I open the Cunninghams’ front door without ringing the bell and lead Jenny through the dark living room to the basement. “Be careful,” I say, “there’s a step coming.”
Jenny’s voice is petulant. “I’ve been here before. Don’t forget Chris and I worked on that science thing last year.”
“I won’t forget,” I assure her.
Every March, Chris’s parents go on a three-week “grown-ups only” vacation. This year they’re in Jamaica and Chris’s older brother, Mark, is supposed to be staying with him, but Mark lives in the city, in the dorms at DePaul, and really only comes to the ‘burbs if Chris runs out of food. Though the floor plans are similar, Chris’s basement is nothing like mine. We have a green and brown braided rug, mix-matched loveseats that used to be part of other people’s furniture, an old blue recliner and, propped on a chrome-colored plastic wheelie cart, a thirteen-inch black and white television from when my dad was in college. The Cunninghams have finished wood floors, a wet bar, black leather couches, a big-screen T.V., and pool, ping-pong, and air hockey tables.
When Jenny and I hit the bottom step, she goes directly to the pool table, where Brandy and Samantha are watching Jeff Schuler and David Goodman play against Matt Grazy and Jeff Heller. Jenny disapproves of girls playing pool so I don’t play when she’s around, although I’ve been beating Chris since we were big enough to hold cues. Apparently actually playing pool—as opposed to leaning on the pool table and giggling while boys line up their shots—means you’re trying to act like one of the guys, which is slutty. Haven’t I seen that Jodi Foster movie where she gets raped on a pinball machine?
Chris gets me a beer from the case of Old Style he convinced his brother to buy him. “He gave me half a bottle of wine, too, if you’re interested. Strawberry.”
“I don’t care for wine,” I say as though I know what I’m talking about. I don’t really care for beer, either, but it’s cold and it gives me something to do. There’s been alcohol at all our parties since last summer, but I’ve never been truly drunk. I’ve been fuzzy, felt a tingling in my thighs that makes me wonder how fast I could lose control, but nothing further. Although on three separate occasions I’ve rubbed Chris’s back while he puked in my yard.
“I’ll come find you later when I get the spins,” he whispers. “In the meantime, I’m going to try to finger-fuck Samantha.”
“What about Jenny? You could try to finger-fuck her.” The words sounded vile in my head but he laughs like it’s hilarious.
“We’ll see,” he says, waggling his eyebrows like some kind of sex connoisseur.
I go off to join the love of my life—Ray Buchannan—and the couples at the coffee table. They’re playing I Never.
“Have you ever played this awful game?” Ray asks when I sit next to him on the couch. “I’m the soberest person just ‘cause I’m innocent — and now everyone knows it! Plus now I know way too much about what these folks have done to each other.” He raises his left eyebrow and through his pupils flashes what I’m sure is a light of intelligence. He scratches his nose and nods at me. “I bet I could finally get a buzz going if you’d let me take you into another room and, like, experiment for fifteen or twenty minutes.”
My cheeks go hot. I melt for a little charm, a bit of wit.
“I never put my boots in the freezer after stepping in dog shit,” says Kevin.
Brad and Amy gulp their beers, laughing like this is the funniest thing ever. Both girls have gold crosses glinting at their clavicles, hanging from delicate gold chains given to them for their confirmations. Kimmy has been blowing Kevin on a semi-daily basis since last August, ever since his parents let her come with them to their house in Lake Geneva, or at least that’s what Kevin told all the guys. Chris tells me so many things he shouldn’t. I’m a great secret-keeper. Ray leans into me so that our hips and the sides of our thighs are pressed together. His body gives off heat. Most of the guys I know are still in the peach-fuzz stage in terms of facial hair, but up close it’s obvious that Ray probably has to shave every day. I squeeze my whole body tight and try to shake myself free of a sudden and overwhelming sense of desire.
Slapping the coffee table, I cry “I wanna play! I wanna play! I never moved to a new town and went to a new school.”
Ray drinks. “Thank you! I was parched.”
I press the tip of my tongue against my top lip. “Your turn.”
He smiles as though he’s tired and speaks with a resigned sigh, letting the end of his sentence fall. “I never kissed a guy.” As Amy, Kimmy, and I drink, he leans in and whispers in my ear. “I don’t even like beer.”
I offer him a tour of the house. A few minutes later we’re in Chris’s room, kissing on the bed.
* * *
Eventually, I piece together the full story.
After we leave, I Never attracts the rest of the party guests. It becomes clear to Jenny that Chris prefers her arch nemesis, Samantha, because he is aggressively trying to get Sam drunk with specially tailored non-confessions — I never had a cat named Spot (Sam’s cat); I never wore a dumb pink shirt with purple stripes (the shirt Sam was wearing, which Jenny has past proclaimed too tight). Jenny becomes furious and drinks an entire beer very quickly, despite her belief that consuming alcohol is slutty. The single beer sends her into some kind of psychotic break and, in front of everyone, she asks Chris if she can talk to him privately in the laundry room.
Everyone woo-hoos— Ray and I hear this from upstairs — and so Chris says yes, because why not? Sam doesn’t seem to be digging him and he knows Jenny likes him and who really cares? It’s a party.
In the laundry room, Jenny grabs Chris by the face. They make-out for a while. Jenny doesn’t say no when he grinds her against the washing machine and gets a hand under her bra. Then he moves her legs apart with his knee and she scissor-kicks him to the floor. And then, approximately forty-five minutes after Ray and I left the basement, Chris calls Jenny a frigid twat-faced bitch and she kicks him in the nuts. She runs out of the laundry room with Chris grasping at her heels, trying to take her down. He chases her up the stairs, panting and crawling and almost crying, through the kitchen and the living room and upstairs to the second floor, where she kicks him again. Howling, Chris flings open his bedroom door.
And there we are. Ray’s sweater is off. My bra is on the floor, though my shirt is still on. My jeans are undone.
“Fucking whore!” Chris’s face is so red.
At first, I’m not sure he means me. I make to leap off the bed but Ray moves too slowly.
“Sorry, Chris,” he drawls, smiling, pushing his floppy hair back into place. “We shouldn’t be using your bed. We disrespected you, dude.”
“Fuck you, dude.” Chris slurs like he’s ready to fight, and I realize just how drunk he is. “Get out of my fucking house. You probably have the clap now. Max fucks everyone. Did she suck you off? She’s fucking good at sucking dudes off.”
I grab my bra off the floor and stuff it into my pocket. “Asshole!”
Jenny shoves past him, screaming. “You had sex with Chris? My Chris?”
“Shut-up, whack job! I’m not yours!”
Chris is shaking he’s so angry. I’ve never seen him like this. Ray hasn’t said a word. He’s looking from one person to the next as though we’re a sporting event or impromptu street theater, as though he isn’t a part of it. In the face of my life crumbling, I yell that I’ve never had sex with anyone.
“Not oral or—otherwise!”
“Li-ar!” Chris sings. “Get out of my house, whore.”
I try to push past them and, thank God, Ray is right behind me, but Jenny grabs a handful of my hair and pulls, then backs up and slaps me across the face. Chris cackles.
“You’re going to hell!” Jenny sobs. “You’re going to hell!”
* * *
Ray and I go to my house.
“Where are your parents?” he asks.
He looks like he thinks that’s pretty stupid and I wonder where that light in his eyes went. In an attempt to pick up where we left off, I slide my hand up his arm. He walks away.
“Can I use your phone?”
I frown. “You need to call your parents?”
“My mom,” he says as though I’ve asked an absurdly obvious question. “I have to tell her where to pick me up.”
We go to the kitchen and I offer him pop. “We have cookies. Chocolate chip.”
“No thanks.” He dials, smiles thinly when someone picks up on the other end. “Can you come get me? I know, it’s early. I’m actually across the street from where you dropped me off.”
My eyes well up. Why does he want to leave? I’m pissed at myself for wishing he’d hang up and kiss me and put everything back to the way it’s supposed to be.
“The party was fine,” he tells his mom, “I’m just not feeling well. Yeah, stomachache. This girl lives right by him, so we came over here and she’s making me tea.”
He’s weaving quite some tale. The idea of school on Monday makes me desperate. When Ray hangs up, I utter a sentence that I will regret every time I remember it, for the rest of my life. “You know I’m not a slut, right?”
“Where I’m from,” Ray says slowly, furrowing his eyebrows, “people only do what we did if they’re, you know, a couple.”
My forehead prickles with sweat. It can’t go down like this — it just can’t. There is only one road to redemption. “I would totally be a couple with you. I want to be your girlfriend.”
He waves his hand around. “You, like, mess around with a lot of guys.”
I laugh, thinking I can fix this. “Not really. Chris called me a slut because I won’t give him head no matter how much he begs. Or maybe he just didn’t like seeing me with you. But I like you.”
Ray’s left eyebrow goes up. “You let him talk to you like that?”
I am stunned. I didn’t know it mattered. “Ray,” I whisper. “Ray, they’re going to…on Monday… if we’re not —”
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I made a mistake.”
It will be complete and total banishment. A shunning. Part of me is relieved because I will finally be rid of Jenny, but I am ashamed. If I were a different sort of person, Ray would want me. It’s not fair. I experience a floating, sinking sadness. And then I want to shake him, or punch him, make him look at me and tell me I didn’t do anything wrong, that none of it matters, that he likes me, that he’s my boyfriend.
But I just sit there with him at the kitchen table for twenty minutes in complete silence, until his mother honks from the driveway and he leaves.
Jennifer Levin lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her fiction has appeared in Evening Street Review, The Iowa Review, Freight Stories, and Twelve Stories. She is a staff writer for Pasatiempo Magazine at the Santa Fe New Mexican, where she writes about literature, theater, visual art, and social justice.