A few days after graduation, the girl sits on the beach with some former classmates, their faces lit orange in the glow of the bonfire, their red plastic cups full. She observes the girls. For four years she’s watched them conduct magnum opuses of emotion, pining themselves into oblivion. For what, the girl thinks. For the chance to now be sitting under some bro’s arm. She herself has spent adolescence developing qualities with real world value: authority, drive, will. You can’t cultivate these things and a boyfriend at the same time. It is better to eat than to be eaten. Still, the girl thinks. Maybe it would be nice not to be a virgin?
The boy’s yearbook photo shows him shirtless on a pier two summers ago. It has served as a reminder: the boy is dreamy. Last year, he went from basketball player to stoner; his blonde curls went dirty and wild. But the photo’s publication was like the shifting of a veil—everyone realizes now that the weed has done nothing to his exquisite bone structure. If he were less high all the time, he might notice the way girls have looked at him since the yearbook went out. They look at him like they want to swallow him whole.
When the boy catches her eye with his half-closed ones, giving a sexy, enigmatic half-smile, the girl trains her laser-sharp focus of energy on her next thought. The thought is: “I am going to have sex with that boy.”
When the boy smiles at the girl, he’s thinking about a meatball sandwich. She asks him to leave with her and he does, thinking he’ll be able to eat one. He couldn’t ask his friends for a ride to the deli, a mile away, because he knew they’d act laughingly superior about his hunger. They all started smoking last autumn, but he’s the only one to have made a career of it. It hasn’t yet occurred to the boy that the girl’s invitation might have nothing to do with a meatball sandwich. He can already taste the oregano on his tongue.
She knows the initial act will be a loss, not a gain. After her graduation dinner, where her parents poured her too much wine, the girl had a string of panicky dreams, in which unfamiliar naked bodies knocked against her. Teeth on her neck left permanent scarring, even the softest of kisses obliterated eyeballs, earlobes. A nightmare, and yet—slightly seductive. So sweet, to be subtracted from. She’s willing to lose tonight. But it will be the first, the last, the only time.
He has to turn twice, to remember who’s driving. The girl—her red hair pulled into a knot. Hair the color of tomato sauce. The third time he turns, a memory: fifth grade. She wrote in a notebook. He was a basketball phenom then. Because he could, he yanked the notebook away. Held it out of her reach. She’d written a poem he read out loud. Here in her car, he wants to apologize. But maybe that was some other girl. The boy remembers she didn’t try to snatch it back, didn’t shout to drown him out. She’d bared her teeth at him. She’d snarled.
She parks somewhere arbitrary. She turns the key, and the world is snuffed out. Girl, boy, car. The boy laughs at something. The girl unbuckles her seatbelt, gets on top of him. His lips are dry but his mouth is wet as anything, and she can taste the sweet foresty weed on his breath. The boy accepts her kisses like water. She wonders how much this is going to hurt.
Life for the boy unfolds with dream logic. Occasionally girls just get on top of him. Hey, the boy thinks. Can’t complain. Suddenly he feels something rear up in him: the ghost of the basketball star. Like the older version of his younger self is inside, watching the scene unfold from behind his eyes with a self-satisfied smirk. The boy can’t stop his inner point guard from taking the girl’s head in his hands with violent urgency, and biting hard on her lower lip.
Alarmed, the girl tastes for blood. Her control of the situation—slipping. Is this normal? Maybe if she’d been on even one date in four years, she’d know. But it’s hard to even remember the time when she had crushes. The girl’s fierce and frightening ambition never extended to boys. Always she has striven in the direction of Yale. She searches the glittering black voids of the boy’s eyes in the dark. Just one loss, she reminds herself, in an inevitable lifetime of gains. She reaches down to recline the seat.
His high is peeling up around the edges: he senses the point guard at the controls. Point Guard is inside his eyeballs, maneuvering him like an airplane, an SUV, something made of metal. The girl slips his gray-blue t-shirt over his head and Point Guard thinks, I deserve this. If the boy is here in the passenger seat of a girl’s car, while the girl contorts herself to kiss the line of fuzz beneath his navel, it’s because this is where he deserves to be. The boy nods his blonde head sagely. Then the girl gasps.
The girl has just now noticed that the boy has only one nipple. But—no. In yearbook photo, he has two. She pictures it very clearly. If he’d only had one, the ensuing conversation would have different. Surely? Maybe the girls sitting around the bonfire would shrink from this development, would excuse themselves to gag, or keep going like it was none of their business, but this girl is too much of a scientist for that. The boy props himself up on his elbows, cocks his head like a dog. In an effort to be sensitive, the girl doesn’t speak—she turns on the overhead light, and with two fingers pokes the bare spot on the left half of his chest. He glances down.
For a minute, he says nothing. And then he says: It was there this morning. I swear.
The girl is a born strategist, a future CEO neurosurgeon Secretary of State. She sweeps the car with her gaze, and when it falls on the boy’s t-shirt, crumpled in a ball in a cup holder, she picks it up, and shakes it out like clean laundry. A small disc of flesh flies from the armhole and falls flat on the empty driver’s seat. The girl and the boy stare at the limp little nipple for a few tense, silent seconds. Is this, the girl wonders again with clinical detachment, normal?
Well, says the boy as he cups the empty spot with his hand. Point Guard is freaking out up there, curled in the fetal position on the floor of the control room. Poor Point Guard, the boy thinks, feeling kind of sorry for him. Point Guard did not see this coming. Point Guard will have to tell this story to every girl who ever sees him shirtless. Point Guard will never again lounge on a pier without shame. And then the horror is a ringing in his ears, because the boy has realized: he and Point Guard are the same person. The same stupid stoned one-nippled dipshit.
The girl doesn’t notice the look on the boy’s face as he turns to her now, his helpless silent plea, because she is appraising the new weirdness of his chest. It sort of looks like you’re winking, she says.
The boy pushes her off him, and stumbles out of the car, into the thick summer dark. This is not a dream. The girl (a witch?) has done something to him and she has done it on purpose—without his noticing, she plucked the nipple from his skin like it was a loose button on a winter coat. She must have done it, he thinks, because of the poem. She must have waited all this time to win. The boy walks five steps in the direction he thinks the beach is before falling to his knees, retching and half-naked in the night.
And the girl, before she slides back over into the driver’s seat, takes the nipple into her hand. It is soft, still warm. She cannot imagine his anguish, but she tries to—what if this was her own nipple, pointlessly lost? The girl waits, expecting tears, but none come. Empathy, she thinks: another skill to cultivate. She doesn’t even remember the time the boy grabbed the poem away—she was eleven then, and the cruelty of boys was everywhere. It’s a wonder she didn’t let it swallow her whole. The girl puts the nipple on her tongue like a communion wafer. It tastes neither sweet nor bitter. It has the slightest tang of salt, of sweat. But mostly it tastes like nothing. The girl keeps it in her mouth the whole way home, like she’s waiting for it to melt, but it stays as intact as she does.
About Katie: Katie Coyle’s writing has previously been published in Critical Quarterly, The Rumpus, Hot Metal Bridge, and The Fiction Circus. She has an MFA from the University of Pittsburgh and a blog. She lives in San Francisco.