I can hear the laundry flapping on the vinyl line tied between our trailer and the neighbor’s. I know I should go out and get it, that my dad will be angry if our whites get rained on or blow away, but Jennifer and I are leaned over a magazine on my bedroom floor, looking at women with coarse and silky curls that are blonde and red and black instead. Jennifer’s got pretty blonde hair and pale skin all dappled with freckles, kind of like the models in the magazine, and I’ve been reading the dirty captions to her in whispers as we flip through the pages. When I read something extra gross, she leans in closer to me as she laughs. She smells like the ocean, all humid and heat and salt, but a little like her dad’s cigarettes too.
She points to a photo of two women who are facing each other like they’re about to embrace. Their nipples are the size of saucers, and, between their bright red lips, the tips of kitten tongues reach out, as if searching for milk. I giggle and say meow. Jennifer laughs, leans in real close again, and whispers, “They like ‘em baby smooth, you know.” Her shoulder touches mine and I can feel her breath on my ear. Then I imagine her flicking my earlobe with her tongue, like she’s lapping up water, but the thought makes my palms sticky, like when we were younger and she’d lock her door during sleepovers. We’d strip naked and she’d lie on top of me, her looney-toons comforter the only thing keeping us apart, and we’d pretend to kiss––like her parents, she said––twisting our heads this way and that and snaking our tongues in and out. But we never actually touched.
I sit up, pretend to stretch, and push the thought away though. We never talk about when used to do that; it’s embarrassing now.
“They like what smooth?” I ask.
“God, Holli,” she says, turning to the next page. “Pussies.”
“I knew that,” I say. “Just had a brain fart is all.”
Jennifer snorts with laughter, sits up, and starts rummaging through the drawer of my nightstand for the nail polish I keep inside. She says she knows all about what boys like because she’s been making out with my older brother Jimmy behind the slide at the park for months, that there are some things magazines can’t show you. This is disgusting for all kinds of reasons, not least of which are because Jimmy is my brother and he doesn’t deserve Jennifer in the slightest, but it’s her choice. She gives me the ol’ down-low every day after school now, like how at first it felt like Jimmy was eating her face, which made me think of zombies and how he smacks his lips when he chews his food during dinner, but then she said it felt kind of nice after a while, which made me try and think of everything except that.
I hate Jimmy and she knows it, but I do like the curvy models and loopy words printed in neon green at the top of the pages. I wonder what it would be like to have boobs like that, so I ask Jennifer. Since her womanhood, which is what she says her mom calls it, her boobs have grown to the size of small apples. She likes to squeeze them and pretend that she’s shooting juice at me, and, giving up on finding the right color nail polish, she does this now.
“Why are you so obsessed with boobs?” she asks, still pretend-squirting.
I pretend-dodge and laugh.
“I don’t know,” I say, pausing to think of an answer. “Just seems like maybe they’d hurt, like the sacks of potatoes.”
Jennifer eyes the potato sack next to my dresser. All the girls carried them for health class last month. Mrs. Higgins had said, with the born-again-virgin certificates she hands out to the repentant hanging above her desk, that carrying the sacks of potatoes was meant to simulate being pregnant. They hung from soft strips of fabric that she salvaged from our home economics classroom, and she wrapped them around our necks and backs, then tied them into neat little bows like we were gifts. The extra weight made us all walk like we were deformed. We’d accidentally bump into walls and lockers because of it, and, when the bags broke open, our faces would burn with confusion and shame as our potatoes rolled away. Some girls broke their bags open on purpose too, to lighten the load I guess.
The boys just jumped around, avoiding them like they were landmines, and called us fat potato or hot potato, depending on whether they thought we were pretty or not. Other times, they’d declare that they wanted to spud on our tater-tots like it was some magnificent gesture. Jennifer heard that last one a lot. She said it was a real compliment, like it meant she was really hot, but she didn’t look proud or anything when she told me that. Rather, she wore the words like my dad wears his purple heart: tucked away in a box at the back of the closet, because, as he says, you have to hold onto something, or all you have left are a few missing limbs and even more dead friends. He’s always saying stuff like that, about the war and what was lost, while pointing to his deaf ear.
When I tried to ask him about whether carrying potatoes was actually like being pregnant, for mom at least, like this would explain everything, his face got real tight and his knuckles turned pale from squeezing the kitchen table too hard. He told me to ask Mrs. Higgins about it, said she’s the teacher, but I’d been avoiding her, mostly because she weirds me out. She used to corner me after class sometimes, give me sad looks and ask how I’m holding up, and I hated it. Besides, she doesn’t have kids. So I kept the sack of potatoes to myself; they’ve started growing eyes and getting this ripe earthy smell that fills my entire room. Jennifer thinks I should throw them away, but when she brought it up last time she was here, I joked with her that moms weren’t allowed to abandon their babies, and she hasn’t mentioned the potatoes or their rotten smell since––though I can tell she wants to now from the way she’s chewing her bottom lip.
“Mrs. Higgins is so stupid,” Jennifer finally says. “A total lesbian too.”
She holds two fingers up to her mouth in the shape of a V and wiggles her tongue through them. I shrug and turn back to the magazine. I don’t think Mrs. Higgins is a lesbian, but I wonder how you can know that about someone. I’ve heard she’s been married twice now, that she woke up one day to find her last husband gone, like poof, vanished into thin air; that she poisoned her first husband because he wouldn’t stop grabbing her as she walked by, brushed her teeth, or washed the dishes, like she was some sort of ragdoll. I’ve heard that she hates men too. I liked her despite all her quirks because of this, before she started badgering me anyway, and because it was funny when she said things like having sex before marriage was the same as being a chewed-up Oreo.
Jennifer grabs two handfuls of tissues from my nightstand and starts stuffing her bra. She stands up and does jumping jacks, to make them bounce, but the tissues keep them from moving.
“Well I hope I get big ol’ titties,” she says. “Guys love big titties.”
“Is that what your mom told you?”
She squirms when I mention her mom to her, always does, and it makes me feel bad and good at the same time. I hold the magazine up with one hand so she can’t see me smiling while I use my other hand to trace the women’s curves. I can see her make this woe-is-Holli look though, her eyes all doughy, like she’s feeling sorry for me, and I want to slap her. I fake laugh instead to make that face go away, place the magazine back on the floor, and run my fingers over bold letters surrounded by little stars at the top of the page. The woman underneath the heading has her legs spread and, instead of a little kitten tongue sticking out of her mouth, it looks like there’s one peeking out of her pubic hair.
The whole page, kitten tongue and dirty words and eyes open wide, glistens under our gaze. More than the models, I think, I love the dirty words. Since I found the magazine, I’ve been writing all kinds of words down. I have pages of them now, all of which would make Mrs. Higgins faint. I underline the ones I don’t know the meaning of in red to look up later, and sometimes I whisper them to myself over and over in the bathroom stalls at school, slurping up the syllables like maple syrup and tasting them on the roof of my mouth until the bell rings. I’m not the only one either. I hear other girls whispering to themselves inside the bathroom stalls too.
Some words are in the dictionary; some aren’t.
“I looked this word up,” I say, pointing to the word and imagining it flashing in neon lights: BEAVER, BEAVER, BEAVER. “But it was just what I thought it was,” I continue. “An amphibious rodent native to North America that builds dams and eats wood. I had to look up amphibious too.”
“Wait, you don’t know what beaver means?”
Jennifer’s mouth hangs open to punctuate my stupidity, and I guess I am stupid. I don’t understand what’s so dirty or special about beavers, except maybe that when they’re frightened they can scream under water, sending a warning cry to other beavers even miles away. But I think this is cool. I shift myself into a sitting position, crisscross applesauce, and ask her what beaver means if not the animal.
“It’s a vagina, dum-dum.”
“Why a beaver though?”
“I don’t know,” she says, gliding cherry flavored lip gloss along her lips. “Maybe ‘cause they eat wood.”
“Oh.” I stare at her lips and lick my own while considering this. “That’s gross.”
“I guess, if you’re a dyke,” she says.
Maybe I am and she knows it, I think. Jennifer’s always one step ahead of me, like when our mothers got sick, but her mom got sick first. I spent a lot of time at her trailer after mine followed suit. Someone else’s dying mom is easier to be around than your own, and, besides, Jennifer’s mom had cancer; mine just couldn’t get out of bed. My dad had said to leave her alone, that our racket was driving her crazy. Jimmy said it was all my fault, that mom was depressed because I’m so ugly and stupid. So we spent our afternoons at her place, watching Judge Judy and swatting away her dad’s cigarette smoke.
Her mother’s hair had fallen out and, on days she was feeling well, she’d ask me how my mom was doing––never mind that they always hated each other. This was embarrassing, since I thought my mom wasn’t really sick and her mom was bald, but I’d nod my head real serious-like and give her an account of my mom’s newest medication, its newest side effects. Her mom would nod back, say to tell her hello for me, but I never did; my mom might as well have been paper on the wall. She was too sad to talk, too sad to sleep, too sad to eat, too sad to breathe. Sometimes she’d sit on the lawn chair outside, its plastic all warped and cracked from the sun, and stare at the laundry line: white sheets, already dry, would be swaying in the breeze.
I asked her once why she liked looking at the sheets so much, but she just waved me away, didn’t even look me in the eye. It felt like her sadness was suffocating me, and I wished she’d just kill herself, or divorce dad and move away and send us Christmas cards like all our other family members we couldn’t stand to be around. Then, after our moms got better––well, after her mom did––I preferred my place after school, even though Jennifer got to move into a real apartment since her mom could work again, and I’m still stuck in this trailer park, except with just dad and Jimmy now.
Jennifer wouldn’t come to the funeral; said she didn’t want to jinx her mom. I never said anything about it, though I thought showing up was the least she could do. Then my dad put away all mom’s pictures, like maybe they’d jinx us, and he refused to talk about her. Now dinner time is just the smack-slop of Jimmy’s lips, and dad’s silence, which reeks of gasoline, and this humming void where mom’s chair used to be, before dad took it outside and broke it into a hundred pieces. Sometimes I hear him crying at night, or sitting at the kitchen table in his camouflage jacket, chain-smoking, dialing her cellphone number over and over. I imagine the phone pressed against his good ear as he leaves raspy voicemails. I call her sometimes too, after everyone has gone to bed, but I can’t make it past her saying, “Hello, this is…” without hanging up.
Jennifer takes the magazine, and I’m getting tired of being around her, so I get up and walk toward the laundry basket.
“I’m gonna go get the sheets real quick,” I say over my shoulder.
“Why? Your dad won’t be home for at least an hour.”
“Yeah, but it might rain.”
She has a suspicious look on her face, but I grab the basket anyway.
“You’ve got time,” she says, then, “Why do you have this magazine anyway?”
I set the basket down and turn to look at her. Her eyebrows form question marks as she thumbs through the pages, like I’m taking too long to answer. I don’t want her making stuff up, or thinking I’m a lesbian or something, so I tell her how I found the magazine under my dad’s bed, how I thought it was funny. I don’t tell her that I found it while looking for more of my mom’s photos though.
For a while, if I wanted to see her, I had to sneak into their room while he sat in the kitchen. I’d army crawl down their narrow bedroom hallway, my knees and elbows scraping against our dirty mauve carpet, and slip the photo albums from his nightstand. My favorite picture is from before she had Jimmy and me. She’s wearing this lacy red bra; it’s peeking out of her shirt, and her dyed red hair is teased up real big, making a perfect round frame for her face. She’s smiling in a way I’ve never seen her smile before too, like she’s actually happy and feels beautiful. I could tell dad looked at it a lot because the edges were all worn, and I know I wasn’t supposed to, but I took it. I keep it in the gap underneath my nightstand now.
Jennifer gives me a look like she can see right through me, like tracing paper in art class, and I hate her for it––for everything, really. Then she sets the magazine down and turns to the mirror next to my bed, starts braiding her long blonde hair and making kissy-faces at herself.
“I know what we could do,” she says, her face suddenly serious in the mirror. “Let’s sell the photos to some boys, a buck each.”
I relax a little, relieved that she’s changed the subject. This sounds like a good idea, because then we could buy cigarettes off one of the older kids, or Coca-Cola and candy from the gas station. But I feel my face twist up as I imagine boys spudding all over the pictures while the women cry out like frightened beavers under placid water, the pitch of their screams on a level only I can hear. Then I wonder if my mom was screaming while she stared at that laundry, and why I couldn’t hear her.
“No,” I say, grabbing the magazine and tucking it back under my mattress. “We can’t.”
“Don’t be such a wuss.”
“I’m not,” I tell her. “Just my dad would probably notice if it went missing.”
She gives me that look again, like right through me, and it feels like there’s an actual bag of potatoes inside my gut. She knows my dad doesn’t notice anything except the laundry anymore, and I don’t know how I can explain this to her: that sometimes I hold my mom’s photo up next to the pictures in the magazine, and I love them all, like I can imagine all the stories the women would tell me, and the ways their arms would feel hugging me at night as I fall asleep.
Jennifer’s face softens though, and she goes back to kissing herself in the mirror. Realizing I don’t have to explain, I can feel my whole body sigh.
“I get it,” she teases. “You’re one of those feminists.”
“What’s a feminist?”
She shrugs and pinches her cheeks to make them pretty-pink.
“Just add it to your dirty notebook.”
“Is your mom a feminist?” I say, trying to make this sound like a joke, but your mom just hangs there, like an accusation.
Jennifer turns to face me, not even squirming.
“She misses you, you know,” she says, her voice even. “You should come to my house sometime.”
She throws herself on me before I can finish the sentence and squeezes me real tight like she’s a nutcracker. My whole body becomes stiff, and I don’t know why, but I start crying for the first time since before my mom died––ugly crying too, with my snot dripping on Jennifer’s shoulder. She rubs my back and keeps saying she’s sorry, and it feels like the pressure of her arms around me is causing my skin to peel off, exposing all of my cracks underneath. I wonder if she hugged Jimmy like this when mom died. I found out about them the day before. I came home, blubbering about betrayal and how Jennifer was the worst because, since her mom went into remission, she wasn’t talking to me as much that week, which I had thought was understandable, but it turns out it was because she was dating Jimmy.
My mom was watching the laundry again when I told her all this, but crying instead of just staring this time, and I couldn’t tell if it was for me or her. I knelt down in front of her, put my face in hers, and said, please, please just talk to me, but still, she wouldn’t respond. I thought about my dad screaming in her face: asking whether she’d gone deaf, what she had to be sad about; telling her how useless she was when she wouldn’t leave her bed, or just stared at the sheets instead of bringing them inside. I thought about how she wouldn’t blink, even then, and I asked if she was just going to stare and cry over the laundry, or get it.
Jennifer keeps saying it’s going to be okay, that I’m going to be okay. I nuzzle her neck and start to calm down, my breathing getting more even as I inhale the beach scent from her skin, and I don’t want her to let go of me. Mrs. Higgins would like this, I think. She had tried to get me to cry like this the last time she took a special interest in me, and I wouldn’t, a fact I was particularly proud of. She said to let it all out, to be grateful my mom was in heaven now, and I wanted to claw her face off. But instead I asked, keeping my words matter-of-fact, how that was possible, since suicide is a sin and my mom never spent a day in church in her life anyway. Mrs. Higgins responded that all things were possible through God, but this only made me laugh in her face. It looked like I had slapped her when I choked out the question, “Like being a born-again virgin?” I feel bad about this now, but a certificate can’t bring back something you’ve lost.
Jennifer kisses my hairline and I melt into her. I tell her how it was all my fault, how when my mom wouldn’t talk to me, I had yelled at her to get the laundry, and then tried to push her out of her chair, and then said that I hated her and wished she weren’t my mom, and now she’s dead. Jennifer is quiet though, still rubbing my back, and my chest feels like bursting. She must think I’m a terrible person, because I am. She squeezes me tighter then, but I hear someone outside, probably Jimmy eavesdropping, so I break away.
I notice that Jennifer’s been crying too; her face is all puffed up and pink now. She reaches toward me and says it’s not my fault, that my mom knew I loved her, that she says terrible things to her mom too. I don’t respond though, just wipe my face and walk over to my window to see who’s out there. The sky is gray and there are ripples in the clouds that remind me of Saran wrap when it gets all bunched up.
Jimmy’s standing near the laundry, which is whipping around now in the wind. He starts pelting my window with rocks like grenades and yelling that dad wants me to get the sheets and stuff; it’s about to rain. I can feel my stomach rising, taking over my chest and throat, because I hadn’t realized he was home yet. More than anything, I don’t want my dad to think I’m like mom, but I also don’t want Jimmy to see me so upset, so I walk away and make a point to ignore him, but he keeps throwing rocks. Jennifer looks at him out the window, and I wonder if she’ll leave me for him now that he’s here.
“Why doesn’t he get it? He’s right there,” she says.
“Because he sucks.”
The heat in the room causes condensation to build up on the window and the air to get thick with the smell of my potatoes. It looks like the sky is going to split open and wreck the laundry, but I don’t care. I walk over to my dresser and pick up the sack of potatoes. Jennifer looks at me, eyes wide like the girls in the magazine.
“Come on,” I tell her, and it feels like I can’t control my lips; they’re peeled back into a grin so big my cheeks hurt, and I feel weightless.
It occurs to me that the look on her face probably means that she thinks I’m crazy, and maybe I am crazy, but I’m starting to believe we all are. I open the bag and Jennifer’s smiling now too. She reaches in and grabs a potato, and we both snicker as I open the window and call out, “Hey Jimmy.” I start throwing my rotten potatoes at him and Jennifer joins me. It becomes vegetable warfare. He’s dodging as best he can, his plaid shirt weaving in and out of our white sheets and underwear, and yelling that we’re crazy bitches, but he can’t escape the potato bombs long enough to grab more rocks. They hit him every time he bends over. Some are hitting the sidewalk and breaking open. Some are rolling around. Some of the potato eyes are staring at us, like how my mom used to, like the women in the magazine, but we are laughing, laughing, laughing. I know I’ll regret this later, but the look on his face is worth it.
“They’re just potatoes, you beaver!” I yell.
“Why don’t you show us your Jimmy, Jimmy,” adds Jennifer.
We slam the window shut as he runs away, fall back on the floor. Then we start screaming, our words tumbling into each for everyone to hear from miles around: PUSSY, BEAVER, ORGASM, OREOS, POTATOES. We pant and laugh as the words echo around my room. Jennifer’s skin shimmers, probably from her fancy lotion, and I reach out, can’t help myself, and run my fingers down her arm, circle her palm. It feels like we were already touching, like we’ve always touched. I think this is what love feels like, and maybe Jennifer feels it too, so I lean closer to kiss her, to take in that beachy scent, but she jerks away from me, sits up, and stares at her hands.
Rain begins hitting the tin roof, but I can hardly gasp for air, am frozen, I think, watching her stare at her hands, then look at the ceiling, my bed, my floor, at everything but me.
“Remember when we used to pretend kiss?” I ask, trying to take it all back. “I was just pretending.”
“I’ve got to get home,” she says. “My mom is expecting me for me dinner.”
Her voice sounds sour, and I can tell that I’ve ruined something––though I’m just not sure what. She says she’ll see me at school tomorrow, tells me not to be so hard on myself, and leaves. I watch her run through the rain, past the laundry hanging limp on the line, and get on her bike. After she rides off, everything feels empty––me, my room, the whole trailer––and I start slapping myself, and crying again, like now that I’ve done it, I’ll never be able to stop. I pull the magazine from under my mattress and rip it apart, tearing each page into tiny pieces of confetti and wondering what I was thinking when I showed it to her.
I crouch beside my nightstand and pull out my mom’s photo next, wanting to tear that up too, but, looking at her, I can’t bring myself to do it. Somehow this moment feels big and important, like she’s expecting something from me, so I tell her I’m sorry. But she just stares up at me until my tears distort her face and she can’t even do that anymore. I tear her photo in half and imagine my dad, him calling her over and over every night, and think someone should tell him that it’s too late.