A.J. had been invited to the party on New Boston Bend by a friend of a friend.
The friend, who had wheedled him into driving, had vanished into the pulsing mass of people, and A.J. occupied himself by attaching to different clusters of kids and bopping along to the conversations. A joint was passed. A girl found a jumbo bag of Reese’s Pieces in her backpack and shared them. A.J. stuffed his face, his fingers smeared with orange and sticking together. He could make it to the end of the party this way, just bopping along; he wasn’t the most talkative person in the world and when he went to these kinds of things, bopping along was his usual routine.
The friend of a friend had a pool. It took up the heart of the backyard and glowed blue from the fancy lights that the friend of a friend’s dad had installed at the bottom. Everyone inched around its rim, grabbing onto arms and hands to get to the porch. It was an exercise in trust. Otherwise, you fell in.
This did not happen to A.J., for he stood just far enough away from the pool’s edge to leave a sliver, so that people stumbled past, clinging to the wall of bodies behind them. A few brave (or stoned) ones gave up the fight and tore off their clothes, flopping into the blue water. After a while, A.J. found himself draped with shirts, bras, socks, a skirt on his head.
“Hey, man, can you hold this?”
“Hang onto that for me.”
You’re coming back for all this stuff, right?
He couldn’t touch anything because it would stick to him and he would turn it orange. He couldn’t move because he would fall in himself, and ruin the clothes besides. He couldn’t do much of anything, or move any muscles but for the ones in his neck that allowed him to just bop along to the music crunching inside the house. Someone was inside changing CDs. Someone got tired of 10,000 Maniacs and put on Sisters With Voices, “Right Here/Human Nature.”
By now, it had grown hotter, more people had surged from the house to the backyard and everyone seemed to be collapsing from the porch into the pool, and before long, A.J. could hardly see the water for all the heads that clogged it. Every head was lit from below, very thinly, by the fancy blue lights. It was hard to tell who was who anymore; for a little while people tried to play Marco Polo and then, when the pool got too full and the game dissolved into an excuse for boys to grope girls, the game turned into Keep-Away with a shoe. Lots of hands not so much throwing it as passing it from one end of the pool to the other.
A.J., now alone on his side of the pool deck, had still not moved. His feet were soaking in his shoes, from ankle to toe, because they were high-tops. He had had too much to smoke and not enough to eat, and the stray clothes were clinging to him with the humidity in the air and the bursts of water gushing from the pool. There was almost no room left in it, bodies pressed tightly against the kidney-shaped rim. But people still laughed. He wondered if everyone were truly having as much fun as they seemed to be. For someone his age, this kind of thing was supposed to be fun.
And here he was wanting to go home.
A few heads threaded through the mass and emerged from the pool full-bodied again. A.J. watched as everyone regained their clothes, their sex, he even recognized a few people he knew. What a relief. And then, just as quickly, he was struck by an equal measure of disappointment: things always fell back into the regular order. Everything went back to normal. He was bored. He was wet and hot and he needed to sit down and the song changed to “Keep On Smilin’” and he hated New Kids on the Block so much he very nearly dropped everything to run inside, find the numb clod responsible for the music, and shout in her ear (for it had to be a girl) asking if she knew what this song was doing to him.
People herded from the pool to back to the deck, making the air thick and sticky, and the stray clothes stuck to A.J. like pieces of old skin. No one was coming to claim them. That was all there was to it. A.J. knew these things, not that he possessed any kind of second sight, but the bra strap slung over his shoulder had been rearranged in the rush of bodies from the pool so that it now crept down his shirt and dripped warm water, long and slow, to the waistband of his underwear and into the cleft of his ass. From these kinds of situations, things did not go up.
He squeezed his eyes shut. There was a silence. And then, as though this were a test run on a new form of torture, “Keep On Smilin’” played again from the beginning. It was never, ever, going to stop. He gritted his teeth and screeched through them, though no one heard. His cleft bore a trickle that was becoming a small river. He did not need to look, for he felt it stick to him if he moved: a wet spot, as perfectly circular and striking as a bull’s eye, had formed on the seat of his cargo shorts.
It had been a while since the Reese’s Pieces and all he could really do anymore was look out across the pool, because this was what you did when you got dizzy or seasick—you kept your eye on the horizon. In this sea of heads there seemed to be only one unmoving particle. A.J. focused on that. Now and then the chili pepper lights strung from the trees would throw pink glowing spots around and other heads swam and overlapped, blonde French braid, brown crew cut, a guy’s Afro, another blonde, a bob cut. When they cleared, the still point emerged again: a person’s head, hair foaming in curls and waves. A.J. could not have said whether or not this person had a superb dye job, or if this person was some kind of redhead whose hair was interrupted by the chili lights. The curls and waves shimmered amorphously, pink-orange-blond, like the skin of a nectarine.
The bra strap slipped, the bra itself flopping over A.J.’s collar before sliding to the ground. The nectarine head turned. Perhaps it had seen the bra fall. When the nectarine head’s face lifted, A.J. could not have said whether it belonged to a boy or a girl, for both boys and girls could have a thin wide mouth, a pointed nose, big slanted eyes. Girls cut their hair short a lot these days. Both boys and girls could be pretty or handsome, could be tall and slim. When a breeze came and the chili lights trembled, A.J. was pretty sure, just pretty sure, that he could make out the sheen of stubble around the nectarine’s jaw. So it was a boy—wasn’t it?
It (he?) was talking to a girl in a leopard print dress stuck in front with one of those joke pins that read, “Hi! I’m Wasted.” But he (it?) was looking at A.J.
The song changed. A.J. winced, but when the silence cleared, it was not New Kids on the Block that played. It was Bjork, “Venus as a Boy.”
The head ducked away from the leopard print girl and vanished.
A.J. said out loud, “Come back!” but the head had been on the other side of the pool. There were too many people and too much noise.
A.J. kicked the bra away from his foot. He started shedding the clothes that did not belong to him until he could, at last, take a good breath. His own t-shirt was damp and rumpled, but it was black and at least the pit stains wouldn’t show. His deodorant was still going strong.
He didn’t have time to consider whether the head was a boy or a girl, or what it meant if the head was a boy, because this person had been talking to someone, but looking at him. How many people were crammed into this party? Forty, fifty people? Some had to be college interlopers who brought the booze or, like A.J., friends of friends. Out of that number, he or she had looked at A.J.
He was about to set off around the wide end of the pool, behind the grill, step around the deck chairs, tap every shoulder to see if the face would rearrange itself into the one he wanted.
He didn’t even have to do that. This was going to be much easier.
If he hadn’t looked the other way, he might have missed the nectarine head. He might have made a fool of himself, tapping all those shoulders and then gone home and holed himself up in the house for the rest of the summer.
A.J. had looked the other way because a horrible, electric screech had come from the house, a sonic WEEEEEEEEEEE of a stereo cord jostled that had everyone clapping their hands to their ears and squinting. Some dropped to the ground, the way people did during a bomb scare. But it was only for a second.
“Fuck,” a girl barked, and the music started up again. More Bjork, her cover of “Like Someone in Love.”
When A.J. turned from the house, he found the nectarine head kneeling in the pile of damp clothes, picking through things. He or she wore a big, collared shirt that buttoned down. The baggy sleeves were rolled below the elbows, revealing long, long arms. A.J. didn’t want to think about touching yet, he wanted a little more time to stand here, to admire.
The nectarine head looked up before A.J. could say anything.
“I’m pretty sure you had my jeans.” Its voice might have been low for a girl’s, also high for a boy’s; it radiated from somewhere in its chest, with a bit of a lilt. A.J. remembered that he had heard David Sedaris read an essay on NPR once, and David Sedaris had a voice like that. He had also seen enough of The Golden Girls to know that, despite the rumors, Bea Arthur was no transvestite, but a real lady.
The nectarine head stood up, nearly a head taller than A.J. The big shirt was tucked into the towel wrapped around his or her waist, deep blue and printed with tropical fish. If this was a girl, she had no bust. If this was a boy, he had a rippling figure. Either way, this person had the longest feet A.J. had ever seen, peeping out beneath the edge of the towel, the toenails painted silver.
“Are you all right?” The nectarine head was talking to him, cocking its head.
A.J. didn’t want to open his mouth. When he met someone as beautiful as this creature, this nectarine head, he’d always imagined that the two of them would have no need for speech. The eyes would say it all. They would communicate by ESP. They would have something that no one else had.
A.J. didn’t want to have his first words to the nectarine head be, “I think I’m going to throw up.” If he opened his mouth, he might do it, all over those silver toenails.
The nectarine head threw out an arm, wrapped it around A.J.’s shoulders. “Come on. Over here, this way.”
A.J. succumbed to the pull and let himself float to the farthest end of the yard where a lavender duffel bag was splayed open under an azalea bush.
“Go ahead,” the nectarine head said. “No one’s watching, you’re fine.”
A.J., if he’d had time, would have moved the bag, might have even asked to whom it belonged. The nausea swept him off his feet as quickly as the enchantment of it all and had him on his knees, vomiting quietly into the lavender duffel bag. In the bag was a green towel, a pair of girl’s flat shoes, a girl’s purple-handled hairbrush, a stick of Dove’s deodorant, and about a gallon’s worth of stomach fluid and Reese’s Pieces garnishing it all like orange and yellow confetti.
“I’m sorry,” A.J. croaked, in case the stuff did belong to the nectarine head. “I’m really—I’m sorry—” He peeked over his shoulder to find the nectarine head gone and, before he could get after himself about how stupid he was for puking on her things (girl’s shoes, girl’s panties, it was a girl, if this was her stuff), reappeared at his other shoulder armed with a bottle of water, which she popped into A.J.’s open mouth.
“Drink up,” she said.
A.J. did. The bottle had a long, plastic nipple that caused anyone who drank from it to suckle like a baby. He slurped away. The nectarine head held the corner of her towel to his nose, which was running, and to his mouth, which was slimy with sugar and stomach acid. His lips oozed the water that he couldn’t swallow fast enough. The nectarine head mopped his chin.
When the towel lifted, A.J. tried to let his own head droop so that he could catch a glimpse, just a glimpse, no perversion intended, of what the nectarine head was really made of. The legs were spindly, like those of a runner’s, and heavily furred with wiry, carrot colored hair. They rose into a sort of nether-space, too dark beneath the towel to see anything. A.J. had read about people who lived their entire lives as both sexes; in his opinion, they must have the best of both worlds, to wear anything they wanted, chose any name, sleep with anyone. But people like that were so rare as to be mythical, and in this day and age, you were surgically remodeled as one or the other before you started talking.
He was tempted to do something brave, pretend to fall forward and brush the towel aside as he did so. The nectarine head put a hand on his shoulder, so large the fingers trailed to his armpit.
“Don’t worry about the bag,” the nectarine head murmured, the voice lowering. A.J. felt the vibrations from his shoulder to his chest. “That girl over there—“ the nectarine head lifted one long finger to point at the girl A.J. had seen her (or him?) with, the tiny little thing in the leopard print dress, “I was hoping I wouldn’t have to see her here tonight. One of those things where she dumps you for someone else, but she still wants to be friends…I don’t know. I think she had that coming.”
The bag was starting to smell. The hair in the brush was thick and dark. The hair on the girl’s head was thick and dark.
The song changed. Bjork again, skipping backward on the album, “Big Time Sensuality.”
The nectarine head was talking again. The music pounded from the house and A.J. relied on what he could of his lip-reading skills. The nectarine head seemed to be repeating itself, an introduction, placing a hand on its chest. It tried again, “I’m—” It began with a hard G. A.J. cupped a hand to his ear like an old man. The nectarine head shouted, so much of the name lost in the noise that what came out could have been Glen or Gwen.
“But everyone calls me Gee,” it said when things grew quiet, “as in, Gee whiz!”
“I like that,” A.J. said, wiping his mouth. He had suckled the water bottle down to a few drops. “Hey, are you hungry?” He was asking this more to himself, because once the Reese’s Pieces were gone, he suddenly felt as though he had enough room in his belly for all the stock in a grocery store.
Gee smiled. “Yeah, I could eat.”
“Anywhere in mind?”
“There’s an ice cream place down the road. They also do hamburgers and things.”
“Joel’s Pharmacy? Sounds good.”
Pam Jones is an East Coast native, now planting her roots in Austin, Texas with her husband and cat. She studied Creative Writing at Hampshire College, and has held down a variety of jobs, at YMCAs, at an art gallery, even as an artists’ model. Her writing has appeared in The Cost of Paper: Volume I and in Otoliths e-magazine as Pam Hopkins. The Biggest Little Bird is her first book.