Sunlight. The room is touched with yellow. She rolls over. She is fourteen and her bed is covered in eyelets, a bedspread bought when she was seven. She gets up and puts clothes on. It is a new day, although gravel dust still clings to the soles of her feet.
Downstairs, her mother is making Eggs Benedict. The Hollandaise does not work out, and she makes a pair of lumpy omelets instead. Her mother looks at Jenna’s pants as she walks into the kitchen.
“Are you wearing that to school?”
Jenna is wearing sweatpants, bought on vacation in Madison, that have badger paws on the seat. “Yes,” she says.
Her father, the lawyer, highlights sections of the Gazette every morning to bring up at business meetings. He is sitting in the kitchen, teething at the end of a yellow highlighter and glancing periodically at his chalky omelet. He doesn’t remember her walking through the basement last night. Would he say something if he did? She doubts it. Her parents do not know about the grimy, dirty-shirted, high-voiced boy, the alleyway at night.
Her father drives her to school. She sees him look, befuddled, at her bear-paw pants. One paw per cheek.
When Jenna gets home from school, her mother reminds her about the dinner party tonight. Jenna does not want to attend. She wants to go smoke weed with Margaret and her boyfriend. She grudgingly helps to cube cheese.
It is a dinner party for five: the family and the Andrews. Her mother blushes slightly when she sees that the Andrews have brought champagne; the dinner isn’t fancy enough for champagne. They sit down. Her mother serves the cheese. Gouda, because it’s Jenna’s favorite, Camembert, and something Spanish. The Andrews both pick the Gouda.
This is an exciting partnership, Mr. Andrews says, leaning back in his chair. For six years he has worked as a criminal defense attorney, making money. He won’t be making much money in public defense, he says as he looks amiably at her father. Mr. Andrews touches the nape of his wife’s neck. Mr. and Mrs. Andrews look very much in love, Jenna thinks. She adjusts her dress.
Jenna’s mother smiles. She asks Mrs. Andrews if she knows how to make Hollandaise sauce, because she herself has never quite figured it out. Mrs. Andrews does know, but she’s not good at explaining it. Perhaps Mrs. Andrews might share her recipe, Jenna’s mother says. Mrs. Andrews tells her of course and then asks a question about the curtains. The men are debating in low voices about the Packers. Jenna’s mother nods at her, and Jenna gets up to bring the soup.
Mr. Andrews is wearing a tweed suit. He has a potbelly, the kind that is not noticeable until he takes his jacket off. He is wearing a white button-down shirt under the jacket, plain. Mrs. Andrews is a skittish salt-and-pepper type wearing a long silk dress. Their house is being fumigated for termites, so they are staying at the Marriott all this week, and it has just destroyed their daily routine, Mrs. Andrews tells them.
Jenna does not eat the brisket. She is a vegetarian. Robert’s idea. He saw a cow being killed once, at his grandparents’ farm, and now meat disgusts him. Jenna has never seen a freshly dead animal, except for her old pet mouse.
Jenna goes to the kitchen to get more napkins. She breathes deeply, thinking of Robert. Mr. Andrews brings in the soup dishes. He looks at her. The skin around his eyes is pink and looks moist, like a baby’s. But his eyes, blue scarred by thin white lines, are sharp. The fabric of Jenna’s dress slides coolly across her knees. She smiles, a wry half-smile she learned from Margaret.
“Done with the soup?”
“It was good,” Mr. Andrews says, setting the dishes on the counter and resting his elbows on the edge of the sink. He is somewhere in his forties. His hair is graying, nicely.
“It’s from a can,” she says.
He looks at her. “Telling on your mother, are you?” His eyes crinkle.
She laughs, for the first time tonight.
He looks at her intently and smiles. “It’ll be our secret.”
Later that night, the cockroaches come out. Their presence doesn’t disrupt anything until one of them crawls close to Jenna’s foot. She would let it be, honestly, but it might not be lady-like to let cockroaches crawl around her legs. She pushes it away gently with her foot and resumes rolling the joint with a ripped sliver of newspaper. Robert is out of rolling papers. He usually brings everything.
He pushes his hair back from his face. He is pale in the sallow light of the lamps. “Do you want to go into your basement? It’s kind of cold out here.”
She shakes her head. He pinches the end of the joint.
“My dad and my cat are down there,” she says.
“Or your room?”
“My mom will wake up. She’s a light sleeper.”
He shivers, taking a shallow drag with his bony pianist’s fingers. He locks eyes with hers. He told her he loved her last night when they were both high, exhaling the words into her mouth with burnt breath. They stayed out there all night, in the alleyway between their streets. It is colder tonight, the first week of October. He doesn’t know what to say.
Her veins are bluish under the lamplight. Robert runs his finger along one of them, down her arm. His hands are moist. The smoke fades quickly into the gray sky.
He looks at her and tosses the roach into the scraggly bushes that stick out from the neighbor’s backyard. “Let’s roll another.”
She picks the clots of weed apart, sifting the seeds out from the pungent curls of black and green. She doesn’t like the taste or the way she hacks after a hit, but she likes it that Robert smokes. She likes how a joint turns her lips turn faintly gray and how he kisses her on her own lips, the strange, half-pleasant sensation of apotheosis.
She spots another roach creeping out, glistening in the light, from behind the garbage can.
“I read this Goosebumps book when I was ten and there were cockroaches but they weren’t normal cockroaches,” he says.
“What kind of cockroaches were they?”
He shrugs. “Alien cockroaches.”
She frowns, holding the joint with two fingers. He is quiet for a moment. She motions for him to take the joint. He shakes his head.
“Listen, I gotta go. I just — my mom and Frank will be home soon, I think.”
He pats the top of her head tenderly, and heaves his backpack over his shoulder. She watches as he hurries off toward his own house, a block away. The cockroaches shine like baubles beneath the streetlamps.
A light flickers on through the mauve window shades of her mother’s room. Jenna gets up and walks back through the wooden gate, through the door that leads directly into the basement — the one whose openings and closings her mother cannot hear. Her father is asleep in the basement, in front of the old TV, his mouth open. Drooling slightly. She walks past him and up the stairs. The air from the stairway vent teases goosebumps from her skin.
The next day, Jenna sits in the lunchroom during gym. There is a rumor, a couple years old but still circulating, that the gym teacher once watched a girl showering. Jenna paints Margaret’s nails red, two coats. They both skip math, too, more out of inertia than by way of making a statement. But they have to go to biology. There is a report due. That means they have to do the lab, too, Margaret whispers as they set their backpacks down.
The fruit flies must absolutely be virgins, Mr. Wanders says, clasping his hands to his chest. The experiments will come out wrong otherwise. Look for the dark spot on the end of the abdomen, Mr. Wanders says, the skin is so translucent you can see the first excretion. Margaret gags.
Jenna watches one generation of fruit flies, the babies, struggle through the jelly at the bottom of the jar.
The dead flies, the ones born last month, are arranged across a paper plate. Jenna picks up a dead fly with the tip of her finger. Its eyes are red, blood-colored.
“Look at it,” she says, holding her finger up to Margaret’s face. Margaret grimaces. “It’s a dead fly. I don’t want to look.”
Jenna ponders the lifeless dot stuck to her fingernail. She pushes it onto the plate and watches the entrails smear. Brown and pink: those are the colors of its insides.
Margaret’s bony elbows turn yellow with pressure against the tabletop. She weighs eighty-four pounds, or she did this morning when she weighed in at the counselor’s office. She has to weigh in every week on Monday, and she always tells Jenna the number. Last week it was eighty-four and a half. Since she started smoking weed, she tells Jenna, she has stayed above eighty, which is good.
There are eighty-six dead flies on the plate. Twenty-four sepia eyes and sixty-two red eyes, if they count the fly that Jenna squished. These are good results, Mr. Wanders says. What does that say about genes?
Jenna starts her lab report in class. There is a picture above Mr. Wanders’ desk: two ants kissing under a heart-shaped leaf. They aren’t in love. They are drinking nectar from a plant with nectar glands at the base of its leaves. At the next table, boys are flicking flies at each other. They are the popular boys, but Jenna doesn’t like them. Still, she pulls down her dress a little as she walks by them to throw away her paper plate.
The pet mouse that she had in the third grade died of its own accord after two weeks. It was a feeder mouse, not meant to live long. She named him Mickey. It died, curled up in the sawdust. Jenna delicately picked up the mouse. The body was warm, or maybe she imagined that. She placed some tissue paper, and then Mickey, in an Altoids box. Two years later, the neighbor’s dog dug up the tin, and there was Mickey. Nothing left but an exquisite tiny skeleton.
She finishes her lab report. The last class of the day is English. They’re reading Hamlet. What a piece of shit is man, Margaret writes on the corner of Jenna’s notebook.
After school, Jenna and Margaret meet with Robert and Grant to smoke in the pine grove next to the student parking lot. Margaret got Jenna started on the weed, last year after she met Grant. Afterwards, Jenna goes to get ice cream with Margaret. That is what they do, Elmo’s every Monday after school. Margaret talks about Grant. “I forgot how smart he is. He’s like way fucking smarter than me,” she says. She chews on the straw of her Diet Coke. She likes ice cream, although she never actually gets her own. Her knuckles are pale, translucent. She is wearing a mint shirt with peplum. The diet coke is silvery, cylindrical, in her hand.
They go to Jenna’s house for dinner; Margaret eats a third of her brown rice but none of the tofu. Then they fill an empty Tostitos dip jar with her mother’s amaretto and drink it in the basement while they watch a movie. The amaretto tastes like salsa. Margaret tells Jenna that Grant might be cheating on her. She doesn’t care, she says. Has Jenna let Robert take her clothes off yet? Jenna shakes her head. Too much gravel, she says. Margaret half-smiles. She and Grant have sex in rooms, she says.
Jenna and Robert meet that night. He has made peanut butter sandwiches with THC in them. His baggy t-shirt smells of weed. “I have to take a piss,” he says, and kisses her before walking behind the neighbor’s garage. He walks with an unsure step, as if he doesn’t know how far his body stretches out into space. Jenna tastes the peanut butter.
He comes back and they sing Maroon 5 in the alleyway, softly, to each other. He feeds her gritty peanut butter with his fingers and tells her about the time when he was nine and at an Easter egg hunt, how he got stung by a bee and went into anaphylactic shock. The scariest thing that ever happened to him, he says, peering up at her through his eyelashes.
He has kissed her almost every night since they first smoked a joint, skipping English class, in the brown-tiled men’s bathroom on the second floor. It was her idea to come to the alleyway. She likes it because it’s dark and they can smoke; he seems to like it because it’s dark and so, she suspects, it feels less real to make out with someone. And more real. At school, they are whole people, wearing clothes and sneaking gum from their pockets during class. Jenna is the one with the dark blonde hair and the slightly bushy eyebrows. Smart. Robert is the one with charming dark-fringed eyes and sagging pants, the one who pretends not to care. They agree that Hamlet is an asshole, but at least he is a poetic asshole.
Robert doesn’t come on Monday night. She sits in the dark with an eighth of an ounce tightly wrapped in a Ziploc, a present for Robert, the first time she has ever gone to a dealer. She is thinking about the smoothness between her legs and what they might do, for the first time, on this first frosty night of the year. She waits for an hour and finally sends a text message, even though part of the alleyway is that it happens without too much talking.
She is finally beginning to understand, she thinks as she picks her nails, how two people can stand to stay together for so long, how the chalky omelets and the highlighters, the tweed jacket and the potbelly, can be a celebration of the strangeness of life rather than a disappointment. She can, for the first time, imagine her parents as young people. How terrifying it is to think that your life passes, that there will be nothing left except a cockroach in your eye sockets. The beauty of a cockroach, of a mouse’s skull. She shivers. Robert doesn’t come.
On Tuesday, Robert is hunched over his locker with two of his friends when she walks by after lunch. One of his friends sees Jenna and elbows Robert in the back. The two friends leave. Robert smiles distractedly. His fingers are wrapped around his electric blue combination lock, like he’s trying to pull it off. He has forgotten the combination again, she thinks.
“What’s up?” she says.
He looks up through his eyelashes at her. “Oh. Hey. What’s up?” She can tell that he is chewing a green-apple Jolly Rancher, because of the smell.
She shrugs. “Can I have a Jolly Rancher?” She doesn’t mention the alleyway.
He looks surprised for a moment and then laughs. “Totally.” He opens his backpack and flicks a red one at her.
His phone vibrates. “Shit. Just saw your text,” he says, without looking at his phone.
“It’s okay,” she says.
He looks at her. “I was super tired last night.” He rubs his eyes. “My mom’s just been having a lot of trouble sleeping, and I might not be able to get out.” He fumbles with his lock. It comes open. He grabs his battered English notebook and, smiling, pats her on the head before heading down the hall. She feels odd until he turns around and smiles at her again. She walks down the hallway in her dress, the warm flavor of red Jolly Rancher in her mouth.
Mr. Andrews comes over on Tuesday while Mrs. Andrews and Jenna’s mother are at a computer literacy class. Mr. Andrews is here to talk business over wine, he says, scraping a bug off his shoe as he enters the house. He has brought red. He and Jenna’s father start off reading briefs, but two glasses in, Mr. Andrews starts to quote Shakespeare. Sonnets, mostly. The summer’s flower is to the world sweet, though to itself it only lives and dies, he says. Jenna is wearing her bear paw sweats, sitting in the kitchen and doing her homework. Mrs. Andrews and Jenna’s mother show up. Mrs. Andrews decides to stay and drink. Mr. Andrews has had three glasses of wine; he saw a good documentary on Netflix the other day, he says. On wild African cats. They should watch it, he says. Mrs. Andrews rolls her eyes and smiles. Lilies that fester smell worse than weeds, Mr. Andrews says, finishing his sonnet.
Jenna steps beyond the wooden gate, holding her jacket against the wind. The trees are beginning to change colors, and in the pale lamplight the dead leaves are lit, streaks of warmth against a deep background. Her toes are cold. She is wearing flip-flops, and she shouldn’t be. The roaches crawl nimbly past her feet. They have lives, she realizes. She stares at the purpling sky.
She returns to her room forty-five minutes later, numb inside. She spreads moisturizer on her arms. The flesh feels tight. She tries on the green skull t-shirt she took last week from the mall. Mouse bones are small, she learned when she found the Altoid box dug up in the yard last year. Surprisingly so.
She goes downstairs, through the kitchen. They are playing a drinking game to the African cats documentary. Her father waves Jenna over. “Do you want the rest of the guacamole?” he asks. “Come watch the lion section with us!” Jenna shakes her head. Mrs. Andrews needs to go to the bathroom, and Jenna points her towards the downstairs half-bath, unless she wants to use the nicer one upstairs. Jenna says good night to the adults. Mr. Andrews looks at her. Jenna starts back up the stairs; they creak slightly. She wants to text Robert, to say ‘you fucking asshole.’ She takes off her badger-paw pants. In the bathroom, she starts to brush her teeth, but stops, and stands with only the vanity mirror lit. She lifts her shirt a little and peers at herself in the full-length mirror. She looks at the downy loose flesh on her stomach and the translucent blisters in the creases of her toes.
There is a sound at the door, someone jiggling the handle. She is about to open it, when Mr. Andrews pushes it open. “Oops,” he says unsteadily. A little too loudly. “Is this the restroom?” She stands there, barefoot, wearing only her skull t-shirt. He holds onto the door, smiling at her. She is thinking of Robert’s eyes.
Mr. Andrews fumbles for a moment, looking pink and brave. He unbuckles his belt and unzips his fly.
She has never seen one before. It is mauve and rope-veined. She feels dizzy. She is frightened for a split second, until she looks into his eyes and sees a dead intensity in them. She is fascinated. She feels the smoothness between her legs, the tightness of the flesh on her arms. Everything seems softer and more malleable to her, like the white of a cooked egg — firm and delicate and rotund all at the same time.
She steps forward and puts her mouth on his, aggressively. He clearly was not expecting this. She does not know what he was expecting. He smells like motel hand lotion. She stays for a moment even when he grasps her shoulders with dry hands, pushing her away. Then she closes her mouth and steps away, frightened. But something is roiling inside her, something black and fungal and too much alive. Their eyes meet, briefly. His eyes, pale, focus on her, and she can see the moonlight coming through the frosted window reflected in them. Her eyes are hard. She runs her tongue around the acrid new sweetness in her mouth. She half-smiles.