“Joni, he’s looking at you!” hissed an excited voice in Joni’s ear. Joni tipped her head back and downed the rest of her beer in one smooth gulp. When she came up, the voice was chirping excitedly, “He’s coming over here!” And the voice had a body, whose hands were gripping Joni’s forearm tightly.
“Let go, Marie,” Joni said, not taking her eyes off of the television across the room to their left, where she’d chosen to train her eyes for the moment. There were bodies crowding around the big living room with the beige carpet, which was slowly morphing into something dull and browned with spilt beer and mud. The music was pounding, a heavy blend of electronic and rock, mixing together in a nonsense way that meant someone didn’t download their MP3s right. “He won’t come over here if you’re grabbing me like that. God, he already knows we’re in the GSA together.” Marie immediately dropped her hands and there was a boy’s voice at Joni’s ear: it was Chris’s deep voice, his breath brushing against her neck.
“Joni. Wanna play beer pong with me and the guys?” She kept her eyes on the TV, focusing on the dull greens and whites and digital numbers of a football game. She nodded, still looking away from him, until he placed himself in front of her. She glanced at his soft blue eyes, the frizzy brown hair, the plush thin lips, and smiled.
“Love too. How about Marie?” She turned to look at her friend, but realized that she’d gone. “Just as well,” She said, “she was starting to get on my nerves.” Chris took her to the table where they proceeded to play three rounds of beer pong in which they won zero and stumbled from the house drunker than a hamster dunked in vodka.
Chris stumbled over to his car and Joni followed. The slid down against the outside of the door, giggling together. “Man, did you see Charlotte when that full cup tipped all down her dress? She was SO pissed!” Chris said.
“Oh no, not the best. When Rick pushed Tessa and he fell over, that was awesome. Tessa totally sat on him.”
“I didn’t see that,” He said. After a few minutes they stopped giggling and sat there in buzzing quiet. Joni focused on the numbness in her fingertips and practiced humming in her head. It felt nice to get lost in it. “Joni?” He said.
“Hm?” She noised, turning to face him a little.
“Will you ever take me on Wolf’s Workout?” He asked. Joni laughed. “What’s funny?”
“Why would you want to?”
“All the guys say that’s where you…you know.”
“What?” Her eyes were wide now, his voice felt closer than it had in a while.
He made a motion with his thumb in his mouth, tongue pushing out.
Joni looked away. “It’s called a rumor, Chris. You don’t wanna go. It’s not that, but it’s a secret.”
“Take me? They say it’s eye-opening. I’ll learn something, right?” He looked entirely too excited, meaning that he knew learning would be in the sexual department. Or thought he knew, anyway. “Are you doing anything tomorrow?” He asked.
“Saturday morning cartoons,” she said. “And I’m working on a new outfit.”
“Take me tomorrow?” he took her hand and, begging, said “Please?”
Joni sighed. “If you don’t make it through, we don’t make it. You have to get that.” Chris just looked confused, his wild hair shining with grease now. “But since you asked, there’s no turning back now. My house at noon tomorrow, I’ll take you there. It won’t be fun.” She stood up sloshily and tipped to the side a little before straightening herself up. “Later.”
Joni lie in bed, eyes open, trying to prepare herself for the day ahead. The boy was sure to fail, which was pretty awful, since it meant she’d have to move on. It was too quick, the relationships were meant to last longer, go more slowly than this. But alas, she had no choice. The boy had placed the question before her, and like a free dessert, the offer could not be passed up.
She swung her legs out of bed and went to the closet, where she picked out a pair of slightly baggy camouflage pants and a tight green shirt with long sleeves. She put on a darker green baseball cap for added measure, hiding her thick brown hair high in the cap. She began to hope that the boy would forget about their plan; he’d been drunk enough for that to be a possibility. But when she heard the doorbell ring, she knew it was going to happen. The jock better pass, but more likely he wouldn’t, and the he would never be hers.
“Joanne!” Her mother called, “A boy’s here for you!” Joni cringed, embarrassed by the name her mother called her, completely ignoring Joni’s pleas to be called by her shortened name.
She came into the living room to find Chris standing in front of the door in nothing less than a suit: a suit, blue, complete with a black and gold striped tie, and with glossy black shoes on his feet. He looked uncomfortable, shifting his feet and looking down at the floor, while her mother stood there staring at him, her arms folded across her chest. “Joanne, do you have a date?” She asked, and looked over at her daughter. Her mouth fell open, her eyes widened, and her arms fell to her sides. “I…” She tried, faltering. “I’m not even going to try,” she said, admitting defeat and leaving the room. Probably off to play some more piano, Joni decided, rolling her eyes.
She focused back on Chris. “What the fuck are you wearing?” She demanded to know.
“Um…” he mumbled. “I just wanted to look nice?” He said.
“Oh please! I’ve never seen you dressed up, what is this?”
“They say to dress nice…or I’ll lose.” He looked straight at her then, and she saw longing in his eyes.
Joni tried not to laugh. “You trust too easily,” she said. “But let’s go. We’ll see how long you last in that.”
Joni took him outside to the woods. He followed her between a small space between a thick oak tree and a rusty metal fence. He stumbled over loose stones and jutting roots as they half-walked, half-crouched through thick bushes. To their right was appeared to be an abandoned yard, with the burnt skeleton of an old house hidden away inside the fence; to their left was a drop-off of about thirty feet. Chris stuck close to the fence, ready to cling to it for dear life should one of the dangerous objects underfoot come truly loose.
“I come out here all the time,” Joni said from somewhere ahead, “every morning, and I used to come every night, too. I can get through this place with my eyes closed.” If he could have caught up to her, Chris would have noticed that Joni moved like a soldier avoiding landmines like she had put them there; she slid around the most dangerous rocks, slid under branches that she knew were too fragile to climb over, she only bent down at places where Chris would crawl on his hands and knees.
Chris was currently at one of those places that necessitated crawling in this way, and he could feel the knees of his nice pants beginning to chafe, and he could just imagine the thick patches of dirt that would stain them there and elsewhere, like on his butt when he slipped on an old wire sticking out of the ground and landed on his butt to avoid falling off the cliff. He felt his shoes scuff, and knew they would be dull and impossible to repair after this journey. His tie kept getting caught in snarling pricker bushes and in stray threads from the dead fence.
Finally, after what felt like an eternity, he came to a standing place and stood as straight as he could. “J-Joni?” He asked, looking to the left and to the right. At the bottom of the cliff, past a thick stand of trees, there was a market basket or stop and shop—it was down there, where no one could see them. At the bottom was a river, spotted with rocks jagged like his grandfather’s teeth. The non-existent path had turned to the right, and here the fence disappeared; in its place, against where the fence should have been was a thick slab of concrete, about five feet tall, three feet thick, and ten feet across. Vines snaked around it, and some burst through cracks in its face, but it was a dangerous thing, for the ground in front of it was nearly gone, meaning that he would need to grab onto the vines and just hope that the concrete didn’t press wrong against the little bit of earth left under it and send him to his death…
“I’m over here, Chris.” He looked up and, sure enough, there was Joni—standing on the other end of the concrete slab. “What’s wrong?” She asked, looking at his face, which had drained of color. “You can make it past this! All the boys do!”
“I don’t think you’re worth this,” he said. Joni had been smiling, but now she wasn’t.
“Worth what?” She asked, her eyes suddenly fierce.
“My life!” He said, pointing to the drop below, “I won’t risk my life just to play your stupid game. Nothing you offer me can be worth this…” He started to turn around.
“Chris!” She said, and he paused, “Turn around and you’ll never be with me.” Seeing that this had no effect on him, she decided to try enticing his curiosity, “You’ll never see what’s back her—the thing I keep so secret. No one’s seen it.” He walked away.
Joni slid down against the fence and put her face in her hands. She sobbed, wandering why she needed so badly for someone to see her secret. And why it needed to be out here.