Iwoke up back at the house. I had a vague memory of how I got there, of trudging back through the bog. My overalls were still on. My crotch felt hot and spongy. The Object was already out of bed or had slept somewhere else. I reached down and unstuck my underpants from my skin. Something about this act, the little puff of air, the rising aroma, reiterated the brand-new fact about myself. But it wasn’t a fact exactly. It was nothing as solid as a fact right then. It was just an intuition I’d had about myself, to which the coming of morning brought no clarity. It was just an idea that was already beginning to fade, to become part of the drunkenness in the woods of the night before.
When the Oracle awoke after one of her wild, prophesying nights, she probably had no memory of the things she’d said. Whatever truths she’d hit on were secondary to the immediate sensations: the headache, the singed throat. It was the same for Calliope. I had a sense of having been dirtied and initiated. I felt all grown up. But mostly I felt sick and didn’t want to think about what had happened at all.
In the shower I tried to rinse the experience away, scrubbing methodically, lifting my face to the slanting water. Steam filled the air. The mirrors and the windows dripped. The towels grew damp. I used every kind of soap within reach, Lifebuoy, Ivory, plus a local, rustic brand that felt like sandpaper. I got dressed and came down the stairs quietly. As I crossed the living room I noticed an old hunting rifle over the mantel. Another gun on the wall. I tiptoed by it. In the kitchen, the Object was eating cereal and reading a magazine. She didn’t look up when I entered. I got a bowl myself and sat down across from her. Maybe I grimaced in doing so.
“What’s the matter?” sneered the Object. “Sore?” Her sarcastic face rested on one palm. She didn’t look so hot herself. She was puffy under the eyes. There were times when her freckles were not sunny but like corrosion or rust.
“You’re the one that should be sore,” I replied.
“I’m not sore at all,” said the Object, “if you want to know.”
“I forgot,” I said; “you’re used to it.”
Suddenly her face was full of anger, shaking. Cords stretched and pulled beneath her skin, making lines. “You were a total slut last night,” she charged.
“Me? What about you? You were throwing yourself at Rex the whole time.”
“I was not. We didn’t even do that much.”
“You could have fooled me.”
“At least he’s not yourbrother .” She got to her feet, glaring. She looked like she might cry. She hadn’t wiped her mouth. There was jam on it, crumbs. I was struck dumb by the sight of this beloved face working itself up into what looked like hatred. My own face must have been reacting, too. I could feel my eyes going wide and scared. The Object was waiting for me to say something but nothing came to mind. So finally she shoved her chair away and said, “Jerome’s upstairs. Why don’t you go climb in bed with him.” And she stormed off.
A low moment followed. Regret, already sogging me down, burst its dam. It seeped into my legs, it pooled in my heart. On top of panic that I’d lost my friend, I was suddenly beset by worries about my reputation. Was I really a slut? I hadn’t even liked it. But I had done it, hadn’t I? I had let him do it. Fear of retribution came next. What if I got pregnant? What then? My face at the breakfast table was the face of all mathematical girls, counting days, measuring liquids. It was at least a minute before I remembered that I couldn’t be pregnant. That was one good thing about being a late bloomer. Still, I was upset. I was certain that the Object would never talk to me again.
I climbed the stairs and got back into bed, pulling a pillow over my face to block out the summer light. But there was no hiding from reality that morning. No more than five minutes later the bedsprings sagged under new weight. Peeking out, I saw that Jerome had come to visit.
He was lying on his back, looking cozy, already installed. Instead of a robe he had on a duck hunting coat. The ends of his frayed boxer shorts were visible below. He had a mug of coffee in one hand and I noticed that his fingernails were painted black. The morning light coming from the side window showed stubble on his chin and above his upper lip. Against the flat, wasted, dyed hair these orange shoots were like life returning to a scorched landscape.
“Good morning, dahling,” he said.
“Feeling a little under the weather, are we?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I was pretty drunk last night.”
“You didn’t seem that drunk to me, dahling.”
“Well, I was.”
Jerome now dropped the bit. He flopped back into the pillows and sipped his coffee and sighed. With one finger he tapped his forehead for a while. Then he spoke. “Just in case you were having any of the hackneyed worries, you should know that I still respect you and all that shit.”
I didn’t respond. Responding would only confirm the facts of what had happened, whereas I wanted to cast them in doubt. After a while Jerome set the coffee mug down and turned onto his side. He wriggled over toward me and rested his head against my shoulder. He lay there breathing. Then, with closed eyes, he moved his head and tunneled under the pillow with me. He started to nuzzle me. He brought his hair across the skin of my neck and after that came the sensitive organs. His eyelashes made butterfly kisses on my chin. His nose snuffled in the hollow of my throat. And then his lips arrived, avid, clumsy. I wanted him off me. At the same time I asked myself if I had brushed my teeth. Jerome was sliding and climbing on top of me and it felt like it had the night before, like a crushing weight. So do boys and men announce their intentions. They cover you like a sarcophagus lid. And call it love.
For a minute it was tolerable. But soon the duck coat rode up and Jerome’s urgency was pressing itself upon me. He was trying to reach up under my shirt again. I didn’t have a bra on. After my shower I had gone without it, flushing away the Kleenex. I was done with them. Jerome’s hands moved higher. I didn’t care. I let him feel me up. For what it was worth. But if I was hoping to disappoint him, it didn’t work. He stroked and squeezed while his lower half swished like a crocodile’s tail. And then he said an unironic thing. Fervently he whispered, “I’m really into you.”
His lips closed, seeking mine. His tongue entered. The first penetration that augured the next. But not now, not this time.
“Stop,” I said.
“Because I don’t like you like that.”
He sat up. Like the guy in the old vaudeville skit, the guy in the folding cot that won’t stay folded, Jerome flipped straight up, wide awake. Then he jumped off the bed.
“Don’t be mad at me,” I said.
“Who says I’m mad?” said Jerome, and left.
The rest of the day went slowly. I stayed in my room until I saw Jerome leave the house, carrying his movie camera. I guessed that I was no longer in the cast. The Object’s parents returned from their morning tennis foursome. Mrs. Object came up the stairs to the master bathroom. From my window I saw Mr. Object climb into the backyard hammock with a book. I waited for the shower to turn on and then came down the back stairs and out the kitchen door. I walked down to the bay, feeling melancholy.
The cedar swamp lay on one side of the house. On the other was a dirt and gravel road that led through an open field, treeless, with high yellow grass. The absence of trees was noticeable, and poking around out there I came upon a historical marker, nearly overgrown. It marked the site of a fort or a massacre, I don’t remember which. Moss encroached upon the raised letters and I didn’t read the whole plaque. I stood there for a while thinking about the first settlers and how they had killed one another over beaver and fox pelts. I put my foot on the plaque, kicking off the moss with my sneaker, until I got tired of that. It was almost noon by now. The bay was bright blue. Over the rise I could sense the city of Petoskey, the smoke of stoves and chimneys down there. The grass got marshy near the water. I climbed up on the breakwall and walked back and forth, keeping my balance. I held my arms out and pranced, Olga Korbut style. But my heart wasn’t in it. And I was way too tall to be Olga Korbut. Sometime later the whir of an outboard engine reached me. I shaded my eyes with my hand to look out over the shimmering water. A speedboat was shooting past. At the wheel was Rex Reese. Bare-chested, drinking a beer and wearing sunglasses, he gunned the throttle, towing a water-skier. It was the Object, of course, in her shamrock bikini. She looked almost naked against the expanse of water, only those two little strips, one above, one below, separating her from Eden. Her red hair flapped like a gale warning. She wasn’t a beautiful skier. She leaned too far forward, bowlegged on the pontoons. But she didn’t fall. Rex kept turning around to check on her while he sipped his beer. Finally the boat made a sharp turn and the Object crossed her wake, whipping along past the shore.
A terrible thing happens when you water-ski. After you release the rope, you keep skimming over the water for a while, free. But there comes an inevitable moment when your speed fails to sustain your forward progress. The surface of the water breaks like glass. The depths open up to claim you. That was how I felt on land, watching the Object ski past. That same plunging, hopeless feeling, that emotional physics.
When I got back at dinnertime the Object was still not there. Her mother was angry, thinking it rude of the Object to leave me alone. Jerome, too, was out with friends. So I ate dinner with the Object’s parents. I felt too desolate to charm the grownups that night. I ate in silence and afterward sat in the living room pretending to read. The clock ticked on. The night labored and creaked. When I felt I might fall apart I went into the bathroom and threw water on my face. I held a warm washcloth over my eyes and pressed my hands against my temples. I wondered what the Object and Rex were doing. I pictured her socks in the air, her little tennis socks with the balls at the heels, those ensanguined balls, bouncing.
It was obvious that Mr. and Mrs. Object were staying up just to keep me company. So finally I said good night and went up to bed myself. I got in and immediately started crying. I cried for a long time, trying not to make any noise. While I sobbed I said things in an aggrieved whisper. I cried, “Why don’t you like me?” and “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” I didn’t care what I sounded like. There was a poison in my system and I needed to purge it. While I was carrying on like that, I heard the screen door bang shut downstairs. I wiped my nose on the sheets and tried to settle down and listen. Footsteps climbed the stairs, and in another moment the door of the bedroom opened and closed. The Object entered and stood there in darkness. She might have been waiting for her eyes to adjust. I lay on my side, pretending to be asleep. The floorboards creaked as she came over to my side of the bed. I felt her standing over me, looking down. Then she went to the other side of the bed, took off her shoes and shorts, put on a T-shirt, and got in.
The Object slept on her back. She told me once that back-sleepers were the leaders in life, born performers or exhibitionists. Stomach-sleepers like me were in retreat from reality, given to dark perception and the meditative arts. This theory applied in our case. I lay prone, my nose and eyes sore from crying. The Object, supine, yawned and (like a born performer, perhaps) soon fell asleep.
I waited ten or so minutes, just to be safe. Then, as though tossing in my sleep, I rolled over so that I was looking at the Object. The moon was gibbous and filled the room with blue light. There upon the wicker bed the Obscure Object slept. The top of her Groton T-shirt was visible. It was an old one of her father’s, with a few holes. She had one arm crossed over her face, like a slash on a sign that meant “No Touching.” So I looked instead. Over the pillow her hair was spread out. Her lips were parted. Something glinted inside her ear, grains of sand from the beach maybe. Beyond, the atomizers glowed on the dresser. The ceiling was up above somewhere. I could feel the spiders working in the corners. The sheets were cool. The fat duvet rolled up at our feet was leaking feathers. I’d grown up around the smell of new carpeting, of polyester shirts hot from the dryer. Here the Egyptian sheets smelled like hedges, the pillows like water fowl. Thirteen inches away, the Object was part of all this. Her colors seemed to agree with the American landscape, her pumpkin hair, her apple cider skin. She made a sound and went still again.
Gently, I pulled the covers off her. In the dimness her outline appeared, the rise of her breasts beneath the T-shirt, the soft hill of her belly, and then the brightness of her underpants, converging in their V shape. She didn’t stir at all. Her chest rose and fell with her breath. Slowly, trying not to make a sound, I moved closer to her. Tiny muscles in my flank, muscles I hadn’t known I possessed, suddenly made themselves available. They propelled me millimeter by millimeter across the sheets. The old bedsprings gave me trouble. As I tried nonchalantly to advance, they called out ribald encouragement. They cheered, they sang. I kept stopping and starting. It was hard work. I breathed through my mouth, quieter that way.
Over the course of ten minutes I slid nearer and nearer to her. Finally I felt the heat of her body along my entire length. We were still not touching, only radiating against each other. She was breathing deeply. So was I. We breathed together. Finally, gathering courage, I flung my arm across her waist.
Then nothing more for a long while. Having achieved this much, I was scared to go further. So I remained frozen, half hugging her. My arm grew stiff. It began to throb and finally went numb. The Object might have been drugged or comatose. Still, I sensed an alertness in her skin, in her muscles. After another long while I plunged ahead. I took hold of her T-shirt and lifted it up. I gazed at her naked belly for a long while and, finally, with a kind of woefulness, bowed my head. I bowed my head to the god of desperate longing. I kissed the Object’s belly and then slowly, gathering confidence, worked my way up.
Do you remember my frog heart? In Clementine Stark’s bedroom it had kicked off from a muddy bank, moving between two elements. Now it did something even more amazing—it crept up onto land. Squeezing millennia into thirty seconds, it developed consciousness. While kissing the Object’s belly, I wasn’t just reacting to pleasurable stimuli, as I had been with Clementine. I didn’t vacate my body, as I had with Jerome. Now I was aware of what was happening. I was thinking about it.
I was thinking that this was what I’d always wanted. I was realizing that I wasn’t the only faker around. I was wondering what would happen if someone discovered what we were doing. I was thinking that it was all very complicated and would only get more so.
I reached down and touched her hips. I hooked my fingers in the waistband of her underpants. I began to slip them off. Just then, the Object lifted her hips, very slightly, to make it easier for me. This was her only contribution.
The next day we didn’t mention it. When I got up, the Object was already out of bed. She was in the kitchen, observing her father’s preparation of scrapple. Making scrapple was Mr. Object’s Sunday morning ritual. He presided over the bubbling fat and grease while the Object periodically looked into the frying pan and said, “That is so disgusting.” Soon she was working on a plate of it, and made me have one, too. “I’m going to have the worst heartburn,” she said.
I understood the unspoken message immediately. The Object wanted no dramatics, no guilt. No show of romance, either. She was going on about the scrapple to separate night from day, to make it clear that what happened at night, what we did at night, had nothing to do with daylight hours. She was a good actress, too, and at times I wondered if maybe she really had been sleeping through the whole thing. Or maybe I had only been dreaming it.
She gave only two signs during the day that anything had changed between us. In the afternoon Jerome’s film crew arrived. This consisted of two friends of his, carrying boxes and cables and a long, fuzzy microphone like a dirty, rolled-up bathmat. Jerome was by this time pointedly not speaking to me. They set up in a small equipment shed on the property. The Object and I decided to see what they were doing. Jerome had told us to stay away, so we couldn’t resist. We crept up, moving from tree to tree. We had to stop often to fight off laugh attacks, slapping at each other, avoiding each other’s eyes until we could control ourselves. At the back window of the equipment shed we peeked in. Not much was happening. One of Jerome’s friends was taping a light to the wall. It was hard for us both to see through the small window at once, so the Object got in front of me. She placed my hands on her belly and held my wrists. Still, her attention was officially given over to what was going on inside the shed.
Jerome appeared, dressed as the preppy vampire. Inside the traditional Dracula waistcoat, he wore a pink Lacoste shirt. Instead of a bow tie he had an ascot. His black hair was slicked back, his face whitened with a cosmetic, and he carried a cocktail shaker. One of his friends held a broomstick dangling a rubber bat. Another operated the camera. “Action,” said Jerome. He lifted the cocktail shaker. He shook it with both hands. Meanwhile the bat swooped and fluttered above his head. Jerome removed the lid and poured the blood into the martini glasses. He held one up for his friend the bat, who promptly plopped into it. Jerome sipped his blood cocktail. “Just how you like it, Muffie,” he said to the bat. “Verydry.”
Under my hands the Object’s stomach jiggled as she laughed. She leaned back into me and her flesh captured in my arms shook and yielded. I pressed my pelvis against her. All this went on secretly behind the shed, like a game of footsie. But then the cameraman lowered his camera. He pointed at us and Jerome turned around. His eyes fixed on my hands and then rose to my eyes. He bared his fangs, burning me with a look. And then shouted in his regular voice, “Get the hell out of here, you fuckers! We’re shooting.” He came up to the window and struck it, but we were already running away.
Later, around evening, the phone rang. The Object’s mother answered it. “It’s Rex,” she said. The Object got up from the sofa where we were playing backgammon. I restacked my chips to have something to do. I tidied them up, over and over, while the Object talked to Rex. She had her back to me. She moved around as she talked, playing with the cord. I kept looking down at the chips, moving them. Meanwhile I paid close attention to the conversation. “Nothing much, just playing backgammon . . . with Callie . . . He’s making his stupid film . . . I can’t, we’re supposed to have dinner soon . . . I don’t know, maybe later . . . I’m sort of tired, actually.” Suddenly she wheeled around to face me. With effort I looked up. The Object pointed at the phone and then, opening her mouth wide, stuck her finger down her throat. My heart brimmed.
Night came again. In bed we went through the preliminaries, plumping our pillows, yawning. We tossed around to get comfortable. And then after an appropriate time of silence the Object made a noise. It was a murmur, a cry caught in the throat, as if she were talking in her sleep. After this, her breathing became deeper. And taking this as the okay, Calliope began the long trek across the bed.
So that was our love affair. Wordless, blinkered, a nighttime thing, a dream thing. There were reasons on my side for this as well. Whatever it was that I was was best revealed slowly, in flattering light. Which meant not much light at all. Besides, that’s the way it goes in adolescence. You try things out in the dark. You get drunk or stoned and extemporize. Think back to your backseats, your pup tents, your beach bonfire parties. Did you ever find yourself, without admitting it, tangled up with your best friend? Or in a dorm room bed with two people instead of one, while Bach played on the chintzy stereo, orchestrating the fugue? It’s a kind of fugue state, anyway, early sex. Before the routine sets in, or the love. Back when the groping is largely anonymous. Sandbox sex. It starts in the teens and lasts until twenty or twenty-one. It’s all about learning to share. It’s about sharing your toys.
Sometimes when I climbed on top of the Object she would almost wake up. She would move to accommodate me, spreading her legs or throwing an arm around my back. She swam up to the surface of consciousness before diving again. Her eyelids fluttered. A responsiveness entered her body, a flex of abdomen in rhythm with mine, her head thrown back to offer up her throat. I waited for more. I wanted her to acknowledge what we were doing, but I was scared, too. So the sleek dolphin rose, leapt through the ring of my legs, and disappeared again, leaving me bobbing, trying to keep my balance. Everything was wet down there. From me or her I didn’t know. I laid my head on her chest beneath the bunched-up T-shirt. Her underarms smelled like overripe fruit. The hair there was very sparse. “You luck,” I would have said, back in our daytime life. “You don’t even have to shave.” But the nighttime Calliope only stroked the hair, or tasted it. One night, as I was doing this and other things, I noticed a shadow on the wall. I thought it was a moth. But, looking closer, I saw that it was the Object’s hand, raised behind my head. Her hand was completely awake. It clenched and unclenched, siphoning all the ecstasy from her body into its secret flowerings.
What the Object and I did together was played out under these loose rules. We weren’t too scrupulous about the details. What pressed on our attention was that it was happening, sex was happening. That was the great fact. How it happened exactly, what went where, was secondary. Plus, we didn’t have much to compare it to. Nothing but our night in the shack with Rex and Jerome.
As far as the crocus was concerned, it wasn’t so much a piece of me as something we discovered and enjoyed together. Dr. Luce will tell you that female monkeys exhibit mounting behavior when administered male hormones. They seize, they thrust. Not me. Or at least not at first. The blooming of the crocus was an impersonal phenomenon. It was a kind of hook that fastened us together, more a stimulant to the Object’s outer parts than a penetration of her inner. But, apparently, effective enough. Because after the first few nights, she was eager for it. Eager, that is, while ostensibly remaining unconscious. As I hugged her, as we languorously shifted and knotted, the Object’s attitudes of insensibility included favorable positioning. Nothing was made ready or caressed. Nothing was aimed. But practice brought about a fluid gymnastics to our sleep couplings. The Object’s eyes remained closed throughout; her head was often turned slightly away. She moved under me as a sleeping girl might while being ravished by an incubus. She was like somebody having a dirty dream, confusing her pillow for a lover.
Sometimes, before or afterward, I switched on the bedside lamp. I pulled her T-shirt up as far as it would go and slid her underpants down below her knees. And then I lay there, letting my eyes have their fill. What else compares? Gold filings shifted around the magnet of her navel. Her ribs were as thin as candy canes. The spread of her hips, so different from mine, looked like a bowl offering up red fruit. And then there was my favorite spot, the place where her ribcage softened into breast, the smooth, white dune there.
I turned the light off. I pressed against the Object. I took the backs of her thighs in my hands, adjusting her legs around my waist. I reached under her. I brought her up to me. And then my body, like a cathedral, broke out into ringing. The hunchback in the belfry had jumped and was swinging madly on the rope.
Through all this I made no lasting conclusions about myself. I know it’s hard to believe, but that’s the way it works. The mind self-edits. The mind airbrushes. It’s a different thing to be inside a body than outside. From outside, you can look, inspect, compare. From inside there is no comparison. In the past year the crocus had lengthened considerably. At its most demonstrative it was now about two inches long. Most of this length, however, was concealed by the flaps of skin from which it issued. Then there was the hair. In its quiet state, the crocus was barely noticeable. What I saw looking down at myself was only the dark triangular badge of puberty. When I touched the crocus it expanded, swelling until with a kind of pop it slid free of the pouch it was in. It poked its head up into the air. Not too far, though. No more than an inch past the tree line. What did this mean? I knew from personal experience that the Object had a crocus of her own. It swelled, too, when touched. Mine was just bigger, more effusive in its feelings. My crocus wore its heart on its sleeve.
The crucial feature was this: the crocus didn’t have a hole at the tip. This was certainly not what a boy had. Put yourself in my shoes, reader, and ask yourself what conclusion you would have come to about your sex, if you had what I had, if you looked the way I looked. To pee I had to sit. The stream issued from underneath. I had an interior like a girl. It was tender inside, almost painful if I inserted my finger. True, my chest was completely flat. But there were other ironing boards at my school. And Tessie insisted I took after her in that department. Muscles? Not much to speak of. No hips either, no waist. A dinner plate of a girl. The low-Cal special.
Why should I have thought I was anything other than a girl? Because I wasattracted to a girl? That happened all the time. It was happening more than ever in 1974. It was becoming a national pastime. My ecstatic intuition about myself was now deeply suppressed. How long I would have managed to keep it down is anybody’s guess. But in the end it wasn’t up to me. The big things never are. Birth, I mean, and death. And love. And what love bequeaths to us before we’re born.
The following Thursday morning was hot. It was one of those humid days when the atmosphere gets confused. Sitting on the porch, you could feel it: the air wishing it was water. The Object was draggy in any kind of heat. She claimed her ankles swelled. All morning she’d been a trying companion, demanding, sullen. While I was dressing she’d come back from the bathroom to accuse me from the doorway, “What did you do with the shampoo?”
“I didn’t do anything with it.”
“I left it right on the windowsill. You’re the only other person who uses it.”
I squeezed past her and went down the hall. “It’s right here in the tub,” I said.
The Object took it from me. “I feel totally gross and sticky!” she said, by way of apology. Then she got into the shower while I brushed my teeth. After a minute her oval face appeared, the shower curtain snug around it. She looked bald and big-eyed like an alien. “Sorry I’m such a bitch today,” she said.
I kept brushing, wanting her to suffer a little.
The Object’s forehead wrinkled and her eyes grew soft in appeal. “Do you hate me?”
“I’m still deciding.”
“You’re so mean!” she said, comically frowning, and snapped the curtain shut.
After breakfast, we were on the porch swing, drinking lemonade and gliding back and forth to create a breeze. I had my feet up on the railing, pushing off from it. The Object was lying sideways, her legs spread over my lap, her head resting against the arm of the swing. She had on cutoffs, short enough to reveal the white lining of the pockets, and her bikini top. I was wearing khaki shorts and a white alligator shirt.
Out in front of us, the bay flashed silver. The bay had scales, like the fish beneath.
“Sometimes I get really sick of having a body,” the Object said.
“Especially when it’s hot like this. It’s like torture just moving around.”
“Plus I hate sweating.”
“I can’t stand to sweat,” I said. “I’d rather pant like a dog.”
The Object laughed. She was smiling at me, marveling. “You understand everything I say,” she said. She shook her head. “Why can’t you be a guy?”
I shrugged, indicating that I had no answer. I was aware of no irony in this. Neither was the Object.
She was looking at me, low-lidded. Her eyes in the brightness of day with heat currents rising over the baking grass looked very green, even if they were only slits, crescents. Her head was bent forward against the arm of the swing; she had to look up to see me. This gave her a vixenish attitude. Without taking her eyes off mine, she adjusted her legs, spreading them slightly.
“You have the most amazing eyes,” she said.
“Your eyes are really green. They almost look fake.”
“They are fake.”
“You’ve got glass eyes?”
“Yeah, I’m blind.I’m Tiresias.”
This was a new way to do it. We’d just discovered it. Staring into each other’s eyes was another way of keeping them closed, or off the details at hand, anyway. We locked onto each other. Meanwhile the Object was very subtly flexing her legs. I was aware of the mound beneath her cutoffs rising toward me, just a little, rising and suggesting itself. I put my hand on the Object’s thigh, palm down. And as we continued to swing, looking at each other while crickets played their fiddles in the grass, I slid my hand sideways up toward the place where the Object’s legs joined. My thumb went under her cutoffs. Her face showed no reaction. Her green eyes under the heavy lids remained fastened on mine. I felt the fluffiness of her underpants and pressed down, sliding under the elastic. And then with our eyes wide open but confined in that way my thumb slipped inside her. She blinked, her eyes closed, her hips rose higher, and I did it again. And again after that. The boats in the bay were part of it, and the string section of crickets in the baking grass, and the ice melting in our lemonade glasses. The swing moved back and forth, creaking on its rusted chain, and it was like that old nursery rhyme, Little Jack Horner sat in the corner eating his Christmas pie. He stuck in his thumb and pulled out a plum . . . After the first roll of her eyes the Object resettled her gaze on mine, and then what she was feeling showed only there, in the green depths her eyes revealed. Otherwise she was motionless. Only my hand moved, and my feet on the rail, pushing the swing. This went on for three minutes, or five, or fifteen. I have no idea. Time disappeared. Somehow we were still not quite conscious of what we were doing. Sensation dissolved straight into forgetting.
When the floor of the porch creaked behind us, I jumped. I withdrew my thumb from the Object’s pants and sat up straight. I saw something in the corner of my eyes and turned. Perched on the railing to our right was Jerome. He was in his vampire costume, despite the heat. The powder on his face was burning off in spots but he still looked very pale. He was gazing down on us with his best haunted expression. HisTurn of the Screw expression. The young master led astray by the gardener. The boy in the frock coat who’d drowned in the well. Everything was dead except the eyes. His eyes fixed on us—on the Object’s bare legs lying in my lap—while his face remained embalmed.
Then the apparition spoke:
“Just ignore him,” the Object said.
“Carrrrpet muncherrrrs,” Jerome repeated. It came out in a croak.
Jerome remained still and ghoul-like on the rail. His hair wasn’t slicked back but fell limp on either side of his face. He was very controlled and intent about what he was doing, as if following a time-honored procedure. “Carpet muncher,” he said again. “Carpet muncher, carpet muncher.” Singular now. This was between him and his sister.
“I said quit it, Jerome.” The Object now tried to rise. She swung her legs off my lap and started to roll out of the swing. But Jerome moved first. He spread his jacket like wings and jumped off the railing. He swooped down on the Object. Still his face was completely impassive. No muscles moved except those of his mouth. Into the Object’s face, into her ears he kept hissing and croaking. “Carpet muncher, carpet muncher, carpet muncher, carpet muncher.”
She tried to hit him but he caught her arms. He held both of her wrists in one hand. With his other hand Jerome made a V with his fingers. He pressed this V to his mouth and between this suggestive triangle flicked his tongue back and forth. At the crudity of this gesture the Object’s calm began to crack. A sob rose in her. Jerome sensed its arrival. He had reduced his sister to tears for over a decade; he knew how to do it; he was like a kid burning an ant with a magnifying glass, focusing the beam in hotter and hotter.
“Carpet muncher, carpet muncher, carpet muncher . . .”
And then it happened. The Object broke down. She began to bawl like a little girl. Her face turned red and she swung her fists wildly before finally running away into the house.
At that point Jerome’s fierce activity ceased. He adjusted his jacket. He smoothed his hair and, leaning against the porch rail, stared peacefully out at the water.
“Don’t worry,” he said to me. “I won’t tell anyone.”
“Tell anyone what?”
“You’re lucky I’m such a liberal and freethinking type of guy,” he continued. “Most guys wouldn’t be so happy to find out that they’d been two-timed by a lesbian with their own sister. It’s sort of embarrassing, don’t you think? But I’m such a freethinker that I’m willing to overlook your proclivities.”
“Why don’t you shut up, Jerome?”
“I’ll shut up when I want to,” he said. Then he turned his head and looked at me. “You know where you are now? Splitsville, Stephanides. Get out of here and don’t come back. And keep your hands off my sister.”
I was already jumping up. My blood rocketed. It shot up my spine and rang a bell in my head, and I charged Jerome in a blaze of fury. He was bigger than me but unprepared. I hit him in the face. He tried to move away but I crashed into him, my momentum knocking him to the floor. I climbed on his chest, pinning his arms with my legs. Finally Jerome stopped resisting. He lay on his back and tried to look amused.
“Any time you’re finished,” he said.
It was an exhilarating feeling to be on top of him. Chapter Eleven had pinned me all my life. This was the first time I’d done it to somebody else, especially a boy older than me. My long hair was falling into Jerome’s face. I swept it back and forth, tormenting him. Then I remembered something else my brother used to do.
“No,” Jerome cried. “Come on.Don’t !”
I let it fall. Like a raindrop. Like a tear. But neither of those things. The spit plopped right between Jerome’s eyes. And then the earth opened up beneath us. With a roar Jerome rose up, sending me backward. My supremacy had been brief. Now it was time to run.
I took off across the porch. I jumped down the steps and tore across the back lawn, barefoot. Jerome came after me in his Dracula getup. He stopped to fling off the coat and I increased the distance between us. Through the backyards of the neighboring houses I ran, ducking under pine branches. I dodged bushes and barbecues. The pine needles gave good traction under my feet. Finally I reached the open field beyond and fled into it. When I looked back Jerome was gaining on me.
Through the high, yellow grass along the bayshore we flew. I jumped over the historical marker, grazing my foot, then hopped in pain and continued on. Jerome cleared it without a hitch. On the other side of the field was the road that led back to the house. If I could get over the rise, I could double back without Jerome seeing me. The Object and I could barricade ourselves in our room. I reached the hill and started up. Jerome came after me, scowling, still gaining.
We were like runners in a frieze. In profile, with pumping thighs and knifing arms, we cut through the shin-whipping grass. By the time I reached the bottom of the hill Jerome seemed to be slowing down. He was waving his hand in defeat. He was waving it and shouting something I couldn’t hear . . .
The tractor had just made a turn onto the road. High in his seat, the farmer didn’t see me. I was looking back to check on Jerome. When I finally turned forward it was too late. Right in front of me was the tractor tire. I hit it dead on. In the terracotta dust I was spun upward into the air. At the apex of my arc I saw the raised plow blades behind, the corkscrewing metal covered with mud, and then the race was over.
I awoke later, in the backseat of a strange automobile. A rattletrap, with blankets covering the seats. A decal of a hooked, flapping trout was pasted to the rear window. The driver wore a red cap. The little space above the cap’s adjustable headband showed the buzzed hairline of his seamed neck.
My head felt soft, as if covered in gauze. I was wrapped in an old blanket, stiff and spoked with hay. I turned my head and looked up and saw a beautiful sight. I saw the Object’s face from below. My head was in her lap. My right cheek was flush against the warm upholstery of her tummy. She was still in her bikini top and cutoffs. Her knees were spread and her red hair fell over me, darkening things. I gazed up through this maroon or oxblood space and saw what I could of her, the dark band of her swimsuit top, her clavicles set forward. She was chewing one cuticle. It was going to bleed if she kept it up. “Hurry,” she was saying, from the other side of the falling hair. “Hurry up, Mr. Burt.”
It was the farmer who was driving. The farmer whose tractor I’d run into. I hoped he wasn’t listening. I didn’t want him to hurry. I wanted this ride to go on for as long as possible. The Object was stroking my head. She’d never done this in daylight before.
“I beat up your brother,” I said out of the blue.
With one hand the Object swept her hair away. The light knifed in.
“Callie! Are you okay?”
I smiled up at her. “I got him good.”
“Oh God,” she said. “I was so scared. I thought you were dead. You were just ly—ly”—her voice broke—“lyingthere in the road!”
The tears came on, tears of gratitude now, not anger like before. The Object sobbed. With awe I beheld the storm of emotion racking her. She dipped her head. She pressed her snuffling, wet face against mine and, for the first and last time, we kissed. We were hidden by the backseat, by the wall of hair, and who was the farmer to tell anyway? The Object’s anguished lips met mine, and there was a sweet taste and a taste of salt.
“I’m all snotty,” she said, lifting her face up again. She managed to laugh.
But already the car was stopping. The farmer was jumping out, shouting things. He swung open the back door. Two orderlies appeared and lifted me onto a stretcher. They wheeled me across the sidewalk into the hospital doors. The Object remained at my side. She took my hand. For a moment she seemed to register her near nakedness. She looked down at herself when her bare feet hit the cold linoleum. But she shrugged this off. All the way down the hall, until the orderlies told her to stop, she held on to my hand. As though it were a string of Piraeus yarn. “You can’t come in, miss,” the orderlies said. “You have to wait here.” And so she did. But still she didn’t let go of my hand. Not for a while longer yet. The stretcher was wheeled down the corridor and my arm stretched out toward the Object. I had already left on my voyage. I was sailing across the sea to another country. Now my arm was twenty feet long, thirty, forty, fifty. I lifted my head from the stretcher to gaze at the Object. To gaze at the Obscure Object. For once more she was becoming a mystery to me. What ever happened to her? Where is she now? She stood at the end of the hall, holding my unraveling arm. She looked cold, skinny, out of place, lost. It was almost as if she knew we would never see each other again. The stretcher was picking up speed. My arm was only a thin ribbon now, curling through the air. Finally the inevitable moment came. The Object let go. My hand flew up, free, empty.
Lights overhead, bright and round, as at my birth. The same squeaking of white shoes. But Dr. Philobosian was nowhere to be found. The doctor who smiled down at me was young and sandy-haired. He had a country accent. “I’m gonna ask you a few questions, okay?”
“Start off with your name.”
“How old are you, Callie?”
“How many fingers am I holding out?”
“I want you to count backward for me. Start from ten.”
“Ten, nine, eight . . .”
And all the while, he was pressing me, feeling for breaks. “Does this hurt?”
“How about here?”
Suddenly it did hurt. A bolt, a cobra bite, beneath my navel. The cry I let out was answer enough.
“Okay, okay, we’re gonna go easy here. I just need to take a look. Lie still now.”
The doctor signaled the intern with his eyes. From either side they began to undress me. The intern pulled my shirt over my head. There was my chest, green and bleak. They paid no notice. Neither did I. Meanwhile the doctor had unfastened my belt. He was undoing the clasp of my khakis: I let him. Down came the pants. I watched as if from far away. I was thinking about something else. I was remembering how the Object would lift her hips to help me get her underpants off. That little signal of compliance, of desire. I was thinking how much I loved it when she did that. Now the intern was reaching under me. And so I lifted my hips.
They took hold of my underpants. They tugged them down. The elastic caught on my skin, then gave.
The doctor bent closer, mumbling to himself. The intern, rather unprofessionally, raised one hand to her throat and then pretended to fix her collar.
Chekhov was right. If there’s a gun on the wall, it’s got to go off. In real life, however, you never know where the gun is hanging. The gun my father kept under his pillow never fired a shot. The rifle over the Object’s mantel never did either. But in the emergency room things were different. There was no smoke, no gunpowder smell, absolutely no sound at all. Only the way the doctor and nurse reacted made it clear that my body had lived up to the narrative requirements.
One scene remains to be described in this portion of my life. It took place a week later, back on Middlesex, and featured me, a suitcase, and a tree. I was in my bedroom, sitting on the window seat. It was just before noon. I was dressed in traveling clothes, a gray pantsuit with a white blouse. I was reaching out my window, picking berries off the mulberry tree that grew outside. For the last hour I’d been eating the berries to distract myself from the sound coming from my parents’ bedroom.
The mulberries had ripened in the last week. They were fat and juicy. The berries stained my hands. Outside, the sidewalk was splotched purple, as was the grass itself, and the rocks in the flower beds. The sound in my parents’ bedroom was my mother weeping.
I got up. I went over to the open suitcase and checked again to see if I’d packed everything. My parents and I were leaving in an hour. We were going to New York City to see a famous doctor. I didn’t know how long we’d be gone or what was wrong with me. I didn’t pay much attention to the details. I only knew I was no longer a girl like other girls.
Orthodox monks smuggled silk out of China in the sixth century. They brought it to Asia Minor. From there it spread to Europe, and finally traveled across the sea to North America. Benjamin Franklin fostered the silk industry in Pennsylvania before the American Revolution. Mulberry trees were planted all over the United States. As I picked those berries out my bedroom window, however, I had no idea that our mulberry tree had anything to do with the silk trade, or that my grandmother had had trees just like it behind her house in Turkey. That mulberry tree had stood outside my bedroom on Middlesex, never divulging its significance to me. But now things are different. Now all the mute objects of my life seem to tell my story, to stretch back in time, if I look closely enough. So I can’t possibly finish up this section of my life without mentioning the following fact:
The most widely raised type of silkworm, the larva of theBombyx mori , no longer exists anywhere in a natural state. As my encyclopedia poignantly puts it: “The legs of the larvae have degenerated, and the adults do not fly.”
THE ORACULAR VULVA