7. Paper clowns

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''Is she still mad at me?''

''No, of course not."

''Then why didn't she come?''

''I don't know. She said she had a date.''

Dario puffed and ripped the empty box of chicken nuggets. Gaia sipped on her Coke.

Virginia, Virginia, Virginia. That's all we had been talking about on our way to McDonald's and even now that we finished eating. Me, all I could think of was Noemi and the day I spent with her. From 8 o'clock till 2pm, we had the same classes and shared the same desk. We talked about so many things, although most of the time she wanted to follow the lesson. And in those moments I just watched her. She had such a silly face when she was all serious and focused. And I don't know what it was, but she made me feel good about everything. She made me feel good about myself.

Two guys walked up to our table. They put their red trays down and did the whole 'bro hug' thing with Dario. They acted as though the whole world was watching them, with their carefully choreographed movements and the egomania of five-year-olds.

''Why the fuck are you so late?'' Dario asked.

The two looked at each other, and then the big one spoke. ''This idiot forgot his cigarettes at home. We walked around for like half an hour looking for a place that would sell them to us."

Dario seemed confused. "And you didn't think that I would have them? Or at least know where to buy them?"

"Fuck, you're right. I didn't think of that."

Dario laughed. ''Whatever, dude. So this is him, right? Your Brazilian cousin?''

''Yep. Diego Rodriguez.'' Then he looked at me. ''And who's this?''

''Hi, I'm Pit.''

He sized me up and held out his hand. ''I'm Stefano, you can call me Stiff.''

I shook it and they all sat down. Stefano was big and coarse, with a threatening Mohawk haircut and a giant nose. His cousin, instead, was slim and tall. He had a pair of sunglasses on his forehead and a mint gum in his mouth. He sat in front of Gaia, which shouldn't have bothered me, but it did.

''And you are?'' he asked. ''How rude of you not to introduce yourself.''

''How stupid of you to forget to your cigarettes.''

He studied her and smirked.

''This is Gaia,'' Dario said. ''Don't mind her. Her mother is an actress, so she thinks she's the shit.''

Gaia rolled her eyes.

''Really?'' Diego said. ''What actress?''

''Anastasia Monforte,'' she replied.

He narrowed his eyes. ''Never heard of her.''

She smiled, as though she was happy he didn't know her.

They started talking. They talked and talked and for awhile I listened, but then I realized I wasn't supposed to. I just stared at them and they stared at each other and they knew I was looking and they didn't even care. And the way he looked at her, with that smug face and the way she just stared at his lips. It made me go nuts.

And Dario and Stiff. They did the same thing, minus the sexual tension. They talked about their childhood and their eyes glowed and they laughed at jokes I didn't understand. And I imagined it. I imagined them 10-year-old playing soccer with their friends till sunset, coming home with bruised knees and an empty stomach. I imagined them riding bikes around the neighbourhood and stealing ice cream from the girls they liked. They watched the right cartoons, they knew the right words. While they lived their greatest memories between fearless plunges and hot lazy afternoons, I hid away from the sun and slept my childhood away in my bedroom.

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