You used to call it Mañonalds. At six, you inched through plastic PlayPlace tunnels in your puffy floral dresses, curly pigtails tight against your head. At the very top of the tube slide, you said it was yours, all yours, before descending with a soft swish of your dress. It was 2001, maybe 2002, or one of the other blurry years in Memphis, Tennessee when playdates were rare but you could claim a PlayPlace in seconds. You shrieked whenever another child encroached on your kingdom, or when someone (usually your mother) tried to coax or pull you out for mealtime: Cocó come down, Cocó be careful. That has always been your Argentine family’s nickname for you. Their Sunday asados and red tile patios burn brighter in your memory than any holiday you spent in Tennessee. During the years you lived in Argentina, your real name became a cluster of syllables you spit out with trepidation, so some people called you Cocó or Coco instead. Coco like Coco Chanel, Coco like coconut. And you let them, even though it was supposed to be for family only. Sometimes, you went by Court, a name you want to bring back, resurrect from high school without resurrecting your high school self. Nora, your first friend there, gave you the nickname. Nora who loved Paramore and hated Selena Gomez, knew and loved Snow Patrol just like you. Nora wore a satin fuchsia dress with combat boots to quinceañeras, talked to you before any of your classmates realized you existed. Riding back from gym class one afternoon, field hockey sticks clattering against the bus windows, Nora turned to face you with her light green eyes wide and asked, “Can I call you Court?” And you said yes. It made perfect sense, so much that you almost wondered why no one had called you that before. From then on, it seemed everyone took to calling you Court, even those who didn’t know Nora at all. Schoolmates, theater companions, even a few family members. As if the establishment of your new nickname had spread through osmosis. The first time you went to McDonald’s with Nora, during your first week as the new kid, you asked her how much a Happy Meal cost. Your mom hadn’t given you enough money for a regular combo, and you thought maybe the Happy Meal would be cheaper. “You’re not actually going to get the Happy Meal, are you?” Nora asked, arching one thin eyebrow at you, voice tinged with something like disapproval. “No,” you blurted, without explaining your logic. You got a double bacon cheeseburger with small fries instead. Afterward, when your classmates wanted to go to the Arnaldo across the street, and you didn’t have enough money for dessert, Nora bought you strawberry ice cream. I wanted you to join us, she’d said. I didn’t want you to leave just because you didn’t have the money for ice cream. You loved her for that. You even pasted the ice cream receipt into your planner, the same one Nora decorated in gel pen because she thought the plain cover looked sad. Before Cristina Kirchner’s reelection, before the Argentine peso plummeted again, you could get a full meal at McDonald’s for twenty pesos, then the equivalent of five US dollars. Even then, your mother chastised her for spending so much on the meal, for getting the double bacon cheeseburger instead of a regular cheeseburger. On the days when you couldn’t bring yourself to ask your mom for money, you brought your own lunch instead, staring in shame at the lukewarm hot dog you’d microwaved at the school moments earlier, the sauceless, sticky spaghetti morphed into the same shape of the Tupperware. You wondered if the McDonald’s employees could kick you out for bringing your own lunch. They never did. Back in Memphis, when you were still young enough to excusably get a Happy Meal, you loved collecting all the McDonald’s toys alongside your little brother Caleb. During the summer of 2003, the McDonald’s on South Houston Levee in Collierville, Tennessee gave away Neopets: a green Wocky with a fluffy pink mane (a cat nothing like your real orange tabby), a big-footed red JubJub resembling a tiny flame, a royal blue Mynci with a gold star pattern. By some agreement neither of you remembers, you gave all the star and cloud-patterned Neopets you got to Caleb, even though you wanted them. It was your agreement. Caleb got what he wanted. He got the final say on what you watched together on TV and what video games you played together on a given day, though he would always trust you to make the right moves in a Pokémon battle, win the Battle Royales in Mario Party, defeat every watery, reptilian version of Chaos in Sonic Adventure DX: Director’s Cut. You took some pride in these things, in beating bosses like the Egg Viper on a cloudy Friday afternoon, as you waited out a tornado warning that got you out of school early. Living in Memphis, you were no stranger to tornadoes. One night, during one of the summers you spent hundreds of hours on that GameCube, a tornado circled your neighborhood, turning the skies an inky green. As you, Caleb and your mom hid inside the master bedroom closet, Caleb cried for Lupe, his pale blue Neopet wolf. The TV hissed with static from the bedroom as the wind howled outside. Dad was on a work trip, one of many in those years. As Mom darted upstairs to fetch Lupe, you pictured glass sprayed across the carpeted playroom, scattered between the Neopets, Polly Pockets and dozens of incomplete Lego sets. You were afraid the tornado would sweep Mom away, reaching through the newly broken window, fanglike shards rimming the edges, to thrust her into the night. But Mom came back. She always did. Mom used to work late on Friday nights at her new law office, while you and Caleb stayed up watching Friday night cartoons: Spongebob, Avatar the Last Airbender, Jimmy Neutron, Teen Titans, or whatever you could find, even if it was a repeat. Your family had their routines: McDonald’s every Thursday, cartoons for you and Caleb every night but extra late on Fridays. On the weekend nights both your parents were home, all 3 televisions went on: the living room TV for the kids, Grey’s Anatomy on the master bedroom TV for Mom, a baseball or basketball game for Dad on the TV in the upstairs playroom. On the 3-television nights especially, you and Caleb made sure to agree on what you were going to watch. It was important to agree back then, until it wasn’t. Until you moved to the house on Brayshore Drive, near the reservoir, where geese snuck into the backyard like slim-necked rebels. Until the night Mom and Dad yelled at each other across the kitchen island while steaming McDonald’s to-go bags sat on the glass table. You and Caleb hid under the table, eyes darting from your parents to the music video of “SOS” by the Jonas Brothers playing on TV. You still can’t listen to “SOS” without thinking of that night. You first heard about the Jonas Brothers in 2006, when girls at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic School in Memphis walked to the chapel parking lot chanting “Year 3000”, putting one stockinged leg in front of the other. You don’t remember the girl’s names, don’t think you ever knew them. They were older by a year or two and, in the social fabric of St. Francis, therefore impossible to know. The first time you saw eighth-grade girls, when you were in fifth grade, you thought it incredible, almost impossible, to become them. You were so stuck in sameness that the idea of an international move, or something of the same magnitude, was the only thing that could pull you from it. But you couldn’t even imagine a thing like that. Not yet. Sometimes, you walked across the St. Francis blacktop wondering if there would ever be a different day. Not just a new day, a tomorrow or day after, but a day when something would pluck you from this daily, near-friendless routine and put you somewhere else. You used to dream about running away. Once, you even made calculations of how long you could last on what little money of your own you had. How much is a gallon of milk? You asked your grandmother, not speaking of the roads calling to you beyond your brick house, its backyard littered with spiky sweet gum seeds you collected for pennies from your father. You dreamed about it even after the summer day your mom said, “We’re running away,” taking you and Caleb to the lake house near the Mississippi border, so your father came home to an empty house. *** At your Argentinean high school, your favorite Jonas Brother – or how much you liked the Jonas Brothers – could cast you out of one social circle as much as draw you into another one. You wouldn’t admit to Nora how much you once listened to the Jonas Brothers. Joe Jonas had gotten Nora in serious trouble. Or really, it was Nora’s old friend, who scrawled I love you Joe Jonas, I want to lose my virginity to you in Nora’s planner. When Nora’s father found the words, his red face turned even brighter than its normal shade. Though you’d never seen him angry, you knew from the glint in his eyes, the way he craned his neck, that he could burst with it at any moment, perhaps without warning. It seemed that Nora could be that way, too, her eyes narrowing with irritation at an ill-timed, cheesy joke or an offhand comment. You wish you could remember the color of his eyes. Were they the same shade as Nora’s? Did his face resemble his daughter’s at all? Even though Nora wasn’t around your senior year, she didn’t betray you. You moved to the States and didn’t tell me! she wrote on your Facebook wall days before your departure. You hadn’t realized until then that you forgot to tell Nora, though you’d been talking about studying creative writing back in the States for years. Nora never told you not to be a writer. Unlike one classmate, she didn’t tell you that you would starve. Once, the other girls said you ate too little for lunch. The truth was, you were afraid to ask for more food. To ask for more. Eventually, you asked, ate, grew out of your favorite blue jeans, listened to the girls at school talk about your pudgy belly, your flat chest. The same girls barricaded the classroom door at lunch time, while you pushed and pushed. Behind the door, they laughed. Even after all the times they did this, you still wanted to sit with them. You just didn’t want to be seen alone, wanted to stop the sinking, gnawing feelings in your chest that arose whenever you were. A different kind of starving. *** Seven years after high school graduation, Nora requested to follow you on Instagram. You have kept your Instagram profile private precisely because of the kids from high school. Though you don’t add them on Instagram, you don’t want them to catch even a glimpse of your life, or what they think is your life, on social media. You unfriended almost everyone from your graduating class on Facebook: the anemone-haired boy who stole your pencil case, cell phone and Environmental Science notes, who tackled her in the hallway without warning, without outcry; the twins with their bleached locks, platform sandals and boutique jeans. But not Nora. Nora’s profile was full of modeling shoots, burger lunches with an old classmate, an elusive selfie with a dark-haired boy. You looked at Nora’s bright green eyes, bleached by a profile picture filter that made her hologram-like, almost ghostly. Once, when you lingered too closely, Nora called you a fantasma. A ghost. Silent and quiet, with greasy, white skin. Nora even lent you a book called Ghost Girl, saying you would like it, which you never finished but pretended that you did. You ghosted me, you tell Nora’s picture, Nora’s username, the Nora-shaped hologram living in your thoughts. After Nora changed schools, after your classmates started avoiding you at breaks, you hid in the janitor’s closet and bathroom near the tiny, cramped kitchen on the first floor. When one of the primary school teachers or janitorial staff passed through in their blue aprons and starched shirts, you slipped into the shadows of the empty bathroom, or behind the wooden door. You still counted the minutes until recreo was over, watching the minutes click by on the digital clock nearby. If one person caught you here, it was game over. Then where would you go? If you’d been another girl, it probably wouldn’t have mattered. They would’ve waved you off, told you to go find your friends, or turned away entirely. But you weren’t the kind of girl who got let off easy. You never earned that kind of social capital. You had a defiant middle part in your dishwater-blonde hair. You wore your skirt knee-length, wore too many coats and a red scarf that always came loose. You were soft at the middle, with tiny, shapeless breasts that still only necessitated children’s sports bras. You didn’t speak like an Argentine girl, and you still don’t. In ninth grade, you thought you could earn that social capital. You thought you could climb the ladder by helping people with classwork, accumulating granted favors like coins in your pink studded change purse. Another story you told herself as a high schooler, another spool of words keeping you tethered to its humid classrooms, the stained tile floors, the slippery bathrooms always short of paper towels. You granted every favor you could – bus money, help with the Pythagorean theorem and polynomials, Sweet Tarts brought back from the States, tips for English Lit essays – but it was never enough. You never told Nora about the lies. When you were a junior, you watched every one of your classmates cheat on a Historia final, then told your mom, who told the directoras. You knew people cheated, but watching them all succeed at a test you knew you were going to fail made something inside you cave. They quickly figured out who did it; you have never had a good poker face, have never been a faker, no matter how many years you’ve been a theater kid. No matter how many chances you’ve had to cover up the wrong moves you’ve made. Then, fall of senior year, your classmates asked you to ask one of the directoras if they could hang drawings on the classroom walls, characters from TV shows you loved as kids, like Phineas and Ferb and Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends. She said yes, the light casting a white film on her round glasses. After she denied permission weeks later, denied ever giving it in the first place, you told them all you’d never asked. It was better to be misbelieved for an actual lie than for the truth, you thought. You knew that no matter what you said, they wouldn’t believe you. That’s what you told yourself, and sometimes still do. *** One night, the summer before your senior year, after the class started planning a senior trip to Porto Seguro, Brazil, Nora called you. In a voice teetering on the edge of a screech – a voice reminiscent, perhaps, of her father’s – she told you not to go on the trip. While hanging out with a few of your classmates, the anemone-haired boy said he was going to do things to you there. You both knew what kinds of things. No one else in the class warned you or said anything about that night. You keep telling yourself you remember picking up the grey, brick-like landline from your mahogany writing desk, cradling it as Nora warned you. And most days, you think you remember, the darkened garden with its always-cold pool outside your bay windows coming into view as you speak. But somehow you don’t drop out of the senior trip until the fall, after the incident with the drawings. You tell yourself that Nora tried to protect you. That she always meant it when she tried, even if she later disappeared. *** The last time you saw Nora, the two of you shared secrets at the tiny Belgrano apartment where her family still lived: Nora, her three siblings and their parents. She told you about changing her diet and skin care routine, about studying medicine, about sitting with her boyfriend’s sick mother at the hospital for fourteen hours a day, riding the bus back to Belgrano in pitch darkness. You told her about your long-distance relationship with the dark-haired English teacher, the one who kissed you under milky stars in the Swiss countryside, who shamed you for not going to church more, who said that tying your hair back made you look like a princess. Even now, you remember your damp hair splayed Medusa-like against the white pillowcase, the thrumming pain when he touched you, the way you shivered the whole time. Nora asked if you lost your virginity to him. You told her the truth. That night, Nora’s father drove you in his old burgundy Renault back to your grandmother’s house in Olivos, where you’d been staying during that first trip back to Argentina. Your mother emerged to greet the three of you, standing near the scraggly orange tree. Nora looked so pretty, she said later. She looks like her father. You still keep the notes Nora wrote you on graph paper eleven years ago. The Jonas Brothers are married and still making music. You have started talking about the girl who loved Mañonalds. You don’t dream about running away anymore.
-- Courtney Justus is a fiction candidate in the MFA in Creative Writing program at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Her adolescence spent in Buenos Aires, Argentina frequently informs her work across genres. She was a three-time finalist for the James Hurst Prize for Fiction and a finalist for the 2020 Reynolds Price Fiction Award. Her work appears in The Lindenwood Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, The Racket Journal and elsewhere. You can visit her at courtneyjustuswriter.wordpress.com.