Study Partner by Faith Gardner
It wasn’t until Bruce shucked his junior varsity sweatshirt and slung it on his bedpost and pierced me with his twilight eyes that I knew this would be the night of it. That tomorrow, I would not be able to look my father in the eyes and I would be diarying the details. Bruce’s arms were toned from water polo, his hair gold-bleached, and he was so skinny I would probably crush him if I climbed on top. His room was musty: pools of laundry, boxer shorts, and Ts. I studied his baseball stats poster, all those tiny ticked numbers that meant something to him and nothing to me. I would never be in this room if it weren’t for the serendipity of biology partners and midterms. I reached out and touched the fluffy inside of his inside-out sweatshirt on the bedpost, the downiness, the newness. Junior varsity. I would never make varsity anything, except maybe a pie-eating contest. I put the sweatshirt on my lap and ran my fingertips along the white fleece, warm snow. He rubbed my jeans in little circles and his tongue found mine.
“Boys have needs,” my mother told me the last time I saw her, at a roadside restaurant ten miles from home. We sat in a booth next to a picture window that looked onto the parking lot, where my father sat in his Datsun and glared at us through his sunglasses. I looked away and ordered what she ordered: a BLT, fries. She opened her sandwich and sucked the bacon piece by piece. She had meant well with her outfit, a peasant blouse to cover the prison tattoos. She had brought me a present too: a makeup kit with a rainbow of eyeshadows and lipsticks. The red lipstick was missing from its slot, though, and my mother’s lips shouted scarlet. “We got needs too but ours are different. You want yours, well, then just give them what they want. Leverage. Currency. We don’t have much, baby, so if you see something that you’ve got your eye on, then you snatch it, you understand?”
I didn’t, but nodded anyway.
“You didn’t get the lion’s share of the beauty stick,” she said. She spit a piece of bacon out of her mouth onto the plate and made a face. “But beauty don’t matter sometimes. It’s spunk. Ease. Get me? Just use a rubber so you don’t end up with the burn, or worse yet, a squirt.”
I nodded, touched the glistening plastic of the makeup kit. She probably stole it from the drugstore the way she used to steal my Juicy Juice and school supplies. My phone beeped and I told her it was time to go.
“I’ll visit again soon,” she said, reapplying her red lipstick outside her lip lines, giving her a drag queen look. She had missed her last six visits, so I wasn’t about to hold my breath. I stood and hugged her. Half of her smelled good, like Pine Sol. The other half smelled like the bus on bad days.
After Bruce rolled off me and threw the limp plastic thing into the trash can, he yawned a loud, overdramatic yawn. “So tired,” he said. He got up and opened his bedroom door. “Mom’s going to be home soon. I guess we didn’t get much biology done, did we?”
“Or did we?” I asked.
He laughed. “You’re funny.”
The sweatshirt was still sitting on my lap. It had been there during the whole hard five minutes – there, between us, soft passive border, cancelling out the pushing and the pain. I clutched it harder, put my face into it. It smelled new. I didn’t want to leave.
“You can take it,” he said. “The sweatshirt. I have like seven.”
He walked me downstairs and I heard the lock fall into place as I stood on his porch. I heard him pad up the stairs. The street was solemn with streetlamps and their buzzing yellow bulbs. The sky was drowsy with stars. I felt electric and alone. I put on the sweatshirt and shuffled home, smelling the arms, the sweet sting of chlorine that matched the sweet sting in me.
Faith Gardner lives in Oakland and has stories in places like ZYZZYVA, PANK and Word Riot. She also plays and sings in bands Dark Beach and Hooray for Everything. Find her at faithgardner.com.