BY JEN MICHALSKI
She had never been this close to a boy, close enough to feel the scratch of chest hairs on her back, the rough, warm pressure of fingers cinching her waist. She knew Matt had girls—more than he knew what to do with, she figured, by the gossip around school. But the warmness, the nearness of him surrounded her, his breath on her neck, and she decided it all was hers alone. And she knew she liked it to this point and wouldn’t go further. She knew she liked it to this point.
She did not think about any other point until it happened, the swell of him against her back one night. They were lying on the couch in the basement after school watching The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reruns. She turned around and he guided her hand to it. She was surprised at the warmness and softness of the shaft and testicles, the nest of hair in which it presumably lay dormant.
She held it in her hand, the baby bird between his pale, muscled legs, and she thought of other soft things of Matt’s she had touched: The inside of his oiled, broken-in baseball glove that he beat with his fist. Hey batter, batter. It sounded like her father hitting her mother. The wool of his skull cap, onto which she had heaped handful after handful of snow when they were little. His crooked teeth had grown from his mouth like a walrus, and he pushed her into the snow bank, laughing and rubbing cold on her cheeks. His stuffed bunny named Bugs, which his mother had shown her one night while he was in the bathroom.
She rubbed it and felt his heartbeat in it, in her hands, and then the sticky wet and flaccidness, Matt’s voice wounded, his hand in her hair, petting her head like a dog. It went away, the bird, back in its nest but Sam held onto it, even after Matt rolled over and changed the channel to ESPN. She wasn’t going to let go, at the root, where she could finally feel it, his heart.
CHRISTMAS EVE, 1986
When they were twelve he stole plastic cups of beer, half-smoked cigarettes from his father’s basement bar on Christmas Eve, and they hid in the stairwell outside. Under the dog’s old quilt they listened to the voices inside the butter-light windows, Aunt Louie’s laugh rising over the murmur, an unidentified man cough. A glass broke in the dining room. Not a very expensive one, he reported to her later.
It began to snow and they drank the beer and smoked the cigarettes, tar-caked and lipsticked menthol 100s. They listened for their parents’ voices, muffled behind the steamed kitchen window, and imitated them, giggling, exaggerated faces. They watched the stars move above them and the ground move below them, and they took little nibs of whiskey. They didn’t tell each other they hated the smell of the cigarettes on their fingers and that the whiskey made them sick the next day.
She friends him, years later, on Facebook. She sends him a private message, inviting him to an art show of a friend, a friend he may have met when he visited her in college. His hair was greasy then and she didn’t like the way he ate at brunch, looking at no one, picking up the hash browns with his fingers. She explains the artist friend is sort of famous now. She hopes he still likes art, that he still has the Chagall book she gave him back then for graduation.
He comments on her Wall that he and his girlfriend are going to Turkey next week. Some other time soon for dinner? You haven’t changed, LOL. She is disappointed that he has become the type that brags in public spaces.
When they were twelve in the stairwell they didn’t kiss. It was not something she had considered then, and even as she daydreams about him now, gripping her shoulders from behind, penetrating her, in backyard tents, behind basement dryers, underneath his old sailboat comforter, she realizes that they should have run into the snow that night. If they did not think about it, the cold, they could get very far away. When they stopped, the dog’s blanket wet, smelly around them, the cold piercing their noses and throats, they would see the windows of his house, small tic-tac squares of light. Keep moving, she would say. She would take his hand and pat it alive, stick it in her mouth, warm like that, until they stumbled upon the house again. Like a compass, she’d explain, spinning.
“Delivery?” He nodded to her. She wondered if he had been in the war.
“Yeah,” she nodded. “But can you take it back? I’ll pay you¾I just don’t want it.”
“You sure?” He raised his eyebrows even higher and she could imagine him eating the pizza later, drinking soda from 2-liter bottle, listening to music that made other people’s hearts fibrillate. “It’s good pizza.”
They had been going to watch a movie, eat pizza. Friday-night stuff. But then she got the phone call from Ryan and now it was over. Two years and three months. She would not be able to eat pizza again. And maybe she would associate Friday night and nights like these, early and cool and quiet with clear stars, with tonight, with him. But the pizza boy would go home and not sense the gigantic shift in her universe and she would hate him for it.
“Yes¾just take it.” She pushed the money at him. “I can’t eat right now.”
“Are you okay?” His arms were stiff, steady, around the pizza box. Ten minutes ago she had been hungry. “I can just leave this on the railing or something.”
“No¾you see, I just got a phone call.” She shook her head and it was full of water, angry salty water, the sound of wind in her ears. It collected in her knees and they felt soft. She swayed a little. She heard the pizza box drop on the porch and the boy’s hand on her shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” he said. She looked up at him, and he flinched a little.
“It’s okay,” she said, the sound of her voice whiny, like a balloon losing air. “Just leave it. It’s fine.”
“I meant you.” He nodded toward the house. “You oughta sit down or something.”
“Okay, fine.” She began to cry.
“I’ll just put this inside.” He held the door and she went into the living room and watched him put it on the coffee table, moving the newspaper. She fell on the couch and held herself and cried.
“Don’t leave.” He stopped at the door and looked at her. “Wait until my boyfriend gets home.”
“Ma’am, I’ve got pizzas.” He shoved his hands in his pockets, his chest turned toward the living as if he were considering it.
“He’ll be home in a few minutes.” She looked at him and he was a watercolor. He blurred toward her and she felt his weight on the couch. “I just got the most terrible news.”
“I’m sorry,” he said again. He wove his fingers together and bent forward, staring at the television. “What happened?”
She shook her head and she hated him again, hated him because he delivered pizzas and did not get surprise phone calls, even though she was making assumptions because it was possible he was in the war and seen things but she felt justified under the circumstances.
“I need you to hold me,” she said. She would associate his cologne with this night also. “I’m sorry. There is no boyfriend.”
He patted her back, like he was trying to burp a baby.
“There, see?” He patted as she became silent. “All better.”
She leaned over and kissed his neck. She felt his arms tense before they circled her.
“I can’t lose my job,” he said, pressing his lips against hers, his tongue prying them open. She let his tongue sweep the inside of her cheeks, her teeth. She pressed her hand into his crouch and felt his penis rise to meet her. “I can’t do this.”
“Come back.” She broke free of him and walked toward the door. “After your shift, all right?
He stood up and she watched him jog toward the car. She hoped that Ryan would drive over later, drunk or maybe not, but sorry all the same. A bad day, he’d apologize. Just wanted to be alone¾it wasn’t you. It’s never you. Although she would want him to say this she knew that everything would be different from now on. It already was.
She wondered when the boy’s shift ended. As it got closer to midnight, she began to get scared that the boy would come back. Maybe she would be too upset and think about Ryan the whole time. Maybe he would be too kinky or too inexperienced. Or he would rape and kill her. She turned off the lights and locked the door.
She heard the car pull up in front of her house soon after, the knock on her door. She crept toward the door and pressed her ear against it. Maybe he’d think she got tired of waiting for him, that she went to bed, and it was all his fault. But he pounded harder. She flinched, crouching low to the floor, afraid he’d see her somehow, her shadow on the wall, hear her breathing.
She wondered whether he would stalk the house now, what she had done. Finally, she heard the screen door volley backward, the sound of feet down the steps. When the engine turned over and caught and the car roared away, she looked at the box of pizza still on the table. The cheese was cool, rubbery on her lips, but she ate it anyway, the whole thing.
Jen Michalski is the author of the novels The Summer She Was Under Water (2016, QFP) and The Tide King (Black Lawrence Press 2013), a couplet of novellas, Could You Be With Her Now (Dzanc 2013), and two collections of fiction (From Here, 2014; and Close Encounters, 2007). Her work has appeared in more than 80 publications, including Poets & Writers. In 2013, she was named as “One of 50 Women to Watch” by The Baltimore Sun and “Best Writer” by Baltimore Magazine. She is the host of the reading series Starts Here! and editor of the journal jmww.