I lean against the back of the truck and rifle through my purse like I’m searching for a cigarette. I’m not; I haven’t smoked in years. But right now I need to be doing something with my hands. The nighttime lights at the gas station are so bright, so acute, that they’re jolting my limbs into motion like those of a panicked insect. A roach flushed out of hiding from the darkness it always instinctively believed was safe.
I find a few cigarettes—crushed and broken, smelling of raisins, tiny flakes of tobacco scattered over the bottom of my purse—and a toothpick. Fine. I flip it into my mouth, clamp it between my teeth. It feels like a giant splinter just waiting to get stuck somewhere in my body. What was that urban myth that always scared me so much? If you get a splinter and don’t remove it quickly enough, it will work its way into your bloodstream and shoot straight to your heart.
I bite down harder on my toothpick/splinter and squint across the gas station, trying to feel worldly and grizzled like Clint Eastwood. The light leaks down from above: white light, lurid nightmare light. There’s something insane in its bright glare. Like the look in Mom’s eyes right before I drove off.
“Psst,” someone whispers from my left.
The toothpick wobbles between my teeth and for a second I think I might swallow it.
But it’s only a kid. I can see that much in my peripheral vision. He’s leaning around the gas station pump, next to the only other car here. I ignore him.
“Psst,” he whispers, more loudly. He’s not even hissing the sound, he’s literally saying the actual word Psst, so that it sounds surreal, like we’re both playing roles we can’t perform quite right. And I finally look straight at him.
He’s short, skinny, pale. Long dark hair, a bruise on one cheek. Fifteen, maybe sixteen.
“You got a light?” he asks.
I should be afraid. But it’s difficult to be afraid right now. The store inside the 24-hour gas station is only yards away. I’m sure there’s a clerk there, and this kid looks barely strong enough to pump his own gas.
Then again, Mom doesn’t look very strong either. Turns out you don’t need a whole lot of muscle to scream and hurl glassware across the kitchen.
“Yeah,” I say sarcastically, slipping the toothpick out of my mouth and waving it at him. “I totally have a lighter. I light all my toothpicks with it.”
“That’s not a—oh. That’s not a cigarette.” He snorts with laughter. As he steps closer, I see that he’s holding a joint in one hand; it dangles toward the ground like a weapon.
My heartbeat speeds up, pulsing in my chest and throat. Annoyed, I grip the toothpick. Slide one tip just under my thumbnail, then pull it away before it really hurts. Who told me that I have to be afraid of every male body in my presence over the age of twelve and under the age of ninety? Who told me this—family, society? Late-night crime specials? Or my own animal body, small and breathing and curious, so round at its borders and carrying within it some secret hidden softness that is constantly in danger of being ripped out and torn apart?
In a hard, half-flirtatious voice I don’t quite recognize as my own, I say: “I do have some.” I dig into my purse and show him the remains of the cigs. Little broken limbs, tobacco spilling into the creases in my palm. He steps closer, raising his eyebrows at the sight. “But aren’t you a little young for them?”
“I’m eighteen,” he protests, now sounding even younger than he looks.
I seriously doubt this, but let it slide. “How do you have a joint all rolled and ready to go and not have a lighter?”
“How do you have a bunch of cigarettes in your purse and not have a lighter?”
“They’re five years old.” Six, actually, but I don’t like thinking of myself as a twelve-year-old smoker.
“And you, what, carry them around in your purse for the memories?” Now that he’s closer I can see the bruise more clearly. It’s the color of damaged fruit. Like the bruise I saw on a pear the other day—the area already smelling sickly-sweet, just this side of spoiled—before I decided to eat it anyway.
“I guess so.”
Now we’re side by side, his bruised cheek barely two feet from mine, both of us leaning on the back of my father’s truck. We look across the gas station for a minute. “It’s so beautiful in the moonlight,” he says airily.
I look at him like he’s crazy. “What are you talking about? There’s no moonlight here.”
He points to the lights over our heads. “Eight moons up there. Well. I like to imagine it that way.”
“That’s cute.” I can’t remember the last time I saw the stars. I’ve glimpsed little dots every now and then, but they always turn out to be airplanes, moving slowly and inexorably across the blackout curtain of the sky. “Did you know that all the way back in 1994 when there was a power outage, people in LA called 911 because of what they saw in the sky?” I mime taking a drag from my toothpick. “They were freaking out about this huge weird silvery cloud. Turns out it was the Milky Way. They’d never even seen it before because of all the light pollution.”
“Scary.” He takes a pretend drag from his unlit joint. The bruise on his cheek looks softer than the rest of his skin, and I wonder how it might feel under my fingers. Would it feel unnaturally warm, like that part of his body is running its own private fever? Would it cave inward, sinking like the rotten flesh of a pear?
“You could go inside and buy a lighter,” I point out, nodding to the gas station store.
He shrugs. The movement pushes him a little more into my bubble. I wait for my hackles to rise, but they don’t. I think again that I should be afraid, but all I feel is a weird lack: an emptiness where fear should be, an emptiness that feels almost like pressure. Or hunger. “Yeah, well. I kind of just wanted to talk to you, actually.”
There’s absolutely no noise from anywhere else.
“Do you do it to test yourself?” he asks abruptly. “Your willpower?”
“Carry the cigs around inside your purse, I mean. Is that why you do it?”
The next second we’re in absolute darkness. I squeak and jump. Clutch my toothpick for dear life. “What the fuck?”
“I think the power just went out.”
“Just like that? While we’re out here?” I immediately feel stupid. As though I assumed that power outages only happen to people ensconced safely inside their houses, with nothing more to worry about than a fridge full of perishable food and a lack of cable entertainment.
But now I’m outside, alone—or nearly alone. And the night seems very big.
“Isn’t it weird,” he finally says, “that you’re talking to me, standing like a foot away from me, and you have absolutely no idea who I am?”
My eyes adjust and I realize it’s not totally dark. I can see the outline of his profile, and he’s not as short as I thought, no; now that he’s neither several feet away nor slumped against the truck, he is the same height as me. At least.
“You didn’t tell me your name.” It’s the only reply I can think of.
“Maybe I don’t have one.” His words could be construed as flirtatious, but his tone is not. It’s gone flat and dead.
Nobody comes out of the 24-hour convenience store. I think I would, if I were in there, if only to see what was going on. The only logical conclusion comes into view slowly, sidling up like an unwelcome guest: there is no one in the 24-hour convenience store.
As though the darkness has opened up my other senses, I can smell him too, murky sweat and hair gel and something sharp, like rust or acid. I think of hydrofluoric acid, one of the only acids strong enough to dissolve glass. I think of things biting through other things, taking over, eating away. I think of how whenever you show fear you’re in more danger than if you hadn’t. A memory: stray dogs following me down a dirt road, snapping at my ankles. My dad walking beside me, urging me softly forward with a hand on my back, all the while telling me Slowly now, don’t run, don’t let them see you’re scared.
The boy leans closer, and I feel it more than I see it: the slice of air left between us, shrinking. Growing hotter with our increased proximity, like the space between two suns.
I don’t want to touch him now.
But I’ve got nothing but a flimsy, bendable toothpick for a weapon. So before he can do anything else, I reach out and trace a line from his nose to his cheek, where I remember the bruise being. And I kiss him right there. Hard.
For several long breaths, neither of us move. My grip goes slack and the toothpick falls from my fingers. The bruise beneath my lips feels hot and soft. Pulpy. Yes, it’s about to cave in. About to collapse deep into tissue-thin layers of flesh, all the way to the white—moonlit?—bone. If I press hard enough, maybe I can make it happen. Maybe I can make him sink away to nothing.
Finally he pulls away. Something in his breathing has changed.
“Spoiled,” I whisper. “Rotten.”
I don’t mean it as a phrase—spoiled rotten—but as two separate words. I don’t even know which of us I’m trying to describe.
As if in answer to what I’ve just said, the lights come back on with a flicker. The moons above us pop back into existence, all eight of them.
The boy steps back, blinking in the sudden brightness. All at once he looks very young again, hands hanging loosely at his side. He, too, has dropped what he was holding. A light sheen of sweat has broken out across his skin, and under the artificial glare of the lights he’s the color of old cheese, sour milk.
“I’m not eighteen,” he says. His voice is weaker than I’ve ever heard it before.
“I know that.”
He laughs without humor. It sounds like a slap. “If you knew, why’d you do—that?”
I turn to lean back against the truck again. I look straight ahead. Dread is working its way through me, a slow buzz like electricity gone wrong, and to beat it back I tell myself: I haven’t done anything illegal. I tell myself: I had no choice, I didn’t know what he was about to do. Underneath that I think: Spoiled. Rotten.
He stands there for another moment or two before shaking his head and walking to his car. Then there’s only the sound of him peeling out and his headlights turning to specks in the night, as distant as the stars I’ve never seen.
Alone for real this time, I squint across the parking lot. The light is white and cold, turning my hands to marble. I can almost pretend it’s real moonlight.
I’ll have to go back. Mom can’t manage without me, and her freakout is nothing I can’t handle. I can handle more than anyone thinks. I know this. They know this. At least when Mom screamed and threw the glass I knew I was the victim. At least I knew what would happen in every potential outcome. At least I didn’t tell myself I had to fucking touch her.
I wish I had something to take a real drag on. Good thing I broke all the cigs in my purse. The boy got it completely wrong: it wasn’t about willpower at all. There would be no point in smoking a broken cigarette. No continuity, no elegance. None of the reasons I picked up the habit in the first place, as a twelve-year-old who couldn’t get her head around a life absent of a father, a father who was so desperate to be free of us that he even left his beloved truck behind. What’s a broken cigarette stand for? Not sophistication, only desperation. Desperation I’m too old for, now.
It only takes a few seconds of searching the ground before I find the toothpick I dropped. The pavement is greasy and chilled under my fingertips, but the slice of wood is still hot from where I was gripping it for so many minutes.
I slide the tip of it under my thumbnail. It hurts and hurts and hurts, but I keep it there for a long time before pulling it away.