Once upon a time, just hours ago, the doorbell rang. You were ready—lipstick on, hairpins in. His dear face smiled as you opened the door for him, his bright dark eyes, his wide sweet mouth, and small diamonds twinkling from both pierced ears. His bow tie—red, to match your dress—was tied just so. Your grandmother, who you call Mémé, took your picture by the door, James’s arm around your waist, the fresh-cut-grass scent of his deodorant familiar now—six months, tonight, since last spring, when he asked you to be his girl. As you posed for the picture, the smell of him was familiar, and the feel of his arm around your waist, and the warmth of his breath on the top of your head. And the way he laced his fingers through yours after you said goodbye to Mémé, his right hand with your left as he led you to his wagon. His old blue wagon, that was familiar, too. The way the door squeaked when he opened it for you, the way he had to slam it hard to get it to latch, the way the driver’s seat was pushed way back to make room for James’s long legs, the way he folded those legs as he climbed in, the way he turned to smile at you as his hand turned the key, the light brown of his skin, the black of his eyes, the curl of his lashes. As familiar as the sound of the engine revving. It is a cloudy night, this night, homecoming night, and clouds obscure the moon. When you arrived at the school, the parking lot was already full; music poured from the gym like the desperate thrumming of a heart. You would rather have stayed in this car, with just James; it’s not in your nature to join a crowd, and you knew the crowd in there, the thickness of it, the pack of it. But it means something to James that you go to these things—the dances, the soccer games, the house parties, the gyrations of the high school machine. And James means something to you and so, for him, you climbed out of the car, you took his hand, you went toward the music.
A table was set up outside the gym, staffed by three of the PTSA moms, the group that lobbied to hold homecoming on a Sunday. They displayed large, laminated photographs of car crashes—one, a car wrapped around a streetlight, another, a car crumpled beneath the grille of an enormous red transport truck. DON’T DRINK AND DRIVE was printed in bold letters beneath each photo, and the women pressed flyers into the hands of everyone who passed. One of the mothers waved a flyer in your direction; you ignored her, but James took it and said, “Thank you, ma’am,” before folding it neatly, slipping it into his jacket pocket, and sliding his hand into yours once again. Inside, it was as you expected—there they all were, half shrouded in shadow: James’s teammates and their dates, the group he pulled you toward, one you are part of now, one that opened to receive you, for better and worse. Tucker and Maggie, perpetually off and on, his hand on her arm, either pulling her in or pushing her away, or maybe both at the same time. Big Mac, with that smile and swagger. Flame-red Darcy on the fringe, wanting so desperately to be in the center. And others, so many others, anxious faces and happy faces and excited faces, too. On the dance floor, couples swayed—mostly boy-girl pairs, but some girls with girls, and one pair of freshman boys in matching tuxes, pressed close together.
Dresses in all colors, suit jackets and ties and the smells of perfumes and pomades and pizza, commingling and pungent. You let James lead you to the basketball team’s circle, next to Big Mac, you let their laughter and conversation wash over you without soaking it in. Big Mac is funny. He’s expansive, gregarious—a leader. You have always liked him, in spite of his swagger. He plays center, and that’s what he is off the court, too, among his friends. Close by stood Landon and Caleb—good guys, both, and both forwards. It was no surprise to see them together, here at the dance—as far back as you can remember, where one of them went, the other followed. Landon and Caleb are a duo—best friends and, lately, maybe more. The three of them—Big Mac, Landon, and Caleb—are as close as brothers to James; standing there, you felt him relax into the familiar rhythm of their shared banter.
You watched James’s brilliant smile and you felt the warmth of his fingers twined through yours. You went through all the motions—the chatter, the dancing, the giving and receiving of compliments. It made James happy, being there. But you were already somewhere else— remembering James’s car, and the soft quilt folded in the back. That was where you wanted to be— with James, unfolding. But you could wait for James, who loves everyone. It is one of the things you love about him. It was loud and sharp and almost painful, the entire exhibition of it: the display of bodies, dance moves, coupling and uncoupling. You accepted it for James’s sake, and each moment there brought you closer to where you longed to be. And not all of it was terrible; feeling James’s hungry eyes on you in your dress, that was not terrible.
The way his fingers pressed between yours, spreading them apart, such a tiny and intimate act—not terrible. Listening to his laugher with his friends. Pulling each other close on the dance floor, your cheek against his chest, each breath rich with the scent of him, that was not terrible. You allowed yourself to be led, you allowed yourself to follow. Your bodies moved together rhythmically, as if in an act of premonition. But then—“Looking fine, friend o’ mine!” It was Tucker, who’d stumbled onto the dance floor. If he had been sober when he had arrived, that state had left him. He laughed loudly at his own stupid rhyme and slapped James hard on the ass. James clenched his jaw and shook his head, and together, you turned away from Tucker, who was well known for getting only worse as an evening progressed. The best thing to do, if at all possible, was to ignore him.
But Tucker did not want to be ignored. He tried again. “Hey,” he said, shoving James’s shoulder, “Lemme cut in. I want to dance with Bisou.” Your hands were laced behind James’s neck; his were around your hips, and the music was loud enough to pretend not to hear Tucker’s demand. But as the song ended, Tucker was still there. “Where’s Maggie, man?” James asked, trying to deter him in the friendly manner that was his way. But Tucker would not be deterred. He reached out again, a third time—“Whatever, fuck Maggie. I wanna dance with Bisou.
” He was belligerent, as if his desire to dance with you was all that mattered. And you were done ignoring him, and into the moment of silence between songs, you said loudly, “Jesus, Tucker, you can’t even dance when you’re sober.” Everyone within earshot laughed. Tucker’s face reddened and he spat, “Fuck you, Bisou,” and James put his hand on Tucker’s chest, saying, “Hey, now,” and you said, “Wait,” and then there was a moment that could have gone either way. The crowd seemed to smell it on James and Tucker, the possibility, and a low, laughing rumble of “fight, fight, fight” began and grew, but you pulled James away and someone else pulled Tucker away and then, a moment later, he was nowhere to be seen. It might have ruined the night, if it hadn’t been something you and James had seen from Tucker a thousand times before, if either you or James was willing to let the night be ruined. But you wouldn’t let Tucker have your night, and you could see in James’s eyes and his smile, gentle and true, that he wouldn’t, either. At last, the dance is over and done, and the others scatter—to their homes, to after-parties, to back seats . you don’t care, you don’t care, you don’t care. You don’t even care that Mémé might be waiting up for you, though you told her not to.
All you care is that you are, at last, away from that gym, alone with James. Already, the dance is almost forgotten, so unremarkable it was, even that unpleasantness on the dance floor. Now—now, in James’s wagon, parked on the edge of the woods, where the air is cold and fresh, where the scent of damp pine is sharper and better than any perfume, you watch James spread the quilt. This is remarkable—lying on the blanket with James, feeling his hands in your hair as he finds and pulls free each hairpin, undoing you. These are remarkable—his kisses, tracing a path down your neck, his hands pulling low the sweetheart neckline of your dress, his nose brushing your right nipple, and then, a moment later, his lips capturing it, his tongue circling, circling, his teeth skimming and biting, not hard, just enough to make your hands tighten into fists and clutch the blanket, enough to make your legs begin to quiver. And then he pushes up the tulle and satin of your skirt, rustling like wrapping paper coming undone, and his hands reach and find the lace panties you bought just especially for this occasion, and slowly, so slowly, he pulls them down your thighs, and you lift your hips to help him slide them free. Your feet are already bare, high heels abandoned in the front seat, so there is nothing to stop your panties from coming all the way off. Oh, how much you want this. Whereas before, at the dance, you had been there for James, at his side as he enjoyed himself, now—here—you are your body. How much you want him to put his mouth on you, there, right there, at the crux of you.
Your combined breaths have fogged the windows of the wagon, the air is damp. Your head rolls with desire, frustration, as he moves his kisses from your right thigh to your left, as his fingers run up and down your legs, all the way down to your toes but never up all the way to your aching center. Outside, on the other side of the cold, steamed-over glass, is the forest. Inside, there is just you and him, your James, the boy you love, the boy who loves you. Do you shiver from desire? Do you shiver because it is cold? Do you shiver from anticipation, for the moment when—at last, at last—his mouth finds his way to the center of you? At last, at last, he’s found his way there, a hand on each of your thighs, his head buried between them, and he’s not teasing you, not now, not anymore, he’s earnest in his desire to bring you desire, and yes, you think, as his tongue and lips press into you, as his fingers pull you apart, as you come undone beneath his hands, it is important to be earnest if this is what earnestness brings. Yes, the smell of him, the sight of him, the feel of him, all of it familiar, but not this—the hot firm pressure of his tongue against your center, the insistence of his hands on your thighs, the building wonder of your pleasure rising, oh, that is not familiar, that is new, brand-new. You gush—that is the word, the only word—you gush as the pleasure becomes too much to survive, and it bursts like a shaken-up can of soda, it tickles and it burns and it ripples from your center outward, in pulses of sensation so intense you are pinned by them, and your left hand curls into a fist and your right hand flails, hitting the damp cold glass and streaking away the steam, and your eyes open as the pleasure ebbs, and just then the clouds outside part, revealing the full white moon, unblinking, staring down at you from a black velvet sky. James laughs, his gentle, happy laugh, and he looks up from where he’s crouched between your thighs, and he smiles, and you see his face in the moonbeam that pours through the strip of window you’ve wiped clean, and at first you don’t know what you’re seeing, you don’t know what to make of the redness on his chin. It’s blood. It is your blood.
But why would you bleed? It’s pleasure you felt, not pain, but now the pleasure is gone and in its place is dread, and disgust, and shame, and though James does not yet know that your blood is on his face, he sees your expression change, he sees your brow wrinkle and your mouth purse. His own brow furrows in response. “Bisou,” he says, “you okay?” You don’t answer. At sixteen, you have waited long enough to start your period that you had all but given up on it ever coming—“Mine was late, too, don’t worry,” your grandmother has said—but here it is, this blood. You fumble with the door handle, ripping back a nail as you struggle, and then the door flies open with that familiar squeak, and you tumble out of the wagon and onto the pins and needles of the forest floor. “Bisou!” James calls, and you hear him behind you, climbing out of the car, you feel his hand on your arm, but you yank free, you find your feet, you pull up the bodice of your dress, and you run, you run, ashamed and afraid, away from the boy, away from the car, away from the blood, and into the copse of trees that will hide you. The Path of Pins and Needles You have a long relationship with blood, but not your own. Your first memory is red rich: Your mother scooping you from bed in the deepest velvet of night and cocooning you, still wrapped in blankets, in the back seat of the car. Rolling down the hill, the car in neutral almost to the corner before she turned the key and the engine growled to life. Only when the car was nearly to the freeway, stopped at a red light just before the on-ramp, did she turn to look back at you, and there, in the red glow of the traffic signal, you saw that she was somehow both mother and not-mother, her face bathed in red from the light outside and from the cut above her right eyebrow, weeping blood, that whole side of her face distorted by the blood and the swelling of her jaw, and in the place of her nose, someone else’s nose.
You pulled the blanket up over your head and squeezed tight your eyes, and then the car began to move again, speeding onto the freeway and away, away. Now, among the trees, you are away again. You run, here in shadow and there in moonlight, through the woods behind the high school and toward your home, as fast as you can go. Your dress slips down as you run, and you hold it up with one hand to cover your breasts even though there is no one here to see, and you feel the slick-soft wet of your blood dripping from the core of you, down the insides of your thighs. You picture James as he looked in the car—his sweet face, his eager smile, the blood—and you shake your head violently, as if you could shake the image and the shame away, away. The forest floor is thick and sharp with pins and needles, and they pierce the pads of your bare feet, the tender skin between your toes. It’s all shadows and angles, the forest, with the moon-full sky above making everything eerily not-dark. Moonlight illuminates your path, and you can make out the long-limbed bodies of trees all around you, the way their arms reach as you pass, the way their fingers brush against you, the way they caress and claw you. Your heart hurts, it beats so fast, it is beating you from the inside, each drum a punishing blow— how dare you bleed, how dare you be so gross. James’s face flashes behind your eyes and you hear the little cry you make, like an injured animal, so ashamed that it seems anything would be better than this, anything, anything, even death.
Death. You smell it, though you cannot see it. Over there, up ahead and to the left—something has died. Not today, but not that long ago. It is beginning to rot, that is what you smell, flesh breaking apart beneath fur, maggots that plump up the carcass, doing their work. Bigger than a squirrel, bigger than a rat. A possum, maybe, or a raccoon. You don’t know how you know this, only that it is true. There—on the right, forty feet up—a nest. You hear a pair of owlets stirring.
Their mother is away. And there, behind you, is the fall of running feet. James, coming after you. But . wait. Not two feet. Four. Ba-ba-ba-bum. Not James. You don’t know how you know these things—the smell of the dead animal, the presence of the nest, that something is pursuing you and that it is not James.
Right now, it doesn’t matter how you know them, only that you do know them. Just as you know that the animal that pursues you is faster than you are, that soon it will be at your back, and that you cannot flee, you will have to turn and fight. There. A femur-thick felled branch. You scoop it up, you turn and heft it over your shoulder. Your dress was not made for this; the bodice is slipping down again, your breasts half out, and you have more important things to do than maintain modesty. Your eyes scan, your ears listen. You wait. Ba-ba-ba-bum, ba-ba-ba-bum. It is coming.
Your feet are hip-wide, right slightly in front of left, branch swung up over your left shoulder, like a baseball bat. Though you have been running, though your heart has been punishing you for bleeding, now it is obedient, its beats steady and controlled. Ba-ba-ba-bum. Your heartbeat? Footfalls? Both, twined together. And then—there—in a glint of moonlight, there, a wide grinning mouth full of teeth, a thick red tongue, a huge pewter-pelted wolf. You have three seconds before he is upon you. He will go for your throat. Three seconds is less than a breath. You have only seen one other wolf in your entire life. At the Zoo de Granby.
You were four years old. Mama held your left hand in her right, both ensconced in mittens. First snowflakes floated around you, promises of winter. You wore the rabbit-fur coat and matching cap that Mama had bought for you at the friperie, though she herself still wore a too-thin raincoat belted over her thickest sweater. That wolf was honey brown and sleeping, curled like a dog in its enclosure. “Un chien!” you called, pleased that you knew the word, in this new tongue you were learning. “Non,” Mama answered. “Un loup.” And then, kneeling beside you so she could whisper in your ear, “A wolf.”