You’re So Beautiful, a short story
I met Lainey in seventh grade. That was the year the School Board made everybody, boys and girls, take both Shop and Home Economics. In Shop, we learned to make a bookshelf, a cutting board, and a surfboard key ring out of thick, acrylic, plastic sheets laminated together, making stripes in a sort of mixed up rainbow. The shop smelled good from all the sawdust. The saws were loud, sometimes deafening. The plastic smelled like plastic.
In Home Ec., we learned to make corn fritters out of Bisquick and canned creamed corn, and how to cut out a pattern and sew it together. Other than Lainey, the biggest news of the year was when our Home Ec. teacher came in second in the Miss Nude World contest. Most kids were blasé about that, most teachers were shocked. It wasn’t any big surprise to me — you’d have to be blind not to see how she looked in her clingy knit minidresses, no lingerie lines showing. She was naked under that dress, and radiated something I would realize later was sex.
The first words my friend Lainey ever said to me were, “I love you.” Standing there in shop next to the jigsaw, I felt my lungs seize up. I prayed that nobody had heard. Little alarm bells were going off in my head. “I love you,” echoed through my ears. It was such a new feeling that in seconds my self-consciousness shriveled up and melted away like some bad witch; my lungs unfroze and I breathed. I greedily said, “What?”
Lainey said it again, and reached over and took my hand in hers. Her hand was sturdy, well-formed, warm and dry, her skin a glowing, lightly freckled, golden honey, her nails broad and dark pink. Although she wasn’t implying what I’d thought at first, I was bound to her forever in the innocent, momentary flash of what could have been, and how it might have made me feel. She had been to drug rehab for kids, at a place called The Sprout. Her parents — the usual yacht club, duplicate bridge, reading for the blind types — had found her pot stash, which she kept in an empty Sucrets box. So they sent her to The Sprout, where the counselors taught her to love Jesus — to love everybody — and to renounce drugs. Loving people stuck with Lainey, but Jesus and renouncing drugs fell by the wayside.
What Lainey’s parents couldn’t see was that drugs weren’t the real problem, they were only a reflection of something deeper — some desperate need of hers they didn’t even want to know about. They wrote large checks and prayed for a miracle. To them, Lainey and her siblings were the ultimate accessories, something to complement their house, their car, their memberships and dress-for-success wardrobes.
By high school, junior year, Lainey and I went out to lunch together every day — she refused to take no for an answer. She’d jostle me in the hall outside Trig class, the skin of her arm warm, velvety, against mine. We’d bump-walk our way down the rows of lockers, the other kids staring, open-mouthed, not knowing if we were extreme dorks, or just so cool we didn’t care what they thought. It was the first one for me, the second for Lainey. Why she took such a liking to me, I don’t know. I’m grateful.
“C’mon, let’s go,” she’d say, smiling, opening her lips wide, baring teeth so big and white I almost wanted them to nibble me, just to feel it.
Lainey’s body spoke to anyone, or anything, who’d listen. Animal, vegetable, or mineral, it didn’t matter what she was near: the electrons couldn’t help being stirred on one level or another. Rocks altered their geochemical structure when she sat on them. Grown men wished they could towel the sweat off her skin; maybe just take her just-worn jeans home and sleep with them folded under their pillow. There was a little brown mole next to her mouth, a few golden freckles scattered across her nose, and that jumble of curly red hair. Her skin was darker than her hair, burnished sleek by the hours she spent in the sun.
“What do you want to do?” I asked, my mouth dry.
“What do you think?” she said.
“Going to lunch” consisted of getting in her ‘68 Mustang and driving a long, pre-arranged loop — the “smoking trail” — me with a rolling tray and Sucrets box in my lap, putting together clumsy joints which, when dragged on with the fierceness of Lainey’s inhalations, once in a while fell apart, burning her thighs, or mine.
I knew we’d get back late, and be in trouble. We were in American History, together, right after lunch. The class was taught by a slight, lean woman with a face which seemed to be almost desiccated. American History in those days included a vile, nine-week, shameless, capitalist propaganda presentation called “Americanism versus Communism” which came at the beginning of the school year. The teacher had moved Lainey as far away from me as she could during the second week of school because Lainey and I came back from lunch stoned every single day and we could not stop laughing at the whole farce – I had to literally put my face down on my desk to break eye contact with Lainey in order to stop.
A certain type of girl looked at both of us with frozen marble faces: they hated Lainey on principle. They knew — if she wanted to — she could have any one of their boyfriends in a second. They hated me, too, but only because of Lainey’s aura. It was a time when girls and women were a bit more harshly judged when they were too naturally sexy. Lainey was decades ahead of her time; she knew her body and owned it.
“Okay,” I said. Her eyes, large and brown and thick-lashed, must have been how she’d gotten away with her life so far. One minute they hid everything — the next, nothing — but I knew the truth was somewhere in between. “Tomorrow I absolutely can’t, though,” I said. “I have a quiz in English and I need lunch period to study.”
Lainey rolled her eyes and I frowned and squinted at her, tilting my head to one side. She laughed, I laughed, we linked arms, and stopped off at her locker, stowing our books in the clutter of her grungy ring binders, crumpled term papers and loose lipsticks.
We were idling at a stoplight on 26th Avenue, about to turn onto Bayview Drive, the smoking trail proper, when Lainey looked at me oddly, out of the sides of her eyes, her head tilted to one side.
“So, are you still a virgin?” she said — her tone someplace between medical and
Confessional. Right away I was considering the possible answers. Virginity, for me, was a gray area. I supposed I was, technically. Embarrassing — especially admitting it to her. But I had to be truthful: she’d have known in a second if I lied.
“Yeah,” I said. I was looking out the window, trying to keep my body relaxed. I wondered what was next: she wasn’t the type for random chatter. Then the cigarette lighter popped out, making me jump, and Lainey laughed.
“Grab the wheel,” she said, using one hand for joint smoking and the other for the stick shift. I steered the car from the passenger seat. I got to be pretty damned good at it. Do people even do that anymore?
“Well, whatever you do,” she said, inhaling as she spoke, her voice husky, “don’t have another virgin for your first time. It would be a nightmare.”
She’d already picked somebody out for me, somebody she deemed suitable, somebody she’d trained, even — her thoughtful idea of being a chaperon in reverse.
“You know Roy Stahn?” she asked. “I want to tell you he is one damn good lover. And I know he isn’t going out with anybody since we broke up.”
I was stunned by the Roy Stahn revelation. He was short, 5’3″ or 5’4″, which would have been enough of a problem, except that he also probably weighed 97 pounds to my 130.
The attraction for her was his brain. Lainey was so good-looking she tended to ignore looks in other people. But she was heavily into smarts. That was why, after the initial shock, I started getting a little intrigued. Roy Stahn was probably the smartest guy in the entire school. Total genius, but the real quiet type, smoldering embers and all that. Maybe I could get to his heart the way Lainey’d gotten to his body, I thought, teach him about true love: like Mr. Spock on that Star Trek episode when he inhales the spores, and for once in his life, lets go and really enjoys himself!
I was still pondering what Roy might look like nude, when Lainey told me he had been a total virgin with her, she deflowered him.
“All last summer I’d go over to his house. He told his parents we were playing chess. We did it right in his room while they were home. A couple of times we even did it when his mom was having bridge parties.”
I got queasy just listening. “You’ve got to learn to get what you want,” she said. The warm skin of her arm brushed mine, seeming an unspoken reproach as she took back the steering wheel.
We got back ten minutes after the tardy bell, and I could tell our American History teacher not only thought we were filthy rodents but wanted to cut off our tails with a carving knife. Lainey did all the talking — I sat through the rest of the class with my head bobbing up and down, stifling the bullet-like giggles that she could trigger simply by catching my eye.
The next day, Lainey got a dozen red roses delivered during class. When the delivery guy poked his head in the door, the teacher shit a brick, but what could she do — she had to let Lainey have the flowers. Eddie, the guy who sent the roses, was much older than she, and rich.
The day after that, instead of the regular smoking trail, Lainey decided to show me Eddie’s apartment.
We stood in his entryway and Lainey flipped through the mail piled on the hall table. She pulled out a copy of some Communist magazine and threw it at me.
“See this?” she said. “You could get on the government’s list just by coming over here.”
I wasn’t even high yet, but for a minute I believed her. Was I going to ruin my life? My college career? My parents would disown me.
She saw my face then, my stricken eyes, and laughed. “Relax, will you? It’s a joke. You want something to drink?” By this she meant alcohol. She led the way into the kitchen.
Of course we ended up skipping school the rest of the day. The apartment was great, with a black leather, comfy as clouds conversation pit, huge sliding glass doors all the way around the back, and a private pool on the water. Time slowed down as we got more and more stoned; I moved through suddenly thick and visible air, everything so cloudy I could barely see.
Lainey sat on one of the leather sections, leaning back with her eyes closed and her bare feet resting on the glass coffee table. Her lips were full but chapped, tiny bits of skin flaking off that made her mouth look even redder. There was a halo of fine condensation around her feet where they’d heated up the cold glass.
“What a buzz,” she said.
“Really?” I said. My mouth felt like somebody had given me a wad of toilet paper to chew on. My teeth were growing hair.
All of a sudden, my heart took a leap. One big thump inside my ribcage, and my bones felt soft, squishy. I sat bolt upright on the couch and laid a hand across my chest like I was getting ready for the Pledge of Allegiance.
“Lainey,” I said, but she was too far away, which in the tiny remnant of my mind that had stayed calm, seemed fortunate. “I feel sick.”
She opened her eyes. Her eyelids were heavy, and when she blinked it was slow. The brown of her irises was scary: so dark, so deep. I had to concentrate hard just to see her through all the silvery glimmers in the air that were whisking by almost like static on a TV.
“Sick how?” she asked, but I knew I couldn’t explain. “Here, let me get you some juice,” she said. She came out of the kitchen with a big glass of juice. She touched my hand, and the contact was like a slap. “Jesus, you’re an ice cube. Let’s go outside.”
I was feeling like a real basket case, but I knew Lainey didn’t mind, she didn’t mind anything I said or did — that was the beauty of her. We went outside by the pool. It was like stepping into a warm blanket and in a few minutes I started to sweat.
“Let’s go swimming,” Lainey said.
I looked at her, then at the pool, turning my head back and forth, back and forth like I was watching tennis. “Swimming?” I said. “I don’t have a suit.”
Lainey smiled. “You don’t need a suit,” she said. “This is a completely private back yard. Nobody can see us.”
“What about those people in that boat over there?” I said. I gestured towards something that looked kind of like a boat, out on the water, where the canal glistened in the hot sun with little rippling waves.
“They can’t see us” Lainey said. “Besides, who cares?” She pulled off all her clothes and dove. Now I had to follow. I took off my clothes, stacking them on the lounge chair, then jumped into the pool after her and went below the surface of the water for what seemed like an hour.
“Are you sure I’m not going to drown without realizing it?” I asked when I surfaced. I’d read the horror stories: “Girl On Drugs Hallucinates — Drowns Self. Parents Say They Don’t Know Where They Failed.” All this physical activity seemed like asking for trouble. “I mean, it seems like I’m holding my breath too long.”
“Jesus,” she said. “I’ll save you, okay? I’ve got my Red Cross certification.” This I knew to be true, because I’d thumbed through her wallet in search of the rolling papers. She preferred ZigZag.
Bubbles of my exhaled breath drifted up in the water, the bright sun turning everything into pure sparkling, wavery glass. I felt curiouser and curiouser, just like Alice, from head to toe more full of emotion than I’d ever imagined I could have all at once. I couldn’t label it: there was a bit of everything, joy and grief and love and fear mixed so smoothly they went down in one easy swallow, and it was as though nothing could ever frighten or confuse me again.
When the sun got too glaring, we went inside. Our fingers and toes were pale and shriveled; Lainey got out some huge, thick towels and we swaddled ourselves, squeaky-clean from the chlorine. She took me into the bathroom and got out her hair dryer and all her makeup and did my face and hair. “You’re so beautiful,” she told me, “don’t you know that?” “So beautiful,” she said again, and she stroked the side of my face with one finger, like a child. No one had ever said that to me before. The shock was physical. I wanted to grab her and hug her and cry, but instead I just sat there, trembling.
It was a couple of weeks later, as we were sitting in her Mustang parked in the school lot, gathering ourselves up to go in and face American History, that she told me she was getting married and wouldn’t be coming back for our senior year in the fall.
“Not coming back?” I said. “What do you mean?”
“I’m going to apply for early admission and skip next year — go from a junior right to a college freshman. That way I can have my bachelor’s in three years.”
What’s the god-damned rush? I thought.
“What are you going to major in?” I asked.
“Oh, I don’t know, something in liberal arts.” she said. I fiddled with the door-handle, not knowing what to say except that I thought she was making a mistake.
In the fall, even though I knew Lainey was married and gone, I kept looking for her. When I actually saw her in the hall one day, for a split instant I was afraid I was hallucinating, but she walked up and smiled.
“Ready for lunch?” she said.
We ran out to the visitor’s parking lot, giggling and poking each other in the ribs. She was driving a red 450SL: Eddie must have had a good year.
She gave me a present: three black lacquer and coral bracelets from Hong Kong, where they went on their honeymoon. And she handed me one of her old Sucrets boxes packed full. “Your survival kit,” she said. I still have one of the bracelets – the coral is so delicate I broke the other two, and I keep the last one in a safe place. It’s beautiful, just like Lainey; just like she said I was.
I got involved with the rituals of being a senior: football games, the prom, college acceptance anxiety. Someone taller than me finally asked me out! He’d lived across the street from me forever but had only gotten interested in girls this year. It wasn’t as bad as I had imagined; I was surviving. It was close to graduation when I realized I hadn’t heard from Lainey, not in a long time.
My heart was pounding when she answered the phone. “Hey, stranger,” she said, and I wondered — had she missed me, too? I drove over to her house. Her hair was long, and curlier than before. Her face floated, haloed in the darkness of the entryway. At first I thought it was a joke, she’d taped a beach ball to her midriff. It was just like her not to have told me this over the phone.
“Wow,” I said. I was a million miles past trying to act casual, somehow this was just wrong, this was the wrong script or something. It just didn’t figure, this.
“Yeah,” she said, and she glanced down at herself — then her eyes moved back up, pressed on mine with a new glimmer of grown womanhood. “Isn’t it great?” she said. “We’re so excited about this. Eddie wants a little girl who looks just like me.” Who wouldn’t? I thought.
She’d been ironing: the board was still set up in the living room. The TV was on, and the thick drapes were all pulled — it was high summer — so hot — but their apartment was cool and dark and sealed off like a hotel suite. I was trying not to stare, but curiosity grabbed hold and I asked if I could touch her stomach.
“Sure,” she said, and, following the nod of her head in one easy movement, she pulled her billowy flowered dress off; she was just wearing just underwear. She didn’t shave her legs — I’d forgotten. There were tiny golden hairs on her calves and knees and thighs and there was her blinding white underwear, and then there was her watermelon-covered-with-skin belly. I touched it with one finger, softly at first, then, discovering it was as hard and firm as a basketball, pushed on its surface with my whole hand. It didn’t yield at all: I couldn’t imagine a soft, arms-and-legs kind of baby in there.
The baby was a girl, red-haired and brown-eyed just like her mother. Lainey and I met, some months after the baby was born, to go shopping in the mall. She was lying in her stroller, asleep. Her legs were plump and there was a dried-Pablum-crust around her mouth. She looked too messy to be a cherub.
Then, I saw Lainey again right after her rather sudden divorce. I was home for Easter break, and playing pool in the rec room at my mother’s condo with some friends. She walked up behind me as I was getting ready to shoot and jiggled my cue.
“I love you,” she said, real grim and serious, then, after a minute, burst out laughing.
She was there with some new boyfriend, a brawny surfer guy, all frazzled bright blonde hair and huge brown thighs, and she seemed happy enough. She was heavier than I remembered, but more beautiful than ever.
When our ten-year reunion rolled around, I showed up in a fancy silk dress with my hair permed, and stood around chatting awkwardly. I had thought our student-body president was going to conquer the world, but he turned out to be an accountant. I was making small talk, waiting for Lainey. I hoped any minute she would walk into the room in a sleeveless black cocktail dress, her hair pinned up, bright lipstick, high heels with sheer black stockings.
Instead, she’d sent two pictures to the reunion committee. One was a studio portrait of Lainey and her daughter. The kid was a redhead, but she hadn’t really developed her mother’s looks and probably never would. She looked a little sad, a little thin.
The other picture was a grainy, blown-up snapshot. Lainey was outdoors, in front of a windblown group of palm trees, next to a tall, thin man I didn’t recognize, holding a newborn baby wrapped in a blanket. She had the soft, waterlogged look of a recently post-partum woman. Her red hair was cropped, short-short, and she wore big tortoiseshell glasses, wrinkled shorts and a baggy T-shirt. Her smile was blissful, serene, and even prettier than I’d remembered.
Staring down at the pictures, I couldn’t breathe right, my heart pounding like a panicked antelope’s. All this time, I had carried her friendship within me like a talisman, giving me courage. What had I hoped for? Hadn’t Lainey loved me before anyone else? Wasn’t she the first to tell me I was beautiful? I reached out to touch her — I’d finally learned to take what I wanted — my fingertips marring the shiny photographic paper, fumbling against the image of her smooth, glowing skin, the skin I’d always meant to touch; the skin I’d always wanted next to my own.