The voice came from a white utility van parked alongside the campus tennis courts. “Hey baby,” it said, in the sort of voice that comes from vans.
Right away, I knew it was the skirt. I tugged at it and looked all around—across the empty student parking lot where I sometimes rollerbladed; at the drab, squashed little dorm that had the best vending machine; at the ivy-choked library where I’d recently borrowed the first season of Twin Peaks, which had gotten me so excited I’d filled two whole sheets of college-ruled loose-leaf about the way the wobbly ceiling fan in my dad’s faculty office might at any second crash murderously to the floor. I looked everywhere but at the voice.
Chris stood across the net waiting for me to serve. He was crouched under the shade of his visor, which bore the name of a computer company and had probably come free in the mail. He waved a mosquito away, and his knees bounced. I had no idea what he was thinking, maybe nothing. He was smart in that theoretical way—he could actually conceive of nothing.
“Nice legs,” the voice went on. One of the grounds crew maybe. Someone paid to rebrick a walk.
It was June, and the college students had been gone for weeks already, taking with them their exhausted bean bag chairs and their wanton, stringy jeans. Even their celebratory mess—the yeasty pools of beer sucking the grass outside dormitory doors, the sickly good fragrance of canoli smeared on granite where the graduation reception tent had been—had long been power-hosed away. There really was no one around. No one but me, the voice, and Chris. We were all that was keeping the place from abandon, from becoming some kind of overgrown, lost civilization.
Summers always felt like that, the grassy quadrangles exhaling and unrolling themselves, as though fewer people meant more leaves and plants, and maybe even more dimensions. But that day I felt an extra tingle on my skin, a little bump from the expanding universe, which I knew, but rarely actually sensed, was permanently in flux. Things were proliferating outward, they were moving on toward tenth grade.
“Nice legs,” the man said again, this time emphasizing “legs.”
I couldn’t help it: I popped my heel and flexed my calf and looked down at the little furrow that appeared. I’d been starting to suspect my legs would turn out all right, and it was sort of gratifying that someone besides my mom agreed. As for the skirt, I’d had it since I was twelve, and the way life goes, it just kept on getting shorter. It was made of a black elastic material that fit like skin, but better, with that silky, sharky feel I could never stop grazing with my fingers. I had liked it when my mom brought it home from the sale bin at the college store—much more than I’d liked the algebra book she’d brought with it, for practice, she kept saying, like I’d won something—but these days, over my lengthening legs, I liked it even more.
“Beautiful day,” the voice said now. “No reason to be ashamed.”
I whirled to face him, still holding my racket and ball, and tossed my hip to the side. “I’m not,” I said. “Are you?”
In the bright spackling sun it was hard to see into the cab, but the guy’s meaty elbow was visible enough, and in the passenger seat next to him, another guy in a cap was completely cracking up.
“Your boyfriend’s a lucky dude,” the driver said.
I turned away and served to Chris’s backhand, where he wouldn’t necessarily expect it. I won the point, lunging with the full span of my leg, feeling the marvelous stretch of my second skin over the sinews of my escalating quad. But when I glanced back to accept the compliment, the van was gone, the curbside vacant, and I no longer felt so victorious.
On our walk home, I scanned the parking lots.
“Hello?” Chris said, stopping me in front of the library. “Are you listening?” His face was the vocab definition of quizzical, and his ears poked out like handles on a pot. People always thought he was my boyfriend, which I guess was better than them thinking I didn’t have a boyfriend at all.
“Sorry. I was looking for those guys.”
“The ones who were talking to me while we played.”
We started walking again.
“I should’ve had a better comeback,” I said. “I should’ve said, ‘Thanks, but I don’t like to be spoken to that way.’”
“Sure,” he said. “That would’ve cleared things up. Probably all the girls he’s stalked before you have really enjoyed being shouted at from unmarked vans. It’s probably how he meets all his girlfriends!”
Chris could be so funny when he was angry, even now, without his braces, which used to make him spit at the starting gate of every sentence. Now his teeth looked pretty nice. Straight and white as a baseline, with just a hint of malice—which, after that one point, was basically how he’d treated me on the court. He’d beaten me 6-4, 6-0.
“Maybe he was just trying to encourage my self-esteem,” I said.
“That’s it. He was doing you a favor!”
We continued on through campus, talking and taking unnecessary paths to make the walk last longer. Chris had been reading about circuits and had big plans for dinner. Yesterday he’d put a light bulb in a traffic cone and tonight he’d put spicy chicken on a pizza. Most of what he was into was totally alien to me, but my desire for sophistication made me proud to have a friend from outer space. At least he was interesting, and it was possible he knew things we didn’t.
“I’ve been thinking about becoming a vegetarian,” I told him.
“Good luck. You’ll have to eat crazy stuff like seitan.”
“Do you think the devil even eats?” I asked, trying my best to sound philosophical.
“No, seitan. It’s made of wheat protein or something.”
I tugged at my skirt, which was riding up again. “Well, I’m pretty sure peanut butter counts,” I said. “Anyway, I’m only thinking about it.”
Chris would be a good boyfriend if I couldn’t find anybody else. I’d known him since third grade, when both our dads came to teach at the college. He’d showed up at the first faculty picnic with a set of bocce balls and a duckish, turned-out way of walking. I’d been yellow and he’d been green, and he’d been my back-up ever since. Not that I ever told him; I was just pretty sure he knew.
As I lolled through the lazy summer days that followed, reading trashy mysteries on the back porch and making banana-berry smoothies in my mom’s blender, I found myself thinking about the catcaller and tried to imagine what it would be like to be his girlfriend. Whoever she was, I had the feeling she went to tanning salons and knew how to apply eyeliner, like most of the cooler girls at school. I desperately wanted to be cool, but I’d seen what had happened to last year’s quarterback and the girl with the sine wave hair who won “Best Party,” so I still wasn’t sure it was worth it.
Honestly, I didn’t know much about the men who worked on campus. They came around with confidence in the summers, sitting openly on low brick walls, laughing explosively, their wide denim legs weighed down at the ends by their boots. They were far stealthier during the school year, appearing suddenly on ladders, or in cut-throughs carrying buckets, smelling shyly of ham sandwich and turpentine. At least one of them, I knew, was named Joe, because my mom often talked about the great work that Joe had done on my father’s leaky office wall. The air conditioner in the language lab above had accumulated too much moisture, which had somehow produced a fault line between my father’s shelves of Le Corbusier.
From our back porch on campus, I could see a break in the boxwood hedges that separated the college from the outskirts of town. Chris lived on the town side, and I often watched him emerge from the hedge and tramp up the lawn to my porch, where I sat reading in the Adirondack chair, pretending I hadn’t seen him coming. Other people came through that way, too, and one afternoon not long after the tennis incident, a campus groundskeeper appeared in my yard. He had T-square shoulders and hanging from his belt was a minor constellation of keys. He looked young as groundskeepers went, certainly no older than thirty, and it wasn’t hard to imagine that his name might be Joe.
In those days, I didn’t have much to do. I was supposed to spend a few weeks helping a psychology professor survey people on how they felt about their jobs, and a few other weeks with my parents in France, where my dad would attend an aesthetics conference and my mom and I would stuff ourselves with cheese and try to see every famous painting ever made. But all that was still in the future. In June, even the Asian prodigy violin camps and the organic dairy farming workshops hadn’t started, and most of my time was spent walking up and down the stairs of our house, plugging and unplugging the blender, and peering deep into my pores in the mirror. Actually, those things seemed to take up so much time that I sometimes wondered how I’d ever managed to do them properly when I had school and homework and all my other regular stuff going on. That afternoon, though, it was just me and my paperback thriller, which was set in a twee college town like ours and had a serial killer named Magnus on the loose.
The man who might be Joe had been walking carefully along the hedge wall. He straightened as I approached, his keys chiming against themselves. His hair was feathery blond under his cap and he had a lean, red-tipped nose that was peeling a little from the sun. He was young all right—way younger than I’d initially thought—though, of course, still older than me.
“This your yard?” he said. He chewed and swallowed his vowels like food, a real townie mumbler, but for whatever reason, I had no trouble understanding every word he said.
“It ends around there somewhere,” I said importantly, indicating a vague stretch of green behind me. “It’s all campus property, but we’re responsible for mowing our part.” As though I’d ever touched a lawn mower.
He nodded, but said nothing.
“What are they going to do?” I asked.
“I mean back here. My dad says the college has responsibility for No Man’s Land—that’s what he calls it—but I’ve never seen anyone actually working on it before.”
It occurred to me then that Joe might not know what I was talking about because he might not be a groundskeeper at all. I was also annoyed at myself for mentioning my dad, who brought nothing good to the moment.
But Joe looked at me and smiled so broadly that I felt charming, though of course the charming one was him. His eyes were glassy and liquid blue, like a graduated cylinder containing a perfectly measured reaction. “Yeah,” he said, “they want to tear up the boxwoods. Feel that squish?” He pressed his boot into the ground. “Voles have gotten at the roots, so there’s talk of starting fresh.”
This was a shock. I couldn’t imagine my yard without the hedges closing it in. They were taller than any person. If they were removed, the whole world would be able to watch me practicing handstands on my porch.
“They seem fine to me.”
“You can’t see they’re overgrown? Look here.” He pulled at a branch that was obviously dead. A massive cobweb glimmered in the hole where thousands of pill-shaped leaves should’ve been.
I probably looked at those boxwoods every day, but I had never noticed the damage. Now the hedge seemed made of holes, the site of a massacre. I guess that was flux for you, so slow you couldn’t see it until the change was complete.
Joe released the branch and it rustled back into place, but his arm remained slightly aloft. I thought he was going to show me something else, so I leaned in, preparing myself for the worst. Maybe some animal had died in there and I’d been just a few minutes too young to realize. But Joe’s perfectly tanned arm was all there was. A few beads of sweat clung to its flaxen hairs. Noticing this, I experienced a sensation that was even more disorienting than the fear that there was something dead in the hedge. For no reason at all, everything suddenly came into such tight focus that the sweat looked not like sweat, but like little pods traveling along a concourse of hairs, which were themselves not even hairs, but a vast network of paths that held a civilization together. I pictured people in the pods, which were like elevated versions of Parisian subway cars, commuting to jobs and performances at their children’s schools, leaning their foreheads against the silver floor-to-ceiling poles. Below them were cluster upon cluster of homes, office complexes, and stores, each of them holding more people, any one of whom could one day completely change the world. I wanted to be there in one of those pods; I wanted those stores to live on my tongue. It took all my powers of restraint not to bite Joe on the arm.
In the summer, things had a way of not happening and then happening all at once. While I stood there in front of the empty hedge with Joe, Chris had been making his way up from town. He came through the break just then, his square head appearing only a few feet from where I was looking, his eyebrows arched, his lips puffy and far too red for a boy’s.
“Who was that guy?” he asked, after Joe had nodded and moved along.
“Just a groundskeeper.” I had stared so deeply into his skin, seen life there, its other dimensions, that I was fairly certain I’d missed my chance to ask him his actual name. He walked away from us along the hedge, touching branches high and low, as though looking for something he’d misplaced.
“Guess what,” Chris said. “They’re selling candy at the Shack now. The kind you can mix and weigh. They’ve got gummi bears and peaches.”
It was really too bad for Chris that he chose to say this then. At a different time, even ten minutes earlier, I might’ve wanted nothing more than to run down to the Shack, fill a clear plastic bag with quivering, radiant gummies and charge it to my dad’s account. They were a favorite of mine, and Chris knew it, the kind of treat I’d been wishing they’d stock for years. But he’d caught me between selves, between this world and the possible, sweat-shimmery world I’d glimpsed in Joe’s forearm. The near taste of it still lingered on my tongue.
“Nah,” I said. “I’m on a diet.”
Chris shoved my shoulder. “Since when?”
“It’s just something I’m trying, okay?”
A few days later, Joe came back with more men. They fanned out along the hedge wall in jeans, a musical chorus with shears. I watched my dad stand with them in the grass, nodding at their explanations and hugging his arms to his chest. The sight of him cringing like that in front of a bunch of strangers was suddenly so familiar—so Dad—that I couldn’t bear to keep watching. After I heard him come in and head off again to his office, I made a pitcher of lemonade from a powder we kept in the pantry and went out in my shorts to offer it. I immediately wished I hadn’t. The ground sank beneath my feet. The trees waved above the hedge. And the men: there were so many of them, all full-grown and grimy-faced, panting in hard hats and goggles. Everything was out of proportion. I had grown, but I was still a scrap compared to them—another species altogether and maybe even one they could eat. Joe smiled at me from way in the back, his white teeth sizzling like an ice wedge in a drink. Even so, I was relieved when the man nearest me said they’d be fine, they had their own beverages in the cooler, but thanks.
Over the next few days, I watched them from my room, or when I was brave enough the porch, as they dismantled the hedges branch by branch and stacked them up again in inverted piles. I finished my book and roamed the house for a new one, stopping at every shelf to check out titles and at every window with a view to the yard. The black spines of the classics appealed to me the most. Finally, I chose Wuthering Heights, which, from what I knew about it, seemed like a good book for a virgin to read.
I had it with me in the Adirondack chair the afternoon Joe came to chat. The other guys were packing up as he strode over and leaned himself against the rail.
“You read a lot,” he said.
I tapped my throbbing temple. “Gotta stay in the game.”
“Ms. Haley still teaching at that school?”
“She’s my English teacher! Or will be. You went there?” With his goggles and tools he seemed too competent for high school, as though a pencil in his hands would just disintegrate.
The air was stiflingly still, but he grinned fiercely, as though he were gritting his teeth against a gale. “I live in the county, don’t I? Man, those were crazy times. We had sick bonfires down by the lake. You ever go?”
“Oh yeah,” I said, though it was the first I’d heard of bonfires. “I mean, I’ve never been, but they still have them, for sure.”
“Yeah, I went the other week. Couple high school kids there. You know Larry Kemp?”
I nodded. I had vaguely heard of Larry Kemp. He was one of those seniors who wore a wallet chain and did pull-ups on doorframes for no reason.
“Kid is crazy! Little too much loco in his cocoa, if you know what I mean.”
I didn’t, but I laughed, because I liked it anytime anyone used poetic devices in real life.
“So,” he said, “what’s your name anyway?”
I couldn’t help glancing down at his forearms, glossed once again in sweat. Here was a chance to set things right. How often did those come along? “Sarah,” I said.
“Sarah, I’m Jay.” He half-winked, and I half-told him how close I’d been. Just a vowel sound off.
“Listen,” he said, every one of his few, masticated syllables drawing me in with such force that I had to struggle against myself to stay upright in the chair. “There’s a party tonight at my buddy’s house. You should come. Bring your friends.”
I didn’t know what I could possibly wear. Not my tennis skirt, obviously, which was a shame. I desperately wished I had real clothes that were as flattering as that skirt, or even worthy of comment. I tried it on in front of my mom’s free-standing full-length mirror, tilting it to make my legs look longer.
“What’s this all about?” she asked, sneaking up on me from behind.
I dropped my arm. “Nothing. I really need to stop wearing this skirt.”
“I don’t see what’s wrong with it.” She leaned against the doorframe lustily. “Jesus,” she said, “you’re only young once.” My mom was great, but she had an uncomfortable way of implying that she was much cooler than me at my age. Was maybe even cooler than me now.
In the end, I put on my best jeans and my tightest v-neck t-shirt. I experi-mented with some eyeliner, but ended up with smudges all over that I finally wiped away with a Q-tip. The residue made my eyes look kind of bruised, which I decided wasn’t such a bad thing. It would be dark at this party anyway. Weren’t parties always dark?
I had agonized, too, over which friends to bring. Tory could talk to anyone, but she was also a little too pretty. Brianne never complained, but she maybe wasn’t pretty enough. As it turned out, neither of them were home when I called, and I was too embarrassed to leave messages, so I was left with Chris, who was always free.
He waited by the decimated hedges, wearing khaki shorts and a blue button-down that was surprisingly of the moment. I had to give it to him: he’d been making better sartorial decisions since he’d gotten his braces off.
“They’re coming for the stumps in a few days,” I told him, as we made our way down the darkened slope, the dewy grass soaking our sandals and the dragging hems of my jeans, the insect orchestra tuning all around. Jay’s buddy’s place was on the near side of the lake. We walked slowly so we wouldn’t be the first ones there.
“So, you hang out with this guy?” Chris had his hands in his pockets. I couldn’t help it: I pictured him tripping and tumbling across the grass, maybe gashing his forehead on a rock the way everyone was always doing at Wuthering Heights.
“And he graduated when? A couple years ago?”
“Probably. There is life after high school, Chris.”
“I’m just trying to figure out if he knows my brother! Anyway, you should come check out my traffic cone tomorrow. When it’s all lit up, it looks like a fucking volcano.”
I linked my arm through his as he went on about the technical specifications of his lamp. I liked it when Chris swore, and I loved to hear smart people talk. When he was done I filled him in on France.
“I bet you didn’t know that Paris comes from a Celtic Gallic word that means working people, or craftsmen. Like artisans. Doesn’t that make so much sense?”
“No,” he said glumly. “I didn’t.”
Jay’s buddy’s house was basically just an illuminated box, attached to the lake by a long extension cord of a dock. We shouldn’t have worried about being early because there were already people in all the windows and shadows fidgeting all over the lawn. Everyone outside was holding a red plastic cup. Because I’d had some success at carnival games, my first thought was, If I had the right sized ball, I bet I could throw it in one of those cups. We went in the front door and made our way to the kitchen, where I nodded at some junior girls I knew. They were slouched on the laminate counter, looking sunburned and even more bored than they’d been in Modern Civ. Something dripped languorously off a table full of bottles, and people kept opening and closing a sliding door, as though checking to make sure it still worked. A guy in a mesh cap shouted “Overruled!” several times in a row.
I knew from television that I needed a drink to survive an environment like this. Chris had shoved his hands even deeper into his pockets and was clearly in need of the same. I had just decided to ask the Modern Civ girls where we could get ourselves some cups when a friendly hand clamped down on my shoulder and spun me around a hundred and eighty degrees.
Jay stood a head above me, his short-sleeved shirt unbuttoned several notches, revealing the outer fronds of a leafy tattoo and a dusting of curly blond hair. He was somewhat less sweaty than he’d been in my yard and he held his arms out like a maestro conducting me in for a hug. I leaned into him, smelling the spiky pine-scented soap he’d washed with, then stepped back and gestured to my right.
“This is Chris,” I said, and they shook hands like men.
“I hope you left your lemonade at home,” Jay said, palming the top of my head.
For a while, the party was wonderful. Jay put cups in our hands and filled them with sweet red punch, which may or may not have been the stuff I’d seen dripping before, but very quickly didn’t matter. He steered me around by the shoulder and said my name over and over. “Sarah,” he said. “This is Sarah. You know Sarah? I work on her boxwoods.” Which for some reason always drew a laugh. Out on the deck, people snapped flames out of lighters and played a game with cups and ping pong balls almost exactly like the one I’d envisioned. Here was flux, happening right in front of me. The air was thick with butane and respiration and the whole point was to surround yourself with people, because at any moment one of them might single you out for an offer that might completely change your life. Everything was an offer, if you were smart enough to see it.
Jay and I talked what ifs. What if you had one day to live: what would you eat, who would you see? I didn’t have very interesting answers—pizza, my mom?—but Jay had considered the scenario at length. He had the day down to the last detail: which friend would play which killer song on which guitar at precisely which melancholy hour of the night. He had a very well-organized imagination, everything on a shelf where he could see it. I remembered the way he examined our hedges, checking high and low as though taking inventory.
“All right,” he said at one point. “Say you win the lottery. A million dollars. A billion. Whatever. Where are you building your mansion?”
I said the first place that came to mind, which was Paris, but before the word was even out of my mouth, he was shaking his head and jabbing his finger at the ground. “Right here,” he said. “I’m building my mansion right here on this lake.”
I looked out at the bright inky water, sloshing against invisible shores. “What’s here?” I kicked at his shin, suddenly feeling sassy. “It’s just where we’re from. Paris is the City of Lights! You’re telling me you’ve got a billion dollars and you’re not even gonna take it up a notch?”
“Awl,” Jay said. At least I think that was what he said. He was really swallowing his words now, just slugging them down with his beer. He started shaking his head and closing his eyes slowly, then opening them again in long, dreamy blinks. “You’re too good for me,” he said.
I knew what he meant, but he was wrong. There were all sorts of ways in which I was actually pretty bad. Chris, for instance? I’d lost him awhile back and hadn’t gone to look for him once.
“You are,” he said. “I bet you’re gonna go to Harvard.”
The way he looked at me then was an act of daredevilry, but it wasn’t entirely clear what he was daring himself to do. He didn’t try to kiss me or even touch any part of me; he just leaned in really close and threw everything out of perspective.
“I’m dirt,” he said, breathing a jungle into my ear. He seemed almost happy about it, like he’d finally figured himself out. I tried not to think about how much he sounded like Heathcliff. I shall be as dirty as I please, and I like to be dirty, and I will be dirty. Of course he wasn’t Heathcliff; he was blond. But he stared at me hard, and I let him. We swayed there for a bit, cross-eyed, as though he’d peeled back all the layers of me with his eyes until, finally, he’d seen in so deep that one eye was all he needed to extract the hard, cold stone of truth. I was Jay. He was me. God, it was just like a novel, like an epiphany I’d once read but hadn’t really understood, even though I knew what all the words meant.
Somehow my voice still worked. “I could clean you up,” I said.
This seemed to startle him, as though he forgotten I spoke English. He shrugged his T-square shoulders and seemed a little disappointed in himself for confessing so much so fast.
“You wait right here,” he said. I waited. I squeezed my cup, cracking the rim, and watched the balls bounce back and forth on the ping pong table. The winners lunged and flexed their arms; the losers flung cups into the dark. I watched one cup bob for a while in the lake, slowly filling with black water until it sank, and when I looked back, everyone was absorbed in a new match, and a bonfire was getting going down by the shore. It really was a lot like a sponge, this party, and it had put me in a peculiar state. Drunk, I guess, if this was drunk, and thrumming along with the hive, the parts of my body I was used to noticing fading into the background, while other generally neglected parts had risen to the fore. My hips opened up like fans. My teeth were all but gone.
I guess the sponge eventually absorbed me, too, because all of a sudden, there was Jay, chest hair and everything, leaning against the deck rail and claiming a perfect laughing girl for his own. She was the “Best Party” girl from last year, the constantly hoarse one with the sine wave hair who’d shrugged off college to lick her index finger over contracts at Stark Chevrolet. Her breasts bubbled up from her bikini top; her waist poured like batter into her shorts. She was plotted and graphed confidently on his chest and there was no mistake.
It was absurd how fast it had happened. I went back through the sliding door, which did seem to catch a little, and pushed past the people in the living room and kitchen until I was standing in the hall again, alone. I squeezed my empty broken cup and wished fervently for divine intervention.
No one would ever call Chris divine, but he was the next thing that happened. I wandered around a corner and there he was, seated legs wide but businesslike on the couch. Older boys were huddled up around him, every one of them staring intently at the coffee table at their knees. There was an uncertain moment of silence, and then they all erupted in a happy, clobbering rage as Chris stood and shook a wad of playing cards above his head while someone else shook his shoulders from behind. “What’d I say?” he shouted, swallowing his vowels like I’d never heard him do. “Four queens!” And they all got louder and bumped against each other some more.
All I could think of then was my mom, leaning in the doorway and looking at me in my skirt. “Jesus,” she’d said. It was the way she’d said it that came to me now, smacking the backs of my legs like she used to do with the blue foam kick board when I was still learning to dive. Holding my breath, I hopped forward a little, into the riot of boys.
When Chris saw me there among the flapping arms and pounded chests, his eyes widened and his expression clicked into place. Then he was hurdling the bodies all around him and running at me so quickly that I had no choice but to turn and run ahead of him down the hall. I dropped my cup on the floor and heard his breath in my ear and behind us everyone shouting.
We ended up in a little office that had a desk but no chair and was mostly being used to store camping equipment. In the corner there was a table of small green plants. Chris stumbled past me toward the desk but I caught his hand to turn him back. I felt something ping and pong, crisp and light, all around inside my chest.
“I almost invented that game,” I said, feeling the ball chatter a final sequence before it stopped. “Out there on the deck.”
“I think you should,” he said, panting. “I can help with R&D.”
“You know what. I did invent it, because I thought of it before it appeared.”
Then I shut the door behind me and we were kissing, straight upright pressed against each other in the dark, my teeth still nowhere to be felt. Our mouths were by now somewhat funky from the punch but neither one of us cared. With his lips alone he drove me around and maneuvered me up against the desk. It was covered with magazines and soon I was sitting on it, pulling issue after issue out from under my legs, which had somehow spread wide enough to allow Chris right between them. His mouth was like a sliced plum on my face, which at first I didn’t like and kept trying to contain but then became the best plum I’d ever tasted. I loosened my tongue and plummed him back, and when my lips began to burn from all the contact, I licked his cheek like a dog. Pretty soon he had two fingers where only mine had been before. Third base! I almost screamed. My eyes adjusted to the dark, and I relieved him of his shirt, clutching the torso I’d seen swimming too many times to count. He was fatless, shapeless, and most of all male, a fact that for some reason hadn’t impressed me much before.
We ended up topless on the floor, lying side by side. Above us the frame of the ceiling hovered like the opening of a bag someone was about to pull closed with a string. The longer I looked at it, the more it seemed this might actually happen. Chris sat up on his elbows and looked at me, then up at the ceiling, like this was a test and he wasn’t quite sure of the answer. It made me feel a little nauseous to see his face so close, his nose busting out like that, his chin lying there so politely, so I let him look wherever he wanted while I concentrated on the ceiling fan and swallowed. I was glad it wasn’t moving. It already looked rickety enough to fall. I closed my eyes and thought about the people at the party, wondering briefly if any of the bellowers in the other room was the guy who’d called out from the van.
“Did you learn that from him?” Chris finally asked.
“Oh,” I said, when I understood who he meant. “I never did anything with Jay.” Like it was no big deal. Like I could’ve if I’d wanted to, which Chris might’ve even believed. I peered at him sideways. Poor guy. His square head was probably already working out a formula that would somehow calculate the next thing to say. He cleared his throat and rolled his head around and bent his knees up toward the ceiling.
“We don’t have to do this again,” he said. “I mean, if you don’t want to. I’m okay either way.”
I closed my eyes again and the floor dipped backwards under my head. I felt the air on my boobs, which weren’t much used to air with another person in it, and a flattening force on my face, almost like a hand, as the room surged to life all around me. All summer I’d been hanging around waiting, saving Chris for later, and now here I was. Later had arrived.
I didn’t know what to do, so I just lay there and let the ceiling-bag close up tight around me, jostling me up against all sorts of other stuff. There was the microscopic world I’d seen moving on Jay’s arm—little pods and little people, coursing through their lives—and just behind it the eraser-colored tennis court and the empty campus asking us to fill it. The white van’s darkened cab, a bonfire happening without us, and—here was a surprise—a night many years ago on another campus in another state, before I’d even started kindergarten, when my mom handed me our bedtime book and told me it was my turn to read. I’d never done it by myself before, so I doubted her for a moment, but then, like a switch, the words just flicked right on and I shouted every sentence about that family of bears all the way to the end. “That’s my smart girl,” she’d said, so excited, holding my head with her hands. “I knew you would do it tonight.”
The groundskeepers came for the last time a few days later. I watched from my room as they yanked up the boxwood stumps with chains attached to little derricks that stuck out from the backs of their trucks. Jay wasn’t with them, at least as far as I could tell. That afternoon I finished Wuthering Heights. After they’d gone, I walked down to the edge of the naked yard, where the ground was all turned over in mounds and smelling dark and musky of the loam beneath. The trees seemed taller, each of their swaying tops a faraway city. I didn’t see how anyone could ever really know what anyone else would do, but I saw how little my life resembled a book, and how far the lawn stretched, unbounded, tracked by tires and unseen voles, vanishing at last at a strip of pavement, where the nearest road pressed in.
Katherine Hill lives and writes in Philadelphia.