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He Is Fifteen
short fiction

he is fifteen,short fiction, jen frankel, jenstuff

When 'After Hours' magazine first published this piece of short fiction 'He Is Fifteen' in 1991, I had a couple of long conversations with the editor. One was about what time the sun rose and set in summer in Canada, to ensure that the story adhered to the mandate of the publication. Another was to chose a title for the piece, something I'd struggled with. We both liked 'Apt Pupil' until we realized why - the fantastic Stephen King short story cum film that already had that name. He ended up suggesting 'He Is Fifteen,' and I've never regretted the choice.

I wander the streets in the heat of the summer night, feeling the good pavement beneath my feet. The thought most in my head is that I can't possibly be twenty-eight, I have the mind still of a sixteen year old on my first legs of adventure.

But twenty-eight I am, and the next day will begin at seven a.m. as usual. The alarm clock is my harsh master, ruling my nights to a razor fineness. I believe in the safety zone, in homeostasis, but still I over-stay my welcome in the warm night. It is just too beautiful to go home quickly.

Back in my apartment, I write another letter as I wait in my bed for sleep. I am too awake yet. My eyes refuse to close, so I take my sojourn in prose. I write to an ex-lover I have not seen in months. We continue to be friends, I guess. The ways of the flesh are strange, it has been said, it has been said.

School passes quickly the next day. I return home at the end of it, mark papers, and sit catatonic for a period of time in my bathtub to wash away the day. The job has rewards, there is no doubt about that, but I am on a separate plane when I go home. Here, the intangibles of shaping young minds, if I ever really accomplish that, are worthless, so I take to the streets once more.

It was on a milky white night like this that I saw him first, I think, the boy with his raven hair and toughness around him like a cloak. I was on the arm of a man I hardly knew, talking and laughing over the coffee we held between us. He, the boy, on stoop of a deserted shop, looked up as we passed, and I think he recognized something in my face. He smiled, and god, it was a beautiful smile.

Shy, like a deer poised for flight he was. I smiled back, a tiny smile barely curling the corners of my mouth. We recognized something in each other, maybe. All I know is that for one instant, he belonged to me and I to him.

I was distracted for the rest of the night. My date noticed, and remarked, and I told him about the boy. I felt no loss sharing him, but there was also nothing to be gained. The man I was with left me for the past of all my failed relationships, but I kept the boy for my own.

I see the boy now, sitting on a window ledge at the level of my head. I don't see him really until I am passing, and he looks and gives me the same smile. I think, he likes me. He likes me, and he smiles at me, not at anyone else, at me.

I pass regretfully, ruefully. I am twenty-eight.

I walk a long time this night before returning to my apartment and the tyranny of my clock. I write a full description to my ex-lover, my long-lost friend, of this pretty boy who smiles like an angel when I know he is nothing if not human.

His age I put at nothing more that fifteen. He has that peculiar perfection that goes with that age, thin but in true harmony with his size. His lips are curved like a girl's, and his lashes are dark. But it is his hair I noticed first, so his hair I mention last. A dark mop of loose curls, very like a dust mop, like a dark cherub's, and all, it seems, on the very top of his head. He looks like a chimney sweep, my pretty boy.

I write this to my old friend, and ask again when he will come to see me. It is lonely in this town.

Mornings are seldom poetic as the night, I write to my confessor the next evening, so when one contains a degree of passion or drama, it is worth remarking. This morning, I left on foot from my apartment at the usual eight o'clock in the half-light of the early summer morning. My pretty boy sat out on my front doorstep with a girl I'd seen before in his company. They were begging change, old friend, I cried out with my pen, and I smiled at the girl as I reached into my pocket, and I smiled at the boy as I passed a handful of coins into his palm, and he smiled back as my fingers grazed his and lingered maybe just one instant too long. It is too easy to believe myself a dirty old woman. I am twenty-eight.

I can imagine your face, my old friend, twisted into one of your ironic smiles, telling me that fifteen isn't really all that young, telling me that it would be a good experience for him, of course. What young man wouldn't profit by learning from an older woman?

I can see your face too well, always, I think and close the letter, unfinished. You see through me sometimes, I think, but you don't write back often enough. I hate wanting you.

The boy goes to my school. I have made quite a point of not finding out about him through my various resources. He is a pretty boy, nothing else. If I am to pursue him in any fashion, I will do it on my own time, not the school's. My life in the warmth of the night will stay forever separate from my life in the day at school.

I walk the street in the warmth of the early summer night. I feel a kind of pain, knowing that the end of school is only a week away. The school shapes the face of my days. I complain about the tyranny of my alarm clock, but it orders my time and keeps me in control. I am a little afraid, I think, of freedom.

The lazy summer is approaching, and I have made no plans, beyond a vague desire to see my penpal, my former lover.

I see the boy ahead suddenly, with two others I recognize as his friends. One is a boy, the shorter is a girl, and I know only because they are holding hands. Their sexlessness intrigues me.

I know he has seen me, and he forces the little group to cross the street to the side I am walking on. I know he has done it on purpose, because I am there, because he looks back every now and then to make sure I am still following. In a while, they cross back and turn down another street. I continue straight, wondering what would happen if I followed. I feel suddenly that by the time I decide to actually approach him, he will be too old to care.

I have a dream that I will never write to him about. It is about him, and that is reason enough. I tell him too much as it is, thinking that he is an extension somehow of myself. I have spent too much time imagining myself in love with him, and him out of love with me.

In the dream, it is our last few days together, and we are making love. And somehow, he is both with me in the bed, and sitting on the corner of it, watching. He tells me, the self sitting on the side of the bed, that I am important to him, and that he has never had such a good friend. Then I reach out to stroke the back of his neck and he is gone, a rumpled place in the sheets being the only proof of his absence.

The boy has cut his hair, and looks as beautiful now as ever. Despite the heat, he wears black jeans, and I think now that I have never seen him without them. They make his legs look fantastically long. His shirt tonight was sleeveless. I imagined, just for a moment, the way his arms would feel. I feel funny that he is taller than me. I am, after all, twenty-eight. He is fifteen.

He is sitting outside my apartment as I return to it, in black jeans and sleeveless shirt. Others are with him today, black ravens with jet hair and sleepy gazes. I take my keys out as I pass him, daring just a little more each day. He smiles, not really as shy anymore. Maybe I'm just used to his manner now.

I bathe, my hair spread around my shoulders. I think of writing another letter, but my head is tired. I think I am too romantic for my own good.

I think, not write, about the boy, and wonder if I have passed the point where I can share him with anyone. It's a point I pass often with fascinations, where I want so much for the gentle game to continue that I am fanatical in doing nothing to upset the status quo. I am comfortable, in my little obsession, in my little game. I am comfortable in the fear I feel when I think, he knows where I live.

I think I want you more than ever, but I refuse myself the escape of writing you another letter, just as I refuse myself an escape into drink or drugs. Sobriety is more painful, and in entering danger, you must keep your wits about you.

It is nearing dawn when I wake. The window is open as usual, and I am aware of a gnawing in my stomach. There is someone in the apartment, I know. I pull my robe over my tee-shirt, and go into the living room.

The boy is sitting on the fire escape, just outside my window, white in his dark hair from the streetlights that are on a level with my apartment. He doesn't smile. The look in his eyes is sad, and fearful.

I walk toward him very slowly, and for some reason I can't hear the sound of my footsteps on the wood floor. He slides from the window ledge with fifteen year old - with ageless - grace, and shakes his head. I find I am looking down at the floor, and I hardly notice when his arms circle me. His fingers lock in the back of my hair.

Through the window stream his friends, the girls among them. I still can hear nothing. His lips close gently on my cheek as I feel the first blows, and I am bleeding, without ever another letter to you, my old friend. The boy's arms are around me, trying to hold me from the blows? or holding me at their mercy? I have traded my life for a dance with a pretty child, and he has killed me.

There is still no sound, and I feel the smoothness of his arms, and curse all fifteen year olds. I am twenty-eight, and no perfection lives in me. I was life a moment ago, and for all their perfection, they are destruction. Beauty slays the soul and body of the romantic. I am twenty-eight.

I can lie bleeding on the floor for hours as they ransack my apartment. I can live for another few minutes. And strangely, I feel no longing for you, and no regret. I see now there was never enough time in the whole world to find you again. I let you go, I let the boy go. And in time, I can let myself go, and slip into the warm summer night, into the lazy summer night.

The End


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