Diana Xin

Every other Wednesday evening, the Northwest District Small Group of the Mendota Heights Church of the Holy Redeemer held a Bible study at one of the attendees’ homes. Starting at six p.m., they would chat and eat a potluck dinner, sing praise, and then break for dessert before reconvening to study the Word. They found this schedule best for digestion.

Most of the time, Jolie was excused on account of homework or some other clever reason—sore throat, important movie with important friends, emerging allergy to the mold problem at the Hatfield place. But every so often, like tonight, it fell to Jolie’s mother to host, and then there was no way out. She had to greet guests and help clean and smile, displaying to everyone her exemplary behavior.

Leaning against the white pantry doors, she watched the adults flock around the kitchen island where the desserts were laid out. The snaps and falls of their conversation were something like the squawking of birds. “—I just can’t stand the swearing in those movies—” “Can you believe those gas prices? They’re gas-tronomical.” George the Senior’s horse-like laugh boiled up, and Jolie clenched her teeth. George the Junior smirked at her from across the room, wiggling his pinky in his ear.

And then her mother’s voice. “Jolie. Jolie, are you listening? Go get your poem. Show Reverend Stark that poem you wrote for class.”

“Mom.” Jolie rolled her eyes. She would be thirteen in five months. She didn’t need to do a show-and-tell.

“It was the most wonderful poem,” her mother said.

“Jolie is very bright.” The Reverend smiled at her in the way people smiled at little kids who thought they’d done something great, like coloring a giraffe purple. He had a smear of chocolate on his front tooth.

“It’s too bad she’s so shy.” That was her mother’s new excuse for why Jolie didn’t go to Bible study, why she didn’t talk to adults, and, now, why she didn’t run and grab her poem, which was a stupid poem anyway.

But she wasn’t shy. She was just sick of them, all these adults with their fake smiles, repeating their old, used lines. The only one she could stand was Andria, who touched her on the shoulder. “Jolie, I haven’t seen you in so long,” she said in that sweet, breathy voice of hers, a hand resting on her swollen belly. “Come up to the bathroom with me. Let’s freshen up.”

When Jolie was younger, and Andria, who lived down the street, was still her babysitter, Andria would powder Jolie’s nose and paint her nails in a rainbow of colors, and Jolie would practice braiding Andria’s beautiful blonde hair. Now Andria was married to Jack Sullivan who had bought the house next door and who did not believe in God. Jolie and her little sister Jessica had been the flower girls last August. Andria was going to have her own baby in just a few weeks. She said that Jolie would be her little boy’s babysitter, and wasn’t that perfect. It was a lot to take in, even for Jolie.

“So?” Andria said, leaning toward the mirror as she put on her lip gloss. “How do you like seventh grade? How are your classes?”

Jolie shrugged, studying her reflection next to Andria’s. “It’s okay. Language Arts is all right.”

She didn’t know how Andria got her hair so soft and wavy. Jolie’s own hair was straight and stiff and boring brown. She was a long, bony twig standing next to Andria, who was lovely as a doll, only now she was cruelly overstuffed. She grew puffier each time Jolie saw her. Her belly was bigger than a basketball.

“Is it exciting to be in a new school?”

“Not really. It’s mostly boring.”

Everything was supposed to be boring at almost-thirteen, it seemed. Everyone was always talking about being bored. It was never safe to say you liked a book or enjoyed talking to a boy or didn’t mind a certain teacher.

Andria smiled at her. “You’re so grown up,” she said, and offered Jolie the lip gloss. “Want some?”

Jolie took it and leaned toward the mirror, opening her mouth and moving the pink brush over her lips as Andria had done. Then she pressed her lips together and tasted the stickiness. There was no flavor or sweetness in it, only the vague smell of pencil shavings.

“Thanks.” She handed back the lip gloss. Andria placed a hand over her belly. “Calm down now,” she said.

“Does it hurt?” Jolie asked. She watched as one side of the belly pitched forward.

“It’s just a bit bothersome. He doesn’t kick hard. He just likes to move around.”

But Jolie had meant the whole thing; she did wonder what it was like to be pregnant. She could see Andria’s belly button outlined behind the blue jersey.

“Do you want to feel him kick?”

Jolie shook her head. “No, thanks.” She had touched a pregnant cat’s belly once. She had cupped the shape of the kittens inside her palm. They were so strangely alive, squirming behind the thin, stretched-out skin. Jolie had worried she would squish them, and she had been disgusted.

Back in the kitchen, the adults were scraping the last crumbs off their plates. Reverend Stark stood by the entrance to the living room, smiling at no one and clearing his throat to signal that it was time to get started. A few crumbs stuck to his argyle sweater vest at the place where his belly began to widen. Her mother said he was young, but Jolie wasn’t so sure. He was beginning to go bald. Little white scales lined the pink skin near his temples. Finally, it was her mother who ushered the adults into the living room.

Alone now, Jolie surveyed the mess of chocolate-smeared dishes and half-eaten sweets. She ignored them all and selected an apple from the fridge, one with no bruises or blemishes. She rinsed it under the faucet and crunched into it, enjoying the spray of juice. The first bite was always her favorite. All the bites after that were less flavorful.

She brought the apple down to the basement, where the kids were always banished. There had been a time when Jolie loved the basement nights. The lower levels of everyone’s house seemed full of games and new friends and noise. After her father died, those nights were the only time she could be herself without fear that her mother might be watching—or worse, that her mother was not watching but lying in bed, listening. She and Jessica had tiptoed around the house for months, afraid to watch television or play piano, afraid to talk above a whisper.

Downstairs, Jessica had already taken out Connect Four and Operation and Hungry Hungry Hippos, trying to interest the Hatfield twins and the Martin boy, all of whom probably still played games by throwing things in the air and declaring victory. George the Junior lay sprawled on the bean bag chair, stuffing his face with another brownie, his fourth or fifth. Crumbs fell onto the pillow’s blue corduroy and the cream-colored carpet.

“So?” Jolie said. “What do you guys want to do?”

“I want to fart a candlestick on fire,” said George the Junior. He laughed with his mouth wide open, revealing every bit of brownie clinging to his teeth.

To read the rest of "Intermission," purchase issue 27.2 here.