It’s getting harder and harder to believe anything anyone says.
For instance, Chris Cunningham, my oldest friend in the universe, likes to claim that he lost his virginity last summer on a family vacation in Hawaii to a nineteen-year-old girl from Brooklyn who has been in some movies. We’re fourteen and we’re from the suburbs and he has acne on his forehead, so I’m thinking it’s not true. However, whatever he did or didn’t do changed him in ways that are pissing me off. We used to do homework together almost every night. We still do, but now he’s always trying to get his hands in my pants. I usually make out with him a little, just to get him to leave me alone.
This is secret. He’s not my boyfriend, so fooling around with him like this is against some particular set of rules we follow at my school. At my school, even French kissing someone who is not your boyfriend will get you a reputation as a giant whore in about ten seconds, so I keep my shit private. Jenny, my supposed best friend, considers anyone who goes past second base a slut. Yes, she counts in bases, and down the pants is third. I am entirely sick of her, not sure how I will get through all of eighth grade with her by my side—and now she has developed a tremendous crush on Chris and she wants me to tell him for her and find out if he likes her back. He’s having a party on Friday, so she has put this conversation on a schedule.
I’m sure that he doesn’t like her, that he will not, and I hate that she won’t talk to him herself. What can I tell her? Sorry, Jenny, but I didn’t have time to ask, what between our social studies worksheet and listening to him tell me who he thinks about when he jerks off. But I can’t figure out how to say no to her. If I refuse, she’ll give me the silent treatment for a week at least.
* * *
I’ve lived across the street from Chris forever, and everyone always says we’re destined to get married. Like I want my whole life to begin and end on Deerfield Drive. I don’t even really like Chris like that. We’ve been doing our homework together for too many years. I know we are not supposed to be together because I like boys who don’t stumble over polysyllabic words. My particular stance on this matter drives Jenny crazy.
“Love is bigger than that, Maxine!”
“Shut-up, Jennifer,” I long to say, but she’s a slapper.
“She’s pretty,” Chris says when I reveal Jenny’s amorous feelings for him, “but I need a hot girl.”
My goal is to get him to make out with Jenny at his party or at least try to, which will give him some satisfaction and probably get her to stop liking him—since as far as I can tell, anything other than chaste pecks on the cheek freak the fuck out of her. And Chris is not a chaste pecker. Kissing her is a trap but it’s not like I’m going to warn him. Kissing Jenny means Chris will have to put in his three weeks or a month or however long she believes will dignify their torrid hookup or she’ll plague him. She’ll call him every day and demand to know why he treated her so badly.
“But I don’t want to kiss her,” he whines when I start trying to sell him on her good points. “She’s a biter.”
“A what?” I lift Chris’s hand off my T-shirt and bite his thumb. I laugh but it hurts to breathe because he’s sitting on my abdomen. I’m flat on my back on my living-room floor. He bounces up and down a couple of times, pushing the wind out of me. He’s almost six feet tall and far from scrawny, and his jeans are unzipped because just before I told him about Jenny’s stupid crush, he was begging for a blowjob.
Where are my parents? At a “book group,” though sometimes I suspect that that business is just about drinking wine. Maybe my parents are swingers. I’m positive there are some pretty dark secrets in this town. I kick the air with half-numb legs, trying to maneuver enough to knee him somewhere painful.
“Who’d she bite? I need names.” I pound him as hard as I can on the thigh with my fist, but he doesn’t even seem to register the impact. He sticks his hand between my legs, over my jeans, and rubs for a few seconds, watching my face. I roll my eyes. “Tell me.”
He stills his hand. “Just Jeff Schuler, because he tried to finger her, like, the first night he asked her out. But she’s a known kicker. She only believes in kissing, if you know what I mean.” He reaches into his pants and looks at me thoughtfully. He mumbles his next words, fast — “When are you going to admit you’d love my junk in your—”
I find a hidden reserve of power and heave him off before he can finish his sentence. I jump to a fighting stance, ready to smash him in the nose, the way they taught us in the self-defense unit in P.E. “Get the fuck out of here before I bite you, dick brain.”
Chris smiles and stretches his arms over his head, in no hurry to move. He zips his pants and takes his time gathering his books. It always ends the same way.
* * *
I don’t think I’m a slut, but I don’t understand the rules. I don’t know who invented them or where they’re written. Probably they’re in the Bible, so they probably come from God or Jesus or whoever—but if so, I’m not sure why they should pertain to me or why they suddenly pertain to everyone else. Jenny and a lot of my friends go to church at St. Norbert’s every Sunday. My family is non-practicing Jewish, so I never heard much about Jesus until he started calling people whores. My mom told me about sex when I was eight. A year or so ago she started saying “Don’t get pregnant, don’t get AIDS” whenever I leave the house after dark. I don’t think my dad even realizes I get my period, or at least we’ve never talked about it. I was the first in my class to get mine and first in my class to need a bra. When Jenny gets mad at me she tells me boys only like me for my boobs, but it’s not my exactly fault I wear a D-cup. It really does sometimes make it hard to tell who likes me for what, but what exactly would happen if I gave Chris a blowjob, anyway? Would I damn my eternal soul? I don’t want to suck his dick, so I haven’t sucked his dick.
At our school, only popular people go to parties. Basically, the only way into our group if you’re a girl is to be new in town and pretty—and not a total loser. There are girls in our grade who still wear sweatshirts with animals on them, cute bunnies or cats, and don’t wear makeup and never even try to talk to boys. And then there are other girls who try to dress like school is a business meeting, with little skirts and jackets and stockings and heels. And then there are the miniskirt girls who hang out with high-school boys in the forest preserve. Those girls have issues, probably. Boys get into our group a lot more easily, though they still have to be new in school. We adopted Ray Buchannan in the fall, the minute he moved here from Texas. He has floppy, wheat-colored hair and speaks with an appealing twang. Out of all the boys in our group—except for Brad and Kevin, who have long-term girlfriends—Ray is the only one I haven’t kissed. Someone new is a novelty. Ipso facto, I have a huge crush on Ray.
My main friends are Jenny, Brandy, and Samantha. They all went to the same elementary school together before I met them last year. Sometimes when we’re all together I feel excluded, but I’m not sure they’re doing it on purpose. Jenny tells me all the time how much she hates Samantha, who is attached at the hip to Brandy. Jenny says Samantha is practically a slut, that she let Jeff Heller get all her clothes off and they lied in bed together but didn’t have sex. Anyway, Brandy is a bigger idiot than Jenny. She thinks it’s sinful to wear long hair loose. She says that if you don’t want people to think you’re a slut, you should always have a barrette or a clip in your hair, or have it pulled back in a braid or ponytail. I kind of can’t stand any of them.
* * *
Friday night, before the party, Jenny and I are putting on makeup at the mirror over my dresser. She puckers her frosted pink lips at her reflection, imitating sexy.
“Did you talk to him?”
I touch mascara to my lashes. “There wasn’t time.”
“Maybe I’ll just have to do it myself,” she says with a flounce of her perfect yellow ponytail. She’s in a strange mood, acting like some kind of vamp. Jenny is my complete physical opposite — slim and blond with big blue eyes and freckles over the bridge of her nose. I have the aforementioned huge boobs, dark curly hair, pale skin, and red cheeks. I burn all summer while Jenny turns to gold. Looking at us in the mirror, I’m struck once again by our differences. She appears our actual age while I look, in the words I overheard my English teacher say to my drama teacher about me, “thirty-five going on French-film-actress.”
I snort at our reflections and Jenny misinterprets.
“Oh my God!” she screeches. “You didn’t tell him on purpose! What’s going on? Do you like him now or something? Are you going to go for him? Did he say something about me? If you just think he doesn’t like me but you don’t actually know, I’ll never forgive you, Maxine, because that would make you a liar. A liar and a deceiver! Just because you’ve known him your whole life doesn’t mean you know him better. You don’t know, Max.”
I tell her I don’t think any of that, that I just forgot to talk to him about it. What else can I do? I tell her to go for it. I say “I’m sure he’s totally into you.”
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.