Giraffe People

“This is not just a luminescent work, it is a transcendent and transformative one. Jill Malone finds and plays the desperate times of the teenaged years like an old Gibson. The reader is instantly, effortlessly, back in those halls of high school, the auditoriums and locker rooms and gyms, the whispered conversations in the library, solving math problems on the phone, sneaking out late at night, wondering, always wondering, if you have gone too far this time, or not far enough.”  –Bett Norris, Lesbian.com

TEASER

Fall 1990

Lachrymose. Meaning unknown. Pretty sure it’s an adjective.

I want lachrymose to mean sad. I feel sad when I say it. In the white space, along the margin of the bulletin, I write the word, next to my name. Variations on my name. I’ve been doing this during church services since I learned to write. Nicole. Nic. Nicci. Cole. It’s sort of like my version of the American flag on the moon. I’m here. I’m right here.

Dr. Black is giving the sermon this morning. He’s an ass in real life—as a human, I mean—but his sermons are amazing. He’s funny and clever and charismatic, and you feel like being a Christian is the most courageous thing you can do, the way he talks about it. His kids are terrified of sex, and weird about their bodies. The older girl asked me if I had hair, you know, down there, and I thought, Are you a freak to ask that? Of course I have hair there; I’m fifteen. Haven’t you read any books about this? Some people have written books on the subject: hair down there, and when you get it. Jeremy says mine is darker than he expected.

The kids on this army base, Fort Monmouth in New Jersey, are all fuck ups. The worst kids of any base I’ve ever lived. We’ve all heard rumors about the German bases, how the kids there are worse, drinking in bars at 16, sick on drugs, pissing the German police off, but I’ve lived in Germany, and those kids were nothing to these kids. The Chaplain school is here at Fort Monmouth. My dad runs it. Our neighborhood is all Chaplains’ families, and on the other side of the base, in the lower ranks’ housing, are more Chaplains’ families. We’re living on a post where three quarters of the people are ministers or their families. Can you imagine anything worse?

Last month, Stacy Masteller jumped off the roof of their house and broke her ankle. She was wasted. David Kirk told his folks he was going to spend the night at Jeremy’s house, but he really went to New York to see Metallica, and then dropped acid and ended up in the emergency room. They’re making things harder for the rest of us.

Alicia leans over and asks if today’s communion.

“Yeah,” I say.

She knows, she just likes to talk during the sermon so she won’t have to listen. This is new, me being able to sit wherever I want during the service. Mom said she knows I’ll make wise choices. Really, Mom is talking about my name. She wants me to start going by Nicole. She says I’m not a kid anymore, and Cole sounds juvenile, and boyish. Meghan told me that Mom even talked to her about it—encouraged Meghan to mention what a cool name Nicole was, and how, when she was a kid, she’d gone by Meg, but she wasn’t a kid anymore, and how a name could reflect that. Meghan told the story like my mom was this great comedian, like the whole thing was a routine or something.

“Why do you keep writing lachrymose?” Alicia asks.

“It’s on this week’s list.”

“You’re still doing those lists?”

“Every week.”

“God, your parents are totally freaking out,” she says. “I thought you only had to do them over the summer.”

“Meghan said she thought they were helping both of us. My parents agreed with her.”

“Did you tell them you have eight classes, and field hockey, and friends, and don’t want to have a nervous breakdown until you’re a junior?”

“We negotiated.”

She looks at me, her crazy fro tidier today, because it’s Sunday. Alicia is taller than I am—she’s six feet with hearty freckles across her cheeks and nose, light black skin, and glasses she’s always pushing back into place. “They’re going to let you date.”

She says this like they’re going to let me skydive.

I nod. “One date for every list.”

“Oh girl,” she says in that mmm-syrup voice. “You’re in trouble now.”

The truth is the lists have nothing to do with it. Two weeks ago, my dad took me to McDonald’s and ordered fries and said, “I don’t want Kelly sleeping over anymore.” “Why?”

“Listen, Cole.” He sucked his Diet Coke for a long time before he said, “There are such things as lesbians. And you can’t be one.”

I had no idea what he was talking about, like, what do lesbians have to do with it? But the way he said it was actually scary. I was glad to be in the middle of McDonald’s with people around. He said it like each word choked him. And then he said he and Mom have decided I can date Jeremy after all.

We hear the ushers called to the front of the sanctuary, and know that the sermon is over. In a few minutes, we’ll have grape juice and wafers and Alicia will ruin the holy meditation with some inanity about Ms. Overhead and her preoccupation with science fiction. Alicia worries that our literature class reads too much genre fiction, which will make it harder for us to get into a good college. They made all the incoming sophomores read Ayn Rand’s Anthem this summer. If they’d bothered to read the book themselves, my mother said, they’d have realized how ironic the assignment was.

“Maybe they meant to be ironic,” I told her.
“This is a book about rebelling against authority and being an individual, and they made it required reading for teenagers in public school. It’s insane.” I liked the book. It had a sex scene and everything. My mother read it too, so we could discuss it before I had to write my paper, but she never said anything else about it. Meghan’s eighteen, and just missed getting into West Point. Instead of going to Princeton, on an ROTC scholarship, she enrolled in West Point Prep (in military lingo United States Military Preparatory School, or USMAPS), to try to qualify for entrance to West Point next fall.

She’s our cadet, my family sponsors her—she refers to us as her patrons—which really means we invite her for meals, and outings, and take her shopping, and watch her play intramural rugby. Like me, she’s good at Science and English, and thinks Math is a stupid alien language that’s as cruel and unfathomable as corsets and hoop skirts. Actually, she said foot binding, but when I looked foot binding up, I decided Math was a little less painful.

On Sundays, she comes for lunch at one-thirty, and then we work on the vocabulary list, and then we play some soccer at the Parade Ground two blocks over. My brothers, Nate and Nigel, like to tag along with us for the soccer. We usually play boys against girls and kick their sorry butts. For a while, I invited Kelly to play with us, but she says Meghan gives her a migraine. I’m like totally forbidden from mentioned anything about Meghan when Kelly’s around.

Meghan is scary athletic. She’s 5’6” and blond and curvy, and looks like a cheerleader who is going to be all Queen of Sarcasm, but she’s fast, and aggressive, and has a big surprising laugh that you hear all the time when you’re around her. And she’s cool. Nate is seventeen, and totally in love with her. It’s embarrassing, and kind of incestuous. I mean, it’s like she’s our cousin or something, otherwise, why would a cool 18 year old hang out with a bunch of kids?

Nigel and Nate and I have the exact body of our dad: stooped, long-legged, with a narrow chest and flat feet. We’re like giraffe people. Instead of his olive complexion, and black hair, we’re brown haired, like Mom, with her huge darkly blue eyes, and bled-out Irish skin. Nate’s thicker these days, sturdy and athletic, whereas Nigel has a distancerunner’s spare frame. I’ll never be curvy, but at least I’m not scrawny anymore.

I haven’t finished my vocabulary list. I forgot to write definitions and parts of speech for half the words, including lachrymose. So while everyone else is chatting and taking their time with the lemon-peppered chicken, salad, and scalloped potatoes, I’m all shovel and gulp. Meghan knows. I can tell because she keeps ducking her head to wipe her mouth so no one will see her grinning.

Given to weeping. That’s the definition of lachrymose. I am like a vocabulary black belt. (I considered boredom too, but my instincts said sad.) Mathematics makes me feel extremely lachrymose. We’re nearly through the list when my parents announce they’re taking my brothers to the PX to buy new cleats.

“How was your date last night?” Meghan asks, once they’ve gone. “More compelling than the vocabulary list?”

Jeremy’s a senior this year, and the punter for our shitty football team. His dad’s a Chaplain too—he teaches at the Chaplain School, so I guess my dad’s his boss. That’s weird. I’ve never really thought about that before. Anyway, Jeremy gets the whole my dad is a minister and in the Army and we are freaks in every way thing. So that’s a way we can relate. His mom is Pentecostal, and so creepy. Jeremy says they used to speak in tongues at his old church, when they were stationed in Georgia. He’s totally lying. I watch Pepper stand up on the windowsill and bark at the squirrels on the exterior ledge. Mom leaves peanuts on the window ledge for them. It’s like she’s deliberately torturing the dog.

“Come on,” Meghan says. “We’ll take Pepper for a walk, and you can tell me about the date.”

“It was nice,” I say as Pepper drags me to the oak trees across the street.

“Don’t say nice.”

“Sorry. It was tense and atmospheric.”

“How? What did you do?”

“Miniature golf, and Burger King. I had the chicken sandwich.”

“Fun.”

“It was OK. Jeremy drives, and that’s cool. His mom lets him borrow the car whenever.”

“Ah.”

I like how she says that. Ah. Like a detective deducting some clue. “We went for a drive after golf.”

Pepper takes a shit, and I have to scoop it up with a plastic bag. It’s warm and squishy. I love that dog, but really.

Meghan’s hair—curly and bobbed—is not long enough to pull into a ponytail.

She told me she doesn’t even comb it; she just showers and smoothes it down with her fingers. How does she play rugby with her hair in her face? I have this urge to tuck it behind her ears.

“You guys just drove around?” Meghan asks.

“Yeah, for a while.”

“And then?”

Jeremy and my dad made a deal. Jeremy talks about it like this blood oath. He vowed he wouldn’t sleep with me. Since I wasn’t there, I don’t know what my dad actually said, but according to Jeremy, it was entirely about penetration. About there not being any. With me. Ever.

“Yeah, then we stopped driving around.” I look at Pepper, choking herself to reach the squirrel in the grass. Pepper’s optimistic. I almost let her try for it. “He wanted to eat me, and at first I said No, because Kelly said oral is just a ruse to get me to beg for more, but he kept kissing me, and I wanted him to, and so I said Yes, and he did, and it was kind of….” Meghan looks at me, and I’m not sure how to describe it. “Uneven, I guess.”

“Uneven?”

“Yeah, uneven. It felt good sometimes, and then didn’t. And then I just wanted to go home, and finish my History essay.”

Meghan laughs, and puts her arm around me. She always knows how to be totally supportive.

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