Wind ’n’ Sea Beach, San Diego
Clouds scream across the sky, turning the sun on and off like a lightbulb. Yellow. Gray. Yellow. Gray.
Turquoise ocean. Waves of melted glass capture the silhouette of a dolphin bodysurfing.
Sitting in Zack’s car, watching the world through the windshield.
Be cool. Enjoy the view.
Zack touches my hand and releases the hounds. Hormones. Only the “hors” aren’t “moaning.” And they aren’t just raging. They’re breaking out of blood cells. Crashing through arterial walls. Bouncing off bone. My body a prison, with a riot going on inside. My mind the warden, trying to ignore the outbreak and assure the media that everything is under control. But Zack is a top investigator. He slides his hands up the back of my T-shirt. Finds the evidence he’s looking for.
“Are you cold?” he says. “I’ll warm you up.” He pulls me across the seat. One hand under my arm and hot like a branding iron on my ribs. Just below. The other hand he puts under the sweaty backs of my knees. His fingers feel like ice. Then Zack lifts me, like I weigh nothing, so I’m sitting sideways on his lap. It’s a great position to watch the beautiful ocean ripple and surge and stroke the sand.
Zack’s tongue and words drift in and out of my ear: “You’re perfect. You know that? I love you. You know that?”
I don’t know what to say. Don’t want to say anything. Just want to be Said to. Done to.
“I think we should,” he says.
“Should what?” I whisper.
A surfer with fuzzy cigar dreadlocks walks by and pounds his fist on the hood of the car and yells, “GET A ROOM!”
I almost go through the sunroof. He sees that he’s scared me and his hands fly up in that Stop! Don’t jump! pose, which causes him to drop his surfboard on the corner of the car. He picks up the board and searches it for dings. Zack is looking at him through the windshield like the guy is an idiot. The surfer sees the look in Zack’s eyes and polishes the car where the board hit it. He gives us a Cheshire grin and a big thumbs-up. He turns, swings the tail of his board into the grill of the car, and charges down the beach and into the surf.
I thought Zack would be mad. He loves his car – just had it painted.
Zack says, laughing, “I think Einstein is right. We should get a room.” He grabs me and kisses me. Hard. Runs his tongue along my teeth like you run a stick along a fence. Probes the back of my mouth. Finds my molars and sends an electric shock through me like he’s stuck a fork in my filling.
The car is a greenhouse, all windows, and the sun pours in. Sweat on the glass and on the back of my neck and in the corners of Zack’s eyes. Things sprouting with the heat. Fingers and tongues and nipples and I’m sitting right on top of that something that desperately wants to break through the fly of Zack’s jeans.
I-love-you’s rain down my neck.
“You’re my angel; I love you here,” he says, and pushes three fingertips into the skin underneath my shoulder blade wings. “You’re my dolphin; I love you here,” and he runs the heel of his hand along the inside of my thigh. “I really love you here,” and he places his whole hand over the left side of my chest.
“You love my heart or my boob?”
I want to open up his chest like a surgeon and climb inside, where it’s warm and messy. “Tell me.”
“I’ve loved you from the first time I saw you. At the football game. With the cast on your leg. I asked my buddy who you were and he said you were the girl who played football on the guys’ team. And I’ve never seen anybody throw so many touchdowns standing behind the fence. You looked so miserable. But now I understand. You’re not a watcher, Marty. You’re a player. Let’s play.”
Zack is wrong. I am a watcher.
I had watched him that night. Like everyone else. When he left the alumni section of the bleachers and went to the snack bar for a drink, I watched the way the cheerleaders talked to him and tugged their hair. I saw the way Alan, the president of the spirit club, touched Zack’s hand when he gave him his Coke and how Alan ran his fingertips along Zack’s palm when he handed him his change. The way both the girls and the guys were jockeying for Zack’s pole position. I had watched out of the corner of my eye as Beautiful Zack walked back and stood behind me. I ignored him, while everyone else around us tried to talk to him. When the game ended and even more people tried to get to him, I turned to leave; but someone was standing on my foot with the cast. I fell backward, and Zack caught me before I hit the ground. He scooped me up.
“Are you hurt?” he’d said. He looked scared.
I had a pain in my chest, but I said, “I’m alright.”
“Want a ride home?” He smiled. Perfect teeth.
“I could carry you, but then I’d have to come back for my car. Why don’t we just make one smooth trip, okay?”
I watched how the crowd pressed out of our way. Looked at the snack bar and saw the lasers of hate shoot from the cheerleaders’ eyes, and what looked like tears in Alan’s. I blew them a little kiss. Those pom-pom girls who had refused to cheer for me when I made a good play on the field. They didn’t like me playing with their boys, even though they thought I was gay. I did have something in common with Alan – I wanted to be carried off the field by Zack. I watched myself from above. Like a dream. And I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Me being carried from the football field by a guy.
“You remember that night when you carried me to your car?” I asked.
“Yes. You were my little damsel in distress.”
“The last guy who tried to rescue me got bitten. During a game, a player from the other team stomped on the back of my knee and shredded it with his cleats because a girl had just brought down his quarterback. My coach ran onto the field and picked me up. Not hauled me up by the arm, like he did with the boys. He cradled me and started to walk off the field. All those people watching, congratulating themselves for being right. girls shouldn’t play football. The other team head-butting the guy who took me out. His coach even slapped him on the butt. I told my coach to put me down. He wouldn’t listen, so I sank my teeth into his arm. And he dropped me. I limped off by myself.”
Zack looks out his window. “I know. I was at that game. But I didn’t know you were you. Never would have guessed that a defensive end would end up my girlfriend.” He turns back to me and narrows his eyes, “Good thing we weren’t going out then. I would have killed that guy. I’d kill anyone who hurt you.”
“With my own hands. I love you that much.”
“Remember when we were outside the after-the-game party? The one we never went into? You asked me when I had to be home, and I said about two hours ago. You said you’d better get me home quick because you wouldn’t want my mom hating my new boyfriend.”
“Well, that’s when I fell in love with you.”
“So we’ve been in love for nine months. And I’ve hardly touched you. But God, I think about you all the time.”
“I’m sorry.” And I am. I’m also impressed. All Zack has to do is drive up and open his car door. Lots of warm bodies would gladly climb inside.
“I don’t want you to be sorry. I want you to be glad you waited for me. For us. No one is ever going to love you more than I do. Make love with me, Marty.” He gently closes my eyes with his fingertips. Takes my face in his hands and curls his fingers round the back of my neck and up into my hair. Brushes my lips with his and sighs.
“Don’t.” I didn’t say “stop.” I know the rules. Know I will blow this game wide open if I don’t keep my legs together and the words “don’t” and “stop” far apart.
“I know you’re a virgin. I promise I won’t hurt you.”
“I know you won’t. And I want to make love to you so bad, you don’t know. But … I’m not a virgin.”
And I’d never told anyone. But now I could tell my worst secret to my best friend. I had saved something for him. The one I loved.
I open my eyes. Look into his. Assassin’s eyes.
“He didn’t hurt me,” I say.
“You think I care about that?”
“You lied to me. All this time.”
“I’ve never lied to you.”
“What about being a virgin?”
“I never said I was.”
Zack shoves me to the passenger’s seat. Ugly sucking sounds as we become unglued. He throws T words through the air between us:
I’ve heard all those words before. I hate T words. They’re Torture. Look at ChrisT — they nailed him to a Tree. To a t. The word Trophy. But Zack doesn’t have any with his name etched into a brass plate below someone else’s. I look at the ocean, but it’s turned on me too. Snarling. Showing its white teeth. Curling its lips back just before it bites down on the beach.
Zack gets out of the car. Looks at the front of it. Swears. Waves to the surfer and gives him the finger. Gets back in and drives me home.
As I’m getting out of the car, a couple more T words slide out of his mouth:
“LaTer, Thunder Thighs!”
I watch Zack drive away from me. At a hundred miles an hour.
The front door is unlocked. Open a crack.
Maybe … maybe … maybe not.
Mom is lying in her gutter of crushed velvet. The cushions have crusty spots from spilled rye and Cokes. The armrests have Olympic symbols imprinted on them from too many forgotten, sweaty beer cans. Velvet is fragile.
I go to my room. It’s a mess. She’s been in here, tearing it apart looking for something.
I go to the kitchen and get every bottle of booze I can carry. Two in one hand, three in the other, and one under each arm. I go back to the living room.
“Wake up, Mom.” I grind the words like meat through my vocal chords. Nothing. “WAKE UP!” She tries to open her eyes, but Smirnoff the sandman pulls them shut. I put the bottles down gently as if they are grenades. I haul her up to a sitting position. She slumps back down, but manages to prop herself back up with one elbow.
“You see this bottle, Mom?” I say, grabbing it from the table.
She looks, but can’t focus. She clears her throat. “Where’s Adonis? Outside? Ask him in to drink … to have a drink with me.”
“You see it? This is you.” I shake the bottle and drop it on the floor. It doesn’t break. It bounces. She smiles. “You think that’s funny? How about this!” I grab the bottle and smash it over the tv. That gets her attention. I grab the tequila and send Air Mexicana on a flight straight into the fireplace. Crash and burn, worm. She tries to say something. I don’t care. This is not a conversation. It’s a demonstration. But it’s not enough. I want to break the world.
I go to my room and sit on my bed. Exhausted. Numb. The door creaks and Mom comes in. Kneels down in front of me. Head bowed, she starts crying. She looks so broken.
“I’m sorry, Marty. I’m so, so sorry. You’re the best thing that ever happened to me. You’re the only good thing in my life. And I keep screwing it up. I’m sorry.” She’s crying so hard, she can hardly get the words out.
I should hold her. Do something. But I can’t. Can’t tell the difference between love and hate. I think maybe both of those things go down so deep, they get lost in the darkness.
“I’m calling Dad. I’ll go live with him. I don’t care what you do anymore. You can drink yourself to death if you want to, but I’m not going to stick around and watch.”
Mom draws into herself and carries herself out my door.
I call the operator in San Diego to get the number for Information in New York.
“There are three listings for Martin Black – what is the street address, please?”
“Can I have all the numbers?”
The operator disconnects and a robotic voice answers my question.
First number. Strike one. Second number. Strike two. Third number. Please …
“Yeah … ah … I …”
“Has something happened?”
“Are you alright?”
“Not really … I want to … I need to … can I come live with you?”
“Did you just have a fight with your mother?”
“She’s drinking. A lot.”
“Well, I don’t think it can be that bad or you would have said something before now. If you guys are fighting, don’t think you can drag me into the middle of it. Look, I’ve got a contractor here. I’ve got to go.”
Mom comes back into my room. Holds me while I cry.
“I’m happy you’re not leaving. Even if it isn’t your choice. I’ll get sober, Marty. I promise.” Her words reek of guilt. But it’s the last time they smell like gin.
That was the day Dad said no. Mom quit drinking. And I stopped eating.