J.B. is quiet, talks in a soft voice. Built like Olive Oil, Popeye’s girlfriend, he could probably hide behind a flagpole with room to spare. Hair dirty and hanging in dreads, he suffers from an obvious lack of coordination. I think he’s cute, though not strikingly handsome. When he grins, full fleshy lips pull up over his teeth. He’s got a crooked kind of smile, and this makes me like him all the more.
I will let him kiss me today.
This is what I’ve decided on my way to see J.B. and my best friend, Joanne.
In the street, I almost run, passing the glorious mess of an old Pajero resting on four flattened tires, paint peeling, windows cracked, and chassis rusting. Red clover stems are braided through the grille, and some small animal has made a nest in the backseat upholstery. One day the Pajero will return completely to the earth, leaving nothing behind but a faint rust shadow on the grass.
When I finally walk into Joanne’s living room, J.B. is putting a videotape in the VHS. Soon, on the TV screen, a funny-looking man is picking up a woman at a club. I am flabbergasted when they get naked in the parking lot. The woman has shaved her pubic hair.
Joanne and I are Catholic school girls—protected girls. We still burst into hysterical laughter at the word “penis.” And suddenly, here we are, getting an education in sexual possibilities on the living room couch. Joanne will probably tell her parents later that we watched President Clinton on National Television giving a speech about the embargo against Haiti.
I suddenly realize that J.B.’s face is buried in Joanne’s neck, and she is laughing at his ticklish blowing kisses. I just sit there, staring at them. He is supposed to like me. And my best friend knows I like him, of course. I catch Joanne’s eyes briefly; she looks away and whispers something in J.B.’s ear. His head jerks up and whips around. I look away quickly, as if I am the one who’s been caught doing something wrong.
When Joanne’s mother walks in, the man on the screen is holding his erect penis.
J.B. insists on walking me home. We leave without saying goodbye, run through small roads that do not have names, ignore the dirty children who shout “tifi wouj” at me, small children and big children, all with distended stomachs protruding. I feel my head waggle on my shoulders and have to force myself slower. I count my steps because I have an unhappy life. I place one foot in front of the other and assign a number for each step. It calms me, helps make life tolerable.
J.B. tries to explain, but I don’t want to listen. Anger turns and knots my stomach. My throat is burning with tears. When I get home, I let him leave without a word. It is hard to realize that you are no longer necessary, that there is nothing you can give to make people want you.
In the kitchen, Mother is in an impatient mood. She’s inspecting a couple of spoons the maid has scrubbed and making angry whispery grunts. She grabs a fistful of silverware from the wooden drawer and hastily examines each utensil. She’s shaking her head, glowering. She dumps them in the sink, making a cutting clang, and walks away. The ringing lingers in my ears like a tuning fork.
Soon, my parents are arguing at the kitchen table. Eyes shut, Father’s head is thrown back as he breathes heavily through his stuffed-up nose. Mother, a chaos of brown hair lashing her shoulders, leans across the table with a letter in her hand. I want to know what this is about, she says.
Father tilts his head further back, as though dodging a blow.
When Joanne’s mother calls about the porn video, my parents are too busy fighting that night: a few shoves, loud words, slaps, and then a beating that extends even to me. I can feel the cold marble floor on my kneecaps when my father drags me around the house. His hands are broad, sweaty and cold—hands which try but somehow never succeed in smashing my mother’s jaw and breaking her ribs.
Later, in Papa’s study, I discover a sex book left on his desk. I study the various drawings. One shows a man and woman coupling, the man’s buttocks exaggeratedly disproportionate to the rest of his small body, each swollen cheek looking as if it will soon birth some heaving beast.
Another shows a woman’s reproductive organs, the ovaries like rotted potatoes, the fallopian tubes ending like wires cut in an angry fit.
Outside, a dog gives a sharp bark and I imagine J.B. at home, his lips split into a canine grin.