Spotlight: The City Stargazers

Bonnie started stripping the moment her bedroom door latched behind her. She undid her blouse buttons. The white fabric stuck to her back, and she peeled it off and let it crumple to the floor. She tossed it so that it sat in a small, sweaty mountain in the corner of her room. Next to go were her shoes, kicked off and jumbled on top of her blouse, and then she pulled her pantyhose off from beneath her skirt. Shucking them into the corner with the rest, she stood alone in her room with only her bra and her skirt and let out a gust of air through her nose.

At the corner store, while waiting in the checkout line, the two old women in front of Bonnie had been saying that it felt even hotter than that August before the war. The pair of them was old enough that is wasn’t clear which war they were talking about. Regardless, today was the hottest day of this particular August—maybe even the hottest Chicago day of 1953 entirely. Bonnie didn’t know and didn’t care. All she knew was that it was hot, and she was sweating. Bonnie hated sweating—hated the way sweat prickled out of her skin and plastered her brown hair to her nape. She yanked that hair up into a ponytail and sighed, her eyes fluttering shut, as the air hit the back of her neck.

“My-oh-my, it’s my lucky day,” a voice said, drawling in from her open window and followed by a low wolf whistle. “Hey, Sweetheart. You going my way?”

Bonnie startled and stood straight. She and her mother lived on the twelfth story of their apartment complex. Next door, separated by a narrow alley no more than four feet across, was another tower of apartments. The only thing that could be seen from Bonnie’s room was the window across the way—a window that showed a bedroom that had stood empty for the better part of the past two months as its occupant was off visiting her aunt.

“Jo!” Bonnie said, whirling around and crossing her arms over her exposed stomach in an ineffective shield. The memory of her last encounter with Jo burned like a comet through her mind, leaving trails of heat along her cheeks. “You just about killed me.”

Jo, propped up on her elbows and leaning out her own window, grinned and gave Bonnie a lazy salute with two fingers. She wore a white button down with blue polka dots, the ends knotted just at her waistline, and a headscarf tied in a bow on top of her head, keeping her florescent red hair covered and out of sight. “You’re the one walking around in your underthings,” Jo said, and arched an eyebrow. “What would your mother say?”

“My mother would question the morals of the peeping Tom next door,” said Bonnie. She pulled her blouse back on and scooped a pencil off of her desk. Without bothering to take aim, she whipped the pencil through her open window as she said, “Or should I say, the peeping Tammy?”

The pencil ricocheted off of the brick next to Jo’s window, but Jo—always willing to go along with the joke—exaggerated ducking and dropped out of sight below her windowsill. A moment later, she waved a piece of white paper, her slender hand the only part of her Bonnie could see, and said, “I surrender, I surrender.” She peeked up, her eyes crinkling with her smile. “Is it safe to leave my foxhole?”

“For now,” said Bonnie. “Though let the record show I acted in self-defense.”

“So shown,” said Jo. She stood up again. “Aren’t you going to say hello?”

“I think we’ve moved past that,” said Bonnie. “How long have you been back?”

“I don’t know,” said Jo. She wrinkled her nose as she thought. “A week? A little less than that, maybe. You know how I am with schedules.”

Bonnie nodded and leaned forward to mirror Jo’s posture—arms crossed and most of her weight leaning on her elbows, perched on the windowsill. The air was as still and humid outside as it was inside. Bonnie brushed her damp bangs off of her forehead. She was on the verge of asking Jo why she’d waited so long to announce herself if she had been back for almost a week. But Bonnie feared that she knew the answer so instead smiled and asked, “Wonderful weather we’re having, huh?”
“Oh, it’s positively lovely,” Jo said, her voice monotonous. “School next week will be an absolute dream.”

Bonnie groaned. “Don’t remind me,” she said. “At least I have two weeks until mine starts.” It was one of the few advantages of attending a public school—the same one her parents had attended and her grandparents before them—instead of the private school that Jo went to.

“It’s not good manners to brag,” said Jo. She pressed a hand to her face. “My God, it’s hot. I’m sweating like a pig.”

Bonnie sniffed, raised her voice several pitches in a perfect imitation of her mother, and said, “Young ladies do not sweat, Joanna. Young ladies glisten.”

“That settles it then, once and for all. I’m no lady,” said Jo. She scratched at her head and squinted, frowning, before pulling off her headscarf. She sighed, collapsing forward with the motion. “There. That’s at least a little better.”

“Jo,” Bonnie said. She pushed herself up straight in the window frame. “Your hair.”

“Do you like it?” Jo asked. She reached up and ran a hand over her head. When she left for her aunt’s at the end of last May, Jo’s red curls reached down past her elbows. Now, Bonnie thought that even calling it an inch-long would be an overestimation. “My mother just about died when she saw.”

“I can imagine,” said Bonnie.

“She threw a fit,” said Jo. She sounded delighted. “But I told her. I said, ‘Mother. I am seventeen now. I’m old enough to make my own decisions.’ I mean, really, I said to her, ‘I’m practically an adult.’”

“You did not,” said Bonnie.

“I did so. Besides, I’d already had it done, so it wasn’t like there was anything she could do,” said Jo. She bit her lip and looked up at Bonnie from beneath her eyelashes. “You haven’t said what you think of it.”

“It’s very short,” said Bonnie. Jo’s eyes looked huge, defined in a way that Bonnie hadn’t noticed when her hair was long. The space between their windows seemed to stretch far for a moment—she wanted nothing more than to reach out and touch the short ends. The end of last spring hung between them like a clothesline sinking beneath the weight of wet towels, stretched and straining. Bonnie cleared her throat and shook herself as if to shake away everything else as well. “I think it suits you.”

“You do?” Jo asked. She fidgeted, picking at her pinkie fingernail with her thumb. Jo was nervous in a way that looked out of place on her. (Nerves were Bonnie’s territory.) This anxiety sat on Jo like an ill-tailored blazer, and Bonnie realized that she was not the only one tiptoeing around her words.
“Bonnie!” her mother yelled from somewhere within their apartment. “Bonnie, darling, dinner!”

“I have to go,” said Bonnie.

“I heard,” said Jo. She cracked her neck, bending her head first to the left, then to the right, and by the time she straightened again, any sign of her earlier nerves had vanished leaving behind Jo, confident as always. The light caught her short hair in a strange and fiery halo. Jo shooed Bonnie away with one hand. “Off with you, my Bonnie lass. We’ll talk later,” she said, snorting at her own joke, and before Bonnie could respond, whirling around and disappearing into the apartment beyond her bedroom.

Bonnie lingered in her own window for a moment longer before her mother called again. The moment she stepped from her room, her mother’s gaze narrowed in on her like a gun on a hapless rabbit. “Bonnie, dear,” she said. “At least have the decency to do up all of your buttons.”

Bonnie looked down to find that in her excitement at talking to Jo, she’d left the top three buttons on her blouse undone, her neckline plunging low. “But there’s no one here but us,” she said, even as she did them up. They lived alone, Bonnie and her mother. Just the two of them and a portrait of Bonnie’s father, resplendent in his uniform, that sat on the table in the living room.

“All the same,” said her mother. She wasn’t even sweating, and Bonnie, not for the first time, wondered if her mother was truly made of ice. “Young ladies don’t go to dinner half-dressed. Now go and set the table.”

“Yes, Mother,” said Bonnie.

Later that night, when the dishes were put away, and Ed Sullivan had lulled her mother to sleep, Bonnie lay flat on her back in the middle of her bedroom floor. The temperature had dropped with the sun, but it was still far too warm to be able to fall asleep. Her cotton sheets, so cool against her skin on any other night, threatened to smother her. The wooden floorboards, though rigid, were at least bearable.

She looked up at the end table next to her bed and sighed when she caught sight of the clock face. Two in the morning. She would be useless tomorrow, but no matter how hard she tried, Bonnie could not fall asleep.

From outside, the sound of Jo starting to sing drifted in through the window. It sounded like Patti Page, maybe “I Went to Your Wedding,” but at the volume that Jo was singing and how badly she was butchering the tune, Bonnie couldn’t say for sure.

Bonnie threw her arm over her eyes and sighed. Even here, in the middle of the night and alone in her bedroom, she couldn’t have a moment to escape it. For the past three months, she had tried not to think about it and as a result did nothing but think about it.

 *     *     *

Last spring, before going to her aunt’s house for the season, Jo had stolen an unopened bottle of Corby’s from her father’s cabinet. The two of them climbed up the rusty fire escape to the roof of Bonnie’s building. Bonnie slipped on the way up and scraped her shin on the rusted metal. Jo caught her by the arm and hauled her up, laughing as she said, “You’d be lost without me, you really would,” and Bonnie was unable to argue.

Bonnie had never been so aware of her own skin as she was that night up on the roof. All of the blood in her body seemed to swarm to the points where Jo’s arm and Jo’s thigh pressed against her own. Bonnie downed her fair share of the whisky, but she thought that maybe she was drunk on something else entirely.

“I,” Jo said, tipping her head back and letting the laugh out in short, staccato bursts, a red curling lock of hair in her face, “Am. So. Blitzed.”

She flopped her head around to grin at Bonnie. Jo had always been beautiful, but this was the first time Bonnie had ever noticed how crooked her smile was and how thick Jo’s eyelashes were. “Hi,” said Jo, and tilted her head forward just a little more. There was an inch between the tips of their noses, separated like windows across an alley.

Bonnie’s head spun, thoughts bubbling in a dizzying boil, threatening to brim over and escape into reality. It would be easy, so devastatingly easy, to reach out and anchor the wayward curl behind Jo’s ear. To cup Jo’s cheek in her hand, close her eyes, lean forward. To kiss her, hold her close, tuck her face between Jo’s shoulder and neck and wait out the world for a while.

Instead, she pulled away and got to her feet. “I have to go,” she said. Bonnie wobbled down the fire escape and back to her room, and didn’t slip on the way this time. She thought that maybe Jo called out her name, but then again, maybe Bonnie only wished that part.

*     *     *

Bonnie moved her arm so that she was staring at her ceiling. Outside, Jo stumbled over the words, started the line over, trailed away again, tried one more time, cursed, and fell silent. Bonnie closed her eyes and tried to let her mind drift. There would be nothing in the world as wonderful as sitting up right now to tell Jo about how her mother reacted to the news of Jo’s hair; there would be nothing in the world as terrifying, either. So she stayed on her floor and tried to convince herself that she was almost asleep. She shifted, trying to get more comfortable, but her foot collided with a pile of books that clattered down and bumped her end table.

“Bonnie?” Jo called. “Are you awake over there?”

Bonnie looked up at the window, low enough to the floor that Jo still couldn’t see her.

“I heard you, and I thought I saw something move,” said Jo. “If we’re both awake, we might as well talk to each other.”

Bonnie heaved herself up, kneeling and hanging her arms out of the window. “Good morning,” she said.

“So the clock says, but I have my doubts,” said Jo. “I’m used to being on my own this time of night, Miss Up-With-the-Sun. Why are you awake?”

“I can’t sleep,” said Bonnie. There were too many thoughts in her head for that. “And you?”

“The very same,” said Jo. She craned her neck up to look at the sky. “So I thought I’d look for some stars.”

Bonnie followed her gaze. There was nothing but the usual black, not even the smallest pinpricks of light to be seen. “There’s nothing up there,” she said.

“Sure there is,” said Jo. “Just because we can’t see them doesn’t mean that they aren’t there.”

“You know what I mean,” said Bonnie. She propped her chin on the windowsill and let her arms dangle out into the air, pretending there was a breeze moving over her. “What’s the point in stargazing when there’s nothing to gaze at?”

Jo shrugged. “Habit, mostly,” she said. “I looked every night I was at my aunt’s. She lives in the middle of the cornfield, you know.”

“So you’ve mentioned,” said Bonnie. For years, during the weeks leading up to Jo’s departure north, Bonnie had listened to Jo’s rantings about summers in Iowa as she threw her things, a haphazard tower of polyester and cotton, into a suitcase. “Nothing but cows, isn’t it?”

“Precisely. I was hideously bored all day, every day,” said Jo. She craned her neck out of her window again, looking up. “The night was different. It turns out a cornfield is the best place to be at night. You’ve never seen so many stars. Funny thing, really. I’ve been going there every summer for years, but this was the first time I went and looked for the stars. It’s easy to get your thoughts in order, looking at a sky like that.”

“I’ll bet,” said Bonnie. She scrubbed the heel of her hand against her eye. She couldn’t remember the last time she had actually left the city—before her father shipped out, for sure. Her thoughts were as clouded and uncertain as the black above them. “I could use a sky like that.”

“I think a lot of people could,” said Jo. They fell into a comfortable quiet, Jo staring up at the sky and Bonnie at the alley below.

“I told my mother about your hair,” said Bonnie, remembering her dinner earlier.

Jo laughed quietly, the sound seeming to stick in her throat for a moment before escaping. “I would have liked to have been there for her reaction,” said Jo. When Bonnie didn’t say anything right away, Jo said, “Well, go on then. Tell me what she said.”

“She said no self-respecting boy would ever want to be seen with a girl with hair like that,” said Bonnie.

“As if I’m interested in any boys, let alone self-respecting ones,” said Jo. She bent her pointer and middle fingers in the air in a mockery of quotation marks around the words “self-respecting” and rolled her eyes. She looked over at Bonnie, waiting for something.

“I,” said Bonnie, and then looked down at the alley again. She swallowed thickly. “I’m going to try and go back to sleep, I think.”

“Oh,” said Jo. She sounded disappointed. Bonnie couldn’t bring herself to look up and find out for sure. “All right, then. Good night. Sleep tight. Don’t let the bedbugs bite.”

Bonnie mumbled her response and moved out of the window. She leaned her back against the wall next to it, slipping down to sit with her legs pulled up to her chest and her arms wrapped around her knees. Jo picked up her song again, humming to fill in the gaps where she had forgotten the words. Bonnie tipped her head against the wall, looked up at the ceiling, and closed her eyes. Every time she blinked, the bright phantom of Jo’s smile flared against her eyelids.

It wasn’t as if she had never heard of it. Living in a place the size of Chicago, one saw them, especially near the bars around Hyde Park or Old Town. Women who wore men’s clothing—suits, denim pants, t-shirts—and greased their hair back in a ducktail. Who walked with their arms looped around the waists of other women the way that Bonnie’s father used to walk with her mother.

Once, when Bonnie was ten, while walking to the L station, her mother had made Bonnie cross the street to avoid a group of them that was spread around a couple of park benches. “They’re everywhere these days, those homophiles,” her mother had said, shaking her head. “I don’t know why they insist on hanging around in public like that.”

It burned through Bonnie’s stomach, that sentence. Six years later, and she could still feel it there, festering and simmering. It burst into a blast of heat whenever Jo looked at her and smiled her crooked smile.

Bonnie pressed her forehead to her kneecaps and breathed in, breathed out, breathed in, breathed out. She stayed that way until the yellow light of dawn managed to spill down the walls of the alley and into her window.

For the next three days, Bonnie avoided Jo. It wasn’t even a subconscious act. Whenever her mother needed an errand run, Bonnie volunteered immediately and without complaint. She made use of the dining room table and the living room sofa for when she settled down to read or sketch. The only time that Bonnie really entered her room was to sleep at night. She thought that Jo might be doing the same, because she didn’t see any sign of Jo whenever she chanced a look through the window. Jo’s curtains were almost always drawn.

On the morning of the fourth day of silence, Bonnie stood in her room, at a loss as to why she had entered into it in the first place. Just then a hairclip sailed through the air and ricocheted off of her head.

“Hey, stranger,” said Jo, waving. “Long time no see.”

“Ow,” said Bonnie. She rubbed at her scalp and chanced half a step towards the window. “That hurt.”

“I see how it is,” said Jo. “You’re allowed to throw things at me, but I can’t retaliate?”

“That is how it is,” said Bonnie. “You know that I have terrible aim.”

“True,” said Jo. She beckoned Bonnie forward with a curl of her pointer finger. “I have a question for you: What are you doing tonight?”

“Nothing,” said Bonnie, slow and uncertain. This was exactly how the night with the whisky on the roof began. “Why do you ask?”

“The Perseids are this week, and tonight they’re supposed to be the brightest,” said Jo. “I thought we could go and watch.”

“The what?” Bonnie asked.

“The Perseids,” said Jo, each syllable enunciated slowly. “A meteor shower. My aunt was telling me about it. It happens every August. I can’t believe I almost forgot about it.”

“We can’t see the normal stars from here,” said Bonnie. “We’ll never be able to see them.”

“Well, no, not from here,” said Jo. “That’s why we’ll take my dad’s car and head out, find a field, and watch from there.”

“I don’t know,” said Bonnie. She shifted her weight from one foot to the other. Her palms were suddenly cold, clammy. “We’d have to go out pretty far.”

“Yes,” said Jo. “And?”

“And,” said Bonnie. She repeated herself, “I don’t know. Isn’t there someone else you could go with?”

“Probably,” said Jo. “But there’s no one I’d rather go with. It’ll be worth the trip, I swear. Are you in?”

“I want to, but it’s difficult,” said Bonnie. Jo’s intense gaze made her feel like there was more than one question being asked. She cleared her throat. “My mother will never let me go. You know how she is.”

“That’s why you don’t tell her,” said Jo. “You wait until she falls asleep in front of Lucy, then you slip out, meet me in our getaway car. You’re already Bonnie, so I guess I’ll have to be Clyde. We’ll be back before morning, you slip into your room, and your mother is none the wiser.”

Bonnie drummed her fingers against the wood. “I don’t know,” she said. “Do you even know how to drive?”

“You did it, you found the flaw in the plan,” said Jo, rolling her eyes. “My aunt taught me. Look, it’ll be fun, I promise. Come on. School starts after that. Do you really want to waste your last days of the summer?”

“It’s your last days,” said Bonnie. “I still have nearly a week.”

“Stop doing that,” said Jo. “No more changing the subject. Are you coming or not?”

Bonnie clenched her hand into a fist and took a quick breath. “Yes,” she said, and looked up at Jo.

“Yes, I’ll come.”

Jo smiled, and the familiar heat flared in Bonnie’s stomach again.

*     *     *

Bonnie pulled the door shut behind her as quietly as she could. Just as Jo had predicted, her mother fell asleep moments into the opening credits of I Love Lucy.

“She’s so funny,” her mother said. She started casting on her knitting needle with a deep, red yarn. “Especially for a communist. Don’t you think so, dear?”

“Yes, Mother,” said Bonnie, half listening. Her attention was fixed to the clock, watching as the long second hand twitched its way around, pulling the time closer and closer to nine thirty. She was to meet Jo down on the curb then, so they could drive out and watch the meteors.

The moment her mother started to snore, Bonnie wrote a quick note to leave on the counter and grabbed a light sweater. She paused a moment at the door that led out to the front walk of her building. Jo sat in a burgundy Buick that idled by the sidewalk. With a bracing breath, straightening her shoulders, Bonnie walked out the door.

“Your father actually let you take his car?” Bonnie asked. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she had thought Jo wouldn’t get the car—she hadn’t been able to tell if it was a hope or a fear. She leaned against the bottom of the window and reached in to trail her fingers over the red leather seats. “I don’t believe it.”

“Yes. In a manner of speaking,” said Jo. She hesitated long enough for Bonnie to doubt her.

“What is that supposed to mean?” asked Bonnie, standing a little straighter.

“It means,” said Jo, “that I’ve left him a note, but we best be off before he finds it, because if we’re not gone by then neither of us is going anywhere.”

“Jo!” Bonnie said. She backed up half a step from the curb and Buick.

“I told you before: It’s a getaway car,” said Jo. “It’s no fun if we have permission.”

“We’re going to get into terrible trouble when we get back,” Bonnie said.

“No, I will,” said Jo. Which, really, was exactly the problem. Jo did things like this, sometimes, and it scared Bonnie to death. Her parents already sent her away for summers at a time. What if she disappeared for even longer? Jo, though—she had no such concerns, at least as far as Bonnie could tell. She fixed Bonnie with a look and said, “Besides, he’s out so much that we’ll probably even beat him home. You’ll be fine, I promise. Come on, Bonnie. Listen to your Clyde and get in the car. It’s time to go.”

Bonnie hesitated a moment longer and then pulled open the car door and slid into the seat.
“That’s my girl!” Jo said. As soon as Bonnie pulled the door shut behind her, Jo drove away from the curb and down the street. She laughed loudly and with her head thrown back for a moment. “Look out, world,” said Jo. “There’s a new Barrow gang on the move.”

“You do know what happened to them, don’t you?” Bonnie asked. “To Bonnie and Clyde, I mean.”

“Of course I do,” said Jo. She smiled at Bonnie and patted her hand, her fingers lingering just this side of too long. Then she returned her attention back to the road and put both hands on the wheel. She repeated herself a little quieter, “Of course I do.”

The traffic was stop and go—the usual for the time of day. First they crawled through downtown, the skyscrapers forming rigid, linear canyon walls that loomed around them, blue blocks of sky above. Heading out of the city, the buildings thinned, and the rooftops sank lower like a gradual staircase, fading and melting away into the surrounding suburbs. As the traffic thinned like the buildings, and the grey cityscape faded to green fields and farmland, something down in Bonnie’s chest unwound, and she found herself laughing and smiling in a way she never could manage at home. She was enjoying herself so much, that she barely noticed Jo slowing the car and pulling over onto the side of the road.

“We’re here,” Jo said.

Bonnie stretched, looking around, her joints cracking. “Where is here?”

“Almost Wisconsin,” said Jo. She opened her door to go and root around in the trunk. “I brought a blanket,” she said. “I thought we could lie on the grass next to the car to watch.”

The blanket ended up being barely big enough for the both of them to fit, side-by-side, arms and thighs and calves pressed against each other. The night was filled with a chorus of crickets and croaking frogs, and Bonnie said, “I’m not seeing anything. How will we know when something happens?”

“They’re meteors,” said Jo. “They’ll be hard to miss.”

“What if we’re facing the wrong way?”

“It’s the sky,” said Jo, and spread her arms up from the ground. “There’s only the one way to look. Up.”

“Shush. You know what I mean,” said Bonnie, elbowing her. Jo laughed.

“Admit it,” said Jo. “You’re excited.”

Bonnie crossed her arms, and continued looking upwards. She had never seen so many stars. She had never dreamed so many, scattered like spilled paint above her. “So when are these Percies—”

“Perseids.”

“Right,” Bonnie said. “When do they start?”

“It’s going on now,” said Jo. “We just can’t see them.”

“So it’s just like back home,” said Bonnie. “If we came out here just to do what we always —”

“Cool it,” said Jo. “We just have to wait. We’ll see the meteors. I wouldn’t have made you come out here otherwise.”

“You didn’t make me,” Bonnie said. A meteor splashed across the dark sky, flaring white and flashing at one end and leaving a trail, gone as quick as a blink. Bonnie pushed herself up onto her elbows.

“Did you see that?” she asked.

Jo hooted, the sound blasting out of her with a burst of laughter as bright as the meteor. “Of course I did,” she said. “See? I told you so! Didn’t I tell you so?”

“You did,” said Bonnie. Another one streaked across the sky, and Jo let out another laugh. Bonnie looked down at her. She was smiling wider than Bonnie had ever seen her smile before, her eyes crinkling and almost disappearing into the expression.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” Jo asked.

“Yes,” said Bonnie quietly, still looking at Jo. She startled when Jo looked away from the sky and back at her.

“Hey,” said Jo. “Are you going to come back down here, or are you going to keep on staring at me all night?”

Words stuck in Bonnie’s throat, words that almost made it into the world but burned into ash upon hitting the atmosphere. “I,” she said. “I—”

“Come on,” said Jo. She patted the ground next to her and smiled up at Bonnie. “We’ll talk about it later, I promise, so long as you don’t run away from me again. Oh, look! There goes another one—Bonnie, you’re missing it.”

Bonnie hesitated a moment longer, and then lay back down on the blanket, her right side pressed against Jo’s left.

“At the next one, you have to make a wish,” said Jo. She spoke quietly in Bonnie’s ear, her breath moving over Bonnie’s skin and leaving a fan of goose bumps in its wake. “Are you ready?”

When the next meteor shot across the sky, Bonnie reached over and grabbed Jo’s hand. Jo’s only answer was to twine their fingers together and squeeze. Bonnie let out a breath that she had been holding for a very, very long time.

Becca_Anderson_ResizedBecca Anderson is a writer from Green Bay, Wisconsin. She is currently completing her MA in English at the University of Wisconsin—Eau Claire. Her writing often takes place within a historical setting and explores themes of identity and belonging. This is her first publication.