WHAT WE KNEW
We knew all the dances you stood in line to do: the Electric Slide, the Modified Y, the Tootsie Roll. Even the Ooh! Aah!, although the right-left-shuffle gave Juli some trouble.
We knew how to count calories, how to accessorize with multicolored bandannas, how to iron on an iron-on decal. You just ironed it on.
We knew how to hem a skirt three inches above the bare knee. We knew how to tuck the fabric so our uniform skirts flipped a little when we walked. Like a dance or a cantanelle.
We knew we were the last all-girls' high school in Milwaukee.
Astrid knew how to French inhale off a Lucky Strike. Some Fenwick kid taught her. Hands on, my guess. Astrid.
We knew a lot of things about hair: how to brush, comb, and tease it. How to streak it, how to dye it, how to get gum out of it with the white jelly of an egg. We knew how to curl it with curling irons, how to straighten it with flat irons. We knew that hair was very important.
We knew everybody called us "The Whores on the Hill."
Juli knew a seven-letter word for everything. Like tendril or fulvous. She was a crossword puzzle champion. I mean, she had trophies.
We knew we were pretty, but Astrid was the only one to say it.
We knew all the words to "Je t'aime . . . Moi non plus" by Serge Gainsbourg. "He's the dirty mouth of French pop," Astrid said. "In case you didn't know."
We knew how to pack a bowl, how to sniff glue out of a wet handkerchief. These were parlor tricks, sleight of hand you showed off at parties.
"You know, you should only buy condoms with Nonoxynol-9," Astrid said. "It kills AIDS."
We knew Sister St. Joe snuck cigarettes in the boys' bathroom since there were no boys to find her.
We knew Juli liked to scratch her arms with the sterilized end of a stickpin, only we didn't talk about it. Everyone had something. We were girls.
We didn't know that we didn't know enough. We didn't know that our lives would change, that high school wasn't forever. I mean, not unless you died.
But we did know something. For instance, we knew sex was like a dance. Like shuffle-shuffle-step.
We knew we were restless, feet tapping, waiting for the phone to ring.
Someday, we knew, we wouldn't dance in a line. We'd step outside, elbows in all the wrong places, and get the hell out of there, Sacred Heart Holy Angels, the last all-girls' school in Milwaukee.
But first, we'd just blow smoke and say, "Tell me something I don't know."
We stood, the three of us, Astrid, Juli, and me, between the Ping-Pong table and the wet bar in the basement of somebody's house. Astrid tapped her serrated nose with one black fingernail, the dimpled nose that gave her face a feral, catlike expression. She flipped up her collar, preppy style, and eyed a dark-looking, tough guy sucking a shot of Jagermeister off an ice luge dripping in the utility sink.
We were fifteen. The world hadn't even started for us yet, only Astrid taught us to look at the world slantwise. She cut her wet, almond-shaped eyes at Jagermeister kid and said, "Okay, sure. Like, that's him."
Jagermeister kid saw and wiped his lovely pink mouth. He smiled, edged his lean body, his frayed jean jacket, back against the dryer and flicked his wrist, as if to say, Come on.
"You want him?" Juli asked.
And we were walking. Easily, we slipped past kids shuffling their shoulders back and forth, dancing. We skirted past kids knotted up in each other, sprawled across the plaid, moldy couch, making out.
All ladylike, we sidled up to Jagermeister kid. Astrid tucked a honey-colored curl behind one ear. She went, "Hey, give us some."
And it was easy as that.
"Sacred Heart sluts." It was more like a whisper, a ring of blown smoke, the kind of thing that circulates at parties. Our reputation.
"Do they have to say that?" I asked, fiddling with the white pleather purse I kept across my hip.
"Put your mouth here," Jagermeister kid instructed.
The alcohol scuttled down the luge like fire. Astrid opened her mouth, her neck back, then Juli, then me. All of us, breath like licorice whips.
"I know you," Jagermeister kid said.
"Sure you do," Astrid answered. "We're everywhere."
All three of us crammed into the bathroom off the kitchen. There was potpourri everywhere, in baskets and dishes of glass.
"Fuck if he's from Fenwick, no way. Did you see that tiger tattoo?"
"He said he's calling his friends. A whole mess of them."
"You look fierce. How'd you do that to your eyes?"
"Now don't get drunk and leave me," Juli said, brushing the shock of black bangs out of her jade green eyes to copy Astrid's eyeliner trick. She smeared the black kohl all the way out to her temples.
"I like your hair," Astrid said, fingering the strawberry blond wings sprayed back from my face, hair too wispy and thin to hold fast to the silver pins Astrid tucked behind her ears.
We heard revving motorcycle engines, like lions out above us in the yard.
"Anywhere but Metropolis. We're always going there," Astrid said, flipping a leg over the banana seat behind Jagermeister kid. He wore a jean jacket, had black spiky hair and a raffish mole under his left eye. He said his name was Vance.
"You can call me Van," he said.
Van's friends wore leather jackets and ratty denim. Older boys. The blond one grinned. He had wine-stained birthmarks all over his face, like fingerprints or dye.
"Skinny-dipping," Van said. "I know a place."
We hopped on the backs of their bikes and we were off. Revving out of the suburbs, shooting straight for downtown. Van led with Astrid behind him, the blond ends of her hair trailing like tassels to a curtain. The Miller Brewing Company squatted on the river, its red sign flashing neon in the black night like a giant word from God. We breathed in the hops easy, all that bacteria fermenting.
"What's your name again?" mine called over his shoulder, the words clipped in the wind.
I lost the letters of my name to the roaring night. "Thisbe."
"What?" he called.
The boys hung a left onto the wide, sloping residential streets that circled the light-flecked lake. Van called ahead, "Demon ride." All the boys cut off their lights and hit the gas. Juli let loose a short, happy scream. We were coasting, flying, soaring weightless through the night's black skirt of the sky.
Van cut his motorcycle engine on a darkened dead-end street. The lake slapped up against the shore. It was a spring night, seventy degrees, the last sigh of summer, and not that late.
"Are you scared?" one of the boys said. "Don't be scared. Animals can smell fear on you."
Van peeled off his jacket and his shirt. Then his friends, they unhooked the buckles on their boots, stepped out of their Levi's. Their chalky skin collected the light from the boats strung out like lanterns against the shoreline.
"Well," Astrid said and slipped out of her Izod polo. Juli and I rubbed our bare arms, watching. Astrid untied her wraparound skirt and kicked the sandals from her feet. Cherries dotted her underwear. "Are you just going to stand there?" she asked.
Juli shuffled her brown shoulders out of her T-shirt.
The water was blacker than ink. Astrid waded in to her waist, pointed her sharp arms over her head, and dove. Her head emerged, silver and wet, her eyes shining. "Jesus," she said.
Juli eyed my denim skirt and whispered, "You'd better or Astrid will get pissed."
"Just give me a second," I said, as I slowly, awkwardly undressed. Crouching, I slipped into the water like pulling a blanket over my body.
"You're cute," my boy from the motorcycle said. He washed up beside me in the water, barrel-chested with wiry copper hair brushed over his chest like fox fur. His tongue tasted like peach schnapps and smoke. His hands grabbed for my legs and I was kicking, splashing out of reach.
"Whoa," he said. "Just kidding."
Astrid and I floated on our backs and poked our toes through the black water. The moon threw seeds of white light.
Juli breaststroked over, her lake-slick head bobbing above the water like a seal, and said, "His birthmark is sexy. What do you think? Will it always be like this?"
"Sure," Astrid said. "Why not?"
Van threw his arm around Astrid's blanched shoulders. The crude handmade tattoo on his small, hard bicep read i am alive.
"A kid died here. Hit an icy patch on his bike and slid right in," Van said.
"Girl, I'll warm you up," mine said. His mouth was like fire on my skin.
Everything black sky and stars.
"Turn around. Close your eyes," Astrid said when we wanted to get out. All of us, dripping wet and shivering. Juli's black hair whispered like smoke down her back, so beautiful you could sigh.
Headlights hit the water. Red, then blue.
"Five-oh," Van said and freestyled for the shore. We were running for the trees, laughing.
"I like them tough. Did you see his arms? Like ropes or something," Juli said.
"Look at that hickey. Gross."
"See Thisbe, that wasn't so bad, was it?"
"He forgot my name. Kept calling me 'Girl.'"
"I felt it underwater. Like a fish, darting around."
Van and his friends ran their bikes down the dirt road behind us, lights off, until they were out of breath. I watched them toss a pack of cigarettes between them like a red-and-white ball. Astrid tucked the tongue of Van's shirt into his jeans; she feathered his hair with her fingers.
"Handsome." She bit his ear. "Just like I like them."
"Get on," they said and we shot back to the suburbs, freezing wet.
At home, even in bed with the covers pulled tight, it still felt like we were flying, Astrid, Juli, and me, burning through our bare, balding town like a breath of wet fire. Our desire. We wanted the world. All of it, and now.
WE ATE HUNGRY
"Two tablespoons of cottage cheese," Astrid said to Mrs. Noelle, the lunch lady with the ratty hairnet. Astrid palmed her a quarter and said, "You're a champ. Really." Juli ate a green apple. I gnawed on spearmint gum. Lunch only lasted thirty minutes at Sacred Heart Holy Angels. We were hungry, but skinny.
We liked to see our hipbones. We liked to see our ribs. The cafeteria was always swarming with noise: tray tables banging together, dishes slung in the sink, girls laughing, swearing. All of them, chewing on macaroni.
"Come on," Astrid said, and we spent the rest of the lunch hour behind the Virgin Mary, smoking.
"'Whores on the Hill.' Give me a break. Who said that last night?" Astrid lit a Kool and squinted at the blistering asphalt parking lot stretched out behind Sacred Heart.
"How does the whore feel the day after?" Juli joked.
"Tired." Astrid yawned and flicked her spent butt spinning. "The whore doesn't want to think about it. The whore wants to take a nap."
Astrid and Juli laughed with their mouths open. They laughed, their heads back, and I thought, "Where am I? How did I get here?"
Lying in bed, at night, my stomach growled. I rolled over and tucked my knees to my chest. I saw myself smaller and smaller, like a seed in the black night soil of the earth. Here were the stars and here was the city. Here was the net of the world and I was waiting deep down inside it.
In the morning, I took one piece of strawberry-blond hair and cut it with a razor, zigzag bangs across my forehead; I hemmed my skirt three inches above the bare knee; I blacked out my eyes with kohl, just like Astrid did. I had always been such a nice girl; I was still such a nice girl. My mother took one look at me and asked, "Why would you want to be like that?"
I ask you, why, why not?