Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

 Stardate

 

 

Her boyfriend, Matt Mackey, is in the passenger’s seat. Can she really call him that, she thinks, she hopes—her boyfriend? She never knew someone so handsome could be interested in her. He has green eyes, a dimpled chin, and longish blonde hair that’s gelled and wet looking with big curls at the ends like a flock of crispy capital “C’s.” Jocelyn’s never done this before, had a boyfriend. It’s uncharted territory, and so is this trip. In a red, rusted out pickup they’re driving north towards Canada. They’re going fly fishing at her Uncle’s lake, but Jocelyn’s nervous they’ll never get there. She can hardly keep her eyes on the winding two-lane highway. That’s how handsome Matt Mackey is. She’s constantly looking over at him, checking him out, then doublechecking him out as if to make sure this is real, that he’s real. Slouched, leaning backwards, he rests a boot on the dash and balances a forearm across his raised knee. On the bridge of his long, perfect nose he’s sporting a pair of black-horned-rimmed glasses. He’s a complete contradiction, the total package, sexy and brilliant. Hot, but totally chilled. After a second or two, Jocelyn peeks at him again. She can’t help herself. They’ve been dating for a few weeks now and sometimes when she looks at him she still thinks she’s staring at a poster.

Jocelyn Cooper’s not bad herself. She has black hair, an oval face, and smooth, uncracked lips like soft curving sticks of pink pastel. Her beauty, actually, is nothing short of exquisite. It’s a beauty that’s been waiting for her to claim since the day she was born. It’s in her eyes, her cheekbones, those lips. But it’s also a beauty she’s been too innocent or naïve to recognize as one of her possessions, something she owns. In her mind she’s only an average looking eighteen-year-old girl who’s just as curious about love as any girl anywhere. Which is exactly why she’s planned this trip, because she thinks she’s ready to find it, she thinks she’s ready to find some love.

She looks over at Matt Mackey again and ends up looking a little too long. The red Ford Ranger drifts across the median and a horn from an oncoming car stabs the air like a punch and a surge of shock runs through Jocelyn’s body and she jerks the wheel and swerves safely back into her lane.

“You OK?” Matt says.

“Absolutely. I’m totally fine,” she answers, but of course she isn’t. She can feel her thumbs throbbing against the wheel. All week she’s been eating them. At the library, in her dorm room, she’d bite off little pieces of skin and mince them between her teeth like rice. She wants to look over at him again but studies the landscape instead. It’s mid-morning on a Saturday in late November, but the wooly grey clouds make it feel like dusk. The light is flat, ashen, yet intimate, and the stubbled wheat fields of Eastern Washington stretch out over the rolling hills. In the distance there are pine trees and the huge triangular bases of the Selkirk Mountains. She tries to think of something to say, some conversation to have, but Jocelyn doesn’t know what to talk about, and she’s worried Matt Mackey’s already bored. A few seconds ago he flicked open his cell phone and he’s still pecking at the keypad with his thumbs.

“What are you doing?” she asks.

“Nothing,” he says. “Just texting.

“Texting who?”

“No one. Just a buddy of mine.”

He jabs at the keypad some more and snaps the phone closed then does something Jocelyn finds suspicious. He smiles and lets out a tiny snickering laugh. The suspicious part is how quietly he does it, as if the laugh is only for himself, and that makes Jocelyn kind of curious about what he’s written. She wants to know, but doesn’t ask. He can be a bit bull-headed sometimes, and curt, and she doesn’t want to pry. Instead, she focuses on the good, and it’s mostly all good. She’s especially pleased about what he’s wearing. She said warm, rugged, and he’s sporting dark jeans, leather hiking boots, and a face full of blonde stubble. This makes her happy because it means he was listening, and if he was listening it means he likes her, and if he likes her it means that someday he might really care about her—and isn’t that all she’s ever wanted—someone who really, really cares?

The only thing she doesn’t like about his clothing is that T-shirt. It’s a maroon-colored T-shirt and he’s wearing it over a long-sleeved oatmeal thermal. The thermal has a waffle pattern and Jocelyn appreciates how tight it is over his forearms, how strong it makes him look, but that T-shirt, if she’s being perfectly honest is something Matt should have reconsidered. If he was going out with her roommate, Cherish, it might have been fine. It might have been more than fine. She’d probably even like it. She’d probably think it was edgy and blunt and to someone who didn’t like it, to someone who might be a little offended or put off by it, someone like Jocelyn, she’d probably shrug her shoulders and be totally and completely dismissive and say something like, “That’s not a me problem… that’s a you problem.”

And maybe it was. Maybe it was a her problem, but Jocelyn still felt like she had to say something, to probe for clarification because truth be told Matt Mackey should have known better; he should have known her better. 

“About that T-shirt…” she begins.

He looks down at his chest and pulls the fabric away from his body. He reads it then looks back at Jocelyn, a gleaming-white-toothed grin on his pretty face, “You like it, don’t you?”

In white cursive lettering the script reads: It’s only kinky the first time.

“Well,” she hedges.

“Got it at a sorority date party.”

This information catches her off guard. “Sorority?” she says.

“It was wild,” he says, “a wild night,” and apparently he means it so badly or thinks she’s stupid and doesn’t know what “wild” means because he proceeds to spell it out for her. “W-I-L-D,” he says.

“Cool,” she says, rather tepidly.

“No,” Matt says, “Hot. Su-per hot!”

Why is he telling her this? Is he trying to make her jealous? Is he trying to make her uncomfortable? She’s not jealous per se, but if she knew any of the girls maybe then she’d be jealous, but jealous and disgusted at the same time.

“What sorority?” she asks.

“Oh, this was a couple years ago,” he says. “This was long before you got here. I just wear it now for the memories. And because I think it’s funny.”

Jocelyn had never thought about it that way, as a joke.

“Don’t you?”

“Don’t I what?”

“Think it’s funny.”

“Of course I do,” she lies. “It’s super funny. It’s F-U-N-N-Y.”

Matt laughs and even though Jocelyn is not at all amused, making the joke loosens her up and makes her feel good. But she’s not prepared for what happens next. Matt scoots closer. He slides his body across the long bench seat until his leg and shoulder are pressing into hers.

“But do you know why it’s funny?” he asks.

His breath is hot in her ear. It smells like candy, his breath does, like black licorice, a flavor she loves.

“Why?” she says.

“It’s like most things that are funny. It’s funny because it’s true.”

She feels his broad chest pushing closer and she’s keen enough to know he wants her to do something, to do something right here, right now, in the cab of this truck, but she doesn’t know exactly what he wants or expects her to do while she’s got two hands on the wheel and trying to drive as safely as possible.

 

*     *     *

Ten minutes later and neither of them have said a word to each other. Matt is back in the passenger’s seat looking sullen. They haven’t been seeing each other that long, five or six weeks at most, and it’s not uncomfortable, these silences. They still have so much to say to one another, they must. Still, Jocelyn feels bad. This was supposed to be fun and exciting. She’d told him she wanted to go on an adventure, and now they’re not even talking. Jocelyn thinks she should say something but doesn’t know what she should say. From the corner of her eye she sees Matt lift his hand into the air. She wonders if he’s going to touch her again. And now she wants him to. Go ahead and touch me, she thinks. Put your hand anywhere you want. Put it right on my knee, she thinks. But instead of touching Jocelyn, Matt touches the window instead. It’s frosted milk-blue with ice and he presses his hand against it and when he takes it away he leaves on the glass a watery, five-fingered print. 

*     *     *

Just past Chewelah his mood begins to change. He seems relaxed and mellow, seems to be back to his old self again, looking rustic and gorgeous. He smiles at Jocelyn and she smiles back. They’re friends again, more than friends, and as if to prove it he begins rubbing her leg and she lets him. They pass empty, weather-beaten barns and gas stations with old number-rolling pumps. The mountains have angled closer, tightening the valley, and the clouds have both expanded and become thicker at the same time. The prospect of bad weather, possible snowstorms, makes Jocelyn nervous. She tells herself it’s only the weather she’s nervous about.

Matt keeps rubbing her leg and her skin goes all warm and tingly. She looks over at him and wonders what Cherish might do, wonders if Cherish might skip fishing altogether. She knows of course, that Cherish, who has two tattoos and a clit ring, who has a new boyfriend it seems every week would not only skip the fishing, but would have never needed the pretense of a “fishing trip” to have sex. She has sex whenever she wants to.

 At the beginning of their friendship Cherish’s candor about sex made Jocelyn uncomfortable, but now Jocelyn has become her pet project. Cherish keeps trying to help her, she keeps trying to tell her all the things she could do to keep Matt Mackey happy without giving it up, but Jocelyn never uses any of her ideas, not even the tame ones that don’t require more advanced accessories, things she’s never even been aware of before, like personal lubricant, or, as Cherish calls it, slippy sauce.

Still, for some reason, Jocelyn looks up to her. Even though she has spiky magenta colored hair and listens to punk music and does not believe in Jesus Christ—His Living Sacrifice—she sometimes even trusts her. They are both only 18, but Cherish is like the older sister Jocelyn never had. Wise, patient, open-minded, she also has a freedom with her body that Jocelyn has never experienced, or more accurately, allowed herself to have. Jocelyn always feels—has always been taught to feel—that she’s saving her body for someone else, like it’s not really hers to give.

As a high school sophomore she signed a contract to abstain, to keep intact, until marriage, the sanctity of her body. Before she signed that pledge her teacher, Mrs. Seivert, gave a one-hour seminar on sexual education. It was titled The White Lambs of the Lord and during that presentation Mrs. Seivert read passages from the Bible and used strange sounding words Jocelyn had never heard before. Words like Chylamidia, gonorrhea, vas defrens. There were photographs too, close-ups of STDs and diseased vaginas to which her teacher referred not as diseased vaginas, but as ruined wombs.

After that seminar Jocelyn’s body actually hurt. It felt like she had a terrible stomachache and writing her name on that line, signing that contract, made it all go away. Her fear was swiftly replaced by strength. She felt she had a higher calling suddenly, a vow, a covenant with God. She recalled images of Jesus with the fire around his heart and imagined—like a force field of his love and protection—the same kind of flames surrounding her own vagina.

Lately she’s become skeptical of that contract. Or maybe now she’s just less naïve. She looks over at Matt Mackey again and she’s pretty sure she wants him to be the one to break it, her contract. Still, she’s still pretty nervous about the whole thing. To this very day she cannot erase the images of those filthy high school slides, the pictures of that wart-encrusted penis, the bulbous ring of pus around its rim. She’s tired of waiting though. All her girlfriends have serious boyfriends and she’s tired of asking the question: When is it going to happen to me? When am I going to fall in love?

Except now she has. At least she thinks she has—at least a little bit. She knows, for example, that she loves his hair, and also his smile. It doesn’t hurt that he’s six feet tall, a junior, and majoring in Pre-Law either. About the only thing that she doesn’t like about Matt Mackey is that T-shirt. It’s too presumptuous, a little too cocky. Also he’s not that funny. At least not as funny as he thinks he is.

She definitely appreciates his attention though, likes the way he’s smoothing his hand up and down her leg. It reminds her of the night they met. It was at a club in downtown Spokane called The Brass Rail. After dancing next to each other for a few songs he tucked his arm around her waist and pulled her close, his leg sliding between hers, and even now, especially now, she remembers that friction, that warmth. After a few songs he said to her, screaming over the music—YOU’RE THE FUCKING BOMB! But until he said it again later, she thought she’d heard—YOU REMIND ME OF MY MOM!—which was, she felt, at the time, the sweetest thing anyone had ever said to her.

Matt lifts his hand away from her leg and reaching above the windshield flicks down the visor. The horned-rimmed glasses are new and apparently he’s not totally convinced.

“What do you think?” he says. “Do you like them?”

She does, kind of. “I do,” she says, nodding.

He touches the sides of the frames, changes the angle of his face. “They don’t make me look mean, do they?”

“Not mean,” she says.

“I don’t want to look too radical or anything.”

“You don’t.”

“Urban,” he says, “and fierce. That’s what I’m shooting for.”

“They make you look handsome,” she says.

He flips the mirror back up and turns to her, grinning. “Tell me the truth,” he says.

“I did,” she says. “I said the glasses looked good.”

“I’m not talking about the glasses anymore.”

“What you talking about then?”

“I’m talking about you.”

She’s not sure how this has happened, how the conversation has turned back towards her. “What about me?” she says.

“Has anyone ever told you how smoking hot you are?”

At the base of her neck Jocelyn feels a surge of heat. She’s not sure how to respond. For a long time now, at least since she turned sixteen, she’s noticed guys looking at her, turning their heads and taking long glances. Even the older guys look, men in their thirties and forties and she knows that kind of attention might make other girls feel flattered and pretty, but Jocelyn has never liked it, how hard they stare. She always feels as if their eyes are like knives cutting into her, taking pieces of her apart—her chest, her lips, her long legs. Honestly it makes her uncomfortable and the most truthful answer to Matt’s question is “No.” Up until now no one has ever talked to her about beauty before, about her own beauty. No one but you, she thinks.

“I’m serious,” Matt says. “When I look at you, when I see your body it practically kills me. You’re a goddamn assassin, did you know that? You’ve completely snuck up on me.”

She likes the way he started, about how powerful and stunning she looks, but she’s confused about the assassin part. What does he mean that her beauty has snuck up on him? Is he saying he couldn’t see it right away, or that her beauty is so dangerous it’s like it needs its own bodyguards?

Apparently Matt Mackey doesn’t even know what he means by his own words because he doesn’t elaborate and she doesn’t ask him to. Instead of saying anything he takes her hand from the wheel and kisses her palm, kisses her pinky, and before she knows what’s happening her finger is in his mouth, and he’s sucking on it. Everything goes warm, wet, and wobbly. It’s incredibly hard for her to concentrate. She feels faint and unsteady. It’s as if her whole body is being swallowed and she’s worried she’s about to wreck, that she’s about to swerve clear off the road and kill them both.

But she doesn’t. Jocelyn’s a good driver and a good girl, and even though it feels like her body is dissolving into steam she has the determination and will and the presence of mind to remove her hand from his grip and return it to the wheel.

*     *     *

On the far side of Colville they stop at a drive-thru espresso hut called The Supreme Bean and order their favorite drink. It’s the same one, steamed milk with honey. Back on the road again they have another interesting conversation.

“I was listening to the radio the other day,” Matt says, “when Stardate came on.”

“Stardate?” Jocelyn asks.

“It’s this one-minute show about the solar system with this woman named Sandy Wood.”

“Is that her real name?”

“Not sure. Sounds hot though, doesn’t she?”

Jocelyn looks at him.

“I mean her voice does. She’s got this—” He stops, starts over. “Anyway, if it’s clear tonight she said we could see Saturn.”

“Really,” Jocelyn says, surprised. “Saturn?”

“We’d have to stay up late though.”

“I’d stay up all night if I could see Saturn,” she says.

He turns to look at her and shakes his head to get the curls out of his eyes. “Are you into astronomy?” he asks.

No, not exactly, Jocelyn thinks, but what she is into is this conversation. It seems deeply mature and impossibly romantic. It’s about the things she’s always imagined she’d talk about with boys—stars and space, the unknowable mysteries of the universe. But she doesn’t tell him this; she doesn’t want to appear over-eager.

“I guess I’m into looking at beautiful things,” she says finally.

“You need to see Saturn then.”

“You’ve seen it?”

“I have.”

“The rings too?”

“Yeah, even the rings.”

“What do they look like?”

“Different,” he says. “I mean different than you might think.”

“Different how?”

“You first,” he says, as if testing her. “Tell me what you think they look like.”

Jocelyn doesn’t answer immediately. She has to think for a minute. She wants to impress him. She wants to show him the power of her imagination, how closely her vision matches the reality. She takes a sip of her warm, honey-sweetened milk then says, “Saturn’s rings are all different widths. Some are wide and sweeping as a freeway overpass and others are as thin as a line of thread. And their colors are unbelievable. They’re subdued and ethereal all at once. Gold and crimson, umber and brown. It’s a vision,” she says, brimming with confidence, “that’s literally out of this world.”

Matt Mackey nods approvingly. “I like that,” he says. “That’s a really pretty idea.”

With one hand on the wheel, the other holding her white paper cup, she seeks praise, confirmation. “So am I right? Is that what they look like.”

“No,” he says.

“They’re more beautiful, aren’t they?”

“They’re ice,” he says.

“Ice?”

“Yeah, the rings are just halos of ice.”

“What about all the colors I’ve seen.”

“What colors?”

“In books. In newspapers. All those pictures they publish.”

“I’m sorry,” he says, “but they add the color.”

“What do you mean they add the color?”

“They add it.”

“You’re lying.”

“I’m not lying. They add it. It’s like food coloring, but for the stars.”

She feels cheated somehow, antagonistic. Why did it always seem that the world was not the world she was always led to believe it was? “No way,” Jocelyn says, shaking her head defiantly. “There’s just no way.”

Matt Mackey laughs at her insistence, her disbelief. “I’m curious,” he says, still chuckling a bit, “Do you always believe everything you see?”

*     *     *

Across Lake Roosevelt the road begins to rise into the mountains. A light dusting of snow covers the ground and as the truck climbs the engine strains against the steepening grade. Matt is playing catch with his cell phone, flipping it into the air. It makes a light smack each time it lands in his palm. They aren’t more than fifteen minutes away from the lake and Jocelyn’s stomach is starting to feel all float-y and anxious. It feels like it did when she was a little girl and her Uncle Linn would toss her into the sky and let her body fall back into his arms. It’s his lake they’re driving to and all the gear bungee corded in the truck bed is his too: float tubes and fly rods, flippers and sweaters, hats, mittens, waders, and, in case of emergency, a survival blanket. Her mother’s brother and her favorite Uncle, he takes care of her like she’s one of his own daughters. Before leaving he took every precaution to make sure she would be safe. He re-reviewed the directions so she wouldn’t get lost, he laid three fifty-pound sacks of Tubesand across the tailgate for extra traction, and he even checked the air pressure in all four tires. He did not however think of booking a room at The Sprucetree Motel just across the border in Grand Forks, British Colombia—but Cherish did.

*     *     *

Once, earlier this semester, Cherish stood in the middle of their dorm room, a white towel wrapped around her body like a strapless dress. She’d just gotten out of the shower and her short, pink hair was slicked straight back and grooved from the teeth of her comb. Except for the silver studded black leather bracelets on her wrists she looked as elegant and made up as Jocelyn had ever seen her.

“So,” Cherish said, “are you ready?”

Jocelyn, standing only a few feet away already felt uncomfortable. “Ready for what?” she said.

“You know.”

Jocelyn did know. Late at night and in the dark and more than once she’d asked Cherish about her piercing. Did it hurt? What did it feel like? What was it supposed to do exactly? And ever since she’d expressed that curiosity Cherish had been tempting her.

“I want you to look at me,” Cherish said. Her cheeks were still rosy from the shower and her skinny black eyebrows sharpened her blue staring eyes.

“I don’t think I should.”

“Why not?”

“I’m not sure.”

“It’s just a body,” Cherish said. “That’s all it is.”

“But it makes me uncomfortable.

“I know it does.”

“Then why do you want me to look at it?”

“Because it’s important.”

“What’s important?”

“To do things that scare you.”

“Why?”

“So you’re not scared anymore.”

There was either something unconvincing or frighteningly true about that logic, but Jocelyn was too confused by what was happening to her to think straight. Cherish must have taken her silence for complicity because she lifted her hands to her armpits and unfastened the towel. It dropped in a clump around her ankles and to avoid looking at her roommates’ nakedness her eyes darted to a poster on the far wall. It was a black poster hanging tilted, askew, and in the center of the poster with fluorescent pink script like melting wax it said, The Misfits.

“Watch this,” Cherish said, and slowly she began to trace her fingertips down her body. She slid them between her small breasts, down across her stomach, and down past her belly button. Jocelyn kept watching them, kept following them down. Cherish’s body was very different from Jocelyn’s. She was short with a tiny waist and beautifully curving hips like a large vase, and as Jocelyn watched Cherish’s hand slipping across her pale skin and the way she stood there, completely naked and unashamed, and with the cream colored towel curled at her feet like a seashell, Jocelyn was reminded of that painting she’d seen in her art history class, Birth of Venus. She felt hypnotized by Cherish’s confidence, her slow moving hand, and she continued to follow it until the space between her hips began to narrow. She wondered what part had actually been pierced, she wanted to see it so she could understand it, so she could picture it, but as the hand kept falling her eyes did not. She simply couldn’t look, didn’t want to, and she jerked her chin away.

The movement was either too sudden or too severe, or maybe Cherish thought Jocelyn was not only disgusted, but was making some kind of moral judgment about her because Cherish’s mood changed instantaneously. She began screaming as profane and uncontrollably as one of those bands she was always listening to. 

“What the fucking hell,” she said. “What the fuck do you think’s going to happen? What do you think you’re going to do? Go blind? Turn into salt? You’re like a bad joke, Jocelyn Marie Cooper. Do you know that? You’re a total fucking dud.”

*     *     *

At the last second she recognizes it—the road, the turnoff—and she cranks the wheel, the truck fishtailing onto the snowslicked dirt road and Jocelyn twists the wheel back, trying to regain control, but she overcorrects and the bed swings back behind them like a pendulum. For ten or fifteen feet they’re sliding completely sideways and there’s panic in the truck followed by relief and then laughter as she finally straightens them out. As they make their way into a dense forest Jocelyn eases up on the gas. Matt leans forward. It’s as if neither of them can believe their eyes. It seems like they’re entering a whole new dimension. All around them, everywhere, pine trees are decked with mounds of snow white and creamy as fondant.

It’s a winter wonderland and the beauty and solitude she feels sends her dreaming of the perfect day. First they’ll catch fish, lots of them; then they’ll go to The Sprucetree, and after that, after whatever happens at The Sprucetree she and Matt Mackey will take a walk deep into the woods, so deep they’ll almost get lost. But that’s exactly what she wants to do, she wants to lose herself, to feel like she’s a million miles away from her previous life, like she’s living on another planet.

That’s one of the main reasons she wanted to do this, to get the hotel room and make this trip. Ever since that day in her dorm room when Cherish got mad at her, Jocelyn’s been trying to become more relaxed and less afraid of things she can’t control, like her own desire. It’s been a difficult and trying thing to accept, especially for someone who has, for years, been treating her own flesh and bones like someone else’s future property.

The truck rocks over rutted two-track and through bare-branched aspens Jocelyn spies the lake. She drives to a clearing not far from shore and they step out into cold biting air that feels surprisingly refreshing after being cooped up in the heated cab.

Her Uncle Linn’s lake is less like a lake and more like a large pond. When they reach the waters edge they see that most of it is frozen. Flats of white ice shroud the edges, but there’s a channel in the middle, a long slit of black water maybe thirty yards wide that has yet to freeze.

She looks at Matt. “You still want to do this?” she asks.

“Most definitely,” he says.

“Conditions aren’t very good.”

“C’mon,” he says, flashing that smile. “We didn’t come all this way for nothing.”

*     *     *

Feet dangling, they sit on the tailgate and slide into their neoprene waders. When they’ve got the thick, waterproof material up to their hips they hop off the tailgate and stretch the bibs to their chests.

To ensure warmth they put one layer on after another. They wear sweaters over their shirts and fleece jackets over their sweaters, and over their fleece jackets the final layer is a black plastic garbage bag.

“For extra protection,” Jocelyn says, handing one to Matt.

She tears a hole for her head, adds two more for her arms, and Matt does the same. He pulls the slippery plastic over his fleece, but before cinching it to his waist he looks up, a pained expression on his face. 

“You think I should double bag it?” he asks.

Jocelyn thinks he’s being serious at first but that sideways glance, his cocky grin tells her he’s only flirting. She doesn’t exactly know what he means by double bag it, but instead of playing the fool, being so naïve and predictable she plays along.

“Yeah,” she says, “if it feels good, do it.” Then, winking, she adds, “Kink it up if you want.”

Matt’s laughter is delayed, like he’s confused at first, but then he looks down and starts shaking his head to himself and smiling. Jocelyn wonders if she’s said something wrong. She probably has, she thinks, but there’s more work to do and instead of worrying about how embarrassed she should be or how stupid she should feel she starts pumping air into the float tubes.

Fifteen minutes later both she and Matt are standing with their backs to the water. They’re wearing fluorescent orange SCUBA flippers and holding the U-shaped float tubes around their waists.

“You first,” he says.

Jocelyn steps backwards. The ice near shore is brittle with long grasses poking through, and balancing both float tube and fly rod she shatters it easily. A smell like bad eggs rises from the broken shards and her feet sink into a jelly-like muck of mud that makes disgusting sucking noises as she lifts them out. Up past her knees now she can’t feel the water. The neoprene waders insulate her and there’s no sense of touch on her legs, no coolness or coldness, it feels simply like liquid. She backpedals a few more steps then lets her body sink into the water. The mesh harness in the middle of the tube holds her weight and swinging her flippered-feet she can’t feel the water anymore. She feels weightless all of a sudden, and free.

Matt is right behind her and when they get to the open water in the middle of the pond he seems instantly won over.

“This is awesome,” he says, as their tubes orbit one another. After another minute of floating and looking around Matt decides to show off. “Watch this,” he says. From the rod’s corked handle he unhooks the fly, strips line from the reel—the reel screeching as he does this—and whisks the rod back and forth before shooting a long, tightly curled cast.

“You’re a natural,” she says.

“I try,” he says, and smiles, touching his glasses.

*     *     *

For two hours Jocelyn gets exactly what she wants. They catch fish—huge brown-dotted trout streaked from the gills with pink, a soft fading pink like alpenglow—and besides catching fish they have fun. Matt Mackey even says as much. At one point, leaning out of the tube to kiss her he almost falls into the water and they laugh about it, and it’s the first time all day Jocelyn has felt relaxed and completely comfortable. And that’s what she imagines it’s like to be in love: relaxed, totally comfortable, and totally happy. And since she thinks she’s finally found it, and better yet that she actually feels it, she wants to leave immediately and carry those feelings with her to The Sprucetree. But Matt isn’t ready. She’s never actually officially told him about the motel. She decided, prudently she thought, to keep it a secret. That way no matter what she decided she knew there wouldn’t be any outside pressure. The decision would be completely and totally up to her. She could choose to do it or not to do it depending on how the day went. She considers telling him just so she can see his reaction, just so she can see how quickly he changes his mind.

But Cherish has always warned her about being too eager. If you’re going to do it, she says, just let it happen. It’s good advice, Jocelyn thinks, and instead of telling him about the motel she tells him how tired she is. “I’m think I’m going to take a break,” she says.

Surprisingly, he doesn’t bite.

“I want to catch one more fish,” he says. She’s never seen him this way, so focused and intent.

Jocelyn kicks back to shore a little disappointed and goes straight to the truck to warm up. A good stretch of time passes, fifteen or twenty minutes and there’s no Matt. In the last few minutes it’s started to snow and the tiny flakes shatter her vision. The fish must have stopped feeding, she thinks, and Jocelyn considers walking back to the edge of the pond and calling out to him, telling him to come in, but she doesn’t want to do that, doesn’t want to be that kind of girlfriend.

Sitting in the truck, getting colder every minute, she wants to turn it on and rev the engine so she can get some heat and warm up, but she’s not sure how far away they are from the motel, or what her gas situation is like. With flat palms she rubs warmth into her arms and legs and to distract herself from the cold and pass time she daydreams about The Sprucetree. In her mind it’s a cozy roadside motel, clean and quaint, with dark wood beams like an English Tudor. On a pole near the street there’s a glowing white sign with a tree on it—one like children draw—with a brown trunk and jagged green boughs. Below the trunk, in all caps, it reads, THE SPRUCETREE, and directly beneath that sign there’s another. In blaring pink neon it says, No Vacancy, which means Cherish was right when she told Jocelyn, Make reservations, love travels well.

She keeps following her imagination and it supplies her with a key, but just as she’s opening the door to their room she notices something on the dashboard: Matt Mackey’s cell phone. She remembers the text he’d sent earlier, how it made him laugh, and she decides she wants to read what he wrote. It’s just another way to kill some time, and besides that, she thinks it might have been something about her, this trip. The texts he sends her during the school day always make her feel special: ksses 4u, he’ll write, or, ur gorgsss. When she feels her phone buzz and she opens the message it feels like he’s secretly slipped her a love note, or like she’s reading her fortune.

Recalling those warm feelings she opens the phone, tabs to the proper screen, and finds the message. She presses another button and the text blinks onto the small screen: Going fshng. Lcky me. Gnna crck her oystr 2nte!

Clapping the phone closed, Jocelyn winces. She doesn’t know what she was expecting, but not this, certainly not this. To erase those words from her mind she attempts to re-enter her daydreams about The Sprucetree, but can’t. Feeling injured, lightheaded and a bit dizzy she steps back into the bracing cold.

Wandering back towards the edge of the pond Jocelyn decides to load up her gear. She’s not sure how she should handle this, doesn’t know if she should tell him what she found, or instead of going to the motel, if she should just drive him home. So many confusing thoughts and feelings are cluttering her brain that when she hears his voice she doesn’t hear the panic. It takes another few seconds for it to sink in, how frantic he sounds, how terrified. The snow is falling faster now, thick flakes slanting out of the sky like feathers from a torn pillow. Running along the shoreline Jocelyn calls his name but can’t see anything.

“Matt,” she calls. “Ma-att!” But there is no answer. Finding her SCUBA flippers she tugs them over her heels and steps into the float tube. Raising it to her hips she backpedals through broken ice and tumbles into the water.  Luckily the pontoons hit the surface first and keep her from flipping. Near the middle of the pond she calls his name again, but there is still no answer. She waves one leg back and forth making the tube twirl, making it spin round and round until finally she hears something—a weak groan—but it’s all she needs. Paddling in the direction of that sound, calves burning, her flippers flutter as quickly as her heart. She’s on the verge of cramping, but pushes through the pain, and her efforts are rewarded. 

At the far end of the pond and hung up on a ledge of ice she finds him. He’s slumped over the edge of the pontoon and as she drifts in beside him their tubes bump into each other. Matt’s face is pale, his glasses foggy.

“I can’t feel my leg,” he complains.

*     *     *

After twenty minutes they finally run aground, Jocelyn towing him all the way. Matt is beached at the edge of the water like an injured seal. They’re losing light fast. The pine trees are shrouded black cones. Jocelyn’s legs, wobbly from all the kicking, are unsteady. Trying to tug his body from the tube she slips on the ice and falls, slamming her hip into the frozen ground. She pops back up on her feet and the stinging pain helps focus her. Instead of tugging his body from the tube she realizes she needs to tug the tube from his body. Moving slower now, more methodically, she works to extract him. Matt Mackey is semi-conscious. He keeps telling her how afraid he is of losing his toes, maybe even his whole leg. His face is pinched and broken like a child on verge of tears, and despite her own anxiety for him, their predicament, Jocelyn is calm, reassuring.

“You’re not going to lose anything,” she tells him. “Not even your pinky.”

After sliding the tube off his legs she takes his wrists and leaning back with all her weight helps him gain his feet. She slings his left arm over her shoulder and using her body like a crutch carries him through the snow.

When they reach the truck Jocelyn leans his heavy body against the hood, starts the engine and flicks on the headlights. Next, she unclasps his waders. Rolling them down his legs water gushes out and now she understands what’s happened. There was a hole and she wonders why he never said anything. She can’t worry about that now though. Time is everything. His jeans are soaked and the freezing wind has already stiffened the denim. His clothes have to come off and she moves as fast as her fingertips will allow, unbuttoning his button fly.

Eyes closed, Matt’s head hangs as if he’s been sedated and Jocelyn keeps peeling his jeans down past his knees and works them over his heels. Against the glaring headlights his skinny legs are goosepricked and pale. He’s wearing green boxers with the repeating image of the monocled Planter’s Peanut guy doffing his top hat and Jocelyn is moving too quickly to wonder whether or not she should be either offended or amused. It’s the roads she’s worried about, the weather. Just then she remembers the survival blanket her uncle has packed and grabs it from the truck bed. To work properly, to generate heat and warm his body she knows it must touch his skin directly and so she instinctively does something she would normally never do. She grips the edges of his boxers and tugs them down his hips.

Buck-naked now from the waist down Matt mumbles on and on unintelligibly. His face is salt-white and the horned-rimmed glasses he is so proud of sit crookedly on his nose. Jocelyn holds the silver blanket at arms length like a matador before a bull, but instead of immediately wrapping the blanket around his torso as planned she stops a moment, suspending the rescue. There’s something she needs to do. It’s something, she tells herself, she must do, and so she does it. She takes a quick, innocent peek. It’s so quick, so innocent—this peeking—that she tells herself she must do it again. She’s not even sure what she’s seen exactly, but this time her eyes linger until she feels herself staring, until she cannot in fact pull her eyes away. And she keeps looking not because she is in any way excited or repulsed, or even frightened, but for the simple fact that it looks so much different than she has imagined. It’s neither big nor small, but its tip is a purple mushroom cap and what she’s surprised about is how sad and forlorn and helpless it seems. As snowflakes stream through the headlights she reaches out to touch it. It’s so soft and spongy it almost makes her laugh, but she doesn’t. She reaches for him again and cups the whole thing this time, testicles too, and she’s still undecided about what will happen tonight—if she’ll take him to the motel or drive him back home—but it doesn’t really matter anymore. For the first time in her life Jocelyn feels the choice is all hers, and that whatever happens with this boy, this Matt Mackey and his dimpled chin, his curly blonde hair, and that sly, devastating grin, he’ll still be very important to her. He’ll be unique, one of a kind. He’ll occupy his own special place in her galaxy. He’ll be the first star in a constellation of stars, the first man she’s held just so, just like this, his very life in the palm of her hand.

 

 

David Lombardi recently completed his Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Houston. His story “Flight” was included in the anthology Best New American Voices 2010. When he’s not working on his novel, he’s playing tennis with his wife and daughters.