by Meisha Rosenberg
"Rivka," Miriam said, "be careful. Brian, he’s no good."
Miriam’s heart beat quickly; she felt as if it were expanding at the exciting thought of Rivka being her friend, even though Rivka mutely watched the cars passing by, lost in thought and far away.
Rivka planted her feet so firmly and proudly in front of her—Miriam's mother was always telling her to pick up her heels—that in a way, Miriam couldn't ever imagine her being humiliated. She didn't seem ashamed of her teeth. Rivka had a whole other world—a whole country—that was hers, and no one else’s. Russia!
Miriam knew people drank vodka there, because it was cold. One night during a blizzard, her mother and father both had gotten out a bottle of Russian vodka, saying they’d saved it for a really cold night
"It's colder than Troy in Russia!" her father said. She imagined that everyone in Russia dressed in white fur coats, and probably no one would tease you for being fat, since fat kept you warm.
"Rivka," Miriam said, and was about to tell her all she had learned at school about protecting herself, or wished she wouldn’t forget: brush your teeth, hold onto your lunch bag, ignore Brian because he wants to get your attention, remember to go to the bathroom before school so you won’t be caught at recess, be friends with me, stick with me, don’t trust Sheila Jones, because she’ll pretend she’s your friend and next thing she turns on you....
But Miriam realized that, not only would Rivka not understand, but even if she did, it would be useless, maybe even insulting. Even if Miriam could bring herself to tell Rivka what was in store for her, she knew she wouldn’t be believed. All she could say in the end was, “Rivka, I’ll be your friend.”
"Friend," Rivka repeated blankly, smiling as though it were the most ordinary thing in the world. Friend—a word merely matched with a picture like "bird," or "house," an item of scenery that Miriam was pointing out along the side of the road.
"What is, friend?" Rivka asked. Miriam spoke before thinking, "Someone to play with. No," she reconsidered. A friend, she thought, was someone who you would tell secrets to.
"A friend is your age. You tell your secrets to them, walk with them, protect them from enemies."
She had lost Rivka. But Rivka must know what a friend is—how could she not? Rivka said, “I love friends.” Then she laughed, with a short, odd chirp. Was Rivka terrified, being in another country, not understanding? Or did she laugh because she had had lots of friends in Russia? Maybe she hated Miriam, just wanted to get away from her. Miriam's stomach sickened as she thought: it was possible that Rivka would end up being popular.
Rivka seemed to tunnel away from her, until she became a dot on the horizon. Miriam’s red socks were completely down around her ankles now, and a car horn honked at her. She looked up, and it was Brian, pressing on the horn as his mother drove.
His mother made a feeble, laughing attempt to push him away as they swerved by. Miriam gritted her teeth and resolutely refused to bend over and pull up her socks. She stuck her gut out against the red and white striped shirt, her pride smarting in front of Rivka, who looked so strong. Miriam imagined Rivka could probably give Brian a good bloody nose. Miriam fantasized that Rivka would come to her rescue in school. But Rivka didn’t react to the car's horn.
Miriam thought she saw Rivka almost grinning with naughty glee, but when she looked again it was only blank raptness. When they passed a small, pathetic park with a rusting swing set, Rivka said cheerily, "What’s that?"
"Playground," said Miriam. "Playground," parroted Rivka. The thick syllables seemed to Miriam like caramel, and she was enraptured again with the idea that they could be real friends. She envisioned ice skating, going to the playground, doing secret things in their bedrooms, drawing together.
"Friends, go there?" asked Rivka.
"Yes—no," said Miriam, struggling to explain: a friend was not just a playmate. And the other girls could not be included; she would not include them.
"I like Sheila. She help me with—what you say—table?" Miriam felt her heart break, the envy boil up.
"You mean desk."
"Desk,” Rivka giggled. "Yes, I like Sheila and the others. All Americans, very friendly."
"No Sheila,” said Miriam too emphatically, remembering how Sheila had made her wait, not flushing in the bathroom the other day. Rivka, Sheila—it was all wrong. And she had said the wrong thing, and now Rivka would see she was small. Rivka only looked at her quizzically, as though Miriam were an amusing animal doing a trick.
Rivka suddenly came to a stop in front of a one-story puce building with no front walk. There was a light on inside, and a battered wind chime clanged from the porch. Rivka stood stiffly as she looked at her porch, but Miriam thought the whole scene romantic—such a pretty Russian girl with her sturdy bookbag, returning home from her first day of school in America. She had faith in Rivka, at that moment. She could picture entering that protected, magical porch, becoming confident and bouyant like Rivka.
"Me, here,” said Rivka, her eyes resting on a beer can in the mud of her front yard.
Miriam imagined what Rivka’s house would be like—her parents would be stout and grey like her, and quiet: they probably weren’t even home yet! Rivka had a musical wind chime to lull her to sleep; Miriam had shouting, snickering, snoring brothers. Miriam imagined that the Zladistoyas probably cooked lots of stews, and that you could eat as much as you wanted.
"Are your parents home?" she asked, wishing she could stay at Rivka's house.
"Yes. Parents, da," Rivka answered, with annoyance as though she had already answered that question. Her "da" sounded, to Miriam, like a final clanging "Duh...Duh, Rat-Face."
Then Rivka trilled, "Goodbye," and walked staidly through the gate.
Miriam felt a searing heaviness in her chest as she thought of how, at school on Monday, Rivka would see how Brian was always at her. The others would surround Miriam again with the buzzing of hornets. Rivka might become one of them.
"Goodbye," said Miriam, seeing dim emptiness inside the house and knowing, with a weight that descended upon her heart, that when she saw Rivka the next day at school, it would be as though they had never met.
Meisha Rosenberg is a writer living in Troy, New York. She earned her MFA at New York University. The two earlier portions of this short story, "Two Girls by the Side of the Road," appeared on July 11th and on September 14th, 2006, in MyStoryLives.