*Featured Artwork from the “Motel” Series by Michael Tronn.
We’d stayed up all night talking about the longhaired boys we’d met at the skating rink on the other side of town. How Johnny wove his feet, not lifting his wheels, steering Christy by her hip bones. How Darren floated backwards as he pulled me, the disco-ball throwing sparkles on his face. We were thirteen, and this was a first—having boys ask for our phone numbers.
“This is a real date!” I squealed after I hung up my white princess phone when they called. Christy and I put on our shorts and baby-doll blouses. We powdered our armpits. We used electric rollers to smooth the ends of our long, straight hair. We smeared on blush and strawberry lip gloss.
magnifying my beauty
I can picture where we waited for them at the end of my street by the overpass, where the field met the creek. I’m sure we were barefoot. That summer we didn’t put on shoes even when we went hitchhiking. Tar would gum between our toes. It never took long to get a ride.
When the dusty white station wagon pulled up, Christy and I exchanged one quick, big-eyed look. At least two of the five of them could in no way be called boys. We picked their names up over the next hour—we were not introduced. The driver, Greg, had a beard and must have weighed 200 pounds. A tall skinny one, Clark, had a big Adam’s apple. He gawked at us from the front passenger seat, dangling his gangly arm out the window. Craning his neck from the second row was Jerome, a borderline boy-man with frizzy hair. He wore a flannel shirt with cut-off sleeves. Why didn’t I wonder what they wanted from us?
Darren and Johnny each got out of the car and kissed us hello. I took this as proof they were legit. They were wearing the same paisley polyester shirts from the night before, now looking wilted.
I don’t remember hesitating. They all whooped as we got in, and I felt a surge down my midline—not sure whether this was power or fear. Christy rode shotgun, flanked by Johnny and Jerome. I was in the third-row pop-up seats with Darren and the sweating sixes of Pabst. Greg gunned the engine as he peeled onto the highway.
“We’re going swimming,” Darren said, his dirty-blonde hair whipping his eyes.
“I didn’t bring a bathing suit,” I said, and held my hair out of my face.
Jerome turned around and said, “Don’t need one,” and smiled with big teeth.
I obliged a giggle and looked at the back of Christy’s head, hoping she’d nix the swimming idea, but already Johnny had his arm around her, his mouth talking in her ear.
“Hey, you lovebirds back there, gimme a beer!” Greg yelled over blaring music, maybe the Stones or the Dead. Darren passed a can forward. He popped me one, and it sprayed on my leg.
“Didn’t mean to gitcha wet,” he said and wiped fizz from my knee, his eyes widening as they followed my thigh. I put my hands on my legs to cover myself. He lit one fresh cigarette with the red tip of another, dragged hard, then handed it to me. I seized on this faint sign of chivalry.
We drove into the hills for an hour, the car pitching and swerving, the ashes of our cigarettes scattering in the car-breeze. Johnny whispered in Christy’s ear while the rest swore and chortled at punch lines I couldn’t always hear. Even so, I’d force laughs.
“I told ya’ll she was cool,” Darren would say, and they’d laugh harder. A few times Greg said, “Honey, time to pass us another round,” which gave me something to do besides smoke and look away from Darren’s raking gaze. After a while, the road went from highway to gravel, and we pulled into a dirt entrance to a campground.
even the clover gone
“Time for a little R and R,” Clark said. He gave Greg an ‘atta-boy’ knock on the shoulder.
“Yeah, you hot little things gonna be wantin’ to get cooled off—ain’t that right?” Clark said to Christy. She shook her head, then she shot me a look, her eyebrows arching. I saw Johnny take Christy’s hand and tug her a little closer to him. Christy had gotten the nicest one in the pack, I remember thinking, probably because she was prettier than me.
“C’mon now, girl scouts, we got us a swimming hole waitin’,” Greg said.
“I ain’t no girl scout,” I blurted. “Never looked good in green,” I added, trying for smart-ass, but as soon as they all broke into guffaws, I was sorry I’d opened my mouth. Greg pounded his thigh, then strode over and slapped my butt.
“Keep your hands to yourself,” I said.
“You got you a funny one there, Darren,” he said, not looking at me.
The next thing I knew we were on a trail going up the mountain. They seemed to know where they were headed.
the dirt so worn
my footprints don’t show
About a half-mile up, the path opened onto a slab of rock under an archway of pines and oaks. I stood at the edge, looked down to a luster-blue pool. For an instant, I forgot about the guys and the bad jokes and my nervous stomach—that gorge was about the prettiest piece of nature I’d ever seen. If things had happened differently that day, I’d have remembered where that spot was, and I’d have gone back.
not seeing stillness
until the waterfall
“And now… for my swan dive,” Greg announced, then made a hurry of stripping from his shirt, socks, and shoes. He ran past me, his hairy belly jiggling, and took a head-first leap off the slab, flabby arms spread. He yelped like Tarzan. I looked down to see him treading, spitting water out of his mouth, spouting.
“Oh my god,” Christy said, laughing. Johnny hugged her closer to him.
“Watch me,” Darren said, now without his shirt and shoes, his body pale and hairless. He leaped and grabbed his ankles, cannonball-style. Clark and Jerome had stripped and took their running jumps. I stood at the edge and watched them splashing in the pool below, thinking how small and harmless they looked. I turned around to say this to Christy, only to see Johnny leading her off the path into the woods.
There was some kind of plank ladder structure embedded into the rocks below the ledge, and in a minute they climbed back up, panting, their jeans sagging. They emerged like soggy, shaking dogs. They wore wild-eyed looks. I looked away, drew circles in the dirt with my toe.
“Guess Johnny went off to get him some,” Clark said and nodded toward the woods. There was a chorus of grunts and snorts.
“Think it’s time this one goes for a little dip,” Greg said, jerking his head toward me.
“No, don’t think so,” I said sharply. “I wanna go home now.”
“Ain’t that funny, boys—she thinks we’re her chauffeurs!”
This was when I noticed they were talking about me as if I weren’t there. I dug my fists in my pockets. “I’m going back to the car,” I said and turned.
“Nope, you is stayin’ right here,” I heard Darren say, sing-songy. He came from behind me, put his arms around my waist, spun me around—too rough. This wasn’t a couple’s skate move—this was Darren showing off for the guys.
“Let me go!”
“De-pants-ing time!” Greg yelled, jeering.
“Yeah, let’s see what she’s got!”
And then they circled me.
Wet, clenching hands. I kick. They push me back into leaves and branches. Greg on me, pulling at my shorts. The others wrenching my wriggling arms.
“Christy!” I yell, spitting. A hand on my mouth. My glasses gone, trees lose their leaves to a blurry green mass. They yank, rip. I wriggle against flab and bones, elbows and knuckles. My flesh exposed. At the bottom of my sight—white flash of my panties.
“She must have worn that lacey underwear just for us!”
Still flailing, the only thing left—I shut my eyes. I think, they are going to rape me. Right here in these woods. Tears spray like bullets between my fingers. And then—
“She’s crying, assholes!” Darren says. “Look, she’s crying. Leave her alone—it’s not funny. Stop it, I said.”
I don’t remember putting my jeans back on and finding my bent glasses. Christy and Johnny had reappeared, their mouths hanging open. Christy said nothing but took my hand. At first the guys were quiet—the only sound was rushing water. Then they muttered between them, slapping each other and cursing as they found their clothes in the bushes. “It’s no big deal, just a joke,” one of them said.
Christy and I stayed ahead of them on the way back. I kept my mouth shut and my feet moving.
pine needles prick
even as they
When we got back to the lot, we figured the best chance we had was to play along with their “joke.” Get them to take us back—or at least to a highway where we could thumb home. Not a big deal, as they’d said.
I left small talk to Christy, who pretty well faked nonchalance. Again, I sat with Darren. Even though he’d started the frenzy, he’d been the one to stop them, after all. On the ride back, he leaned back in his seat with a beer between his knees, shut his eyes, and kept his hands on his own legs. I was relieved that the rest of them amused themselves with Greg’s road antics, a mix of tailgating and speeding. They cussed and flipped off other drivers. This made things seem normal.
But this is not the important part of the story.
A few days after the incident, I was sitting alone in my bedroom and my phone rang. It was Darren. I quickened to his voice. He said he wanted to see me again. I was so pretty, Darren said, he couldn’t stop thinking about me.
That was all I needed to hear. I pushed aside the images of what had happened: their taunting faces, my bruises and twisted glasses, the leaves in my torn underwear. There were dangers in this dynamic that were new to me, and I knew I could not miscalculate—but being desired was worth the risk. I was still a girl with imagination, a gift aided by the power to deny.
I’d meet him at the same spot down the street. I didn’t ask how he’d get there, or who would drive him.
I put on a different pair of shorts and a different blouse. I freshened my makeup. I made sure to take some change in case I needed to make a phone call. I put on shoes. I tapped my sandal against the curb as I waited by the overpass.
the wind aborts
a field of wishes