Richard comes over after my sister’s bedtime, and the first thing he says when he walks into our apartment is “What a lovely home.” I snort, because we’re slobs. What does he like more, the dirty plates on the floor or the toast crumbs all over the counter? I didn’t clean because when my mom got home from work she’d know I’d been up to something. If she thought I had a boy over, she’d kill me.
“Sit down,” I say. I mean to sound like a gracious host, but it comes out like a demand.
Richard sits on the couch and I join him. He looks like his mom combed his hair in a side part for picture day. I follow the advice I read on a stupid website about being a good date and say, “So, tell me about you.”
“I live on Maple Avenue.”
“My dad owns the carpet store.”
“I don’t care about that stuff!” I say. I can’t help myself. He’s wearing a blazer. I’m wearing the same sweater I had on all day.
“I’m sorry,” he says, so nice it cracks my heart. “You like books, right? What’s your favorite?”
“A Feast of Snakes,” I tell him. After my dad moved out, I snatched it from the shelf so my mom couldn’t give it away. I knew how much my dad loved Harry Crews and figured he was trying to tell me something by leaving the book behind. My mom would never let me read it. So far, I’ve read it twice.
“I don’t know it,” says Richard. I sneak past my sleeping sister and grab the book, with Crews’ perfect messed-up face on the front, from its hiding place in our room.
“Here,” I say to Richard. “Read it to me.”
After a big Adam’s-apple-bobbing gulp, he says, “She felt the snake between her breasts, felt him there, and loved him there, the deep tumescent S held rigid, ready to strike.” He’s blushing but the words lull him and soon the blushing fades. When he gets to the part where Hard Candy arches her back and thrusts her pelvis while winking at Joe Lon, he slows down, his head nodding like each word’s a drug. Then he stops reading. His eyes are the lightest blue: I can see them so much better when he’s not smiling them thin. Their beauty makes me shy and I turn away, until a wind blasts my face.
“What was that?”
“I was blowing in your ear.”
“You missed. Want to try again?” I tilt my neck and pull back my hair. He bends close and blows, his breath now soft and arrowed just right.
“Should I do it to you?” I ask.
He jams his mouth against mine. His lips are chompy stones. I push him away.
“You kiss wrong,” I say. I mean, how would I know? Except, I know. I’ve read about it and thought about it and seen it on TV. I imagined a deep, sweet ache, but not upper gum pain.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I’ll do better next time.”
He comes in for me gently. Our mouths move slow and fast at the same time, and I feel the sweet ache.
Then I feel an unsweet ache of Richard’s hand tangled in my bra strap.
“What are you doing?”
He turns redder than his hair. “I was just admiring your sweater,” he says. “It’s very nice.”
“That’s not what you were doing!” If he says what he’s doing, I’ll take off my sweater. I’ll take off my bra and let him lick me.
“You like chess?” he says.
I used to play chess with my dad, even though I don’t like it: too many rules. But I liked the careful way he spoke when he taught me, like he wasn’t just talking about chess but about life.
He left without saying. He’d put on his coat that morning like it was just another day.
“I love chess,” I say. I find our crappy plastic chess set tucked high in our closet and we spend the rest of the night with a table between us.
The next day, when school gets out, my friend Sharla grabs my arm. “Did you have sex with Richard Carrigan?” she asks. “Everyone’s saying shit.”
I start to say “No,” but something stops me, a feeling wiggling through my chest. I hold the feeling there. I shrug and make my eyes look like they hold a sexy secret.
“Really?” she says. “No way!” She’s smiling like I gave her the best gift, exactly what she wanted but not what she expected.
I nod, matching her grin to the millimeter. I let her think what she wants. And I let myself think what I want and what I think is that sometimes lying’s the truest thing you can do.
I wonder if I’ll ever find true love, which Harry Crews defines in A Feast of Snakes as “putting it in your ass then putting it in your mouth.” Could I love the worst parts of Richard, swallow them? If my mom had loved the worst parts of my dad, maybe he wouldn’t have left.
I head for the bus. Along comes Richard, panting to catch up. “I’m so sorry,”
he says. “The guys, they made assumptions, and I let them. I’ll make it right.” I don’t know how a tall blue-eyed redhead can look like a puppy, but that’s what he looks like now.
“Don’t bother. What do I care what people think?” I feel it then, how I might live without caring. Maybe my dad left because he knew I could take it; he was training me to be fierce, like Big Joe trained his dogs in Feast of Snakes.
I press my lips to Richard’s, plunge my tongue in, make it slither. “See you later,” I say. And just like my daddy, I walk away.
Jennifer Wortman is a National Endowment for the Arts fellow and the author of the story collection This. This. This. Is. Love. Love. Love (Split/Lip Press, 2019). She lives with her family in Colorado, where she serves as associate fiction editor for Colorado Review and teaches at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. Find more at jenniferwortman.com.