Stefan’s and my school gets out twenty minutes earlier than our sister school down the block, Immaculate Conception—or, as Stefan and I call it, Ejaculate Conception. We sit on the low brick wall opposite the entrance and share a cigarette as we wait for Rose and Geraldine to emerge from seventh period Chemistry. Rose is Stefan’s, Geri is mine. Geri is prettier, especially her lips, which are puffy and remind me of knuckles; Rose has better boobs and, if Stefan is telling the truth, not only does she not mind giving him blowjobs, she likes doing it. Once she licked his dick in the mall family bathroom as casually as she might a mint chip ice-cream cone at one of Frick’s Ice Creamery’s wrought iron tables.
From this distance, when Ejaculate Conception’s student body emerges from the building—which sort of resembles a skull, the doors the mouth—you can imagine the crowd of girls in tan, pleated skirts and white shirts are maggots spilling out of roadkill.
Our girls slowly take shape as they approach. Rose and Geri are the same height, and both have long, brown hair. So I can’t tell them apart when they first veer from the swarm. I think of the brine shrimp we grew in biology the year before—how first they were tiny ripples in the water. Then a week later, we could make out their strange, feathery bodies.
When the girls are finally close enough to touch, something weird happens. Geri doesn’t even look at me. She makes straight for Stefan. Plants her lips on his. Stefan grabs hold of her hips.
Before I can protest, Rose puts her arms around me. “Miss me?” she says. She smells like honeysuckle, just like Geri. Against my chest I feel the soft press of her breasts.
I try to catch Stefan’s eye but he’s too busy kissing Geri. When she finally leans away, she says, “Your place, Babe?”
Geri has never, not once, called me Babe. Dumbass, from time to time. She’s affectionate but not sentimental; it’s as if the only endearments that can come from those knuckle lips are soft punches.
“Mais oui, ma cherie,” Stefan says. He takes Geri’s hand, and they walk, arms swinging.
I’m waiting for someone to laugh and say, “Gotcha!” But what Rose says is “I’ve got a new one for you.”
“What?” I say.
“What’s the difference between a baby and an onion?”
I say, “Is this some kind of a joke?”
Dead baby jokes are Geri’s shtick.
“Of course, it’s a joke,” she says. “Give up? No one cries when you chop up the baby!” She grins.
Then she groans and yanks me to my feet. “You’re acting weird. What’s up?”
I say, “I haven’t the slightest clue.”
Ever since Stefan told me about Rose’s penchant for blowjobs, I’ve been thinking about the randomness of relationships. For instance, if Stefan and I hadn’t gone to the arcade that Saturday afternoon in October, we might never have met Rose and Geri. Or if Rose hadn’t had that swollen pimple symmetrically situated in the center of her chin that day, I might have deliberated more over which girl I preferred. It’s crazy how a moment’s choice can determine whether five months later you’re the lucky beneficiary of blowjobs in mall bathrooms, or you’re with the girl who keeps saying “I’m not ready.”
When my mom married my step-dad, Isaac, she said, “He’s the love of my life,” as though she hadn’t said the same thing once about my dad. As if at the age of thirty-six, having known Isaac for less than two years, she could possibly have a long view shot of her whole life.
We follow Stefan and Geri, now yards ahead of us. Stefan’s place is always the preferred location, because his mother stocks the pantry with cinnamon Pop-Tarts and Kettles sea salt and vinegar chips, and because Stefan’s parents both work. With my thumb, I rub Rose’s thin gold ring, her grandmother’s wedding ring, which Stefan has said creeps him out, like Rose is betrothed to her corpse grandfather. On her wrist is the baby blue Swatch Stefan gave her for Christmas. I helped him pick it out.
In the kitchen, Geri says, “I’m starving.”
When Stefan opens the pantry, she shoves him inside and pulls the door closed behind them. I hear laughter. Then I hear bodies slamming around, cans and boxes hitting the floor.
Rose says, “You’re hurting my hand.”
My fingernails have made impressions on her skin. The dents look like teeth marks, like a small animal has been nibbling her.
I think of a story my cousin Alex told me. He was going out with an identical twin, a girl named Maura. His friend Louis dated her sister Rebecca. And sometimes, the twins would switch.
We were stoned when Alex told me this story. We were lying on his double bed, looking at the ceiling, where years ago Alex and I had glued a spiral of glow-in-the-dark stars. He wasn’t exactly sure when the girls started impersonating each other, he said. He may have missed it initially. But one day, he was making out with Maura, and suddenly he knew she was Rebecca.
“How’d you know?” I asked.
“It was just a feeling. I had my eyes closed, and I opened them and gave her a look. The way she looked back at me was freaky. She knew that I knew. But I didn’t say anything, and we kept making out.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course! Anyway, soon enough I confirmed it. Becca still had her appendix, she didn’t have Maura’s scar. That scar kind of disgusted me, to tell the truth. It looked like a fat, pink caterpillar. They used to switch maybe once a week. I don’t know if Louis ever figured it out, though I guess he must have, given Maura’s scar. We never talked about it. Like the four of us had an unspoken agreement.”
“You didn’t even talk to Maura about it?”
“Dude, why the hell would I?”
What I felt, hearing the story a year ago, was wonder and envy. This was before I started going out with Geri, and two girls seemed like a crazy surfeit of riches. I never wondered if Alex minded that, while he was banging the one sister, maybe on that very bed, under that whorl of pale green stars, his girlfriend was behind another closed door with his friend. Or that the sisters were making their own comparisons.
This situation is similar, except, of course, for one crucial difference—Geri and Rose aren’t identical. True, Stefan’s Chinese aunt couldn’t keep the girls straight when she visited a few weeks ago, but that was a race thing, like how Stefan kept confusing the two black superheroes, Falcon and War Machine, in Captain America: Civil War.
I’m like goddamn Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.
I decide the best course of action is to mimic my cousin Alex and play along. After all, haven’t I always wondered what it would be like to cup Rose’s breasts? So I lift Rose’s hand to my lips and kiss the indentations I made with my nails. Then I kiss her neck. When I finally put my hand to her breast, I half expect her to slap me, but she doesn’t. Not even. She fucking moans.
And here’s another weird thing: I expect that touching Rose’s breasts will feel wrong, dangerous even. Like when I stole a whole chicken fryer from the grocery store, hid it inside my leather jacket, because Stefan and I were playing a game: Winner is the guy who manages to steal the most conspicuous item. But after that moan, I don’t think about anything other than how good Rose feels, how her breast fills my whole palm. In fact, I don’t even realize that Stefan and Geri have come out of the pantry until Geri bangs a wooden spoon against the bottom of one of Stefan’s parents’ pots.
Rose and I both yell, “Fuck!” at the same time.
Stefan and Geri laugh. Then Stefan says, “We’re going up to my room. See you in like an hour?” He winks.
“Wait, what?” I say. I look at Geri. The last time she called me Dumbass was a few days earlier when I tried to slip my finger inside her. “What did I tell you about that, Dumbass? I’m not ready.”
She looks back at me, waves, and says, “Later, Gator.” Which is not the kind of thing Geri ever says; it’s Rose who likes cornball rhymes, Rose who says, “In a while, Crocodile.”
Enough is enough, I think, and I grab Geri’s arm—maybe a little roughly. When she whirls around, not only is she not smiling, not finally letting the air out of this fucked up prank; she’s looking at me like she’s scared of me.
“What the hell?” Stefan says. He looks like he wants to punch me.
And Rose looks like she might cry.
I picture the ceiling in Alex’s bedroom, the glow-in-the-dark stars I helped him stick there when he was ten and I was eight. He didn’t want them scattered; he had a very precise spiral shape in mind. I said to him, “But that isn’t what space looks like.” I wanted to put up the Big Dipper, or Orion’s Belt.
Alex said, “I don’t care about what’s really there. I want to build my own universe.” I couldn’t explain why I found that so unsettling. Partly it was the spiral shape itself, the whirlpool way it sucked me in.
Last Saturday Stefan and I and the girls watched a movie in his basement, Hitchcock’s Vertigo. There’s a scene where Jimmy Stewart dreams he’s falling into an open grave. At the bottom of this long, rabbit hole of a descent is a rotating spiral. That whole movie freaked me out, but that scene most of all. “Shit,” I said.
Geri laughed and kissed my neck. She said, “Open your eyes. It’s over.”
That’s what I want to happen now: for Geri to throw her arms around me, call me Dumbass or whatever the fuck she wants to call me. I want her to say that order in the universe has been restored.
I want Stefan to bust out laughing and say, like I did when I managed to smuggle that whole chicken out into the parking lot, “Guess who’s the motherfucking champion now?!”
Instead, Geri twists out of my grip. Stefan glares at me. Rose says, “What the hell was that?”
I feel like the subject of an experiment, like a brine shrimp swimming around in a plastic tank of water while my closest friends pour in kerosene and watch me flounder.
If Alex were here, he’d say, “You get to make out with Rose, Idiot! The blowjob enthusiast, remember? What the fuck are you squabbling about?”
I take a deep breath. Then I laugh. To all three of them, I say, “I was just screwing with you guys.”
Stefan narrows his eyes at me. Then he and Geri head upstairs.
Rose says, “Not funny.”
I close my eyes and kiss her.
Soon, Rose relaxes. I do, too. She takes my hand and leads me down the stairs to Stefan’s basement. She pushes me down against the couch and climbs on top of me. I put my hand on her breast. She moans. I’m smiling as I kiss her, because I’m imagining Rose’s mouth as a vortex I’m going to plug with my dick. Like fucking Rose’s mouth is my ruby red slippers. But when I undo my zipper and grab her hand, she stiffens and pulls up to a sitting position. She says, “Oh shit. I totally forgot to tell you this one. Why did the dead baby cross the road?”