By Sydney Rende
Featured Art: Cicada by Scott Brooks and Mallory Valentour
My ex-boyfriend calls from Florida to talk about his pubes.
“Are they weird?” he asks.
We go to schools in different time zones. Over the summer he broke up with me on the patio furniture in his backyard. I cried into his lap. He carried me to my car, then went inside to eat dinner with his family.
Now he plays lacrosse on scholarship at a school with palm trees and a rape problem.
“Why would your pubes be weird,” I say. My roommate, Jenny, shuts her laptop and listens from her bed.
“You tell me.” He’s angry with me for not telling him about the strangeness of his pubic hair. Why would I care about his pubic hair? One time he shaved the peachy space between his eyebrows with a disposable razor. I thought that was weird, but I never told him.
“The guys on the team are saying my pubes are weird,” he says. “Like I have too many.”
“Did you tell them you’re from New Jersey?” I ask. Jenny moves to my bed, holds her ear to the phone. She covers her mouth so he can’t hear her breathing. I want to tell her that her breath is the last thing on his mind. His pubes take precedent over her breath or my breath or even his own breath, and he needs to sort out the pube situation before he asphyxiates.
“Tell them how cold it gets at home,” I say. “How you need all the hair you can get to stay warm in the winter.”
Jenny snorts into my ear. We’re only a couple weeks into our first semester, but we’re already close friends. Our sheets are the same shade of pale gray. We wear the same size shoe. It’s easy to make one close friend, especially when the only other option is to be alone. Jenny is from Iowa and knows a lot about tornadoes. She taught me about storm cellars and state fairs and I taught her about boardwalks and pork roll. Our school also has a rape problem. They gave us whistles to wear around our necks. We are not supposed to go anywhere without each other.
“Whatever,” he says. “I don’t give a shit.”
“Obviously you do, or you wouldn’t be calling.”
I can hear him moving around, trying to take up space and color-in the silence. “I want to make sure it isn’t something you thought about but never told me.”
We dated for one year. There were a lot of things I’d thought but never told him. I thought it was strange that his parents let him smoke pot in his bedroom, which was in the attic. I thought it was irresponsible to have a bedroom in an attic. I didn’t like the cartoons he watched when he was high, but I watched them anyway and laughed in all the right places. I thought sex was boring and sometimes painful. I was always stinging or burning after sex. To avoid it, I often pretended to fall asleep on his bed while watching boring cartoons. I never told him about that. I never told him that when he dumped me I’d just gone on the pill, and that I only cried so hard because my hormones were waking up, trying to orient themselves.
The pill is one yellow, chalky lentil every morning, except for the one week per month when the lentils are white and made of sugar instead of yellow and made of hormones. When I started taking them over the summer, I cried about everything. I cried when the fuel light on my dashboard blinked orange. I cried when the water in the shower was too hot, and cried harder when I adjusted the knob and made it too cold. I cried with the losers of game shows and weight loss commercials. “You’re crying over spilled milk,” my mom said, which also made me cry.
At school, my hormones have become less wet and droopy. As far as I can tell, they have dried up.
“I’ve never given any thought to your pubes,” I say. His are the only boy’s pubes I’ve seen. Now that they’re on my mind, I remember them as wiry and scratchy. I don’t have anything to compare them to, other than maybe a Brillo pad.
“I have to go,” he says, and hangs up.
Jenny snorts again then makes a face like she feels bad about it. Jenny is always concerned with everyone else’s feelings. Her own feelings are secondary to the feelings of anyone around her. She answers the phone in the shower, or while brushing her teeth, so whoever is calling doesn’t think she’s ignoring them. If she’s late to class, she stands on the other side of the closed door and watches through the small plexiglass window, so she doesn’t disrupt anything or distract anybody. She wants everyone to feel comfortable all the time, for all their problems to be solvable with a high five and a smile. In Iowa, this is how they teach you to be.
“I feel bad for laughing,” she says. “Is he okay?”
“I think he misses me.” It feels good to be missed. It feels like winning.
I take all the right steps to forget my ex-boyfriend. I delete the pictures of us from my phone. I don’t call him. Whenever I think about calling him, I go to a party instead. I bring Jenny and we drink beer until I forget. I make out with a boy I don’t know against the basement wall of a house I don’t know. I major in Women’s Studies. I cut an inch off my hair. When the boy texts me, I decide not to reply until I am finished with all the steps. I delete more pictures. Still, like sabotage, my face breaks out into tiny clear pimples, my forehead a shiny braille.
“It’s because you’re taking birth control,” my mom says. She and my dad come for Parents’ Weekend. I bring them to the only restaurant on campus with white table cloths. They don’t ask me about my ex-boyfriend, about whether we are together or apart, or how he and his pubic hair are adjusting to the Florida climate. Better to be concerned with the now, is something my mom likes to say. Also, Better to be in the know than in the dark, and, Better to be safe than sorry.
“Your hormones are rebelling against you,” she says, like it’s something she heard once and liked, and can now be applied to any scenario. “But better to be pimply than pregnant.”
“Why would hormones do that?” I ask. I’ve noticed the hormone uprising inside other girls who live in my hall – weight gains, unexplained sobs, cystic acne in places previously presumed poreless. Has everybody started taking birth control at once? Jenny has gained six pounds since the start of the semester. Once she got drunk and sobbed that her body betrayed her. The worst part, she said, is that all the weight has gone straight to her armpits. Three pounds to each pit. She threw out all her tank tops. She threw out her bras and bought new, roomier ones to hold in the armpit blubber. “Time to start fresh,” she said, staring at the bag of trash bras. Now, she eats iceberg lettuce and goes for long runs around campus. You’re taking all the right steps, I tell her, over and over. I don’t say, you must be doing something wrong.
“They’re hormones,” my mom shrugs, as if no further explanation is required. I’m worried my hormones will develop the temperament of a bad dog – that I’ll wake up one day and my body will be gnawed to shreds, unrecognizable. “They don’t like change.”
I cover my forehead with my hand. It’s about as smooth as a gravel driveway. I rub the pads of my fingers across the bumps, trying to understand them.
“Don’t pick,” my mom says. “You’ll bleed all over your dinner.”
“Veal parm,” says my dad, and hands his menu to the waiter.
My parents pay for dinner. We go to Target and they pay for a body pillow, a bottle of benzoyl peroxide face wash, and a coffee machine that brews exactly one cup of coffee at a time, on a timer. I tell them I need AA batteries and tampons and they pay for those, too.
As we pile all my stuff onto the conveyor belt, my mom slips three packs of ultra thin condoms behind the tampons. She sent me to school with a bulky box of the exact same condoms, which she’d made my dad pick up at Costco. I wonder what she thinks I’ve been doing in the time I’ve been away, if she assumes I’ve already used up a box of forty-plus condoms. Or does she think I’m sharing them, slipping them under the heavy wooden doors of all the girls’ rooms in my building – an elusive condom fairy?
“Tampons and condoms should be sold as a value pack. Can’t buy one without the other,” she says. She taps her nail on one pack of condoms as it slides down the conveyor belt. “Also, STDs.”
My dad glares at the gum selection. He needs gum. He needs to study the gum in order to decide which gum he needs, which gum would be the best gum for him in this particular moment. He reaches for a pack of Trident, flips it over so he can read the ingredients on the back. He holds the gum up to his eyes, reads the ingredients.
“It’s important to talk about this stuff,” says my mom, staring at the condoms. She pats my dad’s back.
My dad throws the gum behind the condoms. “Christ,” he says. But he still pays. Later, he’ll check his credit card statement and see how many travel points he earned for buying me condoms at Target compared to the amount he earned for buying me condoms at Costco. Buy your daughter enough condoms and you can fly to London or Hong Kong or Barcelona. Buy her the normal amount of condoms and you can fly to Newark.
I show my parents the library. I show them the big lawn where students hang hammocks and tight ropes in between trees. I show them the outside of the football stadium and the blue-lit emergency poles that you’re supposed to run to if you’re being mugged or raped. During orientation, we each had to take a quiz to certify that we understood the circumstances in which we should use the emergency poles. The quiz went something like:
I will run to the emergency pole if I feel:
A) Angry, because my parents won’t send me more money.
B) Depressed, because I miss my real friends.
C) Afraid, because I am alone for the first time and there is something strange in the air.
D) Afraid, because I am being followed by a stranger who could be carrying something sharp or heavy.
The correct answer was D) Afraid, because I am being followed by a stranger who could be carrying something sharp or heavy. Although B) Depressed was also considered an acceptable answer, after a boy in the back row argued that being B) Depressed could be just as dangerous as something sharp or heavy.
My dad takes a photo of the stadium. He presses his hand against a blue emergency pole. He leans his weight into it as if testing its strength. He knocks on it, hovers his finger over the emergency button.
“This calls the real cops?” he asks.
“Sure,” I say, but I have no idea who it calls.
“And suppose you can’t make it in time?” my mom says.
“In time for what?”
“Don’t be smart.”
My parents fly home on condom points. Back at my dorm room, Jenny is eating from a plastic container of iceberg lettuce and balsamic vinegar that she concocted at the dining hall.
“Vinegar is good for your skin,” she says.
“What is that supposed to mean,” I say. We have an agreement: never talk about your roommate’s rebellious hormones. Complain all you want about your own hormones. Call yourself a slug, a slut, a turd. But roommate hormones are off limits. Mentioning your roommate’s hormones is like insulting somebody else’s family.
Jenny moves to my bed. She dips her pinky finger into a pool of vinegar and rubs it on my forehead like she’s giving me a blessing. “It helps,” she says. “It’s like, acid or something.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I say. I wipe my forehead with my sleeve. “And now my face smells like a salad.”
I glare at her and she stares back at me like a baby bird.
“I’m only trying to help,” she says.
I don’t talk to her for the next hour. I sit on my bed and look at photos I didn’t delete. I haven’t seen my ex-boyfriend since the night he made my hormones cry. I wonder if he would recognize me, now that the tears have burned off and the pimples have popped up like tiny graves in their place. I wonder what he is doing right now and who he is doing it with. His parents probably didn’t give him a box of condoms before he left, because they were high or just thinking about something else, like dinner.
I text the the boy I kissed in someone’s basement. The last message he sent me reads, Jared from saturday night.
What are you doing tonight?
He responds almost immediately.
Paint party. 1245 Gerard Ave.
I type, Should I come? Then I delete it. I get up and stand in front of the closet I share with Jenny and put on a dress and cork wedges. The shoes belong to her, but I’ve already worn them three times and they are now considered a shared item, like the hair dryer and the full-length mirror and the toothpaste.
“Where are you going?” Jenny asks from her bed. One of us is always in bed.
“You’re wearing heels to the library?”
“I’ll be back late.”
At the party, I look for Jared from saturday night. The room glows in the dark and everybody’s faces are smeared with paint. Paint splats against the walls. It splats into drinks. The air is thick and hot. It tastes like stale beer. When I push through the crowd, sweat from arms and shoulders and backs sticks to my body. I can’t find Jared, but I meet another boy whose face is entirely painted blue. I have no idea what he looks like, other than blue. He gives me a beer and tells me he lives in Harrison Hall, same as me. We dance and he gets me two more beers and then we walk back from the party together. When we reach our building we both go to his room.
“Are you going to wash your face?” I ask. He’s sitting up in his bed, over the covers. His sheets are silky and yellow. His mom picked them out, I am sure. If he lies down, he’ll get blue paint all over his mom’s yellow sheets.
“Are you?” he asks. My face is mostly unpainted, but I smeared a green glob across my forehead to hide the pimples.
“No,” I say. I’m standing above him, waiting for something – permission, a clue. He points to his door, to the gray towel that hangs from a hook.
“Grab that,” he says.
I take the towel off the hook and hand it to him. I watch him lay it over his pillows and smooth it down with his hands. I think: why didn’t I think of that? I think: this guy is a problem solver. He is probably a math or engineering major, somebody who studies how to solve problems. I’m attracted to him even though I can’t see his face.
“Can you turn off the light, too?”
I turn off the light and the room goes black. I can only see the beady blue light from his phone as he clutches it in bed.
“Do you want to see my pool?” he asks.
“Sure,” I say. I get into the bed beside him and he pulls up a photo on his phone. There is nothing special about the pool – just a rectangular, cement pool filled with bluish water and surrounded by mowed grass and a patio with lawn chairs. There is nobody in the pool. He had taken the photo on his way out the door to baseball practice or the SAT or to break up with his girlfriend. A photo of his empty pool that he planned to show to his next girlfriend.
“Cool,” I say. I also have a pool. We are kids with pools. We are those type of kids. We could guess anything about each other and we would probably guess right. I guess he has two chocolate labradors and a mom who likes to cook seafood. A mom who irons sheets. A dad who chews loudly and a younger brother with ADHD. Either that, or he is the younger brother with ADHD, and his older sister plays lacrosse or field hockey and will work in HR for a few years before getting married and having her own pool, cooking her own seafood. I guess he once had a girlfriend who he dumped for another girlfriend, because the new girlfriend had migraines or acid reflux or something worse than ADHD.
I keep my guesses to myself. I want to make sure he keeps his guesses to himself, too.
“Here’s my dog,” he says. He swipes his finger to move to the next picture. It’s a picture of a chocolate labrador chewing the soft cotton head of a toy moose. “We had another one,” he says, “but she died.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. I also have a dead dog. We are exactly the same. Somehow, disguised, we found each other.
“Her name was Sandy,” he says, and he shows me another picture of another labrador, this one yellow with a white face and drooping eyes. This dog is lying on a slick wood floor, not chewing on anything, waiting to die.
After he shows me his pool and his dog and his dead dog, he takes off his shirt. He looks like a shadow in the vacant darkness that hugs our bodies. I take my dress off but leave my bra on. He stares at me in the dark, stares at nothing, and then pulls me close to him and kisses me. The kiss is just okay. His lips are chapped and taste like paint. His tongue is dry, like winter skin.
Until now, I have only had sex with my ex-boyfriend. In my experience, sex goes like: kiss for awhile, lie down, wait, flip over (maybe), wait more, and finally, go to the bathroom. It isn’t anything special. It doesn’t make me cry. I’ve heard of girls crying during sex, like it’s some sort of religious experience, like it unlocks some secret part of themselves, and they fall in love in one moment, there on their backs like popsicles. Is that love? I don’t want to fall in love like that.
I start to do what I have always done with the one person I’ve done it with. I kiss him. I run my hands along his chest. I kiss his neck. I wait for him to kiss my neck.
He doesn’t kiss my neck. Instead he says, “Can I have a blowjob?”
I stop kissing him. “What?”
“You mean, right now? You want a blowjob right now?” I can feel flecks of blue paint stuck to my tongue. I want to spit them out but I don’t know where they’ll land, and I don’t want to ruin the sheets.
“Uh, yeah,” he says. “If you want to.”
I blink at him. I don’t know what the right answer is. I don’t know if I should feel:
A) Betrayed, like he’s sprung this big secret on me, a secret I was supposed to have known all along but had never been told.
B) Stupid, for answering a question with another question.
C) Selfish, for taking all this time to make a decision.
D) Selfish, because I have also forgotten his name.
“Sure,” I say, finally. “I want to.”
He leans back on his mom’s sheets and slides out of his shorts. The room feels blacker, further away. I can’t see anything other than an outline of his body. I crawl back on my knees and feel around. I feel short, prickly hairs and small bumps and heat. He must be from some place warm, some place where hair is problematic. Then I remember he said he is from Annapolis. His dad is in the Navy. In the Navy, hair is problematic. I lean over and open my mouth.
While I’m down here, I’m trying to remember his name. He has a small name, the kind of name you can say with your mouth barely open. Ben? I wonder who else has done this for him, and if they’d known his name when they did it. I wonder if the girlfriend with acid reflux did this for him. Or maybe they broke up because she had acid reflux and couldn’t do this for him. But mostly I wonder how much time has gone by and how much more time will go by before I can stop. I bob up and down. My neck begins to ache. My arms burn from holding myself up. I keep my eyes closed. Tim?
How long have I been down here? I start counting. I count to sixty and wonder if this is normal – the amount of time passed. Are people everywhere doing this, beneath sheets, or behind shower curtains, or in restaurant alleyways? Is someone doing this for my ex-boyfriend, right now, lifting her head up and down and up and down in tune with mine? Does she remember his name? Maybe she is more concerned about the volume of his pubes. Did he tell her he was from New Jersey? Also, did he ask for this? And were either of them prepared for how long it might take? I wonder how long is too long, and if I should say something to let this guy know that I am growing weary. Something like, Are you concentrating? Or, Is there any way to make this taste better? I wonder if Jenny is asleep or if she is up in bed, worrying about where I am and what I’m doing. If I called her right now, she would answer. We are not supposed to go anywhere without each other.
I have lost track of the time. It has been awhile. It has been hours, a day – or maybe three days. Three days spent on one blowjob. The sun rose and set and rose and set and rose and set and I am still here, bobbing up and down, shifting my weight from one arm to the other, wiggling my toes to keep the blood flowing in my feet. Rick? Nobody is named Rick anymore. I wonder if my parents have tried to call. If they don’t hear from me soon, they might call the school, or the police, who will no doubt ask around and find out where I am, who I’m with, what I’m doing. I didn’t tell anybody where I was going. It could take them days to find me. They’ll kick down the doors of every room in the building until they find me here, one week into the world’s longest blowjob.
What will my parents say? Better off finishing what you started. I push the question away. Concentrate on – Dean? His legs are tense. I glance up at his face and his eyes are narrowed toward the ceiling. We are both concentrating. I close my eyes again and more time passes. One week, one month, a year. One year crouched over the crotch of a guy whose name I don’t know. I have blown a whole year away. Everyone was so worried, people will say. You left without saying goodbye. I didn’t mean to disappear. I didn’t mean to get trapped down here for so long. My back is sore and hunched. My mouth will be stuck in a permanent circle shape. I will need physical therapy to learn how to speak again. Scientists will study me. They’ll stick wires to my scalp and ask me what I was thinking. What was I thinking? How did I get here? What time is it? I need to wash my face.
Out of nowhere I feel something on top of my head. A hand. He lets it rest there like a dead fish on a table. His fingers splay around my scalp. I am disgusted, suddenly, by this dead thing on my head. How dare this hand sit on top of me, with all its dead weight, while I work so hard to keep bobbing and remembering, my lips numb.
I gently smack the hand away. It comes back, seconds later, with another hand. Both hands spread out on top of my head, this time with more pressure. The hands push my head down. I push up against them. We struggle this way for a moment, my head pushing against the hands, the hands shoving me back down. Up, down, up, down, like a song. A sharp pain pricks my throat. I feel a lump rising and I cough it back down. A hot tear leaks from the corner of my eye and slides down my cheek towards my mouth.
Using both my arms, I push the hands away and sit up on my knees. My back cracks. My mouth feels like a hole in a wall.
“I’m tired,” I say. “Can we do something else?”
He puts his dead hands over his face. “I was, like, almost there.”
“Sorry,” I say. I do feel sorry, having done all that work for nothing.
“Can you just go a little longer?”
The sun will come up soon. Silvery blue light seeps through the blinds. I see his face. It looks bluer in the light. Bluer and younger – the entire year I spent in his crotch only having made him smoother, more beautiful. I reach up and touch my forehead. The pimples feel bigger and angrier. They are angry at me. Everyone in the room is angry at me.
“I don’t think so,” I say. “Sorry.”
He sighs. He reaches down to his feet and pulls his shorts up.
I want to cry – not in a hormonal way. I want to cry in a way that comes from my stomach and makes my head feel like it’s floating away from my neck. I squint my eyes but nothing else comes out.
“I’m going back to my room,” I say. I scan the bed for my dress and find it crumpled under his shoulder. I tug, but he doesn’t move. I look at him. His eyes are closed. His body is as stiff as a toothpick. His hand is stuffed into his shorts, moving up and down, up and down, making a tent out of them.
I remember his name is Ian. You can say it with a clenched jaw.
I don’t know what to do, so I sit beside him on my knees and watch, feeling stupid about everything. I count the seconds. Ten seconds, twenty seconds. All of a sudden he shudders and yelps like a puppy, then melts into the bed. It only took him twenty-three seconds. I yank my dress from under him, throw it over my neck, and run out of the room barefoot.
I walk down the hall towards my room, one year older. One year older means one year smarter, one year sturdier, one year more whole than before. But I feel more like I’ve been drilled with holes. Everything I’ve ever been told has slipped through me like sand and is laying in a grimy pile beneath Ian’s bed, next to Jenny’s shoes.
I walk down the hallway and into the girls’ bathroom. Somebody left a small bottle of grapefruit-scented face wash on the sink, and I squirt some into my hand and rub it all over my forehead. I press down hard, trying to force the bumps to burrow under my skin. But when I wash the soap away and dry my face, they peer back at me through the mirror like a costume.
They don’t tell you what to do if you feel C) Afraid, because I am alone and there is something strange in the air. They don’t tell you who to talk to or which button to press. I walk out of the bathroom and dial my ex-boyfriend.
“Hello?” His voice is slow and raspy, as if he’s been dreaming.
“Do you think any of your friends are rapists?”
“On the lacrosse team. Are they rapists?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“But they’re your friends.”
For a while he doesn’t say anything.
“Yeah, I guess they’re my friends.”
I understand now that all the boys I’ll ever know will either become rapists or friends of rapists, or friends of friends of rapists, or friends of friends who might become rapists, under the right circumstances. It will be like that now.
Back in my room, Jenny is asleep with her back turned to me. Everyone has their backs turned to something. Everyone in the world is keeping secrets. I stare at the jumbo box of Costco condoms on my desk. It is unopened, unhelpful. I open it and take out one condom. It doesn’t look like a weapon of self defense. It looks like a packet of soy sauce. I grab a handful of condoms to keep in my desk drawer, then another handful for Jenny. I hold the box of remaining condoms under my arm and tiptoe out of the room. I want to be a problem-solver.
It is barely morning and the hallway is quiet. I walk up to the room next to ours and take a condom from the box. I crouch down and slip it under the door. Then I slip another, and another. When I stand up, I feel my heels lift off the ground, then the balls of my feet. I push gently off my toes and hover for a moment, then float through the air to the next door, feeling heavier than I should. I grab another handful and slide them under the door, one by one. I slide condoms under the door of every room in the hallway, until the box is empty. Nobody wakes up. Nobody asks questions. I hang in the silence, suspended in the air with all that I know. Behind me, I feel wings.
You are not supposed to be alone in the first place. But if you find yourself alone, against better judgement, you blow the whistle first, then run to the blue emergency pole. While you are running to the blue emergency pole, you are supposed to continue blowing the whistle at a panicked pace. The speed at which you blow the whistle and the speed at which you run to the emergency pole should be equally panicked, equally berserk. Otherwise, someone might see you and think you are playing a game. Look at that girl blowing that whistle, alone in the dark, they might say. Perhaps she is writing a song.
I will know I am out of the dark when I feel:
Sydney Rende is earning her MFA in fiction from Syracuse University.