Lynne Huffer

BEHEADED

     I already have a feeling, even before I reach out to open my locker. Something flip-flopping in my tummy. I take a deep breath, turn the dial to the right on the combination lock. “36.” I turn the dial to the left, remembering to go past “36” again, then all the way to “11.” I stop, turn right, not too far, straight to “5,” tell myself not to panic. It’s nothing, all in my head. I always make things more complicated than they really are. Most things are simple, straightforward—36-11-5—my hand feels funny as the “5” lands on the raised line—home base. I can stop dialing now. I feel the familiar click, so quiet I have to really pay attention to notice it, then I pull on the handle and the locker door opens.

     Immediately I step back as the smell of rotting seaweed crashes against me. I knew it, I had that feeling, the familiar flip-flopping. But what is it this time? I look around to see if anyone has noticed. Some kids way down the hall, that’s it.

     I reach into the locker, grab my backpack dangling from a hook, as it always does, in the middle of the locker’s ceiling. The stagnant sea smell is more aggressive inside the backpack, like the bite of an unwashed body. I extend my arm, getting some distance, then pull the backpack closer again. I’m repulsed but also feel it reeling me in. My hand fumbles for a moment with the edge of the outer pocket, feels something gooey protruding from inside a piece of brown paper towel I recognize from the school bathroom. I pull it out, let it rest in my palm, just for a second, hesitating before I fold back the brown paper, not sure how I should feel, like throwing up or laughing. There’s a dead fish head in the palm of my hand.

     I stare at it, frozen. Another second, then my ears fill with laughter, the mean kind that comes from middle school boys. There’s a group of them, and they’ve seen the flash of silver in my hand, the cloudy fish eyes staring, accusing. I feel somehow that I deserve this—the fish, the slime, the boys, the laughter. My face feels hot, I start to panic. Then, quietly, I remember what to do, collapse quickly away, leaving my body, find the hollowed place inside myself where I know I can be safe, at least for a while. I hold my breath, and the boys are like bubbles bobbing to the surface while I stay under. I shut my eyes.

     It’s not easy being 13, and 14 was even harder. 1974. With September came the start of school, then my birthday, followed by winter and the fish head in my locker. Only a few months had passed since Ron Tharpe and the frog sandwich in my lunchbox, so of course I suspected Ron was the one who had figured out a way to get a fish head past the combination lock and into my backpack. We were in the same science class again, and just that week we’d learned about fish anatomy by cutting their bellies open with our tiny scalpels. It had to be Ron. He was the only one I could think of who would even want to touch the hideous thing with its milky eyes and slimy body. Ron denied it over and over. He denied it so much I finally had to believe him.

     Who was it then? Keith Campbell? Keith and I had been friends since fourth grade: basketball buddies, never romantic, although I found out later he’d had a crush on me since the moment our families had gotten together when we arrived in Denver in 1969. My father, Bill, and Keith’s father, Keith Sr., had been fraternity brothers together at Cornell in the ’50s. By coincidence we’d ended up buying a house on the same block as the Campbells. Still, Keith Jr. seemed an unlikely candidate for the fish head prank: We saw each other every day, and he would have eventually broken down and told me if he’d done it.

     Was it Erik? Erik was handsome, popular, a state tennis champion. He lived two blocks away, on Albion Street. As the weather grew warmer with the coming of spring, Erik had started joining me and Keith for our nightly basketball games after dinner in our driveway on Ash Street. When darkness made it impossible to continue our game, we’d drop the basketball and linger over the sidewalk in front of our house, Erik and Keith buzzing around me like pollen-starved bees. I barely noticed Keith during these conversations, ignoring the remarks he made; usually, after an hour or so, he gave up and went home, leaving Erik alone with me.

     After a couple of weeks, we stopped playing basketball altogether, hinting to Keith that he’d become superfluous. Almost our entire courtship took place on that square of sidewalk in the dimly lit space under the linden tree between the front of our house and the street. We kissed timidly at first, just our lips touching. This went on for about a week.

     I thought of the fish head when Erik and I started French kissing. Maybe it had been Erik after all who’d somehow gotten past all the barriers to make his way into that dark inside pocket. I asked him about it then. He said he knew nothing. And after that moment—after he started slipping his tongue inside my mouth—I stopped worrying about the source of the fish head altogether. To this day I don’t know who did it. All I knew at the time, when I’d stopped asking, was that Erik’s tongue felt slimy and gave me the weird feeling I’d had before, like throwing up or laughing. Then, as I got used to it, I would sometimes feel a shudder run through my body, from my mouth like a lightning bolt down into my groin and back up again to the moist hollow where Erik’s tongue was poking against mine. I liked that shudder, but it also felt dangerous. So I focused my thoughts on what I knew about romance, as if from the outside looking in on myself: boy and girl kissing. Night after night, I honed this skill of turning myself into a scene. I can still see us there, frozen like a painting, Erik bending over me under the streetlight.

     Once when my parents were out for the evening, I invited Erik inside to see my bedroom. I’d moved down into the basement to get away from my sister with whom I’d always shared a room. I’d desperately wanted a room of my own, and this seemed to be the only solution.

     “I can’t imagine why you’d want to be down there,” my mother had said, when I moved into my burrow, her brow furrowed. “Especially with a perfectly good room upstairs.”

     There were spiders and centipedes in my basement room, and the walls were damp but I didn’t care. The space was mine. I sat on the edge of the bed, and Erik sat down next to me. We started kissing but everything felt different than it had outside on the sidewalk. I couldn’t find a scene to anchor me. Erik’s tongue began darting around inside my mouth, slithering behind my teeth like a snake. It felt like his tongue was out of control; it swirled against the back of my teeth, hitting my tongue, then hitting my teeth again. I tried to kiss back, tried swirling my tongue like Erik was doing, but my tongue felt lost, looking for a place to settle. I kept waiting for the tingling and flooding down there to happen, but with all the slithering and darting I just felt numb. Erik’s tongue slid deeper toward my throat and I almost gagged. The tongue pulled back.

     “Sorry.”

     “It’s OK.” He pulled his face back from mine, then looked down toward my waist as I felt his hand crawling up my back, under my T-shirt, then clumsily fumbling with the clasp at the back of my bra. After several tries he just couldn’t unhook it, and I wasn’t about to do it myself. The hand slid around to the front of my shirt, underneath again, and up my stomach to the chest. He prodded awkwardly at the bottom of my left breast, then finally crammed his right hand inside the left cup. His fingers poked and kneaded the soft tissue, constrained in their movements by the bra pressing against the back of his hand. My groin still felt numb, and I waited patiently for something to happen. Maybe we should go back to kissing, I thought. But before I’d had a chance to turn my lips toward his, I heard a sound upstairs: the front door closing. My parents were home.

     That was the end of my first love. We didn’t know it then, but something fatal had happened to us in that move from the chaste square of light outside the house to the murky confusion of my underground cave. Too many pressures from places we didn’t understand, too many impulses and resistances we just weren’t ready for. After that, Erik started flirting with a long-legged girl named Amy on the cheerleader squad, and before I knew it she was his girlfriend. Keith and I went back to playing basketball.

     But things with Keith were not the same as before. It was as if, like Persephone, I’d fallen through a trap door into a hole, and I couldn’t get back. After Erik, even as I dribbled past Keith to go for my lay-up shot, the spotlit square under the hoop felt different. I felt marked, tainted, and it didn’t help that my breasts kept growing, and I became what people called voluptuous. Keith’s eyes on my body as I maneuvered with the ball felt like hunger now, and the hunger shocked me, it was so dark and deep. I was sad about losing Erik, but the deeper sadness—the sadness of betrayal—was Keith. I still resent him for letting that hunger take over.

     By the time we went to high school the next year, we didn’t play basketball at all anymore, not even when our families got together. High school meant hard work, and also hard drinking. I was a good girl at school—all the teachers loved me—but they didn’t know about the fish head and the lure I kept following into those dark basements. There were lots of parties, always below ground—Keith Tooley, who later went on to become District Attorney, and Chris Romer, whose father became governor, were the ones who usually hosted these weekend keggers because their parents traveled and didn’t pay much attention to what happened while they were gone. There was lots of drinking and lots of groping. I was always game. I’d allow myself to be pulled, as if by an undertow, into a dank corner or onto the concrete floor behind the furnace. We must have looked like dogs, dark shapes humping in the murk next to the rolly-pollies. We never went all the way, but we came pretty close, all those pretty boys—Monty, Jack, Pat, Landis, Jim—and me. It was mostly for their benefit—the groin thing had stopped for me altogether—and I’d usually end up doing it to them with my hand.

     It always bloats quickly as soon as I grasp it, and I immediately start to pump as I’ve been taught to do. Up and down, it’s so easy, I have the power to make it harden, I can feel the blood rising up and down against my palm, harder and harder like it’s filling with air and then—it doesn’t take long—the throbbing stops, just a long shudder as the slime suddenly trickles under and over my fingers and the back of my hand, and I flip it over and there it is, just the way it felt when I pulled it out of my locker.

     Sometimes the nicer ones—or maybe they were just curious, like little boys with a bug—would unbutton my Levis and poke around in there. But they were so pathetic, with their uncut fingernails attached to grubby fingers, fumbling away at something they probably found frightening. They may as well have been exploring another planet, that’s how clueless they were as they slid around in that space between my legs.

     Tony Crepeau was different. I’d started hanging out with Tony in my junior year in high school, sometime in the winter after I’d turned 16. He lived down the street but went to Regis Academy, a Catholic high school, so I mostly saw him on weekends. My best friend was Michelle, and with Steve—her boyfriend, who also went to Regis and was Tony’s best friend—the symmetrical pairing of couples was perfect in my eyes. Michelle’s parents were divorced and her Mom worked nights as a nurse at St Joseph’s. It wasn’t planned this way, but Michelle and I ended up losing our virginity at the same time, together. Michelle was with Steve in her room in the basement, and I stayed upstairs on the couch with Tony.

     I can still feel the steady weight of Tony’s body on top of mine as my pelvis pushes up toward his. I can feel his tongue moving in that snake-like way that Erik had taught me. But Tony’s more insistent than Erik or Monty or any of the others. He’s a Catholic bad boy, and I wonder if he’s bad because he enjoys being punished like those saints in the stained glass windows of Blessed Sacrament. I love Tony’s wildness: the way he drives his jeep while blasting Led Zeppelin, the way he spins his wheels in death-defying spirals over the frozen surface of City Park lake. Now, on the couch, I flash on the saints with their flayed skin and amputated breasts, I see the beheaded fish beneath the ice in City Park, then Tony’s eyes are dark pools under winter sky and he presses in harder, and I can feel his hip bones and the hard thing between them. His tongue is searching and although I’ve never gone this far, I know we’re heading somewhere, working up to something. I think of the snake again, but down there takes over and the snake disappears or maybe I become the snake and it’s hot but it’s winter, and I’m with Tony in his jeep burning into the ice, only deeper, harder, with a purpose. The hardness is in me, rhythmic now, and he’s turning the steering wheel all the way to the side, turning it hard, and then gunning the engine. I’m spinning and spinning on the icy blacktop, like an Olympic skater but out of control. “Tony, stop!” I whisper. But I don’t really mean it. I know this is dangerous, but I don’t care.

 

 

 

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Lynne Huffer is Professor of Women's Studies at Emory University.  Her books include Mad for Foucault (2009), Maternal Pasts, Feminist Futures (1998), and Another Colette (1992).  She has also published creative non-fiction essays in The Rambler, Sou’wester, Passager, Talking River, Cadillac Cicatrix, Rio Grande Review, and Southern California Review.

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