It’s your birthday. You sit in your room finishing your homework and listening to music while you wait for him to come over. The television is on the Disney channel, but the volume is down. Your room is very small, and all of the furniture in it is made of wicker. You’re beginning to feel like you’re sleeping in the dollhouse tucked away in your closet. Your mom wants you to donate the dollhouse somewhere, tells you about all the extra closet space you could have, but you can’t bring yourself to do it.
You see the headlights of a car pulling into the driveway and you look out the window, but it is not who you are hoping for. It is your dad. He wears a St. Louis Cardinals visor and an Albert Pujols jersey. Every year since you were a baby, he has taken your family on the same vacation, a week in St. Louis. It’s the kind of vacation people go on so they can say they went on vacation. You spend half of the trip inside Busch stadium, eating eight dollar ice cream that melts before you finish it, clapping when everyone else does. You spend the other half staring at the boys you see, determining which ones are afraid of you and which ones aren’t. You’re starting to understand that you’re beautiful, that people aren’t just saying that because it’s what you want to hear. You’ve noticed that your mom doesn’t say it anymore.
Your dad knocks on your door before he opens it. He smells like cedar, and he wears a cell phone in a holster on his hip. You normally make fun of him for everything he does, but you’ve stopped for now, while he’s living at the motel down the street. As soon as he gets an apartment, he will be fair game again. He looks at you and shakes his head. “Sixteen?” he says, but it’s not really a question. He’s not that kind of father. He leans halfway over for an awkward hug, the kind he might give to a coworker or a church friend. Then he pulls out his wallet and hands you two hundred dollar bills. It is more than he’s ever given you, the most anyone has ever handed you, but you don’t say anything about that. You thank him and give him a real hug, the kind he’s forgotten how to give. He talks about insurance for a while and then he leaves. When he’s gone you put one of the bills in your wallet and you lay the other flat inside the pages of the Bible on your wicker bedside table.
Another pair of headlights flashes into the driveway. You’re certain about who it is this time. You stand up on your bed to look at yourself in the mirror, combing your hands through your long brown hair. You’re convinced that your body fluctuates daily, that some days your boobs are big and your legs small, that some days it’s the other way around. But today is not one of those days. Today is your birthday. Your legs seem tiny, barely big enough to hold you up, and your boobs feel swollen. On days like today, your boobs make you feel bulletproof, like the knots of flesh on your chest could protect you from anything, like your heart is safe behind them.
The doorbell rings. You run to answer it because you don’t want your mom to. She’s in the living room, watching America’s Funniest Home Videos. She laughs at all of the clips, especially the ones with pets in them. She is obsessed with reality television. Since your father moved out, she’s started calling herself “The Bachelorette.”
When you open the door, he’s holding a single red rose. His hair is shaggy, his bangs in his eyes, and he’s wearing a shirt without sleeves. He hasn’t cut them off; he bought the shirt that way. He smells like a dressing room at the mall, like cologne and cigarettes. He kisses you in the doorway, a soggy, scouring kiss. It is still light outside. You wonder if your neighbors can see you. The thought of that embarrasses and excites you at the same time. While he’s kissing you, you rub your fingers along the muscled lump of his left bicep. Your sexuality is hyper but malleable, still shaped more by rumor and expectation than by anything you actually feel. The girls you sit with during lunch have decided arms are important, arms are sexy, and so now you pay particular attention to his arms. It’s an easy thing to do since his shirts almost never have sleeves.
You grab his hand and lead him inside. You take him to the kitchen, hoping your mom will stay in the living room. There’s a cake on the kitchen counter. Your mom picked it up from the Wal-Mart deli. It says, HAPPY SWEET SIXTEEN NIKOLE!!! You can’t believe they spelled your name right. The spelling of your name makes you proud. There are fourteen Nicoles in your class. You are the only Nikole. Someday you’ll understand what it means that your name is spelled funny. Someday, when you’re selling pharmaceuticals in a place that would now seem inconceivably big, inconceivably urbane, some place like Nashville or Atlanta or even Birmingham, you’ll blush at the provincial spelling of your name. But not now. Now you’re sixteen and you live in rural Arkansas and it’s your birthday.
The cake is yellow with white icing. You tried a piece of it earlier, but you didn’t like it. It tasted like the smell of a magic marker, the kind you use to write tightly scripted notes to your boyfriend. In the notes, you try to tell him how you feel about him, but it never seems like enough. The words, no matter how hard you press the marker against the page, fail to convey the intensity of your emotions. The rigid purple letters on your wide-ruled paper seem only like the estranged, sickly cousins of the searing flares in your chest cavity, the swells of feeling that make it seem as though your body is transparent, a gauzy screen through which the whole of the universe is passing.
So you don’t like the cake. But he does. He’s on his third piece already, eating it with his hands and talking with his mouth full. Your mom walks into the kitchen. She rolls her eyes when she sees him. Your mom is not a person. She is your mom, a servant who’s no longer useful, who’s starting to get in the way. You remember when you cared about her opinion. You remember when she was pretty, but time has pinched her face. Time has thinned her stringy black hair to transparency. Time has made her stupid.
She’s bending over, leaning into the refrigerator, when she asks what y’all are up to. He shrugs and lowers his eyes. You completely ignore her. She pulls a can of Miller Lite out of the refrigerator. She says it’s Miller time. She has a seemingly endless catalogue of drinking clichés. But you’ve never noticed. You don’t pay attention to anything she says, and for the most part, you’re not missing much. She pops the beer open and stares, looking back and forth between the two of you.
“How many calories does that have?” you ask.
“Not very many. I’m drinking my dinner. You and your calories, it’s unhealthy to obsess over them.”
“Drinking isn’t healthy. It kills brain cells. Mrs. Milton said it causes memory loss.”
“Charlotte Milton really shouldn’t be teaching health class.” She shakes her head and takes a long drink. “She wears a wig.”
“What’s that have to do with health class?” You ask. Your boyfriend never says anything in front of your mom. You wish he would speak. You wish he would do something to make her less suspicious. He could smile, at least, but he doesn’t. He just scratches his neck and stares at the floor, looking at the peeling brown linoleum like it’s a piece of abstract art. In more ways than you’ll ever know, it is. In more ways than you’ll ever know, that peeling brown linoleum tells the whole story.
“I’m just saying, it doesn’t make any sense to have a sick woman teaching health class.”
You feel like you should be the one driving, but you’re not. After all, it’s your birthday. And not just any birthday, your sixteenth birthday. You’re in his truck. You like that it’s an extended cab, but you wish it had automatic locks and windows. The radio is on a country station. He likes a brand of rock that’s all screeches and reverb and oily bangs, and you like top 40 music. Neither of you likes country music. You have that in common with him, and listening to it reminds you of that fact.
You know where you’re going. You’ve been arranging it for a long time. You’ve been arranging it since he asked for a piece of gum in Mrs. Milton’s class. You’ve been arranging it in breathy, latenight whispers over the telephone, ringlets of phone cord wrapped around your dainty wrist. Every word, everything, you have exchanged with him has been a negotiation of this night, of this event.
There’s a weightlessness in his truck, a stillness. It’s as though the nighttime–the burning rice fields and liquid air and brimming moon–is passing around and through the two of you, as though it’s not the other way around. A single word might disrupt it, might bring all of it– the truck, the music, the night–to a screeching halt. And so you don’t speak. The two of you get this part of the story right: neither of you utters a single fucking word. And before you know it, just as you had settled into the anti-gravity silence, you’re there.
It’s a single-wide trailer in the middle of a flat, empty field. It’s not at all as you had imagined it. He had called it his hunting club. You had pictured a cabin in the middle of the woods, someplace rustic and beautiful, smelling of the oak from which it had been carved. For most of your life, you’ve been a fit-thrower, tyrannically intolerant of the disparities between your expectations and reality. But not tonight. Tonight is the night you swallow the world’s proffer of disappointment, consume it eagerly, even. And it’s a good thing, too, because there’s plenty of it in store for you. That new car you’ve been begging for? You’ll inherit your grandmother’s ’91 Lumina your senior year, after she hacks up the bloody last of her lungs. A good college? Try the local community college. Medical school someday, if you really, really bust your ass? C- in organic chemistry. Your parents’ marriage? Please, please don’t make me get started on your fucking parents.
But none of that is tonight. None of that is now. Now he’s telling you to wait as he opens his door, and for a second you worry that he’s going to leave you here in the dark, sitting alone in his truck, until he’s opening your door and helping you down. He’s a gentleman, earnest in all his sleeveless chivalry. You grab his hand, and he pulls you up the stairs of the porch propped in front of the trailer, the porch that had, many years ago, been someone’s drunken weekend foray into carpentry. You don’t notice the swollen electric globe of the moon. You don’t notice the sky yawning up above you.
Inside, he flips a light switch and musty yellow leaks down from an unfixtured bulb. You are surprised, but not bothered, by the number of dead animals hanging around the room. Antlered deer heads leer at you, their grotesque shadows cast black against the grainy white walls. Bird bodies perch on crooked sticks, poised, it seems, for flight. In the kitchen, a turkey roosts on top of the refrigerator.
He opens the fridge door to reveal a baffling variety of cheap light beers, the cans stacked and prismatic, gleaming like bricks of polished silver. He pulls one out, pinches it open, and offers it to you. You take a drink, your face shriveling with the bitterness, and hand it back to him. The two of you stand there and pass the beer back and forth, taking constricted sips, until there’s nothing left in the can, not even a drop, and it’s like you’re drinking the aluminum air.
It may be your birthday but it’s a weeknight. You don’t have all night. You’ve got a curfew. Your mom will be waiting for you in the living room, comatose from the excesses of distilled reality and Miller Light. You decide it’s time to act. You take his hand and pull him down a narrow hallway, toward a dark room at its end.
It takes your eyes a moment to adjust to the darkness. Bunk beds are stacked around the room like cages at the animal shelter, their wooden frames skeletal, almost, in the frail light that lags through the doorway. You grab his arms just below the shoulder and pull him toward you. You kiss him. It’s not like the kiss earlier, the one on your doorstep. There’s a distance to this kiss, a withholding of something that you don’t recognize.
He pulls your shirt off, over your head, and you tug at his, but it won’t come off. You’ve never undressed anyone before. It’s like wrestling with a mannequin in the dark. You finally give up. You back away and start pulling your clothes off yourself. You watch him as he does the same. This works much better; just pretend you’re getting ready to get in the bathtub.
He is on top of you now. Your head rests on a pillow that smells like syrupy pancakes. Your back clings to the cool nylon of a flimsy mattress. Your hands grip its tattered edges. He pushes his body closer to yours, his scrawny legs warming against your thighs. You’ve heard a lot of discussion about this. Your slutty friends have told you a million different horror stories. None of them are true. Not now, at least.
As part of him presses, cuts, into you, you feel like the frog you dissected two weeks ago in biology class, its squishy carcass splayed on a stainless steel tray, lifeless beneath the blade of your scalpel. You know that what’s happening is much bigger, much more important, than it seems. But you’re not sure why. That’s okay. That’s normal. Welcome to a world where gravity is made of doubt.
You get dressed without saying anything, but you talk in his truck. Both of you sing along to a Garth Brooks song. The ride home feels like you are returning from a long trip, feels like you’re returning from vacation. You’re surprised by how little things have changed while you were gone. And when you walk in the door of your house, when you find your mom waiting where you knew she would be, you are glad to see her there. You are glad to see her watching a show with a hot tub full of screaming, shirtless people.
She asks if you’ve had a good birthday and you nod your head. She asks how much money your father gave you, and you lie. You tell her he gave you a hundred dollars, the same as her. She shakes her head. You tell her you’re going to bed, and then you do.
You close the door behind you. Your television is still on from earlier, flashing the bright shadows of the Disney Channel on your walls. You check the pages of your Bible to make sure the hundred dollar bill is in there. You put on your pajamas, sprawl out on top of the covers, and turn the volume up. It’s Hannah Montana, your favorite show. You watch for a few minutes but you’ve seen this episode before and it starts to bore you, so you turn the television off. You lie there in the darkness, listening to the nighttime hum of your house, until you roll over onto your stomach, the way you normally sleep. You look up at your headboard. The white paint is starting to chip off of the wicker, naked brown strands checkering across its surface. You rub your hand over it. It feels grainy and brittle. It feels weak. The wicker all around you seems so fragile, but it keeps holding you up.
Woody Skinner grew up in Batesville, Arkansas, before attending four different universities in three different states. He’s currently an MFA candidate at Wichita State University, where he was awarded the 2011-2012 Fiction Fellowship. His work has appeared in The Carolina Quarterly and Necessary Fiction.