We loved those unpretty boys, bony chests mushroom-white, Bic-barrel and burntwire tattoos crawling across pocked and blistered shoulders and backs. We loved their cheeks, scabbed or scarred, and their teeth, crooked and silver-filled but never capped or crowned. They wore jeans from the JC Penney and bandannas from the Army Surplus, T-shirts with the sleeves torn off and flannel shirts over them ten months out of twelve. Soft-pack cigarettes in one back pocket and a Velcroed nylon wallet in the other.
They wore Wranglers and smoked Winstons: everything about them was one-off. Their skin was bad and their teeth were bad and if they managed to avoid being expelled before graduation it was not for lack of trying; if they found and kept a job that paid more than minimum wage, they did so in spite of themselves.
They ate white bread, slippery and gritty with margarine and cinnamon-sugar; frosted corn flakes and frosted wheat shreds; flimsy paper boxes of doughnuts from the grocery store, three for a dollar on a table by the checkout, the plastic window on the lid glazed and sticky. Those boys had a sweet tooth like you can’t imagine and still they had to hook their belts to the last, still their backs were knobbed down their ribbed white undershirts.
But we wanted them for our own, their malty lips and chapped grabby hands and small, small promises, and so we smacked cardboard tubes of cookie dough on our mothers’ counters and sliced them onto metal trays, peeled the circles of dough half scorched and half raw onto racks. We wrapped them in paper towels tied with whatever lengths of ribbon we found in kitchen drawers, took the bundles to homeroom or the weed-pocked basketball court on the corner where no one played or Friday night parties where we shoved aside handles of Jack Daniel’s and empty plastic cups to make room for them on kitchen counters. We mixed Jack-and-Cokes and lit cigarettes and leaned against those counters in twos and threes, in our off-brand designer jeans and boucle sweaters, in our ankle boots and Jontue. We tipped our chins to the ceiling to exhale and from under our blue-mascaraed lashes we watched the boys tilt in, laughing, stumbling, reaching for everything at once: beers from the cooler on the floor, cigarettes from our open packs, the cookies broken and misshapen on paper plates.
They smoked our cigarettes and ate our food and reached for everything but us and we told ourselves we did not mind.
We did not expect much—torn sheets of loose-leaf taped to our lockers with instructions on where we would meet, a soda at the movies, a ride home from a party across town. We gave them our history notes and bought them slushies and peanut butter crackers at the 7-Eleven, wore their down jackets and rawhide bracelets, followed them into borrowed bedrooms, and locked the doors ourselves. We had their babies because they wanted us to. Our mothers hauled up from basements the strollers they were smart enough to keep, and we passed them among ourselves until the seats were torn and the wheels rusted, the plastic cracked and warped. We shared out tiny clothes until the fabric began to disintegrate, until the flannel shredded pink and yellow and we could not wash them any more.
We propped the babies against kitchen cabinets and let them chew on the dolls that were not our favorites while we graphed y = |x+2|, while we conjugated verbs in Spanish and tried to get our minds around the difference between saber and conocer: to know, to know.
We taped songs off the radio and painted our nails, curled each other’s hair, and left the babies with our mothers in the overwarm front rooms of our houses. We left them dozing on afghan-covered sofas and pulled the doors shut behind us, every block the same, one long sloping roof over eight square brick porches and eight sets of brick steps down to eight card-sized lawns, the grass chewed and brittle with December. We took those steps two at a time, bright parkas flying open behind us. We took those steps like they’d burn right though to skin if we touched them for too long.
They complimented our pretty hair and shiny lips, our belts and bracelets and polished nails, the way we set a table. They taught us to cook the bacon first so we could fry eggs in the grease, to iron cuffs and collars last, to get the dinner rolls from the day-old shelf at the market: if you rubbed them with margarine and wrapped them in foil and left them in a medium oven for fifteen minutes no one knew the difference. They bought us deodorant and training bras before we thought to ask, sandal-toe panty hose and hairspray.
They taught us to layer rice and canned chicken and bright squeaky slices of cheese in casseroles; they bought us French manicure sets and Midol. They wore too much makeup or none at all. Their laughter was quick and rough and not always kind and their faces were lined or swollen, creased and brown or puffy, as though they carried every slight and disappointment in the skin itself. They kept their yearbook portraits on the wall with ours.
They were neither jealous nor demanding: they did not ask to see our corrected homework or graded tests; they looked at our report cards just long enough to sign them. They complimented us on the poster boards we markered and ribboned, pinned with magazine clippings and ticket stubs and mounted on our bedroom walls. They complimented us on our boys.
And those Friday nights when we called back over our shoulders that we would not be too late we didn’t wait to hear the response, which they may not have been bothered to give in any case: what did it matter if we came home late or drunk, clothes stained or torn or crooked, gasping with laughter or tears, hungry, spent, sick; if we came home soaking from the fog that floated up from the river below the expressway after midnight or squinting against a cold yellow sun in the glare of a Saturday morning; if we came home used and wet and aching, wrung?
Our mothers didn’t care as long as we came home, and as long as we did not carry back into their houses some joy or fear or wonder that they had never seen or heard, some new want clinging radioactive to our flushed cold skin, filling the house with longing until there was no room for the old familiar air, until there was nothing else to breathe. They didn’t care as long as we came back to them unchanged, their own, still dumb.
As long as we had tasted nothing new.
When we came home they locked the doors behind us, fluffed pillows and smoothed sheets and dabbed away our smeary eyeliner with the same damp wipes they kept to clean the babies we found so easy to forget. They brought the babies to us if we asked, but we rarely asked.
Our fathers kept their distance. They wore reinforced boots and reflective vests to work, carried clipboards and flashlights, insulated Thermoses and extra gloves. They washed their big hands with Ivory soap, lathered the backs of their necks over the kitchen sink and dried off with torn lengths of paper towel. They drank soda by the liter and ate sleeves of saltines with mustard and salami. When they offered a cracker to us we choked it down and smiled, though we preferred our saltines with peanut butter and apple.
On black winter mornings they sat across from our bowls of cereal with their peppers and eggs and bacon, their Ovaltine. They drank their coffee standing at the sink and kissed the tops of our heads as we slurped at our milky dripping spoons. They left in the gray freeze of night before it turned and came home in the gray freeze of the collapsing day, kissed the tops of our heads as we sat with our math workbooks and vocabulary lists. They drank Sunny Delight from the jug and cracked the kitchen windows when they lit their cigarettes, exhaled into the rattle and whine of traffic on the overpass, the red echo of sirens, and we shivered: so much cold from such a small gap.
They were not sure how to love us and so we did our best to make it easy: we climbed in footed pajamas onto their denim laps and nudged them awake with picture books, we modeled the uneven pigtails we’d scraped our hair back into and wrapped in mismatched ribbon, we twirled in our confirmation dresses and then our prom dresses, our panty hose and heels.
We practiced for the boys on them. We folded their laundry although we could not be bothered to fold our own; we emptied their ashtrays and served their dinners first, jumped up for the salt or the ketchup. We folded the afghans over them when they fell asleep in a living room chair. We woke them with kisses on their rough and shadowed cheeks, we set their breakfast places with place mats and folded napkins.
When they touched our mothers we looked away until we watched, from tented blankets on the floor and half-closed doors, from outside the bathroom and down the bedroom hall. Our houses were so small. We watched until they saw us, until they swore and slammed doors and caught us by our skinny wrists to haul us to our rooms.
In our rooms we brushed our hair and glossed our lips and rubbed our wrists with new perfume. We opened our windows to light the cigarettes we’d taken from them, one at a time from crumpled packs left by the toaster, and exhaled into our own piece of sky. We watched for them in the narrow strips of grass behind the kitchens, lifting knotted trash bags into the garbage cans lined up by the alley, standing too still for too long in the dark starry cold, in the halo buzz of highway billboards.
When we looked at them we did not see their thinning hair and blurred tattoos, their hitched and limping gait. We did not see how they bent to drop their clothes where they stood by the bed at night, how they fell heavy into it and exhaled the day, its dull dragging minutes. We had no idea how sweet their sleep was, licorice-dark and thick enough to suck away everything they’d made themselves forget to want.
We could not begin to imagine what they wanted, or that they wanted. They had: jobs they’d held for twenty years, that they could perform with one eye closed and leave behind each night; brick houses in a block-long row of them filled with soft shag carpeting and recliners, full refrigerators, coolers and plastic chairs with waterproof cushions in the backyard. Wives who did the shopping the dishes the laundry; who made sure there was always a fresh unopened pack of cigarettes hidden away until they needed it. Us.
They had us, thin and quick and willing. If they drank through a Saturday afternoon or until a Sunday night was pretty, we stayed close and quiet on the carpeted floor, folding construction paper into creased and flightless birds and ready to listen to any stretch or bend of truth they needed to tell, to believe.
They had been wronged. They had been overlooked and mistreated, snubbed and humiliated, by their employers, their government, their wives. Taken advantage of, used, cast aside. By cruel fate and bad luck. By their own trusting natures, their self-sabotaging kindness, their lack of killer instincts. And we listened, rapt, with ears too new to recognize the hollow ring of mawkishness, enraged at how the world had used them.
We seethed on their behalf. We wrapped our arms around their thick guts and pressed our faces to their gray and faded cheeks until we were no longer so thin or young, so credulous; until we began to tire of their blurred and slurry misery.
And when they thought they saw the shadow of betrayal in our eyes, they twisted away their faces and pushed us from their laps. They let the coffee we brought them go cold and the beer go warm, they ignored the trays arranged with sandwiches and pretzel sticks, the markered hearts on torn-off notepaper tucked beneath the plates. They were the first to see through our breathing skin to our cheap and fickle hearts, and they were the first to scorn what they saw there.
We fucked the boys to punish them. We made them disappear.
Our babies: gasping hot tears and red waving fists, ears like beans and thimble feet, mouths always open and wanting. We balanced them on our laps until our mothers, impatient, lifted them away from us and tucked them in the crook of one sure arm. We did not protest or argue. We were clumsy with them, slow and awkward, no good at swabbing crusted black umbilical stumps or snipping toenails we could hardly see, no good at breathing calm against their mottled skin.
Our mothers freed them from our shaking grips, handled them as though they were at once miraculous and unremarkable; as though their very ordinariness was a wonder.
We handled them as though they had not nearly finished ruining us.
We sucked our deflated bellies in until we could get our jeans zipped over them; we wrapped our burning tits flat until they were dry and ours again. We stepped out of our sour wrinkled clothes and stared naked into mirrors until we convinced ourselves that what we saw was no different than it had ever been, no more spent or used. We tried to forgive our babies but it was so much easier to forgive their fathers. Our world was as wide as their smiles.
We forgave the gum in our hair, the snapped rubber bands in class, and the snapped bra straps at parties. We forgave the scrawls on bathroom walls, the Indian burns on the kickball diamond at recess, and the cigarette burns on pull-out sofas in borrowed apartments. We forgave the stretch marks and stitches, the half-crushed boxes of chocolates from the express checkout in the drugstore, and the scratchy rayon scarves from the two-for-five-dollar display, and when we brought their babies home and waited for them to collect us and bring us to the life they had no intention of building, we forgave that too.
I say we as though I have a right to.
As though I don’t look for her everywhere, that baby I was too careful for.
As though I did not chew my own heart out to wake beneath a new sky.
What bodies they had—stringy and loose and indolent, free of apology or guile. They slipped electric through our empty hours. What they wanted they got, without wheedling or compromise. They did not need to bargain or beg: we made it easy. What they wanted we gave.
Quarters for air hockey at Eddie’s Pizza and two-for-one pitchers on a Wednesday night, kung fu movies from the video store, if they were lucky clumsy joints that popped with sticks and seeds. The babies to carry into homeroom and hold for five minutes before handing them back to us and slipping down the hall and out the gym doors to the parking lot beyond. Us on our knees in someone’s back hallway on a Friday night, hair damp and jaws aching, pants stained with spilled beer and mildew.
We didn’t understand how much so little could cost.
If we had we wouldn’t have cared: they belonged to the world in a way that we did not and we were happy to ease their already effortless way in it, to catch on if we could to the velvet smoky wake we could almost see behind them. We switched cigarettes to the brand they smoked. We waited for them in their mothers’ kitchens, layering slippery ribbons of pasta in casserole dishes and tearing lettuce into bowls; after dinner we jumped up with their mothers to clear the table and spoon instant coffee into cups. We followed them out to underfurnished apartments with scavenged hubcaps piled in the living rooms and stolen electronics in the bedrooms and choked down the shots they poured for us, swayed against their skinny flannel heat. Sometimes we got drunk enough to believe that we were somewhere extraordinary, to forget how easily they tired of a room, a record, a game of cards, to protest when they jerked us up to leave and hardly feel it when they caught us backhand on the mouth, knuckles scraped and scabbed over, our own names inked across their fingers.
We loved the taste of their taut flesh, blood and nicotine and the powdery vanilla of our perfume. We loved the sound of their begging voices, thick with shame every time and every time vowing, swearing, on their mother’s life on their grandmother’s grave that it would never happen again. We loved that we were the only ones to make them sound that way. We loved it enough to believe them.
And when our ankles turned and melted beneath us, they carried us from the apartments and down greasy metal stairs, across volcanic parking lots. They folded us into the cars they’d borrowed for the night, cracked leather seats and taped windows, broken wipers and broken taillights and just enough gas to make it home. We let them slide their chapped hands into our corduroy laps and work the glinting zippers down, we let them lick the bruises they never meant to leave, we let them pry us wide and open as our pink and beating hearts, and when they were finished and we were gutted they asked if we wanted more and because we refused to understand the question we said God yes and they lifted us back on their damp skinny hips. We closed what we could—our mouths, our eyes—and let them boil through the rest of us.
They broke us like kindling, like matchsticks for the bridges they wished they could burn.
Victoria Lancelotta is the author of Here in the World: 13 Stories and the novels Far and Coeurs Blesses. Her fiction has appeared in The Best American Short Stories, Mississippi Review, AGNI, nerve.com, McSweeney’s, and elsewhere. She has received a Tennessee Individual Artist Fellowship, two Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Grants, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. She lives in Baltimore. (updated 4/2018)