follow us:

MOST days, Charlene and I ride our bikes down the big hill and through the woods to the creek, which is sometimes dry and sometimes not, but always full of fairies and the crumpled Playboy magazines that have been there since forever. Charlene lives next door, and so she is my best friend by default. She’s ten now, which makes her two years older than me and in charge when we leave our yards, even to go across the street, even to the corner that’s right there. We live in Philly’s shadow, tucked under her poofy skirt. From the outside, our houses look the same: long and flat ranchers with bushes underneath the windows, which are yellow and wild like our daddies’ mustaches. Inside, though, her house seems impossibly different. I like to trick myself by closing my eyes when we go through her front door, pretending it’s my house, and then delighting when I open my eyes and see the TV that is much larger than I remembered, the couch suddenly navy instead of beige, the huge fish tank that wasn’t there before bubbling in the corner. Best of all is her parents’ room, though the door is always locked since the afternoon we walked in and her mom was sitting on her dad’s lap (Naked as they came, Charlene had explained. ’Cause they’re in love.). They’d screamed, we’d screamed, and then we went out back to dig up worms from the garden.

Other days, we pick her mother’s flowers and make bouquets, wrapping their stems in tinfoil and selling them on the corner for a dime apiece. Or else we leave our little brothers looking at the discarded Playboys near the creek and run back home to tell. The fairies keep an eye on them, even when we do not. There are fairies in the trees and pictures of fairies in the magazines. You just have to look.

I like a game that involves secrets, a world that the grown-ups can no longer see. I have a vague idea that grown-ups have lost the ability to see magic. They are sad because they forgot. For example, at night I fly around my room. It has been so long since my mom has been that happy—she doesn’t even remember, that’s how long. I can’t see the magic so much as feel it, like all the plants and animals and rocks and things are thinking through me. Like I was born to do all the feeling for everything else. I also look really hard for any strange goings-on. Is that leaf moving on its own, or is it just the wind? And how many times have I seen that butterfly today? Should I follow her? My favorite book this year is The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. If I don’t read it every night I can’t sleep. I spend long hours curled up inside my closet, waiting for the door to open and the blackness of the regular world to fade away. If I sit very still I can feel the cold curl around my ankles and I hold my breath and wait.

• • •

Charlene’s parents have a water bed, which makes me think they must be very rich.

“Welcome to the nineties,” she tells me, as if that explains everything.

Before they locked the door to the bedroom, we would pretend their bed was an ocean and we were lost at sea with only one bag of Doritos to feed us until the pirates showed up, hauling us back to their island and loading our necks with heavy jewels from their treasure trove.

“We have to take our shirts off. Pirates don’t wear shirts, only necklaces,” Charlene would say, so we’d throw our T-shirts off the island and wave our chests around, the necklaces swishing back and forth and clinking like diamonds.

Now we play in Charlene’s room, which is exactly where my room is next door, but her walls are pink and mine are white and she has see-through curtains like a princess. In my room I have plastic makeup and books and wool sweaters and penny loafers. I have stickers for being a good girl and a smart girl and a quiet girl. I have rewards for staying in my room and rewards for being sad when something bad happens, like when Dad comes home with a missing tooth or the coffee table crashes against the wall. I have rewards for having a dad who drinks too much and a mommy who works all the time. I like when people are pleased with me. I like rewards. I like being hugged and smiled at and cooed over. I crawl into laps. Sometimes, I want to be held so badly I shake like a hooked fish.

“You’re the girl and I’m the boy,” Charlene says.

I’m sick of being the girl because I know it means Charlene is going to boss me around, but I don’t say anything because she’s ten now. Also, she reads chapter books, which I guess is the trade-off when you lose the magic. For instance, she can’t see fairies anymore, which is pretty sad because she’s only ten. Ten is a dangerous age.

“Can I be the bartender this time?” I try.

“Girls aren’t bartenders,” she says, and even though my mom is a girl and a bartender, I keep quiet.

Charlene locks her bedroom door and pulls the see-through curtains closed. Outside, our little brothers are in the front yard pretending to be Ninja Turtles, and every ten minutes or so my brother will start to cry and her brother, Little Benny, will have to let him use his plastic sword or Eric will never shut up.

“Cowabunga!” I hear Eric scream, whacking the sword against the side of the house.

It’s July, which means the ice cream man will drive down our street after dinner and we’ll beg our parents for money and sometimes we’ll get it and sometimes we won’t. When we ask Charlene’s dad, he calls us mooches and tells us to get a job, but then he usually forks it over. His jeans pockets are always jingly with change, which is another reason I’m pretty sure they’re rich. That and the Nintendo.

“Whaddya having, honey?” Charlene asks as I stroll up to her nightstand.

“Hmm,” I say. “Tequila Sunrise?”

This is the most grown-up drink we can think of, the drink her mom has sometimes while our dads drink cans of Budweiser. She takes her time pouring imaginary liquids into the Mickey Mouse mug that we always use for this purpose. She stirs with the handle of her hairbrush and then takes a sip, closing her eyes and moving her mouth around to test the flavor.

“Do you want a cherry?” she asks, setting the mug back on the nightstand.

I nod and she drops a scrunchy into my cup. I feel my cheeks getting warmer and I start to get squirmy. I know what comes next. Her bookshelves are filled with troll dolls with wild hair and I can’t stand the way they’re looking at me. Sometimes, if she’s not paying attention, I’ll shove one under her bed.

• • •

I will remember this game years later when I am having sex for the first time, thirteen and skinny and sprawled naked on a slick basement floor. I’m at my friend Katie’s house—a dirty, dilapidated row home tucked between Third and Arch. Her parents are never home so Katie and I eat bags of sunflower seeds that we steal from the 7-Eleven and toss the trash on the floor. We smoke pot out of crooked tinfoil bowls and cajole neighborhood boys to buy us pizzas. We blast hip-hop from the one remaining speaker on her stepfather’s stereo, stare at the ceiling, paint our toenails purple, and compare the bruises on our knobby, boyish legs. Katie is already having sex with Darren, her boyfriend of three weeks, and he has a friend who wants to fuck me—she is sure of it.

Katie is small and pretty with delicate features. Her left nostril is pierced with a tiny silver stud that looks like a wayward booger. While Katie has a full C-cup, disproportionate for her frame, I haven’t even had my period yet.

“Perfect,” she says. “You don’t gotta worry about getting preggos or nothing.”

Eventually, and for no good reason, I give in. I am thirteen and scared and bored and insecure and lonely and I let myself get banged on the floor of Katie O’Connor’s basement, my tailbone pounding against concrete. The bruise is there for weeks. I don’t even know his name, but I watch his black eyes widen when he grabs my hand and curls it around his penis, the first one I’ve seen in real life, and I know then I’ve made a mistake. It feels soft and hard at the same time and something inside me falls into a small hole just large enough to keep me steady. He groans with a voice like gravel and I hear Katie calling from the top of the stairs.

“Ooh girl, you havin’ fun yet?” Katie giggles as Darren pulls her away by the waist, the door shutting and the last of the light slipping away. I hold on to the thought that this will be worth it in the end, that some part of this man-boy will never leave, even while I know I’ll never see him again. When I can’t hear Katie’s voice anymore I think, If I could just hear her voice, this will end. I try to imagine my mother floating down the stairs. If I could just hold her hand, crawl into her lap, burrow back inside of her and hide. If I could claw my way beneath the soft earth, eat worms, and curl up against tree roots and wait, I would. If this would just not be real.

The dark boy bites hard on my small new breasts. I am buried and gone.

When it’s over he holds me. I feel everything but safe, everything but what I need to feel. I remember Charlene, her warm arms and the cool quiet in her house, so different from mine. When she held me, we were the same girl with the same life and the same future. We lived on an island and we were pirates.

• • •

“So,” says Charlene, “my shift is over.”

She punches numbers into her calculator and pulls off her shirt. “Holy crapoli! It is so hot.” She wipes at her flat, bare chest with her shirt and leans over the nightstand. “Do you want to come over to my place?”

“Sure!” I say too loudly. She shoots me a look that means shut up, so I do. I am a kid who likes to please and this will rarely serve me well.

“It’s over here,” she says, pulling me behind the curtains and pushing me down until I am lying flat on the floor.

She pulls up my shirt and hovers above me. I feel the heat from her belly and her hair tickles my neck. She has a round face and blue eyes that I wish were mine. We are both chubby and have big bangs that our mothers curl under with a round brush and then feather like a plume, dousing our whole heads with aerosol hairspray until our bangs are stiff as peacocks. The boys have it worse. In the winter, they get their hair cut with bowls over their heads. In the summer, the mothers shave them clean. The rattails, though, are year-round.

“Ain’t nobody touching my rattail,” I heard Little Benny say to Eric one day, a camouflage hunter’s cap pulled down over his eyes.

“You have a rat?” Eric said.

“Rattail, not rat’s tail, dummy,” he told him, yanking on my brother’s hair so hard his head snapped back and he started to cry.

Little Benny is a bully, but Eric is a wuss. For years, he will befriend boys that make him cry. He is skinny and wimpy and bighearted and everything makes him cry. Dead squirrels make him cry. Yelling makes him cry. Sick people make him cry. I make him cry.

He is the only person I can control, which is one reason I love him best.

He turned to look at me in that second before the tears fell while Little Benny took off for the safety of his own backyard. His wrinkly little face broke my heart. I wanted to hug him and wipe away his tears, like our mother would.

“Suck it up,” I said instead. I was practicing my pop-a-wheelie. “I can’t do everything, for christsake and goddamnit.”

• • •

Mom’s working tonight, so Dad will make our favorite chicken pot pie from the box and we’ll sit out back and count lightning bugs while he smokes. He won’t have change for the ice cream truck so we don’t bother asking. Eric doesn’t like peas, so he flicks them into the grass one at a time. The neighbor’s cat slinks out from under the porch and swipes at them with her paws until one lands on her neck and she goes crazy and takes off.

“I like peas,” Eric insists, swinging his legs. “I just don’t like to eat them.”

Dad laughs so hard that I’m confused. He takes a long sip and wipes his mouth with the back of his sleeve, just like he’s not supposed to.

“That’s funny,” I say.

“What is?” says Eric, stabbing a piece of chicken with his fork.

Dad is still laughing. His eyes are pink and watery. He slips off his work boots and stretches his long toes.

“That crazy cat,” I say, shaking my head. “What a looney tune.”

The backyard is getting dark. I eye a fat robin pecking the ground suspiciously and take note of the flying stars, the ones that earned their wings. I watch Dad go drowsy and I feel myself shrinking, small as an ant.

“Cowabunga!” Eric calls, launching another pea onto the grass.

• • •

“Let’s say you forgot to wear underwear but I don’t have any to lend you,” Charlene says.

Her breath smells like candy and her hair smells like a swimming pool. My toes tingle and I start to squirm again, afraid that one of our brothers will look in the window and spot us here, skin to skin. This is Charlene’s favorite game, and I like it because it makes her happy. I can’t say why, but I think we’d be in trouble if our moms found us here, like when they found the boys looking at Playboys down by the creek. Getting in trouble makes me feel like a squashed bug. I cry out for Mom to forgive me, Please forgive me!, even though all that crying only makes her madder, and don’t I know that by now?

“Do you want me to kiss it?” Charlene asks.

I nod and she pulls down my pants and dryly kisses the round place between my legs. A single kiss. I go dizzy. I want to cry and ride my bike as fast as I can down a big hill at the same time. “There,” she says, “now your turn.” I kiss her in the same way in the same place, feeling frozen as a Popsicle, feeling the curtains fall over my back.

• • •

Years later, years during which we will move many towns apart and grow big and graduate from separate high schools and leave home, I will see Little Benny’s picture on the news and learn how he killed a girl while driving drunk in the wrong lane, going in the wrong direction on the highway. And suddenly I’ll realize it isn’t Little Benny at all, but a stranger that, in truth, looks nothing like him, and I’ll wonder at how quickly I’d judged him, like I’d been waiting for it all along. I’ll worry about what that means about who I’ve become: a woman who assumes the worst.

I will find Charlene’s wedding pictures on the Internet and marvel at how fat she has become, and how beautiful, and how her mother appeared small and shriveled beside her, both of them beaming. Months later a baby will appear, then another and another, and one will be called Little Benny Jr., after her father and her brother. I’ll feel dried out and barren, even though I’ll still secretly hope for kids of my own one day. I will wonder at my fear of mothering like a detached thing, some secret scar nobody else has to look at but me. I’ll learn from a mutual friend that Charlene manages a local Genuardi’s Supermarket and I’ll suddenly recall a day when I was sixteen and walked into Genuardi’s with a new friend I desperately wanted to impress. I saw Charlene bagging groceries and made up some excuse so we had to leave, afraid she would see me and call my name and I’d have to admit to this new friend that yes, we grew up together and yes, I had loved her unconditionally—this heavy girl in off-brand jeans and dirty sneakers and dark eyeliner like a superhero. I had been just a kid, and she was the last person I would ever love in that same, wide-eyed way.

• • •

“Now we hug,” Charlene says.

We lie beneath the window with our arms around each other and listen to our brothers beat up bad guys. “Hiya!” they yell. Our clothes are strewn across the floor and the bar is closed. Somewhere, my daddy is on his third Budweiser and feeling better and better. My mom is fixing bologna sandwiches on white bread and ironing her work apron and smoking a cigarette all at the same time, trying not to let the ashes fall on the carpet. The ice cream truck is on the next street over playing “This Land Is Your Land” through the megaphone and Little Benny is whacking their old terrier, Jacko, for peeing on his “numb chucks.”

“Let’s pretend we fell asleep,” Charlene whispers, pulling me closer and closer until I feel her breathing in my ear. It makes me sleepy. The music is getting louder and I hear the boys calling out to our mothers. I close my eyes and wait for the door.


Jessica Hendry Nelson is the author of the forthcoming memoir in essays, If Only You People Could Follow Directions (Counterpoint Press, January 2014), which has been selected by the American Booksellers’ Association for inclusion on the Indies Introduce New Voices list, spring 2014, and the January ’14 Indies Next List. O Magazine named it one of “Ten Titles that Will Broaden Your Point of View.” Her work has been published or is forthcoming in The Threepenny Review, The Rumpus, Drunken Boat, and PANK. Her work has been listed as a Notable essay in Best American Essays 2012 and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. 

MORE: Twitter | Website

BT #004 © 2014 Jessica Hendry Nelson. Published by Little Fiction | Big Truths, January 2014.


pretend we
fell asleep

by jessica hendry nelson