“So, you’re a prodigy?” asked Marilyn.
“What’s that?” asked Lori.
Marilyn shrugged as she lazily pushed herself forward and backward on the swing set. Lori sat next to her on the tire-swing that hung crooked where one of its chains had been broken by the older boys during their recess time. She still managed to push herself in small circles that were starting to upset her stomach.
“It’s like a genius,” said Marilyn. “But not just with math stuff. With like, art, and music stuff, too. Gifted. You know?”
Lori tilted her head back and forth as she considered. She remembered hearing the word “genius” when she was very young, stacking the blocks in a way that just made sense to her, finding stories in the letters that her parents read too slowly. She remembered some psychologist who had used the word “gifted” when her worried parents began to suspect something was wrong. By the time she had begun to sing, and dance, and paint, they stopped using the word genius, and they stopped taking her to the psychiatrist. They never used the word “prodigy.”
“I guess,” said Lori. “I’ve just got a knack for things.”
That was what her mother told her to say, if she slipped up. When she forgot to make mistakes during art class, her mother told the teacher she traced the picture from their coffee table art book. When she sang with abandon at a karaoke birthday party, her father answered calls from concerned parents the next day and claimed the mic was accidentally autotuned. She was supposed to play dumb.
“That’s really cool,” said Marilyn.
Dumb was not cool. The way she composed a rhythm with her tapping pencil during class was cool, making Marilyn’s head nod in the same beat.
Everyone noticed how cool Marilyn was, with the pierced ears she had since she was a baby, and the black eyeliner her mom let her wear, and the rings she shoplifted from the supermarket. But only Marilyn noticed that Lori was cool. No one was supposed to notice her. Lori’s parents lectured her about how dangerous it would be if someone noticed her. But being noticed felt so good.
“I can do it again,” said Lori.
Marilyn stopped swinging and waited with a smile.
Lori’s fingers hovered over the hot rubber of the tire swing. She knew she could do it again because she had done it before. When she was very little, when her parents still threw around the word “genius.” She had tapped her markers against a blank sheet of paper and saw that the cat was nodding its head with the same beat. She kept tapping, and the cat kept nodding. She tapped for hours, and then she stopped, but the cat kept nodding. And nodding. And nodding. But she was little more than a baby then. And it was just nodding.
It was not like the mistake she made when she painted her watercolors off the page, or when she sang every morning until none of the birds outside sang anymore, or when she drew circles with her feet in the sand until all the ants were swirling in circles before turning on their backs with their little legs twitching in the air. But the memory of those little ant legs that twitched so pathetically before they did not move at all stopped her fingers before they started. Her knuckles thrummed painfully, wanting release, but Lori clutched her fists.
“Maybe later,” she said.
Marilyn looked disappointed, but she could not have been more disappointed than Lori felt. She wanted to sing without sucking in the world’s music. She wanted to paint without staining her entire home, including her parents, blue. She wanted to make a rhythm that people could dance to and then stop whenever they wanted. But she could not.
The bell signaling the end of recess rang and Marilyn hopped off her swing, running towards the door.
It did not feel like a gift.
She remembered her parents using the word “curse.”
Lori continued to push herself in gentle circles on the tire-swing, only stopping when she noticed the other children who sprinted for the line were starting to swerve as they ran, turning gentle circles of their own before falling dizzy into the grass. They did not notice that they made circles when she made circles, or that they stopped when she stopped. They did not even look at her when she got up and joined the line at the door. Lori could have made them notice. Instead, she smiled at Marilyn when she rested her arm on her shoulder.
“She’s so cool,” whispered one of the other students.
If Lori closed her eyes, she could pretend they were talking about her.