful. Despite that, I felt completely at ease. No one else made me feel that way. What was it about Cliff? Normally, we'd never even have met. He smoked pot, cut school, hitchhiked. His parents never married. He lived with his mom who was hardly ever home. We were opposites, but I felt so comfortable with him.

"Time's up," Cliff said softly. "Hand it over."

While we kissed, I tried to imagine that he was Jimmy, the guy I had a crush on back home. Jimmy and I hung out with a group of friends in the schoolyard around the corner. A few of them told me he liked me, too, but, although he was always nice to me, he never asked me to be his girlfriend. Somehow I knew it was my fault. I didn't know what made me so unapproachable, but something obviously did. Whatever it was, Cliff didn't seem to pick up on it at all.

"Did you peel the gum wrapper apart?" I asked.

Cliff looked puzzled.

"Do you still have it?"

He pulled out a small ball of white and silver. I took it and flattened it out against my leg. "See where the foil is detached from the waxed paper? Slip your thumbnail in between."

Eyebrows furrowed, he did what I said.

"Now peel them apart. If you can do it in two separate pieces, you get a wish."

He shook his head. "Girls," he said and began peeling.

"Careful. The foil is delicate."

His tongue was pressed against his top lip as he slowly pulled.

When he'd gotten them apart, he showed me the white one. "Dang," he said because a single tooth of silver remained on it.

"Guess you'll have to practice," I told him.

"Yeah, right." He crumpled the wrapper and put it back in his pocket. "C'mon, let's head back."

We stepped down to the third row. He hopped off and took my hand although I could easily have jumped it myself.

"Do you think you'll get married?" I asked.

He shrugged. "Maybe. One day."

"I mean you and Christina. Do you think you'll marry her?"

"We're sixteen."

"I know that. But chances are one day you'll be seventeen, and then maybe eighteen. Who knows? You could live to be twenty-two!"

He looked at me. "You're a trip, you know that?"

We walked for a while, and I realized he wasn't going to answer. "So, if you live all the way to twenty-two, do you think you'll marry Christina?"

"If I live that long, I want to have sex with lots of women, maybe lots of them at once, and Chrissy probably wouldn't be into it."

"Ew. That's so gross."

"You asked." The grass made a dry, scrunching sound as we walked. We passed a wastebasket, and Cliff dropped his gum into it. Then he lit a cigarette, and exhaled to the sky.

"What are you thinking about?" I asked.

"Twenty-two." He stuck out the tip of his tongue, trying to remove something. "Thp, thp, thp," he said before using his fingers. He examined his catch. "My dad was twenty-two when he killed himself."

"Oh, my god!" I stopped. "Your dad . . . ?" I couldn't finish. "Cliff, I'm so sorry."

He dragged at his cigarette. He shrugged, exhaling, "It's okay." We started walking again. "Don't get bent out of shape about it. He got drunk and hung himself."

Several questions occurred to me at once, but they all sounded so foolish.

"I was only four," he said. "I don't remember it. My mom was out all day. He was taking care of me. Good job, huh?" Cliff laughed. "Anyway, I survived."

We'd reached the paved road and our sneakers were silent against it. There was no traffic. No breeze.

"Do you remember him?" I asked.

"A little." He flicked his cigarette several times. "I remember he was loud. Angry. He was always yelling about work and money." Cliff spat on the ground. "He used to get high and slap my mom around a lot."

"That's awful. What'd she do?"

"Got bruised a lot."

We passed a small grocery store, closed and dark. The dog lying on the wooden porch raised his head and gave us a quiet bark.

"I know what you're thinking." Cliff threw his cigarette down and stepped on it. "It's better he killed himself."

"No, I'm not. Really." I sounded like I was pleading. "I wouldn't think that."

He put his hands in his pockets. "Maybe it was."

Lights and noise caused us to turn around. An old pickup truck blaring "Ramblin' Man," pulled to a stop next to us. The driver, an older man, turned down the music, put his arm on the back of the passenger seat and asked, "Hey, you kids need a ride?"

"No, thank you," I said, stepping back.

"You?" He indicated Cliff.

"Nah, man."

The driver shook his head, looking disappointed. "Well, you kids be careful now, you hear?" He turned the radio up and drove away, screeching his wheels.

As we walked, I watched the truck until its taillights disappeared over a rise. Everything felt darker and quieter than it had before, like the truck had carried our conversation away with it. I wanted to say something more to Cliff, but bringing up the subject again felt awkward.

When we reached the parking lot of my brother's apartment complex, I placed my hand on Cliff's arm.

"It must be difficult for you."

He inhaled slowly and let it out. "Sometimes I wonder what I'll be like when I'm twenty-two. If I'll want to do the same thing."

We stopped outside the entrance to the building.

"You know that wouldn't solve anything," I said.

He shrugged and looked away.

"It would just make it worse for everyone you left behind."

"Everyone who?"

"Your mom. Christina."

He opened the door for me. "They'd be fine."

"All the women."

"What women?"

"The ones you were going to have sex with at once, remember?"

He laughed and pushed me gently through the open doorway. "What a trip you are."

For the ride back to his house, he sat up front and chatted with my brother. We pulled into his driveway and Cliff got out.

"You moving up front?" he asked me, holding the door open. He stuck his gum out between his teeth and wiggled it. I got out and hugged him.

"Here," I said, handing him a small corner of paper with my address on it. "If you want to keep in touch."

"I'm not real big on writing letters."

I tried to take it back from him, but he closed his hand over it.

"Anyway," I said, "thanks."

"For what?"

"Hanging out. Talking." I leaned in a little closer. "French lessons."

He laughed and pushed my arm gently. "Get in the car."

After I got back home, I checked the mail every morning, convincing myself as I did that I was neither looking for, nor expecting, a letter from Cliff. It was a technique that worked too well: I never received one.

A few weeks later, an envelope arrived addressed to me in a sloppy, childish-looking print with no return address. I opened it and found only a gum wrapper, perfectly detached into two separate pieces: foil and waxed paper. I smiled, then I laughed. I didn't know what he'd wished for, but I hoped it was something good.

An interview with Frances O'Brien:

Tell us about you

I'm a Brooklyn native, living in L.A. for about two decades now and loving it. By day I'm a word processor; in the evenings I attend school part-time. For fun I like to hike, read or watch movies. Oh, and write.

Tell us about your story

It's based on an actual incident that occurred sometime in the late 70s. It was quite enjoyable going back while writing it and spending some time there. Far out, in fact.

Tell us about your future

Winning this contest has gotten me so psyched, I plan to submit more aggressively! Thanks so much for including my story!


  1. I am so impressed with the caliber of writing that's being presented here.

    This story took me back, so far back in time, to a place I thought I'd never return to again. Especially with the gum wrapper. Do kids even do that anymore?

    Absolutely fantastic story! Thanks so much for sharing it with us Frances. Great, great job.

  2. Wow. I really enjoyed this story a lot. Very well done!

  3. Fantastic Story. Normally, I don't 'do' YA, but this story was just perfect - everything that a short story ought to be.
    Thank you for giving us such gems to read.

  4. I've never heard of that gum wrapper thing! And I'm guessing were close to the same age. I would have loved that tric.
    The story was wonderful, so well written; I could see them perfectly. It brought back lots of memories.

  5. This story brought so many things together for me. I loved how well it fits into the genre, how it captures those mixed emotions so well. It's obvious that it does it well as I read over the comments above and see people saying, "Wow, this took me back!"

    So well done, Frances. Thank you for giving us such a winning story!

  6. I get it, I really do. Such distinct voices, easy dialogue flow, hidden depths. Very, very good. And YA too. Well done, Ms. O'Brien.

  7. I love this story because it starts out so normal and harmless, and then there's just that dark undertone that comes out in the middle to make this very moving. The characters are also very nicely rendered.

  8. I love your story, Frances, and you did a great job with the dialogue and the dialogue tags. Perfect, really. I immediately cared about your characters and that isn't an easy thing to do.

  9. Well done Frances. Thanks for the brief reminder of my own childhood.


  10. This is a great story. The characterization is well done, the dialogue superb, and I had no problem visualizing everything going on. Very impressive.

  11. I loved how I felt complete, as though I'd come full circle in this story. It was surprising and touching.
    A big thanks to Frances and the Literary Lab.

  12. Fabulous read! Reminded me of being young and of the SE Hinton's The Outsiders.


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