With Tom I rarely use my hands. They sit on my lap at the restaurant when the check comes, they wait patiently in the living room as he scrubs algae from the fish tank, they push together in prayer when I’m at my weakest, they grip the bedspread and support my upper body as Tom begs me to pump my feet faster, push the arches tighter around him before he finishes up on my toes. In the bathroom I stand like a clumsy crane with one foot at a time in the sink. I brush my teeth and spit. I put on sweatpants and pull the comforter over my head while Tom takes a shower. When Tom finally slides into bed, I roll toward him and put my arm over his chest, which is still a little wet, and feel it rise and fall. Buoyancy. He kisses my head and squeezes my back. I tap my fingers on his chest and listen to the hollow rhythm fall through his torso and slap against his back and echo within his lungs. His stomach is a conch shell holding the sounds of tonight’s pasta. It is a curve of flesh hiding a stomach, a spleen, a liver, a heart. A cavern I want to rip open and crawl inside.
Max is a miracle, a cul-de-sac summer mirage. Max is from California. His sandy hair swoops over his eyes like a wave breaking in on itself. He’s visiting Anna, his cousin, my best friend. We are like sisters, and though we don’t know it, Max is our first wedge. He’s a year older than me, but it feels wider. It feels like the distance between my house and Anna’s after curfew. Like how, from my window, I can almost make out Anna’s thin arms and hips, but not her face. Max is sprawled out on her couch in gym shorts and a neon yellow tank top watching HBO. “Sup?” he says, continuing to watch cops smash down doors and drag out criminals, unconcerned with us looking right at him. I want to know everything that’s between me and Max. Wednesday: the three of us plod through our subdivision, a tangle of streets like a cat’s heartwormed heart. We round the pond, walk across the composite benches, and leave through the black motorized gates. We turn down Maize Rd. toward the Quick Shop for a soda. The roads outside the subdivision run north-south, east-west. Life out here is on the grid, my dad says to my mom when he’s too lazy to go to the grocery. Cars whoosh by going fifty as the three of us kick through grass in the ditch. Max has a car, Anna says, with a sunroof and leather seats that have mapped the west coast, but not here. Here he walks like one of us. It’s pure hot, and we’re sweating. We keep our eyes down and out of the sun. I see on Max’s wrist a bracelet made of kelp. “Oh this?” Max says, and describes wading out into the Pacific, his stomach pressed against his board, anchoring himself by the wrist and diving, weaving through the kelp vines that sway deep below. There’s a whole world down there, he says, and I feel like he’s describing the dimensions of a home I’ve always imagined. He takes the bracelet from his wrist and ties it on mine. Anna walks between us after that. Later, that weekend, when Anna’s mom drives her off in a minivan to ballet, she presses her hands against the passenger window like she knows what’s going to happen, like that scene in every shipwreck movie where one lover, trapped behind a barred window, says goodbye without words and goes down with the ship. I show Max where I like to sit and watch fat geese by the pond. I take him by the hand and we throw stale bread at the couple protecting their wobbly goslings. “Scarier than seagulls,” he says, and I’m suddenly reminded he will be gone soon. When he kisses me, he stays there on my mouth. His tongue slips between my lips and slides along the top row of my teeth. Then both our mouths are open and tongues circling one another. Max runs his hand up my arm, over my shoulder, down onto my chest. He kisses my ear and whispers that I’m beautiful. I stop his hand and say wait. “Do you really think that?” I ask. “Yeah, sure,” he says. He leans in and kisses me again. Then, right there, across from a row of windows blazing with sunset, I slide my hand into his surfer shorts and squeeze him gently. It doesn’t take much.
Before dawn it’s Don unzipping my tent, slipping in, and re-zipping my tent. Don is lanky and quiet and strong and zips open my sleeping bag in one long pull. Don is taking watch overnight as the other counselors sleep in real cabins with air conditioning and thick doors that seal airtight. At home, my parents are asleep with their arms above the sheets. My dad drove me out here with the AM radio droning about districts and electorates. He unloaded my tent and sleeping bag from the trunk, gave me a one-armed hug that made me think he’d forgotten how. Like the distant embrace you’d give to a dying relative. For the past hour, Don has been circling camp with his flashlight, crushing dry leaves under high top shoes. I listened as he yanked down zippers, broke up necking sessions, confiscated bottles. His scolding reminded me of all the things you’re supposed to do in high school and how far behind I am in life already. I listened to dry limbs snap under his feet. I listened so hard to his approaching, step by step, all the way to my tent, that I forgot to breathe. Now Don is in my tent. He sucks on my neck and slips a hand down my shorts. Says it’s been such a terrible wait. His breaths are a space heater in a tent this small. I’ve been preparing myself all weekend for this. He has it out and hard and in my hand without a sound. Then he has my head under the thick lining, bobbing under pushes of his palm. This is both exactly and nothing like what we talked about at the dock, after dinner, on short notes we passed to one another. Inside the sleeping bag, it is pitch black and the air is thick and slow moving through my nose. It’s being dunked in a pool. Every sound is dampened. It’s as if I’m a deep-sea diver tethered to my own body by only a thread. I’m encased in a bulky metal suit with narrowed vision, staggering through the deep. Just enough light filters down, revealing the lack of fish. Just churning grains of dirt and continuing dark. In the shadow of Don, I turn and stomp my foot down on the tether and wait.
With Joe, it’s biblical. Even moreso in this church parking lot under an ungodly phallic cross that’s lit from all sides. Joe is my blue-collar savior. I can forget most things if he’ll just keep touching me. He’s still wearing the shirt the cheerleaders shot into the stands with a potato gun. Probably the same gun my dad helped a science class of his make years before I was born. Joe stomped down three rows of bleachers, practically killed a girl for it. When he brought it back to me like he’d won it, like a bird dog trotting home, I knew. In the cab of Joe’s truck, his rough hands unlatch my bra like he’s read the manual. Outside, a row of fledgling trees are painted with light reflected off stained glass. Empty parking spaces await tomorrow morning. My family will get up early and pile into the Explorer. My dad will drive and my mom will hum and we’ll sit in the third pew from the front and pretend like I was never here with Joe. But now, alone, inside, I am on top, my back against the large steering wheel. Joe tugs up my dress, adjusts the brim of his hat in a way that makes me expect to hear, “Ma’am.” Then we’re squeaking the vinyl seat. It’s fat fingers and open blue jeans. Plagues and miracles. Backlit, I’m the saint of his dusty windshield. “Oh, God,” I mutter, as if my mind has slipped into hidden memories, reflexes burned in by late-night porn. He leans in to kiss me and the horn toots a deflated honk. I laugh so hard I shake, my whole body bouncing in breathless laughter, and it brings Joe to the edge. I shake and shake and accidentally bite my tongue so hard it bleeds. Joe stops kissing and leans back. He puts his hand to his mouth and looks at the blood on his fingers. I shrug and say, “Virgin Mary,” and he cums in me that instant.
Bob’s body comes to me in camping metaphors. Bob is a grizzly. His fingernails sharp from chewing at them all day. Bob is a worrier and only takes off his shirt because it’s so hot in this attic room over my Dad’s and he doesn’t want to go back sweaty after lunch. He asks did I lock the front door? The side door? The chain too? I really kind of like Bob, the assistant debate coach, and that’s why I’m laying him. I take the wadded shirt from his hands and put it behind my head. Bob is a comfy bulk pushing down on my stomach. Bob’s sweat runs down his chest and pools in his belly button. His belly— this is the first time I’ve considered the belly as a player in the whole thing— keeps him from getting too far in. I put my hand on his stomach and slowly rub. Bob is pale but turning bright red from all the pumping. Or maybe his stomach is blushing. He looks down at me like I’m a wounded bird on his driveway, as if he wants to say he’s sorry but doesn’t know why or how. If Bob wasn’t a grizzly he would be a trout or a salmon biting a hook. Bob as fishing bob. Bob bobbing up and down. Bob on the water, dipping so slightly. Bob’s words tumble out like a clumsy waterfall. “How is it?” Bob asks. Before I can think I say, “Like camp.” Bob looks pleased enough and keeps going.
Guy is Israeli. His English is good enough. He says he’s traveling the world and asks have I seen southern Spain? Not yet. He’s with a friend, who looks pretty happy to know Guy. He keeps his arm around Guy like they’re lovers. We sit along the bar: me, Guy, Guy’s guy friend. Guy drinks beer from Belgium, pouring the bottle into a tall glass. I drink pints of Rolling Rock, which I got hooked on when I was younger because it was cheap and light enough to get down fast. It reminds me faintly of metal now, but it’s two bucks. We’ve been stagnant at the bar for hours as wildly different groups slide in off the busy street for shots. Country boys hollering and clanking their whiskey shots on the bar. Suits cheersing jobs well done, shooting back vodka and saying wowee. Then, just as quick, they’re gone. Guy is talking about the tides of Mexico when I put my hand on his thigh. I say I’ve got to use the bathroom and he follows me. There’s no lock, so I just lean forward against the spring-loaded door while he’s fooling with my skirt, my underwear. He’s running his hands along my thighs and making these cooing noises like a pigeon. I reach back and pull my panties aside, but he runs his hands up my back, flitters his fingers against my pubes like he’s weaving a nest and slides his hand down slowly to my knees. “The fuck are you doing?” I say. He laughs a little like he’s enjoying teasing me. Someone pushes against the door and I shove it back. I almost take off some girl’s finger. “Fuck,” she yells outside and the door shakes. I think she’s kicking it. I put all my weight on the door and push my body back against Guy. “Just fucking do it,” I tell him. But he just laughs. Laughs so hard he turns and pukes in the sink and I have to pull my skirt down and face the bitch on the other side of the door.
There’s nothing wrong with Tom. He has a job that pays as much as anywhere else and a car that never breaks down and a set of golf clubs that’s neither borrowed nor showy and our house suits us just fine. Tom is kind and gives me a thoughtful kiss on the forehead or cheek, makes the muah sound, every time I come home or leave. Tom could be my brother, I guess. Maybe that would scare me if I actually had a brother. I first talked to Tom two years ago at a baseball game our company sent us to in order to give us a break from sending out mailers. We all sat in a row behind center field, our hands folded in our laps. He thought it was funny when I said I’d stab another girl with my headset back at the office if she didn’t stop picking at her nails. Tom later told me that he felt bad I wouldn’t look at him while he talked— mostly about baseball, which is his thing— but I was watching fly balls. Every crack of the bat meant one hurdling toward us. I imagined every ball sailing in, masked by the sun, and the leathered cork making a dead thud on my forehead and it all being over. In my mind I died a hundred times that afternoon. Tom kissed me on the forehead and said he forgave me. After another couple from work leaves our house, a weekly pasta dinner thing, we go to bed. I straddle him and squeeze to see how close I can get before he says okay, okay. Then I lie next to him, using his arm as a pillow. Tom is mid-sized like his car and, like his car, comfy enough. We’re nearly asleep when he kisses my head and whispers, wondering if I’ll do that thing again.