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You're already fifteen minutes late to pick me up. I'm standing in the front hall in my baby-doll dress and prairie boots, pretending to inspect a photograph of my young grandmother releasing a seagull from her sandy hand, when Dad comes in from his office. He scans me up and down. "Boots? It's summer, doll."
I shrug, a shrug that simultaneously says You know nothing and Please rescue me.
"When's the chap due?" He pushes his glasses up on his nose and squeezes the last bit of liquid from his tea bag.
"The chap is fifteen minutes late," I say, like it's nothing, like I'm not convinced you forgot. Got high, fell asleep, had whatever kind of emergency auto mechanics/skate-park hangers-on have. You don't mean to fuck up, but you do, and ever since we met I've been making excuses for you.
"Well, that doesn't bode well," Dad says.
"He had to put his kid to bed," I say. Dad is weirdly OK with this. Your being 31, ten years older than I am. Your being a father. Your driving a refurbished '70s muscle car with a Grateful Dead bear painted on the passenger door. His biggest issue really is timeliness.
"Maybe he got scared?"
"Why would he be scared?" I ask, but I know what he's going to say.
"We live in a big house."
"Yeah, well, it's not like we're rich or anything."
He looks at me like I didn't raise no fool. "We may not be rich, but we look rich, kid. The weekend house, the pool. You're a city slicker, like it or not. So don't come in, rock his world, then disappear." He laughs at his own overblown language. He does that a lot, and my mom always shakes her head, mouth gritted in a half-smile: Well, at least you amuse yourself, Terry.
I know he's just trying to be funny, but I just don't feel very funny right now. I'm not sure where you are and I'm all dressed up like Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan and if I have to wash this makeup off without ever leaving the house I'll feel shame for days, so hurry up and get here already. "This isn't Dirty Dancing, Dad," and with that, you honk your horn and I run toward the screen door.
I know he's just trying to be funny, but I just don't feel very funny right now.
"Suppose no one cares about shaking the father's hand anymore," Dad says.
"Nope! Nope, they don't." I blow him a kiss just as I turn to you, so it's like the kiss is for you both.
And you are in your long, low car, which I know you're proud of. I'm sort of proud of it too, and I would tell my friends about it but I don't have enough knowledge about automobiles to even begin to explain. It's orange. There's some kind of aggressive, shiny grate across the back.
You're smiling up at me — me, bathed in porch light, warm and a little pink because Dad is picky about which lightbulbs we choose ("Ya gotta set a mood"). Your hair, which is almost blonde during the day and at night the color of a field mouse, is flattened on one side like you've been napping, and I see the place where you taped your glasses back together after Mason hurled them on the ground last week because you wouldn't let him stay up to watch an MMA fight. I wonder if you're relieved to be out tonight. And then I know the answer, because I see that you've already got a beer parked between your knees.
I know it's technically an awful idea to drive with someone who has been, and is currently, drinking. But I can't help it: I trust you. The guys at school drink in secret, out of stupid vintage flasks, or they crush pills up and snort them and deny it even when they're bleeding out of their faces, but you, you pop open a can at the end of the day the way my father sips his tea. You worked hard at the shop, and then with Mason, and you deserve this.
You kiss me on the cheek. "Whatcha been doin'?"
"Like, reading and stuff," I say, in language I know you can understand, although maybe I'm underestimating you. "Getting ready for this seminar I have in the fall. The syllabus is crazy long, so I should start, I guess. You?"
You start the car and drive out of our yard at a speed that will definitely keep my dad from sleeping tonight. "Mason was bein' a little jerk. He wouldn't sleep. He's with my mom now."
"What's his bedtime?" I ask.
You laugh. "You think that's up to me? He's been sleeping in a wetsuit lately."
"A wetsuit? Like the kind you'd scuba dive in?"
"Kids do some crazy shit," you say. "He stays up 'til 2, 3 a.m., taking showers in that fucking wetsuit."
"So when does he wake up?"
I don't press the issue. You're a parent and I am not. I can barely get myself to class in the morning. I usually chew gum instead of brushing my teeth. So I will respect you. And I will respect our differences.
I don't press the issue.
Our differences: they've been the topic of so much discussion since I met you last month, peeking out from under the hood of my dad's car like the antihero of a teen movie I watched until the VHS ate itself. Only in the teen movie you're hot and tan, not pale as cigarette paper with broken glasses and chicken legs. In the teen movie, you make up for your lack of a traditional education with oiled, pulsing pecs. In the teen movie, I wear pearls and a cardigan and have long golden legs sticking out of khaki shorts, not winter clothes on a summer night. But in real life, we're just awkwardly figuring this out.
And so I've talked about our differences with everyone but you. My friends all call you "the mechanic" via email or "townie diiick" if they're feeling less charitable. I tell them you know how to put up drywall. I tell them you used to be a drug addict, but now you have a handle on it. I call you by your given name: Kevin. I say it as many times as I can in a day, enjoying its normalcy. A Kevin? For me?
I like how little you ask of me. Sometimes you laugh at my jokes, but mostly you enjoy whatever we are doing in the moment: walking into the gas station an inch apart from each other to buy your cigarettes, splitting a red apple in half with a plastic knife, walking around the racetrack with our pointer fingers linked, or fucking quietly under the eaves of the barn where my father keeps his rare books.
"Wow, these are pretty dusty," you said that first night. Just facts with you. I showed you my favorite, an old copy of The Lonely Doll by Dare Wright. It's the story of a doll without friends and the trouble she gets into when she meets a gang of misfit bears who don't want what's best for her.
"It's really rare," I told you, "and actually very sad if you know about the author's personal life. Her mom was almost, like, her girlfriend." You don't ask any questions after that, which surprises me, because that's a pretty heavy carrot to dangle.
You open to the dedication page, and holy shit, you're looking at it upside down. I text Emma the next morning, stunned. "Urgent: he either can't read or was too stoned to try."
"Hawt," she texts back and I know she's serious, like maybe if you can't read then there's some extra space reserved in your brain just for casting spells of sexual prowess. There isn't.
The sex we have is cautious and teenage, or what I imagine teenage sex was like since I never had sex as a teenager. You did, which is how you got this dark-eyed son, this Mason, who is now old enough to tell you that he wishes he'd never been born, at least not here and not now.
"What did you tell him?" I asked when you told me the story.
"Join the club, buddy."
We pull into the gas station. "You want anything?" you ask.
"Pinot Grigio," I joke. "Light and dry. Just one glass."
"Cool, I'll check." You don't usually get my jokes, but that only stings when they're bad ones and I have to sit with them alone, like they're the truth of me.
I watch you through the window and it's like a tiny kitchen TV set, you moving through that fluorescent box, fist-bumping the man with the fat pelvis who sells you your lotto cards. You survey the case for what you like to drink and grab a pack of smokes, menthols, pulling off the plastic before you've even finished paying. You're back in the car within two minutes — this is an old ballet for you.
You're back in the car within two minutes — this is an old ballet for you.
"I got you a wine-cooler thingy. Whatever." You laugh and it makes you cough and it reminds me how unhealthy you look when you're sleeping. "Damn. Fuck this." You pound your aching chest.
"Where to?" I ask and you say maybe the graveyard and I've never hung out in a graveyard for fun and I want to. I try to lock my door, an old habit instilled by Dad when we would drive home from the country through a quiet part of Queens late at night. But I can't seem to find the button and I'm grabbing and pulling at random handles and knobs.
"Quit breakin' stuff," you say, reaching across me like a seatbelt and easily doing what I could not. You do have muscles, just a few, in surprising places.
We barely speak on the drive, just nurse our drinks and then silently smoke a joint you produce from the glove compartment, which means reaching across me again. You don't mind silence and it gives me time to wonder if you'll miss me when I go back for my junior year. You seem to exist in the moment. Your son isn't present for you when he's gone, unless you get an emergency call from your mom saying he's locked himself in the shed again or written MURDER across his toy truck with your old graffiti pens.
We pull into the graveyard and you turn the car off.
"I can't see anything," I whisper. "Can you turn the headlights on?"
"Fine. You're cute enough that I'll wear my battery down for ya." You turn the headlights on and the radio comes on with them. Mazzy Star. Fade into you, I think it's strange you never knew.
"Aw, shit, sorry for the lame music, my cousin was using the car," you say, and I am embarrassed because you don't know that this is actually my favorite song. You're finishing a cigarette, but I push it out of the way and kiss your lips. I feel them curl into a laugh, and for the millionth time this summer I have no idea what's so funny but I persist. We kiss and that weed we smoked is kicking in, the way weed is supposed to kick in and not the way it kicks in at school, when I suddenly become convinced some perfectly harmless sophomore Jew is planning to rape and dismember me. I feel something moving, through my body and into yours and out your fingertips back into me, a circle of energy, and I let myself exist in it, a pleasure outside of sex or food or being told I did a good job, that I always do a good job. It's warm and white, this feeling — and maybe, I think, it's love. Maybe there is a way for us to be together after all — I finish my degree and I get a good job in the city but I spend the weekends here with you and Mason. I pay for his school. I buy us all a house that you take care of. On his vacation breaks you join me in Manhattan and we see musicals and go to MOMA and try to help a dying pigeon in Central Park. It's not traditional but it works for us, because we make the rules and this is our life. We don't need other people to understand, because we don't care. But they will understand. Just like you understand me, understand that I'm not just another girl hoping to get thin enough to have my picture in a magazine as "a curator to watch." You understand, and everyone will be jealous and impressed and you'll age like Sam Shepherd and I'll be Diane Keaton. Mason will stop looking at me like I'm about to administer an injection and he'll start giving those gushy hugs that happy kids do. We'll all be safe.
It's not traditional but it works for us, because we make the rules and this is our life.
But I know that's bullshit. There isn't a chance we'll last past the summer, even if we really wanted to. I'll go back to campus and you'll stay here and try to pick up some extra shifts at the track and continue to talk about thinking about moving to Corona, California, where a company called Saleen designs and manufactures high-end specialty sports cars. You'll visit me once at school and it will be a good old-fashioned disaster, with you coked up already by the time you arrive, sweating and twitching at the party my friend has thrown, and my fancy new underpants going to waste because you can't get hard when you're this wired. I won't be mad, just sad for you and how scared you are to leave the three-mile radius around your mother's porch. So when Emma asks how your trip to Providence has been so far you just kick at the ground, your purple skate shoes fresh out of the box.
I'll try to remember all the best times of the summer, like when you failed to teach me to drive stick in the parking lot of the post office at 2 a.m. and you called me Wreck-It Ralph and stopped the car, howling with stoned laughter. We visited the head shop in Torrington so you could buy a glass pipe, and when I admired an iron-on ying-yang patch you bought it and stuck it to my jacket with a Band-Aid from your glove compartment. We drank flat ginger ale on your porch and kissed every time Mason turned away to work on his Lego spacecraft. But they're not enough, these moments. They don't amount to anything larger than themselves, and in a few months when I break up with you over the phone you'll shrug it off like I told you I couldn't go swimming that day. "Ya, seems about right," you'll say, muttering something about your lunch break being over. It's 10 a.m.
The week after we end things your son's mother will come back around, pretending to be clean and sober, and you will be elated to have your little family back together again in the attic of your mother's house. But soon after that she'll overdose in her sister's apartment across town. And I won't know what to say, because that's not the kind of thing that happens in my family, at least not like that. So I will text you simply that I'm sorry and you will just write back, "thanx. This world is fuct."
But tonight it's still August and this kiss feels like someone granted me furlough from my body and we have a handful of nights like these left to enjoy, so maybe we'll discover a new path forward. Maybe all we need is to share one secret, one true glance, and we will understand how we could make this work and keep on working. After all, the night we smoked salvia you told me you believed in horoscopes and had Googled ours and I'm an earth sign so I have the power to ground you. I like that idea, of grounding someone, especially since last week when my dad told me, "Anna-Claire, you're on the edge of becoming a real sinkhole of self-pity."
You pull away from the kiss and from me and look out at the headstones. "I gotta piss," you say, and the spell is broken. I watch you amble toward the hedges by the biggest stone, one that reads ABERNATHY, and all you're thinking about it taking a leak. Not the racetrack. Not Mason. Not me. I can't be with someone who speaks like this, drives like this, lives like this. I just can't.
"Go for it," I say and watch you walk out among the gravestones, past where the headlights shine and toward the unidentifiable. Just before you disappear you throw me a smile and only your teeth are bright. How did they get so straight without braces? Hope returns. Oh, maybe. Just maybe.
Lena Dunham is currently at work on her first story collection, Best and Always, which will be published by Random House.