I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
“I love you,” Ross says.
I laugh, “You don’t even know me,” and he looks startled, like I’ve just exploded something in his face. He sinks back against the pillows, confused, like maybe he read the manual wrong. Aren’t all girls supposed to want to hear this?
“I do so. I know you really well,” Ross says, running his finger across the rainbow I’ve drawn arching over my hip bone, and down between my legs, hesitant but so eager it’s pathetic, like even now, after all these months, he’s worried that I’m going to stop him. I’m not going to stop him. If I stopped him, we’d have to talk. The last thing I want to do is talk.
“Hey.” I pull away. “Why don’t you put on the TV? Monsters of the Deep is about to start.”
“But I’m so comfortable,” he groans, but we both know he’s so happy to be getting laid he’ll do anything to keep me here. I could probably do the crossword puzzle, or knit while we’re doing it. I’m sure I’m his first. Up until last year his mom was still making his bed up with Star Wars sheets. Luke Skywalker facing the Death Star with a giant lightsaber in hand, and a majorly stacked Princess Leia, on her knees at his feet. Lay-ya. An adolescent nerd’s wet dream.
“You’re killing me.”
His hand creeps toward my breast. I elbow it away.
“Dream on, mister.”
“C’mon. This is so nice. Don’t make me get out of bed now, Heather Feather,” he says, knowing how much I hate nicknames. The fake casual way he drops them into conversation, to try them out, each one awkward and wrong in its own way (Heatherly because it sounds like heavenly); it’s humiliating for both of us, even if he doesn’t see it. For instance, last week, on our way home from the pool we stopped at the McDonald’s drive-thru, and he slipped in, “What can I get you, Lady Blue? You wanna Filet-O-Fish or a 7-Up?” like it just came to him. He was proud of that, what a clever inside joke. Ha. Ha. Ha. You see I like to have shows about the ocean on during sex, and I want to be a marine biologist when I’m older. I don’t know why he’s so desperate to name me.
I already have a nickname and he knows it.
I nudge Ross toward the edge of the bed with my hip. “I mean it. Turn on the idiot box. It’s about to come on.”
“Yeah, yeah, I get it,” he grumbles. “I hope you’re happy.” He reaches over the side to find his underwear, then pulls them back on under the sheets. He’s modest. Even after all this time, he can’t walk the ten feet to the dresser with his bare butt hanging out. I avert my eyes because the sight of his boner is ridiculous trapped and straining against the cotton like it’s trying to escape. I don’t want to laugh.
Ross would never believe me if I told him I liked him best naked. It’s funny how we’re almost always naked, or half naked, together. It’s easier, less complicated. Take away Ross’s newly dry-cleaned varsity jacket, his white alligator shirt, and pressed khaki shorts (that have been taken in and let out and taken in again), take away the Stevie Nicks-style gauzy blue halter dress I found at the Salvation Army, much to my mother’s horror, and too-expensive white Bernardo leather sandals she insisted on buying me to counteract the dress (and which I’ve purposefully scuffed to hell), and we’re just two 16-year-old Caucasian kids hanging out in your typical American boy habitat circa 1978. His bedroom is on the bottom floor, off the den. There are sliding glass doors, which make it easy for me to slip in and out, as I choose. The floor-length curtains, dark blue, are pulled shut for privacy. The walls papered with your typical boy posters—Farrah, Dr. J, the Boss, and a centerfold of a black metallic Corvette Sting Ray painstakingly extracted from some jerk-off magazine for gearheads. On the shag carpet are continually mounting piles of dirty clothes, T-shirts and jeans stiffening into various stages of laundry rigor mortis; the tube socks really appear to have suffered. Hanging over his dresser are two wrestling medals (neither gold) and in front of the mirror an arsenal of aftershaves. What woman could defend herself against Brut, Old English Leather, or Hai Karate?
Ross fidgets in front of the dresser, flipping through the channels so fast he passes our station twice. “Sonofabitch,” he says, pounding the top of the TV. That I-love-you thing is bothering him. It could have been worse. I could have said, “Don’t say I love you when you mean Thank you,” which is what I said the first time.
“You know it’s gonna be a rerun now.” He looks at me over his shoulder. “You’ll see.”
“I don’t care,” I say, leaning back onto the pillows so the sheet falls away, pooling around my waist. I shake the clip out of my hair so it falls to my shoulders, almost covering my tits. On the top of my hand I’ve drawn a big smiley face; underneath it says, Have a Nice Fuck You! I bat my eyes at Ross. From the beginning, he told me he liked my eyes. He said he’d never seen anyone with gray eyes before. He’d thought they were blue until he got up close. “I didn’t know they even existed,” he said, running his finger around my sockets, like he’d discovered something amazing.
He turns back to the TV. Ross knows better than to suggest reruns of some sitcom or a police drama, or a soap opera. And none of that Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom crap either. It’s not like I have a problem with the land animals, they just lack mystery. I mean there they are, in plain view, running around and rolling on their backs, hanging upside down, where anybody can see them.
Plus, everybody loves them.
My little sister, Cecile, tells me that when I grow up I should work with animals. She says that animals like me the way animals liked St. Francis of Assisi. Cecile comes out with that sort of thing sometimes. She’s been saying that ever since we were little and we took a trip to the aquarium in DC and I was the only kid the manta ray let touch it. It felt like wet velvet. From that point on I knew I wanted to be a marine biologist.
Cecile says she wants to be a nun, even though we’re not Catholic. Every Sunday she walks to mass—good practice for being a nun, she says—and some Good Samaritan drives her home. My mom wants to go to church, she means to, she says, she loves all the singing, but every Sunday morning she seems to be coming down with the flu. When I was in kindergarten, I drew my mother with an ice pack on her head.
My father, an electrical engineer, calls himself a man of science. He says, “Show me evidence of Jesus riding on the back of a brontosaurus and I’ll believe in God.” My father calls himself an atheist, but Cecile insists on calling him an agnostic because atheist sounds so final, and she is always hoping he’ll change his mind. “He will be lonely in Hell,” she says.
Ross and I used to go to the same school until he transferred last year. He was the fat kid. Even his friends gave him titty twisters and knocked his books out of his hand in the hall.
The last day of school, someone hung him by his underwear in the janitor’s closet. He told me he could hear the buses one by one pulling away. He says his parents always intended for him to go to private school junior and senior years, but I don’t think that’s true. Because he’s a year older we didn’t know each other, but we knew of each other, of course. He said he’d always thought I was pretty, but you know. I smirked at him. I was supposedly fucking bikers and college guys, what would I want with the Pillsbury Doughboy? The label was slut, not charity worker.
I get it though. Everybody, regulars, pops, druggies, nerds, freaks, everybody—especially the hated ones—needs somebody to kick. We met at the pool last summer. For weeks Ross and I watched each other across the water, recognizing each other for what we were.
Ross always swam in a white T-shirt and long Birdwells. Like me, he had no interest in playing Marco Polo or Sharks and Minnows. In our first conversation we agreed that any game where people tried to drown each other was stupid and that, were we ever asked to play, we’d reject the invitation.
Most of the girls spent their time lying on top of the picnic tables. Basting themselves with coconut oil, tying and untying their bikini tops so they didn’t get any lines, and passing around a homemade reflector, a Frampton Comes Alive double album covered in foil. They French-braided each other’s hair, pretending not to notice the boys who circled them as they rubbed lotion on each other’s hard-to-reach spots.
I set up my chaise longue in the shade, where the young mothers sat with their babies on blankets, and older women played bridge and complained about varicose veins and their ungrateful daughters-in-law. End of the day the ground was littered with raisin boxes. I kept to myself, spending my hours swimming lengths underwater, and reading National Geographics, or one of my mom’s paperbacks, like Fear of Flying. I made a pillow out of my folded-up clothes.
I’d learned never to leave my things in the ladies’ changing room. If they were there at all, they’d be on the cement floor, sopping wet. One of my dad’s striped button-down shirts, a pink batik wrap skirt, a white embroidered blouse from India, it didn’t matter what it was. I learned to ignore it when a gang of girls cruised by, and started coughing slut, slut, slut into their hands. I know most girls would just stop going to the pool, but I’m never happier than when I’m underwater.
Ross was the same. He would have stayed in the pool all day if it weren’t for adult swim. When everybody had to get out so the moms in their skirted suits, which never really hid their cellulite-pitted thighs, could stand in the three feet and smoke, or swim sidestroke, heads above the water so they didn’t mess up their hair. What is the point of swimming if you don’t put your head under water? It’s like kissing with your mouth closed.
Ross dreaded getting out of the pool. You could tell by the way he walked back to grab his towel, as fast as he could without the asshole lifeguard blowing the whistle on him for running, arms crossed over his chest, the way he’d turn away when he pulled on his shirt, hoping no one was looking at his blubbery belly, or saw he had tits. The tits were the worst of it.
Even now, this summer, undeniably handsome, 27 pounds shed, his chest smooth from bench-pressing, every time he starts to pull off his T-shirt at the pool or in his bedroom, I sense there is still a moment of panic as he raises his arms up and the shirt sails over his head, the fat boy inside him hesitating.
Hesitating even though it’s after five o’clock and all the teens have gone home, and it’s just us, and some adults sitting around drinking gin and tonics and smoking, trying to get up a volleyball game. We are invisible to them.
“All you need is one friend,” my mother tells me, like it’s the secret to life. “Remember when you used to go to sleepovers, all those birthday parties—don’t you like those girls anymore?”
“I was in fifth grade, sixth grade.”
“You had interests,” she says, reeling off the evidence. “Pony club, ballet, swim team—”
“When I was your age—”
“All I’m trying to say is that it’s not like there aren’t opportunities for you to be social. I heard that a bunch of kids had a bonfire at the pond last weekend. The police were called,” she says, like this is a good thing. “I know. Why didn’t I think of it before? Let’s have a party—yes, a party …” I feel utterly helpless to stop her. “A boy-girl party. We’ll invite all your old pals, get Cathy—”
“—Stacy and Belinda.”
“No!” I shouted. “No. No way.”
I hate the fact that those girls’ phone numbers are burned into my brain and probably will be until the day I die. My mother shuts her eyes tight, twisting her hands in her lap, in an effort to hold herself together. “Oh my god. I have one nerve left and you are working it. You wonder why no one calls?”
“Because they’re a bunch of bitchy airheads who hate me, and I hate them.”
“You don’t hate anybody.”
“Yes I do.”
“I don’t see why you can’t at least try,” my mother says, blinking over and over, like maybe if she keeps blinking she’ll recognize me again. Where is that girl I used to know? Like I’ve tied her up and locked her in a closet.
What did I say?
Blame the leotard. I shouldn’t have worn the leotard to school. Freshman year. No one was wearing leotards with skirts anymore. Was I trying to show off the fact that my boobs were suddenly bigger than theirs? Why didn’t I wear the lipstick that changed with your mood, or the iridescent blue eye shadow that looked like it was made from the crushed-up wings of endangered butterflies. Why didn’t my mother ever tell me not to talk to other girls’ boyfriends? How did I know I shouldn’t have blushed when the head of the Pretty Committee’s boyfriend pinned me against the locker and said, “Do you mind if I undress you with my eyes? If I told you you had a nice body, would you hold it against me?”
How did I know that one day kids whose names I didn’t even know would begin talking about me behind my back—Did you hear what that slut Heather Chase did?—snickering about my incredible school spirit. Hey, Header, they’d say, there’s a party in your mouth and everybody’s coming …
The rumor was that after the basketball team made the play-offs, I gave the whole team—including the bench and the equipment manager—blow jobs. I don’t know about the mascot. It’s a giant owl. Can you blow an owl? Who would believe this? No one, least of all me, has that much school spirit.
I don’t let that stuff get under my skin. The only one who is worth anything is the new girl. She’s Indian. After only two weeks at our school, she gave up trying to get people to pronounce her name correctly and just told everybody to call her Lorraine. I’ve asked her to tell me her real name, because I want to call her that, but she won’t. She says, “I’m Lorraine now.” Because she’s Indian, everyone expects her to be smart. Even when she tries to slack off, to turn in bad homework, the teachers give her A’s anyway.
It’s not like we’re passing notes during study hall or gabbing on the phone at night, but we have an understanding. We sit at the same lunch table, and whenever we have to “buddy up” for a field trip or a fire drill, we’re buddies. A single girl who needs nobody makes people uncomfortable, and my mom is right in this, appearance is everything, and appearing to have no one is like swimming alone in the middle of the ocean with a flesh wound.
Ross stands in front of the screen while the show’s theme music starts, the camera floating just over the ocean floor as I squeeze my legs together.
“I want to see if it’s a repeat,” he says, knowing full well it doesn’t matter. If he even thinks about changing it, or turning it off, I’m so outta here.
The first time I asked him to turn on the TV before we had sex, he’d been happy to oblige, if perplexed. After all, no one was home that day to hear us.
“We’re not watching it if it’s the lobster one,” he says, trying to sound all tough.
We both know he’s full of shit.
The lobster episode explores the theory that lobsters are capable of love. Not parental love—they’ll eat their young— but romantic love. The last shot is of a pair of lobsters walking claw in claw across the ocean floor. Maybe that’s what makes them taste so good.
I stayed after school one afternoon last spring to help Ms. Sandburg, my biology teacher, clean the crayfish tanks. I was probably the one kid who didn’t need the extra credit, but no one else volunteered. I like crayfish and I liked Ms. Sandburg.
When I raised my hand, someone made a crack. “Eww. It reeks like rotten fish in here. Looks like Heather-Straight-No-Chaser needs to napalm her twat.”
I didn’t know if Ms. Sandburg heard it, because then the bell rang. Later though as we were razoring the algae off the insides of the tanks, she said, “Don’t listen to them, Heather. You know what Eleanor Roosevelt said?”
I have no clue what she’s talking about.
“‘No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.’ People have always hated strong women. They fear we’re one turkey baster away from abolishing men.”
What do you say to that?
“Listen, if you ever want to rap,” Ms. Sandburg put her hand on my shoulder, “my door is always open.”
She was cool like that. I felt bad that she had to keep reminding people to call her Ms., not Miss. In her bell-bottoms and aviator glasses, her macramé vest and her shag haircut, she made the other teachers look like fossils. I felt bad that everybody made fun of her car, a beat-up VW Bug, and her bumper sticker, A WOMAN WITHOUT A MAN IS LIKE A FISH WITHOUT A BICYCLE. They said, “Shouldn’t a science teacher know fish don’t ride bicycles?”
It’s ironic because that afternoon, leaving school, I was walking out to get my bike. The halls were freshly mopped and empty, the echo of my footsteps eerie but exciting. I sprinted down the hall. I jumped. The only evidence of human life was the smell of disinfectant.
I stopped outside the boys’ bathroom. It was dumb, but I had to see. You know for a second I had this idiotic thought.
What if there is nothing there? What would that be like? It would be like my life hadn’t even happened, like nobody even knew I existed.
But, I was right. There I was on the wall, my name in Magic Marker, my phone number—wrong—in boy handwriting, like hieroglyphics in some cave, and me some ancient queen. It disappointed me to see that another girl’s name was up there too.
Without even thinking I took a pencil from my book bag, yanked the eraser out with my teeth, and using the sharp metal part scraped her name off the wall. I scratched and scratched so hard the plaster underneath started to crumble.
I’m just glad that Cecile goes to St. Mary’s now.
At the end of the school year, Ms. Sandburg got married and moved to Indianapolis.
When Ross comes back to the bed and starts to lick my stomach, I relax. He really is good-looking now, the strong jaw, the ass that disappears when he wears Levi’s. He’s growing out his hair so you can see it’s dark chestnut, it smells like the Johnson’s baby shampoo his mom still buys him. He doesn’t know how handsome he is yet. Which is good. He works harder because of it. I know he expected when he dropped all the weight and got buff, everything would change. All the starving and puking would pay off. Chicks would line up to be his girlfriend, but it doesn’t happen that way.
I run my hands through my hair, spread it out on the pillow, hold a long strand up to the light; it looks redder, less brown, when you separate it like that. My hands move over his arms and his shoulders, he flexes under my touch.
During the commercial I whisper in his ear, “You’re so big, so strong, I can’t believe how strong you are.” That always makes him hard. He liked it when he could hold me down, overpower me. I let him. He lifts his head and moves up to kiss me. His bare skin against my bare skin feels amazing. Why can’t we always be like this? I kiss his neck, lick the hollow of his collarbone. The first time I touched him there, just with my finger, he jumped a mile. Now though, he trusts me; when I kiss his neck he lets his head fall back like a girl, and he sighs.
In the beginning, when we first started having sex, Ross was giddy. “I can’t even believe this is happening,” he’d say, palming my breast. “You’re so beautiful. I can’t believe you’re real.” He’d pulled a bobby pin out of my hair. “I’m keeping this,” he said waving it at me, “as proof.”
“Believe it,” I said.
Ross didn’t want to believe the rumors. “I want to trust you,” he said. “Honesty is important to me.”
I told him, “No one knows me better than you, Ross,” and it was sad but true.
The episode is called “Giant Squid: Myth, Mystery, or Reality?” my favorite of all. Before Ross can say, like he always does, How can it be a myth if we are looking at it? I blow in his ear, and wrap my legs around his waist. On the screen, a giant squid is propelling itself underwater with its long tentacles, the motion somewhere between a rocket launch and a ballet dancer. The commentator’s voice is deep and gentle like a hypnotist’s; it pulls me in. He says, “Weighing more than a ton, Architeuthis is as long as a football field, and has the largest eyeball in the animal kingdom, as big as a dodgeball.”
I shift and turn my head to stare at the screen. At the aquarium, you can stand right next to the glass and cup your hands around your eyes so nothing exists, and stare into the water until you forget what side of the glass you’re even on.
The screen is deep green becoming black. Ross is moving inside me, eyes closed in concentration, like he’s trying to find something inside me with his cock. “Architeuthis is an elusive creature,” the commentator murmurs as the squid disappears, pink into black, “inhabiting the deepest reaches of the sea, deeper, deeper than any man can go.” Ross lifts my hips and I think how great it is that there are no footprints on the ocean floor. There are still places man can’t go.
After he comes, Ross curls up like a shrimp and sleeps. I’m sorry to have missed the part where the science historian shows the old drawings sailors once made of giant squids, splintering ships, tossing men, little as French fries, overboard.
Ross is sleeping hard, his mouth open. While he sleeps, I pop a zit on his back. He’s going to wrestling camp this summer. He’s starving himself, running up and down the bleachers at school wearing a trash bag to sweat off the pounds. It’s working too. He’s dropped a weight class. Every day he is kicking ass. Pinning guys bigger than him. The coach tells him he’s an animal. They can try to dodge him, scrabble out of his reach, but as he tells me, “I just go lower, put my head down and take out their legs.”
“Their legs,” I say, wishing he’d do this to me sometime. “Then what?”
“I throw them down, get on top of them, or flip them on their backs and pin them—there’s the cradle,” he says. “Where you get them behind the head and legs—”
“That doesn’t sound very cradlelike.”
“Or there’s the fireman’s carry. You’re crouched, right? And you pick ’em up, hold them across the back of your shoulders, and then slam them down.”
“That doesn’t sound very fireman-like—”
“It’s awesome,” he says. “You have to be really strong …”
“I bet,” I say. I think it odd that they’ve named these wrestling moves after actions that seem to be about comfort and rescue.
“They can struggle all they want, they can even escape, but I always get them back,” he says excitedly. “I’m patient,” he says. “I wait.”
“But what about the guys who are bigger than you?”
He bites his lip. I can tell he’s trying to decide whether to tell me something. He frowns. “I just imagine them saying fat boy, fat boy, fat boy.”
I don’t know what to say. I’m sick with embarrassment and tenderness for him at the same time.
“Once I had this dream where I was in an arena, wrestling, and all the people in the stands were cheering and screaming, foaming at the mouth like out for blood. A little light goes on, and I figure out—Hey, wait, I’m wrestling my old self, that loser, the fat fuck, and I was like, yeah! I fucking pounded him.”
“It was hard-core.”
“I don’t dream.”
“I know that,” I say, annoyed. I’m smarter than him. “I mean, I don’t remember my dreams.”
“And I dream in color too,” Ross says. “Most guys don’t, you know.”
Sometimes, at night, when we are in bed and he thinks I am sleeping, he gets up and lies on the floor beside the bed and does sit-ups—100, 200, I count along with him. He does push-ups and jumping jacks and jogs in place in front of the mirror, then, exhausted and sweaty, he crawls back into bed. I roll over and put my arm around him, feel his heart beating.
“Aren’t you going to ask what I am feeling?” Ross says when he wakes up, twining a piece of my hair around and around his finger, until it coils up in his hand.
Diaphanous pink and white jellyfish with tentacles thin and buoyant float over Ross’s head on the screen. It had been so nice lying quietly side by side not touching, almost like strangers.
“You want me to ask you what you are feeling?”
“No, I didn’t mean that …”
“I can …”
“No, it’s a joke.” He blushes. “You know most girls ask that—they always want to know, you know, What are you thinking? Say something. That’s all.”
“Most girls, huh? You have lots of girls do you, Mr. Casanova?” I poke him in the side, and he flinches. Every muscle in his body tightens. His hands automatically go into fists; he rolls onto his stomach. I hate how careless I can be.
“I’m sorry,” I say. He acts like he didn’t hear me.
I roll over too, and slide nearer to him so we are staring eye to eye. “Wait. Don’t I know you?” I say and kiss his sunburned shoulder. This is how a girl is supposed to behave. “Come here often?” I pick at his sunburn and hold the piece of dead skin up to the light like I’m playing the cloud game. No matter what kinds of clouds they are—nimbus, stratus, cumulus—my mother always sees Elvis, and my sister sees angels.
“Look, it’s Jacques Cousteau.” I adjust the angle slightly. “Look at that profile. See the nose?”
Ross doesn’t like to be angry, but I know he is.
“I used to have a crush on Jacques Cousteau. When I was a kid, my dad and I used to watch The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau together. Did you ever see that? It was our thing, just the two of us. We’d sit in the den in our beanbag chairs and drink ginger ale and speak in French accents, and anytime my mother tried to horn in, which she always did, my father sent her out of the room.”
I don’t know where that memory came from, but it’s embarrassing.
Ross nods. “Yeah. I copy. His boat was the Calypso.” He kisses my temple, the place where my skin feels thinnest. It tingles. I don’t think anyone has ever kissed me there before.
“So you gonna let me write on you, or what?” he asks with a smile, taking my arm and turning it over, searching for the perfect place. When he notices the numbers on the inside of my arm, his fingers tighten on my wrist. He thinks it’s some guy’s phone number. He doesn’t want to, but he does. If he’d just look, he’d see there are only six numbers. It’s my mom’s birthday. I was good about it when she forgot my birthday last year. She said, “Know I love you, baby. I’m just in denial that I am old enough to have a daughter who’s 16 years old!” However, she wouldn’t be okay if I forgot her birthday.
It falls to me because my dad forgot last year, and Cecile shouldn’t be burdened with that responsibility.
I slide my arm out of his grip and under the pillow.
“I don’t think so.” After all this, I’m not going to dignify his suspicion and I don’t really feel like explaining. His mother still makes his bed and does his laundry. I’m sure she must wonder about the ink stains on his sheets.
“Aw, you gotta be joshing me,” he says. “Why not? What’s the big deal?”
In a moment of weakness I agree. “Okay.”
I reach over the side of the bed and grab my army bag. On the outside I’ve drawn, not very well, a whale.
“What’s with the whale?” Ross laughs, pulling my bag away from me, holding it over his head so I’m forced to look at his armpits wisped with hair. It is never a good idea to look at a person’s armpits. A bundle of Flair markers held together with a wiggie falls into the bedcovers.
“You’re not one of those no-nukers are you?” he says, removing the hair elastic.
“No. I’m all for nuking—just certain people, not animals.”
“Right,” he chuckles.
“Did you know that the whale is the only enemy of the giant squid?” I say, grabbing my bag back. “Did you know that?”
“Hmmm, that sounds familiar. I wonder why?” He sits up and leans back on his elbows.
“Biggest eye in the animal kingdom,” he says in the voice of the commentator.
“Gesundheit,” he says. “Come here.”
“You know what,” I say, twisting in his arms. “I don’t feel like it now.”
“Come on, you promised,” he says, holding on to me tight. I never promised him he could write on me, not really.
Even so, I offer him my arm, the one that isn’t inked with stars. I always leave one pristine.
“Here,” I say. “It’s blank.” Half my markers have disappeared in his sheets.
He examines my arm. “Nah,” he says and lifts up the sheet. He looks me up and down, smiling at the lightning bolt on the inside of my left thigh, and while normally I wouldn’t care, I am suddenly shy.
“Look at you,” he says.
“Let’s not and say we did.”
“Roll over. C’mon, lemme see your back.”
“Wouldn’t you rather do something else?” I lift my head to kiss him, but he pulls back and with a deft wrestling move manages to flip me over onto my stomach. This is exciting.
He doesn’t need to put his knee on my back. I’m lying still.
“Ah, perfect,” he says, pushing the sheet down to just above my ass.
I’ve drawn the whale on my bag floating head down. On another show I’d seen an entire pod of whales sleeping just like that, suspended upside down. I wondered if animals dreamed, and if so what did they dream about. Being chased by bigger, faster animals? Interspecies mating? Food?
I fold my arms under my forehead and let my hair hang over my face.
He leans across the small of my back, his left arm resting on my butt, so I’m trapped. He takes his time.
“I don’t do this, you know.”
“Never.” No one ever asked.
“What are you doing?”
“Take a chill pill,” he says. “You know I can’t draw, right?”
“No ‘Kilroy was here,’ or dumb sports stuff, and no—”
“Hey, hey,” he says, “relax, artist at work—shhhh.”
It was stupid to let Ross draw on me.
When I was little, my sister and mom and I used to play a game where our mother would soap us up in the tub and write the alphabet or make a drawing on our backs and we’d try to guess it. She always drew a star on Cecile, a peace sign on me. Even when I was older, she’d come in, sit on the edge of the tub, and ask if I wanted to play the game. I couldn’t say no.
What good was saying no? It would only hurt her feelings. Hurt feelings put my mother in bed for weeks, face turned to the wall, no appetite, the way a flu bug might affect someone else.
My mother had written words too, like Smile, Mommy, and of course, I love you. That was the easiest of all to figure out. But because the person in the tub couldn’t actually see what the other wrote, you could lie and tell them it wasn’t what they thought, or what they wanted it to be.
Once while we were showering in the ladies’ locker room at the pool, she’d insisted I do it to her. “Try it on me, I want to see if I’m any good at it,” she’d said in her girlish voice.
She’d guessed stop and flower, and then I wrote I love you.
“Oh, that’s an easy one,” my mother said, “I love you!”
“Nope,” I said. “Try again.”
“Oh,” she said, sounding flustered. “Really, are you sure?”
“I’m sure. Sorry.”
“I’m getting cold—can you hand me a towel?”
“You won’t get good unless you do it a lot,” I said, turning up the heat in the shower, soaping her back again. She stood dutifully with her face to the wall as I wrote on her back again, nonsense words. I don’t know if she was really guessing from the way the words felt, or if she was just saying what she’d hoped I write.
“Sunshine, happy, baby.”
“You got it!” I said every time, even though she usually was wrong.
“That one I missed,” she said, sounding confused, “that wasn’t I love you?”
“No,” I lied.
“What are you doing, writing your memoirs?” This was such a mistake.
“Okay,” he says finally, and slaps my ass gently. “You’re done.”
“Serves you right, Lady Blue,” he says then hops off the bed and heads for the bathroom down the hall. He always showers after sex. I wonder if his mom notices how much he showers?
“Don’t call me that,” I yell.
While he’s in the bathroom, I get out of bed and stand in front of his mirror naked. He’s got a ticket stub from a Rush concert stuck in the side of the mirror. Who did he go with? I wonder. A girl? No. I don’t wonder. I don’t care. I’m just curious.
Like I’m curious about what he’s done to me. What he wrote doesn’t matter. In fact, I know that whatever it is it will just bother me. I find my dress hiding under the bed.
I saw a French movie once about a beautiful housewife who becomes a prostitute for kicks. There’s a scene where she’s in a hotel room with a man, and just as things start to heat up, she coolly stands up, removes her dress, and asks for a hanger. That stuck with me.
It’s five o’clock. By this hour, anyone we know, or who would recognize us, has gone home.
“Hey, you better clean yourself up if you want to go to the club,” he says, his head finding its way through the neck hole of his “Born to Run” T-shirt. “You sure as heck can’t go out looking like that.”
“Why?” I say, surveying my arms, lifting up my dress to flash the ink on my legs.
He is looking at my arm, the numbers I have written there.
It’s gnawing at him. “What?”
“C’mon. Please.” He gives me a strained smile. “It’s been a shitty day. Practice sucked. I feel like—”
“Forget it. It doesn’t matter.” I follow him as he walks outside and into the garage, where he’s got a weight bench and free weights setup. There’s a refrigerator full of Gatorades and on top a pile of old Playboys, which I’m not supposed to see. He sits on the end of the bench, picks up a small barbell, and does some curls.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” he says in this strangled voice. He pauses. Then, “I got pinned.”
“I got pinned,” he says louder, like it just happened. “In front of everybody.” He drops the barbell and jams his fists in his eyes. He sniffles and wipes his nose on the back of his hand.
I sit on the bench beside him. “So?” I’m not accustomed to seeing anyone outside of my mother cry. “Isn’t that normal—isn’t that the whole point?”
“No. You don’t get it,” he says his voice choppy with tears. “Ross doesn’t get pinned. Not anymore. Ross is a winner.” Hearing him talk about himself in the third person is disconcerting. “Everybody saw it—my teammates, my coach, everybody. That’s not who I am.”
I wonder how many times he’d had to repeat that line before it began to run like a loop in his head. That’s not who I am.
“I can’t do this. I’m like freaking out. This isn’t happening.”
“I know.” I awkwardly put my arm around his waist. He drops his head on my shoulder. It’s heavy. I breathe in through my nose, long and slow, hoping he’ll naturally synch his breath with mine. He needed me.
We stay like that for a long time, not talking. Finally, I tell him I’m going to run to the bathroom, that’ll I’ll just be a minute. I want to give him some time to compose himself.
I wash myself over the sink. It’s funny that Ross and I use the same soap. You’d think he might be the manly English Leather soap-on-a-rope type of guy, but no. It’s Ivory, So pure it floats. I scrub my arms and legs, my stomach, until it’s all gone, the rainbow and stars, the fuck you, the smiley face, even my mom’s birthday, gone. Finally, when I can’t stand it anymore, I lift up my hair and turn my back to the mirror. Running between my shoulder blades Ross has drawn a daisy, above it a sun, and underneath it, he’s written R loves H. I’m embarrassed at the way relief washes over me like a wave.
When I come out to meet Ross at the car, I’m clean. I’ve let my hair down so he can’t see that I’ve left his drawing—it’s the only mark on me.
Ross is leaning against the hood of his car, a dark blue Corvette Sting Ray that he’d been saving for since he was thirteen. The car of his dreams. His dad told him if he won a gold medal at the state finals, he’d buy him a car. He got a silver and his dad gave him an advance on his allowance. The new car makes it official. The fat boy drove a brown Celica, the equivalent of dog shit. The thin boy drove a metallic blue Corvette, a 2,000-horsepower yeah, baby, sex machine.
“Hey, sorry for flipping out like that,” he says, reaching over for my hand. I don’t say that it’s the best thing that’s happened to me in years. I can feel the heat coming off the car.
“You ready to split?” he asks as he unlocks my door. He always does this, unlocks my door first. I used to hate it, I can open my own door, I said, but I like it today. I don’t feel repulsed, as I usually do, when he opens the door and I see all the sticky cups and burger wrappers on the floor. I couldn’t figure out why Ross, after taking such good care of that car, polishing each sleek curve, never seemed to clean out the inside.
On the way to the pool, Ross turns on the radio, for once, it’s not Led Zeppelin or the Grateful Dead, but Blondie singing “Rip Her to Shreds,” my new favorite song. I know Ross’s not a fan, but today he doesn’t switch the station. I take his hand off the stick shift and kiss his fingers. I don’t suck on them. I just kiss them. I’m happy.
“You know what I want, right now? Something sweet.”
“What a coincidence”—he grins—“I was just thinking the same thing.”
“I mean, candy.”
“Then so be it. If my lady wants candy, then my lady shall have candy.”
The old me would have said, “A lady is someone who doesn’t have to work for a living,” but I blush. His lady. Proper, respected, adored.
As we make the turn into the parking lot of the shopping center, I think I see something catch his eye in the mirror. He drives right past a space in front of the candy store, so we end up parking in the shade of a big row of gray Dumpsters at the end of the lot, near the tobacco store.
“You want to come with?”
“Um, no, you go ahead. I’ll just hang out here with the car and wait. Check it out, that place has candy too, you know,” he says, gesturing toward the doorway filled with stacks of newspapers, a few old lottery tickets on the sidewalk.
“No I’ll walk.” I feel giddy, like a kid who can have anything her heart desires. “What are you in the mood for?”
“I don’t know,” he says, checking the mirror. “Surprise me.”
I’ve never really been a candy person, but I want it today. I buy a handful of silver Hershey’s Kisses for Ross, a bag of Swedish Fish for Cecile, a roll of cherry Life Savers for me, and two bubble-gum cigars, one pink—it’s a girl!—one blue—it’s a boy! I’d forgotten you could slide the gold cigar band off and wear it like a ring.
By the time I get back to the car, Ross is nowhere. I look across the highway thinking maybe he ran over to McDonald’s, for a hot apple pie and a shake, but I don’t see him. I start to worry then I spot him, at the other end of the lot, where a pack of kids are parked, car doors open, the sound of Styx’s The Best of Times pounding out of the speakers. There he is. Leaning on the bumper of a maroon Camaro talking to some dudes. In the empty space between two cars, the girls, all of them in hot pants and tube tops, are giggling and shrieking, bouncing up and down, dancing the way girls do when they want you to watch them. It takes a moment for me to realize who Ross is talking to. Kids from school, my school. Those girls drinking beer and falling all over each other, I recognize. I still remember Belinda’s birthday.
The same kids who used to torture him, slam him into lockers, snap his ass with wet towels and call him lard-ass. The same kids who called me a slut, who carved my name in desktops, made rutting sounds when I bent over in front of my locker, crank called my house, breathing heavy in my sister’s ear. Why is he standing there, talking to them? No, not talking, joking around, laughing like he’s having the time of his life. Like nothing ever happened.
I’m confused. I don’t know what to do. Should I wait, or walk over there? Let them see I am with Ross. That would change their opinion of me, wouldn’t it?
Then he turns his head, stealing a look over his shoulder. He must wonder where I am. His eyes track across the parking lot. Even from a distance, it’s clear that the expression that moves across Ross’s face is panic, fear. I want him to come back to me, or call out, wave. I want him to do something. Then he does; he turns his head away.
And I’m alone. In the open. Exposed. Quickly I moved back behind the Dumpsters. Try the handle, but he’s locked the car. I think, I’ll walk home, or I could hitchhike. Then I think no way am I walking home along the highway. All those cars shooting past me. Parents clucking their tongues about girls today—the youth of America, truckers blowing their horns, the guy at the aquarium who feeds the fish, someone from Cecile’s church. Or worse, all those cars slowing down, people yelling out the window: “Yo baby, are you for sale?” “Did your father lose his license for that last DUI?” Hitchhiking is stupid. It’s a fantasy to imagine that a woman like Ms. Sandburg in her light blue Beetle with a HERSTORY NOT HISTORY! sticker would coast up, roll down the window, Helen Reddy’s “I am woman hear me roar!” booming out of the car, and say “Hop in, sister!”
No fucking way. I’ll wait for him. I lean against Ross’s car. I run my hand over the warm swell of the bumper, my palm cupping the curve of the hood, the smooth blue paint job that sparkles. I reach down into my bag and pull out my key, and in one swift movement, I drag it hard and deep across my door.
I think about the part of the show where this marine biologist with strangely moist eyes says that the best evidence they have of the giant squids’ existence comes from the undigested pieces they find of them in the bellies of their mortal enemies: the sperm whales. I hated that. For all anybody knows, Architeuthis was the real winner here. It’s just no one knows it yet. A few minutes later Ross appears, jogging toward the car.
“Oh, hey,” he says like he didn’t see me and ducks in on the driver’s side. He unlocks my door from the inside. I’m barely in the car before he starts pulling out. “I didn’t see you come out.”
I can’t look at him, and I won’t say anything.
He drops his hand onto my knee. “So …”
“I want to go back.”
“Back. Home. I want to go home.”
We are driving along a road I have driven on my whole life. I still watch for the bends in the creek, checking to see how high the water comes up on the bank, I still hold my breath as we go around the blind turn, I can close my eyes and tell you where we are just by the way my stomach feels. I wonder if after I grow up and move away, if I came back would my body would still remember this road, or would I have forgotten it?
“I’m sorry,” he says.
“What were you doing?”
“Whoa, you don’t have to jump down my throat. I didn’t see you. I’m sorry,” Ross says, his voice getting louder, “that I don’t have eyes in the back of my head.”
“You know what? You’re so fucking weird,” he says, grabbing me by the wrist and shaking my arm like it’s not attached to me. There’s nothing even written there anymore.
“What do you think—I mean, what the fuck is that shit?”
“It’s none of your business,” I say, but I feel like screaming.
“Well it’s right the hell there, for everybody to see.”
“You want to know? You really want to know?”
His eyes dart between me and the road.
“It’s my mother’s birthday. Are you happy?”
“Oh, yeah, right,” he scoffs feebly. He knew my mom was crazy. He knew my dad wasn’t around. He’s just not ready to admit he was wrong.
“I want you to take me home,” I say, waiting for him to argue.
“Okay by me,” he says, staring straight ahead. He knows the truth. He can’t decide whether or not he’ll choose to believe it. There’s nothing I can do.
When we pull into the development, he passes my street and drives to his house.
“I said I want to go home.”
He shrugs off my protest. When we reach the end of the drive, he jerks the emergency brake; the car lurches forward, then stops like a creature he’s got on a leash. I get out of the car and my fingers find the gash in
the door, deep and ragged like a bite.
There is a swagger in Ross’s walk as he rounds the bumper, coming toward me with his arms wide open. “Aw, c’mon, babe. Mellow out.” He says smiling, like he knows he’s been bad but expects to be forgiven. He reaches. “Let me make it up to you?”
“Get away,” I say, wrapping my arms around myself.
He covers his face with his hands, and stands there, like he hopes when he takes his hands away I’ll be gone. Did he expect me to feel sorry for him?
“Aw c’mon, you know how it is …”
“No, I don’t.”
He sighs like I’m being unreasonable.
“You don’t even know me.”
“Yeah right,” he says sarcastically, “And I never knew you—”
The flower on my back—our initials. It now seems so trite.
“—and I don’t know you now.” He smirks at me.
“I know you,” I say calmly. “I know you got pinned today, and you’ll get pinned again.”
His face begins to redden. “The fuck I will.”
“Sure you will,” I say, punching him in the arm. “You know what. I bet I can pin you. Me.”
“I said, shut up.”
“Hey, hey, breathe. I’m just playing.” I circle around him. “Guess you can’t take a joke today, can you, big boy?”
I bump him with my shoulder, then my hip. I can’t stop.
“Come on, let’s go in,” I say, taking hold of his arm pulling him back toward the sliding glass door and the dark of his bedroom. “This was your idea. You wanted to come here. Get inside before somebody sees us.”
“Not now,” he says pushing me away.
“Wait. You don’t want to now? Or,” I lower my voice to a whisper, “you can’t now?” When I stand up straight, I am as tall as him. “We can just talk if you want.” I laugh, and I wait. “Or, I can just go home.”
“No,” he says, grabbing me by the shoulder. He follows me in on his own. He slides the door closed, and then stops to turn on the TV for me.
“Don’t,” I say. I push him onto the bed, take off my dress, peel off my panties. I kiss him the way I did when we first met, when I was learning how to kiss. When I made him wait because I’d never done this before either.
I licked my lips and unzipped him, pulled his underpants down, pushed his hand away when he tried to cover himself. I put him inside me and took him out, until he was panting. He begged me to let him keep his shirt on. He hugged himself, whining when I fondled his chest, about being cold, and when I took my eyes off him, he tried to dive under the sheets. He tries to stop me now, struggles, surprised at how strong I am. I move over his body with my mouth, up and down his torso; inside his thighs I can see the shape the bruises are taking.
I breathe in his ear, “What kind of boy are you?”
Then in one swift move he has flipped me over, thrown me on my back and is on top of me, pinning my arms above my head. He looks at me, the full length of me, then drops his head, and kisses me. After a while, he lets me back on top. I lean down and whisper in his ear, “Fat fuck. You fat, fat fuck.”
He rears up under me and roars.
I wonder, when we’re done, what will be left of us.
Elissa Schappell is the Hot Type book columnist for Vanity Fair and co-founder of Tin House. Her work has appeared in The Paris Review, Nerve, The KGB Reader, and The New York Times. Her first collection, Use Me, was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award. “Monsters of the Deep” is excerpted from Blueprints for Building Better Girls, to be published by Simon & Schuster in September 2011.
This issue of First Proof is sponsored in part by the Bertha and Isaac Liberman Foundation and the Thanksgiving Fund.
Additional funding is provided by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, The New York State Council on the Arts, and readers like you.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee