As a public school teacher, your mother espouses dosing the water supply with birth control, or that’s how she justifies putting you on the pill before your fifteenth birthday. Even the mention of birth control would send most mothers into a frenzy of either tent-revival hollering or else candle-lighting and novena-saying. But your mother holds loudly forth on any and all pussy-related subjects, with nothing falling too far off limits. You’ll be sitting at the kitchen bar wolfing cereal, and she’ll say out of the blue, Do you know what a blowjob is, honey? Or: I hope you feel comfortable touching yourself down there. It makes you want to bury your head under a pillow for the remainder of any meal.
You go along with the birth control idea because you read somewhere estrogen makes tits bigger and might kick start a girl’s period. Mother books a gynecologist appointment in another city—”so you won’t be embarrassed, I could give a shit.” She yanks you out of school and calls in sick to keep you company, which rattles you slightly, like she thinks you’re a drill team sister or something.
You’ve got your learner’s permit, and standing in the garage, you lobby to take the wheel. But it’s still spitting rain, she says, and after all the water last night those roads are slick as glass. And it’s close to Houston so there might be traffic.
While you don’t belabor the point, you wonder how Lecia managed to drive alone at thirteen. They’ve even given her the Mustang, but road conditions never seem quite right for you so far as your mother is concerned. It’s also a damn strange thing that she can look at you and think “too little to drive” and “birth control pills” simultaneously.
Once the yellow wagon pulls onto blacktop, you point out that even though the rain’s not that hard anymore, all the other drivers have their lights and wipers on.
Oh baby, she says, I can see through those little dots of rain better than through that whapping blade, and hell, I navigate best by instinct anyway. She’s got her window cracked a few inches and is trying to wave the smoke from her Kool out the slot, but it manages to whoosh back in and dive-bomb straight to your eyes with its stinging menthol.
You’re slouched down reading and minding your own business when she kicks in the talk you know she’s been burning to have and that you’d rather dip snuff than hear. Straight out of the blue.
She says, I’ve seen too many girls turn up pregnant, Mary. Too many bumpy-headed toddlers come staggering through after school on leash-and-harness deals their mothers hang on the ends of. I swear. Little girls who never got out of junior high, no business making babies.
Mother I can’t get pregnant when nobody even asks me out. Not more than that once anyway. I mean —
It only takes once, honey, she says. She’s still talking when you start to read signs and notch off the yardage between telephone poles. Live Bait. Boudain! Fat Boys Sausage. Then long stretches of grassland. At a four-way stop on a farm road, you lock eyes with a crusty-looking old pearl-colored bull and are tempted to roll down your window to shout what are you staring at.
You look back at Mother after a long silence, and she says, with no segue whatsoever, If you want to have sex, so be it. Just don’t get pregnant.
Mother! you say with all the virginal outrage you can marshal given the amount of time you spend reading Henry Miller in the bathroom. You’ve never had a steady boyfriend. Nobody’s ever even tried to feel you up. Some girl on your volleyball team who talked about making “dry love” with her boyfriend gave the closest firsthand reportage you’ve received on actual boning. Even Clarice, who’s been going steady for more than a year, doesn’t do more than French kiss and dole out the occasional hickey her boyfriend can hide with a Band-Aid at home and wear like a badge with his buddies.
Mother says, And abortions can be got, Mary. Believe me, even in Jefferson County, and by real doctors. I know some people from when I worked at the paper.
Mother, you’ve got me splayed out and knocked up like a tube top ho’ —
Some of those tube tops are cute, she says.
— and I don’t even have a boyfriend.
That nice little Demolay hayride boy seemed nuts about you —
Mother, I swear to God if you mention Mortimer G. Beauregard again like he’s my last, best hope, I’ll — (You sputter at this point, for it’s hard to find something that would really set Mother free other than becoming a Republican, which Lecia is leaning into.)
You’ll what? she says.
I’ll start wearing blue eye shadow.
Oh, Mary, you’re so damn funny.
Why aren’t you driving old moose boobs to do this?
Your sister? I don’t worry about her.
Well she’s got tits out to here and boys swarming six deep, if I were a betting woman, I’d be doing the birth-control expedition with her.
Even while you’re saying this, you intuitively know that, despite all those suitors, Lecia will wind up being the oldest living virgin in the state of Texas. She knows that pussy is a high-ticket item right up until and during the night you relinquish it. Then it becomes a commodity and you along with it — with no more value-added than frozen OJ or pork belly. Of course the instant you take the pussy back, you return to former glory. (In years to come anytime one of you suffers a breakup, the other will say, by way of reassurance, Remember the pussy goes with you.)
At the gynecologist’s office, the doctor ushers your mother into the hall from the examining room, for which you’re grateful, for you never know what she’s gonna say during such a deal. But once he has you alone, door closed, laid back on the paper scroll on the table, the cold rod of each metal stirrup pressed into each foot arch, his fingers inside you, he says he expects that his own college-age daughter will remain — in his word — “intact” until marriage. And weren’t you ashamed at your age? And didn’t your church teach you better?
(As a grown-up, you’ll consider dropping a note to this green-coated worm of a physician. Tell him how bare you felt inside that paper nightgown. Ask him who died and made him God. Remind him of that oath doctors are meant to take: first do no harm.)
The pill’s manufactured hormones do seem to work some magic. By spring of your sophomore year, Mother says your skin looks radiant. Plus your heretofore nonexistent tits have swollen to fit a C-cup. Even Lecia is forced to stop calling you titless, and Clarice (whose novena-induced D-cup has finally come in — and it’s worth mention that no other women in her family are so well endowed) asks whether you started praying too.
After a dance one night, you sit on the porch with John Cleary, who counts on you to relay and decode some of what girls whisper about him in dance floor circles. Against the black northern sky, the refinery towers burn aquarium blue. It’s spring—warm enough to go barefoot, but you have to pull a red sweatshirt over your pajamas, bury your hands in the front pocket to stay warm. Moths the color of ash flutter around the yellow porch globe.
At this particular dance John was triumphantly crowned with his brand-new cheerleader girlfriend (for your money, a particularly offensive little troll) something like Most Adorable Humans in the Universe.
This honor was expected by everyone but him. His blond head bows shyly, almost inadvertently, at your congratulations. At some point, he tells you that you’re “actually getting sort of cute.”
“Wasn’t I cute before?” you ask, feeling toward him with invisible antennae for some tremble of a desire that might match the ancient intensity of your own.
“Not overmuch,” he says. Then the instant passes, and he’s crossing the wet lawns home.
You test the power of your new body by asking out a popular Cajun boy during Sadie Hawkins week, and he surprises you by saying yes with considerable force. You double-date with another couple to the drive-in, taking the front seat in the boy’s car. He’s someone with whom you’d barely exchanged even a few words, but what begins as a mild kiss—almost a joke in the context of the other couple’s sudden entwinement—becomes elaborate before the screen’s dancing popcorn boxes and long-faced corn dogs have faded to whatever unwatched movie.
The boy’s full mouth works some spell on you to obliterate most every other aspect of the night. It banishes from your knowing the far screen squirming with shapes, and the rows of crouched cars hitched to speaker poles, and the other couple listing in the backseat. Even some learned stigma about being “easy” vanishes, not that the boy ever put an impolite hand on you. In that sense, your kisses are innocent. You don’t even have a full-fledged crush on this boy, asked him out on a whim, to see if he’d go. But you can’t seem to withdraw your mouth from his, though you feel you’ve edged past the lighthearted flirting that should mark a first date. Some unnamed luster has rushed into your pelvis with whole swirling star colonies and nebulae, and to withdraw your mouth from his would extinguish that glitter and leave you shivering cold.
In bed that night, your hands are gently busy on your body. You don’t yet think in specifics like “cock” or “mouth on my breast.” Such language and imagery are somehow the property of boys. You can only relive the luxury of those silent kisses until some ocean rushes through you and you wake hanging off your edge of the bed with a pillow hugged to your middle.
But morning brings a schism. In the bathroom, the face staring back at you from the swung-out mirror is out of kilter with the altered image of yourself from the date. The edges don’t align—what happened to you? Your real face looks too plain for the wild luxury of those kisses. And in that chasm of self — between what you thought you were and what you are—comes a tight, internal cringe. What was wrong with you last night kissing that boy for those lost hours, hardly saying a word?
(Undercurrent: a boy in the dark bucking over your seven-year-old body. Later on the side of the house, your thighs sticky. Water gushing warm from a spigot. Was it the blood of a lost cherry you washed off? Had you brought this on, exuded some whiff of innate longing to be taken like this? Or had you merely been taken to ride like an animal?)
When Lecia jokes that you still smell of the boy’s hair oil, the truth of that so repulses you that his failure to call is good news.
Monday on the school patio at lunch, he saunters into view with a pal, and not since ancient games of catch-and-kiss has the urge to flee powered you so fast. There’s a door frame you duck into, standing straight and slim, crushing your Algebra II book and the bag of half-eaten Cheetos against your chest. But once his profile slides into view—the black waves of his oiled hair—you know you’ll have to keep moving. The patio suddenly transforms into a complex course of clear sight lines and obstacles to dodge behind. A circle of Pentecostal girls with high-coiled bouffants briefly block you till you run-walk up the steps and past a scolding teacher to the library.
There the factoring of polynomials becomes somehow cleansing, a ritual of baptism. (Abstraction in huge doses can starve off yearning.) There’s sunlight on the tilted windows. Cars scoot up the street. You can nearly forget that on Friday night your solar plexus had lurched and careened from that boy’s tender mouth. Away from him, you’re briefly safe from your own ardors.
This story first appeared in Nerve on Sep 20, 2000.