Devil’s Lake

Fall 2016 Issue

Leonora Desar: Girls in Chalk

It was the summer bodies fell from the sky. Everywhere you looked there were dead girls. They smiled in yearbook photos; they looked like they would never dream of jumping. But they did. They jumped from roofs and balconies onto newspaper headlines and outlines made with chalk, as if leaping into the arms of men.

This was in the Bronx back in the 80s, when I lived under the El train with Ma. Back then the walls of our apartment shook with Madonna, Bananarama, The Bangles. Ma was always trying to teach me to dance to The Bangles, pouting her lips like the smoky lead singer. “You look like you’re a high school principal,” she said when I tried to shake my hips. “Do it this way.” She threw back her head of wild black hair and laughed, guiding me with her hands so I’d mirror her.

But sometimes she’d call out sick from her receptionist job for days. She looked like the dead girls in the mirror, then—her face in three-quarter profile, never showing the diamond-shaped mole on her cheek. I asked my mother why she kept that mole a secret, if it was a magic mole, if it could do bad things. She looked at me and didn’t laugh. I knew then that my mother had another side to her.

I wanted to be her. I drew a diamond-shaped mole on my thigh, watched it pulse as I teased my hair up just like hers, so that it coiled around my neck like black water in a fountain. I felt like black water in a fountain. I was 12 then, all flat chest and skinny legs. My body didn’t feel like what was inside of me.

It scared me though, too, the way I felt like Ma inside. I’d scrub off her black mark with a washcloth. I wasn’t ready to become her.

Ma always watched the dead girls on the news. She sat on the edge of the couch chain-smoking in her dirty white negligee, feeling the way the girls sounded in her mouth—Maritza, Palmira, Suzette. She knew all their names. She had her favorites.

When the white girl jumped, my mother took me to her shrine. Ma kept a windowless house on the days she called out sick from work. Yellow shades blocked out the day; no plant could survive with her. But here she was, kneeling with orchids against the asphalt.

In her photo, the dead girl watched with dark green eyes. She didn’t look sad, or hurt, or angry. She was pale but reminded me of Ma—like she had just come from her bedroom in a tight negligee, smoke leaking from her lips, a man waiting for her in bed. Ma traced the girl’s cheek behind her frame, as if willing herself inside.

That summer, three men were always waiting. They sat in our yellow-lit living room—the old one, the mean one, and the one Ma nicknamed Jesus. They were nothing like the sad, quiet father who left when I was three. The old one was at least 60 but had lots of energy—he liked to grab Ma and throw her over his lap, so that I could see her red satin panties, the coarse black hairs beneath. The one called Jesus was beautiful like Christ, but with dark moles that double-dutched along his cheeks. He kissed my mother on her neck, and passed her his long, blue syringe.

“Don’t be scared, Jazzy,” Ma would say to me. “It’s not like when you go to the doctor, and he sticks you.” But it did scare me. The way Ma’s arms and legs began to turn to water, her whole body loose like water as the men bounced my mother up and down, up and down, her breasts tumbling loose like the old stuffing in our couch.

The diamond-shaped mole pulsed against Ma’s cheek. Her hard, sharp curves reminded me of Jesus, who had begun watching me from the couch. But Ma didn’t see. She could only see the dead girls—Maritza, Palmira, Suzette. Ma said their names in my ear, so that they sounded like a kiss.

I hated the dead girls. My mother saw them. She didn’t see me. But something about them excited me, too. I imagined being a dead girl with dark green eyes. I imagined being free.

Sometimes, I would try to bring her back. My mother with her skin black from the sun, her wild hair a fountain. I would go into her bedroom with the shades drawn tight and listen to The Bangles, watching my reflection put on red satin panties, the negligee with the stains I’d hide beneath my armpits. I’d walk back and forth, feeling the mole I drew with marker pulsing on my thigh.

I opened the bedroom door. Jesus sat there on the couch. He was the one my mother wanted when she was loose like water, when she traced his body with her tongue like water, not feeling the whiteheads and pimples covering him like a shawl.

I wondered if the dead girls realized when it was too late to stop. If they ever wanted to turn back. If I would turn back as I walked over to Jesus, my black hair a fountain over Ma’s negligee. But I already knew. I would guide his fingers to my negligee, then inside. His lips would leave half-moon bruises. His hipbones would be white as chalk.

Author Leonora Desar LEONORA DESAR’s writing can be found in Harpur Palate, SmokeLong Quarterly, The Citron Review, Prick of the Spindle, Psychology Today,, and in Bartleby Snopes as a Story of the Month. She received an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction Award, and was a finalist for SmokeLong Quarterly’s 2016 Kathy Fish Fellowship. Leonora lives and writes in NYC, and holds an MS from the Columbia Journalism School. She is a reader for the Bellevue Literary Review. More from this issue >