BY: Adam McDonald
Rebecca had climbed through my bedroom window Saturday night, and we undressed ourselves in the dark. Pretty much the only thing she said the whole night was, “I’m sorry about the blood,” and we fell asleep not touching under the covers. Both our first times—a mutual understanding, a scratching of each other’s backs, checking off that box so many of our friends had checked. I imagined it was hard for her to nudge me awake and whisper into my ear, “I have to go home.”
She braved the cold and rushed for her clothes on the floor, reaching out to amorphous clumps, bumping furniture, jostling my things. I could see the shadow of her arms circle around to clip her bra then rise above her head for her T-shirt, sweatshirt, then coat. She was graceful in her shadowy figure, wholesome in her weight. She left the window open on her way out. The snow blew in and melted on the floor. No kiss; no goodbye.
My clock showed 5:38, and I watched the walls brighten to blue, then level off to gray with the rising sun. My room was quiet; my ears rang. I felt like a misunderstanding had taken place, like the people I loved were already disappointed. Like I had done something bad and irreparable.
At best, Rebecca and I knew of each other. We’d see each other at parties, make eye contact, smile without our teeth. We had mutual friends and second-period English together. When it was convenient, we said hello. Never went out of our ways. I wouldn’t say we knew each other the way our parents would’ve wished.
My sister in the next room exhaled audibly as she transitioned to another pose on her yoga mat. She did yoga every day and wanted to live closer to the ocean and work in a studio. She was sick of country living—“Out grown,” she said.
I got out of bed, shut the window, and stood over the heater holding my shriveled-up self. In the corner, Rebecca’s purple panties were scrunched up in a little ball looking like a giant piece of lint you find in your pocket after a wash. I laid them on my bed. French-cut. I smelled a fusion of feminine juices and fabric softener. Shameful of me, I know, but I was only acting out what I saw lustful men do in the movies.
Then, from deep down inside, out of an unknown place, an urge lurched to escape. I slid them on. They felt good licking the tops of my thighs with their lacey softness. The tightness around my buttocks and the way they dipped down beneath my pubic line—I had nothing to compare the feeling to, and for a moment, I was able to enjoy them for simply being wrapped around me. Then, the questions flooded about what it meant. Questions laden with shame and a self-loathing I could feel in my fingertips.
If it wasn’t for my mom yelling, “Forty-five minutes before church!” I would have played sick, stayed hidden underneath the sheets. But in my family, the only way you could skip church was if you were dying, in which case the bishop would come to your house and fill you in with acute detail about that morning’s service.
I took them off quickly and tucked them underneath my box spring.
There I was, suffering in my ironed Sunday clothes, looking down at my crotch, completely powerless over wanting them on again. I didn’t hear a single word the priest said. My thoughts were all I could hear, and I’m pretty sure he knew it, too, since every time I looked up at him he was staring back at me with that omniscient look on his face like he could smell my deviance from the pulpit—I needed to get some fresh air.
“Gene?” my mom said as I bumped her knees. She touched my arm, her eyes heavy and watery.
“To the bathroom. I’ll be right back, I promise.”
“I will, I will.” I could see worry in her eyes now. I could see how much she believed this was good for me to hear. It wasn’t a secret she believed church would provide me stability and fulfillment once I left for college. That wasn’t me, but I admired her for revealing her conviction to me in this way. She had to have known we had different belief systems, but she wasn’t afraid of appearing vulnerable, soldiering on with what she thought was best for me even though she hadn’t a clue.
The fresh air on my cheeks was remarkable, and so was the sight of Lindsey leaning up against a wall smoking a cigarette. When she saw me, she dropped it in the clean snow and buried it with the heel of her boot.
“What are you doing back?” I said. “I thought winter break was over for college students.” We hugged briefly. I felt her hand slide off my back and down my arm.
For years, we went to this church, and ever since I started liking girls, I liked her. But I knew it would never happen. She was known around school as the Rifle because she went through new boyfriends like bullets from a semi-automatic—after one fired, another filled the chamber. But I didn’t care for that. I just wanted a chance that never came before she left for college.
“I’m on a reprieve at the moment. You know, recalibrating,” she said and looked down at her cigarette in the snow.
“It’s okay if you smoke,” I said. “I won’t judge.” I put my back on the wall, shoulder to shoulder with her.
She lit a new one, puffed twice and passed it to me. I held it but I didn’t smoke it, not really sure what to do with it. I passed it back after a moment. She held it between her first knuckles.
“So, are you thinking about college?” she asked.
“Northwestern, State as a backup. My mom’s hoping it’ll be Catholic. You never answered my question about school.”
“I’m taking a semester.”
“Just wasn’t ready for it. They say that can happen during orientation, but you never think it’s going to be you that can’t hang.”
“You never think you’re going to be the bad exception.”
“So many things all at once. Freedom from so much. You pick your classes, a new selection of friends, of boys, a new you, new home, and no one telling you what to do or keeping tabs on you. No more church on Sunday.”
“You stopped going to church?”
She looked at me. “It’s like everything you thought about yourself gets thrown out the window and you’re left to redefine your life, to chisel out every detail, and it’s all at once.”
“You’ll see,” she said. “Me, I just needed a little break. In the spring, I’ll know what I’m getting myself into.”
I said I should be getting back.
“We should hang out while I’m back, catch up proper.”
“That sounds good,” I said.
We hugged and parted ways.
“What took you so long?” my mom asked as I bumped her knees.
“I ran into Lindsey.”
In the car, my sister kept looking at me with a smirk, and I knew she knew about last night. I made a face, and she shrugged and returned to the blue haze of her phone.
My sister, Liza was her name, was 2 years older than me. She was enrolled in community college waiting to hear back from universities in the spring, just like me. She wanted to do philosophy and ecology. She especially enjoyed getting our mom worked up about public universities along the coasts, but there was a good chance we’d both end up at State because the tuition was cheap and it was a good school. We weren’t close like best friends, but she looked out for me so we tolerated each other.
“You’ve been awfully quiet back there,” my mom said, and we made eye contact in the rearview mirror.
“Fine,” I said.
“Quiet today, just like your father.” She looked at my dad in the front seat, who hadn’t said anything this entire morning, and placed her hand on his knee. He nodded to my mother’s musings and placed his hand on hers.
He really was a taciturn fellow. Some people joked by calling him Stone-cold Jackson because his name was Jack. He was a normal guy. Held a steady job, went to church every Sunday. Loved golf, grilling burgers, knew how to drive stick-shift, and didn’t smile much because of his teeth. He was predictable in a way that after church, you could count down from fifteen seconds from entering the house to when my dad would turn on the TV, a hushed announcer murmuring while a man putted surrounded by green fields. However, this Sunday, the Winter Olympics were on for my mother. She loved to watch downhill skiing, luge, curling, figure skating, whatever was on. It was her weekend with the TV, and she and my dad sat on the couch watching, commercials and all.
I had gotten a bottle of sparkling water from the fridge and was headed for my bedroom when my sister blocked my path to the hall. She squinted at me; I could see in her tight face she was on the verge of saying something out loud that had very little evidence of being true but huge potential for hurt. I ducked under her arm, my feet thudding against the hardwood floor as I ran to my room.
“Hey!” she called after me. She caught my door from closing. We were face to face, our noses nearly touching.
“Let me in,” she said.
I didn’t say anything but backed away from the door. She went straight to the window Rebecca had crawled through last night and looked out to the street. I sat on my bed and waited for her to talk first. She nodded her head and I nodded mine. She laughed kind of. I could see her shooting phrases, lessons, aphorisms through her curly hair, trying them out in the universe of her brain.
We were silent for a long time. She slowly paced with one hand holding her elbow and the other nibbling her nails. “I never thought I’d be in this position,” she said.
“Being the one you have to talk to, I guess.”
“There’s nothing to say.”
“There are mistakes to be made, Gene.”
“I’m not going to make any mistakes.”
She sighed, and a silence settled over us.
“You’re right. Everyone’s mistakes are different.”
“I just feel I have a responsibility to warn you.”
“Not with this, Liza, please.”
“Fine. If you want to go it alone, then fine.” She stood there hawking me like I was damned. She said, “I think you should know yoga helps, a lot.”
“Take deep breaths, Gene.”
She closed the door. I lay on my bed and spent the rest of the day pondering my life’s new toughest question. I combed through my past like counting blades of grass looking for an explanation. I had had a normal childhood. Loving parents and friends. I played baseball in spring. I did well in school. And there was Rebecca, too. I debated if I should call and tell her I had a good time. I wanted to call, but there was a resistance, a block between last night’s me and today’s me, who worried until my stomach bunched up and I couldn’t eat.
Throughout dinner—I skipped lunch—I zoned out, barely said a word, unconsciously feeling my face and neck for poppable zits until my sister nudged me. “Stop touching your face.”
“Are you okay?” my mother asked.
“I’m fine,” I said.
“You don’t seem fine.”
I excused myself from the table. “I’m not feeling well,” I said and rushed down the hall to quickly secure myself in my room.
My mom knocked on my door. “Gene, may I come in?”
“I just need time to be alone.”
“I’d really like to talk to you, honey.”
“Not now, Mom. I just need some space.”
She tried the handle. “You’ll let me know if you need anything, won’t you?”
“I will.” She shuffled off back to dinner.
I lay naked under the covers, the door locked, and thought obsessively of the underwear under my bed and the feeling of liberty they gave me. It was like I was suddenly the correct version of myself. Yet, I was a man, I liked girls. I knew this. I felt this. It was too much for me to understand. They didn’t teach the intricacies of sexuality in school. All we heard was cross-dresser, transvestite, she-man, he-she, as though these people were lepers or miscreants. There was just what was normal and what was unwanted, which was everything else, and then we moved on to a different topic.
Rebecca texted me later in the evening, asking if she had left her underwear at the house, and then Lindsey called me about the same time.
“Want to hang out?” she said.
“I don’t know. Now may not be a good time.”
“I’m outside in my car.”
“You can come in if you want, but we can’t be loud.”
“I’ll be quiet.”
Helping her in, I held a finger across my lips and pointed towards the wall I shared with my sister. She nodded and began undressing her outer layers.
“You have a bigger bed than I imagined.” She sat down. “I’m sorry for barging in on you like this, I just didn’t know where else to go.”
“Did anything happen?” I said.
“Just my parents getting all over me about college.”
“It’s fine. A little surprising is all.”
“What do you mean?”
“Nothing, I just wouldn’t have expected you to call me out of everyone you’ve been close with.”
“I don’t want to see any of them. I was never close to anyone. Nobody really talks to me.”
“It’s tough in high school.”
“It’s the same in college.”
We sat side by side, our hips touching. I was reminded of when we were younger, before the crush and boys. We’d play in my room or hers doing this or that, our world miles away, making up everything to suit our adventure. She got up and turned out the light. The streetlight trickled in through the frosty window. She started touching my thigh, gliding her hand up, biting her bottom lip. Her smile glowed in the night, and I could see the gap in her front teeth, which I had always loved. I felt disoriented. I thought of Rebecca. I wanted to ignore it. Ignore the shame, the confusion. Fuck it, I decided.
She asked if I would undress her. I did, slowly, thinking of the way I’d want to be undressed. I took everything off, leaving her underwear for last. Then, I slid those off her hips, and I held them in my hand while, with the other, I touched myself. It was as though I was alone, with only myself to think about, and not a few moments later, it was all over for me—all over me. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
“I’m sorry,” I said, catching my breath.
“I’m so sorry.”
“I can’t do this.” My pants deflated.
“You got me naked!”
“Ssssshhhhhhh.” I looked back toward the wall.
Lindsey covered herself with my sheets. “What’s going on?”
I dropped the underwear on the floor and kneeled, feeling the wet spot sticking to my thigh. I told her how long I had waited for the moment I would be the one undressing her. It was the truth, or at least it would have been before this morning.
She understood. “Too soon.” She looked depleted. After a long silence, it looked like she made up her mind. “I still don’t want to be alone tonight.”
“It’s okay if you want to stay,” I said.
She gathered the clothes she could without revealing herself and put them on under the covers. I gave her underwear over easily, so as not to make a scene. “Can I smoke in here? By the window?”
I pulled up a chair and she lit a cigarette for the both of us. Her in the chair, me on the windowsill, we shivered while she talked of moving to Los Angeles, talking down our small town and the tourists that come during fall to pick their own apples. Talked about religion like a liquid. I didn’t know what to believe anymore, but wanted to believe.
I dreamed the strangest dream:
I was alone out in the deep wilderness, coming to the edge of a frozen lake in ankle deep snow. The pain in my feet was nearly unbearable. The lake was smooth and glassy, undisturbed. It reflected perfectly the tree line from the opposite side. In the moonlight, wearing a tuxedo, my dad was figure skating. He jumped and twirled and carved gloriously forwards and backwards, his hands flying out to his sides. His reflection on the ice doubly beautiful, chasing his every move. He was completely silent, like his dancing took place in a vacuum. He leaped up into the air and spun so fast his face blurred, then came back into sharp focus. I watched him secretly in the woods for what felt like hours and hours going around and around.
I woke up late and hurried to get ready. Lindsey begged for 20 more minutes, and I decided to leave her there hogging the sheets. I told her to shut the window when she left.
I didn’t even try to focus during first period, and I showed up a few minutes late to my next class to avoid Rebecca and left right at the bell. Speed walking down the hall to the cafeteria, I took refuge knowing she wouldn’t approach me with my friends.
I realized I hadn’t slept too well the past couple of nights, so the plan was to go home and rest and hope for this weekend to blow over to a time when this would all become a funny story I told at parties. Everyone would laugh and see me in a better light—better than the nervous, introverted kid who spent too much time under the covers in his dorm. Facing the cold, I trudged home, feeling the compression of snow under my boots, listening to the grinding salt.
Rebecca was waiting for me at the stop-sign intersection where her house was right and mine was left. She leaned on the aluminum pole looking down at her phone.
“Hey,” I said.
“Hey.” She took her earbuds out.
We stood underneath a canopy of oak trees. The wind sometimes blasted through this natural tunnel, but today it was still. I felt protected. I debated quickly if I should keep her underwear. It was between the right thing for her and the right thing for me, and I chose me because I really needed a win and I was certain they weren’t her only pair.
“A lot going around right now,” she said.
“Did you tell anyone?”
“I told Jennifer. I needed to. You know, it’s a big deal for a girl.”
“I know, it was a big deal for me, too.”
“Did you really sleep with Lindsey last night?”
“No,” I said. “Who said that?”
“Jenny and Tyler. You know Lindsey. She posted pictures of herself in your bed on Facebook and everywhere else.”
I knew then word would get around. Mothers who snooped their children’s social media would see Lindsey’s posts, and it would get back to my mom and dad, and they’d bar my window and force me into seminary.
“What’d she say?”
“She said she wasn’t too impressed.”
“We didn’t sleep together.”
“Why would she say that?”
“I don’t know. She came over and we smoked a cigarette and fell asleep.”
Rebecca looked down. Her face was expressionless, and I assumed she was either ashamed for believing the rumor or worried she’d chosen a womanizer to be her first. I wasn’t a womanizer, I knew that much. I also knew my track record thus far wasn’t doing me any favors. “I don’t really care what people say. I’m out of here in less than a year,” she said. “But I’d like to keep going out.”
“Can I walk you home?”
We held hands, and I told her about the dream I had with my dad. It seemed I could with her. That she wasn’t someone to use it against me.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Do you think dreams mean something?”
“I think so,” I said.
“What if you didn’t dream it?”
“I think I definitely dreamed it.”
We stood out front of her house. “Maybe you’ll dream the answer tonight. Or maybe you’ll never know and you’ll keep guessing your whole life. Or maybe you’ll just forget about it like the rest of our dreams.”
She kissed me even though her parents were probably watching through the window. I stuck my cold hands in my pockets and walked backward until she went through the front door. I didn’t know what I was doing with her, but it felt good to start something. Make one last stitch before we all headed our own ways.
Almost home, my phone buzzed.
Rebecca: if u have my underwear u can hold on to them
Me: they r safe w me 😉
I dropped my backpack on the floor and sat on my bed. The house had an empty feeling, like listening to the inside of a seashell. I closed my door gently because the house felt gentle.
I undressed myself the way I wanted to be undressed by Rebecca someday. I wanted to bury my face in her bosom and take refuge in the clouds of her body. I slipped her underpants on and those feelings of boldness, bravery, and confusion came rushing back. I handled them all at once, no idea how to sort the emotions, but I didn’t need to know right then. All I needed to know was that I liked wearing them.
I went to the kitchen for a sparkling water. The ground was cold on my feet; the peach fuzz on my chest rose. When I closed the fridge, my dad was standing dead silent looking at me, my private hairs peeking out. We stared at each other, blinking and thinking God knows what. I expected him to erupt. A small part of me wanted to finally hear what his anger sounded like. To see a side of him I had never seen.
He swallowed, then cleared his throat. “Are those your sister’s?”
I shook my head. “No.”
He let out all the air in his lungs. “That’s fine,” he said and looked me up and down, grinning, showing all his crooked teeth. “That’s fine.”
Adam McDonald lives in Toronto with his partner and two cats. He is the
Managing Editor for Patchwork Mosaic magazine, an online publication for
new and emerging writers. His work can be found in Allegory Ridge’s fiction