If my demeanor tends to be a little dark, you can thank both of my parents for naming me after the second track on The Beatles’ White Album—“Dear Prudence.” A song that’s about convincing some gloomy girl to cheer up, come out to play, look around, see the sunny fucking skies? Seriously? So you see, my parents basically doomed me to disdain. Blame them, not me. Anyway, I’ve never really been what you’d call an emotionally giving person.
Not that people haven’t tried to coax me into being kinder, more sensitive; trust me, they certainly have. Especially my mom. My fucking mom, who I condescendingly refer to as Cheryl, once sent me on a mission to go and ‘be nice’ to my cousin Rebecca. I guess Rebecca’s mom, my Aunt Lynn, had told Cheryl that Rebecca was going through a lot or something, and together they came up with the brilliant idea that I could be a good influence. What a crock of shit. I was a mess throughout most of high school and everyone knew it, especially Aunt Lynn, who disapproved of me since 6th grade when I started wearing black eyeliner and listening to punk music. But it was Rebecca who had always been the model citizen and the ideal daughter. She played piano for a hobby and wrote the “In Our Schools” column for the Centre Point Star for fuck’s sake. What did she have to go through? I’d thought. And what the hell was I supposed to do about it?
But then Cheryl promised me she’d buy me tickets to see the next concert of my choosing if I just hung out with Rebecca for a day and figured out what was wrong. Yeah, sure, easy. No problem. So I waited until after my 18th birthday, after Easter, and after school ended to call Rebecca. Why did I wait? I had my own shit going on too, you know. My boyfriend, Joel, moved off to Colorado without a word and my parents finally got divorced and… whatever, I don’t need to explain myself to anyone. I called her, eventually, and that’s what’s important.
“Pru?” Rebecca had answered the phone like she misread the name on her caller ID. She didn’t dare call me Prudence—only my grandparents were allowed to do that.
“Hey cousin,” I said in the cheeriest voice I could muster. My normal speaking voice wasn’t much more than a drone. I was going to be nice to her, but not fake. “What are you doing right now?”
She sighed. “Umm, you know, just sitting on the porch, reading, and–”
“Great, so you’re not doing anything. Let’s go to the fairgrounds.”
My dad used to take us to the Lake County Fairgrounds when we were kids. Only until I was 11 and she was 8, but she’d remember that still.
“Sure, I guess.”
Her lack of enthusiasm annoyed me. But she wasn’t getting out of it. I thought, I’ll do my good deed and then I’ll be done. Cheryl would get off my back and then Rebecca could go back to taking care of herself just like I did. Besides, Marilyn Manson was coming to Chicago in September.
“Okay, I’m leaving now so I’ll see you in five.”
So after I hung up the phone, I walked down the steps of our porch to the long driveway where my dad’s old light blue convertible glinted seductively in the sun like a big eye blinking. It’s kind of an obnoxious car, so clearly bought in the midst of a mid-life crisis, but I’m definitely into the whole convertible thing. Plus, I got the car when I was sixteen, so I was able to drive all my friends around on the empty country roads so we could smoke blunts. The car had had its uses. I lost my virginity in that car. The ashtray was Joel’s birthday gift, made in his ceramics class, and now every time I smoke, even now, I think of him. That’s probably why I can’t quit.
I jumped in the car, turned on the music, and sped off toward Rebecca’s place. We’d lived exactly six blocks away from each other most of our lives. 10 blocks when her and Aunt Lynn stayed at Grandpa and Grandma’s, but I was so young I hardly remember that, and Rebecca probably can’t remember at all. My parents and I—well, before my dad moved out—lived in the historic section of town, within view of the red brick courthouse and the four one-way streets around it, “The Square,” where parades, farmers’ markets and wholesome town-wide parties like The Corn Roast take place. “The Square,” where my dad used to frequent several of the six bars (one on each street, three on one street—they have the monopoly).
I turned into Rebecca’s cul-de-sac and saw that she was sitting on her stoop waiting for me, book in hand, like we were going to read together while we hung out? I honked the horn as I pulled into her driveway.
“You put the top down. Nice,” she said, getting in.
“I always have it down in the summer.” I paused, inspecting her appearance. Jeans, even though it was hot as hell, a baggy black t-shirt, and greasy hair. Her usually pale skin was in that period between tan and burnt. Her freckles were out too, and she had sunglasses over her gray-blue eyes.
I could never decide who was prettier, me or her. I used to be more curvy, but I lost weight during freshman year of high school after my dad moved out, and a few months ago I started growing out my hair again so now it’s almost back to my natural color, dirty blonde. Her auburn hair was wavy in the heat. Both our moms are blonde and so am I, so she must’ve got that color and texture from her dad, whoever he is. No one ever talks about Rebecca’s dad. Aunt Lynn got pregnant at sixteen and it was probably the only amount of scandal she’d have in her lifetime. Sometimes I couldn’t even believe Aunt Lynn was Cheryl’s sister, she was so uptight. I definitely lucked out in the parental department, at least when it comes to our moms.
“So. How are you?” I forced myself to ask, pulling out of her driveway. This was what I was supposed to do, supposed to say. I was making an effort, goddamnit. “Anything new?”
She shrugged. “Not much. It’s summer. Everything’s boring.”
I was a little thrown off by her negative vibes. I took out a Marlboro Red and turned up the volume on the stereo.
“Can I have a cigarette?” Rebecca shouted, looking not at me but the radio.
“You smoke now?”
“Sometimes,” she shrugged.
I’d given Rebecca her first cigarette when she was 12. Joel and I used to go to the park to smoke and make out, back when we were just making out, back when my hair was white and I wore my lip ring. Joel and I must’ve looked like sisters; he even wore my jeans and eyeliner. Rebecca and her little friend had waltzed across the grass of the park and asked to try one. Sure, why not? I’d thought. She needed to grow up sometime. I’d had my first cigarette when I was 12. This town had a way of forcing kids to grow up fast; everyone was so fucking bored it only made sense to steal your grandmother’s ultra light cigarettes and sneak out at night to drink in the cemetery with your friends. She’d have smoked sometime, but I found myself feeling guilty about it afterwards.
“Sure,” I said, turning up the volume even more. “You can take one. Just don’t tell your fucking mom. And don’t flick your cigarette out the window. Use the ashtray. You can get pulled over for that shit.” This wasn’t my job, my responsibility, to teach her. I didn’t have the patience.
She lit her cigarette at a stop sign. It looked so awkward, her smoking, like she wasn’t really meant for it.
“This is my favorite Pink Floyd song,” Rebecca announced and gave me a look that said, ‘Are you impressed?’ No, I wasn’t, not particularly. It takes a lot to faze me. I was more like mildly surprised.
“You listen to good music now?”
“Yeah… That guy used to listen to them a lot.” She looked up at the sky, trying to seem nonchalant, but I knew.
I knew That Guy was her one and only boyfriend. The one Aunt Lynn had never liked. The one Rebecca wore black for. She never said his name. They used to make out in the hallways all the time at school. It was so nasty. It made me almost physically ill to see that. Part of me wanted to smack the shit out of her, but instead I just pretended she didn’t exist at school. Anyway, apparently they broke up sometime that spring because I stopped seeing them together. I decided not to ask about what happened because I didn’t want to get into all that drama. I just kept my eyes on the road.
We drove through The Square, cruising past the hot dog lady who set up shop on the corner all summer long, and into the hilly part of town. The Lake County fairgrounds have large hills, ideal for sledding if you were a kid or a drunk teenager, long walking or bicycling paths, a covered bridge that is ideal for having sex in at night, and 200-year-old grandstands where Centre Point’s hicks come to marvel at the demolition derby every August during the week-long fair. When my dad took us here, we would pack a picnic and eat it on the steps of the grandstands, staring out at Elephant Turd Lake. I don’t know if the lake had a real name, but that’s what my dad called it. He said it was because they used to bring in a circus during the fair, and the elephants bathed and shat in the lake. He told us this story when we were little so we wouldn’t try to go swimming like all the other kids. I drove into the fairgrounds and parked near the water, near the grandstands. No one swims in the water anymore. I guess they all found out about the elephants.
I didn’t know what to do, now that we were there.
I got out of the car and walked without looking behind me. This was a mistake. What the fuck did we have to talk about? There was nothing to say. Besides, Aunt Lynn and Cheryl were all freaked out over nothing. Rebecca was fine; she just had her first break-up, that’s all. No one tried to talk to me when I lost weight, or started skipping school, or wouldn’t get out of bed after Joel disappeared. They just thought it was typical Prudence behavior. Rebecca has the slightest bit of teen angst? Everyone freaks.
I lit another cigarette. Rebecca was still finishing hers.
I sat. She sat. We stared at Elephant Turd Lake. If you looked closely enough, you could see a mass of black flecks, mosquitoes, hovering just over the water. Rebecca flicked her cigarette into the air with unexpected finesse and I realized that I didn’t know her at all, and there was no way that she could know me.
There’s this picture of us one Easter when we wore matching red-and-purple-flowered jumpers. The picture is so grossly cute that I’d never show it to anyone. Rebecca’s wild, curly hair had blown across her face and I was sporting a goofy-ass smile. I only ever smile with my mouth closed now.
“How’s Joel?” Rebecca asked, and I flinched. I’d been saying Joel’s name in my brain, but even Cheryl knew not to say it out loud.
“Joel’s gone,” I responded, my voice flat and final.
“Shit. I’m sorry, I didn’t know.” Her face looked legitimately pained, like it was her loss, not mine.
“I wasn’t going to.”
I flicked my cigarette. It landed in the same spot as hers, three rows down.
Rebecca picked at her unpolished fingernails. Then she reached into her sweatshirt pocket and pulled out a joint. “Wanna smoke?”
I turned to face her. “What the fuck?”
Who had she turned into?
“It’s not a big deal. My friend smokes all the time. She has a ton of joints pre-rolled in her room. She didn’t even notice that I took one.”
“You stole a joint from your friend? Seriously?”
Clearly I’d embarrassed her, because she tucked her hair behind her ears and looked down at her flip-flops like I’d just stepped on her toes. She had always had thin skin. I’d known it since that time I accidentally threw her into a dollhouse.
“We don’t have to smoke, it’s fine. I just…” She exhaled in annoyance. “I thought you were into that stuff. Sorry.”
I couldn’t help it, I started to laugh.
“Why are you laughing?” She pouted, putting the joint back in her pocket. “You know what? You’re a bitch. Why do you have to make me feel so stupid all the time? You’re the one who asked me to hang out.”
I laughed harder. At least the girl had learned to stick up for herself. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I am. I’m not laughing at you, I swear. It’s just… I don’t know.” I paused to laugh a little more, my head between my knees. “Oh shit, I have to pull myself together. Thank you for that. I haven’t laughed in a long time.” I sat up and fixed my hair. “Fuck, man. You’re right. I am a bitch. But I asked you to hang out because I was trying to be nice.”
“And you’re doing such a great job so far.”
“I know, I know, I know. Give me a fucking break here. At least I’m trying.”
She nodded, staring off at the lake. I could see that she was almost smiling.
“You’re right though,” I added. “I am ‘into that stuff,’ as you said. So let’s smoke.”
She brightened. “Really?”
“Really and truly. Now pull out the joint and I’ll help you light it.”
She brought the crinkled white paper up to her mouth along with the lighter, and I curled my hands around her face to protect the flame from the breeze. Well, our mothers wanted us to bond, right? And bonding we were.
Rebecca inhaled deeply, and even puffed on the joint like a little wanna-be-pro. Then she started to cough and gave herself away. “I love… smoking weed,” she said through her hacking, her voice low.
I’d influenced her all right. I was starting to feel like a proud parent.
“You sure about that?” I chuckled, taking the joint from her.
“Drugs are a beautiful thing,” she sighed. “The way they help you forget, remember, mourn, and celebrate all at the same time.”
“Okay, stoner prophet.” I laughed. “God, I needed this, though. Thank you.”
It was genuine, and Rebecca knew it.
Above the lake, the mosquitoes were swirling through the air, colliding, condensing at certain point, and separating again. I wondered if they were getting high off the fumes of elephant shit.
“Has everything been okay with you?” she asked, taking the joint back from me. With your dad leaving? We never really talked about it.”
It had been three years since my dad moved to Chicago. Rebecca and I hadn’t exactly been close during the time when everything was happening; back when Cheryl was forcing me to go to these Ala-teen meetings, where the children of alcoholics get together and talk about their feelings and Mommy or Daddy’s drink of choice. Clearly it wasn’t the place for me. Every Sunday night, Cheryl, my dad and I would get in the car, drive to this church and go into our separate rooms. Dad in A.A., Cheryl in Ala-non, and me in Ala-teen. Those car rides in the convertible were silent. In the end, we all stopped going to our weekly meetings. They tried the whole separation thing. Dad moved off to Chicago to be closer to his job (so he said), Cheryl started online dating. Two years later, they just went through with the divorce like I always knew they would.
“I’m used to it now. It’s better, anyway. Cheryl’s a hell of a lot happier, that’s for sure.”
“Yeah. My mom says she lost like 20 pounds after the divorce.”
I chuckled. “Yeah, and got Botox. But don’t tell her I told you that. Your mom looks good too.”
“It’s stress,” Rebecca said, exhaling. “Hey, at least we’re going to age well together, if our moms are any indicator of how we’ll turn out.” She passed me the quickly burning joint. “But what’s next for you? Now that high school is over?”
God, I’d been asked that question so many times, I was tempted just to tell her to fuck off, but things were going fairly well and she’d brought weed and all, so I didn’t. “To tell you the truth,” I said, taking a long puff and holding it in, “I have no fuckin’ clue.” Smoke burst from my lungs and I let out a laugh. “I’ll probably just get a job waitressing for awhile till I figure shit out. Maybe take a couple classes at the community college.”
“Really? You’re not gunna try to get out of here? If I was you, I’d run away as fast as I could.”
“And leave all this?” I grinned, waving my arm out towards the lake and those mosquitoes.
I was feeling pretty stoned, so Rebecca must’ve been too. My thoughts drifted out of the grandstands, over Elephant Turd Lake and the stoned mosquitoes, above the sledding hill and landed in the gazebo where Joel and I smoked weed together for the first time. I was 15, a freshman, the same age that Rebecca is now. Joel got it from his older brother who lived in Chicago. I wasn’t thinking about the future then, a future in which Joel wouldn’t exist; I wasn’t thinking about moving out of my mom’s house, let alone going to a state college far away from Centre Point. I wasn’t thinking.
“What’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you?” Rebecca whispered dreamily, her head tilted toward the sky. She’d taken off her sunglasses, and her eyes were all glazed over as if she’d been crying for hours. Her face seemed distorted, elongated, and I realized that she’d also lost some weight. Losing weight in our family signaled a greater loss. I assumed it was her virginity, but I didn’t want to think about that.
“Or actually,” she corrected herself, “what’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?”
“Those are two different things.”
Even though Rebecca was younger than me, she always seemed more responsible. On nodding terms with the realities of the world. Even then, I knew she would go to college, a good college; she would leave Centre Point like Joel and my dad and live in a city. But not me, I thought. I told myself I would stay right there, in that town where I could draw you a map of the streets on a napkin, just off-center of the middle of the country—only an hour away from Chicago, we would boast to anyone who asked—right there, right then, where everything was safe.
The worst thing I’d ever done? I thought of losing my virginity to Joel, an act I couldn’t really remember.
Before the car, we were on the swings at the park. I can bring back that much. A video plays in my head like a home movie, like seeing yourself crawling around as a baby, bringing on a hint of remembrance: Oh, yes, the ceiling seemed so much taller then. The video shows Joel and I, him pushing my lower back as I kick my legs into the air as if I was trying to touch the sky. “Higher, asshole,” I could hear my slurred shout. “Throw me to the fucking moon!”
I was wearing Cheryl’s old Grateful Dead tank top. The weather was newly warm, barely spring, and it was too cold for me to be wearing a tank top, especially at 2 o’clock in the morning, which it was, but I was drunk; we were so drunk. I was so warm, in that tank top, so I took it off. I took it off, drunkenly shame-free, on the swings—I can remember that now, if I squint, and I can see the way that Joel carried me to the car. There’s nothing else.
I was wasted, practically passed out in the car. I’d wanted to screw him, had wanted to for months but hadn’t for no good reason (actually, I thought he was scared). I know that I told him he could screw me, because he’d never do it without my permission, but still, I can’t remember. Can’t see him on top of me, can’t see his face so close to mine, can’t see him taking off his shirt or pulling down my jeans, can’t see the roof of his car or hear the music he chose as the soundtrack to losing our virginities. The next day, I didn’t even feel anything different. I’d expected there to be this space inside me, but there was nothing different. It was like I wasn’t even there when it happened.
Shame came later, but it wasn’t mine, it was Joel’s. I woke up in his bed in the morning. I’d never slept over before. It must’ve been the hangover, but I straight up asked him, “Mind telling me what happened last night?” He blushed, he was so sweet, he had no idea how gone I’d been. I felt so bad I even told him I was starting to remember. But I didn’t. I don’t. There’s nothing.
Joel wished we could take it back, try again, do it right next time. But I told him there was no point in wanting to change it. The damage was already done. Besides, losing your virginity was overrated anyway. “You always find a way to say the most depressing things,” he said with a slight smile.
Hey, at least I lost my virginity to someone I loved. Someone that loved me.
Someone that loved me and left me and waited two weeks to write a letter of minimal explanation that started with Dear Prudence, I’m sorry I fucked it all up but I know you’ll forgive me.
I didn’t forgive him. He didn’t know shit.
But there was no way to explain all that. So I said, “I guess it was that time I stole sunglasses from the mall.”
Rebecca didn’t react. She just stared out at the lake and said, “There are worse things.” So matter-of-fact.
“Like what?” I asked defensively. “Those were expensive sunglasses.”
She laughed; it was a dark, sinister laugh. One I’d never heard from her before. “If I tell you, you have to swear not to tell your mom.”
“Why would I tell my mom?”
She put her face on her hands and leaned forward, almost in a fetal position. “I wasn’t going to talk about it.”
“Well, you’re talking to me now, so get on with it.”
There was a long moment that she remained silent. Then she slowly turned her head towards me, her back still hunched over with her forearms on her knees, and gave me this strange, chilling look like I wasn’t there and she was seeing beyond me. I felt a little sick. The joint had burned away in my hand.
“You know, that guy I was dating…” She started her sentence and then closed her eyes. “I told him that I would have sex with him.”
To be honest, I didn’t care to hear beyond that sentence. I thought, I should just stop her now or run. But I let her keep going because I was trying. I was really trying.
“But I didn’t really want to. And I knew that the whole time but I—well, I really didn’t know how to tell him that, so I just said I was ready. But then he took me to his car and–”
“You had sex in his car?”
“Yeah, but I said no.”
Then, everything kind of stopped. It was just me, looking at her, and I felt like I couldn’t breathe, and that I was definitely going to hurl.
She shook her head, her brown hair frizzy now in the humidity. Her voice was desperate and apologetic, like she was in confessional, though neither of us had ever been to church. “It wasn’t his fault. Not all his fault.” She wasn’t talking to me anymore. She was looking out past the lake and above the gazebo. “I asked for it. I did. I told him he could. I asked for it and then I changed my mind. What was he supposed to do?”
What was he supposed to do? The words reverberated in my head.
It all made sense now. Why Aunt Lynn talked to Cheryl. Why Cheryl asked me to talk to Rebecca. Aunt Lynn couldn’t deal with this. Not her perfect, pristine child. Right, but let’s ask Prudence to clean up this mess. And she knew—she fucking knew!—that I’d keep Rebecca’s secret. Rebecca confessed for the both of them. Now it was me who had to carry around their burdens. It was so selfish. And this was exactly why I hated Ala-teen meetings. I didn’t want to deal with anyone else’s problems; I could barely handle my own shit. And that was it. I shut down. I was done playing nice, done doing what was asked of me. I didn’t sign up for some fucking counseling session.
“This is too heavy.” I crushed the rest of the joint in my hand, making my palm black with ash. “I’m too high for this.”
“I’m sorry for telling you,” Rebecca pleaded. “I had to tell someone.”
“Yeah, and you got tricked into telling me because your fucking mother couldn’t carry the weight alone anymore.” I spat out. I needed a fucking cigarette.
“Excuse me?” Rebecca sat up straight, breaking her self-induced trance.
“You heard me. And you know what? These things happen,” I said in my most authoritative, all-knowing voice. I tried not to think of Joel. But that wasn’t the same, not even close. He didn’t hurt me. I never said no. There’s a difference between rape and shitty sex. After that first time, we had tons of sex that I could remember, and I never regretted any of it. It wasn’t the same. It wasn’t.
I stood up and Rebecca stayed sitting down. “Maybe someday you’ll find it all funny.”
Her eyes were wide and scribbled with red as if someone had drawn blood vessels with colored pencil. Gazing up at me, she whisper-cried, “What is wrong with you?”
I knew what I was supposed to do, what Cheryl and Aunt Lynn had wanted me to do. But I just couldn’t. I couldn’t wrap my arms around her and tell her that it was all going to be okay because it probably wasn’t, and one of the things I’m not is a liar. I knew that Rebecca would probably hate me, that Cheryl would kill me, but I didn’t care about that then. Fuck Cheryl, fuck Aunt Lynn, and fuck Rebecca. I had to get out.
“I’m taking you home now. Let’s go.”
I walked down the steps, out of the grandstands, and sat down in my car. All around me, nothing looked familiar anymore. The grandstands glared down at me and I wished they would just collapse already. Don’t you look at me like that, I wanted to shout. I didn’t know what to say to Rebecca or even how to look at her. I just wanted to get away, to drop her off at the curb and take off for Chicago or Colorado or anywhere else. I wondered what she’d tell her mom. Aunt Lynn would be furious; I’d ruined her plan, but what had she expected? What was I supposed to do? What kind of comfort could I give? I lit a cigarette and waited for Rebecca to climb into the passenger seat. But she didn’t. I couldn’t see her, sitting in the grandstands, but I knew she was still there. I honked. I even waited for five minutes. Then I took off, dirt and gravel pinging against the side of my dad’s car, and drove away from the grandstands, away from home, and away from the town with so many little streets on napkins. I didn’t know where I was going. I didn’t know anything.