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
The first thing I think when I wake up in the morning is how much I love school. I tingle all over at the thought of walking the mile, that feels more like ten, through my nice neighborhood of noisy, stinky dogs—especially in late spring when it’s three million degrees out and the asphalt pulsates in my face. Or, when it’s hailing, sometime after the new year, and the stones gingerly tap my skull. I love that. Yes, girls and boys of the heart, I feel a closeness to my environment, and this meditative feeling enriches my fond personal association with Ralph barf Waldo Emerson, the transcendental humanoid we’re currently force-fed in American Lit.
I can see why Nathaniel Hawthorne, who I really think is the coolest guy in the universe, thought Waldo was a good poet but a bad philosopher. Nat thought Waldo’s brain was too out there, (my words). Every so often he’d poke his noggin out to touch something real. But Waldo never touched anything, especially not me. No sir. All I know is Waldo’s book of essays gives me a headache; it’s medicine for martians. He’s gross. I’m with Nat, who’s totally hip. Nat’s the only guy from the 19th century who I think was cute. No long scary beard; just a brilliant and dreamy face. When he got older he grew a mustache. I don’t mind. That’s what a cute guy can do. Make his face look weird and he only looks cuter. His story, “The Birthmark,” is the coolest; and “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” purity and poison, my favorite themes. God, and The Scarlet Letter—those Puritans make me mad. The next time I see a snail creeping out of a bush I’ll make sure I step on it, and call it Waldo.
People don’t like sarcastic girls; boys especially don’t. They get scared and offended. I don’t know why. People act like you’re a blob of writhing plasma if you don’t talk nicey-nice. Be a lady. O, okay, I think I know what that is. We have this thing between our legs; but isn’t it kind of bad? Yes, it’s spelled with the letter V, or the letter C—only nasty people use the letter C to say it—and it’s a receptical to something even worse. I think I know what that is, too.
First period is Danbom’s Dirt Farm. That’s horticulture. I took it because I heard you could grow marijuana. Not true. I also took it because I heard you could hide out in the green house pretending to water something, and no one would bother you. True. My cabbages are dying. I’m not too upset about it—they’re smelly and give me gas—but Danbom is. He cries about all our dead vegetation. He says we must care about plant life in order for the world to continue. That makes sense. Little does he know that he’s got thirty teenage vegetables lounging at attention in his classroom. Danbom is a sweet man. He’s kind of 19th-century, but I could never fall in love with him. Danbom’s tranquil, works hard, carries my bags of peat moss and steer manure, helps me dig, and I’m pretty sure he won’t fail me. Danbom thinks I’m a good girl, even if he’s afraid to look at me. I don’t care. Let him think what he wants.
My bedroom, which is where I am at this precise second, is painted Buttercup. What a color! I can picture a bunch of paint experts sitting in a room and one of them urinates in the corner and the president says, “Genius, that’s it, that’s the color we’ve been searching for, gold mine, duplicate at once.” My parents didn’t exactly consult me on this hue. It’s the same color as the snoozing drool that leaks out of my dad’s open mouth each morning. Everything in this house is Buttercup. The curtains, the carpet, my mom’s nails, her clothes, her car. Everything. If I made a real list it would go to infinity.
Anyway, I stare longer at the (Buttercup) ceiling in my bedroom than I do at any other single surface in the world. That must say something about my life. Like maybe I have the emotional fixings to be a nun (they stare a lot), a glorious and memorable nun. Principal, or Head Mistress, of Our Mother of Good Counsel. Yes, and they’ll call me Sister, Sister Jill; and I’ll be tall, practically six feet, my head as high as the top of the lockers, and when I walk down the hall my black shoes click and echo as I go, all the young girls will think, I hope Jill holds my hand today and kisses me. Compulsively, the girls tell me all their troubles, and everything they do with their boy friends. We giggle together, they ask me for advice. I encourage them to do naughty things, to experiment. No. I don’t see Sister Jill working out. She’d get thrown in prison, and then she’d hang herself.
I’ll admit that I’m a little bored, not to be confused with serene, which I’m not at all, (no way a nun) and curious: I’m willing to take a chance. Hey, how else will I grow into a worldly woman? I’ve got to do strange things: eat food I might not like at first but grow to appreciate; travel this country, then Europe—those are the obvious things. A worldly woman has a broadmind and if she ever makes a stupid pun like that she coughs slightly, covering her mouth of course, and moves on. Actually, I’m just spacey and explosive—that’s mainly what I am. And today I’m 16 years old. Old enough to drive a car with a permit, if I had one, and I will next semester. I’m employed at the Good Earth as a waitress. A job that teaches me about the world in the worst way: it’s made me a misanthrope. I want to strangle the groveling slobs who snap their fingers and wave their coffee cups. That’s why I stare so much now. To calm down, also to fall asleep, wake up, pray, flirt, figure, and brood. And most importantly, to forget about eating. I’m skinny enough, but I always feel fat.
I see the ceiling in my bedroom as a giant astrological map, with all the cracks and paint peels and subtle ripples serving as the secret forecast of my future. And today it tells me, very plainly, to explore my brother. Go, denotes the new little crack that blossomed over night, go: it wig-wags the command like a tease. Interesting. And so, I will obey. My brother’s name is Dennis.
A bathroom separates my room from Dennis’s. The rooms are exactly the same size with a window that looks out at a giant grapefruit tree that brushes against the windows every night recommending that we never drop our guard. Wise old tree. The only difference in our rooms—we both have tons of posters of rock bands—are the lack of special markings on his ceiling. From what I can tell he doesn’t have a single scratch up there, just blank smooth space, and it’s my belief that my brother’s life will move along the same way—smoothly, without doubts and fears. Nothing disturbs him. He reads the paper in the morning: murder, flash flood, tornado. He digests it all with a cup of coffee, without a gasp of profanity, the only language I truly appreciate. I’m not trying to say he’s a callous slime. He’s wonderful; he’s a sweety pie. I love him.
I’ve got to get up.
The way I see it, I really don’t need to wear any clothes. I can be naked because it’s my birthday. But it’s chilly, so I’ll put on my uniform. Black bra, aqua panties, black jeans, black Elvis Costello tee-shirt, purple socks, black Reeboks.
Down the stairs, tear up the town.
Dennis is in the kitchen, slumped over a plate of scrambled eggs. He’s finished reading the newspaper; now he’s plowing through SPIN, his music magazine. I tousel his hair, strangle him, and kiss him on the neck—release him, back up, and say a little more formally than usual, “Good morning, Dennis. ” He doesn’t look up.
He doesn’t say anything.
“Are you going to school today?” I ask.
Time goes by. More time. Nothing. I’m not speaking softly; this is just the way he is: cool, and it looks like he’s pretending not to hear, like his hearing is shut off, and it kind of is. He only responds to music. That and boy talk. He likes to talk about gigs and girls with the guys in his band. Wicked guitar solos, a hot new monster drummer, a totally cruel bass player, a girl singer with an intense ass. I’m used to Dennis not speaking to me. A lot of men do that. Maybe it’s an ancient method of torture: the silent, you-are-invisible treatment … until you die. I’m not a masochist, but honestly, it really doesn’t bother me. I know he’s listening, and I’m pretty sure he loves me.
“Dennis, it’s my birthday.”
I’ve been excited about it for six months and now that it’s here I don’t know what to do.
“I’m a simple girl. You know that. Do you know what I’d like to do today, right now?” Dennis turns a page of the magazine. “Walk around the block. We used to do that a lot—race each other—remember? You’d always win. But let’s just walk. What do you say?”
I know this sounds pretty dumb. It does to me, and it must sound a lot worse to Dennis, but, if you think about it, doesn’t a walk also sound freaky and fun? I think so, and I’m the birthday girl, so what I say goes.
I guess not.
“How about a big kiss on the cheek or maybe on the lips. A brother kiss on the mouth? Would you do that for me? Please. That’s all I want. It won’t cost you anything and only take a second or two. I’m not expecting any fancy girly gifts, I swear; I just want something from the heart, to know that you love me, and think I’m the greatest sister in the universe.
I know Dennis loves me, but I have to say this out loud to myself to believe it, and when I say it I can feel my brow and upper lip crushing toward each other in suspicion. I’m prone to days when all I think about is how lonely and ugly and loathsome I am, no matter how much evidence there is to the contrary. Dennis and I haven’t been in a big fight in weeks. We’re getting very good at respecting each other. Dennis looks like a statue of flesh. Should I grab a mirror and jam it under his nose to see if he’s breathing? He continues to read. He’s a man. I’m a girl bugging him, his creepy sister. His face is like a pink sponge, drawing in all the latest music gossip. He lives off that stuff. What local bands have been signed. Are The Stones breaking up for good this time? Is Boy George off heroin? I read it, too. It means a lot to us. Dennis is 18. He’s tall, skinny, and pale. He’s got a long turned up nose that looks like a ski jump. His hair is black, (mine’s dark brown), his eyes are green, (mine hazel). Dennis plays guitar. His band is called Speck. Dennis feels small in the big world, but I think he’s a giant in a tiny one. To me, Dennis is like Peter O’Toole in Lawrence Of Arabia: a leader. His friends joke with him about the name of his band. They call him Mr. Speck, like Mr. Spock, and ask him if he’d like to be beamed up. Comments like that make him so happy; he usually gags an ironic throw-up laugh and says, “I’m surrounded by brilliance, I think I’ll pray to you the next time I fall to my knees. “
Our parents left for work an hour ago. I’m not going to school today. No way. They might sing to me, and someone might have baked a cake, but I’m not interested. Today I grow as a human, part of a family, and study at home.
“How about a back rub? You owe me at least ten. That would be an acceptable birthday present. I’ll take off all my clothes, and you massage me. I’ll run upstairs right now and get out the baby oil. What do you say?”
He turns a page of SPIN and stabs at the lump of egg he amazingly continues to eat. A morsel separates itself from the mass. He brings it up to his cheek and holds it there. He reads on. I light a cigarette and throw the match in the sink.
“What if we go into the den and snuggle together with all our clothes on. I promise I won’t tickle you.”
I blow a few bad smoke rings, but I got the French inhale down pat. He’s not looking anyway. He bites the egg, swallows it, and lowers the fork.
“Dennis, listen to me. I’m serious; stick your hands in me.” Now I’m mad. He holds a piece of toast next to his face.
“Drop that toast and crawl over here. I want you to put your hands to good use. Do you understand what I’m saying? Let’s see those gifted fingers of yours. I want you to squeeze me till I pop. Pluck me good and hard. Strum me like you do your Stratocaster, hit a few cruel chords—blow out my amps.”
I run the tap water for a second to put out my cigarette. He bites the toast, bites it a second time, and a third, until it’s gone, and then he picks up the fork. Now I’m twirling my favorite curl by my neck. Dennis coughs.
“I want you to make me moan, because I’m going to make you stutter and cry. Come on brother boy; I’m dripping for you. I can feel it down here.”
He coughs again.
I rub my crotch. It feels good, surprisingly, since I’m standing in the corny kitchen I’m currently growing up in, and my morning speech, that I’m smack-dab in the middle of, is causing me doubts. I’ve touched myself plenty of times, it’s a wonderful treat, a shock that it works, but now I see the three-fold problem: my brother, myself, and what to do. All the elements are so detached from each other. I hear myself talking and I think, What? What is it? Are you serious Jill?—do you really want to fuck Dennis? And I think yes, yes I do, I am serious, and a little scared. I’m on a mission.
Dennis reaches for the glass of milk. This he holds like a chess move, with his eyes fixed on the magazine.
Since we’ve grown up, Dennis and I rarely see each other naked. Once he looked up my dress, or I stepped over him while he was fixing something on the floor, on his back; he grabbed my ankle and wouldn’t let me pass, then he looked straight up and said, wow Jill, and then he sang, you’re not a kid anymore. I’ve seen him in the bathroom, his flat chewable butt, and his cock pressed against the basin as he shaved. It’s nice. The little elephant trunk.
“Start real slow, you know, first lick me all over, my legs and arm pits, flick your tongue like a nasty little lightning rod on my C, then tear me to shreds.”
For a moment, Dennis glances up at me, like he’s about to say something; he lets go of the milk, that he still hasn’t taken a sip of, sniffles and wipes his nose; then looks back down, flips several pages at once, and brings the same hand back to the glass.
“I want my head to come off. Dennis, we’re going to exchange heads. I’m going to suck on you with your own head, pry off the tip of your cock, and wring out all the cum. Every drip drop in my birthday gullet. Between my teeth, I’m going to shoot the cum back into your eyes. Remember, we switched, so the jet stream will be accurate and forceful because it’ll be your boyish spitting ability into my astonished eyes. Lucky me, I catch the cum twice. Of course I’ll be rendered temporarily blind. Help help, I’d say, and you’d have to save me. Wouldn’t you? Don’t boys like to save girls?”
Dennis turns a page of the magazine, gulps half the glass of milk, and groans slightly. He’s probably thinking, Jill, go to school and be with your friends. He licks off the milk mustache.
“Dennis, frisk me. Fuck me standing up. Pump me against the sink here, come on, scare me—I want to see the pictures of us as boy and girl scouts to fall off their nails … the light bulbs to burst … I want all the plaster in the house to drizzle inside the walls.”
Dennis and I are real close. We kiss each other all the time. When I slip my tongue inside his mouth, he balks a little. He’s a little shy. I’ve been doing it for a couple years, and he’s never socked me for it. He’s braided my hair a couple of times. He does it tight.
“Dennis, you’re going to be real wacky with your cock inside me. How much do you want to bet that you’ll think you’re flying? We’ll be doing hyper-space. I’m going to steer you into a mountain. When you squirt inside me I’m going to scream the dead awake and lock up your happy cock. All the grapefruits will crash through your window and roll under your bed. I’m going to bronco-torc your cock to a zillion RPMs, until you spaz out, and then I’m going to flip you over and lick out your ass. “
“Would you please be quiet?” Dennis says without looking up.
“I will pause, but I will not be quiet, ” I say.
Isn’t this a male fantasy? I have to step out of character for a moment. An aggressive woman lays her cards on the table. All I want, all she wants, is sex. She’s an animal. The classic tiger image. Isn’t that why men are aroused by leopard skin fabrics? What keeps my birthday experiment from working? It’s not that Dennis and I are siblings. That’s a separate problem. If Dennis said similar sexual things to me that I might consider erotic, wouldn’t that be a female fantasy? I’m not sure it would. It would probably be horrible, no matter how much I was attracted to the guy. It would be like a parody of love, or a denigration of what’s magical about touching another person. The words available aren’t satisfactory. Coming from a man, those kinds of sentiments only sound like pig talk—the farthest thing from tenderness. There’s a vulnerability in sex that exists even in the most comfortable, trusted exchanges. It’s a shell that’s easily broken. I’m hardly an expert, but I’ve picked up a few things from feeling so strange and sad about it, and occasionally great. The emotions are always extreme. I don’t see anything inside this situation of mine that makes it particularly tricky and so bound to fail. But then, I ask you, level-headed souls of the world, what is a plausible fantasy? What’s a woman to do?
I open the fridge and pass my eyes over the milk, the eggs, orange juice, yogurt, apples. There’s broccoli and carrots in the crisper. No pepsi in sight. The same disappointing garbage. My mom shops for people who don’t live here.
“Dennis, look at me for a second.”
I lift off my top and unhook my bra; I drop them near my feet.
“Dennis, I want you to come over here and kiss my puppies.” I hold my tits. I squish them up a little. “I’m worried about them. They’re very friendly, but they’re so sad, so lonely. Won’t you give them a little kiss? Puppies die without affection. Come on, pet the puppies. Look how droopy they are. They’re crying.”
Inside, I think he’s laughing, and the surface has changed slightly. There’s a tiny smile on his face I don’t think was there before. I pick up my bra and throw it at his head. It lands on the magazine. He says, cut it out, and brushes it to the floor. I take my shoes off and place them in the sink. I do the same with the rest: socks, pants. I’ll leave the panties on. It’s more romantic when the man takes them off.
“Let’s go into the garage. I want you to fuck me on the work table. Your cock is a long fat puppet with a silly face and it’s going to whisper globby poems to me.”
I snap my jaw a few times, like a cartoon carnivore. “I’m going to tear off pieces of your flesh. You smell like corn bread. I’m hungry for starch.”
He closes the magazine and stares at me. He folds his arms. Now I got him.
“Work the land, Dennis, we’re going to fight like the labor union—put in the hours—it’s the only way to salvation. Tug on this hair, yank it all out. ” I hold my head. “And here, rake this.” I hold my crotch. “Come on Dennis, get up, nail me shut with your hammer. Pound that wicked stake into my soil. This is the only way I can legitimately miss Danbom’s class. We’ve got to plant a seed at home.”
Dennis stands up. He takes off his shirt and throws it at me.
“I’m a little witch. I’m going to die now. I’m ready to die. Someone kill me. I’m dying. You’re killing me. I’m killing you, you ruthless bulldozer, you Rachmaninoff, you fucker, you fucking bear; I love you so much, you evil priest. I love your stomach and legs and saggy sack, you treacherous rammer, you tree of life, reduce me to nothing with your big green eyes.”
I charge at him like a wild boar. Dennis catches me. He holds me. I feel dizzy and crazed and then suddenly sick, like I’m falling, and I start to cry.
Benjamin Wetssman is a visiting lecturer at Otis/Parsons, and Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. He has programmed the reading/performance series at the Beyond Baroque literary center in Venice, California, since 1983. His reviews appear monthly in Artforum.
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