All the Baby’s Air
In our Family Life class we’d all shared a table and watched Ms. Felton from Planned Parenthood unroll a condom onto a wooden dildo. She talked about single parenthood, how hard it was, how no one helps like they say they will. She was pregnant with her second and constantly patting her tummy. The whole class wanted to be her sitter.
None of us could wait for the day when we would cradle and nurse and sleep with an infant on a mattress, our heads turned to the ceiling, careful not to breathe all of the baby’s air.
Ours was an all-girls’ school, and we were in the 8th grade. At dismissal, we stood in front of its columns on a sidewalk carpeted with yellow leaves. It was late October, and in a few weeks the leaves would be brown lace. I wore a plaid cape coat and ballet slippers with wool tights. Lee Ann was braided and wore the ring her mother left her before she moved in with her boss. There were two other girls I knew a little from school. Both sister red heads from Quebec. One of them had won poetry contests.
Soon my father would pull up in his black Town Car and we’d pile in and sit on our hands, ask him to change the station and turn up the heat. He never asked questions, just chewed gum and hummed along.
The poet girl had been the one to convince us to skip after-lunch classes and to go with the boys in their truck. We’d met the boys at the mall movie theater, where they sat in the row behind us and tossed popcorn into our hair. The boys were in high school, though we’d never seen them around our town before. After first period lunch, we walked out to the parking lot and found the boys waiting in their truck. We piled in the truck bed and let the wind blow our eyes closed and muss our hair, while they drove too fast down country roads and over hills. There were four of us and only two of them, and we wondered which of us would be the pretty ones.
The boys built a fire in a field on someone’s land and we all sat around. Lee Ann said stupid things about her parents’ marriage and her mother, about missing her mother’s marshmallow fudge the most. I rolled my eyes at her when no one was looking. I was growing sick of her and her clinginess and all the notes I had to write to keep up, how crushed she’d looked whenever I said I hadn’t had a chance to read the latest one.
We played a game where we each went alone into the woods with one boy for eleven minutes, which meant we each went twice into the woods. One of the boys showed me a clump of white flowers called White Snakeroot that he said were poisonous and had killed Abraham Lincoln’s wife. He picked off a tiny bloom and placed it in my button hole.
The other boy held my hand and took me to a creek deeper in the woods than I’d gone the first time. He let go and started to cross the water, walking rock to rock. It had been raining all week, and the creek was full and rushing with white crests forming around the bigger rocks. The mist of it stuck to my face, and I felt like I was in a cloud. When he reached the other side, he said, “Let’s take off our clothes.”
He stared at me, removing his jean jacket and pulling the t‑shirt over his head. I looked away and felt the buttons of my cape. The flower there stayed in place while I undressed. I draped my cape on the ground behind me, unzipped the side of my dress, rolled my tights down to my ankles and slipped them off. When I was completely unclothed I looked up and saw him, thin and tall, creamy pale in the wet forest like a boy from the past. His hair looked darker brown now, almost black.
My shoulders rounded and I crossed my arms over my waist. I didn’t know how to stand. We didn’t touch. There creek made a line which neither of us would cross. I stood by an outcropping of limestone, and I watched as he grew hard. The skin there was whiter than the rest of his body. I thought about the flower in my buttonhole and its whiteness and how pretty white was, and I wondered what Ms. Felton would do. How she would hold and handle him without having to think about what her hands were doing.
Later the boys gathered more sticks for the fire, then tossed in an empty hornet’s nest knocked down from a tree limb. Its paper walls blackened in the flames. Before they drove us back, they showed us how sharp their pocket knives were by slicing the thinnest layer of skin from our fingers and leaving it to dangle.
Lydia Copeland Gwyn’s stories and poems have appeared or are forthcoming in the Florida Review, Appalachian Heritage, Elm Leaves Journal, Glimmer Train, SmokeLong Quarterly and others. She lives with her husband and two children in East Tennessee where she teaches English and works in a public library.