Out on Long Island last summer, my wife and her best friend, Elizabeth, took off their swimsuits to swim in the nude. The two women stripped clumsily at first and were beautiful, hiding themselves, Elizabeth paler where tight Lycra came down from her hidden skin. I couldn’t see all of them, a swirl of blond pubis, a belly, a sandy hip. “Now the boys. You two get in,” Rachel said, and ran down the sand with her friend to dark water.
The south island surf went out, jeweled and jade green leaving shallow pools, passing the deeper green out where they waded. Sometimes a seawater smell cut the cooling air. I had a feeling that this would be happening and all weekend had waited to see the tall blonde woman naked. Her nipples were large like brown shells. One of my wife’s Hasselblads lay cased on a canvas bag. I tucked the camera in, covering the bag with a towel.
My lawnchair-arm pinched when I hitched it back. I tried smiling naturally, and tried not to appear as if staring, but I saw their white skin, and the women calm, splashing as if they were children. The other man looked at his girlfriend and sipped his beer. “No way in hell,” he said. “Cold as it is, with those women.” In secret, I knew we would have to go in. That was part of it, no big deal, all of us having to strip, and I got suddenly shy.
I remembered a time when I’d felt this: giving up yourself, and acting as if none of it mattered. Imagine, your clothing pulled off in that animal place—when at its heart this was how couples would lie fucking. I grinned numbly at them. I don’t know how it is for most men, but I couldn’t stop feeling my face was hot. The women rose, openly naked and bathed in light, glistening like sex in the water, their breasts shifting, and their awkward steps dashing the surf.
Then they walked out of the ocean, and came for us.
I want to tell you about this, what I never tell, but I don’t know where I should start. I wasn’t always unsure with them. The truth is, I was, then I wasn’t, then I was again. Before I made love with a woman, I never felt powerful, or good-looking, or masculine enough, and it was worse when I had fallen for her at a distance—or in secret. When that happened I would keep my voice deep and controlled. If I didn’t my voice would crack, tightened off thin to a whispered fear. Over and over it went like this, wanting someone, but I sat with her trembling and scared . . . . Men won’t tell you this, maybe because it’s so rare. And inadequate. Before we made love I would never feel safe with them. Any of them, except when they wanted me first.
Most of the time when I was younger, I was obsessing about seeing some woman—I mean constantly—thinking about her and jerking off, or I was dreading the moment I’d speak to her. In both extremes utterly a mess.
When I was 12, we lived on a farm in the heart of North Florida. We had hundreds of cows. The men in our family told jokes and were drinkers, in debt mostly, everyone pretending to be tough. No one said anything that had not been said year after year, and wasn’t as worn as stone. There was a scripted talk made at the table, in the barns and the cattle lots, and out in these sawgrassed ranges of field—which were stunning at times when the sun set, with the herd far off like a cutout of cows from brown paper. Some mornings it was like waking up on the set of a western, in a grassy swamp. The grownups all walked around, sweating and stunned in exhaustion, and worked until dark.
I was like everyone else on the surface, a smirking kid. Under it all I was hysterical though, rigid, my ribs shaking. No one could see this I thought.
What can be said about being imperfect? To be honest, it’s beyond me to even remember the normal days, more than their general sense, being with women. But I remember the things that went wrong. I remember fear.
Sometimes I froze with them, more or less. The first night with a woman would send me to pieces, the initial time. Yet I could be calm if we’d already had sex. This didn’t matter though. On the nights when I couldn’t, I thought I would die. I was like anyone.
When they left the farm, I would tear through my parent’s bed hunting for something, who knew what? I was 11 or 12, maybe 13, and meticulous about it, yet tearing with a sense of sheer thoroughness. In the corners of their closet and in every drawer—I’ve told all this once. It was who I was. I looked between the matching striped sheets and the mattresses, testing the silken cold surface and the smell of things.
Where was the sign that they did it? If their bed was made I would still check, with my head to the sheets, breathing them, Mom and Dad, and then I would perfectly make the bed back. But neurotic about it, straightening each pillow and repeating the original wrinkles. Even measuring the wrinkles with something, like the length of a pen.
For all of my searching, I found only this, a small ivory spot on their linen. Nothing at all mostly, a short twirling hair in her underwear, with a clear tiny root like a cell or an egg.
When I was 12, I began making out with my girlfriend, a New York girl. All I wanted was for Deborah to like me. I saw her on the first day of school in the seventh grade. She was pretty, and I sat next to her in back of our class. I’d planned to tease her and she would tease me back, the way kids would imitate speech on the television, sitcom-ese. But for no reason she just turned around, touched my hand, and asked me some personal question, a serious one. Now I forget what it was.
There wasn’t much more to it than that. She cocked her chin in the air in a nice angle. Her neck was long.
Every morning, we kissed when I saw her and would kiss again later, and for a longer time, under the pretext of saying goodbye. This was all we did, our tongues touching wet and a current encircling my body. It felt fevery, touching her, and the moment became weightless and separate. When I knew her Deb affected the look of a 12-year-old Twiggy, a model who was popular then in Ocala, otherwise we were still children, and in some places (at her elbows for instance) our skin had that swolleness you could trace to an infant’s skin, full of light.
Moody, unshy, her green eyes were ringed. She’d been hurt I’d thought later. Abused by some older, male relative. That first Friday, we kissed in the oily exhaust by her school bus, in the dusty lot. We stood head to head, holding each other’s small shoulders and it felt like a liquidness ran through my body. Her skin flushed.
I looked past her gold hair at the other kids, cars leaving, jean-jacketed boys in dull rowdiness. “Everyone sees us,” I said.
“Sees us what?” she said.
“Making out. Messing around, kind of.”
“God,” she said, “this is like totally nothing.” Her bus door sighed open, a rumbling. She poked my ribs.
She likes me, I thought. I could tell. I could see her cheeks, pink tinted. I kissed her, but I didn’t know what to do next. Deb was smarter than me, and often, I thought, a bit sad. She was thin as a stick, dimpled. I’d catch her staring at me, unresolved, wondering something. Then she’d stop.
This was 1973.
Deb would ask questions to test you. “What is glass?” she said. “What if white girls all married colored guys, and had mixtured kids?”
“I know glass,” I said. “It’s not solid, it’s liquid or gas.”
She would know if you thought like a redneck, or a stupid hick.
“I could kill myself and no one could tell . . .” she said. “I’d just make myself fall offa cliff—in a dream.”
Her gestures were big, northern, like a foreigner’s. Not like a Florida girl’s, and her skin was sweet, Love’s Fresh Lemon perfume. She’d sneak up from behind me and cup my eyes. Down my lower back, I could feel the soft rise of her belly, how warm it was. Her breath like a moth on my neck, shuddering.
Something woke in you. This was sex. Your nerves rippled up through your shoulders. We hugged, and she pressed her small breasts at my body.
I could feel her against my new jeans, and a kind of heat there, a warm pulsing.
The things that we learned at school were mostly about giving ourselves absolute pleasure. To make out, or get drunk, and to dread people. Usually we met after class somewhere, cornered together, behind lockers, or in shadow with a chalk odor choking the hallway. In our platform shoes. Shiny rayon shirts printed with photographs, a sunset beach. She’d tongue me the chewing gum wet from her mouth. Our classmates passed. Glancing, embarrassed. Young girls would become hushed walking by us as if thoughtfully passing the bed of the sick, of the sickly drugged.
Sexually precocious, neurotic. We kissed under a humid and unending sun. There was ocean around us on either coast, and the state lay out gaudy and wet and peninsular, hung in a leg of hot sand on the tropics.
Once, while we kissed by her bus in the baking tar parking lot, Deb whispered that a great cave of water was under us. “In this limestone hole down where it’s dark,” she said. “Look it, a girl can feel when it’s her period, really . . . my boobs get big.”
This is me: that first Friday I leaned back on the hard yellow dream of her bus on its dusty wall. “I know it,” I answered her. “When it’s hot out my dog will hump whatever moves. His thing gets red, and big as a lipstick.”
I was 12-years-old.
And an idiot. I remember this is something I actually said. Her bus started up and the brakes unstuck, giving a cough.
Girls were smarter than us. Girls already knew how to talk. “Can you french?” she asked, grinning at me.
The driver called.
“Wait, I know the answer.” I backed from her, stirring the glittering white dust. “Glass is liquid,” I said. “Glass is wet.”
Sometimes Deb would stop kissing, though, pulling away. Then she would distractedly pick at her nails, or do things like that. Her mood would turn. The last time she did this we were alone once at noon on her hot screened-in porch in a vinyl chair, a glider thing. This was Deb’s Florida room, fake bamboo furniture and plaster swans. Palm patterns. All of it in that mustard or ’70s warm avocado. I touched at her breast through her tank top, her belly exposed, perfect, like a swell of fruit. The air and our legs and our hair were damp. Hours had passed kissing and my lips were sore.
She fidgeted about, tugging her tank top. I kissed her and touched at her neck. She just stopped, holding her wrist up loose in a pose.
“What are you wanting to do?” she said.
She meant sex, but I hadn’t yet crossed to that side of the world. Her skin looked flushed. Tiny white hairs down her navel.
“Hey. Are you dead?” she said. “Why don’t we get on the couch.”
But I never said. I wanted her to think I was cool. She brushed back her bangs which were darkened with sweat. Her cheeks were damp.
I thought I should do something. “You play dare?” I said.
“Dare?” she said.
I moved two fingers as if they were walking and climbed her thigh.
“For real?” she laughed.
“Dare . . . like at camp.”
I stopped climbing her.
“You crack me up,” she said.
I had heard that when Deb was 11 she’d gone to bed with a young hippie cousin and was way ahead. Now she just sat back and bit at a finger—as if waiting, it seemed, bothered. But I couldn’t talk. It felt like my breath had been sucked from my body.
I thought that kissing this way was enough, or too much even. I just liked sitting there having her like me. I leaned at Deb, hugging her pressed to the glider, and brushed my lips over her damp cheek again. She did nothing back.
“Know what I think? I think you’re scared of me,” she said.
My head started fogging, and I knew I was expected to go further with her, maybe touch her place. The porch air oppressive and hovering with a greenhouse humidity. I couldn’t move . . . I hadn’t begun petting yet, and I didn’t know what else to do.
I sat back and stuck to hot vinyl. A bad feeling welled up in me, thudding my pulse. She bent closer, and for a second I saw her small chest down her shirt, like a heavy boy’s. The shape of her actual bare nipples, not like a woman’s, but creased at the tips glowing milky pink. In those days, we all wore these circles of string on our necks, and Deb took hers off, weaving it looped in a game, even further away. Distant, I thought. She was judging us.
“—Forget it. It’s too hot,” she said, twirling her string. Her mouth was red, puffy.
I kissed her again and she coughed.
I kissed her hair.
“Um, don’t kiss my hair . . .” she said. Bored.
Just like that. Sometimes a romance would hinge on such seconds. In a glance that gets passed or a gesture of doubt. Or of dominance, maybe. Or of want . . . in one second when she sees how unsure you are.
Then everyone knows it but you. Deb had ditched me. To be fair to her, after our day on the porch I got nervous. I was weird with her. I walked mostly self-conscious and stiff in the halls. She’d wanted to do things and I lost it. I locked up with her. When I saw her I felt that my face had blushed, then I would rush past her and look away, burning.
How is the world different?
I’m the same as then.
The strip malls are different, but the earth is the same as it was then.
The map of real things in my head: different relatives, school buildings, school teachers, other kids, all seemed to float in a nausea of fearfulness. Things were armed to the teeth. Most people threatened you by just being near them, not openly sometimes, or red with hate, but back in their faces was pure canine violence—to eat you if you messed with them. I woke in dread, slouched through my school mornings wrung with it. Cramped in class. Mutely undone, diarrhetic.
Someone kissed you and then you broke up. You were left with this mossy wet pebble of jealousy.
When Deb dropped me, I walked the halls half-stunned in a daze, and everywhere thought there were traps hidden—around school teachers constantly, or on the odd accident talking with older kids, the jaws of the thing barely covered.
There’s no cure for this.
I could never be sure if my clothes were right, new enough. I knew everyone saw something was off.
It still is, I guess, and most of my school friends are dead. Except for Deb.
Years later, I worked up the courage to call her. I was anxious and my mind was unclear, full of wishful thoughts. I called partly to hear how she’d answer hello—as if flirting with someone, expecting him, and the word half said as a question. Deb was smarter than me, pretty, and already wanted to have sex. She was way ahead.
—I wanted to tell her I still felt the same. I wanted Deborah to say she still loved me.
“Hello?” she said, probably smiling, or holding her head turned for the angle. Her bangs were gold. I could see her house, the furniture burnished with money and her supper on. Deb was there, real and alive in herself. But I knew the truth. As she held the phone, she would be picturing some other person, another kid. “Hello . . .” she said.
Then I hung up.
I was like anyone.
I still miss her. Not Deborah now, but the way that we were at 12. I don’t know what else to tell.
—William Tester is the author of the novel Darling. His fiction has appeared in Esquire, Grand Street, TriQuarterly, Black Warrior Review, Witness, The Quarterly, Fiction, The North American Review and other publications. He is a recipient of a Fiction Grant from the NEA, a Constance Saltonstall Fellowship, and a PEN/Syndicated Fiction Award. He teaches creative writing at Virginia Commonwealth University and has recently completed a collection of stories.