Everyone called her something different. To Pastor Rick, who found her stumbling out of the late summer corn, half-naked and covered in bruises in unholy places, she was Magdalena, so christened because of his love of the reformed prostitute, the devout disciple, whose story always made him shiver with purpose. Even as the girl sat in the church office, swaddled in blankets and questioned by the police she refused to answer, she could see Pastor Rick quiver with excitement at the thought that this was his chance, at last, to save a wayward soul. She would be taken away, that same night, and placed in foster care, but each time he saw her after, at church or in the town market, he would say that name again, “Magdalena, Magdalena,” as if he were sitting on a throne looking down at her where she knelt, washing his feet.
To her foster parents, the Johnsons, she was Betty, good old All-American Betty, her past papered over with the name like a bowl in art class, the letters bent and pasted and dried over her flesh until it became her, a new papier-mâché self that fit perfectly over her Other self, which she kept resolutely hidden, weeks and months later, like an elaborate puzzle-box with a pressure lock sensitive to the touch. Her foster parents never could find the combination. Again and again, they tried to share the things they liked with her (grilled steaks, irreverent embroidery, a weekly game of American football) and were baffled when she preferred instead to tie bows in spools of thread and drift away from the meat counter to thump cantaloupes in the produce section, then slice into the ripe ones with a pocketknife stolen from Pastor Rick’s contraband drawer. “Oh, Betty,” Mrs. Johnson would say, with a sympathy reserved only for those who will never understand Midwest culture and are at risk of being destroyed by it.
To most of her classmates at school, with their anxieties and aggressions, their inability to just accept the quiet dignity of others, she was nothing at first, a blank, a kind of empty vessel for storing up all their speculations and curiosities, their occasional acts of kindness (a dropped book returned to her without derision, a helping hand to prevent a fall), until the moment came when a teacher asked her a question and in the silence after someone coughed dumbass and from then on that was what people called her: “dumbass,” when she lingered a too long over the soggy options in the lunch line; “dumbass,” whenever someone bumped into her in the hallway; “dumbass,” on that crisp autumn evening when she walked onto the football field at halftime and interrupted the cheerleaders in a chant to touch the pom poms, all their red and white tassels; mean Alice Griffin even made up a new cheer (D-U-M-B, there will never be a U and Me. You’re stupid, yes, you’re stupid!), even though she was spotted, some other night, climbing into Alice’s car.
To Alice Griffin, who recognized the longing in the girl’s eyes far before she could admit her own, that girl was at first a nuisance, a sudden flush of heat that risked revealing Alice’s most private self from the cheerleaders kicking their feet all in a line, so choreographed, so simple, not like this silence that gathered inside her, dense and layered, like felt, until the girl with a hundred nicknames arrived in a quiet so clean and crisp it slipped past Alice’s defenses, like a needle, and started teasing that felt into fuzz. It expanded inside her, as soft and sweet as a pillow warmed by the body, and this was what made Alice invite the girl into her car that night, this was what made her feel safe enough to say, “You know, I never thought the name Betty suited you,” and to offer, in the dark of night, as their limbs lay tangled in the backseat of her car, a new name, “Corazón,” which would have sounded corny even to Alice had it not been for an idea she had—a dream she dared not utter that night or any night for the next six months—that they might escape the land of cornfields together, disappear one night while everyone was distracted by their own demons, and run anywhere—California, maybe, or Washington—where no one would look twice at the young women with the Iowa plates who held hands at the coffee shop. Alice held onto this sweet dream until the day in senior year when her little brother Lucas, whom she was supposed to be minding, came upstairs to complain of a tummy ache and found the two of them dressed in her father’s big dress shirts and trousers, the buttons open and the zippers undone.
In the months after Alice was sent to private school, the girl didn’t answer to any name or to anyone at all, but that did not stop the kids at school from calling her lesbian, sneering it under their breath and writing it on her locker in marker that smeared and bled, hoping, no doubt, to get a reaction out of her, to poke and prod with their words until they found the soft, vulnerable spots Alice had left behind and were satisfied, at last, that they knew her, that they were better than her (unsullied by the scandal that kept the Griffins out of church on Sundays, that stirred up whispers whenever the Johnsons went to a potluck), but the girl gave them nothing, showed them nothing, not when a boy tried to trip her in the cafeteria, not when an old man spat on her shoes and called her a menace, not even when she knew she was leaving town in the morning, packing Alice’s car at the crack of dawn and peeling out before anyone could ask where they were going; years later, and we still don’t know; we’re not supposed to.