We had made up our minds to never be afraid; like Scott and Zelda or Bonnie and Clyde. Jeremy thought we should run away now, to Spain or France. Become writers or actors, spend our evenings with artists on sidewalk cafés. I wanted to wait until graduation or until I got my driver’s license. We had to wait for passports, at least.
Jeremy stood on the outside of the swinging bridge, bouncing slightly like he was too bored to jump. His arms threaded through the ropes that made up the side of the bridge. Jeremy liked referring to his “washboard abs,” but his stomach was more like a soap dish, curving under his ribs. Because he was thin and gangly, he looked tall.
“Tell them you’re staying at Laura’s,” he said, looking down from the bridge. I sat on the grass below the bridge, near the swimming hole, propped up on my elbows, knees boldly parted, barely covered by my sundress.
“They’d find out. Laura would forget and call the house.” The swimming hole was almost an oval, bordered by a rock face on one side, a grassy lawn on the other. I hadn’t dressed for swimming. I liked Jeremy touching me, but not in water over my head.
“Say you’re staying with someone else. Mary Richards, maybe.”
Closer to the water, an older woman sat in a skirted suit, watching two kids. She scowled up at me. I held her gaze and parted my bare feet a little more. Her brow wrinkled and she looked back at the water.
“I would never stay with Mary.” The woman was calling one of her kids in. He was whining, unwilling to get out. The other, practically a baby, lay on the blanket beside her. It was crowded today, with moms and kids, no one our age.
“That’s the point, Tess. You won’t be there and she won’t mess things up for us.”
I planned on having lots of lovers. Jeremy would be my first, the one I laughed about later with better looking, more interesting men. Books would be devoted to me, portraits painted. Sometimes, especially when I saw boys looking at me, I felt impatient. I wanted to flirt back, make them love me, but was afraid, especially when the boys were older. If they knew how inexperienced I was, they’d lose interest. Other times, when I was alone with Jeremy, I felt like I had all the time in the world. If it were Tuesday, I would think it would be better to wait until the weekend or the next weekend or after the movie.
The bridge was filling with kids younger than us, all waiting for Jeremy to jump so they could have their turn. The woman was looking up at me like she wanted to say something. It was nice being in the sunshine, getting along with Jeremy. Lately all our encounters ended in an argument, with him saying, “Zelda would,” and me replying, “Clyde wouldn’t,” and then Jeremy would go over the differences between movie Clyde and the real Clyde Barrow.
“Maybe I won’t tell them anything,” I said, looking at the mother. “Maybe I’ll just…go.” Zelda’s early life had been surrounded by disapproving matrons. She had flipped up her skirt at them and ran off with her soul mate. I lowered my eyes and lifted my chin, a dangerous girl, a natural born killer in a cloche hat. If I’d mastered cigarettes, I would have blown a smoke ring down the hill.
“You’re all talk,” Jeremy said, but looked curious. I had said similar things before, had meant them too. The woman’s child cried as she swatted its bottom. It was time to start living, start being the person I dressed like. School was starting, tenth grade, and soon Amber and Nicole Stewart would have their annual slumber party. Truth or Dare would reveal who had done what and the experienced girls would stay up late, giggling, while the virgins pretended to sleep.
“Where could we go, right now?” I asked Jeremy. If I’d had sex as often as I thought about it, I’d have been bored of it by then, that’s how I used to think. I had been looking forward to sex since the sixth grade, me and everyone I knew. Most of my time was spent imagining nightlong sessions filled with orgasms and spiritual connections These ideas made me want Jeremy’s frantic hands but when he was actually touching me I was always thinking, “Is this the time? Is this where I want it to happen? Are these the clothes I want to remember later?”
“Jump already,” one of the kids on the bridge yelled, his voice trailing off as he lost his nerve. Jeremy was older than him. He had stopped bouncing.
“Anywhere we go, there’s going to be a noise,” he said, “Or a weird vibe, or it’s not gonna feel right.” Jeremy shook his head at me. The toddler was awake now, pulling his mother’s sleeve but she was staring at me, pleading with her eyes for me to look at her.
“I’m tired of fighting about it, Jeremy. I want to get it over with, give us a chance to do other things.” We had been naked together, once, in Jeremy’s hot tub. We had been like an old couple undressing and then dressing together, not averting our eyes or changing the conversation as we toweled off. It was our second date and we had sat in the tub, sipping crystal glasses of scotch and playing cool while we tried to figure each other out.
Jeremy raised his arms and brought his hands together then grabbed the ropes of the bridge again. The kids groaned, some of them yelling at Jeremy to hurry up and jump. He turned and shouted, making them all move back a few feet and shut up. The woman in the skirted suit sighed loudly, but I didn’t look at her. I would never look at her, not until I could match her, surpass her, in life experience. It shouldn’t take long.
“The woods behind my grandparents’,” Jeremy blurted before jumping, gracelessly grabbing his nose as he entered the water.
Jeremy drove fast, his clothes sticking to his body because he hadn’t taken the time to dry off. I felt light, so light, knowing I had locked myself into having sex with Jeremy. When he touched me, I wouldn’t think about if it was ok or not; that had been decided. I took off my panties as we sped down the highway. I lifted my skirt, no longer worrying about the specialness of the moment. I was Zelda, traveling down the French coast in a convertible instead of a restored but unairconditioned ’77 Nova. I threw the panties out the window.
“They landed in a bush, Jeremy,” I laughed.
“What’s got into you?” he said, smiling, but not in a sure way.
“I’m ready to be alive,” I said. Once we were finished, I would be able to focus on so many other things; high school, college, everything would come easy because I wouldn’t be focused on sex all the time. Jeremy and I would have a better relationship too. We would go back to normal date things, like ballgames and movies. You could tell if a couple was having sex by how casual they acted on group dates. We would be that way too, no longer frenzied.
“I need to stop and get condoms,” Jeremy said. “Do you have any money?”
“I thought you always had condoms.” I remembered seeing one in his wallet and a whole pack in his gym bag.
“I gave my last one to Norm Michaels. Friday night.”
I hadn’t pictured this, didn’t want to sit in the parking lot of the small gas and service station Jeremy was pulling into.
“This store’s to close to my house,” I said. “Everyone knows me.”
“Zelda’d go in and buy them herself.”
This was true, but I couldn’t go inside. I watched Jeremy walk up to the counter, saw the guy behind the cash register look at me and nod. Jeremy waved at him as he left the store.
“My mom called, Jeremy.” I said, not looking at him, as he pulled out of the parking lot.
“The hell she did. Let me see.”
We struggled for the phone. I threw it out the window, onto the highway.
“Look what you made me do,” I screamed. In my heart it felt true. I was ready to have sex with Jeremy and now I couldn’t, not after the way the counter man looked at me.
“You’ve got crazy down, that’s for sure.” Jeremy said, pulling into my driveway.
“It was Scott’s fault she went crazy. For trying to control her.” Tears were running down my face.
“Ha. He was lucky to get out from under her control. She was always leading him on, even after they were married.”
“He was lucky to have her. Zelda could have had anyone.”
“Too bad she didn’t. Scott could have written ten Gatsby’s in the time he spent waiting for her to figure out what she wanted.”
“Well I’m not gonna end up institutionalized or dead because of some man.” I said, getting out and slamming the door behind me. The tires didn’t squeal until I was on the porch. I stopped, still a virgin, going nowhere. “There are worse things,” I told myself, but couldn’t think of a single one.