How does he know that I will be careful with this? Because I might not. I don’t know. I don’t know anything.
Devin drives with the windows down and a heavy metal band shrieking on the stereo. I’m next to him, staring ahead at the two-lane road, wondering how I got here. This is how, I think: summer baseball, a warm evening, the last of the afternoon thunderheads moving away into the distance, and that seam of gold that appears in the sky after the storm. I was just sitting there on the bleachers, watching the game, when Devin approached and smiled, and his dimples smiled, too, and his eyes were shy.
“Want to go for a drive?”
I looked at him.
“I have to drop something off for my dad.”
I remembered the rumor—was it a rumor?—that his dad was sick with cancer. I didn’t remember how or where I heard it. All I knew was that Devin and his siblings lived with their mom in town, and his dad lived somewhere else.
I said, “OK.”
Simple as that, it seemed.
The other thing I’m thinking, there in his pickup, is that it should have been Mitch all those months ago when April and I sneaked out and crept the two blocks to Devin’s house because his mom worked at night. The four of us, Mitch and Devin and April and I, sat in Devin’s basement and played strip poker; nothing else to do, underage in the middle of the night. We were nervous, giggling, as we unhooked our bras under our shirts and pulled them free. Devin and Mitch stripped down to their underwear. That’s as far as any of us would take it.
But then we were making out with each other. April was across the room with Mitch, and I was under Devin on the couch. I knew Mitch was furious. I could feel it, feel his attention on me even as he fumbled around with my friend. Devin was quiet, deliberate, with the broad shoulders and dead weight of a man. We kissed for hours, and between the kissing and the weight of him on my body, I was breathless all night. The next day we pretended it never happened.
He drives us away from the game, out of town, past green corn fields and twisted trees and irrigation ditches, the smell of manure and rain-soaked alfalfa blowing by—away from civilization, perhaps miles and miles away, I consider, into the dark blue on the eastern horizon. A paper bag by his feet ripples in the wind from the open windows. I catch a glimpse of the edge of my face in the side-view mirror, my lips held tightly together.
We don’t talk on the drive, but he has a look of serenity on his face. He always looks serene.
He was serene that night, too, when he lowered himself onto me, pushed his tongue into my mouth. What am I doing here?, I’d kept asking myself. I had never been interested in Devin before. He was just a guy I knew. He had always been just a guy I knew, with a high-pitched giggle and ears that stuck out a bit. Mitch was the one. Mitch was the first boy to slip his hand into my jeans as I suffocated against him on a late night, who told me he was in love with me during hours-long phone conversations which tied up the line and pissed off our families. Mitch was a bragger and a fighter. He walked with a lope and a head bob, hands balled into fists, always on the lookout for a rumble. Mitch was also a game. I could roll around with him, his panting in my ear, my bra undone, and then get up and leave him and there wasn’t a thing he could do about it. I could string him along and laugh about the other girls he tried to date and tell him ridiculous things like, “I know you better than you know yourself,” because it sounded sexy and enigmatic. And maybe it was to him. He always came back for more.
I wanted to be crushed into that couch by Devin, because I didn’t have to think about what he would say or do afterwards, and what I would say or do in return. I wanted a moment when I did not have to calculate. And I wanted Mitch to see me having that moment.
The road is almost dry and the air rushing through the windows whips my hair across my eyes.
Just then, the metal band achieves a moment of grace and a song comes on—a ballad—that rings out so powerful, so soaring with longing, that it fills my entire being and raises the hair on my arms. I look over at Devin. I want to tell him to pull over, to stop. I want to move toward him across the seat and take his face and kiss him. I want his tongue in my mouth, his hands on my body. I want to straddle him. I want him to grip my legs. I want him to do more to me than we did on the couch. I wonder if this is how love happens. I wonder if I am a brave person.
But I stay where I am and yank my hair to the side. I draw my knee up and hug it to me.
After awhile we turn into a dirt driveway, drive down it, and park in a cluttered yard next to a ramshackle house. Everything—the house, an assortment of sagging sheds—is a scratched kind of gray. The leaves on the trees are shriveled and the yard is full of weeds. A yellow dog of uncertain breed wags its tail when we get out of the pickup and follows us to a screen door. Inside, everything is dingy and the rooms are barely furnished. It smells like mold and old cooking. I follow Devin through the kitchen to a bedroom steeped in tea-colored light. I see skinny knees, an arm; someone is sitting on the edge of a bed holding a cigarette. I shrink into myself and don’t know where to look.
“This is Nina,” Devin says and the skinny, smoking person nods.
I don’t know what it’s like to have a sick parent, or divorced parents, to live in a sad little house all alone, to sit in a bedroom day in and day out with nothing but a cigarette for company. All of a sudden I am stunned, surprised that I am here: there is nothing I can offer.
Devin hands his dad the paper bag and they start a low, murmuring conversation; it feels too private for me to hear. I slip back through the kitchen to the living room and wait in the dimness, holding myself very still, feeling my heart beating. The dog peers at me through the screen door.
I think about Mitch. He drinks juice boxes like a child. The dark hair on his upper lip is rough. He is taller than me, and gangly, with bad posture. His hair is cut into a mullet. He loves motorcycles and dirt bikes and drag racing—things I don’t care about. He is handsome and yet squalid. He makes me squinch with embarrassment, makes me think “white trash.”
I think about the last time I was with him. He came over when my parents were out of town and we made out all night until the sun started coming up and I had to kick him out. I had to shove him toward the door. I had to cross my arms and plant my feet and make my voice angry and threatening so that he would leave. Elsewhere in the house my sister and brother slept. I was worried they would hear me, find out, tell on me. When he finally left, I locked the door behind him and watched out the window until he was gone. Then I went back to my room and lay on the bed and tried to sleep, but I couldn’t because I was so worked up, because Mitch was everything that I did not want, and I didn’t understand anything, why I did what I did with him.
After several minutes Devin comes and finds me and asks if I’m ready to go. I dart my eyes around, expecting more. I wonder what was in the paper bag—could’ve been medicine, food, anything. Money, I think with a slow prickle. Then I also think: maybe he didn’t want me to know.
But the fact that he asks me if I’m ready to go—the fact that he wants to know what I prefer, when we are here, in this broken-down place far outside of town, with a person he must care about who may or may not be dying, who may or may not have enough money or food or medicine at any given time, and he’s asking me what I want, as if I might want to stay, put my feet up, hang out for awhile—is something I don’t know what to do with and I am stunned all over again. If nothing else, he is polite, I tell myself. But that’s not right. It implies there is nothing else, and there is—it floods me—so much more.
“Sure,” I say as brightly as I can. I want him to know that I am fine, that this whole thing has been fine. That I have noticed nothing, judged nothing.
I walk with Devin outside to the pickup. The broad stretch of his shoulders is hunched now, his head down. I watch the way he has to leave his dad, and a strangled feeling rises in my throat. I don’t want to kiss him anymore. I want to hug him.
We pull out onto the two-lane road and head back to town.
Now is the time to bring up that night.
But still we pretend.
A week after the night at Devin’s house, I ran into Mitch, who told me that he’d been calling April a lot and that they might go on a date. April was my friend, but she was also my main competition, and for a quick moment I was fired up, my mind searching for a nasty thing to say to him. He beat me to it. “You’ve been replaced,” he said, but I just laughed. Temporary, I thought to myself. He’ll be back. I don’t want him back, but he’ll be back all the same.
He called me a few days later.
The setting sun is streaming over the road now, spreading a watercolor of orange and purple behind the mountains, and the air is so fresh and light that I want to hold my head out the window and close my eyes like a happy dog. But I’m anxious, too. I just want to get back, back to the baseball game, back to my friends, to the familiar corners of my world. Where parents don’t have cancer. Where the houses are neatly painted in reassuring colors and the grass is clipped and green. Where my throat is not tight with an intimacy I probably don’t deserve. Where Mitch stops calling and Devin is still just a guy I know and we don’t have this moment between us.
This is what will happen: Devin will leave me at the chain link fence by the field. He will drive home to his mom’s house and go inside and maybe eat a little dinner that she’s left out for him. He will play video games with his sisters and stay up late watching Letterman. He will sleep shirtless, one arm thrown over the edge of a rumpled bed. I will walk home to my house and yell “Mom?” when I go inside, and do the dishes because it’s my night, and I won’t be able to sleep at all because that’s when my mind wants to spin the most. Our individual lives will speed up and whir along their fast and separate tracks, unaware once again of the other.
But he doesn’t know that I will hold that drive to his dad’s close and guarded. He doesn’t know this because he just wanted a friend along, and somehow he understood that I was one, and that there would be no need for questions, no need for further comment. The glimmer of this knowledge will blink and go out, blink and go out for years to come, arriving like a torch in my hand I didn’t know I was holding when other friends are raw with need. And I realize that the game with Mitch doesn’t have anything on this experience with Devin, who I will still, from time to time, recall kissing and being crushed underneath on a couch in his basement, the memory of which will slowly fade into just something I did once, back when, before the drive.
Devin doesn’t say a word the whole way back. I rest my head against the seat, keep my face turned away from him. He drops me off at the field and I walk home. When I go inside my house, I don’t yell for my mom. Instead, I stand in the kitchen, my hands on the counter, looking into the back yard. I see green through the square glass.
The phone rings.
I let my hands drop.