Emily was mine first.
I met her when she was working at the coffee shop and had that stupid fat braid on her head. She called it her dreadlock, which was ridiculous, but it was nothing like that, anyway. It hung limp like Squidward’s nose off the side of her head, a blonde penis. But we fucked in the back of the minivan, laid down flat around all the empty Mountain Dew bottles and McDonald’s bags and floating, dancing hunks of cigarette ash that blew up all around when I cranked the heat and made the inside of the van feel like a spaceship beyond the point of gravity. It was my first time. I panicked, could not get hard. She took me with a stiff hand. Let me put my tongue on her dark nipples. I was done in seconds. And then we went on dates:
Movie dates that ended with me driving her home in her own car because she got too drunk in the parking lot to do anything.
Dinner dates that ended with me driving her home in her own car because she got too drunk in the parking lot to do anything.
Emily’s the rare teenager/early-twentysomething who possesses the alcoholic thirst of someone four times her age and nine times her weight.
And then she didn’t want us to go on any more dates, do any more things. I tried the way you try when you lack both game and boundaries.
“Wanna come over for dinner and meet my mom?”
I texted her during seventh period one day in October. That specific second week of October brought that same sense of derealization that comes every year, right when the balmy wet of summer is finally buried under the new-crisp wood-stench, the spooky harshness that appears and takes over all the lungs at once. The death of the tropic summer and the emergence of the too-low winter skies, marching steady and slow like a God-fueled army, it’s all just here to rob light and serotonin.
Mr. Nolan was talking and talking about colonial America and I heard nothing. I did not care about colonial America. I cared about Emily’s pinkwarm inside her pussy. Every moment in school was turbulent, in between one intangible horror and the next bliss. I was high a lot back then. I drove on it and drove terribly.
She didn’t respond for so long. I went to the woods with the boys to smoke. I went to McDonald’s with the boys to feast. I lay in bed with That 70s Show in my right ear and my family yelling at me in the other to get up, study, do things, in the other.
I did nothing. Portrait of Bartleby as a Young Sad.
Eric Foreman was messing everything up, again. He was always thinking with his penis and his ego and ending up alone.
I always thought it was impressive that Eric Foreman never talked about blowing his brains out. I thought that was a cool move.
She texted back the night of the fabled dinner: “Can’t, sorry.”
We ate alone. Mom was sad Emily wasn’t there. I had nothing to say. My little brother drank four glasses of milk. I barely touched my rotisserie chicken. It all felt tragic when the pieces of the night didn’t add up to anything permanent.
It was just dinner.
It was meant to be greater than the sum of its parts.
I never ate. I went out to smoke with the boys. She was there, with the boys, with my best friend, Louis. Smoking. Coughing out the bowl. They had this thing between them, this familiarity. It was right there, leaping out from them to me, a hideous chain tying them to my balls and heart.
We never had that, me and her. People were shocked to find us together.
It was cold in the woods at night, pilgrim-passage cold, the woods navy in the dead light of winter-almost dark in the evening.
“Hey,” I said.
She smiled. Did not speak.
“Hey,” Louis said.
The rest of the boys watched. Angelo nodded knowingly. They all knew something or another. We weren’t together, sure. Right.
Louis looked so happy. He looked smug. He threw his arm around her shoulder like it was nothing, but it was something. Again, the cumulative effect was greater than the bits and pieces.
Nothing I tell you can stitch together all the little transgressions, the small cuts, into something coherent, crystallized, that I can give to you. So, you get this. You get what I have to give.
He gave me a sheepish grin. Shoulder-shrugging shit.
One of my regrets, from that moment on, was not skullfucking Louis.
You ever see American History X?
I watched that movie with Louis the first time. That. That’s what I should have done.
It’s not even that he fell in love. It’s the look.
The Aw, shucks. Fuck.
A year later—or two, three, I’m not sure, time gets so sludgy once you graduate high school and everyone leaves and you’re all that’s left, just wait if you don’t know—Louis hands me the key to his front door. He’s going on a trip to the Florida Keys. The whole family. Thirteen days of staring at open water and eating fish.
I’m going to water their plants. I’m going to feed their cat.
“My mom says ‘thanks’,” he says as I slide the keys onto my keyring.
“Of course,” I reply.
“So,” he says, lighting a cigarette, “what’s new?”
I understand why he’d ask that. We’re friends, still friends, even though things were weird before. We didn’t talk when they started their thing, Louis and Emily. Then one Saturday he texted me and we played basketball. He won, obviously. Then we watched TV and ripped the bong. Then I was just there a lot, again, on his parents’ couch, ignoring the fact that he and Emily were wrapped up next to me in the big chair.
I pick up Emily and we head to Louis’s. I do this because we both live with our parents and we’re the two people Louis tells about his empty house, and she texts me to bring her along when I go. I think she wants to have a party. Emily loves parties—going to parties, throwing parties full of older people she knows from a few towns away.
Emily’s the type of girl who knows a ton of people that she didn’t meet through school. The kind of girl who has older friends, friends from other towns.
She and I haven’t been alone in the minivan since the time she popped my proverbial cherry in the parking lot of the local Training School, the place where they warehouse the people. We’d done it parked behind a loading dock at night. She knew what she was doing. She was older, remember.
When I’d finished and then tried in vain with my fingers to bring her there with me, she’d let me curl up with her like a husband for a few minutes, entering that half-sleep that makes life a purely sensory experience, the cerebral finally slaughtered. A reprieve from thought.
I am driving through elegant foliage and not talking, and she’s texting on her phone and smoking a cigarette. I crack a window.
Emily looks up at me. Her face is bare of makeup. I’d never accuse her of being beautiful. Just different. Her face is skeletal, skin tight over fragile Nordic bones and a new, shoulder-length cut. The limp-dick hair-knot is gone with the years. Her breasts are pushed up by the bathing suit top she wears as a bra. Her t-shirt is a men’s white undershirt and I know it’s his.
“Want one?” she asks, gesturing with the cigarette.
She lights it for me.
We drive and smoke and don’t really talk, and when we get to his place we walk through the front door into the hall and turned on a late. The house is spotless. We stand in the hall, then we stand in the kitchen.
Emily walks through the kitchen, tossing her bag and her flannel jacket on the kitchen table, moving with the unabashed sense of belonging that comes along with being the prized girlfriend of someone who lives in the house. I watch her walk in her camisole to the door that leads to the basement and can’t quite separate my love from everything else.
She opens the door and takes a step down, pausing, her sleepy eyes peering back around the doorjamb at me. “Coming?”
She drinks vodka exclusively, and I hate vodka. I drink every time she adds a splash to the glass we take from Louis’s mom’s bar, which is constantly, since Emily’s an alcoholic. Still. Moreso.
I’m shocked every day she still exists. That she ever did.
“This is good shit,” she says. She’s getting drunk. She smiles big and goofy. She only really smiles when she’s drunk. Her nipples are hard through the camisole and she’s sweaty and I try not to look.
I nod. “I want a cigarette,” I say.
We look at each other, laugh. We light up inside. It is hilarious to smoke in someone’s parents’ home because, see, they worked hard for this home. They did things, and now a bunch of losers who should be in college are blowing smoke on their beautiful sofas, ashing blunts on their beautiful carpets.
“So, Elijah,” she asks. “You got any girls?”
She kind of moves closer to me on the sofa. It’s all kind of forced and weird, the talk, like we’re old acquaintances forced to catch up after a chance encounter at the DMV. The post office. And no, I don’t got any girls.
The basement is decked out with expensive mahogany furniture and sound dies on the heavy wood. Everything is polished and the coffee table I rest my drink on is the color of a big dark cherry.
She smells like body odor, and I’m remembering the fuck by the Palace of the Disabled. The way she let me be while being something new, too. Emily gets up and walks over to Louis’ mom’s record player with the authority of someone who’s done it many times.
For a moment, I’m living Louis’ life. Watching what he watches.
I wonder what it would be like if it had been my house she got so cozy at the last couple years.
She puts on some Fleet Foxes vinyl, because she thinks that’s something special. We drink.
There is no sound anywhere but the music and our lighters and our drinks. We’re not really talking. It’s very smokey. She opens a window. She puts on Frank Ocean, Channel Orange, my favorite, and I wonder if she did it because it’s my favorite.
She’s doing all the things. I don’t leave my spot. I’m getting very drunk.
“I’m getting very drunk,” I announce.
“This is my favorite album. Ever,” I say, loudly.
She smiles, those Hershey kiss eyes all wet with drink, purple-blue bags heavy underneath. She’s so tired, always.
“You think I don’t know that?”
I shrug, and she comes and sits real close again, kind of sitting up on my thigh a little, pushing some weight on me.
I’m acutely aware of how alone we are, out in the woods, all that, and I wonder if she is, too.
“I know you, you know.”
I shrug again. I’m spun enough to challenge her on this. “Do you, though?”
She looks hurt. Pouts, a little.
“You’re a flirt,” I say. I am declaring, aloud, stupid things.
She doesn’t say anything. She just repeats herself.
“You knew me,” I concede. “You did. Before.”
“Have you changed that much?”
“Have you?” I ask, and I say it all playful. Kind of give her knee a squeeze. She looks at my hand. That’s fine. We sit in the moment, because it’s different. The charge is different, because I did it on purpose. Touched her.
When you’re drunk, you’ve got incidental contact, nonstop—a laugh turns into a lean, a joke invites a little punch on the shoulder. She laughs and the laugh lays heavy, dies in the carpet of the almost-silent, almost empty house.
But I put my hand on her. Again.
She pours herself another drink and I drain mine. I light her cigarette. I feel like Clark Gable.
“Who is that?” she asks, laughs a laugh that’s too loud.
I need to stop saying these things in my head aloud.
Her left breast is coming out of her cami all beige and I really hope her dark nipple shows. She has the darkest nipples and I want to see them. I want to see the things my mind remembers.
I need to know if I remember right.
I tell her as much.
I am right, but they look even darker than I remember. I forgot about the tattoo between them, right over her sternum. It’s a cross, I think. Or a butterfly. I honestly have no clue. It was not done well. There’s another new one of a date in April in block type next to it, but I don’t ask what it means. It looks infected. All her tattoos look like they’re trying to fly off her body and it’s awful.
Then the record stops between songs for a few full seconds, and pause, we’re just two people in a room. One has her shirt up over her breasts, her bra pulled down. The other isn’t looking away. Mostly because it’s just so quiet and there’s no one here to say what happens next.