Nona is already in bed when the idea makes her get up and walk past her parents’ bedroom door and her brother’s bedroom door. She is the only one in the family who sleeps with her door shut, so when she walks down the hallway she tries to do it soundlessly. In the kitchen she does not turn on a light but instead opens the refrigerator. She has thought before of a banana, but she does not want the end with its dried brown umbilicus, and without skin it would be too soft. A carrot is too hard and pointy, so there is really only one choice. She finds some in the vegetable bin and chooses, knowing that she needs a certain slenderness. The last time she tried with a domed plastic container of deodorant. With its rounded top it was the perfect shape, but it was too wide, and whatever combination of bones and skin inside her would not give. Now, even with choosing, Nona knows she will have to pare it down.
She peels away the hard, green skin, and then she peels for breadth. When it seems right, she wraps it in a paper towel. She slips all the green scales into the trash, then rinses and dries the stainless steel peeler and puts it back in its drawer. She tells herself that if someone got up now, she would hear them and she would throw the thing into the trash. She would tell her mother or brother that she got up for a glass of water, that she wanted a glass of water from the kitchen, from the jug they keep on the counter, not from the bathroom faucet upstairs.
But no one does come and she carries the slippery coolness wrapped in a paper towel beside her leg. The cotton of her nightgown hides it. She walks past the bedroom doors again, but no one wakes. No one ever wakes. Why should they? Her mother is tired from working and cooking and cleaning, her father is tired from working and drinking, her brother is tired from working and being seventeen. Nona closes her door quietly, leaning against the cool painted wood but also holding it back by the doorknob until it clicks shut.
In bed the actual is less appealing than the idea, but she still wants to feel it. She wants to know what it is like. She has felt T.’s cock through his jeans, through his cotton underwear, has even run her fingers over the smooth skin and the hard ridge — but this is altogether different. There are no dizzying kisses there in the woods beside the creek, no lazy touching in the dim sunlight that filters through the trees. The thing is thick and cold, but she wants to know, so she keeps pushing. When it is in, she tells herself that’s what it feels like, there, but part of her knows it isn’t like that at all.
After a while she slips it out and her own skin feels cold when it comes together again. She tries the other place then, to know if she can take it there — though where the idea even comes from, she can’t say. Maybe the hang-up phone call she answered, maybe the jokes she has heard her brother and his friends make about football camp, about how they always pick one freshman to cornhole and then smear with Ben Gay. She does not know she needs to relax and use lotion, so she can only go in a little way, but it is enough to get a sensation. Enough to make her glad when it is out. Yet she is glad she experienced it, even if it hurt. Experienced — that’s the word she and her friends used to talk about what they did and didn’t do. It is what she wants to be.
When she is done she wraps it in a paper towel and hides it in the bottom drawer of her red desk. The desk is not a place where she does work but is, instead, a repository for letters from her best friends, school pictures, an old reel-to-reel tape recorder, a red-haired Barbie, junky earrings, discarded make-up from her mom, a broken drumstick from the band that played at a school dance. She had a crush on the drummer for a couple of days after. He was in his twenties, a man, and he laughed when Nona asked if she could kiss him. Sure, go ahead, he said, but he seemed surprised when she put her hand at the back of his neck and kissed him on the lips. Now she can’t remember the drummer’s name. Tray, she thinks, but it doesn’t sound like a name so she doesn’t know.
The next morning when Nona wakes up she doesn’t remember the night before or what drove her to get up and go downstairs to the kitchen. She gets up and eats breakfast, then dawdles a long time in the bathroom, examining the pores on her nose until her mom hollers at her.
“If you want to go, Nona, get a move on,” her mom yells up from the kitchen.
Nona starts to hurry because she wants to stay on her mom’s good side today. Her mom has promised to buy her a top when they go shopping. Not a bottom, just a top, which makes it sound like a person has no head or shoulders, like they are just a pair of legs running around. Nona washes her hair two times with Milk Plus Six and forgets about what she hid in her desk drawer.
For as long as Nona can remember, she has known about the magazines her father keeps on a shelf in the closet, the book of positions her mother has buried among blankets in a chest, the reels of film in the attic, the plastic penis wrapped in a paper bag in a shoe box on the highest shelf in the bathroom closet. She found those things when she was seven or eight, before she understood that the twisted plastic was called a dildo or that the movies were called stag. And even though she grew up with those things, they do not explain who she is, or who she has been. In the second and third grades, she played with other little girls, neighbors, and with one girl in particular. The girl liked to hide in boxes with Nona in the basement, she sucked Nona’s nipples and allowed her own to be sucked. When Shelagh stayed over one night, the two of them spent an hour doing their familiar routine, and then Shelagh pulled away from Nona’s chest.
She stared at that chubby triangle all the time, inspecting it.
“This is getting kind of boring,” she said. “What else can we do?”
Nona thought and then said, “We can kiss each other there, where we pee.”
“Won’t it taste sour?”
Nona didn’t know how to answer, so they did not do it, and one day not long after, Shelagh moved away.
By fifth grade, Nona invented her own private games that involved pieces of elastic and lace from her mother’s sewing basket. She’d wrap the lengths around her breasts and behind her neck, weave them in and out of her underpants. She was “developing” early and had fat, little breasts and puffy nipples, and the lace and elastic made her titties bulge out. The intricate wrappings also forced her to contort, and she liked seeing in the mirror that strangeness, the thing that was her and not her.
At ten she had no hair between her legs, but she stared at that chubby triangle all the time, inspecting it. There was a tiny flap of skin there, a little skin tag not too far from where a bikini would go. She knew it was ugly, so one day she took one of her father’s razor blades and sliced it away. The place bled for a while, but she cleaned it with hydrogen peroxide the same way she cleaned her ear holes when she got her ears pierced. In a little while the place healed smooth and flat.
Now Nona does not need to play with bits of elastic or stare in the mirror. She knows what her body looks like, and if she stares in the mirror, it is to perfect her make-up or her hair. She likes to lie on her bed and daydream about kissing T. She likes remembering the sucking sound T. makes when he pulls her nipple into his mouth, likes thinking of the slow way they move from base to base, kissing, then unbuttoning, then unzipping, all of it so slow, there under the trees. If she takes her time remembering every single touch and sensation, it is almost like feeling everything again.
Sometimes she thinks about things other than T. When she lies on her bed she likes to think of how long forever is, even though the idea frightens her.
Sometimes it seems like she can feel forever beginning. Now. No, now. Forever sounds like cars driving on the highway and crossing the bridge over the creek and then heading east out of town. It is loud at first and then it is high and thin, and then you can’t hear it at all.
In Hills, shopping with her mom, Nona finds a shirt she likes. It is dark blue, like bandana material, with tiny bands of elastic and smocking across the front. The smocking makes Nona’s breasts look smaller, but the neckline is cut wide and square and that makes her look older. When she tries it on in the dressing room, she piles her hair on top of her head and studies the way the shirt reveals her neck and collarbones. Whoever knew bones were pretty, but they are, and if Nona gets the shirt she will for sure wear her hair up like that, with little wisps pulling down. And she will wear a choker. A black velvet choker.
“I don’t really care for it,” her mom says of the top. “But I guess it’s better than some.”
This past winter Nona’s mom hit her when she found Nona wearing one of her own shirts. She wasn’t angered by the borrowing but, instead, the particular shirt Nona chose: a long sleeved, white T-shirt with flowers and leaves on it, shrunk from washing. The T-shirt strained over Nona’s breasts and made her look high-titted and full. Even though it was uncomfortable when people (boys in her grade, a male teacher, a school bus driver) looked at her extra-long, Nona liked something about being the one to make them look twice. She wore the shirt to school, came home and took it off, then put it back on in the downstairs bathroom right before she went out to the movies.
“Is that how you operate?” her mom said when Nona came home that night. Nona had her coat buttoned up all the way, but her mom pulled it open and saw.
“I read the note you wrote,” her mom said. “You think you’re something.”
Nona’s brother came into the kitchen then and said “What did she do, Ma?”
“She wears that shirt to school today, then writes a note to her friend about how everyone’s looking at her. Thinks she’s smart.”
Nona’s brother looked at her, but he didn’t say anything. Knew better than to say anything. He shook his head at Nona, but he kept his mouth shut, either because he felt sorry for her, or because (Nona figured) he wanted to protect his own secrets: a pair of girl’s panties he kept in one coat pocket, the roaches and joints he kept in another, the supply of Hustlers that he kept under his bed.
“You didn’t think I’d find that note, did you?” her mom asked.
“I didn’t think you’d go snooping,” Nona told her. Because that’s what her mom had to do: go into the bottom of Nona’s school bag and dig it up.
Saying that to her mom earned her a smack across the face, which was all right because she deserved it, but the rest? Was that what her mom was, a snoop? And why was everyone in the house embarrassed by her tits? Nona could see it on her mother’s face and her brother’s face and on her father’s face when he bothered to look at her, and it is embarrassing that her breasts developed so early and that they are bigger than they should be for her age. But they are there on the front of her chest, and she doesn’t know why they should bother other people so much. Sometimes Nona feels like crossing her arms over them and sometimes she feels like sticking them out, and doesn’t her mom know that? What else is there to do beside those two things?
T. has been Nona’s boyfriend all summer since the last day of school when they walked from school to a party at a friend’s house. The two of them stopped in the woods on the way to Irene’s, and Nona let T. touch her breasts and unzip her jeans and put his finger inside her vagina. He was the first person who ever touched her there and she wished she had worn prettier panties.
Later when they sat together on Irene’s porch swing, he told her, “I can smell you on my fingers.”
At first she thought it was bad that her vagina had a smell, but then she saw that T. kept finding ways to put his hand up to his face and she didn’t worry so much. Since then, they have been meeting in the woods every other day or so. Their favorite place is back by the old railroad bridge. To get to the patch where they like to lie, there on the far bank of the creek, Nona either has to wade the creek or walk over the railroad bridge. The creek is silty and filled with slippery rocks that are hard to stand on, so most days she crosses the bridge.
She and T. both have poison ivy from lying in the woods, and Nona even has it on her vulva. She can not slather calamine there so she uses Vaseline. It makes her remember the time she had to use Vaseline when she was a little girl, maybe four or five years old. Something hurt when she went to the bathroom, and when she told her mother, her mother brought her into the bedroom. She made Nona lie back on the big double bed with her panties off and her legs up in the air. Her mom put a little Vaseline on a Q-tip and she put that on the sore spot. Nona’s brother came into the room when her mom was dabbing her, and her mom said, “Go away, Ty. We’re doing girl stuff here.” That night Nona got to sit on a bed pillow when she and her brother played Parcheesi on the living room floor.
Last night Nona told her mom she needed calamine lotion. She did not tell her mom all the places she has poison ivy, just that she has it.
“We’ll probably end up having to take you to the doctor for a cortisone shot,” her mom said. “You know how you are.”
Her mom would hit her with a hairbrush if she knew how Nona got the ivy, or if she knew Nona was going into the woods with T. But she does not know a thing about how Nona spends her day. No one does. When Nona leaves the house and crosses the street and starts walking the railroad track, no one follows her. She is just a girl walking, a body wrapped in cloth, passing through the air.
The day the hang-up phone call came, Nona’s mom was in the shower. When Nona picked up the receiver and said hello, she didn’t recognize the man’s voice.
Nona can’t ever stop thinking about how easy it all was, how the girl’s body rose up like a feather, like a breath.
“No, this is her daughter.”
“Is Dolores there?”
Nona didn’t think she should explain that her mom was there but in the shower, so she just said “She’s not here right now. May I take a message?”
“Sure,” the man said. “Tell her that was the best ass fuck I ever had.”
Nona heard the words, then the sound of the other phone moving through the air, and then the loud click. She sat there holding the white receiver for a while, then she put it back on its cradle, on its two clear buttons.
“Did I hear the phone?” Nona’s mom said when she stepped out of the bathroom. She was wearing one of her cotton housecoats, a yellow one, and a damp towel around her shoulders. She didn’t have any make-up on and Nona could see the groove on her mom’s forehead that came from frowning.
“It rang,” Nona said.
“Well, who was it?”
“It was a wrong number,” Nona said.
Even though she understood the man’s words, they hadn’t really made sense, not until she thought about them for a long time.
There is one thing Nona has never told anyone about, not because it is a bad thing but because it is a good thing, and a powerful one. It is not a secret, because other people know about it, but she never hears any of them talk about it, and she wonders if they think about the thing as much as she does. It is this: a couple years ago, she and some of her friends made a girl fly.
Fly, float — Nona doesn’t know what to call it — but she and her friends made a girl lift right off the ground and hover in the air. It happened at Girl Scout camp. There were about twelve of them, including the girl who flew. The girl who flew had dark skin and long black hair and looked like an Indian princess, and Nona thinks they probably picked her because she was pretty as well as willing.
They all squatted on the floor around the girl with their index fingers under the girl’s arms, legs, head and feet. One person chanted some words and then they all chanted the words, and the dark-haired girl’s body began to lift into the air like a cloth doll. The girl’s weight felt like nothing on Nona’s fingers — it seemed like she was floating up into the air on her own. They kept the girl up above their heads for a while, chanting, then brought her back down to the floor, still chanting. The girl with dark hair kept her eyes closed, and only after she was on the floor again did she open them, and laugh. The thing Nona can’t ever stop thinking about, how easy it all was, how the girl’s body rose up like a feather, like a breath, like something Nona can’t say.
If Nona thinks hard enough, she can make her fingers remember the sensation: the little bit of pressure that was the girl’s skin, and then the lifting, floating and rising.
Nona is sleeping late when she hears her mother rustling in her room. Her mom is putting away clean clothes, is trying to clear a path through what she calls “the pig sty.” Nona tries to go on sleeping, but her mother wakes her with her yelling.
“What is this doing in your desk?” her mother says. The bottom drawer of the red desk is opened, and then quickly Nona remembers. Too late.
To Nona it seems her mother should know, that she should not ask the question because the answer is so obvious. Yet the lie comes to her lips before she can think.
“It makes my poison ivy feel better,” she says. “I cut slices off and put them on my arms.”
“What the hell is it doing in the desk?”
“I did it before I went to bed. I guess I forgot about it.”
Her voice is still a bit sleepy and she thinks it makes her sound more believable — innocent, and annoyed about being woken. She can see her mother is on the verge of not believing her, on the verge of screaming at her. But it is true that Nona’s arms and chest are still weeping and blistered, and as soon as Nona tells her mother about the cooling slices, she is able to imagine how they would feel on the raw skin. She has a small patch of poison ivy on one eyelid and now she runs her finger over the roughness.
“Don’t scratch,” her mother says automatically, face still red. “And Jesus, Mary and Joseph, at least throw the thing away when you’re done.”
Whether Nona’s mother believes the lie or whether it is easier to behave as if she does, she lets the matter drop. In another few seconds her mother leaves the room, and neither she nor Nona ever speak about the thing again.
Nona sees that who she has been for years now, with Shelagh or with T. or by herself in front of the mirror, is someone her mother can not or will not understand. She is already different from her mother, she has already chosen a different life. The thing between Nona’s legs is hers and hers alone, to do with as she pleases.
But what pleases? Not what she did the other night, Nona thinks. Sex will not be like that. It will be like what she does with T. under the trees — only more. It will be like getting the worst of her poison ivy itches scratched. It will be like making the dark-haired girl fly. It will begin like this, she thinks. No, like this. Like this.