When we were boys we wanted girls.
We had no name for it ourselves, but we had heard the words. Passion. Desire. Yearning. It was poetry that did not belong to us and only passed our lips in stilted, halting sentences we were forced to recite by our English teachers as if by saying the words we would understand them. As if by reading Yeats we could replace Hugh Hefner's monthly offering with a well-dressed model of love and motherhood. As if by reciting Shakespeare we could undo the millions of years of genetic architecture that culminated in our births and demanded propagation. As if we could be made to understand why girls laughed at things we said when we were trying to be irresistable.
We felt like ocean divers in free descent, holding our breath, feeling the first pangs of oxygen deprivation, the body informing the brain that he's tempting no less than death, that the course is fatal and the body destructable. That it was going to get a lot worse. Our lack of them would blot out the need to eat and our love of fire.
By the time we were in our late teens we could think of little else. We'd sit in diners squirming on our seats, conversations about the latest stereo we'd installed in our junkers shifting imperceptably but directly toward whether or not Mary had smiled at Joe during lunch break and what it meant. How Christine Brasinski had shot down Danny Martone when he asked her to the prom, that jerk, what was he thinking? He's not in her league. Now focused and alert, we'd pool our thoughts realizing it was the same for each of us.
In blue white neonatal daylight we'd lean toward each other over elbows perched on the cigarette-burned-melmac tabletops to speak in low tones of how we'd heard that Joe had managed to get to third with Barbara Jeske, what was third, and how did he know the details of the female anatomy a priori. The theory of a place you could touch to get them to melt. What book did he have we were missing? What secret school had he attended to obtain this hermetic data?
It didn't matter if we were failing our classes. It didn't matter to us if we were accepted to the colleges we'd chosen, or if we'd wind up living with our parents forever. More important was hearing over and over, how Mary had taken a sip of Boone's Farm from a bottle Joe had brought to the beach, and in kissing him had spit the sweetness into his mouth, and he'd sent it back into hers and she swallowed. How sweet it was after, tongue against tongue.
"Now whenever I see a bottle of that shit I get a boner," Joe said.
It had always made me stupid, then gave me a headache. But now it was sacremental.
We would never be the same knowing he'd done that. And how had he thought to do it? Or did she? Was that what was meant by having a girlfriend--that we'd experiment with ourselves the way we made smoke bombs or adjusted the timing on our cars?
I'd sit in pre-calculus class, staring at first derivatives on the board, and then at the curve of Mary's neck in the seat in front of me, imagining Joe's hand on her back, the ripple her bra strap made in her blouse, what it would taste like, wine from her mouth to mine.
There were no words in me for the feeling, the fist clenching, jaw-set desire to shrink to nothing for the lack of it, for the lack of a she that would see something in me worth having for her own. The reflex that forced all the air out of my lungs. Shut my eyes to slits and made me want to look into the sun until I was blind, wanting to burn myself to smoke or drown myself in thin air. As if I didn't want me, then, either.
One by one, we dropped off. It was the summer before senior year. Joe was first.
The last time he met us in the diner, he had little to say. In the booth we pulled chests over our elbows and he leaned backward, his arm over the red vinyl seatback, staring at the white headlamps streaking past outside as if he was waiting for something to come from there.
"What was it like?" I wanted to know. I figured he'd say it was like the stories. I'd read "The Summer of '42". "The Harrad Experiment". There was a beginning, a middle, and an end to sex. Same parts going the same places. Same for everyone, same damned story absolutely fascinating none the less. I wanted to hear Joe's version but he wouldn't talk.
"It's not what you think," he said. "Well, it is what you think, but it's not. I can't explain it."
Dan wanted to know, "Did you make her scream?"
Instead of smiling, he looked at Dan as I'd seen my own father do to me, something between pity and disdain, a pulse of superiority that fills the air and shuts up the children.
"What was it," I said, words from the back of my throat. "--like?"
He pursed his lips. Sighed through his nose. Looked around as if nothing in the diner was real.
"I'd explain it if I could."
"You didn't do it," Mike said. "See. I told you guys. All talk, no action."
But Joe didn't pay attention to him. "Anything," I said to him, begging. I'd wind up throwing myself off the Red Hill Road highway bridge either way, but at least I'd know.
He rubbed his eyes. When Tom Loerber had sex with Julie Brannigan in the boy's locker room, he bragged for weeks. I had a mental picture of Julie's pink underwear sliding past her knees that was as vivid to me as something I'd seen in a National Geographic special.
But that was something mechanical and so much nothing, and this was so much else.
"I can't tell you," Joe said. "But you're gonna know."
"How?" I said, getting pissed he wouldn't tell me what I needed to hear. Just one thing in detail. And goddamn it. I was sick of being teased by girls who'd sit next to you and press their thigh against yours, then walk away as if nothing went on. As far as I knew, that's all it was ever going to be.
"I"m gonna blow this pop stand," he said, sliding out of the booth. Balled his hand to a fist and pounded the knuckles into my shoulder. He said, "She likes you. A lot," about a girl I saw whenever I closed my eyes. "She can't figure out why you won't call."
"Why I won't call? What do you think? How many times do I have to be called a jerk and told to get lost?"
"You'll get this. These assholes won't."
"Get what?" Dan said. Then added, "Dirtbag. You didn't fuck her. You did squat."
Joe smiled. "You're right. I didn't," he said to Dan. Then looking right at me, "They want the same thing we do. Just for different reasons."
"What do they want? I mean, what do they call it?"
Joe raised his palms. I was hopeless. "What do they call it? Dude--" He hit himself in the solar plexus with a fist, "It gets all the way the hell up here."
He stopped coming to the diner with us after that. Spent all his free time with Mary. At the end of the summer his family moved to Philadelphia and I never saw him again.
For the rest of my seventeeth year I plodded. Covered my classes automatically. Read science fiction to make myself forget I had nothing to do with my free time. The rest of the guys had paired with someone, and unless I wanted to be the third on the date, there was nothing to do on Friday and Saturday nights, and that for all my 'A' grades I'd failed at the simplest things in life. Clearly, I was not a good friend to be around. I was a laughable date. Every time I'd screwed up my courage to ask a girl to a school dance I got turned down. Was the butt of their jokes when they asked out loud in the hall if I was still a virgin and then giggled at any syllable that passed my lips.
I don't remember when it changed. Maybe it didn't.
My parents dragged me to the National Honor Society induction, one of those lifeless academic affairs that seems to satisfy the organizers more than the participants. So I stood in line with my candle lit, my plaid jacket with wide lapels and elbow pads. Wide 70's tie. Said my pledge to satisfy my mother that I'd accept the world's recognition--I was smart. Went back to the table where my parents were sitting and when the proceedings broke and the lights came up, a brown-haired girl I'd known since grammar school told me there were a couple of them going out afterward, and asked, did I care to come?
I told her I didn't, but my father put his hand on my shoulder. Turned me toward her. Pushed a little. "You don't have anything to do tonight," he said, my dear father, who knew women. My mother, who was one, smiling as if something was up, told me to "go on."
And that's how I wound up in the front seat of Jackie's Dodge Challenger. Three hundred sixty cubic inches displacement. Convertible. Two hundred fifty horsepower. Four on the floor. The engine torque nearly twisted the car over when she started it, straight-A Jackie who'd go to Stanford, while I headed off to University of Miami. This nerd of a girl with glasses bigger than mine. Took them off when she stopped the car in the middle of the forest by the beach in Locust.
I hadn't even realized she'd done it. I was fiddling with the radio, admiring the tape player. Noise reduction. How the hell did she get this car?
"My dad said he'd buy me whatever I wanted if I got into Stanford."
"And you asked for a Dodge Challenger? You knew to ask for a Challenger?" seeing her for the first time, more spirit than flesh. The ghost of all my desire in the pale white light. This girl I'd known, and was now mythic beauty, an angel formed of solidified night air and the luminescent smoke of freshly quenched flames.
"It was either this or a Corvette..." she said, her voice trailing off the way girl's voices do when they've got what they want.
I watched her eyes get closer to mine. I never expected her to leap off her bucket seat, never knew a person could.
And I remember how her breath was warm and smelled like the hors d'ourves we had at the ceremony. And I remember how her tongue was rough and how it didn't matter if my eyes were open or closed.
Don't know why I bothered asking when I wondered what she saw in me, or how anyone could find anything about me worth kissing.
She pushed the jacket off my shoulders. Her hair tickling my face, "What are you doing?" I asked her.
It stopped her long enough to say, "Are you kidding?"
I caught my error and pretended I hadn't said it. She took my hand and pressed it against her breast. Can she really want me?
Something like an engine whirred inside her. It scared me at first. I didn't know where she'd wind up freaking out this way, until I realized I had to respond in kind, until it went to automatic like floating, until she started to look helpless and I had to take over for a while, until we squirmed and sweated and moved outside of time as if we didn't need to be part of anyone else's world anymore. The feeling of her thigh sliding all the way to my hip went all the way into my chest and my head, the she of her, the wanting of her that was the same that lived inside me.
We drove home behind that massive engine screaming. Laughing. No idea someone could be that close to feel the same blood under the skin, the same air, the same spit rolling past the edge of your mouth, the sucking pressure between your chests that makes a noise when you separate, warmth like sun from inside--that's the soul. Feeling every molecule of air that passed into our lungs. Drunk on the first blue rays of daylight. The crystal clarity of life now brought into focus. The green of green. The sound of "yes". How someone could run beside you and make you move faster as if their legs were yours.
As if I was connected to every love poem every written. As if I could call up to her on a balcony at midnight. I would do it and it wouldn't be stupid.
So this is what they meant. This is why men learn to dance. Because of them and their world and the intoxicating smoothness of it, the cool that turns the fire into pillow warmth. Because it makes sense. This is why we want them. They add a piece.
I wondered what I would tell everyone. What would I say to my parents when I got home? What would I tell the guys when I saw them in class?
Nothing. I never said anything. It was my treasure and I didn't want to share it with anybody. I didn't care to hear anyone's reaction to it, or have anyone react. It took twenty five years for me to say this much. To admit she found something in me worth having that made me worth something to myself.
After graduation I never saw her again. And after all these years I imagine her a mother with children of her own. High-powered exec sitting in a windowed corner office meting out power through digital telephones. Red Ferrari Marenello in her six car garage. Some gray-haired tan trophy guy calling himself her husband, climbing out of her olympic-sized lap pool.
What would I say if we crossed carts at the grocery store?
"I recommend the ministrone. The kobe beef is really good here...
"Oh, and I never said thanks for that time twenty five years ago when you made me believe I could slay dragons, ascend the throne, rule a kingdom benevolently, see my future past tomorrow."
Something like that.
And no. We couldn't still be friends. Terrible how that works out. But it's the way it is.