Don’t You Want Someone?
Haley’s the only girl she knows in ninth grade who’s still a virgin, or at least the only one who’ll admit to it. Everyone else has had a boyfriend in the past year, and done it. Haley’s last boyfriend was in seventh grade, Corey Wood. She remembers the scribbled hall passes during class, his mouth tasting sweet, like cinnamon. He’s been seeing Marie Wildonner since then. It doesn’t bother Haley. Corey works at the quarry with his father and uncle and brothers in the summer. Haley’s been asked out by a couple of the vo-tech boys, but she looked down at their hands, the ragged, dirty nails, the rough knuckles. Tried to imagine them touching her, inside her, like she wanted. She said no.
You better get that taken care of before you graduate, Deanna’s always saying. Otherwise when’s your next chance? Deanna’s two years older than Haley. She’s got an after-school job working at Maple Hollow Diner, makes her own money. She’s been dating her boyfriend, Steve, for three years. They’re getting married when they graduate or when she gets pregnant, whichever comes first. Haley listens when Deanna talks about boys. Like when she says all Haley has to do is stop acting so distant. And when she says, Yeah, they’re not perfect, but what do you expect?
The diner is empty. Haley’s helping Deanna stack jelly packets, the black plastic caddies dulled and sticky with jam. Haley looks down at her nails, the pale pink polish chipping off.
You just need to make one of them notice you, Deanna tells her. Haley nods. Homecoming’s the perfect chance, don’t you want someone? Sometimes I think you’re happier off alone, she says, and makes a face.
Of course not, Haley says. Deanna drifts to another table, apron barely clinging onto her hips. Haley follows her.
Anyway, Deanna says. You can’t ask them. You’ll look too desperate. You need to wait for one to ask you. You’re not ugly, she says.
Thanks, Haley says. She pushes the glass salt- and pepper shakers at each other, lining them up, edges flat and equal.
I don’t mean it like that. Seriously. These boys around here are too dumb for their own good, Deanna says. Couple years from now when they stop wanting to fuck everything that moves, realize they want married, they’ll wise up. They’ll be lining up at your door then. Fifteen’s young anyway, Deanna tells her, even though Haley knows Deanna lost her virginity at 14.
Deanna throws her a wet rag and Haley catches it, starts wiping down the table. By Minersville’s standards, Haley will die an old maid. The fluorescent lights hollow out Deanna’s face, put shadows around her jaw.
Anyway, Deanna says again. Did you hear about Katie Ralston? Graduated two years ago? Pregnant again. Jesus, learn to keep your fucking legs shut. Haley doesn’t say anything, just laughs, looks down, picks a spot of tartar sauce on the table with her thumbnail.
The shops in town are all proudly labeled—Miners Bank and Miners Plaza and the Coal Cracker Creamery. Haley can’t get past it. The drive to school curls down through half-carved-out mountains, the spread of fall trees giving into heaps of shimmering black coal, reflecting the sun into the sky, glinting silver. There’s a JESUS MAY COME TODAY sign just before the Volunteer Fire Hall. The sign is a faded yellow, the color of piano keys. The letters are crooked, worn with road dust and rock salt. Winters, out-of-towners make U-turns in the parking lot when they realize they’re nowhere they meant to be, spray up salt and dirty slush.
Deanna comes and gets her before school every morning. The high school’s on the other edge of town. Near the school, the Culm Banks. Haley sees it every morning. It runs alongside the town, sprawling out into the next town over. Hills and hills of coal, ground up pieces too small to do anything but cover you in filth. Haley grew up sneaking through the cut in the fence to play with the junk. There’s furniture, appliances, even a crane, yellowed paint rusted in brown spots. Rumor is one kid got stuck in a fridge once, back in the ’80s. They didn’t find him for days. It was summer. They couldn’t get rid of the fridge after they found him. They didn’t have anywhere else to put it, they said. This was the dump. The Banks stunk for months, the sweet smell of decay.
Deanna threads over the yellow line. Everyone in town drives too fast, smokes too much, drinks too much beer. The town always gets you in the end, Haley thinks; all that changes is how old you are when it does. Either an accident or suicide or a long, slow death. The hiss of her grandpa’s oxygen mask. Her father’s shaking hands, only steady when he concentrates on an engine. The three aren’t much different.
Fuller’s in Haley’s third period history class. His dad’s the only dentist in town. His teeth are perfect, straight, almost shining. Haley hides her own bottom teeth below her lip when she laughs in class. Her family could never afford braces.
Deanna starts elbowing her every time he raises his hand. He wears collared shirts over his dark wash jeans from the Gap in Lehigh, not the soon-faded blue of Wranglers. He doesn’t wear work boots. Haley watches when he’s not looking. He glances over at her once, catches her. One time he comes up to her after class, says, I don’t think I quite caught the homework for tomorrow, I know you probably wrote it down. You’re always on top of things like that. Do you know what it was? And she blushes, gets out her school-issued planner, gives him the page numbers, while he stands too close to her.
There’s a group project on the New Deal. Deanna nudges Haley in the ribs, looks at Jake. He’s looking at Haley. The three of them plan to meet in the diner after school. Deanna doesn’t show. Haley and Jake get a booth, the torn vinyl sticky underneath them. Jake makes a face at it, sticks his finger into the rip. It makes the hole worse, the yellow foam puffing out. You come here a lot? he asks her, but doesn’t wait for an answer. He’s grinning to himself. This place is a dump.
He lays his forearms on the table, strips the paper from around his napkin, unrolls his fork and knife. His fingers are straight and long, pared-down nails free of dirt. Haley and Jake order. They don’t talk about the New Deal. He tells her that his family moved here a couple years ago, and he still feels like he doesn’t fit in. He tells her he’s always noticed her. He tells her he can’t wait to get out of here, to go to Dartmouth, like his dad. She says she wants to go to college too, get out. He smiles at her then with his perfect teeth. She feels the heat in her stomach, lower.
He pays. Outside the diner, he asks her to Homecoming, just a month away. She says yes. Then he asks her to be his girlfriend. She says yes again, and he kisses her. His lips feel chapped. Rough. She opens her mouth and he breathes into it, repositions his grip on her chin, angles her face closer. She can feel him through his jeans. He releases her and grins, the same grin from earlier. She watches him leave.
Deanna picks her up. Haley rolls the window down because the A/C doesn’t work, lets the hot August air push in over her bare arms. Deanna’s thrilled. Her parents will be relieved she has a boyfriend again. If Deanna drives fast enough, the piles of coal turn into one long line on the side of the road that points towards home. Haley feels as if she can close her eyes.
Haley’s grandpa likes to sit out on the porch of their duplex when it rains. Her mom’s protests are always half-hearted. They moved into the sagging house to take care of her father, stayed when they realized there was nothing they could do. Haley stands inside the screen door, pressing up against it until she can feel the cool, just-wet metal push into her skin. She holds the door open for him, watches him wheel his tank out, bouncing over the ripples in the Astro-Turf-covered porch. His fleece-lined slippers shuffle, so slow Haley grips her fingers into the edge of the screen door, wants to go out to help him, wants to scream. It’s hard to breathe in the heavy damp. The ground has a wet tang of rotting leaves. Everything glistens, slick to the touch.
She watches through the screen as her mother’s father takes his oxygen mask off, holds it dangling from one hand, breathes in with a choking wheeze, body shuddering.
Two weeks before Homecoming, Jake takes her to meet his parents. He lives in a development on the edge of town, Cranberry Estates. No one can imagine why they named it that. The houses are all the same two-story house with neat porches and large front windows on the second floor. The lawns are all the same neatly trimmed rectangle. The streets are smooth and flat gray. No coal here.
The inside of Jake’s house radiates warm beige and pastels. She looks down at her hands for dirt that could betray her. Jake doesn’t notice.
His parents are perfectly nice. They’re gracious. Jake’s mother has prepared a chuck roast for dinner. She keeps serving her, tells her she’s too skinny, so pretty. His dad says that Jake keeps telling them how smart she is. That she’s always one of the only ones raising their hands in class. Aside from him, that is, and they all laugh. They make her feel welcome. She smiles a lot, makes sure her bottom teeth are covered.
Jake drives her home. She kisses him quick, not opening her mouth. She makes an excuse about curfew, heads inside. The living room is dim, smells like mildew, like beer, her mom’s Avon. Like home. Haley sits down on the couch next to her mom, curling her legs up under her, spreading the black of her only dress over herself. Her parents are watching a real-life crime show on TV. During the commercial break, her dad pulls a pack of Camels from his shirt pocket, lights up, puffs out. Haley can feel the cloud of smoke dry in the back of her throat, imagines it yellowing the wallpaper. No one smokes in Jake’s house. Her dad coughs deep in his chest, hawks a long yellowing string into one of the empty beer cans by his side. Her mom closes her eyes, opens them, keeps staring at the infomercial playing on TV.
In gym class Ms. Mihalchek pulls her aside, tells her she should get out. Just like that: you should get out while you can. Ms. Mihalchek is a trim brunette, wears matching sweat suits but tells girls they could do more chin-ups if they really tried. She started teaching yoga last year, the same time she told a junior that she should get an abortion. The girl’s parents called the school and filed a formal complaint. Haley thinks she didn’t lose her job because the principal has a crush on her—all the boys do. She’s seen the writing on the walls. Ms. Mihalchek’s not going anywhere. There’s no one else. She’s been their only new teacher for years. Wrestling gets all the money.
She tells Haley she’s a smart girl, that she has a shot at college. She’d make a good teacher. She also tells Haley that she should work on her attitude a bit more. No one’s going to pass her the ball if she stands there all day with her arms crossed.
The gym echoes oddly. They are standing by the green-painted bleachers. Haley can hear yells, the squeak of sneakers stopping short on the waxed floor.
Haley shrugs. I’ve got plans, she hears herself say.
Ms. Mihalchek nods, keeps looking at her. She doesn’t wear makeup, but she looks like a model anyway. She graduated Minersville High before Haley was born, went to college, came back. She told Haley about this once, told her she wanted to make a difference. She was trying to make a difference. Haley can understand how frustrating this must be to her.
The door to the outside stands open, cool air just reaching Haley. She hopes the girls in class notice Ms. Mihalchek taking time to talk to her; she hopes they don’t. Haley doesn’t say anything, just watches the game until Ms. Mihalchek blows the whistle, shrill and sharp, and jerks her thumb at Haley to get back in. Haley does.
Haley’s room is full of the carved coal she collected before she grew up to feel the weight of it all pressing down on her. She has animals from every year of the county fair until she was eleven. She has a glossy black bear catching fish from a stream, a glossy black eagle, a glossy black mountain lion. They are lacquered to shine, to keep shining.
Some of the old-timers just can’t give the coal up, her grandpa choked out. They go to the piles around town and fill paper grocery bags with hard coal. The old men carve the animals, never anything but animals. They sell them at the fair, rough, knobby hands fumbling the money Haley’s mother hands over. Black cracked into every crease and callous on their hands. Their hands sometimes shaking from the alcohol or the tremors, like her dad’s do now.
Her parents keep no coal on their shelves. Their coal is waiting in her father’s lungs from what his own father brought home from the mines. Haley can hear her parents through the thin walls: sometimes snoring, sometimes fighting, sometimes making love. Constant, though, is the hiss of her grandpa’s oxygen tank from the other side of the duplex, the dust he hacks up.
Jake takes her out to the Culm Banks that weekend, the ground shining flat silver, junk for a mile. They walk. He kicks rocks, plastic bottles, beer cans. You used to play here as a kid? Jake asks her, and she nods. She’s wearing his sweater even though she’s not cold, because he gave it to her. It’s what’s done. She’s sweltering, her armpits prickling with sweat under the mid-September sun. The outline of the moon is rising in the sky. Nearby, there’s a mattress. Beyond that, a TV. Farther out, an old four-wheeler.
But it’s the town dump, he says. He’s smirking, half-smile on his face. She nods. He’s got that look in his eyes, the one she now recognizes, the one that means he wants her. Jake pulls her tight against him, kisses her hard. His mouth is rough, chapped lips on hers. He runs his hand up her arm to grab her breast, the way he thinks she must like it. She kisses him back, presses up against him, shuts her eyes against the zigzagging brights behind her lids. His hot breath on her neck, clean fingers digging into her waistband.
The town still uses the old mining whistle to call noon and six o’clock. Nobody jumps when it goes off. It’s housed in the fire hall now. Haley’s dad’s auto shop is in town, right next to it. He says it’s comforting. He says he hopes someday she can get a job that’s comforting to her. Maybe not something with her hands, he says quickly, because she’s a girl, but something simple. Something that can be finished when the day is over and returned to just as easily the next day. Something hour-by-hour, like her mom, who clerks at the title and tag place. Haley nods, pushes the tools on his work table around. She rubs her hands together, wipes the grease off on her jeans.
When her dad drinks, he says at least being a mechanic gets his hands dirty. Not quite like the mines, but almost. Her dad gets like this some nights, drinks 12-packs of Milwaukee’s Best and drops the cans into a Shur Save grocery bag one by one. Haley’s mom just shakes her head, pushes the chipped black dish of an ashtray along the coffee table to him with one socked foot. She never says anything, never disagrees, just changes the channel to another Lifetime movie. The light is dim, only one lamp turned on. Haley listens to the muted dialogue, the clink of the cans as they pile up in the bag.
She and Jake spend their nights watching movies in his parent’s basement, making out. They’re been dating for three weeks now and Deanna’s surprised they haven’t fucked yet. It’s because you’re a good girl, she tells Haley. Play hard to get, they like that more anyway. Jake’s touched Haley four times so far. It makes her heart pound, her breath get faster. She tells Deanna that she’s gotten to second base, to third. Finally, Deanna squeals, and then, let’s go out to dinner before Homecoming, us couples.
Haley’s mom takes her shopping for a dress the weekend before the dance, driving an hour to get to the Lehigh Valley Mall. She glances in the rear-view, cutting her eyes at Haley. Haley turns the radio on. Her mom turns it down. She takes a deep breath, says, Do you know how to use a condom? And when?
Of course, Haley says, quick, to stop her. She stares out the window, the pot-holed grey road. The birch trees, growing out of the coal piles they pass. They only tree that grows in coal, and grows well.
I just don’t want you to make a mistake, she tells Haley. I don’t want you married straight out of high school with a baby, she says. Haley can see the lines around her mouth from this angle. Her lips pressed thin with age, growing old here.
Besides, he doesn’t want that. He likes me for my brain.
Honey, her mother sighs, then slows down. She looks behind her, pulls off to the shoulder.
He said, Haley says.
Her mother unbuckles her seat belt and turns to Haley. Just think about your future, she says. I talked to Ms. Mihalchek. She says you could go to a good college. You could leave here.
I am, she says. Haley feels lost, in a rut, wheels spinning in the slush and not getting any traction. The leaves on the birch a bright yellow, gold against all the white and black.
You know, I love birch trees, Haley’s mom sighs, facing front again. Your father proposed to me holding a birch branch, with leaves, instead of flowers. Haley’s heard this story before, knows her mother was four months pregnant. You ever wonder why you never had any brothers or sisters? her mom asks.
Haley doesn’t know what to say, shrugs again, looks back out the window. The leaves small, almost invisible against the sky. Infinitesimal is a word from the PSATs. A Ms. Mihalchek word.
At the mall, they get pretzels from Auntie Anne’s and Haley watches the girls with their push-up bras pour into Victoria’s Secret and out again, swinging their pink bags back and forth with pride. In Penney’s, Haley looks at the dresses, sticking to the 70% off clearance rack. She finds only three in her size. She settles on one that her mom says makes her look so grown-up. It’s a sickly gray dress with spaghetti straps and sparkles. It’s too long for her, but it’s on super sale. Her mom tells her it’s perfect; she can hem it. When Haley looks at herself in the mirror she still recognizes herself. Her blonde hair, her hips, the swelling of her breasts in the dress. She looks younger than she feels, playing dress-up. She can feel the satin on her shoulders and she moves, shifts around. She cranes her neck, tries to see herself from the back. She wonders if Jake will like it, if he’ll see her transformed, or the girl the dress makes her feel like she still is.
When she comes home and tries it on for her family in the dim living room, her dad says she looks beautiful. She pulls up the sides of the skirt and walks over to the other half of the duplex, stepping through the thin door. The bare shag carpet tickling the soles of her feet, wheel marks in the pile from her grandpa’s oxygen tank. Her grandpa nods, coughs, says, too, that she looks beautiful. She goes back into her room and takes it off, hanging it on her open closet door so that she can keep an eye on it from her bed.
Jake comes to pick her up for Homecoming in the Jeep his parents got him. He’s wearing a collared shirt, black jeans, a tie. He shakes hands with Haley’s dad and granddad in her living room. They go through the motions. Her dad nods, claps him on the back, tells him you better not lay on a finger on my daughter. I’ve got a .22 with your name on it if you do.
Jake nods, says, Of course not, calls him sir. Her mom hugs her, and Haley can feel her hairsprayed curls crunching between them. When they are out in the car and driving away Jake grins at her, puts his hand on Haley’s thigh, fingering up past the edge of her dress. She slouches towards his hand.
You look beautiful, he tells her. I mean it.
Thanks, she says, and feels something tight in her chest, something she doesn’t recognize. Something hot and hard in her throat. She can’t stop looking at him.
At the dance, Haley’s heels scuff against the gym floor. She takes them off, pressing her sore feet flat against it. Jake tells her that he’d like her to come home with him afterward. She nods her head against his chest. His hands tighten around her hips. After the slow song ends, melds into another one, she pulls away, tells him she needs to pee. He walks her as far as the drinks table.
She makes it to the bathroom, bright green craft paper tacked up onto the walls for the dance. It’s quiet. Her ears ring hollowly. She rubs them, feeling the sweat slick on her face. She pumps a paper towel out of the dispenser, wets it, presses it to her skin. Someone bursts out of the stall to her left and she looks up, looks in the mirror. It’s Deanna.
You excited, she asks, lip gloss flashing against her teeth.
For what, Haley asks. The dance isn’t that great. Her stomach is fluttering.
That’s not what I mean, Deanna says, and winks at her, over-exaggeratedly. It looks like she has a twitch.
Oh, Haley says. That.
Come on, it’ll be fine, Deanna says. Make sure he pulls out if he doesn’t have a condom. Come on, she says again, and grabs Haley, pushing her out the door and down the three steps to the gym.
She drags her over to Jake, standing by the punch bowl. When he sees her, he tosses his red cup in the garbage can, grabs her hand, pulls her out onto the dance floor.
The sparkles from her dress catch the lights. She looks out over Jake’s shoulder and sees Ms. Mihalchek standing near the doorway, arms crossed over her stomach in a black dress. She’s thinner than Haley thought, her shoulders in the dress like a warning. She’s wearing black pumps, much nicer shoes than Haley. Haley looks around and sees every other chaperone on duty there with their husband or wife. Ms. Mihalchek’s half-lit up by the fluorescents from the hallway, watching the kids dance, watching Haley. Haley looks away, won’t meet her eyes.
Haley can feel Jake hard against her, has been feeling him for every song. Everyone’s dancing to hip-hop, hips grinding and bouncing. Now, though, she presses back, harder, with more force, circling her hips a little. It’s easy. She knows what he wants, and she wants it too, she’s telling him. He pushes his thigh between hers, and she pushes back.
When the dance is over, the lights come up and everybody separates, blinking. In the light, Haley looks at Jake, sees the sweat stains under his arms. She thinks about the lines of her mother’s face deepening as she pulled off to the side of the road. She thinks of Ms. Mihalchek, alone at a dance filled with high-schoolers, holding herself in the dark and the noise.
She takes Jake’s hand then, follows him out to the Jeep. She can feel the excitement in the pit of her stomach, between her legs, a wet heat. His hand is on her thigh, between her thighs, as he drives. He pulls over at the Banks. My parents might still be up, he says. You don’t mind, do you? and she says no, of course not.
He grabs a blanket from the back and helps her through the hole in the fence she’s been ducking through since she was a kid. She totters in her heels, catching herself on Jake’s shoulder. He wraps his hand around her waist. She holds up the sides of her dress. She doesn’t want to get it dirty.
He takes her to the old twin mattress. He lays the blanket over it, helps her down. She tries not to touch anything. When he pushes her dress up her thighs, pushes his fingers against her underwear, she can feel the dress spilling over the sides of the mattress, can feel it dragging and knows that she’ll never be able to wear it again. He doesn’t pull out a condom or put it on and she doesn’t say anything, doesn’t tell him about the one in her purse that her mom gave her.
She stays silent.
She’s been told that it’ll hurt, and it does. She digs her fingers into the ground on either side of her, feeling the coal sharp between her fingers. She feels the hot rush, his body shaking, the wet heat inside of her. Afterward, he presses his face into the side of her neck, his slick skin, his wet, open mouth. Everything stings, feels sore, chafed, as Jake’s lips always feel. She can feel him inside her still, shrinking. When she shifts, he seeps out from between her legs, a slow, hot trickle. The ground around her glitters in the moonlight that shines down on the dump, but it’s just old coal. She thinks of telling Deanna, knows how she’ll squeal. She closes her eyes and waits for what she knows must come next.