Barb Johnson

Yemassee Journal 20.1


After school, we ride around looking for cute guys. I would never use that phrase—cute guys—but Janie says it all the time. On the radio, a girl with a whispery voice is moaning, You’re my man. You’re my man. Janie says, Oh, turn it up! I love that song! Don’t you love that song? Janie says this to the rearview mirror where our eyes meet. Sometimes she winks at me when she says things, and I get this falling feeling.

I am in love with Janie Lowell, but it’s a secret kind of love, all trench coat and dark glasses.

When Janie asks me if I love the whispery song on the car’s radio, I say, I do love that song, which is a lie like all the other lies I tell to keep my place in this car. I want to be near Janie, and that means saying what needs to be said. I don’t say it with an exclamation point. I’m not that kind of girl.

I’m the kind of girl who wants Janie to kick all these other girls out of here and crawl in the back with me. I want to do moist things with her. I want her to want this, too. There’s a wrong song in me that I haven’t found a way to drown out, although I’ve tried. Am trying, right this minute, by singing along with the breathy voice on the radio.

At a red light, the other girls start in about the guys in the car ahead of us. They’re all, Get this thing in gear, Janie! This is the sort of talk that causes Janie to panic and stall the car. It’s a stick shift with an unpredictable clutch, the wrong vehicle for quick getaways. When Janie stalls the car she just laughs. The other girls laugh, too. Oh, well, they say. We’ll get ‘em next time.

The other girls in this car, they want to be cheerleaders. They want to be voted best dressed. They get excited about the heinous parts of high school, like pep rallies, which are a kind of carpet bombing mission in a made up war. Everything is strictly us or them, for or against. It doesn’t pay to be on the wrong side of the equation. Janie and the other girls don’t seem to have to think about things like pep rallies. They like what they’re supposed to like. They go where they’re supposed to go.

Anytime we’re all being marched to the gym, Janie and the other girls get all giggly and excited. I generally duck out to smoke a joint in the bathroom until all the rah-rah is over. The smell draws the loadies, and I sell them dime bags. Assemblies are good for business. While Janie is in the gym yelling with all her might for victory, victory is our right! I read my library copy of Walt Whitman. I used to have my own copy, but it fell apart. The one from the library is long overdue.

I don’t worry about the library fines. The other girls don’t worry about those sorts of things, either. They worry about what to wear to the party, if these shoes look right with this dress. I worry about the wrong song that plays inside me, the kind of problem that can’t be fixed with the right accessories.

The wrong song is only in my head, so no one else can really hear it, I guess. The music doesn’t go with what’s in front of me, though. It’s like listening to the soundtrack of Godzilla while watching Bambi, and it’s starting to drive me crazy. I have decided to drown it out by filling my mind with other things—normal things—like how to keep the skin on my elbows soft by rubbing them with avocadoes, like how to worry about the shape of my eyebrows, like how to straighten the bunched fabric of tight pants pockets with the corner of a clothes hanger. I imagine that soon the noise of all these normal thoughts in my head will drown out the wrong song completely, and I will be free from thinking about kissing Janie Lowell.

While we drive around, I try to get Janie and the other girls into a conversation about the future. I wonder what comes next, what sort of plans normal girls make. I wonder what all I could do if I didn’t have to spend every day watching myself, keeping track of where my hands are, minding my face when Janie and I meet at our lockers and she leans in and–muah!–kisses me the way all the girls are kissing all the girls this year.

No matter where I try to take it, every conversation in this car turns back on itself and heads toward the Opinion Poll. Today’s Opinion Poll is meant for me. Isn’t Charlie Derby cute? Don’t you wish he’d break up with Diana and take you to Janie’s party? The other girls’ questions sound as though they were lifted from the same after school movie as their worries.

Oh, Janie says about me and Charlie at the party, wouldn’t that be great? Janie’s mouth is beautiful. The words that come out of it are like a code or some other language that I can’t understand.

Diana Derby, Janie goes on, making Diana Mrs. Derby with just her mind. That sounds dumb, doesn’t it? She checks my opinion in the rearview mirror.

Maybe they’ll name their kid Roller, I say. Or Kentucky. Janie studies my face. I can see she’s right on the verge of saying, What? when the other girls start laughing. Roller Derby! Kentucky Derby! Get it? And then Janie does get it. She beams me a wink and a smile in the mirror, and I fall and fall.

I have no interest in Charlie Derby breaking up with his girlfriend. Last year, I had sex with him in his car behind the tool shed in the vast yard of our high school. More than once. Often, even. I thought it would drown out the wrong song. Charlie Derby? I just wanted to know what sex was like, not what having a boyfriend was like.


*   *   *


For her birthday, Janie’s having two parties. The real party, a dance with the guys from school, is tomorrow night. Tonight, it’s just us girls, a slumber party, which is an extended version of driving around looking for cute guys. This is going to require a lot of lying. I have trouble knowing which lies are perfect and which ones will make people wonder about me. It’s like those words in foreign languages: if you put the emphasis in the wrong place, you end up telling someone you like to lick pig noses when all you meant to say was, I love your new haircut.

Sitting on the carpet in Janie’s living room, which is mostly covered in sleeping bags, someone suggests we play Truth or Dare, a little hazing ritual dressed up like a fun game. People want to know other people’s secrets. They enjoy the shame of others, something I will never understand. If I had any sense at all, I’d lie about having cramps and get out of here, but when I’m around Janie, all the sense just leaks out of me.

While everyone is warming up their killer instincts, Janie asks her mother a truth question. Janie’s mother will tell her just anything, which is why Janie hasn’t shooed her away. This is the difference between Janie’s mother and mine. No matter what you ask her, my mother’s answer is the same: Who knows why anyone does anything? She’s the Harry Houdini of questions.

Janie’s question is this: Why did Uncle Steve move to San Francisco?

Your uncle’s like that, Janie’s mother says, putting her hand out, palm down, rocking it side to side. Everyone in San Francisco is like that.

No one needs to ask what like that means.

I look down in case Janie is going to look at me when her mother says this. In case the answer is meant for me. I feel myself blushing. Red cheeks are like a homing device for other people’s bad intentions. I try to think if I have done anything to make Janie suspicious.  I have been drinking; we all have. In theory, the drinking will loosen us up to play a mean-spirited game that no one would play sober. I have decided this is how life is: amping yourself up to do stuff no one wants to do but no one has the sense to call off, either. The reality when I’m drinking is that I forget to be someone else. I forget to mind my face. My hands linger.

Once Janie’s mother leaves, it’s too late for me to get out of here. Every movement now makes me either us or them, chickening out or not. The game goes pretty much the way I thought it would. Girls asking sex questions, which, in the absence of boys, turns to daring one another to kiss for the camera. I watch them like a science project, how they arch their bodies as though they are porn stars in the video Janie stole from her father’s stash and played for us one afternoon when her parents were out. Beautiful ragdolls whose mouths never fully close. Maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be. Maybe that’s normal.

I hold the camera and egg the other girls on. If you’re too quiet, the pack senses fear and turns on you. My immunity doesn’t last, though. Just when it looks like everyone is losing interest in the game, someone dares me to make out with Janie. I don’t know whether they have chosen Janie to be my partner because they sense something about me or whether it’s because I have actually fooled them and they think making out with Janie is something I definitely do not want to do. Just to be safe, I pretend that I am only pretending to be hesitant about touching Janie Lowell. I put my leg between her legs and pull her to me, sliding my hand under her shirt to cup her breast because being outrageous never looks like what it is: a small fire that burns off my actual feelings every minute of the day.

After this, we watch the video of ourselves, and the other girls analyze the hideous life their camera action suggests: two girls, no men, how sad, ewww.

Everyone my age talks about wanting to be different. The truth is, the only people who want to be different from everyone else are the ones who aren’t. Being the same is a little luxury that lets you do whatever you want, to play at kissing girls, for instance, which is a thing now. I don’t touch those kinds of girls. I don’t let them touch me. Eventually, they will all go off with cute guys and do what they’re supposed to do, and I will be left behind, the wrong song playing in me all the while.

Not long after the Truth-or-Dare video, I edge over to my sleeping bag and crawl in. I pretend to pass out, then lie there listening for clues. Does anyone think I am like that? According to the Opinion Poll, no one does. According to the Opinion Poll, I was a slut for sleeping with Charlie Derby, but there was still a good chance that I could beat Diana out in the competition to win his love. It exhausts me to think I might have to keep this up my whole life.

I have put my bag on the other side of the room from Janie’s because I am through with pretending for the evening. In my own little corner, I doze off for real.  I wake up just as Janie is crawling in with me. Like the Truth-or-Dare game, this looks like something it isn’t. All around the room, girls are paired up in sleeping bags. Tomorrow night, one of these pairs will be what everyone is talking about at the party, and this will draw the boys out of their herd, sniffing. It’s just a game. Even so, the wrong song starts up in me. When Janie fakes a slumber roll that lands her arm around my waist, I want to pull her fingers into my mouth, put my bare hands all over her. I want to do something that can’t be undone. I want to go too far. For or against. I roll over to face Janie, whose mouth is right there, so close that my own mouth nearly collides with it. She’s wide awake, of course. I tell her I’ll be right back, and then I slip out of the bag.

Stumbling through the dark of the unfamiliar house, I am only what I am. It may be that I am the kind of person who belongs in San Francisco, which is at least 2000 miles from here. On a map, it would be a simple line from one place to another, a shorter trip than the walk back to my sleeping bag. I could get there from here. Anyone could. The trick is knowing when to leave.

In Janie’s kitchen, I fill a glass with water, which is something people in the movies do to calm down. I don’t calm down. My heart goes on banging in my ears, like I’m running from flashing red lights instead of drinking water in the dim kitchen. It smells like cornbread in here, a few bright squares of it drying up in a pan on the table.

I wish I could sit at that table for the rest of my life, passing that happy yellow bread to a cute guy everyone agrees I was lucky to land. I wish I was that kind of girl. But I’m the kind of girl who notices the key rack that Janie’s father made from an old “One Way” sign, the arrow pointing out the back door. Janie’s key ring is a big red heart, the kind whose pointed end can be used as a weapon on someone who gets too close. Dangling from the heart is the key that fits in Janie’s car, and I can’t help but think about the two thousand miles I could drive in just a few days if I left right this minute.

The brick walk out to the car is slick, and a picture forms in my mind of how I slip and bust open my head so I don’t have to do this. When I slide in on the cool bench seat, uncaught and undead, the key goes in the ignition and the radio starts up with the breathy voice.  I punch through the stations–nothing but static, which I imagine would turn to something different if I could just get this car in gear.