This is how they get you: your whole life they fill you with stories about princes and poison apples and kindly dwarves and animals that chitter secrets in your ear and bunion-inducing glass slippers and just-right ruby slippers and needles that prick and the frog prince and a nice girl falling in love with a beast and, next thing you know, you’re in the back seat of a Monte Carlo with him pushing into you and all you’re doing is looking out the back windshield, into the blackness above the hilltop, wondering what’s next. Not what’s next after he pulls out, but what’s next? What’s really next, you know? Next for you because, as you’ve been thinking for an awfully long time, you’ve gotta get out of here. As that thought hits you full force, his torso pounding against the backs of your thighs and him asking, begging, really, “Can you, can you, can you?” and you not even listening to or, for that matter, feeling him, because the promise of something bigger than his football player love—bigger than this whole town—fills you with possibility and hope and you push his sweaty body off, climb through the bucket seats, pop open the door, and dance naked into the starless night.
“What’s wrong with you?” He’s hopping on one foot, pulling up his jeans, buttoning his fly. He’s got your jeans crumpled in a ball under his armpit. “I mean, really? What is wrong with you?”
Below, the lights of town cast a dim glow against the rime of clouds so close and thick that you want to reach up, pluck off a chunk of that marshmallow fluff, and pop it in your mouth. Let it fill you. Instead, you throw your arms above your head and twirl toward him.
He’s laughing now, as you grab his hand and dance the way your folks used to dance on New Year’s Eve: all arms and knees and twists and claps. You barely feel the cold. Not yet. Not as your bare feet slip on the icy tracks made by countless other pickups and vans and souped-up Chevelles and Camaros. Any other guy, you know, would be pissed. But not Paulie. He’s crazy about you. Dopey-nutsy-head-over-heels-in-love crazy.
You know this. You don’t take it for granted. Or him, for that matter. But he’s dumb as a stick. Dumb. You both know it. He, with a certain resigned sadness. You, like a knife-prick to the rib. He’s so beautiful, though, so gracefully stunning when he moves on that football field, the crowd cheering his name as he steps into the pocket, scans the field, assesses every moving part, fakes, twirls, stutter steps, and throws, the slow arc of his hand a ballet as the ball explodes in a perfect spiral. Some day, you hope, his brain will catch up with his body.
He’s been like a pig led to slaughter. Ever since his coaches realized he could throw like that it’s been nothing but football. You try to help. You read his Shakespeare assignments out loud, act out the parts, emphasize the fact that Desdemona is a woman. He nods, leaning against his headboard, fingers laced behind his head and eyes closed, but, when he opens his eyes and you ask what he’s learned, he only says, “You’re so beautiful, Astrid,” or “I love you, Astrid,” and you become furious with him. FURIOUS! And rant about how he’ll fail the Shakespeare test on Monday morning and how his brain is the size of a walnut and how you’ll go off to an East Coast college and screw brainy boys whose parents summer on Martha’s Vineyard, for God’s sakes, away from him, away from his football-addled brain, away from his posters of Ronald Reagan’s disembodied head floating over the American flag and Columbo and ZZ Top and Bob Seger and Boston and Queen and Styx and Grand Funk Railroad and he’ll be stuck throwing and throwing and throwing at some Midwestern university with corn-fed girls who’ll wear him like a bracelet. You say all of this in a single breath and, when you finish, he moves over to where you sit at his desk, twirls you toward him, snakes a hand between your knees to spread them apart and, as his hand moves into the middle of you, he looks into your face and makes you promise.
“Promise. Not ever, Astrid. I’m telling you. It’ll kill me.”
“It’ll only kill you if you let it, Paulie.”
“Then I’ll let it,” he says as his face disappears in your lap like a child.
CHRISTINE RICE is the author of the debut novel Swarm Theory (University of Hell Press/April 2016). Stories from Swarm Theory have been published in Roanoke College’s Roanoke Review, American University of Beirut’s Rusted Radishes, Farleigh Dickinson University’s The Literary Review, Chicago Literati, and Bird’s Thumb. Her essays, interviews, and long-form journalism have appeared in the The Big Smoke, The Millions, the Chicago Tribune, Detroit’s Metro Times, The Good Men Project, The Urbaness.com, CellStories.net, F Magazine, and her radio essays have been produced by WBEZ Chicago. Christine is an adjunct professor in the Department of Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago, the managing editor of Hypertext Magazine, and the director of Hypertext Studio Writing Center.
Adapted from Swarm Theory, by Christine Rice, Copyright © 2016 by Christine Rice. With the permission of the publisher, University of Hell Press.