Greg(ory) and (Isa)bel

To have sight isn’t always to see, if that makes any sense. An example: on my way to school, from the windshield of my father’s station wagon, I can use my eyes, these little gooey spheres of cells, to look at an animal, scurrying across the road. I can tell that it’s moving: but what I don’t know is if it’s a squirrel with a death wish, or a raccoon, up past its sunlight bedtime, or a dog, that has slipped its collar and is a long way from home.

I blink a couple times, trying to clear my eyes of the crusty that I missed earlier this morning, and look again. The animal isn’t an animal at all, it’s a plastic bag. I watch it, black and billowing, snag on a road sign (deer crossing, funny) planted in the shallow drainage ditch on the side of the road, the threshold between the razed cornfield, so out of season in November, and the narrow two-lane we’re driving on. Dissatisfied with my view, I twist my lips and shift in the passenger seat, bringing my sneaker-clad foot up to rest on the dash. I can see my dad sigh and bristle, glancing at me for a moment. He doesn’t like it when I put my feet up there, but I do it anyways. Neither of us says a word. I shut my eyes. 

* * *

“Like the issue this week?” Before I hear his voice I can already tell that he’s sidled up beside me in the hall, a crooked smile on his mouth and his yellow backpack hanging haphazardly off of one bony shoulder. “I thought Gordon was looking especially fit,

“Shut up, Gregory,” I chuckle, playfully nudging the much-taller-than-he-is-wide boy in the side with my shoulder while we walk. He mentions the Playgirl model as if he were a close friend. “I thought he looked like an idiot, his teeth are too big.” I toy gently with the small golden cross hanging from a dainty chain around my neck.

“Who’s to say there aren’t Playgirl bunnies? I’m for the liberation of men to wear leotards and pom-pom tails like their female counterparts.” 

“I’d certainly like to see that,” I chuckle, imagining it for only a second before erasing the image from my mind with a sharp shake of my head. Gross. 

Greg brought me my first Playgirl last year, October, I think. He stuffed it in one of those manilla folders and stuck it into my backpack while I wasn’t paying attention, wasn’t paying attention to him, at least, in English class. He labelled it “anatomy” in his signature scrawl using a fat red Sharpie. Wasn’t out of the blue, though. Because it was months earlier, in his basement, that’s a little darker and a little chillier than the rest of the house, newly finished with this pukey shag carpet and this bogus wood panelling, which his mom thinks is gorgeous, that I first saw one. We found a stash at the bottom of a dusty blue Rubbermaid while we were looking for the Ouija board, and out of respect he put the portrait of his grandmother face-down on the mantle of the fireplace, while we flipped through what I assume is his mother’s secret stash of girly mags, the shame and bane of her investments, laughing and poking fun and forgetting about the pagan sacrilege we were about to carry out with the Ouija because we found a different sin to commit. I didn’t know what I was looking at, at first. I mean, I knew, but I didn’t really. Greg did. I guess it makes sense that he’d be better acquainted with the material. 

It’s become kind of a running joke. Sometimes, when we’re free, we’ll go into town and go to the bookstore, and venture into the backest of back corners and have a contest, to see who can find the grossest and most gag-worthy adult fiction. He won last time with a period piece that followed King Henry VIII during his search for a wife that would, perhaps, produce an heir. It was Greg’s (Sir Gregory Big-Tits Bellbottom) crude and dramatic reading that really got me to snort. 

“It’s cold today,” he says blandly, changing the subject and expertly dodging the boy running the opposite direction in the hallway, apparently not noticing the people in his path. 

“It’s supposed to snow this weekend, you know.”

I find it funny, how we can go from talking about porn magazines and cross-dressers to the weather. And even when the conversation is as dull as the dense grey clouds in the central Michigan sky, I could never want to talk to anybody else. Maybe that tells me that Greg is my best friend. I like to think of him that way. 

“Maybe we can go sledding, ” he says, but it’s more of an afterthought, and I feel him leave my side to go in front of me, walking backwards, one hand in the front pocket of his blue jeans, one holding his backpack on his shoulder. His red-and-cream stripe shirt is a little wrinkled, and he grins at me, exposing his slightly crooked teeth. He’s never been very good at wearing his retainer. “I’m gonna ditch study hall,” his straight chestnut hair swings a bit as he turns his head for a moment, to make sure he’s not heading for a hallway collision, “want to join me?”

I shake my head and watch behind him before looking at him again to respond, “I got early practice, I’m already dismissed.”

He clicks his tongue and rolls his eyes at me jokingly. “Alright, square,” he turns himself the right way again. “I’m going to calc, think of me!”

I laugh and gently push on his back as he begins jogging down the hall. His shoe’s starting to come untied. I hope he notices before he falls, but then again, seeing him fall on his bony little ass would be funny. Of course I’d help him up. 

* * *

I like everything about the pool. Especially the smell, and the color of the water. The warm warm, nearly stale air and the way everything echos off the walls and off the water, and the way you can see through the blue, straight to the beige concrete beneath. I’m welcomed into practice with the shrill shriek of Coach Kelter’s whistle.  

“That’s two-fifty, Flanagan! One more time,” he shouts at my teammate, Kelly Flanagan, no doubt practicing her butterfly stroke. She’s the best on the team for butterfly, and I don’t know why Coach pushes her so hard. She’s got the division record, but even her best isn’t good enough, I guess. Kelly’s nice. Our families go to the same church and she lives right down the block. I don’t talk to her enough. My mom wants her to come over to spend the night, but I don’t know if she’d want to. I would hate to ask her, and be wrong. 

It’s the diving that’s the scariest part when you’re a swimmer. That space between solid ground and the water, when you’re suspended in the air and hurtling towards a sensation that you’ve felt a thousand times, but somehow, you never know how it’s going to feel. Somehow, you get your virginity back, no matter how many beds you’ve jumped into (even thinking of this analogy, I can feel my mother cringe). 

Once you hit the water, once you break the surface, it’s an entirely different story. You go into survival mode, auto-pilot. That little piece of your brain that used to be an undersea creature, it lights up. And you swim, and you keep swimming until you’ve reached dry land again. That’s when the piece of your brain that used to be a monkey lights up, and takes over. All you can think is, towel. And that’s where I am, now. In my lane, swimming freestyle, pushing only to get back onto the deck and try again. I can feel that I’m slow today. It must be the cold. 

I can see, through the green-blue tint of my goggles, the pool wall. I prepare to stop, I swing my legs down, I bring my hands up, I grasp the pool trim and check the clock on the wall. 

Three minutes flat. 

I swallow, and little bit of chlorine stings my throat. The sounds of my teammates splashing as they swim in the water, and laughing as they hang out on the deck, all fade together in a buzz. A perfect three, but I’ve done better.

I start to lift myself out of the pool, but I’m stopped, by the feeling of a grab and a twist of my flesh behind me. I shout and spin in the pool. I’m greeted by the shit-eating grin and narrow blue eyes of Christopher Richardson, known as ‘Dickie’ by both his friends and his enemies. His forehead is pink with acne that he tries to cover with blond casanova-wannabe bangs. 

“Asshole,” I spit, swatting his hand away from my butt, where he grabbed me. I see some of his jerk-off friends laughing on the pool deck, sitting on the bleachers. I glare, but the fire in my eyes is probably weakened by the fire I can feel climbing up my cheeks. Dickie doesn’t stop laughing in his ratty way, his big teeth at the forefront of his jeering mouth. 

He’s hanging onto the lane divider. “Nice, Gonzalez,” he snickers, and my vision clouds with rage. An ugly one, but silent, one that sneaks up on even me. I don’t usually get this upset about this; He’s always pulling shit like this. Not just with me, but with every girl on the team. He’s a serial groper. He’ll probably win the “Most Likely to be a Sex Offender” award when we graduate. If he hasn’t made the list already. I can’t see anything but his too-big teeth and his dimpled chin, and his wet hair and his cloudy blue eyes and without even thinking, I rear my leg up underwater to hit him where it’ll really hurt. 

My attack is interrupted by another blow of Coach’s whistle. “Stay in your own lane, Richardson!” he barks, and Dickie looks up at him, suddenly meek, his pride having leaked out rapidly, an invisible ink, into the water of the pool. I don’t look away from his face. 

“Sorry…” Dickie mutters to me, but he won’t look me in the eyes and say it. He looks down like a puppy that’s been scolded. If I didn’t hate him so much I might just feel bad for him. His friends are laughing harder than before. I shake my head, and lift myself out of the pool, with a frustrated grunt and a concentrated anger that I try hard to keep inside. 

Dickie’s family goes to our church, too. 

* * *

When we moved here eight years ago, I thought the house was way too big. I didn’t like the manicured lawn, or the big maple tree in front. The green shutters looked too kitschy to me, even as an eight-year-old. Same deal with the pale pink door. It’s the quintessential family home of the 1950s. We had an older house in Chicago, and it had a lot more character. 

“Ma,” I call, as soon as I get in the door, but the house is silent, “Ma?” I call again, remembering her car in the driveway. 

After waiting a few minutes, with no response, I give up on waiting, and start to kick off my shoes. Holding onto the doorframe and working hard to loosen my too-tight laces without actually untying them. The house is strangely quiet. Usually I can hear my mom, humming in the kitchen, or humming even over the drone of the vacuum cleaner. But today there’s nothing. No humming, no smell of whatever yummy thing she’s cooking for dinner, no–

What am I looking at?

Fleshy. Dark. Trembling.

I blink. The image hasn’t changed, it’s still this surreal collection of shapes and shadows and… That’s Howie Gordon’s junk

Suddenly, everything becomes very clear to me. That Playgirl had been sitting face-down on my dresser this morning. Today must have been laundry day, without a warning, because my mother doing my laundry for me shouldn’t need a warning. She does it much better than I do. 

Her hand trembles with the ferocity of a woman whose entire structure of hopes about her daughter’s religious integrity has been toppled with a single November 1978 issue of Playgirl Magazine.  I blink. Howie Gordon’s teeth still look too big for his mouth. Somehow, that’s what I can focus on. And the coldness radiating off of my mother’s regularly warm body. 

“Explain this to me, Isabel,” she says, in her clipped, accented tone. 

I can’t speak. I even open my mouth to try. How do you explain to your mother that you have a porn magazine because your male best friend who doesn’t go to church gave it to you? How do you explain that you don’t look at it for the sex, but for the comedy? Or maybe, even sometimes, for the sex. How do I explain to my mother, that named me as an oath to God, that at sixteen, I’m looking at pictures of pornstars and sometimes I’m not laughing. Sometimes I get a feeling in the pit of my stomach that’s entirely terrifying. Sometimes I’ll go to the library, and read those gooey romance books, and think about the way they describe a kiss. 

“Isabel,” she’s pleading now. Her anger has melted away. “I don’t want my daughter to be a…” I close my eyes at the sound of the magazine dropping onto the ground. It slaps dully on the floor and covers up her voice, muttering in her native language the things that she doesn’t want me to understand.

“I’m sorry,” I apologize dumbly, because it’s the only thing I can say. It’s the only thing that might not make her more upset. 

She sighs. “Please go to your room.” 

I go silently, my eyes stuck to the floor. It’s a short march to my bedroom, just down the hall, but it feels like an eternity with my mother’s eyes on my back. I wonder what she’s seeing. 

* * *

It was my mom and dad’s quiet muttering about me, in their bedroom late at night, after a silent dinner–where my father kept trying to make conversation that just wasn’t sustainable, where I pushed my food around with my fork and didn’t take a single bite, where my mother picked up my plate herself and didn’t have me bring it to the sink–that pushed me out of my bedroom window and onto the low-lying evergreen shrubbery below. I watch the small snowflakes drop slowly into the yellow wash of the street lamp across from me, collecting in dots on the frozen concrete beneath them. I watch the snow for a little while, and my white breath rising from my mouth like smoke, under the protection of the extended roof eave. A pick-up truck rolls slowly down the street, and the sounds of its engine remind me of the chuckles and snickers and hyena-howls of Dickie’s friends earlier today, who no doubt double-dog-dared him into grabbing my ass and forcing a scene on the swimming pool. I frown. My chest fills with a heavy hate. 

The walk to Greg’s house isn’t too long and I know it by heart. I don’t remember when I learned it but I know that I know it. I could probably do it blindfolded. His house is so different from mine. Ours has aluminum siding; his is made of brick. Our walls are cluttered with family portraits and crosses, framed bible verses, one antique mirror above the piano… His family has real art on the walls, paintings. His mom’s an art historian at Central. My mom doesn’t work outside of the house anymore. I pause at the head of his driveway, noting the light on in his bedroom, the first window to the left of the door, even with the curtains closed. I go up and knock on the door. 

When he opens it, and looks at me, it’s with a worried face, a little confused, but there’s still a smile on his mouth. “Bel, what’re you doing here?”

I shift my weight on my slippered feet. He looks down at them for a moment. “Can I come in?” I ask, crossing my arms. It is cold out. 

“Uh…” he’s a little flustered. Usually I call before I show up, but not this time. I didn’t want my mom listening in on the other line. Obviously I didn’t even want my mom to know I left. But even then, he doesn’t hesitate for a second before stepping aside and motioning me in. I brush past him and drop on the couch. “Isabel, what’s up?” 

I look at him, standing in front of me, now, so tall and skinny, thick brows knitted together now, and the smile has faded. “I got groped today,” I say, apathetically, bringing my feet up under me on the couch, “if I had known I was gonna be the victim of a Dickie Dare I would have ditched with you.”

“I hate that guy.” he sighs, and shakes his head. “Did you kill him?”


“He does that to every girl with a pulse.”

“I was about to knee his balls.”

Greg laughs. “I’m not sure there’s much there to get at.”

I rub my thumb across the faded brown leather of the sofa arm. I manage a little chuckle. It’s not the game of grab-ass that’s bothering me, any more. I’m mad, at him, and his friends, but I’m more mad about the way it made me feel. The way that kind of attention makes me feel, so sick, and so weak, and so scared, but somehow it sticks in my mind, and the more I think about it, the more I hate it, and the more I’m waiting for it to happen again. The more I think about boys looking at me like that, anybody looking at me like that, feeling disgusted with them and myself and yet. Yet if it were somebody else, at a different time, with different eyes that didn’t see me as a dare to be done but a girl with her younger mother’s face and body, a girl that looks good in her swimming uniform, and that boys might like looking at. “Can I get some water?” I ask him, tracing the necklace resting on my collarbone. 

“Sure thing,” Greg says, shooting me one last, sorry look, but not one that suggested he thought I couldn’t handle myself. He walks off to the kitchen. I watch his Star Wars pajama pants sway loosely around his ankles until his feet are out of sight. 

While he’s getting a glass of water for me, I wander into his bedroom. Nothing verboten, we hang out in here. Study in here. For his fifteenth birthday, his dad splurged and bought him a TV set for his dresser, and sometimes we’ll sit together on his bed and watch and watch, with one blanket draped over both of our shoulders. He’s a senior this year, one grade above me. I try not to think about what it’ll be like when he goes off to college.

I look at the shelf of various medals and trophies right next to his door, above his desk. Mathletes state champion, ‘75, ‘76, ‘77. He’ll probably take our high school to victory once again at the bowl in the spring. The county spelling bee in fifth grade. Maybe I’ll get lucky and he’ll stay in town for school. But he might be too smart for Central. I wouldn’t be surprised if he went down to Ann Arbor for school. He wants to do physics. I take a few steps back and sit on his unmade bed. I take one of his pillows and pull it onto my lap. I’m looking at the floor, but I don’t think I’m really looking at anything. 

“Hey, space-cadet,” I hear his voice and look up to him. He’s watching me with a funny look, and holding the glass out to me. 


“You’ve been staring at my rug for a whole minute. What’s wrong?” 

He’s serious now. Sometimes he’ll leave stuff alone if he can tell I’m upset. This isn’t one of those times. I take the water and scooch over, to give him some room to sit down. “Do you ever think that it’s not just a joke?”

He gives me a look. “Huh?”

“The magazines,” I elaborate, and I take a sip of the water, lukewarm, running my tongue over my lips, “We’ve look at them and we laugh and make fun because it’s funny, but do you ever look at them like they’re really supposed to be looked at?”

“What do you mean.” Greg takes a breath and stiffens a little bit. I feel weird now, because he looks like he feels weird. 

I set the water down on his bedside table carefully, thinking about my next words. “I’ve been wondering about it. Like, actually, you know? Like I’d never seen a dude’s junk, or even thought about a dude’s junk, or thought about the mechanics of love at all and…” I sigh, flustered, getting my breath uncaught from my throat. I’m talking too fast and I can’t look him in the eyes, “And I’ve been thinking about all of it. Why do people kiss one another? How do people go from kissing to having sex? How does that go and how do you even go about it?”

Greg clears his throat and catches my eye. “I think people kiss because they want to. You shouldn’t worry that you haven’t kissed anybody yet,” he keeps his eyes in mine and tries to get me to smile. “Every guy at school is disgusting, anyways. I wouldn’t want to kiss them.”

I do laugh at this. “Would you want to kiss anybody?”

“I don’t know. I think the mags are funny.”

“And you never think about it as anything else than a joke?”

He shrugs. “I don’t know. They don’t…” He lets out this little noise that I register as a laugh, but I don’t think it really is, “It’s not like they turn me on or anything.” 

I feel my brows rise up, with the corners of my mouth along with them, when I feel a joke or a jeer coming up my throat. “What does, then?”

He looks at me like he doesn’t believe I just asked him that. And he does that strange little laugh again, that sharp, shaky exhalation, his eyes widening just a little bit. 

“What turns you on, huh?” I bite down on my lower lip to suppress a growing smile. “What does Greg get off to, eh?” I poke once, twice at his stomach. He’s ticklish there. Greg really laughs now, shaking his head. His strange, cackling laugh, where his tongue goes between those silly crooked teeth and his hazel eyes crinkle at the sides. He grabs my hands in an attempt to stop me, and I do. His smile lingers on his face. 

I breathe in and suddenly realize how close I am to him. This wouldn’t normally be strange. We sit this close all the time, sometimes even closer. But my whole mood is different. My head’s in a different place, and I can feel my face get hot even though the room is cold. A lump forms fast in my throat, and my hands are shaking as I pull them out of his. He shifts, looking at me strangely. I steady myself, with one hand on the mattress and the other on the pendant. “Can I try it?” I ask, and my voice is much softer than I had expected. 


“I just want to try it. Can I try it?”

His eyes flit around the room, and around my face, and I think he’s trying to see if I’m serious. I’m not sure if I can show him I am. 

“You want to kiss me?” He speaks more softly than before. 

I nod and swallow my breath. 

“If you want to.”

“I want to.”

Neither of us moves. We’re just stuck looking at one another.  I glance at his lips. I’ve never thought of them like this before, thinking of them as something that wouldn’t only be cracking jokes and making fun of me but, kissing. Kissing. Kissing is weird. It’s soft, and wet, and warm. My eyes have closed and I didn’t notice. His hand softly cradles my face. I don’t think we really know how to move, but we’re moving anyways. Softly. Slowly. Cautiously. I was expecting it to be gross, like a wet rag. But it’s not. I chuckle against his mouth, and I don’t know why. Maybe it’s a response to the way my heart is pounding, or maybe it’s my smile trying to escape from my face. I pull back and look at him. He’s laughing too, and I see a goofy glint in his eye and the little smile on his mouth. And I kiss him again.