I’m quickly approaching the moment of discovery: of myself by myself, which was something I knew all along and yet didn’t know; and the discovery by poor, half-blind Dr. Philobosian of what he’d failed to notice at my birth and continued to miss during every annual physical thereafter; and the discovery by my parents of what kind of child they’d given birth to (answer: the same child, only different); and finally, the discovery of the mutated gene that had lain buried in our bloodline for two hundred and fifty years, biding its time, waiting for Atatürk to attack, for Hajienestis to turn into glass, for a clarinet to play seductively out a back window, until, coming together with its recessive twin, it started the chain of events that led up to me, here, writing in Berlin.
That summer—while the President’s lies were also getting more elaborate—I started faking my period. With Nixonian cunning, Calliope unwrapped and flushed away a flotilla of unused Tampax. I feigned symptoms from headache to fatigue. I did cramps the way Meryl Streep did accents. There was the twinge, the dull ache, the sucker punch that made me curl up on my bed. My cycle, though imaginary, was rigorously charted on my desk calendar. I used the catacomb fish symbol to mark the days. I scheduled my periods right through December, by which time I was certain my real menarche would have finally arrived.
My deception worked. It calmed my mother’s anxieties and somehow even my own. I felt I’d taken charge of things. I wasn’t at the mercy of nature anymore. Even better, with our trip to Bursa canceled—as well as my appointment with Dr. Bauer—I was free to accept the Object’s invitation to visit her family’s summer house. In preparation I bought a sun hat, sandals, and a pair of rustic overalls.
I wasn’t particularly tuned in to the political events unfolding in the nation that summer. But it was impossible to miss what was going on. My father’s identification with Nixon only grew stronger as the President’s troubles mounted. In the long-haired war protesters Milton saw his own shaggy, condemnatory son. Now, in the Watergate scandal, my father recognized his own dubious behavior during the riots. He thought the break-in was a mistake, but also believed that it was no big deal. “You don’t think the Democrats aren’t doing the same thing?” Milton asked the Sunday debaters. “The liberals just want to stick it to him. So they’re playing pious.” Watching the evening news, Milton delivered a running commentary to the screen. “Oh yeah?” he’d say. “Bullshit.” Or: “This guy Proxmire’s a total zero.” Or: “What these pointy-headed intellectuals should be worrying about is foreign policy. What to do about the goddamn Russians and the Red Chinese. Not pissing and moaning about a robbery at a lousy campaign office.” Hunkered down behind his TV tray, Milton scowled at the left-wing press, and his growing resemblance to the President couldn’t be ignored.
On weeknights he argued with the television, but on Sundays he faced a live audience. Uncle Pete, who was usually as dormant as a snake while digesting, was now animated and jovial. “Even from a chiropractic standpoint, Nixon is a questionable character. He has the skeleton of a chimpanzee.”
Father Mike joined the needling. “So what do you think about your friend Tricky Dicky now, Milt?”
“I think it’s a lot of hoo-ha.”
Things got worse when the conversation turned to Cyprus. In domestic affairs Milton had Jimmy Fioretos on his side. But when it came to the Cyprus situation they parted company. A month after the invasion, just as the UN was about to conclude a peace negotiation, the Turkish Army had launched another attack. This time the Turks claimed a large portion of the island. Now barbed wire was going up. Guard towers were being erected. Cyprus was being cut in half like Berlin, like Korea, like all the other places in the world that were no longer one thing or the other.
“Now they’re showing their true stripes,” Jimmy Fioretos said. “The Turks wanted to invade all along. That malarkey about ‘protecting the Constitution’ was just a pretext.”
“They hit us . . . sssss . . . while our backs were turned,” croaked Gus Panos.
Milton snorted. “What do you mean ‘us’? Where were you born, Gus, Cyprus?”
“You know . . . sssss . . . what I mean.”
“America betrayed the Greeks!” Jimmy Fioretos jabbed a finger in the air. “It’s that two-faced son of a bitch Kissinger. Shakes your hand while he pisses in your pocket!”
Milton shook his head. He lowered his chin aggressively and made a little sound, a bark of disapproval, deep in his throat. “We have to do whatever’s in our national interest.”
And then Milton lifted his chin and said it: “To hell with the Greeks.”
In 1974, instead of reclaiming his roots by visiting Bursa, my father renounced them. Forced to choose between his native land and his ancestral one, he didn’t hesitate. Meanwhile, we could hear it all the way from the kitchen: shouting; and a coffee cup breaking; swear words in both English and Greek; feet stomping out of the house.
“Get your coat, Phyllis, we’re leaving,” Jimmy Fioretos said.
“It’s summer,” said Phyllis. “I don’t have a coat.”
“Then get whatever the hell it is you have to get.”
“We’re going, too . . . sssss . . . I’ve lost my . . . sssss . . . appetite.”
Even Uncle Pete, the self-educated opera buff, drew the line. “Maybe Gus didn’t grow up in Greece,” he said, “but I’m sure you remember that I did. You are talking about my native land, Milton. And your parents’ own true home.”
The guests left. They didn’t come back. Jimmy and Phyllis Fioretos. Gus and Helen Panos. Peter Tatakis. The Buicks pulled away from Middlesex, leaving behind a negative space in our living room. After that, there were no more Sunday dinners. No more large-nosed men blowing their noses like muted trumpets. No more cheek-pinching women who resembled Melina Mercouri in her later years. Most of all, no more living room debates. No more arguing and citing examples and quoting the famous dead and castigating the infamous living. No more running the government from our love seats. No more revamping of the tax code or philosophical fights about the role of government, the welfare state, the Swedish health system (designed by a Dr. Fioretos, no relation). The end of an era. Never again. Never on Sunday.
The only people who stayed were Aunt Zo, Father Mike, and our cousins, because they were related to us. Tessie was angry with Milton for causing a fight. She told him so, he exploded at her, and she gave him the silent treatment for the rest of the day. Father Mike took advantage of this to lead Tessie up to the sun deck. Milton got in his car and drove off. I was with Aunt Zo when we later brought refreshments up to the deck. I had just stepped out onto the gravel between the thick redwood railings when I saw Tessie and Father Mike sitting on the black iron patio furniture. Father Mike was holding my mother’s hand, leaning his bearded face close to her and looking into her eyes as he spoke softly. My mother had been crying, apparently. She had a tissue balled in one hand. “Callie’s got iced tea,” Aunt Zo announced as she came out, “and I’ve got the booze.” But then she saw how Father Mike was looking at my mother and she went silent. My mother stood up, blushing. “I’ll take the booze, Zo.” Everyone laughed nervously. Aunt Zo poured the glasses. “Don’t look, Mike,” she said. “Thepresvytera ’s getting drunk on Sunday.”
The following Friday I drove up with the Object’s father to their summer house near Petoskey. It was a grand Victorian, covered with gingerbread, and painted the color of pistachio saltwater taffy. I was dazzled by the sight of the house as we drove up. It sat on a rise above Little Traverse Bay, guarded by tall pines, all its windows blazing.
I was good with parents. Parents were my specialty. In the car on the way up I had carried on a lively and wide-ranging conversation with the Object’s father. It was from him that she had gotten her coloring. Mr. Object had the Celtic tints. He was in his late fifties, however, and his reddish hair had been bleached almost colorless now, like a dandelion gone to seed. His freckled skin looked blown out, too. He wore a khaki poplin suit and bow tie. After he picked me up, we stopped at a party store near the highway, where Mr. Object bought a six-pack of Smirnoff cocktails.
“Martinis in a can, Callie. We live in an age of wonders.”
Five hours later, not at all sober, he turned up the unpaved road that led to the summer house. It was ten o’clock by this time. In moonlight we carried our bags up to the back porch. Mushrooms dotted the pine-needled path between the thin gray pines. Next to the house an artesian well chimed among mossy rocks.
When we came in the kitchen door, we found Jerome. He was sitting at the table, reading theWeekly World News . The pallor of his face suggested that he had been there pretty much all month. His lusterless black hair looked particularly inert. He had on a Frankenstein T-shirt, seersucker shorts, white canvas Top-Siders without socks.
“I present to you Miss Stephanides,” Mr. Object said.
“Welcome to the hinterland.” Jerome stood up and shook his father’s hand. They attempted a hug.
“Where’s your mother?”
“She’s upstairs getting dressed for the party you’re incredibly late for. Her mood reflects that.”
“Why don’t you take Callie up to her room? Show her around.”
“Check,” said Jerome.
We went up the back stairs off the kitchen. “The guest room’s being painted,” Jerome told me. “So you’re staying in my sister’s room.”
“Where is she?”
“She’s out on the back porch with Rex.”
My blood stopped. “RexReese ?”
“His ‘rents have a place up here, too.”
Jerome then showed me the essentials, guest towels, bathroom location, how to work the lights. But his manners were lost on me. I was wondering why the Object hadn’t mentioned anything about Rex on the phone. She had been up here three weeks and said nothing.
We came back into her bedroom. Her rumpled clothes lay on the unmade bed. There was a dirty ashtray on one pillow.
“My little sister is a creature of slovenly habits,” Jerome said, looking around. “Are you neat?”
“Me too. Only way to be. Hey.” He came around to face me now. “What happened to your trip to Turkey?”
“It got canceled.”
“Excellent. Now you can be in my film. I’m shooting it up here. Are you up for that?”
“I thought it took place in a boarding school.”
“I decided to make it a boarding school in the boonies.” Jerome was standing somewhat close to me. His hands flopped around in his pockets as he squinted at me and rocked on his heels.
“Should we go downstairs?” I finally asked.
“What? Oh, right. Yeah. Let’s go.” Jerome turned and bolted. I followed him back down and through the kitchen. As we were crossing the living room I heard voices out on the porch.
“So Selfridge, that lightweight,pukes ,” Rex Reese was saying. “Doesn’t even make it to the bathroom. Pukes right on the bar.”
“I can’t believe it! Selfridge!” It was the Object now, crying out with amusement.
“He blew chunks. Right into his stinger. I couldn’t believe it. It was like the Niagara Falls of puke. Selfridge woofs on the bar and everybody jumps off their stools, right? Selfridge is facedown in his own puke. For a minute there’s total silence. Then this one girl starts gagging . . . and it’s like a chain reaction. The whole place starts gagging, puke’s dripping everywhere, and the bartender is—pissed. He’s huge, too. He’s fuckinghuge . He comes over and looks down at Selfridge. I’m going like I don’t know this guy. Never saw him before. And then guess what?”
“The bartender reaches out and grabs hold of Selfridge. He’s got him by the collar and the belt, right? And he lifts Selfridge like a foot up in the air—and Zambonis the bar with him!”
“I’m not kidding. Zambonied the Fridge right in his own barf!”
At that point we stepped out onto the porch. The Object and Rex Reese were sitting together on a white wicker couch. It was dark out, coolish, but the Object was still in her swimsuit, a shamrock bikini. She had a beach towel wrapped around her legs.
“Hi,” I called out.
The Object turned. She looked at me blankly. “Hey,” she said.
“She’s here,” said Jerome. “Safe and sound. Dad didn’t run off the road.”
“Daddy’s not that bad a driver,” said the Object.
“When he’s not drinking he’s not. But tonight I’d wager he had the old martini thermos on the front seat.”
“Your old man likes to party!” Rex called out hoarsely.
“Did my dad have occasion to quench his thirst on the drive up?” Jerome asked.
“More than one occasion,” I said.
Now Jerome laughed, going loose in the body and slapping his hands together.
Meanwhile Rex was saying to the Object, “Okay. She’s here. So let’s party.”
“Where should we go?” the Object said.
“Hey, Jeroman, didn’t you say there was some old hunting lodge out in the woods?”
“Yeah. It’s about half a mile in.”
“Think you could find it in the dark?”
“With a flashlight maybe.”
“Let’s go.” Rex stood up. “Let’s take some beers and hike on in there.”
The Object got up, too. “Let me put on some pants.” She crossed the porch in her swimsuit. Rex watched. “Come on, Callie,” she said. “You’re staying in my room.”
I followed the Object inside. She went quickly, almost running, and didn’t look back at me. As she climbed the stairs ahead of me, I whacked her from behind.
“I hate you,” I said.
“You’re so tan!”
She flashed a smile over her shoulder.
As the Object dressed, I snooped around the bedroom. The furniture was white wicker up here, too. There were amateur sailing prints on the walls and on the shelves Petoskey stones, pinecones, musty paperbacks.
“What are we going to do in the woods?” I said, with a note of complaint.
The Object didn’t answer.
“What are we going to do in the woods?” I repeated.
“We’re going for a walk,” she said.
“You just want Rex to molest you.”
“You have such a dirty mind, Callie.”
“Don’t deny it.”
She turned around and smiled. “I know who wants to molestyou ,” she said.
For a second, an irrepressible happiness flooded me.
“Jerome,” she finished.
“I don’t want to go out in the woods,” I said. “There’s bugs and stuff.”
“Don’t be a such a wuss,” she said. I had never heard her say “wuss” before. It was a word boys used; boys like Rex. Finished dressing, the Object stood before the mirror, picking at some dry skin on her cheek. She ran a brush through her hair and put on lip gloss. Then she came over to me. She came up very close. She opened her mouth and blew her breath into my face.
“It’s fine,” I said, and moved away.
“Don’t you want me to check yours?”
“No biggie,” I said.
I decided that if the Object was going to ignore me and flirt with Rex, I would ignore her and flirt with Jerome. After she left, I combed my hair. From the collection of atomizers on the dresser, I chose one and squeezed the bulb, but no perfume came out. I went into the bathroom and undid the straps of my overalls. Lifting my shirt, I stuffed a few tissues in my brassiere. Then I shook my hair back, hitched up my overalls, and hurried outside for our walk in the woods.
They were waiting for me under a yellow bug light on the porch. Jerome held a silver flashlight. Slung over Rex’s shoulder was an army surplus backpack, filled with Stroh’s. We came down the steps onto the lawn. The ground was uneven, treacherous with roots, but the pine needles were soft underfoot. For a moment, despite my foul mood, I felt it: the crisp northern Michigan delight. A slight chill to the air, even in August, something almost Russian. The indigo sky above the black bay. The smell of cedar and pine.
At the edge of the woods the Object stopped. “Is it going to be wet?” she said. “I only have my Tretorns on.”
“Come on,” said Rex Reese, pulling her by the hand. “Get wet.”
She screamed, theatrically. Leaning back like someone on a rope tow, she was pulled unsteadily into the trees. I paused, too, peering in, waiting for Jerome to do the same. He didn’t, though. Instead he stepped straight into the swamp and then slowly melted below the knees. “Quicksand!” he cried. “Help me! I’m sinking! Please somebody help . . . glub glub glub glub glub.” Up ahead, already invisible, Rex and the Object were laughing.
The cedar swamp was an ancient place. No logging had ever been done here. The ground wasn’t suitable for houses. The trees had been alive for hundreds of years and when they fell over they fell over for good. Here in the cedar swamp verticality wasn’t an essential property of trees. Many cedars were standing straight up but many were leaning over. Still others had fallen against nearby trees, or crashed to the ground, popping up root systems. There was a graveyard feeling: everywhere the gray skeletons of trees. The moonlight filtering in lit up silver puddles and sprays of cobweb. It glanced off the Object’s red hair as she moved and darted ahead of me.
We made a clumsy, yahoo progress through the swamp. Rex imitated animal sounds that sounded like no animal. Beer cans dinged in his backpack. Our deracinated feet stomped along in the mud.
After twenty minutes we found it: a one-room shack made of unpainted boards. The roof wasn’t much taller than I was. The circular flashlight beam showed tar paper covering the narrow door.
“It’s locked. Fuck,” said Rex.
“Let’s try the window,” Jerome suggested. They disappeared, leaving the Object and me alone. I looked at her. For the first time since I’d arrived she really looked at me. There was just enough moonlight to accomplish this silent exchange between our eyes.
“It’s dark out here,” I said.
“I know it,” said the Object.
There was a crash behind the shack, followed by laughter. The Object took a step closer to me. “What are they doing in there?”
“I don’t know.”
Suddenly the small window of the shack lit up. The boys had lit a Coleman lantern inside. Next the front door opened and Rex stepped out. He was smiling like a salesman. “Got a guy here wants to meet you.” At which point he held up a mousetrap dangling the jellied mouse.
The Object screamed. “Rex!” She jumped back and held on to me. “Take it away!”
Rex dangled it some more, laughing, and then tossed it into the woods. “Okay, okay. Don’t have a shit fit.” He went back inside.
The Object was still clinging to me.
“Maybe we should go back,” I ventured.
“Do you think you know the way? I’m totally lost.”
“I can find it.”
She turned and looked into the black woods. She was thinking about it. But then Rex reappeared in the doorway. “Come on in,” he said. “Check it out.”
And now it was too late. The Object let go of me. Throwing the red scarf of her hair over her shoulder, she ducked through the low threshold into the hunting shack.
Inside were two cots with Hudson’s Bay blankets. They stood at either end of the small space separated by a crude kitchen with a camp stove. Empty bourbon bottles lined the windowsill. The walls were covered with yellowed clippings from the local paper, angling competitions, soap box derbies. There was also a taxidermied pike, jaws agape. Low on kerosene, the lantern sputtered. The light was butter-colored, the ripple of smoke greasing the air. It was opium den light, which was appropriate, because already Rex had plucked a joint from his pocket and was lighting it with a safety match.
Rex was on one cot, Jerome on the other. Casually the Object sat down next to Rex. I stood in the middle of the floor, hunching. I could feel Jerome watching me. I pretended to examine the shack but then turned, expecting to meet his gaze. This didn’t happen, however. Jerome’s eyes were focused on my chest. On my falsies. He liked me already. Now here was an added attraction, like a bonus for good intentions.
Maybe I should have been pleased by the trance he was in. But my revenge fantasy had already gone bust. My heart wasn’t in it. Still, having no alternative, I went ahead and sat beside Jerome. Across the shack Rex Reese had the joint in his mouth.
Rex was wearing shorts and a monogrammed shirt, ripped at the shoulder, showing tanned skin. There was a red mark on his flamenco dancer’s neck: a bug bite, a fading hickey. He closed his eyes to inhale deeply, his long eyelashes coming together. The hair on his head was as thick and oiled as an otter’s pelt. Finally he opened his eyes and passed the joint to the Object.
To my surprise she took it. As though it were one of her beloved Tareytons, she put it between her lips and inhaled.
“Won’t that make you paranoid?” I said.
“I thought you told me pot always makes you paranoid.”
“Not when I’m out in nature,” said the Object. She gave me a hard look. Then she took another toke.
“Don’t bogart it,” said Jerome. He got up to take the joint from her. He smoked half-standing, and then turned and held it out to me. I looked at the joint. One end burned; the other was mashed and wet. I had an idea that this was all part of the boys’ plan, the woods, the shack, the cots, the drugs, the sharing of saliva. Here’s a question I still can’t answer: Did I see through the male tricks because I was destined to scheme that way myself? Or do girls see through the tricks, too, and just pretend not to notice?
For one second I thought of Chapter Eleven. He was living in a shack in the woods like this. I asked myself if I missed my brother. I couldn’t tell if I did or not. I never know what I feel until it’s too late. Chapter Eleven had smoked his first joint at college. I was four years ahead of him.
“Hold it in,” Rex coached me.
“You have to let the THC build up in your bloodstream,” said Jerome.
There was a sound out in the woods, twigs snapping. The Object grabbed Rex’s arm. “What was that?”
“Maybe a bear,” Jerome said.
“Neither of you girls are on the rag, I hope,” said Rex.
“Rex!” the Object protested.
“Hey, I’m serious. Bears can smell it. I was out camping in Yellowstone one time and there was this woman out there who got killed. Grizzly could smell the blood.”
“That is not true!”
“I swear. This guy I know told me. He was an Outward Bound guide.”
“Well, I don’t know about Callie, but I’m not,” said the Object.
They all looked at me. “I’m not either,” I said.
“I guess we’re safe, then, Roman,” said Rex, and laughed.
The Object was still holding on to him for protection. “You want to do a shotgun?” he asked her.
“Here.” He turned to face her. “What you do is one person opens their mouth and the other person blows the smoke into it. You get totally fucked up. It’s excellent.”
Rex put the lit end of the joint in his mouth. He leaned toward the Object. She leaned forward too. She opened her mouth. And Rex began to blow. The Obscure Object’s lips were a perfect ripe oval and into that target, that bull’s-eye, Rex Reese directed the stream of musky smoke. I could see the column rush into the Object’s mouth. It disappeared down her throat like whitewater over falls. Finally she coughed and he stopped.
“Good hit. Now do me.”
The Object’s green eyes were watering. But she took the joint and inserted it between her lips. She leaned toward Rex Reese, who opened his own mouth wide.
When they were finished, Jerome took the joint from his sister. “Let me see if I can master the technical difficulties here,” he said. The next thing I knew, his face was close to mine. So finally I did it, too. Leaned forward, closed my eyes, parted my lips, and let Jerome shotgun into my mouth a long, dirty plume of smoke.
Smoke filled my lungs, which began to burn. I coughed and let it out. When I opened my eyes again, Rex had his arm around the Object’s shoulder. She was trying to act casual about it. Rex finished his beer. He opened two more, one for him and one for her. He turned toward the Object. He smiled. He said something I couldn’t hear. And then while I was still blinking he covered the Object’s lips with his sour, handsome, pot-smoking mouth.
Across the flickering shack Jerome and I were left pretending not to notice. The joint was ours now to bogart as we wished. We passed it back and forth in silence and sipped our beers.
“I’m having this weird thing where my feet look extremely far away,” Jerome said after a while. “Do your feet look extremely far away to you?”
“I can’t see my feet,” I said. “It’s dark in here.”
He passed me the joint again and I took it. I inhaled and held the smoke in. I let it keep burning my lungs because I wanted to distract myself from the pain in my heart. Rex and the Object were still kissing. I looked away, out the dark, grimy window.
“Everything looks really blue,” I said. “Did you notice that?”
“Oh yeah,” said Jerome. “All kinds of strange epiphenomena.”
The Oracle of Delphi had been a girl about my same age. All day long she sat over a hole in the ground, theomphalos , the navel of the earth, breathing petrochemical fumes escaping from underneath. A teenage virgin, the Oracle told the future, speaking the first metered verse in history. Why do I bring this up? Because Calliope was also a virgin that night (for a little while longer at least). And she, too, had been inhaling hallucinogens. Ethylene was escaping from the cedar swamp outside the shack. Dressed not in a diaphanous robe but a pair of overalls, Calliope began to feel very funny indeed.
“Want another beer?” Jerome asked.
He handed me a golden can of Stroh’s. I put the sweating can to my lips and drank. Then I drank some more. Jerome and I both felt the weight of the obligation. We smiled at each other nervously. I looked down and rubbed my knee through my overalls. And when I looked up again Jerome’s face was close. His eyes were shut, like the eyes of a boy jumping feet first off the high dive. Before I knew what was happening he was kissing me. Kissing the girl who had never been kissed. (Not since Clementine Stark, anyway.) I didn’t stop him. I remained completely still while he did his thing. Despite my lightheadedness, I could feel everything. The shocking wetness of his mouth. The whiskery feel of his lips. His barging tongue. Certain flavors, too, the beer, the dope, a lingering breath mint, and beneath all that the actual, animal taste of a boy’s mouth. I could taste the gamy tang of Jerome’s hormones and the metal of his fillings. I opened one eye. Here was the fine hair I’d spent so much time admiring on another head. Here were the freckles on the forehead, on the bridge of the nose, along the ears. But it wasn’t the right face; they weren’t the right freckles, and the hair was dyed black. Behind my impassive face my soul curled up into a ball, waiting until the unpleasantness was over.
Jerome and I were still sitting up. He was pressing his face against mine. By maneuvering a little, I could see across the room to where Rex and the Object were. They were lying down now. The tails of Rex’s blue shirt seemed to flap in the wavering light. Beneath him one of the Object’s legs dangled off the bed, the cuff of her pants muddy. I heard them whispering and laughing, then silence again. I watched the Object’s mud-stained leg dancing. I concentrated on that leg, so that I hardly noticed when Jerome began to pull me down on our cot. I let him; I gave in to our slow collapse, all the while watching Rex Reese and the Object out of one eye. Rex’s hands were moving over the Object’s body now. They were pulling up her shirt, moving under it. Then their bodies shifted so that I saw their faces in profile. The Object’s face, as still as a death mask, waited with eyes closed. Rex’s profile was rampant, flushed. Meanwhile Jerome’s hands were moving over me. He was rubbing my overalls, but I was no longer in them exactly. My focus on the Object was too intense.
Ecstasy. From the GreekEkstasis . Meaning not what you think. Meaning not euphoria or sexual climax or even happiness. Meaning, literally: a state of displacement, of being driven out of one’s senses. Three thousand years ago in Delphi the Oracle became ecstatic every single working hour. That night in a hunting cabin in northern Michigan, so did Calliope. High for my first time, drunk for my first time, I felt myself dissolving, turning to vapor. Like the incense at church my soul rose toward the dome of my skull—and then broke through. I drifted over the plank floor. I floated above the little camp stove. Passing by the bourbon bottles, I hovered over the other cot, looking down at the Object. And then, because I suddenly knew that I could, I slipped into the body of Rex Reese. I entered him like a god so that it was me, and not Rex, who kissed her.
An owl hooted in a tree somewhere. Bugs assailed the windows, attracted by the light. In my Delphic state I was simultaneously aware of both make-out sessions. By way of Rex’s body I was hugging the Obscure Object, nuzzling her ear . . . while at the same time I was also aware of Jerome’s hands ranging over my body, the one I’d left on the other cot. He was on top of me, crushing one of my legs, so I moved it, spread my legs apart, and he fell between them. He made little sounds. I put my arms around him, appalled and moved by his thinness. He was even skinnier than I was. Now Jerome was kissing my neck. Now, advised by some magazine column, he was paying attention to my earlobe. His hands moved up. They were heading for my chest. “Don’t,” I said, scared he’d find my tissues. And Jerome obeyed . . .
. . . while on the other cot Rex was meeting with no such resistance. With consummate skill he had undone the Object’s brassiere with one hand. Because he was more experienced than me I let him deal with the shirt buttons, but it was my hands that took hold of her bra and, as if snapping up a windowshade, let into the room the pale light of the Object’s breasts. I saw them; I touched them; and since it wasn’t me who did this but Rex Reese I didn’t have to feel guilty, didn’t have to ask myself if I was having unnatural desires. How could I be when I was on the other cot fooling around with Jerome? . . . and so, just to be safe, I returned my attention to him. He was now in some kind of agony. He was rubbing against me and then he stopped and reached down to adjust himself. There was the sound of a zipper. I peeked at him through the corner of my eyes. I saw him thinking, concentrating on the puzzle of the overalls.
He didn’t seem to be getting anywhere, so once again I floated back across the room and entered the body of Rex Reese. For a minute I could feel the Object responding to my touch, the startled, eager wakefulness in her skin and muscles. And now I felt something else, Rex, or me, lengthening, expanding. I felt that for only a second and then something was pulling me back . . .
Jerome had his hand on my bare stomach. While I’d been off inhabiting Rex’s body Jerome had taken the opportunity to undo my shoulder straps. He had flicked open the silver buttons at my waist. Now he was pulling down my overalls and I was trying to wake up. Now he was tugging on my underpants and I was realizing how drunk I was. Now he was inside my underpants and now he was . . .inside me !
And then: pain. Pain like a knife, pain like fire. It ripped into me. It spread up my belly all the way to my nipples. I gasped; I opened my eyes; I looked up and saw Jerome looking down at me. We gaped at each other and I knew he knew. Jerome knew what I was, as suddenly I did, too, for the first time clearly understood that I wasn’t a girl but something in between. I knew this from how natural it had felt to enter Rex Reese’s body,how right it felt , and I knew this from the shocked expression on Jerome’s face. All this was conveyed in an instant. Then I pushed Jerome away. He pulled back, pulled out, and slid off the bed onto the floor.
Silence. Only the two of us, catching our breath. I lay on my back on the camp bed. Beneath the newspaper clippings. With only a mounted pike as witness. I pulled up my overalls and felt very sober indeed.
It was all over now. There was nothing I could do. Jerome would tell Rex. Rex would tell the Object. She would stop being my friend. By the time school started, everyone at Baker & Inglis would know that Calliope Stephanides was a freak. I was waiting for Jerome to jump up and run. I felt panicked and, at the same time, strangely calm. I was putting things together in my head. Clementine Stark and kissing lessons; and spinning together in a hot tub; an amphibian heart and a crocus blooming; blood and breasts that didn’t come; and a crush on the Object that did, thathad , that looked as if it was here to stay.
A few moments of clarity and then panic again whined in my ears. I wanted to run myself. Before Jerome had a chance to say anything. Before anyone found out. I could leave tonight. I could find my way back through the cedar swamp to the house. I could steal the Object’s parents’ car. I could drive north, through the Upper Peninsula to Canada, where Chapter Eleven had once thought of going to escape the draft. As I contemplated my life on the run I peeked over the edge of the cot to see what Jerome was doing.
He was flat on his back, eyes closed. And he was smiling to himself.
Smiling? Smiling how? In ridicule? No. In shock? Wrong again. How then?In contentment . Jerome had the smile of a boy who, on a summer night, had gone all the way. He had the smile of a guy who couldn’t wait to tell his friends.
Reader, believe this if you can: he hadn’t noticed a thing.
THE GUN ON THE WALL