She had called.
It was the night before the first day of junior year, a Sunday, a day normally reserved for lunch with the grandparents, minimal yard work for his mother, and an evening spent grilling hot dogs with his father in the driveway of his Belhaven rental, where he had lived since the divorce. But tonight was different. He had begged off their weekly cookout because of school. All that prep for the big first day, he’d said. He had been idly flipping through the channels, bored and a little hot in his upstairs room, and then the phone call finally came—special dispensation.
Tubbel walked downstairs to his mother’s bedroom, rubbed his eyes, and knocked gently. His eyebrows were bent into inquisitive blond arches.
“What do you want now?” his mother asked. She was watching television in her chair, her leg draped over one arm, gently kicking the air, and was smiling at whatever was on.
“Becca asked me to come over and watch a movie.”
“Why would you want to go over there to see a movie?”
“You know, just…because.”
“On a school night?”
She cackled and finally broke off her stare from the television. “Be home early.”
“And be sweet.”
“Be Sweet” was his mother’s euphemism for everything, what she always told Tubbel before he left the house. Tubbel had come to understand this over the years. It meant: do things that would keep him sweet, or do not do things that wouldn’t.
“This pocket was ideal for storing a single condom. There the condom was protected from the elements, the pressure of a hot, leather wallet, the sitting pressure of the body. The condom was also easily and constantly accessible and yet inconspicuous.”
Tubbel left his mother and stomped up the stairs, a loud march. He went to his dresser, found the box in which his dress watch had come (a gift from two birthdays before). He gently untied the box and lifted the lid. The silver band shone in the dim light of his bedroom; he had only worn it three, perhaps four, times in the past two years. He lifted the stiff circular collar that the watch rested upon, underneath of which was his stash of condoms, blue Trojans, spermicidally lubricated. He tucked a single condom into the special “condom pocket” of his khaki shorts.
Tubbel thought that his Gap brand khaki shorts were truly unique. There was a pocket on the right side of the chino situated between the regular-sized pocket and the zipper, closer to the hip in distance and possibly a descendent of the watch pocket, the appearance of which in some pants and most jeans had always puzzled and bothered Tubbel until he entered high school. This pocket was ideal for storing a single condom. There the condom was protected from the elements, the pressure of a hot, leather wallet, the sitting pressure of the body. The condom was also easily and constantly accessible and yet inconspicuous. All of this pleased Tubbel immensely.
As he machine-gunned downstairs and swung open the backdoor, he thought of his mother, sitting alone at the end of the hall in her room, saw the amber glow emanating from the half-open doorway where the TV laughed.
“Hey, Mom. About to go. Thanks again for the dinner.”
“…welcome, Tubbel…” was all he could make out. Earlier, happy he was home for a Sunday evening and for once not off being “indoctrinated” by his father, she had made Chicken Spaghetti, known throughout the family as one of his favorites. Tubbel wasn’t especially sophisticated but he knew that each time he ate the meal, he was fulfilling the second half of a sentimental gesture. He wanted to say something more, to be more emphatic in his gratitude. But he was already running late.
As far as Tubbel knew, Becca’s parents never left her alone longer than it took her mother to venture to the grocery store one afternoon a week, usually a Tuesday. Their dates, crowded with friends and school-related functions, did not lend themselves to intimacy. Her house was bright, large, open-doored and always chaperoned. On those Tuesdays the summer before, Becca and Tubbel would go swimming out back in her pool and would wrestle around in the deep end, under the water. They would kiss down near the concrete floor, legs and fingers interlocking, a bikini pretzel. These water maneuvers would only last an hour or so, until Mrs. Cartright’s permed head could be seen bopping around the kitchen or the living room of the house. Afterwards, they swam slowly. They were quiet, tired, and frustrated.
The drive to her house took seven minutes in regular traffic, accounting for the average number of stops by traffic lights. But Tubbel was determined to make it in five tonight and green lights glowed in the distance.
Becca didn’t have a movie. She and Tubbel curled up under a blanket and flipped channels. She ate popcorn, greasy and sticky with butter. Tubbel refrained from snacking, said he was too full from dinner. When he held her hand, the fingertips were moist, slippery. When they kissed, her lips tasted like salt and butter mixed. But mostly their faces were drawn to the TV and they spoke only sideways, during visual lulls.
“So who died?” Tubbel asked.
“Um…one of my cousin’s sons, I think. I don’t really know.”
“They said I didn’t have to go, since I didn’t really know him.”
“I’m sorry about that.”
“Oh, it’s okay. My parents are all right with it.”
“They were cool with letting you stay alone?”
“Yeah. Completely. I mean, they’re going to be back by like four tomorrow. So it isn’t that bad.”
“Did your mom say anything when you asked to come over?” Becca asked.
“No. She was cool.”
“Yeah…” he said, turning to face her, and fighting the vague desire to shrug, “you know.”
This meant that yes, she was fine; she had given permission and that meant she was fine. Tubbel did not want to think about the possibility of his mother saying one thing but secretly wanting something else.
“What’s she doing?”
“But he was terrified of not using the condom right, of the situation arising and there being much fumbling and tearing and blind groping—basically the worst kind of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey game ever.”
The night was warm and the door to the room was open and the wind blew in from the balcony. When Becca wasn’t looking, Tubbel glanced at her face. He could see the reflection of the television in her eyes. They were pale blue, and Tubbel thought they shined, though he couldn’t decide how much of this blueness came from the TV. He watched her eyelashes wave and close and open. They were so long, like filaments or whiskers. They looked like those bright floating strands that lived on coral, undulating near the ocean floor.
A commercial for a water park came on the television.
“God, I haven’t been to one of those in years,” said Becca. She smelled of butter and sweat, and there was the intermittent aroma of soapy lavender coming from her bathroom. He’d always specifically loved her bathroom.
“I used to go all the time when I was like nine or so,” he said.
“Yeah. Like three days a week.”
“Did you actually get tan?” Becca asked.
“Tanning’s over-rated anyway,” she said.
“I used to really like it. I would just float out in the wave pool for hours.”
“Were you checking out the chicks?”
“I was, like—nine.”
“Well, I wasn’t like hitting on them or anything. I was just floating around.”
“Oh. I see. Perv.”
Tubbel smirked, a sarcasm deflector.
“But there was this one completely beautiful lifeguard there,” he said.
“You slut. What was her name?”
“I don’t know.”
“You never got her name?”
“I was, like—nine.”
“Yeah. Anyway. Continue. What about her?”
“Well, she was just really pretty. Only, I couldn’t see her face all that well. She was so high up in that chair in all that sun. But I used to look at her when I was floating on one of those rafts—you know the one’s you rent?”
“I would watch her when the waves shut off.”
“Did she ever see you?”
“No. I don’t think so.”
“Yeah. I guess.”
Becca’s hand went for some more popcorn.
“I did think about getting her attention somehow,” Tubbel said.
“Well. I thought: she’s a lifeguard. She has to guard my life. So I often thought of just slipping off my raft whenever the waves turned back on, and seeing if she would come get me.”
“Do you think she would’ve?”
“Of course she would’ve. It was her job.”
“I had already seen her save a fat kid earlier that summer. And he was twice as big as me. Why wouldn’t she have saved me?”
“How did she do it?”
“With that red foam-thing. You know, their special life preserver. It looks like a finger.”
“Or a tongue.”
“Do you know what I’m talking about?”
“Yeah. I know. Those things are so damn cool.”
Tubbel was excited and tried to look back at the television.
Silence. He was trying not to stare at her. She’s scheming, he thought.
“Do you know what we should do?”
“Nightswimming. You ever been?”
“No.” Tubbel stared into the shallow mound of the popcorn.
“Tubbel,” she said, touching his fingers just above the bowl and holding him with her eyes, “it’s way fun.”
“Son, you should know that what you’re about to enter is an exciting time. I don’t have to tell you this. You’re about to piss yourself as it is, I can tell. You’re already excited about everything. And I want you to be. I don’t want you to let what’s going on between your Mom and me get in the way of you enjoying yourself for these next few years. We’re all going to work it out and whatever happens, you know that I love you and that’s what’s important. I’ll still be there for you. And I’m going to try not to be jealous or live through you in some way like some fathers do. But I have to admit that the next four to eight years will probably be the best years of your life. You probably have no idea what I’m talking about. That’s okay. Youth’s wasted on the young, anyway. But I want you to remember, want you to remember what I’m about to say: What you’re about to go through will never be repeated. Remember that. It’s precious and brief and it only happens once.
“We’ll get that car pretty soon and you probably won’t listen to a word I say afterwards. It’s okay. It’s to be expected. I don’t know where you are, so to speak, but sooner or later, you’ll only smell gasoline and pussy, and anything me or your mother says won’t really compare to those two smells. And I’m not going to tell you to hold it in, son. Your Mom might, but I won’t lie to you: some of the best pussy I ever got was when I was in high school, so I’m not about to pretend that you won’t be involved. But I would tell you to take it slow. Slow Down. Don’t be in such a rush to grow up. Get laid. Get a job. Whatever. But remember to be a kid for a while.
“But if you do, for godsakes use a condom. I’m not going to try to twist your arm and go for the abstinence route because basically I think it’s a bunch of bullshit. Men and women were built for fucking and anyone trying to pretend it doesn’t happen is deluded. But I would caution you to use a condom. There is a lot of frightening shit out there and just because you’re with the preps at Niskayuna doesn’t mean it can’t get you.
” ‘…[T]he sweetest looking girl in your class could be a landmine of viruses and she would still be the captain of the cheerleading squad and the softest cupcake this side of town.’ “
“And to be completely honest, it’s not the VDs I’m all that worried about. I mean, the sweetest looking girl in your class could be a landmine of viruses and she would still be the captain of the cheerleading squad and the softest cupcake this side of town. But more than that use the condom to prevent pregnancy. Don’t believe they’re on the pill. They might say they’re on the pill and they might in fact be on the pill but for godsakes don’t trust them that they’re on the pill. I know you might be in love and that’s great. Love is great. I would caution you to take it slow and to play the field but in general love is great, but still don’t trust her to take the pill. Put a fucking rubber on your dick. It is the most important thing you can do. Because son, I love you, but you haven’t the slightest clue how much an unwanted pregnancy can fuck your entire life prospects. None of the options are good, and I know you want to go to college, find a career, do something with your life. Whatever. But trust me if you get Stacy or Tracy or what’s-her-name pregnant, you’re going to be up shit creek and you will be tied to that woman and that child for the rest of your life. I know you have no idea of the magnitude of that but trust me that you end up living a hell of a long time.
“And I’ll let you in on a little secret, too. A single white man is the freest thing on this earth. If you can manage to get out of college and still be single and to keep yourself clean, you will have more freedom than practically anyone. But if you get someone pregnant, you’ve just used your dick to sign a contract it’ll take the rest of your life to pay off.
“I’m not telling you all this to scare you. I’m just trying to share some advice. Things I wish I knew when I was your age. All of this will probably not mean a thing to you. But it makes me feel better just to say it. The next ten years will be the best ten years of your life, probably. I wish I could make you see that.”
Tubbel stood out near the pool in his swimming trunks, the special yellow pair that Becca kept for him in her room for those spontaneous summer swims. Becca wore a red bikini. She flipped the switch for the pool lights. They flickered and went out. Tubbel stood with his toes hanging over the side of the pool, looking down into the dark water.
“Ah. It’s okay. I like the dark,” he said. He dove in and turned around. All he could see was the glow of red slowly coming toward him.
They swam for a long time, diving off the board and splashing tremendous waves, bubbles and foam exploding to the sky. They pulled each other down to the bottom, kissing and wrapping around each other and waiting as long as they could, twisted together like a knot of flesh, until they could control their bodies no longer and had to rush to the surface and fling their heads upward, gasping for air. They stood there inhaling deeply and violently. Water droplets fell in sparkles from her eyelashes. He reached his hand over and touched her face—the way you might touch a painting, gently as not to get caught or set off alarms, only using enough pressure to feel the texture of the artifact. He kissed her and tasted the salt from the popcorn still on her lips. She kissed his cheeks where the water trickled down like tears. Later, they took turns doing cannonballs and jack-knifes, but they always ended up stuck together, revolving around each other, sinking toward the bottom.
After a while, Becca looked up to the balcony just outside the television room.
“Hey Tubbel, want to make a bigger splash?” She was whispering. They were folded together.
He turned to the balcony overlooking the pool. The black iron in the darkness made it and its spiral staircase look like a shadow. But Tubbel was so eager, he did not even turn to agree to Becca’s suggestion.
They walked up the stairs, leaving a trail of wet footprints across the concrete. Tubbel looked out over her backyard. The arches of his feet tingled. The tile of the pool deck was traced by grass and then palmetto shrubs; the area was almost hidden, like an oasis-mirage. He felt the wind on his damp back, and his arms turned to goose flesh.
“Becca?” Tubbel said.
“Yeah,” she said, touching his face.
“Let’s do something.”
“What do you mean you haven’t done it?” asked Anderson.
“What do you mean, ‘what do I mean’? I mean, we haven’t done it.”
“Because? That’s not a good enough reason.”
“Well, it’s gotta be. What are you, my mother?”
“Pleez. [Brief pause.] But I would like to know why you’ve still not nailed the proclaimed Girl of Your Dreams, one Miss Becca Cartright.”
“Hey, I’m not ‘nailing’ anyone. She’s not a tree. Don’t make it sound so crass.”
“Oh, God. Stop being sensitive. You’re always so fucking polite.”
“As opposed to you.”
“Yes, as opposed to me. I at least have…”
“Don’t even try that. You haven’t done it either.”
“Well, at least I’ve gotten to third base—”
“With a girl who later puked into a planter. Yes, Anderson, that is something to be proud of.”
“Look, don’t get offended. She did get sick shortly after…”
“I said shut up.”
“At least I’ve done something. At least I’ve tried.”
“That’s not fair. I want to try. I just want it to be…you know, right.”
“‘Right’? What are you doing, directing a movie? Just fuck her. You want to. She wants to. This isn’t a quadratic equation. Willing plus Able equals Fuck Buddies, comprende? I mean, you’ve been going out for nine months. What are you waiting for—a blessing?”
In anticipation of what he hoped was a romantic inevitability, Tubbel often practiced putting on a condom. He knew this inevitability would be with Becca, was sure it would be with Becca, was almost 100 percent positive it would be with Becca. He had definite notions about the importance of love in the carnal transaction, the “prerequisite” of love, he thought of it, after learning that word from college admissions material. In fact, all these idealistic notions had been strengthened rather than broken by the marital fluctuations of his parents and the parents of everyone else he knew. But he was terrified of not using the condom right, of the situation arising and there being much fumbling and tearing and blind groping—basically the worst kind of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey game ever.
“Rode maintained that not only should boys masturbate to ‘gain self-knowledge,’ but they should also rehearse the actual administration of the birth control device. Rode demonstrated the proper technique with a banana.”
The paranoia regarding the condoms in part sprung from a ninth grade sexual education class, where Dr. Rode gave a lecturette entitled “The Importance of Masturbation and Prophylactic Practice in Adolescent Males.” The title alone made the room full of boys turn crimson, slide their feet, wipe their hands on their jeans. Rode maintained that not only should boys masturbate to “gain self-knowledge,” but they should also rehearse the actual administration of the birth control device. Rode demonstrated the proper technique with a banana.
Consequently, there were occasions when Tubbel would stand in front of his wall-length bathroom mirror, naked, and would practice administering the condom on himself. He was always struck by the smell—metallic, antiseptic—the concept of “lubrication” and the unexpected coldness. Rode had said that the condom came out of the wrapper like a miniature derby, “or like a latex yarmulke for all our non-Christian students,” and that if one attempted to “put the hat on inside-out,” the condom was effectively ruined. Because of this, Tubbel was deliberate and kept all of the lights on. He thought that he should have this procedure down the same way he should have driving a standard transmission down, an initially awkward physical task that could be mastered to the point of becoming second nature. But all he could think once he was readied and was analyzing his appearance in the mirror was that he hoped that whenever the time came, the area in which the event occurred was extremely dark.
Not pausing to reflect further, his presence on the metal balcony like an out-of-body experience, Tubbel pulled the drawstring of his swimming trunks ever so slowly and let them fall to his ankles. He stepped out of them and tossed them over the side of the balcony with his foot. They landed with a loud, wet clap on the concrete next to the pool. Her eyes seemed to glow by themselves in the darkness, and Tubbel thought it was magical. Tubbel climbed over the rail and stood at the edge of the balcony, holding his hand out, balancing. He turned to the pool below. It was completely dark, as if it weren’t even there. Tubbel took a deep breath, his lungs filled with the aroma of the chlorine, and he was positive it was still down there, ready to catch him. He dove twenty feet into the water. He broke the surface with a quick splash, touched the rough floor of the pool and turned. His face bobbed to the surface, hair mussed, giggles tossed back up to Becca. She stood above, holding the railing of the balcony.
“So are you going to join me?” he asked.
She smiled at him and climbed over the rail of the balcony. She leaned back against the rail and unhooked her bikini top and let it float down to the water. She then carefully stepped out of her bikini bottoms, first the left foot, then the right, the material rolling into a twisted rubber band. She let the bottoms fall into the water and a moment later she was falling after them, her empty hands making small circular motions on the way down as if she were perhaps trying to fly.
They clutched on the surface and twisted down to the bottom. They intertwined their legs, arms, fingers. Tubbel looked into her eyes, the only things he could see; the rest had disappeared. They were so close he felt her everywhere. And his mind raced—popcorn, television, car, Mom, chicken spaghetti, the image of his father eating alone, Anderson ecstatically smoking a cigarette just after school, the word: Virgin—the pictures all came rushing forth so uncontrolled, so unexpected, and Becca was holding him, about to slide him into place, and at that moment he pictured his shorts, tossed over the arm of a recliner in Becca’s living room, the content of the secret pocket barely visible as a small, elevated ring. Tubbel panicked, recoiled, and blurted out her name. The water filled his open mouth.
He broke the surface gagging and coughing and trying desperately to breathe. Becca wrapped her arms around him and guided him to the edge of the pool and called out his name, over and over. Tubbel jerked and waved his arms around as if he were losing balance and had something stuck deep down inside his chest. Becca would not let go of him.
“Tubbel, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. You’re okay. You’re okay. Just let it out. You’re safe in the air now.”
Finally, Tubbel gargled once very deeply and vomited. He continued coughing and spitting and gasping for air through it all, and Becca kept talking quietly to him and running her hand through his hair and holding his chest with the other. He held onto the side of the pool and the rail of the ladder and could almost stand. Just then, as Tubbel started to catch his breath and started to taste the sour mucus in his mouth, the lights to the pool flickered on, and a phosphorescence glowed under them. It was then that Tubbel saw his vomit floating in the water next to him, identifiable bits of noodle, and he saw it on his body, on Becca’s arm wrapped tightly around his chest.
“The ache in his stomach was the same ache of dread he felt when his parents clashed and parted, the same ache of deep hunger, and he hated his body for having one visceral reaction to the variety of life’s absurdities.”
She washed him off in her parents’ shower stall, a huge tile cell. Tubbel could not hear himself crying over the pulse of the water. When he opened his eyes, he saw Becca with soapy hands and arms, scrubbing him down, the pink tips of her bare breasts slightly swaying.
He stopped crying and she dried him off. She was still wet, beads of water standing guard on her back, and she knelt down and dried his shins and feet. When he began to talk again, he kept repeating, “I’m so late. She’s gonna flip out. She’s gonna fucking flip.” Becca just nodded and went to retrieve his shirt and his shoes, his socks stuffed inside, and his shorts, still thrown over the armrest of the recliner. When he got dressed, Becca walked him to her front door. She was still undressed, undried even from the pool and then the shower. However, she had washed off all the signs of his nausea, and he realized this was the first time he had seen her naked.
Though the porch light was on and the front entrance to her house was fully visible to the road, Becca opened the door to let Tubbel leave. She did not speak, and she did not flinch. Tubbel shrank from the glaring light and turned back to her, and she stepped aside and flipped a switch and the porch turned to darkness. This seemed to relieve some accumulating stress. Tubbel tried to mimic her calmness, though when he turned around to kiss her goodnight, her large eyes seemed darker, more opaque, as if considering him from a distance. He knew he had to go; he was sure that each minute made his potential violation worse, but he felt that he had to explain himself in some way. She gave him more than enough room to speak.
“Do you wanna stay?” she asked.
“Better not,” he said.
He didn’t want to look her in the eyes, but felt guilty for staring at her body instead. In the end, Tubbel kissed her dryly and walked quickly to his car.
The streets were empty. He drove slowly, hitting every red light, nine minutes into his drive home already and only halfway there. He imagined what he would say to Becca when he called her later, smothered under the sheets of his bed, making his usual post-visit check-up. He wondered what his mother would say when he walked in the door a few minutes later. Would she be sitting on the counter, her hands planted on each side, staring him down and worried? Or would she be bent and sleeping in her chair, the TV loud and the lights ablaze?
He came to the intersection two blocks away from his house, sat in his car at the red light. A squad car tore through the intersection just as the light was changing to green, but then silence. He didn’t move. Forward movement felt futile: he was replaying the scene in the adolescent theater of his mind, the celluloid memory already looped and endless. The ache in his stomach was the same ache of dread he felt when his parents clashed and parted, the same ache of deep hunger, and he hated his body for having one visceral reaction to the variety of life’s absurdities.
The light changed back to red. Perhaps, he thought, they would be okay, as a couple, as a unit, somehow made stronger.
The light changed back to green. Perhaps this would make them closer, increase the chances of intimacy, a rift that would actually weld them together. The idling hum of the car leveled out, a kind of automotive sigh, and he thought that the engine provided the best soundtrack to his grief that he could imagine—that the sexual tension between him and Becca had been a constant, audible rumble. At least, he said to himself, as the glowing circle of light changed from summer green to October orange, this will never be repeated.