The first thing Kyle Mayhue says to me when he opens the door of the trailer where he lives and finds me standing on the front step is, “You look tough with your hair like that.” He pooches out his mouth in a pucker and nods approvingly.
I haven’t seen him in over a year, since he dropped out of high school and stopped riding my bus. He looks older, like an adult almost, with a sparse reddish beard and tan, muscular arms. His curly, dark auburn hair is a little longer, but his face is unchanged besides the beard: coarse, with a wide nose and a long, deep scar on his right cheek that crinkles into a dimple when he smiles. I probably do look different to him, with my eyeliner and bizarre clothes. My hair is shaved down to an inch on one side, and down to my chin on the other.
Kyle works third shift at the factory at the bottom of the road. He lives here on a dirt hill with his grandmother in the wasteland of shacks and trailers that lay between the factory and Kingstown, the black neighborhood at the edge of Larrimore. Even from the doorway, the place smells like fried food and cigarette smoke. Behind him I can see a box of powdered sugar donuts on the kitchen table among a mess of papers and clothes, under a glaring light bulb with no shade. A dreadlocked dog shuffles around the dusty yard on a long rope.
I’m here, ostensibly, to buy weed from him, but what I really want is to get into the habit of seeing him again. What I’m buying is his time.
“Come in,” he says.
I begin by visiting him once a week, buying marijuana every time. When I’m there I smoke a little with him, but what I buy I don’t smoke. I scatter it out in the woods and rake leaves over it with my foot, then I wad up a piece of notebook paper around the baggies. The truth is that I don’t really like to smoke it. It’s just a way to justify my visits.
His grandmother, Marlene, is loud, vulgar, and good-natured, with a raspy voice and wheezy laugh. She has a big bosom and disproportionately small waist, and she sprays her bangs up several inches off her forehead. Her eyebrows are drawn on in brown pencil. She chain-smokes Marlboro Reds and loves the Jerry Springer show, which, because it conflicts with her work schedule at Ruby’s convenience store, she watches when she gets home at night. I’m here in time to see her today because it’s a teacher workday. Normally she’s at work by the time I arrive.
“You gonna tape Jerry for me or what, Kyle?” she says, twisting her lips to exhale out her cigarette smoke to the side.
“Naw. I’m sick a you watchin’ that shit. It’s embarrassin’.”
“You know what’s gonna happen if you don’t tape it,” she says, balling up her fist and shaking it at him.
This is their schtick. He gives her a hard time, but he tapes the program for her. He even watches it. One day I arrive in time to catch the last part of the show with him. Two surly brothers are in love with the same girl, a scrawny, pasty-looking child from Alabama, not yet in her twenties. They scream and curse one other as the audience chatters like primates, urging them on to an open brawl.
“Ain’t this sick?” Kyle asks, yawning.
“Yep,” I say. But we keep watching it.
As time goes on, I stop buying weed from Kyle, and he eventually stops offering it to me, even to smoke. Instead we watch TV or play video games or listen to CDs. To listen to music we go into his room, where the stereo stands between a weight bench and the bed along the far wall. At first we sit on the floor, which is covered with thick, orange carpet and smells faintly musty. Then we sit on the bed, on top of an old green sleeping bag, then eventually we lie on the bed, though we don’t touch. I begin to visit every day, inventing excuses for being out in the afternoons. I say I have activities after school, science club, Spanish club, National Honor Society. Or that I go to Becca Bradham’s. I know my mother won’t check up on this story; she considers Becca’s family beneath us.
Kyle never touches me. He lies on the bed and smokes cigarettes and softly sings Pink Floyd songs, occasionally getting up to change the CD. He waits until I’m ready.
On the day I’ve chosen I skip school. I wake him up at one o’clock, knocking softly, then louder, on the door of the trailer. I spent the morning at Don’s Pancake House, having a leisurely breakfast, then at the city park with a book. Kyle comes to the door bleary-eyed, with a slight flush to his skin. He’s wearing only pajama bottoms, emblazoned with the Duff’s Beer logo.
“Why didn’t you come earlier?” he says, squinting into the sunlight, grinning. He closes one eye, scratches his chest. “Come in, lemme brush my teeth.”
When he comes out of the bathroom he has little drops of water on his face. They glisten in the sunlight. I walk over to him, stand in front of him, closer than I’ve ever stood before, and with one finger wipe a drop of water from his cheek down through the groove of his scar.
“Be soft with me,” I say. “It’ll be my first time.”
When it’s over I notice there’s a little blood on the sleeping bag.
“I’ll tell Grammaw it’s motor oil. She prob’ly won’t even notice,” Kyle says, kissing my nose. I decide I’ll keep a tally, I tell myself we’ll do it twenty times. Surely once you’ve done something twenty times, you know how it’s done.
This is how I begin, but the weeks spread out into months, and I lose count of my tally, knowing the number was well beyond what I’d planned. There’s nothing I can really pinpoint that I don’t like about Kyle. I keep waiting to tire of him, not to want to see him anymore, but the feeling never comes. So not seeing him has to be a planned act, a decision. Just like going to bed with him was, but harder to make.
“I can’t see you anymore,” I say to his chest as soon as I walk in one day. I look up at his face, where his grin has frozen, then, in an instant, he’s made his expression blank. He takes a step back, his movements stiff. I watch him pick up his jacket where it’s slung over the arm of the couch. A fine white cat hair sticks out from the wooly collar, reminding me of the thistles I used to get stuck in the cuffs of my pants when I played outside as a child. Like tiny archery arrows.
“You getcha a boyfriend?” he asks. “A rich one, that you don’t have to sneak around with?”
“Yeah,” I say softly.
“That’s cool. I’m just gonna run out to the store, get me some cigarettes. I’ll see you around.” He doesn’t look me in the eye.
He’s never looked as good to me as when he walks out the door.
April Vázquez is the winner of the William Van Dyke Short Story Prize and a Pushcart, Orison Anthology, and Best of the Net award nominee. Her work has appeared in more than three dozen publications, including Salon, The Missing Slate, and Cleaver. Some of April’s writing can be found at https://aprilvazquez.wordpress.com.
© 2018, April Vázquez