Justine Laraby and Kemina Lopez are intimate acquaintances yet they have never exchanged so much as a single word. For months, high school senior Justine, and famed model, “Kemina, the Baby Vixen” of Nightingale Lingerie, have been peering at each other across a narrow alley between brownstones in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. This mutual observation soon turns into the exchange of handwritten messages on signs they hold up whenever they come to their bedroom windows. Via this “sign language,” a friendship grows, and Justine learns that Kemina is, like her, a high school senior, but with a controlling mother and a modeling career that requires her to maintain an unnaturally thin physique. And through the window, she also witnesses her new friend exercising fanatically, hoarding food, and being physically and emotionally abused by her ambitious mother.
Window messages evolve into clandestine meetings and soon a tentative romance blooms. But Justine must come to terms with her own “mommy issues,” as well as accept her gender identity and sexual orientation, before she can provide Kemina with the support she needs to survive a family life that resembles a ruthless business transaction.
Will Justine be strong enough to throw open the window so Kemina can escape society’s suffocating expectations?
“I’d do her, I know that much.” Bart Pickler is gawking at the image on the inside wall of the subway car. “I mean, just look at her.”
Believe me, I am. But I can’t let that kinda trash talk just pass me by. “Hello! Female solidarity here—so cut the sleazy sex talk, Pickles.” I make the universal gesture for “you’ve got a microscopic dick” with my thumb and forefinger and I look straight at his crotch.
“You just wish you had a pickle of your own, Justin Lara-Bieber!” Pickler snarls his retort with this irritating smile on his skinny lips, but it doesn’t irk me too much. I’ve heard the Justine Laraby/Justin Lara-Bieber comparison probably a thousand times before. I’m basically immune to it. And yeah, I may wear my hair like Bieber did back in his “One Less Lonely Girl” days, and, sure, I look a lot like the dude, even without the hair, but that’s where most of our similarities end.
“I think alls Pickles is saying here is that they definitely chose the right chick to slip her ass into a Lady Vixen costume, right Pickles?” Joey Fresco always tries to keep the peace.
Pickler and all the guys around me in the subway car nod—including a couple of guys who aren’t even with our group. Like the rest of them, I study the wall panel. Kemina: Nightingale Lingerie’s Baby Vixen.
Seriously, man—Baby Vixen? Sounds like a name for a kiddie porn star. But there she is—the usually hollow-eyed girl I see when I look out my bedroom window and across the alley—in all of her slutty-fox-costumed glory. And her eyes don’t look at all hollow in this poster. In fact, Kemina has a very naughty and filled-with-even-naughtier-promises—but somehow still innocent—look in her eyes that I never see when she holds up a sign and gazes at me across the distance of fifteen feet.
So why am I looking at the eyes of the girl on this hot poster that’s designed to inspire me, another teenage girl, to want my very own matching bra and undies set from The Nightingale Lingerie Shoppe? There’s so much more to see… mile-long legs and a tiny waist and all of that smooth brown skin decorated with tiny, sexy scraps of green lace. But the lies in Kemina’s dark eyes just keep pulling my attention right back up.
“She’s just another girl,” I say out loud like I couldn’t give a shit, and then I grab my Red Sox cap off the bench beside me, stick it on my head, and pull it low over my eyes.
Pickles ain’t gonna let that slide. “And Big Papi’s just another DH.” David Ortiz is my baseball hero, and these guys all know about my obsession with him.
“Nap time,” I tell them with a yawn. “Wake me up when it gets good, and if it doesn’t get good, wake me up when we get to the Y.”
I hang with these guys so much that I frequently find myself wallowing in the “git ‘er done” sex gutter right along beside them. But I can’t jump into the gutter with these guys when it comes to Kemina. No matter how much I might want to, I can’t.
This little peeking-at-each-other-through-the-window game has been going on for a hella long time now. Maybe it’s been too long for my mental health, but I hang onto the hope that it hasn’t yet lasted long enough. The thing is, lately it hasn’t seemed so much like a game as it did in the beginning. Cuz the look in her eyes over the past couple days tells me this has turned into something much more like serious business. As if maybe I’m some kinda lifeline.
Tonight she’s doing sit-ups. I hold the sit-ups record at my high school, but I’d say she’s blowing me away. I’m not exactly counting, but if I had to guess, I’d say that she’s done maybe a couple hundred. So, yeah, I’m impressed cuz that shit ain’t easy to pull off. And I’m also a little bit worried, cuz she isn’t what you’d call the girl-jock type. Not by a long shot.
I grab my sketchbook and open to an empty page.
How many sit-ups?
Like always, I write with my royal blue Sharpie, and press it to the wide picture window in my bedroom.
In the matching brownstone on the other side of the narrow alley, she moves to the center of her bedroom’s picture window, which is directly across from mine. With a flowered hand towel, she wipes her forehead, and then her flat belly that’s gotten a bit damp with sweat. And she shrugs. I can see her ribs poking out beneath her cut-off T-shirt.
I write again and then hold up another sign.
You did a lot—like maybe hundreds.
Her hair is long and silky and dark. I think I read somewhere that she’s Hispanic, but I know she’s the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen. I’d actually call her perfect. She tugs on the elastic that holds her hair in a high ponytail and the way her back arches as she does it is just so… so freaking awesome. That beautiful silky hair falls down all over her bony shoulders, and keeps on falling ‘til it’s nearly covering up her sort of sunken in chest—the sight of which makes me think about family shit I’d much rather forget. Then she shrugs again and that kinda brings me back to earth.
Kemina Lopez stands there and stares across the alley at me, her hollow dark eyes fixed on my face. She’s not smiling, but not really frowning either; what I notice most is her total lack of expression. And she has no idea that my name is Justine Laraby. But I know her name—everybody does. And though there’s nothing plain about her, we all know her as just plain “Kemina”—no last name necessary.