Maddy spent the drive to Hilton Head Island telling me all about her recent sexual discoveries. She was daring in the way she volunteered information, as if the best way to bridge the gulf of years since we’d last seen each other would be to brag on about her conquests. The last time we were together neither of us could drive; we had yet to smoke cigarettes or drink anything beyond a sneaked sip of beer for which we hadn’t developed a taste. But even when I saw my cousin in the terminal, hopping up and down at my arrival, there was something about her. She had a palpable air, an unmistakable stride that screamed of doing it. She had filled out, made up and dressed every bit like the woman she was meant to become.
Under my baggy clothes I still felt like a stick figure, a caricature of something that a girl was supposed to be—shy, quiet. Covered up. I was doing my best to look like Angela Chase, the girl from My So-Called Life with maroon hair and plaid jumper dresses. But my mother wouldn’t let me dye my hair, and anyway they cancelled My So-Called Life before the first season ended, and I hadn’t seen all the episodes.
I felt as false as the things I was trying to get away from: the grinning, happy kids at school who were fine with the world around them. The West Texas ethos that said conformity was the best way to get along, that you should be sure to go to every football game and potluck and church every Sunday, lest someone believe you to be unhappy, no matter how unhappy you may be.
Back then I thought I was the only person in the world capable of thinking this way, and that Canyon, Texas was the only place on earth like it—stifling and frustrating and hypocritical. I know now that this is untrue. But there’s something to say about a place. Years later someone showed me a quote from a singer who grew up in Lubbock. He said that in Lubbock he learned that God loves you and you’re going to hell, and that sex is wrong and dirty and you should save it for someone you love. That’s about it right there.
When Maddy picked me up in Savannah it was the beginning of Summer, and I was hoping that it would cut off what had turned out to be a very bad spring.
By the time Aunt Melinda set the dinner table I had been caught up on six years of gossip and rumor about people I either didn’t remember or had never met. When my aunt asked me how I was doing, there was a distinctly conspicuous hint of sadness and concern in her voice, knowing that I had been through so much in the last year. She thought it was my boyfriend who had died, and went on and on about how hard it is to lose someone close, especially at such a young age, and she wouldn’t know what to do if something so awful had happened to young Madeline and one of her boyfriends. I tuned her out until she stopped talking.
“It’s okay,” I said. It’s all I ever said about the matter.
“Drowning must be an awful way to go,” she said. She was magnificently tanned.
I smiled like a sad little trooper, and told her it wasn’t as bad as people thought. “You blackout pretty quickly when you can’t breathe. And when you’ve got that much pressure on you.” Aunt Melinda’s smile went a little crooked. She was putting salad into bowls for us. “Actually,” I said, “it’s not so bad if you drown accidentally, from what I can tell. If someone’s holding your head underwater, like they do in the movies, well, I figure that’s pretty bad. You probably feel all of it that way.”
She shuffled around the kitchen for a minute, unsure of what to tell me. She started to speak a couple of times, a series of short glottal sounds, each time raising a finger as though it would help her along.
“Well, Maddy, be a dear and get your cousin something to drink.”
I asked for water.
I could care less who Paul Jennings or Tommy Baker were, with their white-boy sweater vest names and expensive cars, but I got a small thrill hearing about Maddy going down on them in parking lots and getting fingered in her school’s auditorium. When she found out I was still a virgin, she took me on as a project.
Days we usually spent on what they called the boardwalk, a row of restaurants and gift shops ending in a pier. She’d show me to her friends and we smoked cigarettes and lounged in front of coffee shops, stretching the limits of how much time at an outside table a single cup could buy you. It was sunny most of the time, and I bought sunglasses and started wearing less. I had perfected what Maddy’s friends called the grunge look, and they could not in good conscience let me mope around with my hands hidden away in flannel sleeves. I became the recipient of borrowed sleeveless shirts and casual summer dresses. I was girlier than I’d felt before, but since I’d probably never see any of these people again, except for Maddy somewhere down the line, I didn’t mind.
God, they all wanted to get me laid. We’d spend hours hanging out with morons playing video games in pizza shops, or playing touch football and volleyball in the park by the boardwalk. They all seemed to have blond hair and halogen smiles. I couldn’t remember any of their names. They were all Chad or Tad to me.
His name was Neville Ward, but everyone called him Alan. I met him at a baseball field, at night. It was still hot, even during the night. I never remembered such humidity. Aunt Melinda pretty much let us have free reign of the island. On those nights wanderers belonging to the same school and family groups converged according to age. Melinda had her backyard parties and white blues clubs, Maddy had the boardwalk and what I thought was an ever-growing number of structural nooks that were magnets for these island kids. It amazed me that these kids were never run off or arrested. Maddy and I would walk aimlessly through neighborhoods or behind businesses and run into someone our age with a bottle, or a joint, as though it were somehow penciled into our nights.
Alan was, I guess, more attractive than the rest of them—at least more my type—though I wouldn’t have given him much thought in Canyon. For a week I’d heard nothing from Maddy and her purse-carrying friends that it was my time, that it was beyond my time, and I had better get to screwing or I’d never get anything out of college.
He had shaggier, darker hair than his friends. When they introduced him, he came off as shy and looked at the ground when talked to me. He was with some of the volleyball boys; they were sitting on bleachers and held tall beer cans in little paper bags. Maddy and her friends were an allied front—their game was perfect. They swooned in all the right ways; they were vocally impressed that these kids had beer. She had a way of standing in the right spot, with her butt pointed the right way, that put me down on those bleachers, made me sit there, next to Alan. There was a spot for me sit, right there next to him.
They were not the defiant losers I was used to spending time with at home. My friends were people whose attitudes and ideas and generosity made them beautiful. I remembered that as I sat on those bleachers with beautiful people. The fact that would be leaving soon, though, helped me not to care about that for a while. In a week, I’d be back in Canyon amid cotton fields and vacant lots and used cars. I figured I might as well try and enjoy this moment, under that white southern moon and next to the slightly grungy guy with the twenty-four ounce Coors Light can.
He was a cleaned up version of those television rebel heartthrobs. He had taken his cues from the dangerous guys on all the right shows and movies and made himself somewhat of an amalgam of that character: the aloof one who had a motorcycle, was quieter than his friends and had slightly shaggier, darker hair than his friends. He was a bit of an artist, he told me. Maddy knew he was the closest thing to my type on this island, and had no doubt put me in his path.
I ran into him a lot after than first night, and I liked him better when I’d find him alone, walking through town to get to the coffee shop or waiting to run into his friends. It was obvious, though, that he was waiting to run into me. I found Maddy’s ability to orchestrate these social situations strangely admirable. Everybody needs a skill.
I let myself become part of the dance, watching how our routine adapted, creating convenient exits until Alan and I were alone. We mostly walked, and I’d laugh at his real name and he’d laugh about my cousin. I knew she told him to be this way for me, but I didn’t mind. He said he wanted to make album covers and band posters for a living. The drawings he showed me had no promise, but they were sincere enough. He had drawn out copies of album covers I’d seen, but didn’t own. Canyon wasn’t a good place to buy tapes. He had made these posters for bands I’d never heard of, and he told me they were local bands and that they used the posters to advertise their shows. The bands’ logos were scripted carefully, each different from the next, but the pictures in the posters were rude sketches of brooding teens, or non-sequitur images like eggs splattered against a wall or a buffalo in the middle of a busy street. I couldn’t tell him that I really wasn’t impressed by the drawings. They seemed to be all he had, the way he talked about making art. I wasn’t sure, though, that this was really art.
He was going into college undecided. I told him I was going into a career of undecided, and I knew from the drawing and his parents’ beachfront ranch house that he’d be a fine accountant like his dad.
We ended up at that house by the beach after spending most of the night sipping those magic beers on the beach, those volleyball players and Maddy and her shopping friends and Alan and me. His parents would be gone for the most of the night, and he wanted to show me some new drawings he had. He showed me in the low light of his room, sitting on the floor. There I was, scarred from too many eraser marks and deliberate lines, looking very much like Angela Chase. I believe now that seeing those portraits, how distant they were from the real me—though he couldn’t possibly have seen the real me—are the reason that I never dyed my hair, never got cable, and never again bought a t-shirt with any kind of logo or brand displayed across the front. Alan had bought into these things, these ideas of who you’re supposed to be, how to be rebellious and hip and young. But I didn’t feel young, and I knew that fucking Alan would be no act of rebellion. I knew that’s what he wanted from me, and even though we had similar tastes in music, in fashion, that no amount of Pixies or Jane’s Addiction cassettes could make us the same.
There were a few of these portraits, these terrible renderings of some idea of me, and I looked like a sad, sexy sprite in each one. He had worked hard on them, I could tell, and they made me look like a girl I had never been, a comic book version of myself with oddly feminine powers. My eyes were too big. I had more curves on those pages than I did in three dimensions. I wanted to laugh, and couldn’t. Alan was hinging on this moment. This was either his big chance at having me or he really wanted me to see how hard he had worked at these pictures. I couldn’t laugh at them, and I couldn’t be sincere and tell him how much they didn’t really mean to me. They were shit, both technically and in representation of their subject.
“You can keep them, you know, take them back to Texas,” he said. His voice, I now noticed, was high and unsure. Everything he said sounded tentative.
“What?” I said, as though I couldn’t hear him.
“I mean, you know, I did them for you, because I think you’re pretty awesome.”
I had no response. There was nothing I could think of to do that would stop his assessing me, and I could only think of Maddy and her incredulousness that I had yet to do this. If she could take what she wanted from any guy, and give him what he wanted in return, what was the harm? I would never see this kid again. I could only kiss him, pulling him down to me and on top of me.
The light went out soon, and the rest I would have to remember, so I could tell Maddy every detail.
He had me undressed and I wanted him to look at me more than he was looking at me, to turn a light on. I wanted to see him, as if I could see us both, onscreen, projected at a drive-in theater or some other piece of America that I had yet to experience, and until this moment, like this moment, thought I never would. He was gentle enough and had his hands everywhere on me. If anything he was too much of a gentleman through most of it, and I could tell from the way he didn’t look right at me that he was stifling the need to apologize, for not being perfect, for taking too long, for not taking long enough. For being my first. He slowly lowered himself over me, adding more weight and though I felt him and thought what we were doing was right I knew I lay too still and thought too much, while his weight pinned me and his chest, still growing that first coat of hair, hit me over and over, rubbing against my face and contorting it. I could barely breathe under him, though he was hardly substantial enough to ever crush or smother me.
Since it was my first time, I guess, since I was lost in thought and analyzing the situation from the wrong perspective, thinking of drive-ins and first-time movie sex scenes and listening to him breath, I noticed only too late that he was not wearing a condom. I asked him to stop when was ready, that we couldn’t have any accidents, and for some reason I trusted him enough to go along. And I lay there, still as ever, and thought of every girl in Canyon who had done this ceaselessly in truck cabins and at parties, and I felt for once like one of them, like one of these southern island girls, and then I thought of how I would put on my best sly face the next day when I would pull Maddy aside and say “I totally scored.”
The first thing I wanted to tell her about was the way he came, on me, how it brought everything to a weird stop and again he wanted to apologize, though he seemed paralyzed for a minute. Like he wanted to make the moment somehow poignant, even though I had this goo on me, that, while I guess I did my best to appreciate its significance, I kind of wanted him to wipe it off me gently, quickly, I didn’t care, just now. God, he had this puppy-dog glow about him too. It wasn’t that I felt particularly bad about it, or about him, but how many other girls have the same stupid story? Dear diary, it finally happened! Shit.
Maddy was more than willing to hear all about it, and I did get to the part about him running to the bathroom and back with toilet paper to clean me up. In spite of how cheap and dirty I felt, at that point, Alan still had a kind of stupid charm about him. “Aw, you wanted to clean me up,” I said, in a babying voice I’d never used before. He shrugged and told me it was the gentlemanly thing to do, which was wrong, since the gentlemanly thing would have been to warn a girl before releasing all over her stomach. I forgave him that, too because it he didn’t know any better. No one had taught him, and it wasn’t up to me to be the girl to tell him, either. I was sure this was sure this was the royal treatment compared what Maddy and her friends usually got in the backseats of Civics and Firebirds.
Maddy asked me if it hurt, and it did, and I told her, and that was that.
After, I still had the thrill of being naked in front of him, of seeing all of him, too. We could see the outline of each other from the bathroom light. He was the second person to see me without clothes, and I told him that. I stood up, turned on the light by the bed, and stretched out my arms, palms up, on display. I did a ballerina twirl in for him. He didn’t say much, couldn’t. Anything he did say would remove what dignity and luster he had left and made him stupider. I shushed him, with my finger, close enough for our bodies to touch.
The lamplight reflected us in the window, and in the shadows on our bodies in that moving picture I could see the dunes, the beach, and the water beyond. My hair had grown out, and in the makeshift mirror I was girlish, a figure that I couldn’t make relate to myself. I was incongruous. Blue dunes ridged through the darkened parts of me. The island slept, it seemed, and I opened the window by Alan’s bed. I stretched out through it; the humidity from the ocean, the salt air, went over my arms and back and bare chest. “Come on,” I said, and slid through the window, falling in the grass of his parents’ lawn. Without looking to see if he was behind me I ran down the wooden walkway to the beach.
He followed me slowly, but only after he had grabbed a towel or a shirt or something to cover himself with. It was late, and no one was on the beach. “Sam!” he whisper-yelled, “someone might be out here!”
I turned around to see him. He was curled over, trying not to expose himself. Feeling how much the salt air had cooled down from the hundred-degree day, I stretched out and threw my arms back. “Take a risk, Neville,” I said.
“What?” he said back, his turn now to pretend he couldn’t hear.
I walked back to him, slowly, swinging what little hips I had, and touched his stomach with my fingertips. “Your art,” I said, “isn’t what you think it is.” He didn’t say anything back, but he looked a little scared. I giggled a little, and thought it was the most girlish thing I’d ever done. “It’s okay. You just need to realize that you don’t make art. You make commercials. Maybe you should think about marketing as a major.”
Alan didn’t say anything. I pulled my fingers away from him, and walked backwards, knowing he was still trying to take me all in. After a few steps I quickly turned around, skipping through the sand, feeling it bounce off of my ankles. In the water I let the tide take me to where I could fall deeper and deeper and I could no longer know which way I was falling.
All I could hear was the pressure of the water, and when I tried to listen to it, it went away.