There Are Things You Do Even Though They Feel Wrong
There are things you do even though they feel wrong. You go places you know you shouldn't. You can hear the safety advice echoing in your ears as you do it: get in a car with a stranger, with a drunk. Go somewhere dark and uncertain. Somehow despite the fact that you are an intelligent, responsible young lady who knows right from wrong, you find yourself on a detour that involves stopping by some guy's place, on a side road miles from nowhere, you find yourself alone in a room with a guy you don't know.
At least you've got your plainness to protect you.
You're waiting for your friend to return. You're at these guys' house. Well, it's not a house so much as a shack, a sort of trailer with additions built on to make it more house-like. You're sitting nervously on the couch while your friend, one of the pretty girls -- why does she hang out with you, anyway? -- is off in another room, ostensibly helping her boyfriend pick out a shirt to wear to the dance. There don't seem to be any parents around. Not just tonight, but ever: it's as though these two emerged fully formed, or maybe they were raised by wolves. This was not a house where grownups lived. Right. His brother is not ten feet away from you, in the kitchen, throwing stuff in the sink, shifting around the empties and looking for beer. He is attractive in a scruffy way; bad hair, great body. You remember when he first started at your school. You thought he was cute. Maybe you'd find each other, the new kid and the misfit. Funny how some people never fit in and some people do right away. He is pointedly ignoring you now.
You're trying to look nonchalant, sitting on the couch, knees pressed tightly together. You're trying to imagine that you are cool. Maybe he's not ignoring you, maybe he's intimidated. Maybe you are so cool he doesn't know what to say. Maybe he's afraid. You try to relax, you lean back into the couch and cross your legs. You breathe deeply.
There is a noise at the door; he goes over and lets the dog in. The dog spots you right away: interloper in his house. He comes over to check you out. You offer a hand, he sniffs it. He licks it. He approves. You scratch behind his ears.
The boy in the kitchen is watching.
"Hey," he says, as his brother and your pretty friend emerge from the other room. "Look who finally found a date. Woof."
He laughs. His brother laughs. Your friend says, "Guys!!" in that girlish upset way that betrays her amusement.
- - -
The dance is a dance like any other dance. Guys at the edges, leaning against the walls, watching. Loose circles of girls dancing by shifting their weight from one foot to the other and back, bouncing slightly, handbags in a puddle at their feet. Each faces the others but hopes for a boy to come along and pull her in other directions. They look at their shoes and over each other's shoulders, their glances never approaching eye level, never risking contact.
The worst part is the slow songs. Being chosen is almost as bad as being left out: some sweaty kid rubbing up against you. No better than shuffling around and trying to pretend that you think slow dances are dumb, anyway. When you hear the opening chords you do your best to think up a brilliant excuse to make leaving the room seem less like panic, like flight.
"I've got something in my locker, you know," you say, trying to sound as sly as possible. The best part is, it's true: you smuggled in booze earlier in the week. Your parents had a stash of mini liquor bottles -- the kind that dangle around the necks of forty ounce bottles, a sample to lure you up to a more expensive level of rotgut -- little trinkets that no one kept track of. First you shifted a few, one by one, to the back of the cabinet. So that if your parents noticed anything missing, and looked more closely, they would think, oh, they just got pushed to the back. They didn't appear to notice. One by one, the little bottles moved to your locker. You have six of them now.
Really, you maybe should have practised drinking before. Even dumped into a paper cup of diet Pepsi, it burns. Your throat clenches shut, like it's trying to keep you from swallowing. Like your stomach is refusing to do this. You cough. You convince yourself that it's a cool, grownup cough, because it's from liquor (just like your mother says that the wrinkles in linen are different than the wrinkles in polyester).
The line has officially been crossed.
You have gone from good-student-who-could-try-harder to sullen-teen-who-skips-classes to being something like a criminal. You could get expelled for this. You don't care. Being expelled might even be cool.
You stumble slightly in the corridor back to the gym. Not enough to fall, just enough to give you away a little.
He's walking behind you. You didn't know.
"Have a nice trip?"
You turn around, startled, afraid of getting caught. You're breathing quickly. Your face is a little flushed, maybe from the steamy gymnasium, maybe from the shot. He looks at you a little more closely.
"Hey --" he lowers his voice; he widens his eyes. "Have you been drinking?" He's a little in awe.
"Me?" you ask, pretending nonchalance, terrified of trouble. You take another sip. This feels good now. This is something you like. It's not burning now, it's warm, soothing. It makes you strong.
You turn away and walk back to the gym with a measured, deliberate stride, trying to look as sober as possible.
- - -
Your pretty friend finds you later. She's been busy with other people for most of the night.
"Hey, have you, you know, started already? You have!" She laughs and covers her mouth. Save some for me! Let's get pop."
You go to the cafeteria for watered-down Pepsi. She giggles uncontrollably, shooting mischievous glances at everyone you see.
"Shut UP! You're going to get us caught!" An older male teacher you don't have any classes with looks at you suspiciously. She yells: "We're going to my friend's locker to get tampons!" You punch her in the side. You want to die.
You share a rye and Pepsi in the girls' room. The ice is melting, the pop runny and tasting of sugar. Your friend coughs and sputters while you drink smoothly. You look at her and roll your eyes, like an old pro, like, "kids these days." You feel so mature. You're also better at walking straight lines when you get back to the corridor. She's got her hand to her forehead.
"The ice gave me a headache," she complains. "That was strong."
You enter the gym at the wrong time. A slow song is starting. You look for an escape route, or at least an empty space where you can lean against the wall. You're queasy with nerves and booze. Your friend disappears instantaneously, her boyfriend materializing from nowhere. His brother is looking at you. You can't move. Somehow you end up dancing with this guy. This guy you thought was cute, before you found out how mean he is. And that awful house. And you hate yourself for still thinking he's cute when you should know better than to like a boy like that.
Knowing better is boring. Doing the right thing is boring. All your life you were a good Girl Guide and a good Candy Striper volunteering at the hospital, and a good babysitter, and got good grades. All it got you was lonely. So much for knowing better. You can't learn from mistakes you haven't made yet.
Suddenly all of the lights are on and everyone is blinking and tripping on the dirty crepe-paper streamers that have fallen to the floor. Your friend grabs your arm and drags you to her locker to get some eyeliner. Her locker is decorated with a mirror, with pictures of her boyfriend, with a poster of a fluffy kitten with the caption: "Hang in there!" You go back to your locker to get the rest of the "supplies." You shove the little bottles in the big pockets of your second-hand coat, winkling them through the hole in the corner, so they disappear down into the lining. You can feel them bump against your calves as you walk. You're glad they're made of plastic, so they don't clink.
Getting into your friend's car you replay all of the Public Health Office ads again. All of the Mothers Against Drunk Driving ads. Your pace quickens, but you don't stop. You don't say anything. You are desperately curious to see what will happen, how it will all end. She brings the car jerkily around to the front of the school. Her boyfriend opens the passenger door, where you are sitting. He says, "Maybe you could sit in the back." You get out and wriggle back in through the tangle of seatbelts, thinking no, don't put me in this situation, don't leave me alone back here while the two of you make out or something. It never occurs to you that his brother is going to clamber in the back seat with you.
Speeding down the highway in the wrong direction, the road seems to disappear into night just twenty feet in front of the car. His hand is on your knee. Just in a casual way, like you are a piece of furniture, an armrest is one of your features. His posture is totally blasé, while you are tense and rigid and unable to move. The car is turning off the main road, and you try to see a sign, figure out where you are. But without anyone noticing, of course.
You can't help remember the kid who smashed into the bridge last year. Just lost control of his car, they said. The road gets very narrow under the railroad tracks. People have been calling it dangerous for years. Maybe now they'll do something about it.
The car skids to a stop on wet grass. The ground is heavy with dew, glittering and cold. There is some debate as to whether to go and sit by the river. It's too cold. No it's not. Yes it is.
You are leaning against the car, wondering what is supposed to happen next, what you should do now. He comes over. "Got anymore booze?" That's an easy one. A straightforward request, easily answered and dealt with. You reach into your pocket with one hand, lifting up the hem of your coat with the other. You worm out the remaining supplies, four small bottles. He laughs at your ingenuity. "No wonder you get good grades," he says. He opens a bottle, and gives it back to you. Then he opens one for himself. "Cheers." You sip yours, used to the taste. He knocks his back like a shot, sputtering and coughing and yelling. "Whooooooooooo!" You take another sip, and another, while he knocks off another little bottle. There is one left. "We should leave it for them."
Suddenly you're kissing. Suddenly he's mashing his mouth into yours, you part your lips instinctively, to protect them, opening your mouth reflexively, to keep from chipping a tooth. Was it supposed to be like this? You feel detached from your body, watching from a distance, curious. Like a scientist controlling an experiment, writing down the movements of the rats for later analysis. You can feel his tongue, a strange blob that fills your mouth. He is holding you against the car, his hands on your waist, on your shoulder, ready to move up or down at any moment.
Then he stops, pulls back, humming, still holding you down, but leaning back to look at you. His arms are long and strong. He avoids looking at your eyes, your mouth. You recognize the song he's humming. You know that song. You fill with anger.
Before you can react, your friend is back from wherever she'd gone. "Get in the car. No, I want you in the front. They can get in the back."
The ride back to the dirty trailer is fast and quiet. Everyone sits in silence, staring at their hands. Your friend stares straight ahead, her hands white-knuckle at ten and two on the wheel. You get out of the car to let the boys out of the back. The dog is tied up in the yard. You don't remember that happening earlier.
"Hey, it's your boyfriend."
These are the only goodbyes.
"God, I hate boys. They're so fucking lame." Your friend is pretty even when her eyes are red, even when her face is tight and shiny with tear streaks. She looks breakable. You wish you could learn to cry like she does. You never find out what exactly happened.
- - -
Standing in front of the mirror, brushing your teeth as quietly as possible, you look at your face closely. You analyze it, and can't figure out what's missing. There isn't anything obviously wrong - no big hooked nose, no double chin, skin fairly clear. You have cheekbones. You have lips. You've read all of the magazines and fixed your eyebrows accordingly.
There is no way to define your ugliness. It won't be quantified or itemized. It lies beneath the skin and cannot be extinguished with powders and creams. How do they decide who to like and who to hate - who is pretty and who is not? Maybe they draw lots. Maybe it's a secret ballot. There must be a method. But you will never find out what it is.