Billy

By Sarah Braunstein

Essay

winona-ryder-heathersI said to my best friend Marie, “I am in love with that boy.”

She screwed her nose. “Why?”

I could not answer—I had no idea. I saw him one day in our high school stairwell and love appeared. It was nonsensical and absolute. It had all the characteristics of a cartoon anvil.

Marie said, “Well, he’s really good at math.”

“And he looks like Billy Baldwin. Have you noticed that?”

Nowadays, Alec is the hot Baldwin. But back then, in 1992, it was Billy.

“The actor,” I cried, “from Backdraft!”

She said, “Yeah, I know who Billy Baldwin is,” and then I wept.

At fifteen, this Billy was already six feet tall and broad-chested. The sadness of his eyes, which was not really sadness, which was just how he looked, gave him an air of the poet. He was pretty and seemed in mild pain. For a week I watched him. Then I had an idea. I would approach him in the cafeteria.

He sat at the boy table, where a mess of boys in dingy white baseball hats consumed hamburgers in two bites and made Suessian towers with mashed potatoes. He was not one of them. He ate politely, a napkin on his lap. I watched him rise. He was clearing his tray when I approached him. Thundering blood—you know this part. My body did what a body does.

“Hi,” I said.

He nodded, blinked, looked around.

I took a breath. This was the moment. I had practiced and practiced and now, as if on a whim, I said, “Has anyone told you that you look like Billy Baldwin?”

He said no.

I said, “Well, you do.”

That was all. I collapsed in a bathroom stall. I had no idea how to measure the success of the endeavor, and hated that, hated not knowing the relationship between my effort and what would happen next. I had the sudden and awful understanding that this was what the future would entail, in love and elsewhere: doing things and doing things and not knowing how to measure their success.

What followed was a week of the usual panic: letter-writing, letter-rewriting, letter-destroying, locker-passing, my-first-name-with-his-last-name doodling, lyric-composing, ee-cummings-reciting, etc., until at last, finally, I got up the nerve to call him on the phone. I asked him if he’d like to come over on Friday night to watch Backdraft. He said yes, sure, OK.

“Really?”

“Sure.” There was a shrug in his voice that bothered me.

He came over on Friday. We lay together on the carpet in front of the television and, at some point during the movie, he took my hand. It was the first time a boy took my hand. He held it for the duration. Joy exploded. Joy raged in my body, a conflagration, tuning to cinder all the childish stuff. During Billy Baldwin’s love scene I was sure my Billy could hear my heart beating. The sex took place on a fire truck. Where would ours take place? We were both virgins. I was wearing a sea green t-shirt. I remember this because, when I took it off later that night, alone in my bedroom, I saw the dried perspiration in the armpits, two ghostly circles in green fabric, stains which struck me not as cause for embarrassment but celebration—evidence of our first physical touch, of the work our bodies had done, respectively.

Soon it was March, and the days got longer. One evening he brought me to the farm where he’d spent his early childhood, a dozen miles outside town. Here we stood on a hill in the fading sun. He said, “Look over there. I used to play in that barn. There was a cat I named Indie. I liked to jump in the hay and chase cats and pretend sticks were guns. Boy stuff.”

I pictured a skinny, dark-haired, ethereal child falling into hay, slow motion.

I said, “You’re beautiful, Billy.”

“No way.” He wriggled his shoulders as if to escape an oppressive hug. He said, “Indie was short for Indiana Jones. I loved that movie.”

I turned to see his profile. Even in the low light, I could tell he was blushing.

He said, “When the eyeballs melt? I used to draw that picture all the time.”

“Gross.”

“You’re so pretty.” He wasn’t looking at me. My throat closed up; I felt a terrible joy, a fear he’d say something else, something that would take it away.

I said, “I remember the eyeball scene.”

“Maybe you look like Winona Ryder?”

Winona Ryder! It was the highest compliment and my secret wish. Winona was the wide-eyed, self-possessed, sweetly witchy girl I longed to be.

He said, “From Heathers?”

“I love Heathers! When she pukes on the floor in the frat house party? Heather, the first Heather, the top Heather, says, ‘I got you into a Remington party—and what’s my thanks? I got paid in puke.’ And Winona says, ‘Lick it up, baby. Lick. It. Up.’ I loved that.”

He shook his head. He looked confused. “I don’t think I saw the whole thing.”

“Anyway I don’t look like her,” I said. “We have the same color hair. You’re just saying that because of Billy Baldwin.”

“I’m not very creative, I guess.”

“Oh no! But you are!”

“I have a hard time explaining myself,” he went on. “You’re good at words. I never know what to say.”

“Maybe you should kiss me? Then you won’t have to say anything?” Because this is what Winona would have said—this is what the spirited, adorable girl in the movies does, the girl of the awkward charm, the pixie nymph, and it gets her what she wants. It got me what I wanted. The kiss was wet and quick. Then we went back to the car.

 

We ignored each other in school. Or more accurate to say he ignored me. Why? I was too shy to ask. It seemed I had spent all my courage, so I didn’t push him. A week later he called. We made arrangements. Now it was April, a Friday night. The stars emerged, and a proud cameo for a moon. We found ourselves, at last, in the park. This was the same park where I’d swung and see-sawed as a kid—except now it wasn’t the same place at all. We were alone. Spring stroked the air with fragrance. We found a patch of grass hidden within a bunch of trees, got down on our backs. The chill of the earth rose into us and we sent our warmth back down. Brand new leaves, shivering in the moonlight, a waxy porous green that seemed sentient as skin, formed a delicate roof over our heads. I looked at these leaves, and inhaled the air, and then I said, “Can do something?”

The space between impulses and caution had vanished. The hand-holding and the kiss had prepared me. There was a sequence of events. We’d done the opening credits. We’d done the set-up.

“What do you want to do?”

I said, “I want to unbutton your pants.”

They were button-fly jeans. The coolest fly.

I wanted him to know I wasn’t scared. I wanted him to know this and also to know I was terrified beyond words. I was bad! I was good! How could I communicate both? A few moments later, he propped himself up on his elbows. He looked worried.

We gazed at each other. I was getting more nervous. My body felt far away, numb. Without wanting to, I saw him as the ordinary boy again, just some kid at school who was good at math. A boy whose mom still rolled his socks. Who drew melting eyeballs on construction paper. Billy. Billy. I calmed my nerves reminding myself of the resemblance. I said aloud, “Billy,” and it worked, he flashed a smile—glamorous, knowing, sweet, it transformed his face.

He said, “Winona.”

That was all I needed.

I felt not sexual pleasure but the pleasure that comes from control, from winning, from holding in your hands the thing you most desire and knowing it won’t scamper away just yet—like finally corralling a frantic kitten and then it falls asleep in your arms.

Afterward we left the park. He walked me home under faintly buzzing streetlights. The humidity had risen dramatically. We passed dark houses, bikes on their sides in driveways, tulips sealed up for the night. I felt a new awkwardness between us. Should we hold hands? Should we talk? About what? School gossip or the movies or what just happened or what might happen next? I had no idea. That awkwardness remained—that it expanded—frightened me. I thought: Billy, Billy, Billy, but this chant wasn’t soothing anymore. What had happened? I wanted to do what I’d done, was glad I’d done it, but I wanted to still be wanting it. You can’t want it that way again. We were children. We wanted to be children. We weren’t children and could never be. This lent us both, I think, an exhilaration, an edginess, a desire to—to what?—to play. Or to keep playing. To put our bodies to more familiar use. He said: “I’ll race you to the corner. You get a ten foot head start.”

“I don’t need a head start.”

(No “head” jokes. No double-speak. It was like it hadn’t happened.)

“Sure you do.”

“In sixth grade I was the sixth fastest girl in our town.”

He said, “In sixth grade I came in first.”

“Yeah, right.”

“Blue ribbon.”

“Big whoop.”

“Five feet.”

“No head start!”

“Go.”

We ran as fast as we could. Everything was OK again. We ran. Around us the neighborhood preposterously slept. Married couples on waterbeds that rose and fell with their breath. Babies in cribs. Bunches of middle-schoolers at slumber parties on rec room floors, unconscious in sleeping bags, game pieces and Cheez-Its scattered around them. The world slept dumbly but we ran. Neck-and-neck. In concert our chests heaved, our lungs filled and emptied. Under streetlights, over grass, two flashes of light, wanting to defeat each other with all our hearts, wanting our bodies to do even more than the amazing, improbable, dirty things they’d already done. Our bodies had not begun to decompose. Our muscles had not yet reached their prime. Our cells were still getting stronger. I have never run faster. Everyone else in the world was too early or too late, too old, too young, but not us. He started to pull away but I remained close at his heels. Look at us. Look at the witless and absolute happiness of running.

Then he won; he won because I fell. At full speed, running as fast as I’ve run before or since, wanting so badly to beat him, to prove my extraordinary capacities, I tripped. I slammed full force onto the pavement. I crumbled, rolled, stopped. I lay in some shrubbery. My ass and legs caught fire. I heard him shout out, heard his footfalls as he raced back to me. Then he picked me up. Our bodies touched in a new way but I didn’t notice, pain and shock blotted everything else. Only later would I consider the mechanism of that touch, its fairy-tale quality, how readily he assumed the mantle of rescuer, hero, man. Only later would I realize it was the first time he’d really touched my body at all. I let him help me; I hobbled home while he held me around the waist. Blood dripped down my shin, into my sock and shoe. We reached my dark house. He kissed my cheek on my front lawn and said, “It was fun.” I agreed. He said, “I’m sorry you got hurt,” and I told him I’d do it again.

 

I found my mother in her robe, looking sleepy, washing undergarments in the bathtub. “Ten minutes past curfew,” she said, but this was procedural. She didn’t care. I was a good girl—I could have been later. I showed her my skinned, pavement-burned leg. Gravel and blood and bits of flesh clung to it.

“Billy and I had a race.”

Her expression was pretty miraculous, a frown and a smile both.

“Is that what kids do these days? Race?”

“No,” I said.

She washed my leg. We didn’t speak. I remember this quite vividly—remember not speaking, not needing to speak, a true ease between us. She had me sit on the edge of the tub, my legs inside. She poured warm water over my knees, and then lathered a washcloth with soap. I remember the practiced, tender, thorough way she cleaned me, and how odd it felt to be touched this way, how instantly strange a familiar touch became. She patted me dry and applied antiseptic. Its cool, mentholated fragrance was the opposite of spring in the park, the opposite of his smell. I remember wanting to tell her what happened, had a quick flash of that instinct—tell! tell! Thankfully, the instinct disappeared. My experience was mine only. This awareness felt obvious but also new. My mother could not read my mind. My mind was mine. My body was mine. My mother could love me, would love me, but didn’t need to know what happened in the park. I didn’t show her my ass, one side of which would, in a few days, come to resemble an eggplant. Part of me wanted to show this to her, like a trophy, the wound like proof of the largeness of my experience, but I resisted.

I went to my room and drew the shades. The craziness of the evening felt like a gift. I loved its symmetry. It was like something that happened to people in books. Love radiated from all directions. I had been forgiven. No—it was better. I had done nothing wrong. My mother puttered in the bathroom. I listened to her rinse out the tub, brush her teeth, and open and close her potions. Billy was out there in his bed, and me in mine, and, soon, my mother in hers. I pulled the covers to my chin. My leg throbbed, my ass tingled, and I was happy. Somewhere Billy Badwin slept; somewhere else, in a room as pink as mine, Winona. It was a shame to sleep, since I knew sleep would change this happiness, tamp it down, since I knew that next time I’d see Billy there would be new awkwardness, that it might never be as good, and I was right.

 

I had a limp the next day, and the day after that, and into the following week. A limp was so much better than a hickey would have been. A hickey gives everything away—a hickey speaks only one thing, and speaks the same thing for everyone. But a limp! It’s undeniable. It’s evidence. It’s seen by all yet remains a mystery. A limp is a commitment the body makes. But mine didn’t last. When it finally stopped hurting, when I stopped favoring my good leg, I experienced something like grief. Pain and joy pass at unfathomable speeds. Everything stops too soon.

SARAH BRAUNSTEIN is the author of The Sweet Relief of Missing Children, winner of the 2012 Maine Book Award and a finalist for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. Stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The Sun, Agni, Ploughshares, and others. She is a visiting professor at Bowdoin College, and teaches in the Stonecoast MFA program at the University of Southern Maine.

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