Stella sits on the coin-operated pony under the
lighted ACME sign of the grocery store. The M doesnít light up. It
never has, but she sits here anyway because she says the yellow
lights of the other three letters make her boobs look bigger to the
high school boys when they ride by on their bikes. I sit on the
sidewalk beside her and count the empty matchbooks and soda can pop
tops on the ground next to me.
"Letís go fishing tomorrow," she says and sucks
on the butt of a cigarette that we found in the AC E parking lot.
She doesnít light it because her parents might smell it, but she
says just sucking gives her urges. She says it doesnít give me urges
because Iím not developed enough, but I pretend to set her straight,
telling her that a buttís not enough to get me in the mood. "I need
a man to do the job right." Sometimes when I say this she laughs.
Tonight she pushes her hair back and says, "Yeah, me too," but goes
on sucking anyway. She says that if the butt were actually lit, she
would swallow the smoke like lemonade. "That way I look tough. Boys
like it when girls are tough."
Stellaís kissed more boys than even know my name.
Sheís let them feel her up; she says they like it when she whispers
dirty words in their ears. We practice saying them in low voices
under the fluorescent lights of the A, C, and E. She always starts.
"Sex," she says. My face turns hotter when I start in, "Boob."
"Yeah, and dick," she breathes heavily. I always laugh, but Stella
keeps her cool. Sheís always cool; nothing gets to her. Thatís why
weíre friendsóI can tell her almost anything. Like when my mom died,
and I laughed when my father told me. Stella just held my hand and
said, "Yeah, sheís dead." Then she laughed with me, even though I
was laughing because it hurt so much in my guts, almost like I
didnít have a stomach anymore.
Some nights, we walk over to Thrift Drug and
order burgers. Stella likes hers red in the middle. I like it when
theyíre so dark that they shrink in size and the juice is cooked out
of them. That way, when I add ketchup, thereís always extra that I
can lick off my plate. I like to show her I know how to lick. She
says itís disgusting, but I know sheís jealous she didnít think to
do it first. Sometimes we pay; mostly we donít. Stella knows the boy
who works there; she says heís a good kisser. I think heís got too
many zits on his chin, but Stella says that just means heís got to
be an even better kisser. If she werenít so cool, I probably
wouldnít believe her.
Pube. Tit. Blow. Stella can go on all
night. She knows more swears than me, but tonight I get her to stop
early by suggesting we go over to the docks again and watch the high
schoolers make out. She says it turns her on; it just makes my
cheeks get hot and blotchy. I donít mind, though, because itís
usually so dark that she canít see the warm rash around my neck.
Tonight, we decide to scare the parkers by opening and slamming the
car doors theyíve left unlocked when they walked down to the end of
the docks. Stella chooses a brown beater and I choose a two-door
heap with the word Catalina written
in silver letters across the trunk. The carís door is long and heavy
and I get scared when it takes more energy than I expected to open
it. Stella peeks around the rear of her car and says, "Ready?" I
count to three and slam the door. I donít hear Stellaís door but I
see her up and already running. I follow her across the street,
through a parking lot with grass growing through cracks, and behind
Thrift Drug, where she slumps against the dirty concrete of the
storeís rear wall.
Itís dark back here. There is light from an open
door farther down the wall and sounds of a kitchen and men laughing.
I imagine the pimply boy flipping a burger. We crouch down to catch
our breath. "Here," says Stella, "sit across from me," and she puts
her hand up my shirt. "Feel," she says and puts my hand on her boob.
"Iím running out of air," I say. "Shut up and listen." I do, and she
is rightóour hearts are beating together. Her skin feels thin and
heavy, and it reminds of me of that time at the dentist when the
doctor numbed my mouth and I was able to feel my face with my hand
in a new wayólike it wasnít my own face maybe or like how my face
might feel to someone else. Stella loses interest and pulls her hand
away. "Letís go find a boy," she says, and so we walk back along the
docks, staying clear of the high school parkers, to the AC E where
Stella finds a fresh butt to suck.
We go on like this until ten, but then we have to
go home because Stellaís mom doesnít like her out on the streets
after that. "Itís Ďcause she knows the boys will stop and talk to
me." My dad doesnít really mind when I get home, but thereís no
point in staying out without her. Also, she says she wouldnít stay
out if I had to go home early, so I do the same for her most nights.
That way I know for sure that Stellaís at home. Tonight, she runs
down her driveway and turns at the front door, "Donít forget.
Tomorrow we fish," and then sheís gone. I stand where she left me
and wait for the second-floor light in the window to the right to
turn on. The shade is already down, but I can see when she finally
switches on the light. Some nights, if her mother hasnít pulled the
shade and if she thinks of it, sheíll go to the window and dance
until she hears me laugh. Tonight, she doesnít.
I like walking home at night in the summer.
Stella lives five houses closer to town than me, but I donít mind
walking the last part alone. Stella says that in three years we
wonít have to walk anymore because weíre going to buy a car
together. Tilghman Island isnít more than three miles long, but
weíre not buying it for Tilghman. Weíre buying it so we can drive to
Easton where all the boys have cars. Thatís where she says weíll
both have sex for the first time. The boys around here arenít good
for anything more than feeling her up and kissing. "I just hope I
last that long." Stella said once that sheíd had sex with a boy from
school, but then forgot sheíd told me. Itís always hard for me to
remember my lies, too. But thatís why I like Stella. She doesnít
In the morning, Stella comes over with two
fishing permits and a pencil. In the bathroom she locks the door and
tells me to take off my shirt. I hug myself. She calls me a sissy
and then takes off hers. "This is how you can tell if your boobs are
big." She holds the pencil up to her chest and pushes her skin over
it to hold it in place. "I donít think youíre supposed to use your
hands," I say. "You try," she says. But I shy away from her. "You
know it wonít work on me." She laughs and says, "Yeah, I know, but
take off your shirt." I take it off and then stand against the wall
with my arms by my side. The wall is sticky and cool on my back. I
let her do it for me. I close my eyes. I pretend she is a boy. I
pretend she is the pimply boy from Thrift Drug and I let her shove
her knee between my legs and cover my mouth with her hand and
pretend to kiss me. "There," she says, "now youíre almost
experienced." She moves her hand from my mouth, and I pick up my
shirt, trying not to catch sight of my body in the mirror.
Itís only fair that I steal the fishing rods from
my dadís closet since Stella got the permits. I donít know how she
got them, though, because they cost ten dollars each. Anyway, it
isnít really stealing since Iíll return the rods later. Plus my
dadís said before that I can borrow them when I want, but Stella
says itís cooler if we pretend weíre taking them without permission.
Once, I stole a pack of bubble gum from the AC E. Stella dared me to
steal a pack of cigarettes but I didnít want to; I didnít like to
think about her sucking away an entire pack. Later, in the parking
lot, she grabbed the gum from me, unwrapped it and started chewing
right there. She offered me a piece but I didnít take it. I didnít
even take one after we were away from the grocery store.
Some nights, but only some nights, because I
donít like to lie to Stella, I donít go straight back to my house
after walking her home. Instead, I cut around her backyard and head
back to the Knapps Narrows. Most people on Tilghman know this is the
busiest waterway in the country but most people probably donít think
about that as much as I do. It keeps me up some nights just thinking
about how busy it is. All those boats, all those people. All those
lives and places that I will never experience.
Stella thinks I donít have a curfew because my
dad doesnít care about me and because he knows the boys arenít
interested, but thatís not true. Itís because he knows I wonít do
anything. Heís always awake when I come home and sometimes heíll
check the fridge and if heís remembered to buy more, heíll make me a
bowl of ice cream without even asking if I want any. And heíll get a
bowl for himself too, and weíll eat it in the kitchen, and sometimes
heíll tell me I look more like my mom. I live those nights because
it seems like a promise, like an oath, that I am a girl after all
and that I will become a woman some day even if not as quick as
Stella. I like sitting with him. It makes him happy, which is nice
since I think he spends most days feeling pretty lonely.
The day my mom died I was late for school and
missed the bus, which isnít like me. Stella told me later that she
tried to make them wait, said she stood in front of the bus and
cried, "Not without my friend." She said she called the driver a
dick when he ordered her back on the bus. I donít believe her, but
itís a pretty good lie, I think. And so my mom was mad because she
didnít want to drive me the one mile to school and I didnít want to
walk since it was winter and raining. And so I made myself cry until
she agreed. It wasnít until later, when my dad was standing by the
bus home, that I found out. It was funny that my dad was there and
so I said, "What? Is mom dead?" And when he said yes, I couldnít
think of anything else but to laugh. And my dad rode the bus home
with me because our only car was ruined, and we sat in the back, and
I was embarrassed and angry and refused to cry. I could lie and say
I kick myself about that day and how it was my fault and how she
shouldnít have been in the car at all and how it was only a mile,
but it would be just that, a lie. I feel bad for my dad mostlyófeel
bad that I guessed like that that she was dead and feel bad that
there was nothing for him to say but yes. And I miss my mom, but
only in that way that you might miss the physical proof that you are
going to become something better one day, something different.
Sometimes, but not to kick myself, I think about
those hours between the time my mom died and the time my dad picked
me up at school. Why didnít my dad come get me right away and what
was he doing with all that time. But if you really want to know the
truth, I wonder more about the tourists in the other car than I do
about my mom or my dad. I wonder why they came to Tilghman in the
first place. I wonder about their families back home getting the
call from somebodyóthe doctors or the police or whoever makes those
phone callsóand I wonder about their reactions. "Tilghman Island?"
they ask. "Where is Tilghman Island?" But thatís not the kind of
thing I can tell my dad about and itís not the kind of thing I want
to tell Stella about.
Tilghman isnít your typical island. Here, the
dirt and the grass grow right up to the water. And thereís one road
thatís the main road, and it will take you from the waterway to the
end of the island and back. Only, towards the end, for maybe a
quarter-mile at most, the road turns from asphalt to gravel to sand.
And, instead of grass and reeds and houses, there are flat rocks
along the edge to tame the water and shape the land. This is where
we come to fish. Stella chooses a cluster of rocks she thinks will
be comfortable for sitting. We drop our things and Stella opens a
plastic container of crickets. "They smell like swamp," she says and
holds them up to my nose. "Gross," I say and push her arm away. I
bait both hooks and then, for luck, we spit on our crickets. "Why do
we spit?" she asks. "Dad says the fish like it." She laughs and
says, "Just like boys."
Piss. Suck. Cock. Stella has abandoned her
fishing rod and is sitting on the rocks behind me. Her t-shirt is
stretched over one shoulder. She is saying the words loud and fast,
not waiting to see if I have any new ones to add. There are boys
down toward the point. From this distance, with the sun closer to
the water than to the sky, they look like oily silhouettes, pushing
and jumping and shouting each otherís name. Occasionally, the oil
seems to spill or the two boys touch and for an instant there seems
only to be one of them. Stella pulls out two sandwiches and tells me
to sit down. Sometimes she really surprises me. I know sheís tough
and I know sheís in to boys, but sometimes itís days like this, when
weíve walked two miles to the end of the island and have spent the
afternoon getting tans and fishing with no success, that I like her
most. You wouldnít think it, because she tries to hide it, but she
can be gentle.
"Do you think youíll get married?" She asks me
this regularly because Iím always changing my mind.
"My dad says Iíll get married, but itís hard to
think about having kids."
"Oh, I want kids. I definitely want kids. Yeah,
and a husband."
"Are you sure youíll manage with just one
She laughs and says, "You know, youíre prettier
than you think." She touches my face. I think she might kiss me. I
want to tell her itís all right. She points down the rocks and says,
"Do you think heís cute? I can talk to him for you."
"No," I say, "not yet."
"You donít want to be the only girl in eighth
grade who hasnít been kissed."
"I donít mind." I blur my eyes and look west at
the bay. There are sailboats in the distance. Closer to shore there
are tugs and freighters. "Thatís Annapolis," I say and point across
the open water. "What if we made it as far as Annapolis?"
Sometimes, just looking at the water makes me
feel jammed up. I can feel it in my guts, these rocks, this place.
Like the way my dad rubs his stomach when the tug boats go by. "Look
at that," heíll say. "Just look. Can you feel it moving?" And a tug
will pass with its tow of different-colored storage containers. "See
the way they stack them? Sometimes ten high."
The rocks are hot from the sun and the air is
gray and yellow. Summer, as we know it, is nearly over. Weíre lazy
and damp from our day of fishing. Stella says, "I have an idea, but
we have to go back to my house." We pack up our rods and trash, and
Stella takes one last look in the direction of the boys before
climbing off the rocks and heading home.
Under her bed, she says, "Close your eyes," and I
do. "Donít laugh or Iím not going to help you," she says. I keep
quiet. She inches her body closer to mine. I stay still. Her breath
is warm. She smells like chewing gum and cigarette butts. She puts
her lips to mine and moves her mouth around. My face burns. I
squeeze my legs together and dig my nails into my palms. I can feel
her pulse. After a minute, she moves away from me and laughs. "Yeah,
so now Sara Barrett canít say you havenít ever kissed anybody. Just
donít tell her who it was." Itís muggy under the bed and dark, but I
can see Stellaís face. "Donít look so sad," she says and rolls onto
her back to push her knees into the mattress, "when itís a boy,
youíll actually feel it all over. Youíre whole body will feel it.
Itíll give you urges. I promise." "Yeah," I say and push into the
mattress with her. "I hope so."
I have this idea that one day Stella and I will
come back to this island after years apart from each other and our
families. We will eat mussels at the tourist restaurant by the
water. We will count the boats and the number of times the
drawbridge raises in an hour, and maybe, knees touching under the
table, we will even count the cars.
Hannah Pittardís fiction appears or is forthcoming in
McSweeneyís Quarterly Concern, The Oxford American, BOMB, and
StoryQuarterly. She is a recent graduate of the University of
Virginia's MFA program in creative writing and the recipient of the
2006 Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award. She is currently at work
on a book about a man named Thad.