It is the generation of largesse, bangs that yearn to be bouffants like those you see atop your grandmother’s head in old photographs. Your bangs, teased out like a difficult puzzle, have confused themselves for a conquering army that threatens to overtake your face. Like a lawn, these bangs must be maintained. At school, twice a day during the scheduled lavatory breaks—Sister standing in her ergonomic shoes, the class moving silent and orderly, like a funeral procession, boys here, girls there, silent!—you wait your turn with your slowly flattening bangs. Girls exit, girls enter. You stand before the lavatory mirrors, re-coiffing your bangs with Paul Mitchell hairspray and a pic. The lavatory mirrors are poor quality, scratched with the initials of girls who came before you. Regarding yourself in their muddled reflection reminds you of catching your accidental image on the sides of your mother’s saucepans in which she cooks dinner she has no interest in cooking. Years later, you will wonder if the surfaces of those bathroom mirrors were actually defaced by the nuns, to teach you girls a lesson regarding the dangers of vanity. It is a useless endeavor to see yourself, you imagine Sister intoning. A waste of time, indeed. It only matters: how does God see you? The lavatory is permeated with the scent of stale urine. This school has a steep tuition which your mother frequently complains about. Apparently, this money doesn’t pay for cleaning, but rather bibles and Catholic textbooks, the projector sister lays her scribbled sheets upon, the plastic rosary beads everyone fingers each Friday during prayer when, together, you recite in your somnambulant voices Hail Marys and Our Fathers. Tuition goes to the abrasive toilet paper found in the bathroom stalls, to school lunches: flabby slices of pizza, oil pooling at the center of pepperoni slices; for Wednesday’s lunch special, something called turkey on a stick, your own personal favorite, though in third grade, in fourth grade, the other girls mocked you for eating it, chanting in the school yard: Turkey on a stick. Makes me sick. Makes my stomach go 246.
In the bathroom, the girls spritz and tease their bangs, daring them to grow large, larger. Everyone keeps tiny vials of Paul Mitchell hair spray inside the Liz Claiborne purses slung casually over their shoulders. Liz Claiborne purses are all the rage; the brighter the color, the better. You pointed out which one you wanted when your grandmother asked, but at Christmas, you found inside the box, not the deep purple color you’d selected, a purse that confused itself for a bruise, but rather a taupe-colored purse with a stodgy replicated pattern, something adequate for a woman in her forties, the sort of woman who writes personal checks and clips coupons, who fumbles to find her driver’s license.
“This is more practical,” your grandmother said as you arranged your face into something you hoped expressed gratitude. “This goes with everything. What good does a purple purse do anyone?”
In the bathroom, the other girls narrow their eyes slyly at your taupe-colored purse. In this way, you learn a lesson: Try as you might to be like others, you will never succeed. There will always be something off-kilter about you, not right. Wrong. You will always be the girl standing awkwardly at the outskirts; will always be the weird one who likes turkey on a stick, the girl who, in fourth grade, cried over losing your favorite pen, while the other students laughed at you and the substitute teacher—she just wanted to make some extra bucks, she wasn’t prepared for this—repeated while you cried into your phonics book, “It’s just a pen, dear. Just a pen.”
At fourteen, you buy your first cassette tape. Because you were once a child who cried with abandon over a lost pen, you are capable of unadulterated adulation towards a rock band. You spend hours listening to their music, rewinding the cassette to hear songs four, five, six times. You sit in front of the basement television, waiting for MTV to play their music videos. You sit, finger poised at the ready, to record these videos at the exact moment they air. Later, you watch them, memorizing every minuscule detail: flick of the singer’s hair, the broad line of his jaw, nudge of chin. His bare chest, a mesmerizing entity. The pin on his lapel says SEX. Your mother stares at this undulating word, ushered across the screen by the singer’s gyrations. A mouse climbs the singer’s leathered arm. The singer coddles this mouse, stares moodily through the screen to you. You yearn to be a mouse. You yearn to be small and slight, coddled by a man, easily handled, like a hardboiled egg inside a palm, in the moment just before it’s cracked against the countertop.
You say to your mother to turn her attention away from the SEX pin, “Look! A mouse!” “That’s no mouse,” your mother says. “That’s a rat.”
“It’s a clean rat,” you say.
“Still a rat.”
You learn everything there is to learn: the singer is Aquarius, Australian. You study the image of Australia on a map, touch with your index finger the place where he was born. You learn that Aquarians are aggressive, idealistic, independent. Like air, Aquarians lack a set shape, defy categorization. The band has three brothers. Two are handsome, one is not. Soon, you own every cassette this band has made, including the soundtracks on which their songs appear. You listen to these cassettes loudly on your boombox, your mother periodically banging on the door to yell, Turn that down!
On Saturdays, your family drives to Wyoming Valley Mall to shop beneath dizzying fluorescent lights. The drive is forty-five minutes. In the car, you listen to cassettes loudly on your walkman, staring at your reflection intermittently appearing in the juxtaposed dark patches of the barren trees which pass you, pass you, pass you. At the mall, over lunch at the food court, your mother appropriates your walkman, saying, “This is family time.” Your mother is an assiduous dieter, an assiduous denier. You watch as she eats plain white rice for lunch, sips a diet coke. She eyes your chow mien, acknowledging, “There’s eighty grams of fat in that!” and you finish your greasy noodles in shame.
At night, you watch movies alone in the basement. You watch Pretty in Pink on repeat, rewatching the scene in which your favorite band’s song appears. You play, rewind. Play, rewind, tuning out the scene unfolding in the foreground to concentrate on the singer’s voice in the background. It would be more efficient to play the entire song on the cassette tape, but hearing the singer’s voice inside the context of a movie gives you a thrill. Besides, your entire life spreads before you like an endless bedsheet. You have time to spare. Besides, you like this movie. You like Andie, red-haired and other, dressed in chaotic style. Mismatched prints, chunky belts, the sort of wide-brimmed hat which flatters no one. She, too, is unpopular; the other girls roll their eyes at her, think she’s trash. She handles their insults with more grace than you’ve ever mustered; you appreciate this. You think, things turn out okay for her. She winds up happy. You console yourself: yes, there is hope. You too, have seen the other girls roll their eyes at you; have seen their judgmental expressions narrow in your direction. You’ve heard their whispers, intentionally loud, about your clothing and skin, your frazzled hair; your awkward personality, your weird observations. Somehow, you make even your school uniform look wrong. Your shirt never stays tucked, your knee socks refuse to stay up. Like you, they seem confused about their identity. They slide along the spectrum of your leg, trying on other identities. They want to be ankle socks. You lurch through the hallways, yanking them back up. The shirts of the other girls are dry-cleaned and starched, always crisp. Yours are endlessly wrinkled; usually, whatever you’ve eaten for breakfast has been dripped across the front. Dab of butter, smear of jam. You imagine your mother pointing at the grease stain on your sleeve, declaring, That’s five grams of fat! At the start of the school year, you wanted saddle shoes, having seen them in the photographs of your grandmother’s high school yearbook. You dragged your mother to five different shoe stores before locating what seemed the only pair of saddle shoes in the entirety of Northeastern Pennsylvania. They weren’t what you wanted—the toe too rounded, the sole too thick—but your mother wrote out the check, saying with minced words, “You asked for saddle shoes.” That first day back, the other girls all wore penny loafers, sleek and narrow, the bright tucked pennies constantly glinting at you, saddle-shoed, your knee socks bunching at the ankles, exposing your goose-pimpled legs.
You eat chocolate frosting straight out of the container, swoon over Andrew McCarthy’s doe eyes, the lingering kiss he shares with Molly Ringwald. You, too, yearn to kiss a boy inside a stable under the poetic gaze of horses. How romantic.
“If you’re not careful,” your father tells you.
“Andrew McCarthy will kiss me inside a stable,” you joke.
“You’re putting on weight.” He touches your hip. “That’s maybe a little too much chocolate frosting on the docket.”
“It’s not enough chocolate frosting,” you say, turning away.
There are boys, eventually. Your first kiss occurs in the basement of your house one night while your parents are out. The boy appears at the sliding doors, tapping the glass for your attention. Soon, he is forcing his tongue between your lips like someone sticking his hand inside an elevator to keep the door from abruptly closing. His tongue draws dizzying circles inside your mouth. This feeling—your two tongues, wrangling like snakes on heated asphalt—cause you to disappear elsewhere, concentrate instead on a corner of the ceiling where your mother, typically a neurotic cleaner of things, has missed a spot. Staring at this corner, you consider other dizzying things: The Tilt-a-Whirl during summers at the county fair, the washer agitating its increasingly dingy whites, your sneakers clanking inside the dryer, a sound you are sure is the sound zombies make as they lumber from the cemetery towards the bedrooms of sleeping girls. This boy has pocked skin, eyes the pale blue of a Siberian husky. He wears a steady wardrobe of camouflage shorts and shirts. No, he says, he hasn’t actually gone hunting.
“Maybe one day,” he says.
“Well, you’ll be dressed for it,” you say.
“True,” he says, “true,” but months after this whirligig kiss—afterwards, you will touch your hand to your assaulted mouth, wondering what was that—he will die in a car crash, having never gone hunting. He will die in a car crash, but not before he dumps you and you do a succession of embarrassing things in an attempt to win him back. You beg, plead. You say nice things, but when those don’t work, you say mean things, words you will never get back, words you will never make right. He dies, and this kiss grows softer in your memory. Becomes a delicate and pretty thing, like the peach hand towels in your bathroom you are forbidden to use —though sometimes you do, defiantly—or the pearls you’re given for your sixteenth birthday when you’ve actually asked for a typewriter.
“A typewriter!” your grandmother will say. “A girl’s sweet sixteen is for pretty jewelry!” The pearls are still two years away when, at fourteen, you lose your virginity to an eighteen-year-old from a different high school, a wrestler you meet in the Viewmont Mall. It will be years before you realize the inappropriateness of this. It will come at you like a stab one night when you look him up on social media. You discover that he is a bodybuilder who owns a fitness center. He has had three very fit wives, all extremely tanned brunettes with polish-sounding last names, the sort of women who make but don’t eat pierogies. On his page are many photographs of himself taken from the waist up. These photographs, frequently posed before an American flag, showcase his abdominal muscles. His teeth are uncannily white, appear as unattainable as his abs. His posts recommend eating cans of tuna fish as a pure protein source for body building; they praise the benefits of egg whites but chastise the damning nature of egg yolks. He poses with different clients, his arm draped over their shoulders. Chris is an animal! Joyce is a beast! Meredith KILLLED abs today! There are videos of his jabbing an imaginary opponent. Life’s gonna give ya lemons…reads the caption. Punch it right in the mouth when that shit happens!
Remember me? You write. We had sex in the woods. You didn’t even bring a blanket.
Afterwards, you asked for my underwear and got angry when I told you no. That was a real fucking lemon.
He deletes the comment, and soon blocks you.
Years have gone by. You rarely remember this moment, although intermittent remembrances appear like flotsam, or like tiny stabs of light at the corner of your eye. You remember the rustling of the tree tops, the thrush of wind rattling the empty branches, the crackle of leaves, a sound like laughter, beneath you. Days later, you will have a bull’s eye rash on your thigh but, terrified of telling your mother how you procured such a thing, you spend much of your life fearing you contracted Lyme disease while losing your virginity in a scraggle of West Scranton woods. It’s true, that afterwards he asks for your underwear—a memento, you now realize, the boardwalk shot glass of woodsy sexual encounters—and that he does, indeed, get angry when you say no. No, an answer you realize has come too late. What use is no, now? No, he says, the answer as useful as a purple purse. Sorry. No, I can’t drive you home. You take public transportation, undulating with the stops and starts of the bus, intermittently ignoring and honing on the uncomfortable burning between your legs, subtle but threatening to grow, like a low-grade flame before it catches, burns twenty houses in its fury. It’s a different band by now, but you still have the habit of listening to the same song on repeat. You sway inside your seat, rewinding the song, playing it back. Rewinding, playing. The bus driver’s eye meets yours in the rear view mirror. He knows, you think. He knows I’m not who I was. Or he knows I’m exactly the same.
Your husband has a terrible memory. Almost certainly you told him that your first boyfriend died in a car crash—this is an important, formative detail—and almost certainly, he forgot. You don’t think you’ve told him much about losing your virginity, except that you lost it to a wrestler. Your husband also wrestled in high school. He has told you about singlets and about certain moves like the five-on-two.
“Five on two?” you say.
“Five fingers, two balls.”
“That was legal?”
“Not so much.”
Your husband was a top wrestler in his State, before he did too many drugs. Apparently, he had a thing for Phoebe Cate—who didn’t? he asks—and for Molly Ringwald, which you realize one night when Pretty In Pink is on the television.
“Really?” you ask. “I never really found her attractive.”
“She was,” he says. “She wasn’t. But she seemed cool, right?”
“She did,” you say.
“Did you like this douche?” He nods at the television screen, at Andrew McCarthy. “Yes,” you say. “But I never noticed how he does that weird thing with his eyes. He looks either constipated or like he’s writing haikus.”
“Hangdog is the word that comes to mind,” your husband says.
That scene happens, the one where Blane picks Andie up from the record store for their date and asks, “Do you want to go home and change?” And Andie, looking down at the asphalt, says, “I already did.”
“Yowzers,” your husband says. “Yikes.”
“Isn’t that the first clue,” you say. “To turn around and go right back home.”
Now, as a much older person—you’d be hanging out with the parents, you now realize, talking about those crazy kids, judging them for throwing house parties and laying around in lingerie—you recognize that Andie and Blane’s date is a red-hot disaster. Today, if a date like this happens, the girl looks down at her phone, and in the blink of an eye, with little remorse over such an emboldened, lie, claims a grandparent’s death, says she has to split.
“These two people have zero chemistry,” you say. “He, like, doesn’t even take her to dinner. He takes her to Steph’s house party knowing his douchebag friend doesn’t like her. She says she doesn’t want to go but still, he pressures her and sits there like a potato while Steph and Benny insult her. So either he’s self-absorbed and apathetic to her feelings, or he’s dumb as a brick.”
“She takes him to the bar,” your husband says. “And Duckie insults him.”
“Totally different. Duckie is a dick because he loves her. He’s jealous, and coming from a place of emotion, whereas his friends were dicks because they think they’re above her. Also, she doesn’t know Duckie is going to be there.”
You realize, now, that a date inside the bowels of a stable is not the romantic gesture you once believed it was. First, he brings her where no one can see them. Second, hay hurts to sit on. Surely, sitting there, she’s uncomfortable, her ass is being pricked. Having lost your virginity on a pile of decaying leaves and sticks in the woods—it was November, cold—you consider yourself an expert in such matters. She’s sitting there with an uncomfortable ass, while the horses chew with their slack horse jowls, stare at them with their sad horse eyes, thinking, He didn’t even take this one to dinner.
And then he ghosts her—they didn’t call it that, back then, but they call it that now—he doesn’t even have the dignity to answer the phone and say thanks, but no thanks. His poor mother fields the calls, does the dirty work. And then he straight up lies to her face about not seeing her the next morning at school. He straight up lies, says, I got in trouble for the stable thing. Tells her he forgot he asked someone else to prom, but the truth is that he’s spineless and cares what other people think. And then prom rolls around and she walks in with her lacy pink dress whose shape you’ve never comprehended, Duckie on her arm, and of course Blane accosts her before she has a moment to even pour herself punch or embarrass herself on the dance floor. He has the nerve to claim she gave up on him. I believed in you, you didn’t believe in me, he says and stalks off stage with the drama of a Beverly Hills housewife.
“Like a little bitch,” your husband says. “He just walks off like a little bitch.”
That quivering moment: will she follow him?
“Andie!” your husband yells at the TV. “This guy is a fucking piece of shit! Save yourself a future of hurt and be done!”
“Andie!” you yell. “If you run after him, you’ll be divorced in twenty years, listen to me.”
“It will be a lifetime of silent dinners,” your husband says.
“Maybe it will just be silence,” you say. “Maybe thirty years into marriage, he still hasn’t taken her to dinner.”
“And what’s up with Iona?” your husband asks. “Being all cool, having all this style, but she meets some yuppie and turns into a soccer mom, which is fine, but wouldn’t it also be fine for her to just be who she is? Why does she need to change for the pet shop owner? And wasn’t their first date, like, a week ago but she already has a shirt with shoulder pads and a weird mullety haircut?”
Oh, Andie. You see her life: married to her first love, a boy she kissed in a stable. But he doesn’t seem to be the sort of man who’d leave the town in which he grew up; he has a family business to run. They’ll stay in the same neighborhood, three houses down the street from his parents. Dear, his mother will call Andie, with the same tone she uses on incompetent shop girls. It’s inevitable, Andie and Blane will go to the Country Club on Saturday nights and as they sidle up to the bar for martinis—she’s become the sort of woman who feels disproportionately disappointed when the Club runs out of blue cheese-stuffed olives—they’ll run into Benny and Steph, Benny who’s had botox and who now wears an iron-clad forehead as the first in a line of defenses, and Steph, always just drunk enough to think he still looks good with this many undone shirt buttons. They’ll stand momentarily talking at the bar, and Benny will say to Andie, “Nice dress,” but there’s no real of knowing: is this a compliment? Is it irony? Benny once called her trash and meant it. But anyway, the days of making her own clothes are long gone. Andie can afford to buy things her husband won’t mistake for clothes she needs to change out of. She’s busy with her own petulant spoiled children, and charities, all sorts of tedious events at the club, things she never thought she’d be interested in until she made that decision to run after this man in the parking lot at the school gym. How long was it, before she realized: it’s easier to do the heat of moment running than to extricate yourself from the disaster in which you’ve ensnared yourself. You’ve read that originally, she was meant to be with Duckie, but the test audiences hated that ending, resisted seeing their normal lives reflected back at them. You imagine that at home, Andie googles Duckie and sees he’s handsome, a musician or an artist. Or maybe there’s nothing to find, no inkling, no trace, only a disappearance into the ether, like the boy who once tapped your sliding glass door and kissed you, who died without having gone hunting, or attending a rock concert, or kissing a girl who kissed him back.
The credits roll. You stand to wash the dishes left in the sink—oh, your mother would say, I raised you better than to leave dishes in the sink—and something compels you to sing over the crash of water. You remember the whole song, every word, as if you are still sitting alone in the cafeteria with your too-rounded saddle shoes and too-frazzled hair.
Turkey on a stick, makes me sick, makes my stomach go 246. Not because I’m dirty, not because I’m clean, just because you kissed a boy behind a magazine. Hey, Devon, wanna have some fun? Here comes Charles with his pants undone.
“What?” your husband asks, coming to the sink, and you shrug.
“Childhood taunt,” you say. “Playground fun,” you add ironically.
“People sang that?”
“To kids they wanted to make fun of,” you say. You think of Charles’s red face, you imagine your own.
“Is that the whole thing?”
“I only know the next few lines,” you say, and sing them.
He can wibble he can wobble he can even do the splits,
But I bet ya ten bucks that he can’t do this.
“Jesus,” your husband says, and you consider Jesus’s pale, sacrificial statue at the front of the room, his chiseled chest and nailed feet, as you yanked up your socks for the hundredth time and considered that half of these people wouldn’t have given Jesus the time of day.
“It’s funny,” you say. “What stays with a person.”
Jenn Scott’s debut novel “All the Tiny Beauties” was published by Acre Books in 2022. Her debut story collection, Her Adult Life (also Acre Books) was long-listed for the PEN/Robert Bingham Prize for Short Story Award. Her stories have appeared in such journals as Gettysburg Review, Santa Monica Review, Cincinnati Review, Gulf Coast, Los Angeles Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Fiction. She lives and writes and eats and drinks in Oakland, California with one husband and four cats.