By: Michael Chin
Jackson and Lily went to St. Peter’s because their father wanted to steer them from the bad influences of a public high school. He told them getting an education was not about smoking in bathrooms or fist fights or winding up pregnant before graduation.
Jackson knew the rationale, and remembered it one week into Catholic school, after his class watched a video to commemorate the tenth anniversary of terrorists crashing planes into the World Trade Center, and pimply-faced Johnny Reds spread his arms like an air craft and spiraled head first into Jinder, the only brown-skinned kid in school. Johnny made crashing sounds as he reenacted the terrorist attacks,like they were some big joke.
Jackson remembered what he had heard about bad influences, too, when he followed Johnny and friends out of the convenience store after school, ugly blue and gold school ties bunched up in their right pockets, stolen one-pound bags of M&Ms crammed in the left.
Of all the lessons Jackson learned freshman year, it may have been this one that he used the most:
Johnny repositioned Jacksons’s earth science textbook from chest level to ten inches lower to hide his boner while he watched Madison Fallows and Ramona Cummings fix their make up in the magnetic mirrors hanging inside their locker doors. By late spring, Jackson’s fingernails had worn away indentations in the brown paper bag book cover from where he clutched the book, studying the girls on a daily basis.
The school hallways were disgusting. The janitors waxed them every day, but it seemed they hardly ever swept first, and so they pinned stray hairs and dirt and candy bar crumbs into the tile, shiny and hardened. When Madison and Ramona walked past Jackson, the floors didn’t seem worthy of them—worthy of Madison’s long, slightly curled blonde hair and perennially tanned skin, or Ramona’s shining straight brown hair, porcelain white complexion and what Jackson’s father would describe in actresses as “bedroom eyes.” They were seniors, and they walked side-by-side wearing plaid skirts cut two inches higher than where they were supposed to end, blouses with the top two buttons loose so they revealed the very tops of the crevices between their fully-developed breasts, crucifixes to mark midpoints between nipples.
Jackson thought of Madison and Ramona as story girls. When he sat in class, or stood in the hallway absent Johnny or his friends, Jackson unraveled stories in his mind about them. Stories of them wrestling in mud, or massaging one another with oils, or swimming together on a hot summer’s day in two-piece bathing suits when one drowned and the other had to revive her by pressing down on her breasts and, of course, giving her mouth to mouth.
At night, Jackson wrote these stories down in the unused backs of notebooks from previous school years, and stashed them under his bed. He would work himself into a frenzy over the prose in the hour before he turned out the light, then hump his mattressen route to a deep sleep.
Lily didn’t use the term story girls. She called Madison and Ramona bitches.
Lily met Madison and Ramona her first day at St. Peter’s, when they were nice to her. They befriended her on her new Facebook account, bringing her tally of friends up to fifteen and then sixteen. And though her father warned her that school was not about making friends, Lily nonetheless understood this as a social contract—that they would remain friends for at least the four years to follow.
By the end of the week, Madison and Ramona stopped talking when Lily joined them in the halls, and left just as she sat down with them at lunch. By senior year, Lily’s friend count had risen as high as thirty-four, built among acquaintances at school, friends from sleep-away camp, cousins, and Jackson. Somehow, the bitches had accumulated nine hundred twenty-one and nine hundred four respectively friends by that fall—more people than even attended St. Peter’s.
In their profiles, the bitches identified their favorite books as the The Old and New Testaments, their favorite film to include The Passion of the Christ, and filled their status updates with Bible verse, which their disciples were sure to “Like.”
Lily countered by filling her own late night Facebook statuses with the lyrics of lesbian singer-songwriter angst, and posting links to pro-choice anathema. She pictured Madison and Ramona shaking their heads while they sat at their laptops in the living room, crossing themselves and telling mom and dad they had to go to their rooms early to pray for all the sinners’ salvation.
Lily imagined the bitches thinking of Jesus when they touched themselves under the covers. Thirty-nine lashes and bleeding was their speed, but don’t mistaken that for depraved.
Lily had been baptized before she knew how to speak, gone through confirmation before she knew to question it, and wound up in Catholic school long after she stopped believing in God. She hated most of the other teenagers and most of the teachers, but supposed she wouldn’t have liked public school much better anyway.
Lily wore her skirt longer than regulation. Against all odds and other social cues, she had noticed boys looking at her thighs when she crossed her legs at her desk, or conveniently dropping their pencils and trying to look between her legs when she didn’t cross them.
She walked a couple yards behind the bitches in the hall. They wore heels just short enough that they dared teachers to challenge them as non-regulation, just high enough to accentuate their bare calves. Lily wore dark nylons over her own legs to hide the stubble that had grown thick enough it would take a weekend morning bath to rid herself of all of it.
Teachers treated the bitches differently. She had seen men linger over Madison’s desk, leaning over her, all but smelling her hair, as they helped her dissect pig fetuses or soothed her as she pouted through pre-calc. The younger women deferred to them, perhaps remembering equivalents in their own generations and giving them a wide berth lest this new wave of pretty girls skewer their feelings the way their predecessors had.
Only the older women saw through the bullshit. Though laws had robbed her of corporal punishment, Sister Anna-Mae, for one, still carried an old wooden ruler with steel edge around the class room and slapped it violently against the desk corner of anyone—Lily, Madison, or Ramona alike—when she didn’t pay attention to the day’s teachings.
And there was Mr. Stewart. The art teacher cultivated no illusion that he shared the values of St. Peter’s, routinely wearing his own tie loose around his neck, on occasion rolling his sleeve up high enough so Lily could see the lower jaw of whatever beast he had tattooed on his forearm. He let his black hair fall askew, peaked at different angles each day. Stubble routinely dotted his cheeks, chin, and the space between his nose and lips. When Ramona leaned her head back to expose her neck, and asked him how to make her charcoal sketch look more like his exemplar, he ripped the page from her sketchpad, crumpled it and threw it over his shoulder. He told her to start again, but to actually try this time.
Mr. Stewart lingered over Lily’s work. He pressed his thumb against the perimeter of the page to point out details that worked, details she could add, details she could refine. She savored each faint, black thumbprint he left behind, memorizing the lines and grooves.
Lily imagined a day when Mr. Stewart would wear no tie at all, but rather a tight black t-shirt and torn up jeans. He would storm the school hallways en route to the principal’s office to hand in his resignation because he had sold his art to a gallery in Paris or Rome. He would only make one more stop before he left the school forever, literally sweeping Lily off her feet. He would kiss her mouth hard and soft all at once, while the creature imprinted on his arm gnawed sweetly at the back of her thigh.
A boy named Jeremy sat beside Lily in art class and tried to get her attention. He drew a picture of a squirrel, clumsily cross-hatched such that the poor creature looked to have a tic-tac-toe board branded over his stomach. When that drawing failed to get a rise from her, he added a second squirrel with whom the first fornicated. She looked long enough to observe the haze along the edges of the animals and ask why he had drawn them like that. Jeremy explained that squirrels fucked so fast the best approximation was to surround them in a blur.
Lily turned back to her own work. She considered Mr. Stewart’s recommendation about sharpening the edges of the cookie sheet in the still life to underscore its hard, metallic quality, in juxtaposition to the soft fur of the stuffed rabbit beside it. Studio art was the only class Lily earned an A in the previous quarter. Her father had reminded her that getting an education wasn’t about art.
Jackson’s English teacher chastised him about his poor penmanship, urging him to slow down and print neatly. And so he did, in school. With that slow marking of the page went any sense of rhythm, urgency, or verve in his prose. He blamed this slowing for his very average performance on short essay questions and wondered how anyone from Dickens to Dickinson would have fared if forced to write using someone else’s technique.
Jackson held his dick in hand as he scrawled paragraph upon paragraph. His chicken scratch proveda blessing when he wrote his late-night stories. A few words of context were all the cipher he needed to read his own words, and his sister was the only other person who could consistently making sense of his longhand.
He wrote by the soft light of the reading lamp on his nightstand. He liked the glow it cast on the room, dulling the absurd yellow carpeting his parents installed before he was born, dulling into oblivion the images of baseball players he had scotch taped to his walls in his childhood and had been too lazy to take down as a teenager. That soft light drew long shadows that made the bare white spaces between the pictures look more like they were cream-colored.
He wrote about Ramona untying her ponytail so that her long blond curls fell free.
The first-person narrator stood across the room—no, he hung there from his wrists. His stretched-out toes making incidental contact with the floor as his shoulders throbbed and his hands went numb. Layers of duct tape formed ropes and suspended him. Ramona unbuttoned her blouse as she approached him then flung it open to reveal herself bare. The narrator was small enough so his face only rose as high as her chest, so his face was no larger than either one of her perfectly symmetrical breasts. She buried his face in her flesh. He forgot about the dull ache of his extremities, losing himself in the bright white sheen of her skin, wet with her perspiration and his own spit. He didn’t even realize she suffocated him until he was more dead than alive, well on his way to heaven.
It didn’t take long for Jackson to blow his load after a story like that. He set the notebook down on his rumpled sheets, folded his hands over the remains of his erection, and went to the bathroom to wash up.
When Lily couldn’t find her sophomore yearbook, she went to Jackson’s room. Since he started at St. Peter’s he had asked to borrow the books one by one, he said, to memorize who the teachers were. Since then, she would notice the hardcover volumes missing from her bureau and inevitably find them with him.
She knocked on his door; a formality because she knew he was in the bathroom. The yearbook lay on the floor by his bed. She pinched her nose shut to block the reek of sweatsocks, farts, and the musk his room always had since his voice had dropped, picked up the yearbook, and stood up straight to leave, when the notebook caught her eye.
She picked it up—single-subject, spiral bound, college-ruled (her father always bought college-ruled, as though wide-ruled made it less likely one would go on to college). When he was little, Jackson couldn’t wait to share his stories with the family—stories of vampires and ghosts and talking cats. They even put together a magazine together for a few months, his writing, her illustrations, on un-ruled paper meant for the family printer. They showed the finished product to their parents, but Jackson grew frustrated when they couldn’t read his handwriting, and both he and Lily soon lost interest in anything collaborative.
Lily might have put the notebook back down had Ramona’s name not been the first word her eyes landed upon on the page. Titty and smother appeared in notably darker print than the rest of the words. She heard Jackson’s electric toothbrush start from the bathroom next door. The thing had a two-minute timer that their mother insisted he follow religiously since he had two cavities on his last trip to the dentist. With two minutes at her disposal, Lily set to reading from the beginning.
She didn’t notice when the whir of the brush’s little motor died down, or when faucet turned on, or when the faucet turned off. Her skin grew warm at her brother’s prose. She didn’t mind the smothering; she didn’t mind the sexuality or the violence—it would have been hypocritical to have taken issue with either after she’d started drawing phalluses shortly after she transferred to St. Peter’s, then started attaching them to sketches of Mr. Stewart, then sketches of her own ass.
She minded that her brother dedicated these words, his mental images, and undoubtedly his masturbation to the worst human beings the school had to offer. To people so far beneath his potential, his soul. She wasn’t as close as she’d once been to his brother, but surely he still maintained something of his younger self. A writer. An artist.
When Jackson appeared in the doorway, the notebook dropped from her hands to floor, pages crumpled in on themselves. And she saw him.
Nothing had changed about her brother. He stood bare-chested, wearing a ratty blue pair of gym shorts. He was taller than her, but remained scrawny enough that she could see the outline of his rib cage beneath his paper fair skin, no chest hair yet to hide anything. When he ran a hand through his hair, she could see smudges of ink on his left hand. He’d complained as a child about how left to right writing was biased against left-handed people, because the side of their hand always trailed what they had most recently written, which was why the Chinese tradition of writing vertically was far superior. The lines on his skin were traced in black and blue, accumulated through a combination note taking at school and story writing in his room, only partially washed away because he didn’t scrub well enough in the bathroom, leaving palimpsests of the preceding 24 hours.
In that ink that colored his skin, she saw her brother the artist. She saw the man he would grow into—not a blue-and-gold-tie-wearing robot, married with two children and a white picket fence, who stole sniffs of pretty girls’ hair at work, and wondered what might have been. Not who her parents wanted him to be. He would smoke cigarettes and drink his coffee black, save for a shot of mint liqueur. He would pay no mind to the doggerel of talentless, pretty people. The temporary smudges of ink would transform into tattoos that made his body a narrative all its own, and a map, and a mystery.
Jackson eyed the notebook open on his floor, bent and positioned such that the word orgasm leapt from the page. He eyed the yearbook in his sister’s hand, which he’d smuggled from her room the night before so he could jerk off to a black and white picture of story girl’s face when his own prose wouldn’t cut it. Her room was every bit as disheveled as his own, but differently so. She had clothes everywhere—a school blouse and skirt hanging over the back of an old rocking chair, a t-shirt and jeans she would wear to the mall laid flat on the carpet. He had to move aside a single brassier, dangling from the corner of her bureau, to get to the yearbook. A tattered poster hung over his sister’s headboard, depicting Joni Mitchell smoking a cigarette. It looked as though Joni watched him as he clutched the book in his sweaty hands and made his way to the door.
He hadn’t noticed when Lily maneuvered closer to him in his own room, but was all at once conscious of how close she stood. Close enough so her little breasts grazed his arm. Close enough he could look straight down upon her yellow-brown hair, the same color as his own, but it smelled of some mix of lavender and cherry. Close enough to feel the graze of the warmth from the light down on her thigh. He always imagined girls with perfectly smooth legs, but then, in the touch of reality, he found the hair warm and inviting. Their bare big toes touched.
He thought to himself that this might be a story, too. Another that he could never tell anyone else, but maybe one he would let Lily read, maybe years later, because she’d be the only one to understand it for all its subtlety, for all of the unspoken heat of skin on skin, brother and sister.
That night, he recognized her as beautiful.
After a couple of seconds had passed, after she’d lifted her head to make eye contact, and after Jackson didn’t budge, Lily slugged him in the arm as hard as she could, called him a perv, and walked out of his room with her yearbook in hand, never to speak of that night again.