Tonight it’s Marie’s. Her dilapidated garage is set at the far end of her yard. We climb onto the back roof where it’s low and watch the sun slip below jagged spruce that barricade her property from the Dominican Retreat where the nuns live. It’s early October, and next door, Mr. Cory’s maples are blazing red. I can feel the coming frost.
We recline on the crumbling asphalt shingles as faint stars pierce the growing dark. Male laughter comes around the building.
It’s lanky Harold Withers. “Hey, your brothers around?”
Marie ooches to the edge of the roof. “No, they’re at my Dad’s.”
Kevin Boyle appears beside Harold. “What are you two up to?”
“Watching the stars.”
Harold and Kevin are seniors. They sit at the round tables by the Crossroads, the main intersection at the center of the high school, where the upperclassmen hang out. Harold doesn’t look as dorky as his name. His jet black hair and square jaw remind me of Gregory Peck. I sort of know him from when his mom and my mom were leaders of my brownie troop. His sister, Beth, was my friend in first grade. I used to be afraid of her dad until she told me he had one glass eye, and wasn’t always staring at me.
Harold’s gaze is fixed on Marie’s bleached blonde ponytail and pretty face. He holds up his hands to catch her. “Let’s look at the stars together.”
Kevin lifts his arms. I skitter to the side and jump down by myself. Kevin isn’t as tall as Harold. His hair isn’t as dark. The blotchy freckles across his cheeks remind me of Howdy Dowdy. By the time I hit the ground, Harold and Marie are lying beside each other in what’s left of an apple orchard in the side yard. The tang of rotting fruit and damp leaves bites my nostrils.
Kevin holds out his hand as if I’m supposed to take it. I don’t want to, but he leads me onto the open lawn. He lies in the grass and grasps my fingertips from below. It’s awkward holding hands with a prone person when you’re standing upright. I sink to my knees.
“Lean on me,” he whispers. His green flannel arm wraps around my rigid back and tips my face to his.
Over his shoulder, I look for the flickering blue light of Mrs. Gardner’s TV in her upstairs window. It’s so dark, all I can make out of Harold and Marie is one long hump.
“Hey, you want me to teach you how to kiss?”
It’s not really a question. Kevin presses his mouth on mine. Does it count as a kiss if you don’t kiss back? There is no spark arcing between me and Howdy Dowdy.
His tongue probes my lips. What is he doing?
“You never heard of Frenching?”
I sit up wishing Marie would stop looking at Harold and look at me.
Headlights sweep the driveway. Dale Eagan’s white, wood-paneled Chevy pulls in. “Hey, your brothers home?”
Harold and Marie rush to the driver’s window. “No. Where you going?”
They climb in the back seat.
Kevin grabs my wrist. “Wait for us.”
We head towards the Mohawk River and turn right across a low bridge. The car stops at an island clearing enclosed by willows, swamp maples and skunk cabbage. Kevin hands me a can of Budweiser, and we sit on the bumper facing a smoky fire. I down my beer.
The brew makes it so I don’t mind so much that I haven’t talked to Marie since looking into the heavens. When I finish that can, Kevin hands me another, so I don’t even mind that I lied to my parents to drink besides a boy whose serpentine tongue I’ve had to fend off all nIght.
Monday I do mind—very much— when Kevin shouts, “Lush!” as I pass the Crossroads.
I don’t know what lush means any more than I knew that Frenching wasn’t speaking a foreign language. But I know it’s a label, a bad one. I can hear the cruelty in the voice of the boy who first kissed me.
A label that somehow I lived up to. Before my first semester of high school was over, I’d thrown up on Tadd Miller’s rec room floor, not knowing I’d have his mother the following year for sophomore American history. After drinking, followed by hamburgers at Red Barn, my parents found me asleep beside a toilet full of vomit, my night gown on inside out. The night I came home so sloshed, I couldn’t even climb the stairs, my poor parents threatened to take me to the emergency room for fear of alcohol poisoning. They didn’t know what to do. Neither did I.
When I think back to that excruciating period, I’m reminded of the frog I had to dissect in freshman biology—soaked in formaldehyde and pinned to a tray, its most intimate parts labeled for all to see. Lush—what I would’ve given to be re-labeled--innocent.