I wake late. My dad’s apartment, a tiny two-bedroom sitting on top of a failing pizza joint in Croton Falls, New York, is quiet save for the shuffles of my fat yellow hamster in his dirty cage. Morning is forcing itself through the blinds drooping against my single busted window. It is my first day off in two weeks.
Sitting up, I realize I am still sort of drunk. I’ve slept in my uniform again: the stained red polo and waist-pinching khakis. I stink of fried food, sweat, and the sea.
I am seventeen years old, and getting drunk is still a novelty. It has only recently occurred to me that my mother won’t think to check my breath if I’m coming straight home from work, which, for the past four summers, has been at a yacht club’s gourmet snack bar on the Long Island Sound, where I serve buffalo chicken wraps to the children of millionaires. My boss, Jack, is a temperamental but otherwise fully functioning drunk who works the system to get himself fourteen hours’ worth of free beers every day; sometimes he is feeling generous, and he spreads the love around.
Yesterday was the Fourth of July, one of our biggest days of the summer. We made thousands of dollars on marked up patriotic specials (Red White and Bleu Cheese Burger! Star Spangled Salad!). Jack, high on the holiday and a dozen Miller Lites, closed up shop around nine, then we got blasted and watched the fireworks together through the fence around the tennis courts.
I forgot to pack a change of clothes. A year ago I would have been cripplingly embarrassed, missing an opportunity to look beautiful around my older, cooler coworkers. I cared less now. I made straight for the liquor stashed under the soda machine and mixed myself a large paper cup’s worth of Beefeater and lemonade.
My period was late by a week to the day.
I headed out to the back of the snack bar where my coworkers sat around on abandoned beach chairs, holding beers and passing around a joint. Jack was center stage on the sidewalk, cracking jokes, everyone’s best friend when he wasn’t screaming at someone for showing up late (“This ain’t Johnny Carson, you don’t get to make no fuckin’ guest appearances.”)
I joined them. They included me in their vulgar, banal back-and-forths in ways they couldn’t a couple years before, when I had been too young and frightened, a fourteen-year-old standing obstinately in the corner while these tattooed, apple-bong-smoking older people (seventeen! eighteen!) crowded over the cutting boards, talking about sex and booze while they stacked cheese and sliced tomatoes. By the next summer I made an effort with them. I started smoking cigarettes in an unconvincing way. I made sailboats out of paper plates and plastic straws for them to race across our stretch of industrial sinks. I snuck Amstel Lights hidden in a chef hat to the guys back in the kitchen when Jack was in a bad mood and wouldn’t give them any. During our annual staff party at the pool house after hours, I pretended to get drunk, stripped to my underwear, swam three laps, and kissed one of the cooks. They stopped treating me like a kid after that.
This was my now fourth Fourth of July. I knew these people. I knew Adrianne would try to get one of the boys drunk enough to sleep with her in the back seat of her car, then spread vicious rumors about his penis size. I knew Aaron would have too many Heinekens and start tearing up about his girlfriend of six years, who had been cheating on him for two. I knew Jack would be too far gone to notice or care about any missing inventory, so Mike and Ernesto would stuff their trunks with paper bags full of Jose Cuervo and the sour straw candies their nieces liked.
I settled down in my beach chair. At one point Adrianne and I threw pieces of Asian salad at each other until mandarin orange guts were smeared across our shoulders and faces like strange radioactive snow. We laughed until we cried.
The fireworks, as always, were startlingly lovely, exploding with loud thwacks inside my head, dripping neon aneurisms. I clutched the uneven wooden arms of my beach chair and felt hopelessly in love with everyone, this assemblage of trash-talking deadbeats who insist they are too old to still work at a snack bar but come back year after year, even though they’ve been saying to hell with the place ever since they started.
The summer morning, now, is merciless, ushering me out of my stupor. I barely remember the ride home last night; my dad rambled on in the driver’s seat about my mother until I fell asleep against the dashboard. He must have carried me to bed.
I peel off yesterday’s uniform and wander around my room in my underwear. I yank my cat off the computer keyboard. I feed my hamster. It’s nearly noon. I have work again the next morning, ten to eight. My life is mine for a short little while.
Banking on my dad still sleeping, since it’s his day off too, I brave the hallway still undressed and collect the cordless phone to call my boyfriend. He answers on the first ring. He knows my period is late.
“Can you meet me at Stop & Shop?” I ask him. “Give me like half an hour.”
I am this crumpled cotton collar. I am this greasy ponytail.
My dad is tangled in his blankets, looking small and sickly. I shake his shoulder.
“I’ve got to run a few errands. Can I borrow the car?” I ask him.
“Sure, sure,” he says, catching my hand as it swings limply over his mattress and squeezing it. “Do you need anything? Any money?”
“No, Daddy,” I say.
I shove my phone in my pocket and try to fix my face in the bathroom mirror for a minute before giving up entirely. Flip flops are a rare pleasure; I exchange them for the sweaty socks and smelly sneakers of my work days. I get into my dad’s baking minivan, the black leather seat scorching my bare arms. I drive drunk.
I’m not that drunk anymore, really, but caught in the world between inebriation and the effects of the morning after, like that slip of space between wakefulness and dreams. I careen the minivan around the curves that wind between my dad’s little New York hamlet and my mother’s rich white Connecticut suburb, where my boyfriend lives, and where, for the most part, I grew up. It’s a thirty-minute drive. I crank up the old radio. My dad has it on some sixties station. It makes me feel sort of sad and hollow.
Lurching through the rolling hills of New York farm country, I think about the abortion my coworker and sometimes-friend, Adrianne, had last summer.
Adrianne is three years my senior and has worked at the snack bar since her freshman year of high school, just like me. She’s a talker. She feigns secrecy around our corner of pricey beachside, whispering semi-secrets to her best friend Holly, who has a pill problem, or to me, her mentee, while we stock up on plastic forks and knives. “I’m pregnant,” she told me last summer, in the lull before sailing camp let out, glancing over her shoulder to make sure no one was around. She knew as well as anyone that in a space barely large enough to fit eight employees in a given day, we would all know in due time.
She was nineteen, attending community college for her psychology degree. Adrianne was loud and obnoxious and headstrong and insecure and mean and spiteful and charming. I both loved and hated her, summer after summer.
Inevitably we all knew she was pregnant, and it made her different. Jack told us to leave her alone when she was throwing one of her various fits about someone using up the last of the half-and-half without replacing it or getting high on the gas in the whipped cream cans, thus ruining her sundaes. The boys didn’t complain when she took advantage of “feminine problems” and spent half an hour in the bathroom. She hammed it up, clutching her stomach and eating mountains of fried food the cooks made especially for her. It was almost a month before she actually went to get the abortion.
“It sucked,” she told us. We believed her. When she showed me the jumbo pads they gave her, I was repulsed.
We had all figured, even when she pretended to consider her options, that she would get rid of it. But just that she had been pregnant for those few fleeting weeks was enough to mystify us. To make us tread lightly.
Now, I pull into the Stop & Shop parking lot, slide the bulky minivan into a shady corner. Even after over a year of driving, I am still proud of myself for a particularly nice parking job. My boyfriend taps gently on my window.
I get out and give him a hug and a kiss. He is exactly my height, a broad-shouldered high school graduate with a mop of brown curls. He’s getting ready to ship off to college in the fall. We’ve been having fights about it—what happens next.
But for now we are comrades. We head into the store together. People stare at the swath of dried chocolate ice cream smeared across my stomach in a leering smile.
Even before we buy the test, I’m sure that I’m pregnant. I’ve always been relatively in tune with my body. We are good buddies, my body and I. And I think it’s trying to tell me to stop fucking around and deal with the thing already. So I am dealing with it.
How ridiculous, to be pregnant. It’s a miracle I’m old enough to have driven here in the same car I threw up in after a kindergarten glue-eating incident.
We get held up in the produce aisle when I tell my boyfriend I haven’t eaten yet today and he insists on getting me a snack. To me, right now, this is true romance. He is too kind and perfect to have a kid at nineteen.
We make it to the pharmacy and split the costs of a pregnancy test. For economical reasons we buy in bulk, getting three for one, which is hopefully not inspiring some self-fulfilling prophecy.
One thing at a time.
I haven’t told him that I want, at some point in my life, a whole mess kids. While I come from a broken family it’s a large, absurd, and vibrant one, and I want to fill up a house of my own with children. I’ll do a better job than my sloppy, broke, manic-depressive parents. My kids will know literature and love.
Though I am poor, my boyfriend is rich. Teen pregnancy that cripples families and livelihoods and dreams for most people probably wouldn’t be such a bummer for us. I could sacrifice a ton of shit I believe in and let my boyfriend’s family settle us in a nice house with a nanny while we keep going to school and planning for our future. And all the right things would fall in place around us.
I station my boyfriend outside of the Stop & Shop women’s room and go into the stall alone. I pull down my pants and see the dark blood pooling in my underwear. I turn the pregnancy test over and over in my hands, already unpackaged and ready to go, almost annoyed that I have been robbed of the drama of those coy little symbols, the flashing minus or plus. I sit there a few more minutes, waiting, though I’m not sure for what.
I will leave the stall, kiss my relieved boyfriend, and spend my day off watching TV with him on his couch, eating Doritos and fucking lazily—hyper-protected fucking, because we have both come to truly appreciate the preciousness of our unwritten futures. It will take another few years for me to have my collegiate lesbian awakening, so we still have lots of unsatisfying sex but otherwise comfortable companionship ahead of us. In the span of these years, Adrianne’s best friend Holly will give birth to twins at age twenty, and our beloved boss, Jack, will pass away from a poisoned liver. With him, the heart of the place—a place where we all sort of grew up, in the few square meters stretching between ovens and shake machine—will die, too. The summer after he passes, no one will return, just like we all threaten when there’s twenty tickets on the board, and screaming kids at the counter, and an ocean of ketchup to clean up at Table Three: “Fuck this place / I’m too good for this shit / I’m not coming in tomorrow / Y’all are on your own.” It’ll take quite a few tomorrows, but give us a couple more back-aching, deep-fried, sun-drunk summers, and we will all keep those promises in the end.
Rumpus original art by Sam Geer.