A Start
Joshua Ben-Noah Carlson

Amy isn’t waiting by the entry to the dance. A table blocks most of the hall to the cafeteria where the dance is, and someone’s dad is sitting there chaperoning. Sean fills in his name and Chad’s as guest on a form. It costs five dollars to get in, four if you take a breathalyzer. The breathalyzer feels weird, just basically a plastic tube with no resistance to the air he blows into it. Chad pays the five dollars and refuses to take the breathalyzer, though they’ve been together all afternoon and he hasn’t been drinking. Chad’s like that, though, him and Ben and them from middle school.

Only about half the kids are dancing. Sean sees Amy and her friends dancing up near the speakers. He points her out to Chad. They haven’t met before—Chad goes to a different high school, Amy went to a different middle school. “Dude! She’s hot!”

“Yeah”—though Sean doesn’t think of her that way. He and Chad filter on to the dance floor. They can both dance, but they don’t dance near each other until they’re warmed up.

During the next few songs Sean works his way toward Amy. He doesn’t obviously look at her, but he watches her dance. She’s a good dancer. Most of her friends don’t move their feet, some of them do exaggerated stupid things like they’re making fun of people who can’t dance, though they can’t really themselves. But Amy just does it. She moves her feet and turns around; her thin arms look springy. Before she sees him she’s turned away from her friend, her feet apart and her knees bent. Her arms are out in front of her and she’s looking back kind of over her shoulder with her eyes almost closed, and moving her hips. Then she looks up and sees him watching her. She brings her arms up over her head and looks the other way down at the floor. Her whole body looks open.

He drops his arms from in front of his chest and steps out of his dancing. He’s past the point of itchy sweat; his shirt is comfortably stuck to his shoulders and chest. He walks toward her and she looks up with her eyes without turning her head. The side of her mouth he can see smiles pouty. She takes a couple steps to meet him, still in her dancing, her hips going more than her feet. She takes his hand and pulls him back toward her friends. He starts dancing again and smiles. All of Amy’s friends watch them, a few of them stop their stupid-dancing, especially the fat one, Angie. She’s one of Amy’s church friends. She was there when they met. It was after a youth rally at a huge church in the suburbs, at a dance after the speaker was done. Sean was in the middle of the dance floor and looked up and Amy was right in front of him, dancing like this.

“Where have you been? It’s like 7:30!” She’s almost yelling and he can barely hear her over the music. He points to the middle of the dance floor. She smiles and shakes her head. Some of her hair is coming loose, and she takes her upper lip inside her lower to suck off the sweat.

At the end of that song they sit down. He leaves her at a table and goes into the hall to the pop machine. He buys a regular and a diet Coke, and a Mountain Dew because it’s less carbonated. He holds the sweating Cokes in his left hand and slams the Mountain Dew while he walks back in. The cold goes into the bone in the roof of his mouth and the bubbles scrape in his throat. He leaves the can on a table by the door. Amy’s sitting with her knees crossed and her elbows back on a lunch table.

“Who’s that guy?” He looks out where she nods. Chad’s tall.

“Oh, that’s Chad. He called and decided to come. But we don’t have to hang out with him if you don’t want to.”

She doesn’t look like she’s listening. “He’s a good dancer.”

“Yeah, we were the last ones on the dance floor at his school last Friday.”

She sips and they sit. There aren’t very many girls out there who know how to dance. This dance is only ninth and tenth grade, and, other than Amy, there are only four or five girls that can dance. The rest are sitting or stupid-dancing or head banging by the speakers. At the start of the next song Amy jerks her head toward the dance floor.

“Yeah,” he says. They start at the edge and filter in, the usual after they ditch her friends. But Sean feels like she’s trying to drift toward where Chad is dancing with Ben and them. Sean’s rhythm isn’t there. He feels like his legs look dumb, like he and Amy are dancing near each other but not together—it’s the opposite of when he looked up at the mega church dance and he’d been dancing with her without even knowing it.

By the end of the song they’re right by Ben and Chad. Sean stops dancing and slaps Ben’s hand. He hates that. Ben is the one guy that he would punch. He turns back to Amy but she’s already shaking Chad’s hand. Chad has a good handshake, too, better than Sean’s.

* * *

His leg shakes a little while he pees. Some splashes on his pants when he shakes it. As he leaves the urinal he hears the bass line of a slow song coming through the cinderblock wall. He never washes his hands, but now he turns and goes to a sink. He leans with his hands on the edge and lets his spine hang between his shoulders. He turns on the water and splashes some on his face from cupped hands. It doesn’t do anything, but it looks good in the mirror.

The pop machine is in the same hall as the bathroom but he makes a complete circuit of the dance floor before buying another Coke. Chad gives him an upnod from over Amy’s head, and Sean can see Chad’s hands down low on her hips, on the sides of her butt. He’s never touched her there. He feels like his leg will start shaking again.

There’s a bench next to the pop machine. A girl—Sean thinks her name is Jackie—is hunched over on it; her elbows are on her knees, her hands pressed against her ears to hold headphones in and cut the volume of the dance music. She’s wearing baggy jeans and a black concert-t-shirt. She turns her head, hands still on her ears, when the Coke can bangs and thumps into the basket of the machine. She has thick black eyeliner and dark lipstick. She looks back down. He opens the can and takes a sip. He doesn’t want to go back in there during the slow song. What could he do? This Jackie girl’s back is small, outlined by the t-shirt; the list of dates and cities is faded. The ribbed noses of rubber shoes poke out under the ratty hems of her jeans. She looks back up at him for a second, then gives him an upnod. He sits down.

He leans against the wall, both hands on the soda can, feet wide apart but flat on the floor. After a minute she looks at him again. “Can I have some of that?” He hands it to her. She drinks, then takes one of her headphones out. “You’re here with that Amy girl?” He nods. “God, she’s a bitch.”

“Yeah,” he says, surprising himself. He would never call a girl a bitch.

She takes another drink. “God, I’m totally drymouthed.” She pulls the other headphone out. “So why’re you here with her then?“

He shrugs and looks up at the row of lockers in front of him. The back of his neck is tight. “She’s a good dancer.” He thinks drymouthed means she smoked pot.

Now the girl shrugs. “You’re pretty good, too.”

“Yeah. I like it.” He doesn’t remember seeing her out there. “What’re you listening to?”

She holds up one of the headphones. He nods. She hands him the Coke and the headphone and takes a Discman off the bench next to her. He puts the little black speaker in his left ear, the one closest to her, and listens to the beeps while she clicks back to one of the tracks. She puts the other headphone in her right ear; they both cover their ears and listen. She selects a few tracks, then skips back to the beginning. It’s an acoustic album and hard to hear over the music of the dance, but they sit until the lights come on in the cafeteria.

Sean stands up and hands her the headphone. His ear hurts where the plastic was pressed into it. “Are you going to the game tomorrow?”

“Woohoo homecoming. I’ll be there and fucking loving every minute.”

“All right. I’ll see you there then.”

“Are you bringing Amy?”

He grins. “She’s cheerleading.”

* * *

Chad finds him by the table where they signed in. “What’s up, man? Where were you?”

The feel in Sean’s body is cold again like when his leg was shaking, but he’s not angry with Chad now. He knows that tone is just Chad being protective and that he shouldn’t be so angry. He tries to keep his voice steady. “I've been here, man. I was just down at the pop machine.”

“Yeah, well, Amy just left. She’s pretty pissed.”

Sean waves his hand up. “Whatever.” He turns and walks around the table toward the doors, in the mass of kids leaving. Chad looked as surprised as if Sean had said “fuck.”

In the entryway Chad says, “Well, you should call her.”

Sean keeps walking. “I’ll call her.” He knows he has to. The entryway smells like sweat and perfume and someone’s cold wet sleeve bumps his wrist. He pulls his arm away with a jerk and disguises the movement by reaching out too soon for the exterior door. His arm looks stupid out there in front of him.

Outside it’s dark. It’s decently warm for October; you can barely see your breath. Across the parking lot Sean can see into someone’s living room—a white-shaded lamp and the shadowed back of a couch. There’s enough of a moon that he can see the green of their grass.

As he steps down off the curb his t-shirt moves against his skin, spreading the cold of his sweat. It’s not sweat from dancing—Chad must be freezing—but from sitting by that incense-smelling girl. He hadn’t noticed her smell but he remembers it.

“Ugh!” Chad says. “I’m freezing. Let’s run.“ They start off stiff, swinging straight legs, their fists in their pockets and elbows locked against their ribs. After half a block they break into a sprint, slowing as they warm. Sean’s body is loose again, and now Chad will be mad at him all night. Maybe he won’t want to stay over. They were going to play computer. Sean doesn’t know how he’ll explain to his dad that he has to drive Chad home so late. Just ask him to, I guess. Then he has to call Amy. Anyway, even if Chad did want to stay, they won’t get to Sean’s house ’til like 9:30 and the computer’s in the room next to Sean’s parents’ bedroom. They would only have had an hour and a half to play before Sean’s parents went to bed and they had to be quiet. It’s not too much of a loss. He can play a quieter game by himself as late as he wants. Chad probably won’t call him anymore. That’s the strange part. He’ll have to just delete all their saved stats from the game they play together.

Then Chad says, “My brother’s working tonight and he won’t be home ’til like twelve or one,” and it takes Sean a moment to catch up: they’re still going to hang out.

They run faster.

They sprint the last two blocks. Sean purposely runs his legs into the side of his father’s car and rolls onto his back on the hood. The metal is cold and presses the cold of the new sweat in his shirt against his skin. Each exhalation feels like a collapse and each inhalation starts before he expects it. Chad hunches with his hands on his knees, falls, rolls in the cracking leaves, stands and paces, saying, “Walk it off. Walk it off!”

The suction of the front door opening bangs the screen door. Sean gets off the car as quickly as he can without warping the hood.

“Everything all right out here?” his father’s voice. The light at the end of the driveway clicks on. It takes Sean’s brain a beat to connect the light with his father’s hand spread on the wall inside—like when his father’s sock-foot gives the leg of Sean’s chair a shove at breakfast, or he pulls the short hair on the back of Sean’s neck in church, without his fingers touching the skin.


“You should come in and call Amy. She called a little while ago. She sounded pretty upset.”

“I'll call her from Chad’s. Could you drive us over to Chad’s?”

“What for?”

“We want to play his brother’s computer. It has really good graphics and he’s working until 11:30 so we can play it in the basement where we don’t have to be so quiet.”

“Chad, your brother doesn’t mind if you use his computer?”


“All right. Come inside and you call your parents and make sure it’s all right with them. And Sean, I think you should call Amy from here before you go.”

* * *

Chad’s brother Dave pounds down the stairs at 10:45. They both hear him but they can’t look away from the screen. Dave walks from the door to the bed, smacking the back of Chad’s head as he goes by. “What’re you doing on my computer?”

“You’re sposed to be at work.”

“You little pissant. I’m gonna go get my dick wet or I’d smack the shit out of you right now.” Dave’s sitting on the bed pulling off his work shoes. He stands up and pulls off his shirt. There’s some hair on his chest; he has big arms. Sean will have more hair, if that comes from your father. Dave crosses to the dresser, stomping into other shoes. He opens the top drawer, pops open a cardboard box. Sean hears plastic crinkling, then the drawer closes and another one opens. Dave pulls another shirt on and walks for the door, thudding a punch on Chad’s arm. “And don’t you fuck with my rubbers while I’m gone.”

Chad half-laughs. “Or your weed.” Dave stops in the door, turns, and punches Chad’s other arm twice, hard.

After the feet pound up the stairs Chad laughs again and says, “He keeps his weed in the box with his rubbers.“ Sean doesn’t have any brothers. He tries to laugh with Chad.

* * *

The images of the computer game disperse in his mind, but he doesn’t fall asleep. He sees Amy. He can’t be mad at her. There was a girl at Chad’s homecoming last week and after about half the dance Sean danced all the slow dances with her. She wasn’t a good dancer otherwise, but in the slow dances she held on to him even tighter than Amy does. You can’t get Amy in there against your body. But with this girl—Sarah—he leaned his head down into the smell of her different perfume and different shampoo, and a few times he locked his hands around her lower back above her butt and let his head rest on her—his cheek on her cool ear, his lips half on her shirt and half on the skin of her neck. She pressed against him. She gave him her number and he called her on Sunday. He meant to tell her about Amy but didn’t get that far. She—Sarah—asked him to wait while she got rid of her sister. The voices were muffled but harsh, and when she got back on she said, “God, she's a fucking shit.” Sean’s forehead went tight. She was so soft when they were dancing. He supposed he hadn’t given her any reason to swear. He said, “Oh, sorry. My dad has to use the phone. Can I call you back?”

He told Amy the next day at lunch. He didn’t know quite what to say. “Last Friday I danced a lot with this girl Sarah.” So? Anything else? Amy didn’t care. Nothing else with Sarah. Not with her.

As he’s lying on Chad’s floor Sean’s penis moves, almost itching. Its swelling rubs it against the cloth of his underwear, triggering a full erection. He rolls to his side to give it room, and tries to keep Sarah out of his imagination. He’s gotten a lot of use out of her in his mind in the past week, but he doesn’t let her coexist in his mind with Amy. He masturbates less frequently since he met Amy, and never pictures her, even clothed.

But lying there, when he unclenches his mind, he sees Amy at the lunch table, listening to him talk about Sarah and then laughing—not understanding the seriousness. His penis is throbbing, pumping out of sync with his pulse. He rolls to his knees, slides the blanket off and stands up facing directly away from Chad. If he gets an erection in class he pins the head of his penis with the waistband of his pants. He reaches into his underwear but his penis is hot and will barely move; the thin elastic of his underwear wouldn’t hold it. He walks sideways to the bathroom and closes the door. He pulls down his underwear and sits on the toilet in the dark.

With his knees wide apart and leaning his torso forward he can force himself to aim down into the bowl. He urinates and slowly it begins to soften. When it will hang on its own he moves his knees closer and rests his elbows on them. He rubs his hands over his hot face. It’s not very oily yet. Chad’s starting to get an oily face. Dave’s is probably still oily, though he’s hairy. Sean knows that hair follicles and oil glands are different, but he still feels like the prickly hair on his father’s face is hardened oil, like curls of shiny stiff motor oil.

Dave is hairy, and he’s gonna go get his dick wet. Sarah appears again in Sean’s mind, willing to do whatever he wants while he sits in the dark bathroom. His mental reflex to keep her out is a picture of Ben. Scared, mouth open, Sean’s hands on his shoulders, slamming him into a wall or a row of lockers. It would never happen, but it’s an instant response: he sees Sarah’s brown eyes and hair, her sitting on a couch and leaning and reaching for something, her neck and the way it felt on his lips, the taste of her sweat on his mouth at the end of a song—then the noise of Ben’s body hitting the wall, his mouth opens; he knows he deserves it.

Sarah and Ben alternate in Sean’s mind in the bathroom. He’s both clenching his fists and getting hard again when he stands up. The toilet seat sticks to the backs of his thighs and slams back down. He hunches, quickly pulling his underwear up over his bruised-feeling crotch. But why shouldn’t he be in the bathroom? He turns around and bats at the toilet paper to get it audibly moving on its spindle. He tries to fart. He flushes the toilet.

To calm himself he tries to think of Amy. From his desk in Mr. Schlaeffer’s class he can see her back, the strip of skin between the bottom of her shirt and the top of her pants. It has tiny hairs on it. But not gross—they are tiny, light, you can’t feel them with your fingers. And her shoulder blades are thin. When he rubs her shoulders and his fingers tickle her neck she wiggles and the shoulder blades slide around under the skin like saucers. Sitting in her desk like that, with her elbows on her notebook, her shoulder blades point out, lifting her shirt away from her spine. He imagines the hairs on her lower back continuing up along her spine to the back of her neck—there are some there, too. Jason from youth group—he goes to a different school—says that a backrub is the best way to get a girl to take her shirt off. And he says that while you’re rubbing her shoulders you work your fingers lower and lower down the front. Sean hasn’t really tried that with Amy. With the crook of his hands on her shoulders, and just the thumbs on the back, his fingers are pretty much on the tops of her breasts. It’s definitely soft. She doesn’t take her shirt off, but he’s never tried to get her to.

And she answers all the questions in Mr. Schlaeffer’s class. She’s so smart. With her hand up, the sleeve of her shirt is tight and it looks like her arm bends a little past straight—the inside of her elbow is on the outside of the angle. Her hands are kind of big. She holds a pen when she raises her hand so that it doesn’t have to be open. She hates her hands. She says that a lot. But he knew it before they started really hanging out. You can tell with girls what part of themselves they hate. Jason says that’s the part you should compliment first, so they relax. But that’s stupid. It’s better to not mention it. Compliment something else. Sean never talks about Amy’s hands. He tells her she has beautiful shoulder blades and she laughs and wrinkles her nose at him and thinks he’s weird. But it’s true. And he rubs her back and her shoulder blades move in her shirt and sometimes he gets hard like this. He doesn’t think of her this way. Sarah comes back into his mind; he didn’t see her shoulder blades but he doesn’t mind being hard with her in his mind. And then Ben, slamming into the wall. He tries to bring Amy back, but it doesn’t work. He can’t think anything good. She’s beautiful but that makes him hard. And her voice was so flat on the phone. He called from the computer room before they left his parents’ house. She has her own cell phone and when she answered he heard voices, then nothing for a few seconds while she walked to her room, then her door closing, then “Hi,” and nothing else, just the word from her cold pouty mouth, and him, “Oh, sorry. My dad needs to use the phone quick,“ he said.

He opens the bathroom door quietly. Chad is still asleep, on the couch in the basement rather than in his room; the blanket covers only his bent knee. The rest of him is piled loosely on the rough cushions.

Sean steps onto the carpet and looks through Dave’s open door. He’s not home yet. Maybe he doesn’t come home sometimes. Sean takes another step to Dave’s door. The wooden doorframe is exposed between the short-napped carpets of the two rooms and feels cool on the arch of Sean’s foot. He’s never actually held a condom. Chad’s breathing is audible and undisturbed. Sean steps quickly to the dresser—the air has started to feel cool on his sides and along his hairline. He slides the top drawer partway out, then holds the sides and lifts to slide it quietly on its tracks. The box is in plain sight, next to a tangle of boxer shorts, some of a satiny material with swimming paisleys. His fingers feel stiff but he opens the flaps one by one without making noise. The little squares are joined edge to edge in a strip with a hard zigzag on the ends. They crinkle a bit, but he pops the end one off pretty quietly. It is black on top, white on the bottom, and covered in lettering. He thinks to read it in the bathroom but he’s already detached it; he’ll keep it and read it tomorrow. He sets it on top of the dresser and folds the rest of the strip into a springy pile. There are other strips in the box and he looks in, holding the wadded strip. He thought the weed would be hidden in the bottom of the box, but the baggie is sitting in plain sight alongside the wadded strips of condoms. He pauses. He can hear Chad’s breathing and a clicking from upstairs in the kitchen, the stove, maybe—not a person. He sets down the strip of condoms and reaches in with two fingers to pull out the bag. The plastic is worn, nearly opaque with wrinkles and creases, and the stuff inside is like dry moss. His tongue feels dry. He thinks of Jackie.

This is theft. But no one really should have it, so what does it matter who does? Sean’s too goody-goody—Dave wouldn’t think he took it. And Dave and Chad fight all the time anyway.

His chest feels constricted; there’s sweat between his fingers as he stuffs the strip of condoms back in the box and closes it. He closes the drawer and steps back into the family room where Chad’s sleeping. Sean’s clothes are next to the couch, near Chad’s head. Sean crouches, his hands shaking a little, and puts the baggie and the condom in the pocket of his jeans under his wallet.

Getting to sleep feels just like dispersing a computer game.

* * *

Dave did come home later, but he’s still sleeping when the boys leave to go back to Sean’s house. They sit in the back seat together and Sean presses on the bulge of the baggie in his pocket, digging the plastic teeth of the condom wrapper into his skin.

At the game they end up sitting with Ben and them. Amy of course is down with the cheerleaders—she’s the only freshman on the varsity squad. Chad and Ben talk about how hot the cheerleaders are, and they don’t say anything like, “not Amy.” They’re talking about her, too, and Sean just tries not to listen.

The bleachers are cold on Sean’s butt and on his back and elbows through his sweatshirt. Eventually he sees Jackie and her friends. They stand behind the bleachers in a ragged circle. Probably they want to smoke, but a chaperone parent is back by the fence watching them.

Ben and Chad are just saying everything Sean tries not to even think. Tits, ass, fucking. And Jackie saw him when he looked back there. She waved her hand down by her side. Why should they know each other? He should go talk to Amy. But he never called her back; she didn’t call him this morning; they didn’t ride together to the game. He knows it’s stupid, but he thinks of bible-reading. They’ve read bibles together. Very mildly, Sean wants to cry, and he has to pee.

He stands up and steps over and down to the next row. He takes a few steps and hot tension radiates from his pelvis along all the tendons in his abdomen, into his hips and down his inner thighs. “Where’re you going?” It’s Ben’s voice.

Ben has a fitted cap on backward. The bill is curled tightly; the back crosses his forehead just above his eyebrows. He has big teeth—not buck teeth; they are thick and strong like a dog’s. His lips are rubbery-looking and pulled up at one corner. His eyebrows are thick, too. Chad sits with his hands between his knees, looking down at the cheerleaders. His eyes come up to Sean’s middle; then they go back down. Ben’s too big. You couldn’t really slam him into a wall.

The bleachers clomp under Sean’s shoes. If he stomped they would bong.

There is tension across his forehead like the Neanderthal ridge on Tony Alvarez. He is almost at the metal edge of the bleachers. There is a bunch of girls sitting below him. Rather than backtrack or fight through them with Ben watching, and maybe Chad watching, too, and ready to make fun of him if Ben starts, Sean steps off the end. It’s a little too high; his body is loose, but the impact hurts his shins and arches.

Jackie sees him drop. Her arms are crossed. She’s in a t-shirt with a long-sleeved t-shirt underneath and a long-underwear waffle-shirt under that, but she still looks cold. Sean’s stomach feels hollow. There’s nothing behind him now but people’s feet between the bleachers, and trash and ratty grass on the ground, but his head is still tight; there’s still a sparkling web through his abdomen and pelvis. While he walks toward her he holds his wallet and keys in cold hands in his pockets. She’s wearing those same shoes, but different black pants, wider. Her shirts are black and white, her nail polish black, her eyes blue. He gestures with his head at the dirty red brick school building. “What,” she says.

“I have something for you.”

The school building’s unlocked, but probably they’re not supposed to be there. As they pass the locker room a parent chaperone comes in one of the doors. Sean walks down the hall and around a corner to a locker, improvising. He turns the combination dial back and forth until the parent comes around the corner. “It’s in here,” he says. The parent stops. She’s overweight; her mouth is pinched, almost pouty looking. She folds her arms and frowns more. Sean spins the dial; he’s sweating between his fingers again. He’s blank. He looks at the woman. She doesn’t say anything, just waits, and he sees her slamming into the lockers instead of Ben in his mind. Heat is going up his neck into his face.

Jackie says, “Tse. God. I’ve got one in my locker, too. Come on.” She takes his hand, and as they walk away up the hall she says, louder, “What a bitch.”

When they get around another corner Jackie spins and lean against the quartz-speckled corner column; she’s covering a laugh with her hand. Her thumb is in her sleeve; the cuff crosses the back of her hand just below her knuckles.

“God. She totally thought you were going to kill her!”

“Huh,” he says. His chest pounds. Jackie leans around the corner.

“OK. She’s gone. Let’s go back before she gets a teacher.”

“Huh,” he says, then laughs. “That’s not my locker.”

“What! Oh my God!” She laughs and kicks the ground with one of her little rubber shoes.

“Come on.” He takes her arm and pulls her into a recess in the wall between lockers where there are two narrow vertical windows and a door into a biology classroom. He takes out his wallet and his student ID. He’s seen Ben do this. He creases one corner of the stiff lamination. He holds the locked doorknob in his right hand, and with his left slips the bent card behind the catch. She leans over him to watch, and that incense-smell fills his head. He’s trying to turn the knob, but as he jiggles the card the bent corner slips along the angle on the other side of the catch and backs it out. The door pulls open, with the knob still locked.

“That’s fucking awesome,” she says. Her saying that is very different than Sarah saying it, or Dave. They sound so harsh. Jackie sounds totally natural; it doesn’t sound like a bad word coming from her.

She follows him into the room and closes the door. The whiteboard and the tall desk where Mr. Gibson stands while he teaches are on their right. The wall across from them is one long shelf with windows for the top half. The windows look out on a courtyard across from the cafeteria. If he went to the windows Sean could see into the hall where the pop machine and the bench are. He turns down the center aisle. There are two rows of lab tables with sinks and microscopes and tall stools. The tables are attached to the walls and create little alcoves. Sean turns into one of these. There is enough light left in the sky that he can see the books and jars of things in the wall. He doesn’t look at any of those things. Amy would say they’re all gross. He turns around. Jackie looks unsure. He reaches into his pocket. How should he give it to her? He just pulls it out and opens his hand.

“Holy shit!” she says. He grins. She takes the bag and opens it. She puts it up to her nose and giggles at it. “It’s stinky.” Then she looks up at him, big eyes. “This is for me? Seriously?” He hears feet. He nods but holds up a hand. There are two people in the hall, talking quietly. The metal click of one of them trying the door stiffens and freezes Sean’s ears and back; he feels prickles in his hair and across his chest and down his spine. But the feet walk away. He lowers his hand and looks at Jackie. She’s still looking toward the door but the baggie’s gone. Her hands are empty and loosely curled. She looks up at him and smiles. The smile leaves and one of her hands comes up to his chest; it is a small hand. He feels like he should breathe before this but he can’t. She leans forward up on the balls of her feet, bending the rubber of her shoes with a squeak on the tile floor. He can’t help closing his eyes. The pressure of her hand on his chest increases and he almost flinches back as soft skin touches his lip. Her lips feel tiny. They are both on his lower lip and he doesn’t move. He opens his eyes; she is looking at him and she reaches up with her other hand and pulls his head down. Her next kiss is very soft and he follows her lead. The tip of her tongue comes out and brushes his lip like fire. Her lips touch his above and below her tongue and his mind can’t register all three contacts at once. His hands touch her sides as though they’re dancing and he pulls her to his body. She responds, pressing into him. He lets the tip of his tongue come out as hers had done, and hers slides delicately along it, in between his lips. He can feel her hipbones pressing into his legs; her knees are slightly bent between his; he is leaning against the wall. She must be able to feel his penis—it is not pulsing or hurting; it is fighting against his clothes, pressing into the lowest part of her stomach. He angles and lowers his head to kiss her harder. He breathes in deeply through his nose, and feels his exhalation break against her cheek. He hopes it doesn’t smell bad. He breathes again. He slides his hands, pressing hard into her sides, down to the sides of her butt, where Chad had held Amy while they danced. Jackie lets her head be forced back. Her left hand moves from his chest to his side; she presses her chest into him, her head far back, and her right hand rotates down to cup the bulge in his pants. Her hand closes and turns. He breaks the kiss and his breath comes out of his mouth. His lips are wet and feel swollen. She lets go, moves both of her hands up past the sides of his head, extending her torso, her whole body open. He pulls her in again, kisses her while she holds his hair. He brings his right hand up, still not breaking contact with her body, and moves it across her breast. He doesn’t know how to hold it. Her bra, under all the layers, has its own shape, and his palm cups it while his fingers curl around the top into the softness of her breast. She closes her eyes and pulls back from his body. His head follows, hunched forward. Her fingers slip down and up under the hem of his shirt. They hook the waistband of his jeans and pop the button. She slides his zipper down and that tiny vibration almost pulls a sob from him. She looks up and kisses him, her hands once again on his chest. Then she lowers herself to her knees, bumping a stool with her foot.

He leans his head back and finds the edges of the shelf and holds onto them. He is no longer breathing. He sees the windows—it is twilight, it is October; he looks down. He sees a rough part in her hair, her four fingers coming out of the sleeve that her thumb’s in again. She is holding him. Her head moves forward. There is her tongue again like flame around the rim and her head moves a little more. It is hot. He never thought it would be so hot in a girl’s mouth. He is crushing the shelf in his hands. He clamps his throat down on his breath to keep it in. Her head is moving. He looks at the floor; it is moving. He closes his eyes hard and bites his tongue. Her head stops and pulls back slightly as he comes.

She stands, running her covered thumb over her lower lip. She is smiling. That is important, but he can’t think to figure out why. He lets his weight sink back into his feet. She steps and leans over the sink in the lab table. She spits, turns on the water, and drinks from the faucet. He closes his pants. She turns off the water and wipes her mouth again. He is empty.

She folds her arms, then grins and says, “Do you think we can smoke in here?”

“Yeah,” he says, hoarse.

She takes a box of cigarettes out of her pocket, opens it, and takes out two. He takes one. It’s firmer than he expects. She has a green lighter. He inhales through the cigarette; it feels like the flame goes into his throat. He forces his throat to stay open and take it. He exhales, not coughing. He watches her. She holds the smoke in her mouth before inhaling. He does that. She exhales through her nose and her mouth at the same time. It tastes different that way.

When they finish they put them out in the sink; she runs water to wash the ashes out, and she puts the butts in her back pocket. She kisses him. Her lips are cool; his feel dry. “Should we go back out?” she asks. He nods.

As they walk across the room he stops her. “Can I have another cigarette?”

“Yeah.” He puts it carefully in his pocket.

* * *

There was no one in the halls. Jackie’s friends are sitting in the bleachers on the end farthest from Chad and Ben and them.

“Want to come sit?” she says. He thinks of Ben and them seeing him, or even Amy, who feels far, far away now, with Jackie and her friends. Not yet.

“No. I’m gonna take off. I hate football.” He doesn’t say, I fucking hate football.


He smiles at her and turns and walks away. He thinks he should have kissed her again, but he keeps going. He goes through the gate in the fence and turns away from his house to put the school building between the bleachers and himself. Then he runs. It is getting dark and he runs all the way around the school, the whole building and the fucking football field and the fucking baseball field. He cuts across the big parking lot and runs toward home. His throat and lungs burn; his mouth tastes like chemicals, and the wind tells him he is still damp inside his pants. He stops at the end of his block, by a tall lilac hedge. He fishes in his pocket and pulls out the crumpled and broken cigarette. He doesn’t have a lighter anyway. He drops it in the hedge. He takes out the condom also, drops it in. He laughs at it sitting there. He turns and leaves them, running again and laughing. But he’ll get more.

I wrote this story on a couch in a small town in Denmark, while my wife was traveling somewhere. While totally in love with the almost completely homogeneous and level-headed culture there, I found myself (to my surprise) missing both the sexual tension between people of different value systems, and the nearly ubiquitous, if not always obvious, sizing up and aggression/hostility between men, here in the States.

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