It’s Friday, and we have one more weekend—three days—until we will officially be middle schoolers. Sam and I are sitting at the counter in her kitchen eating chocolate-covered almonds, trying to tide ourselves over until lunch.
Sam’s kitchen is one of my favorite places in the world. It’s at the back of her house, where there’s one giant window, so light pours in even during winter. Every Christmas we sit at the benches around her kitchen table and make tamales, snow piling up against the glass, steam heating the room, family and friends squished together on the benches. We criss-cross our hands to press masa, scoop filling, tear corn husks, and tie them tight. There’s a counter that wraps around the kitchen, where we sit the rest of the time, stuffing our faces, listening to music, and laughing.
“At least you guys are in homeroom together,” Sam’s sister, Francis, says. She’s making us curry, and the whole kitchen smells like sticky rice and turmeric. “When I was in sixth grade, I didn’t have any friends in my class.”
My eyes get big. “Oh my gosh, I would die,” I say.
“Yeah, what if?” Sam says. She almost looks scared.
“Well, you’d probably have to make new friends,” Francis says. Sam and I laugh, even though it’s not funny.
Sam is my best, and maybe only, friend. We met when we were five years old, on the first day of kindergarten. I don’t really remember that day, but I do remember when I broke my arm in first grade, and she told everyone to stop playing on the monkey bars so that I wouldn’t feel left out. And I remember in fifth grade when she cut her hair, and people made fun of her, saying she looked like a boy, so I threatened to punch them. Even though she knew I wouldn’t, I think it cheered her up. And I remember last year she liked Max, but he liked Lucy, so we went to Sam’s house after school and watched “The Notebook” and ate ice cream like you’re supposed to. I tell her everything, like how my sister talks the whole time at dinner and if I try to say something she glares at me and says, “Lily, you’re interrupting.” Or how my dance teacher yelled at me until I cried and then yelled at me for crying, which only made me cry harder. Sam tells me more than she tells anyone else, like how her sister screams to get her way, and how she wishes she had something she was passionate about like dance. I am nervous about middle school, but at least Sam will be there. Sam, who is never nervous about anything.
I’m in the breezeway, walking to Language Arts class. Through the glass, I see the wind blow and shake burnt orange leaves off of the maple trees, and I hope there are enough leaves in Sam’s yard to make a pile after school. Or are we too old for that? I’ve just decided that I’ll ask her about it during lunch when someone says:
“You should date Jack.”
I turn around to see Maddie Adler’s round face and blue eyes staring expectantly at me. Maddie Adler: friends with Maureen and Rose and Elizabeth (who goes by Biz). Friends with Hugh and Freddy and Owen and Gus who come in late and skate down the stairs and TP people’s houses, but not in a mean way. I know who she is, but I have absolutely no idea why she is talking to me.
“What?” I say.
“You should date Jack,” she says again.
“Jack, who?” I ask.
“McCoy,” she says, like it’s obvious.
I try to think. I know him. Jack McCoy. Tall, lanky, hockey player, football player, went to Woodland Heights Elementary, friends with all the Woodland Heights jocks. Jack McCoy.
“Why?” I ask. She and Jack are not friends. She shrugs.
“He’s nice,” she says, biting her cuticles, “and he likes you.”
“He does?” I clench my jaw shut. Stupid, stupid! Did I sound like I wanted him to? Now she’ll think I like him. That I’m desperate for some boy I’ve never even talked to.
“Yes,” she says, without looking up. I don’t know what to say, but she tells me, “Just think about it.” When I look around, the hall is empty and the doors are all closed. I run down the stairs and when I get to my class, I’m breathless.
I have only liked one boy so far. His name is Henry, and he was in my art class last year. He had this funny mushroom-shaped eraser, and we would spend all class stealing it away from each other just so our hands could touch. He’s a hockey player and sometimes says mean things to people, but he was never mean to me. He would tell me that my hair looked nice, and he would watch my soccer games and tell me I played well even when I didn’t. I don’t like Jack, but I think maybe I could. He looks at people anxiously, like he’s afraid they’ll find something out about him that he doesn’t want them to know. But then sometimes he forgets, like when he’s running down the halls with his friends, yelling and tackling each other.
A few days later, Jack walks up to me in the hall. He looks at me strangely, like he wants something from me and he expects me to know what it is. The words that come out of his mouth go in one ear and out the other—but I feel my cheeks burn red as I say, “Okay.”
That Friday night, I’m lying on Sam’s bed while she searches her dresser for the perfect “I-look-cute-but-totally-by-accident” top because a girl named Riley invited us to her party, and Sam says we have to go. We’re talking about how we should start a roller skating club at school.
“I really want to learn how to do tricks,” she says.
“Like jumping?” I ask.
“And going down the stairs,” she says. She finds the perfect shirt—a slim Hanes—and slips it on. It hangs off her frame, and I look down at my shirt: too tight, too short, exposing the pudge spilling over the top of my jeans. I fight the urge to pinch it. Instead I lean back on the bed, putting all my weight on my wrists so that when I look down, my stomach is flat as a board.
When we get to the party, strobe lights are flashing, and “Bedrock” is blasting. Riley and her BFFs—the ones with the jean shorts and tank tops that somehow make them look even skinnier than they already are—are grinding on each other. Butts out, legs wide, hips brushing on inner thighs and small backsides. The boys gather around, watching. I look to Sam. She looks back. Our eyebrows go up at the same time.
“Is it too late to go home?” I ask under my breath.
“Oh, come on,” Sam says, nudging me. She grabs my hand like she’s going to pull me into the crowd, but instead she inches forward so slowly we are basically standing still.
Riley spots us and disentangles herself from the flailing limbs and shaking bodies. She pushes through the outer ring, placing her delicate palm on a boy’s chest. He melts away, letting her through.
“Sam! Lily! I’m glad you guys came!” I want to roll my eyes, but I look at Sam, who is smiling as genuinely as she can, trying not to look at the dance floor. Jack is already here. He saw me when Riley did, but he waits until now to acknowledge me. He comes out of the crowd and approaches us tentatively.
“Lily. Sam,” he says. I smile politely at him, but he is looking at me strangely, like he wants something from me and expects me to know what it is. He takes a step closer and wraps one gangly arm around my shoulder, which is a full foot beneath him. I stand still, fighting the urge to shrug him off.
“Let’s dance!” Riley says. Sam and I follow her back towards the crowd of people, but Jack takes my hand and pulls me away from them.
“Come here,” he says. He takes me to a room in the back of the house. He says, “I’ve been wanting to kiss you,” and he kisses me. It’s not good, and it’s not bad. Mostly, I’m happy when it’s over. We date for two months. On our one-month anniversary, he gives me a card and a stuffed animal.
On our two-month anniversary, he gives me a box of chocolates and roses. I break up with him the next day at recess. I’m not sure why I do it. Maybe it’s because I don’t like him anymore, or because I never liked him to begin with, or because we’ve gone out for two months and flirted, texted, went on dates, held hands, bought each other gifts, and kissed, so what more is there to do? Maybe the reason doesn’t really matter. Maybe it’s enough that whenever we were together I always wanted to be with Sam instead of him.
My favorite dates with Jack were when we would go skiing. Sam’s sister would drive us—me, Sam, Jack and one of Jack’s friends, usually Alex or Zach—and we’d stay all day, until the mountain closed and they kicked us out of the lodge. Sometimes Jack and I sat next to each other on the lift, and he’d put his arm around me, and we’d talk about how the run was, and which run we should do next, and when we should go in for fries and hot chocolate. Sometimes I would sit with Sam, and we’d talk about what we would buy if we were rich, and where we would go if we could go anywhere, and she would say something dumb that made us laugh until we cried.
When I break up with him, it’s freezing, and he’s on the basketball court standing on the sidelines talking to his friends.
“Can we talk?” I ask. I try to say it quietly, but his friends stare at me. Some of them go, “Ooh,” and some of them glare. I lead him over to the snow mound at the edge of the playground. I stand on top of it, rolling my feet back and forth as I talk. “I think we should break up,” I say, in a single breath.
“Okay,” he says. I don’t want to look at his face. But I see it anyways, crumpled in a deep frown, color rising, and eyes pinched. He doesn’t say anything. He turns around and walks back to his friends before I can say any more.
“Lily,” I hear someone say, soft and sweet. I turn around and see Sam. “Did you do it?” she asks. She sounds breathless and it makes me want to hug her. But instead I clench my fists and my jaw and try to swallow a tightness in my throat I can’t explain. A weight drops right into my stomach and stays there, all the way until the last bell rings. I feel the same way I did that time I cut the clothes off my sister’s stuffed animal and ruined it. When my parents asked me if I did it, I lied, so they scolded me, and I cried.
“That was terrible,” I say, when I finally find the words. We’re a block from school and a block from her house. The trees are hanging over us with that light green that only comes after the frost has melted into the dirt and bathed the roots in an icy, wake-up shower.
“It seems like he took it well, at least,” she says.
“Are you sad?”
“But you wanted to do it.”
“I know,” I say, “but I’m still sad.”
“Break-ups are hard,” she says somberly. And we both sigh. We pass the house with the black wire fence and the yapping dogs, then the house with the bees and the hand-painted “Honey for Sale” sign, then the house with the yard covered in plastic flamingos and cracked garden gnomes. I check them off in my head as we pass them: dogs, bees, junk. And then we get there, walking through the gap in the bushes that leads us home.
We walk in through the back of her house and go straight to the kitchen, which is perfect because that’s exactly where I want to be. Sam takes out the chocolate-covered almonds and we dig in. I lay on her kitchen floor and she sits on a chair next to me, and we play Led Zeppelin as loud as we can and pile in the almonds until we can’t eat anymore.
The next day in class, Jack’s friend Alex leans over and says, “You’re a witch,” just quietly enough so that the teacher doesn’t hear him. He pauses before the “w” and emphasizes the “itch.” I get the point. I know I should ignore him, but I turn around and look at him, just to see his face. He’s smiling maliciously, anger in his eyes, a grin on his face.
I want to tell him to shut up. Instead, I clamp my lips together, turn back around and try to focus on the teacher.
Boys talk more than girls and soon the whole school knows I broke up with Jack. In my classes, people whisper behind me; in the hallways, people bump into me and say it to my face; in the cafeteria, people walk up to me just to tell me what I am. Witch. Emphasis on the “itch.” Some people slip up and say the real thing; some people say the real thing on purpose.
I’m lying on Sam’s floor again, eating chocolate covered almonds.
“It’ll get better,” Sam says, lying next to me. “It’s only been a few weeks. People will get over it and forget it and everything will go back to normal.”
“I hope so.”
She looks at me and scrunches her lips. “Jack’s dumb,” she says. “And all his friends are dumb too.” She is trying to make me smile, and I try to smile for her, because I want her to feel like she is helping me, but I can’t. My face feels like it is made of stone. My whole body feels like it is made of stone; I am sinking into the floor. We both reach into the almond jar, but our hands get stuck and she laughs, and after a second, I laugh too.
“Spencer likes you,” Biz says.
“What?” I say.
“Spencer likes you.” Spencer Nelson. I don’t have to think this time. I know him. Average height (average everything really), neighborhood boy, family friend, we used to watch “Dumb and Dumber” while our parents played euchre. Spencer Nelson.
“I don’t think so.”
But when we have to make Valentines in Spanish class, he gives me one that says “Te Amo,” and I have to admit that Biz might be right. He invites me over to his house, and I say sure. We watch “Sky High” in his living room. My friend Peter is also in our Spanish class. He doesn’t make me a Valentine, but we talk during class and hang out at recess sometimes. He asks if I want to watch “Star Wars,” and I say sure, because he’s my friend, and we watch it in my living room.
Boys talk more than girls, and soon the whole school thinks I’m dating Spencer and Peter. I’m no longer just a bitch, now I’m a bitch and a slut, but “slut” is worse so they call me that more. I’ve only ever kissed one boy, and his name was Jack, and he was my boyfriend, and now the whole school is calling me a slut. Okay, maybe not the whole school, but enough people that I can’t walk down the hall without hearing it at least once. I spend a lot of time on Sam’s kitchen floor that week, and that week turns into a month, and I start to think of that floor as my home.
The snow melts, and I’m glad because I don’t want to go skiing anymore. It’s Slap-Ass Friday, so I walk down the hall with my hands covering my butt. Sam is trying to tell me about a movie she watched last night but I can’t focus. I see Julie walking in front of me, wearing a skirt. A boy walks past, reaches under her skirt and touches her bare ass. She swats him away like a fly. Fridays are worse for me than most girls because of the whole slut thing, but at least I remember not to wear skirts. I am not sure if they actually think I like it, or if they are just trying to be mean. Either way, after I break up with Jack, I don’t go a single Friday without getting my ass slapped at least once. Sometimes they miss, but Jack never misses. One Friday, I wear sweatpants and Alex pantses me, and the rest of the day different boys come up to me and say they love my pink underwear. I learn to wear shorts under my sweat pants after that. One day, I wear a skirt and Zach comes up to me and tells me he likes the frills on my underwear. I look behind me and see Jack, front and center in a crowd of boys. It isn’t even Friday.
After that, I wear shorts under my skirts, too.
I end up dating Spencer after all. He asks me out for real and I say yes, because I have no reason to say no. He takes me to the movies, and we sit in the theater. He makes out with me until my lips are raw and there is slobber all over my face. I try to see past his head so that I can tell how close Iron Man is to defeating Stane so that I can tell how much time is left in the movie. When my dad comes to pick us up, I wonder if he can tell, if he knows what we were doing. I hope he doesn’t ask about the movie, but he does, so I say that it was good, watching his eyes in the rear view mirror. Spencer is silent beside me, staring out the window and smiling.
On Friday night, when I’ve just finished eating dinner with my family, Spencer texts me, “what’s up?” I type, “nm u?” which means “nothing much, you?” He asks if I want to go to the movies, and I want to say no, but we are dating, so I say yes. My dad drives us to the theater.
We do this every week. During the school day, he hangs out with his friends, and I hang out with my friends, and then the weekend comes, and we go to the movies together and make out until I want to cut my lips off my face and give them to him so we don’t have to go to the movies anymore.
“Break up with him!” Sam says. We are sitting in the TV room. “Skins” is on in the background—Sam’s sister put it on—but we’re not really watching.
“I want to,” I say.
“Then do it!” she says. She is right. But I don’t. He asks me for nude pictures and I say no, but he keeps asking, and I say no again, and I say no again. He asks me for nude pictures until I finally say yes. I don’t know why I say yes. I wait for summer to come, and when it does I stop responding to his texts.
Boys talk more than girls and soon the whole school knows that I sent a boy a nude picture and now I get texts asking for pictures weekly, from friends and non-friends, from Alex, Zach, and Peter; from boys I’ve never met and from Jack. I ignore them, deleting the texts as they come. Sometimes, I send a picture back, but I don’t know why and I delete the texts after.
It’s fall, and Sam, Henry, and I are playing soccer in the street outside Henry’s house. His mom has already put up decorations: a “Happy Halloween” sign on the door and a fake pumpkin on the stoop. The leaves are a deep, rusted orange, the air smells cold, and the wind swirls around us, tapping on our shoulders and brushing our cheeks. Henry kicks the ball to me, and I have to run down to catch it before it rolls down the hill. On Friday nights, we go to the high school football games, and we cuddle under a blanket. When winter comes, we go to see the gingerbread display downtown, and we hold hands and afterwards we go to David’s Chocolate to drink hot cocoa. When I break up with him, I tell everyone that it’s because even though he was never mean to me, he was mean to others. My dad is proud of me for this.
Then I date Hugh because all the girls like him. He is a skateboarder and a stoner and a drinker and a prankster, and I am a little scared of him. He puts matches in his mouth and lights them all up at once, and goes into the woods and takes off all his clothes. I date Hugh because I want to be more like him. Friday night I go to Hugh’s house after school. We watch “When Harry Met Sally” in his basement. Ten minutes in, he kisses me, and then we make out. His hands find my back, then my boobs, then they’re moving down my thighs and slipping into my pants. His fingers are cold. They press on my vagina and wiggle their way inside me. All I can think about is if I’m going to have to reach into his pants too. He unbuttons them for me, and I get the hint. When I find his dick, it feels weird, more like skin than most skin. When he finishes, it gets on my pants and leaves a stain.
He is the first boy I sit with during lunch. I look across the cafeteria and see Sam, and I give her a cringe smile that she returns. Maddie and Biz plot how they are going to get alcohol for the weekend, and Owen puts food scraps in Gus’ water and tries to get him to drink it. Will they invite me to drink with them? Hugh reaches his hand under the table. What would we do if they did? Thigh, inner thigh, vagina. Would we sit in someone’s basement and smoke weed? Under the pants, now the underwear. Would we walk through the woods together and go on adventures? As he fingers me, I look at Maddie and Biz, wondering if they can tell.
“Come on,” Hugh says after school one day. “If we’re gonna date, we gotta go on dates.” He goes downtown with friends that Friday, and they all hang out at his house after. I want to go too but instead he waits until they leave to invite me over. We sit in his basement and watch “The Shining.” It starts the same as before, but then he pushes my head down. I put my mouth on it, and before long, my throat hurts and my neck hurts and all I can think about is whether I should spit or swallow, but before I decide, it’s in my mouth and I have nowhere to spit, so I swallow.
A month in, I get invited to go downtown with him and his friends. We’re in Urban Outfitters, just looking. He walks into the fitting room to try on a shirt and tells me to come in with him. As soon as the door shuts, he unbuttons his pants and grabs my hand.
“Here?” I ask, my eyes wide in shock. There are feet shuffling outside—teens giving their parents clothes to buy. But he’s serious.
“It’s fine,” he says. He takes out his dick and I grab it as I stare at the door. Before he can finish there is a knock at the door.
“Only one person in at a time,” a woman says. When I leave the dressing room I try not to look anyone in the eye. We meet up with his friends, and Owen gives Hugh a look and Hugh nods smugly. Later that week, he asks me to hang out, and I say I’m busy until he says, “if we’re not gonna hang out we shouldn’t be dating.” We watch a movie in his basement. We watch another one the next week. It’s always the same, until one Friday after class I’m about to walk home with Sam when Hugh taps me on the shoulder.
“We have to talk,” he says. We step to the side, out of the crowd. Sam stands by the door, watching us.
“I think we should break up.” He says it slowly, two breaths, to make sure I get it. I try to swallow but it catches in my chest. My feet stick to the linoleum tile. My cheeks burn hot like iron. The people who were just at my elbows, bumping into my back and knocking at my hips, are suddenly outside, looking in, speaking in hushed, muted tones. I’m suddenly aware that too much time has passed. I need to say something but no words come. I think to myself, over and over, he’s waiting, everyone’s waiting, I need to say something. I think it until I can think nothing else, so when I go to speak, no words come.
“Lily,” Sam’s voice, soft and tender, right at my ear, just for me.
“Okay.” It’s my first breath out in what feels like minutes. “Okay.” This time, louder. I don’t look at his face when I turn to walk away. When Sam and I get to her house I lie on the kitchen floor and cry. Sam lies next to me, and I rest my head on her chest. She strokes my hair. I don’t know why I’m crying.
Boys talk more than girls, and I assume Hugh told people about the blowjobs, because I stop getting texts about nude pictures and start getting texts asking for handjobs and blowjobs. Cole has curly hair and a little bit of a chipmunk face, but he is cute and funny and good at hockey. He likes me, and I don’t know if I like him back, but I think I could. He texts me late Friday night, the last Friday of the school year. He asks what I’m doing and if I want to go down to the lake to hang out with him and some friends. I feel giddy, and I am not sure whether I want to go. My dad drives me to Michael’s Frozen Custard and we wait until we see the people I’m meeting. The dirty white tables are empty under the flickering lights. We wait in silence. I’m nervous, and I don’t know why. Finally we see them, appearing out of the shadows of the building. I see Cole first, and he smiles, and I smile, glad I came.
“Alright, have fun,” my dad says.
“Okay,” I say. I open the door and walk up to meet Cole and his friends. Cole and Biz and Maddie and Jack. So I guess they are friends.
“Hi,” Cole says. “We were gonna go climb the Center.”
“Sounds fun,” I say. Cole and I hang back, following the rest of them as they walk towards the Community Center, one of the most climbable, and therefore climbed, buildings in the vicinity.
“Are you excited for summer?” he asks. And we talk about boating and how much we love lakes and whether Max will invite Sam to his cabin this summer, even though they’ve only been dating for a month. I ask him if he thinks high school will be different. I follow the others. I can’t reach a ledge, and Cole reaches out a hand and pulls me up.
When we get to the top, we can see a blinking yellow light and the headlights of a car that zooms through it. And flashing lights, blue and red. We freeze and look at each other.
“Run,” Jack says. Everyone starts scrambling to get down. When I jump, I fall forward, landing with my hands on the asphalt. We run back towards Michael’s Frozen Custard. Under the lights, I can see the tiny rocks embedded in my skin. I try to rub them out and little flecks of blood appear.
“What’s wrong with your hands?” Cole asks when we stop running.
“Oh, nothing,” I say. “Just a little skinned.”
“Can I see?” he asks. I nod and he takes one of my hands in his. We decide to go to the lake to go swimming, but I look around and Cole and Maddie and Biz are gone. It’s just me and Jack, standing next to this vast pit of glistening water.
“Where did everyone go?” I ask.
“We should go skinny dipping,” he says. I look at him hard. He has that look in his eye, like he’s trying to read me but at the same time he doesn’t care what he reads; like he’s trying to make me read him.
“I don’t think so,” I say, shaking my head. I’m smiling but I don’t know why.
“Come on,” he says. Our faces are so close.
“I don’t know,” I say.
“Come on,” he says. He says it ten times. I count. I keep looking down the beach, hoping Cole or Maddie or Biz will come back just in time. But they’re not here.
“Fine,” I say. Once I’ve decided, it’s easy. I slip out of my shorts, throw off my shirt, unclip my bra, pull down my underwear and run forward, straight for the water. I don’t look back to see if he’s undressing too, to see if he’s watching me. I swim around until I hear a splash. I still don’t look. But a minute later, I feel the water move next to me, and suddenly he’s at my side.
“Hey,” he says.
“Hey,” I say. I’m breathless from the cold, and the nakedness, and the boy looking at me like he wants me. He steps closer. I keep my legs bent, so only my head and shoulders are out of the water. He asks for a blowjob. I look at the beach. Empty except a pile of clothes next to the lifeguard stand. I say no, and he asks again. He asks and asks and pleads and reasons and begs and asks and asks and asks. I say no 100 different ways before I say yes. But I do say yes. I could have left. I could have called my dad and had him pick me up. I could have called Cole and told him to come back. I could have walked home.
Instead, I think, the sooner I do it the sooner it will be over. So we go to where it’s shallow enough for me to blow him, dirty lake water dripping off his dick. Afterwards he thanks me. We go back to the shore and put on our clothes and walk down the path back towards Michael’s. Cole and Maddie and Biz are swinging on the playground.
“Where did you guys go?” Cole asks. Cole looks at me, but I keep my eyes on my ground, watching my feet rub circles into the dirt.
“Swimming,” Jack says.
The next day, I am sitting on my bed, staring at my purple walls and gold soccer trophies and cork board filled with movie stubs. I decide to go to Sam’s and walk out the door.
When I get there, just Sam and her sister are home. They’re sitting in the TV room watching “One Missed Call.” I lay down on the couch. They’re eating curry, and I don’t ask for any, which is strange for me. And I don’t say anything, not even hi or how’s it going.
“What’s wrong?” Sam asks. I don’t know if I want to tell her or not. I realize that even if I do, I don’t know what to say.
“I gave Jack a blowjob last night,” I say, finally.
“Lily,” she says, drawing out my name. “Why?”
“I don’t know.” I say. And that, more than anything, makes me want to curl up into a ball and cry. She says nothing for a long while. She just looks at me with these scrunched up eyebrows and pouty lips and sinking face, and I realize something that makes my insides crumble to something like dust, but worsedust. Like thick, mealy vomit chewed up and spat back out.
She feels bad for me. And I truly don’t know why. Because I know who I am. I do these things to myself, so I can come to Sam’s and lay on her kitchen floor and feel sorry for myself. I stay there the whole day, with her sitting next to me, the two of us watching TV in silence. By the time I go home, it’s dark out. I walk the long way, past the school. I check off the houses as I pass them. Dogs, bees, junk. I fight the urge to run back to Sam’s kitchen floor.
Blue Issue | February 2019