Emily passed me a note in the fourth floor corridor between third and fourth periods that said, Get together at Chuck Kirkland’s Friday night. We’re going.
I thought about how Chuck Kirkland had this ultra lazy, ultra cool sway to his walk, and how he came prepackaged with his girlfriend, Frieda, who called him “Chuckles” and had the knotty, curly hair that all the popular girls had. For some reason, I had been Christmas caroling with Frieda and her friends in eighth grade, and we had gone back to her house early so that we could browse the new set of modeling proofs that had just come back from the photographer. Now, I doubted she knew my name.
“Emily,” I told her at lunch, “in a year and a half we’ll be going to college. It won’t matter whether we ever went to one of their parties or not. We’ll be above all that.”
“I’m above it now,” she said. “We shouldn’t encourage these social boundaries. That’s why we’re going.” She smiled at me and tried to flip her hair so it would fan across her shoulders with a swish, but a lock of it hit me in the face. “Besides, what if they play kissing games?”
I opened my mouth to laugh at her reference to our earlier days, and remembered the time we didn’t have a bottle and had to play Spin the Mustard instead. But then I realized that Emily wasn’t joking. So I pressed my lips together and slid my tray along the metal rack.
At chorus rehearsal on Wednesday, my focus slipped into a tired, unblinking gaze, the music a drone that went blurry with my eyes. Light vibrations from the people on either side of me as they sang made me drowsy. I found myself absently hooking onto the image of Mr. Caverton and his dancing arms while I thought about kissing games and the childishness of my own body; my soft, pointy, lonely breasts, handled by only two boys since I was fourteen, and the baby down blanketing my stomach.
My mother forbade Rosemarie and me to shop in discount department stores where the dressing rooms consisted of a wide open space, just a cement floor and tacked-up mirrors. There, showy women dropped their bras and slips and panties, and as far as my mother was concerned, their dignity. Even in respectable places, where every shopper had her own cubicle, my mother always stood in front of the curtain or slatted door and filled openings with her coat or fingers. “And another thing,” she had told me and Rosemarie, “when you go to college, never, ever, ever let anyone take pictures of you naked. Do you hear me?”
Emily had done it once in a dressing room, in Filene’s, in the men’s formalwear section, somehow with the help of a tailor’s stool. We had been discussing it at lunch the day before, and Emily had turned to me and said, in front of Lynn and Melissa, “It’s all you, honey.” She reached across the table to grasp my hands. “You’re the last one.”
“I know,” I said quickly. “I can wait.”
“Oh, but why would you want to?” Lynn said, her shoulders hunching in excitement. “You don’t know what you’re missing. Seriously.”
I felt my eyes closing as the piano chirped and clanged. My sister was walking around my mother’s house in that nonchalant way of hers, with that explored and occupied body of hers, a body that had somehow given her pleasure that was supposed to be eye-popping and otherworldly. She had known how to use it, her special place, and then tuck it all away, make it appear shielded again, private. Looking at her, one would never know that she had unleashed something so large. Suddenly, I was shivering with the sensations of possibility.
“Theresa, come and do this.”
I opened my eyes. I felt like I did when I woke myself from sleep sometimes with the involuntary release of my own voice, snapping back into consciousness just in time to hear a wail trail away from my lips. But today it wasn’t me.
“Well, Theresa,” Mr. Caverton went on, “come on down.” From my spot in the third row, I could see his smile reach the skin around his eyes, a pinkness spread across his throat as if he had just shaved. “Come on.” He patted the bench.
I stepped off the risers, again hearing the choir’s collective breathing as it surrounded me, as if they were a species I was evolving from. I sat down next to Mr. Caverton and the elbow of his hollowly white dress shirt brushed my arm.
“Go for it,” he said, and this time, I noticed, he smelled like musk.
Every time I walked into a room where Rosemarie was, rounded a corner or opened a door, I expected to find her stomach swollen, a puffy bubbly growth, as if it had distended while I was gone, or as if she had drunk a concoction for instant pregnancy. But Thursday afternoon when I entered her room she was lying her bed, sprawled in the orange rectangle of dusk coming through one of her shadeless windows. Her eyes were half-closed, as if she were just about to fall asleep, and her hair was strewn across the tiger print pillows. It gleamed red in the light. The way her arms lay at her sides, palms up, made me want to leave, unseen.
“Yes, Theresa,” she said, and her voice was smooth, almost musing.
I looked at the floor. There seemed to be more rug than usual. It was blank and white. “Did you vacuum?” I asked.
“Nope,” she said.
I let my bare toes bury themselves in the carpet, feeling my skin burn a little. “Are you sure?”
She spread her arms across the bed, and she reminded me of when we used to make snow angels. “I haven’t changed a thing,” she said, and smiled. “I promise.”
I walked over to the window where the light was. The glow looked warm, but when I touched my fingertips to the glass, it was cold. Even with the storm panes in.
“Rose,” I said.
“Can I ask you a question?”
“You can,” she said.
I parted my lips but my words lost their air. I coughed and watched my breath splatter on the glass. “Well,” I said, “I guess it’s not one question in particular or anything.”
“Go on,” Rosemarie said.
For a moment I felt comforted. I faced the bed and studied my hands, how my knuckles were papery and cracked from not wearing gloves. “Well,” I said, “it’s about sex.”
Rosemarie laughed. “Oh, honey,” she said, sitting up an flattening a hand against her chest, “I don’t think you ever told me about your first kiss!”
I glared at her, her hair drifting on static electricity, her little scrunched-up nose, her eye teeth that had never quite come in straight. “Shut up,” I said.
“I’m sorry.” She swung her legs over the side of the mattress. “I didn’t mean it like that.” Her face pleaded with me. “I’m sorry.” She came to me with her arms outstretched and took me in. “I didn’t mean it. Look…I say go ahead.” Up close, she was bright and shining. Pink. “Sex can be the ultimate spiritual and physical escape, if you know where everything goes.” I laughed. She did too. “Just be careful.”
“Why?” It didn’t seem like a dumb question at the time.
Rosemarie’s eyes traced my face with a kind of sympathetic apprehension. “Look at what’s happened, Einstein. I don’t want you to end up like me.”
We stood still in the dimness that had begun to creep around the room. Rosemarie wrapped her arms around her own torso. She looked flat, two-dimensional and thin. I felt that if I tried to pull her toward me, she would actually peel away from the air and leave a hole.
“I want to give you something,” she said.
She went to her bureau and picked up the ring of professionally dried white roses entwined with garland and pearls that had been in the corner for years. My mother had made her the crown to wear at her First Communion. The veil had long been ripped away from careless wedding pretending when we were girls, but it was still so much prettier than my own, which had been made of carnations and plastic berries, and tossed away somewhere, at some point. Rosemarie placed the crown on my head. “Here,” she said. A flower stem pricked my scalp, but I didn’t move to adjust it.