It’s the beginning of the school year, raining hard. C’s parents never leave town, but tonight is sweet and swollen—their departure some kind of unconscious allowance for youthful dalliance. They’ve gone to see friends, will return tomorrow.
C is freshly sixteen, a sophomore, which means the evening possesses infinite potential for teenage ruckus, a chaos she would have gladly exploited, but is, instead, sitting cross-legged inside her bedroom closet. The choice to keep the fact of the empty house from friends is part of a new installment of withholding, not unlike two weekends ago when her friends tied themselves in corsets, legs crisscrossed in fishnets, eyes blackened and glittery, and couldn’t understand why C wouldn’t join them for Rocky Horror. To walk out like that at midnight, to indulge her bare skin to the end of summer air, was compelling, certainly, yet she’d refused, sat in a patio chair, half listening to CocoRosie, half expecting K not to show. That night, the odds were in her favor. K had shown up around 1 a.m., after her parents had fallen asleep, in that quiet, liminal hour that had, over the past three months, come to feel synonymous with him. Other nights, he wouldn’t show at all, leaving C alone with her writing and desire. If he comes tonight, C decides, she will give it to him if he asks—her body. Her virginity, a nagging, heavy thing she is ready to cast off. She pulses with nervousness.
Inside the closet she lights a small votive candle, enough for total luminescence. The closet in her room, her room inside the only house she’s ever lived in: suburban, old, creaky, wooden. The closet is barely a walk-in, tracks of carpet nails steal inches from the tight quarters, and there’s a wide wooden step separating the space into two tiers—the upper platform just large enough to sit on, which is where C is, tucked away behind a waterfall of clothes.
On her face, makeup. She’s dressed in a fitted shirt, tights—a stretchy black skirt lies outside on the bed, ready to slide into. She’d finished getting ready, sucking in, changing clothes, clamping the straightener over her hair until the entire room smelled of charred tissue paper. She’d paced, lit incense, opened the window to let the storm smell in and considered what she might do until K got there, if he even showed up at all. In the past she would take out her favorite book or a notebook, reading or writing until he arrived to find her that way: gripped, intellectual, withholding. “What are you doing?” he’d sometimes ask, and she’d smile coyly, close the book and say, “How are you, K?” This was in the summer when the nights were humid and the moon was always out.
Something urged her to the closet. The desire to feel contained, resume her waiting close to the womb of her consciousness, an innate teenage desire for dimness.
More books and papers than clothes. On the floor below her, a haphazard row of thrifted shoes and an old cardboard trunk. Inside, a matrix of journals, books, loose papers with black, blue, pencil writing, a beating drum of life. By the time she is a senior, there will be no room left inside the box, the material collapsed all over the floor, all angst and longing.
C’s phone vibrates: Walking. C and K’s houses are almost four miles apart; it will take him at least an hour to get here. The news of his distant travel on foot, in the rain no less, thrills her, proves something. She looks at the time: 8:36. She’ll wait until 8:40 to respond. From the depths of the trunk, C finds the clean manila folder, the one labeled C + K—a not-so-subtle attempt at encoding. Inside the folder is a thick packet of their online correspondence, so hefty it had taken all the printer ink. There are emails and Instant Message conversations going back three months, when K was bored one night and sent her a simple message, hello. She studies for clues to his inner workings, every utterance like a delicate poem worthy of dissection. She lets out a sigh. She flexes her muscles to release the anticipation running beneath the skin. She looks at her phone. 8:41. You must be getting soaked, she types and sends. A little wetness never hurt anyone, K replies. She reads into his words, smiles, buries her face into a jacket hanging above her head.
C is coming down from her first summer of men, John and Max interested in her at the same time—a sudden jolt of attention.
John’s main appeal resided in the fact that he is a year older and had a new obsession with C. “It’s lame,” he said when she asked him about his nickname, Coffee. “It’s just because I coughed a lot one time when we were all smoking. Now I’m stuck with it.”
“That is lame,” she agreed.
On their first hangout alone, Coffee took C to The Portal, a place she’d heard people talk about and which she discovered was nothing more than a family of shrubs, fucking bushes, alongside a neighborhood church. No one can see in, he emphasized, but from inside you can see out. He’d kissed her so hard, and she was so focused on doing it well, she didn’t feel her arm rubbing against the brick side of the church. When they came up for air, C’s arm was bleeding—it was bleeding a lot. “Oh shit,” he’d said. A few weeks later Coffee started confessing his love to C, and their hangouts consisted of him crying over her dating Max, her sweet, good-looking friend who would come over while her parents were at work. In broad daylight they’d watch movies in their entirety, not touching until the credits rolled and Max would get this boyish look on his face, lean in close and say, “I know what we can do now…” his dimples too cute, his tongue in her mouth like a torpedo.
Both wanted to be her boyfriend, but she was afraid of her own sexuality, too self-conscious, too in love with K, the one she knew she could never fully have, the fact of him like a sacred name embroidered in the skin, not fit for articulation. With K, she understood the urge of lovers to tattoo each other’s names onto the flesh. If asked, she would ink him into her, somewhere where it hurt, like down the long spindle of her spine.
She looks down to her body, to her hands smudged with ink. Yes, she says silently. Tonight is the night.
One might say C, barely a sophomore, is too young to reminisce over teendome, but she’d already completed one year, had accrued a rebellion, steadfast, miserable, thrilling. Her high school is large, the teachers terribly disengaged, sour. While most of her peers deal with the lack of care by erupting into violence, C and her friends opt to guzzle 40’s of High Life in the school’s basement, or ditch all together, go to the public library and read what’s useful—oh, the immaculate shelves, the books like dormant specimens, coming to life under C’s touch.
From the trunk, C pulls more paper, a wrinkled computer paper in her best friend’s large, masculine handwriting: Beauty has much more to do with an individual perception of something than any tangible or quantifiable quality, it begins. She doesn’t know how this private manifesto ended up in her box, although in the past she’d been guilty of stealing scraps of her friends. After two 40’s, the information strewn all over Naomi’s attic—cartoons depicting their own lives, paintings, journal entries—tantalized C in a drunken way and convinced her of their ability to reveal something subtle, yet remarkably true about this friend she loved. So she’d trace her hand over the floor—Naomi’s entire attic the equivalent of C’s closet, both always writing themselves out of something—and like a deck of cards, she would pull whatever felt smoothest under the pads of her fingers, slip the paper into her bag to open later, a piece of her friend to fold into the reservoir, Jung’s collective unconscious, a weak, murky attempt at reconciliation for her thievery. Her knowledge is my knowledge. Like most things, she didn’t think about getting caught, didn’t end up with anything that was, necessarily, personal, except the one that read: I am not very articulate, I am bad at math, I don’t consistently recycle, I steal alcohol from CVS, I’ve never had a boyfriend, I don’t play any sports, I think I know everything—a double-sided litany of self-loathing. C didn’t judge, liked the fact that she could read it impartially, fold it into the canon to dissolve with her own loopy thoughts.
The candlelight bobs, heat rises in the closet. A dark cherry smell grows, the smell of blunt papers kept hidden away in a shoebox above her head. She stands up, using the upper platform to peer over the top shelf that houses a typewriter, her grandma’s old hat rack, and in the very back, the box she’d painted gold. She removes the lid; inside it smells of bong water—papers, but no weed. She’ll have to wait for K.
Like Coffee, K has a street name, one that she would never use, but is there, sewn in, part of his identity, painted on the walls of their high school and the restaurant he worked at. He is two years older, their freshman-year drug dealer, that’s how it started. She loves what he does with words, the way he calls her Ma, as in, “Sup Ma,” as in, “I like how you think, Ma,” or can say, in all charm and seriousness, “Hello young love, the moon is bright and full, let’s make love on your roof beneath it,” perfectly delivered, astonishingly real. Yet the ins and outs of his everyday life are murky—he offers only snapshots—shards of parties, pieces of friends, shadowy nights alone making art—all of it so encrypted she’s left to design his hidden life for herself. Coffee had recently found out about the two of them, not that there was much to find out, and had messaged C a somber little message that read, You’re fucking K-Wil? You got yourself the player. She didn’t say anything. And they weren’t fucking.
K’s reputation is obsolete when he comes over, kisses C’s neck, plays whale songs on a small speaker. “This shit is real,” he’d say to the amniotic sounds. He’d say, “I want to be Rastafari, a poet, an artist; I want to leave my mom’s place, I want to take you for a drive.” He teaches C to drive down the slick streets of her childhood, and then sneaks away at sunrise. Addiction, obsession, crept up on her, slowly then all at once. Now she lied, gave up nights to see him on the flimsy chance he’d make it. How much time had she wasted waiting? She glances back to their folder, to the C and the K, finds an old pencil, and writes C + K, they make the same sound…but they are not interchangeable.
In the closet her palms sweat. He’s walking in the rain, four miles. She can hear the rain pounding down on the flat rooftop and wonders if the dining room ceiling has begun to leak. She thinks about getting up, but the thought of the house feels too big, too filled with her parents’ belongings—she wants to stay close to her things. Among the pile of books, Miranda July, Freud, zines, a dictionary whose pages she flutters between her fingers, the paper-wind wicking the candlelight. She closes her eyes, pretends she is on a train, the flicker practically audible on her eyelids. Then the fire goes out, and the darkness feels good too. You smell like a birthday cake, she can imagine him saying to her hair when he greets her. She gropes around for the lighter, lights the candle back up, lands her finger on a random word in the dictionary, on the word truncated, meaning shortened, sounding a lot like trunk, like the one in front of her housing her mess of thoughts, so dissimilar from abridged. For a moment C grows tired of her manic upheaval, her restless writing, her own obsession with his words and how he might use them on her tonight, all of it so cluttered. Had she a metal pail, she’d have all the tools to start burning, cleansed and ready for him. Blank, new, virginal. Instead she pulls from the trunk The Four Noble Truths, a packet from Political Philosophy, one of the few papers from last year that felt worth keeping.
…The truth of suffering, the truth of the cause of suffering, the truth of the end of suffering, and the truth of the path that leads to the end of suffering. More simply put, suffering exists. The concept of pleasure is not denied, but acknowledged as fleeting. Pursuit of pleasure can only continue what is ultimately an unquenchable thirst. The same logic belies an understanding of happiness. In the end, only aging, sickness, and death are certain and unavoidable.
She’d written in the margins, and this marginalia makes her laugh, jolts her out of her own silence. Aside the truth of suffering she’d written school = imprisonment, and next to pleasure she’d drawn a pot leaf; unquenchable thirst, a simple heart. The predictability of her trope embarrasses her, brings heat to her cheeks. More intriguing, however, was what she’d written in a sloppy script barely recognizable at the bottom of the page: Every person, no matter how plain has one great erotic performance in her life; the second performance would only be a copy of the first. It was a quote from somewhere, a book or song lyrics. She scans her mind in search for a connection to The Truths, the two pools of ink like shadows of one another. She finally settles on the idea that they are related merely by the fact that knowledge builds on other knowledge—something else she’d heard and jotted down. Joined but unjoined. What would it feel like to finally let their bodies do the talking?
Her ass hurts. She grows restless, anxious. She won’t get up yet, afraid her thoughts will spread thinly over the furniture, like she’ll have nothing to say when he arrives. In the pocket-sized book, Freud has a lot to say about sexuality, dreams, the subconscious, and the points at which they intersect. Maybe this is something she can talk about. Plant the seed of seduction by talking psychology, quoting the dead. She yanks the jacket from the hanger, uses it as a cushion, crosses her legs again, and thinks of him walking in the rain. A lovely landscape of purple and blue erects in the hippocampus. This is how the night will build, like it always does. They’ll talk and talk and when their words have crescendoed themselves, after their speech draws into the folds of the long night, they will lie down, this time in her bed, this is that night.
Below her, she feels a light rumble, practically undetectable, then the sound of the kitchen door closing. Shit, she thinks. She’s still stocking-footed. She tiptoes out of the closet. Outside, the bedroom air is cool, humid, the spell broken. The rain comes on slower now. He doesn’t call out for her, but she can hear him making his way through the rooms downstairs. She quickly slides into her skirt. Lightning cracks the sky, illuminates two over-stuffed pillows on the bed so they look like storm clouds, or phantoms. The house is old, each stair with its own category of sound, so C can almost track K’s progression, his slow ascent.
“Hey!” she finally calls out, releasing her voice.
“Hello?” K slowly opens the bedroom door, where C stands still, shocked out of her solitude.
“Hey,” she says again, leaning in for a long, damp hug. More than how he looks, he smells so good—faintly vanilla, but more masculine, like figs and leather, brown sugar—a scent she believes was crafted for her own enjoyment. She could live off this smell. He carries an orange construction cone.
“For you. A gift from along the way.”
“Something I’ve always wanted.” She laughs. The cone is huge, streaked with traffic muck.
“So, what have you been up to, chica?” K’s eyes scan the room, land on the closet where candlelight dances softly and jagged corners of paper poke out. It must look like some strange séance, C thinks. She had wanted him to see the oddity of it all, to wonder about her as much as she wonders about him, but now she feels exposed, naked, wordless.
“I was just looking at stupid shit I’ve written,” she says, blowing the candle out and clicking on a lamp. “I can’t believe you walked here.” She waits for, it was worth it or, I’d walk longer to see you.
“The rain is my friend,” K says instead, setting the cone down.
“Do you want to head to the patio? I still have some of your beers from last time. They’re warm. I had to hide them.” C gestures toward the darkened closet, where two High Lifes lay nestled inside coat pockets.
“I actually can’t stay long, Ma. Zach needs me to hook him up with something tonight.”
“What?” The news is sharp, hits her like a frigid wind. “What do you mean? You just walked, like, four miles to get here.”
“Yeah, tell me about it. And it’s a beautiful night.” K lowers to the floor, sits at the closet’s threshold. “I’d much rather kick it with you. We’ll do this again.”
C grabs her bath towel off of the hook and hands it to him. She sits on her bed, tries to hide the sudden rush of disappointment, but it roils. Come here, she thinks, I’m ready.
“I’m still looking all into Rastafarianism. I want to write my own bible one day, write my own religion,” K says, patting himself dry. He goes on talking about things so abstractly she confuses it for his genius. She soaks him in, would be happy to skip the conversation for tonight if it means she could feel his mouth on hers, become absorbed in that smell. Instead she tells him about The Four Noble Truths and he tells her about the way he watches his mom suffer; she’s ill, an immigrant, divorced, and angry. No one else has heard this coming out of his mouth before, she thinks.
K points to the trunk. “Tell me what you’ve been writing,” he says again. From this angle, everything inside looks like nothing more than a messy pit, an unruly recycling bin.
“Oh, nothing. It’s stupid,” C says, cursing herself for leaving their folder out in plain sight. And how many of those documents were laced with his name? How many journal entries began in I need, or, I can’t stop, etc? Too many, probably.
“Nah, I bet your writing is dope,” K says. “I have a box, too, filled with photos of me as a little punk kid.” C tries to imagine K as an innocent, young boy, but nothing comes to mind. In front of her his arm muscles glisten from rain and his confidence spews like his own beautiful odor. “I think I see one of you right there.” K points to some gloss peeking out from behind the manila folder. Before C can protest, he reaches inside her closet and pulls a small deck of photos from the rubble, not seeing the folder. Missing it all together. Outside the storm resumes its pounding, shaking the wooden floorboards and lighting the room with its electricity. She cups her hands over his, over the photos.
“Come on, I bet you were cute,” K says. Together they peer down to the photo of C and her dad at the zoo; C lounging in a blue kiddie pool; C on her first bicycle; and she hopes, she prays the photo she doesn’t want to be there won’t be, and then K shuffles through and finds it: a young C, five or six years old, on her bed wearing white tights, a white turtle neck, and large, plush rabbit ears, lined in pink. Between her legs, a half-dozen rabbit stuffed animals: one sitting upright holding a small brush for grooming its long ears; another red-eyed, albino; two man and woman rabbits dressed in Victorian clothes, velcroed paw-to-paw—married rabbits. The image is innately sexual, of course taken innocently, a little girl dressed identical to her toys, on her dreamy, pastel bed. Outside a horn sounds off, K’s friend ready to take him away from her. But K is transfixed, doesn’t move. Please find this sexy, she thinks. Silence hangs between them, just the rain falls. He looks up at her.
“I liked my rabbits?” C says.
K reaches for her face, tugs at her hair a little, draws her close.
Kiss me, she thinks. But K doesn’t kiss her. He bypasses her lips, goes straight to her ear; the skin around the drum tightens.
“You look like. A little. Bunny. Porn star.” His words slide in. Explode. The car in waiting wails its horn, doesn’t let it up for several seconds. The two look at each other, and C cannot tell if it’s longing that she feels.
But still she says, “Stay.”
And still he says, “I have to go.”
“My parents will be gone all night.”
He gives her a hard kiss between the eyes before descending.
Downstairs, C watches the car rush away, making small waves in its hurry. The cavernous rooms and she alone among them. Isn’t that enough? But he is gone, and she is left with the same humid quiet, the same rain coming down in sheets, his words echoing in her ears. The dining room ceiling drips one drop at a time onto the floor. The rhythm has a numbing quality, but yearning has a way of jostling the body back to feeling. She meanders into her mom’s study, past the stacks of books that hold no interest to her. She grabs a fancy calligraphy pen off of the desk, then approaches the staircase and begins climbing, articulating her foot heel to toe, heel to toe, heel to toe, the way she’d read monks do in walking meditation. I am here, she thinks, I am here, but all the while her fist is tight around the pen, the nails carve red crescents in the flesh. The night is long ahead of her and there are words, she knows, that will make the time go by, but she’s not sure which ones or when they’ll find her.