top of page

MICHELE HERMAN

Michele Herman’s first novel, Save the Village (Regal House, 2022), was a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Prize. She’s also author of two poetry chapbooks from Finishing Line Press: Victory Boulevard (2018) and Just Another Jack: The Private Lives of Nursery Rhymes (2022). In 2023, one of her poems was an honorable mention for the Robinson Jeffers Prize and another was a finalist in the Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry Contest. Her work has appeared in recent issues of Carve, Ploughshares, The Hudson Review, The Sun and many other journals. She's a devoted teacher at The Writers Studio, a developmental editor, a writing coach, an award-winning translator of Jacques Brel songs, and an occasional columnist at The Village Sun and LitHub.




TERRY


It’s not the kind of party you would ordinarily be at, but there you are in Paulette Nash’s small backyard on Melvin Street on the evening of the last day of ninth grade, and your two best friends are nowhere to be found. So you wander, your Dr. Scholl’s warm and smooth and loyally rising with your every step to meet your heels. You wander from the bowls of potato chips and pretzels, already soggy, to the back stairs and then you start a circuit inside the blue-carpeted house to the table, which so far has only bottles of soda, down to the wood-paneled rec room and up and out again to the yard and in the general direction of your friend Randi’s older brother Larry, who is the reason you are here in the first place and who may know where Randi and Lisa are but probably doesn’t but probably wouldn’t make you feel bad for asking. And then when you pass a circle of older kids you don’t know but you somehow do know that they go to the Catholic school, one of them holds out a hand with a lit joint in it and says, you really look like you need a serious toke, and suddenly a bunch of eyes are on you. You’re wearing your favorite top. It’s made of white stretch terry cloth with striped bands on the sleeves and at the waist, and you pull it down to meet the top of your jeans, possibly for the thirtieth time since you got here. Another girl says, “Hey, Terry Cloth—don’t be scared. You look so petrified. All it will do is relax you. Come.”

So you take the joint, a skinny hot little thing in a pink rolling paper. You’ve never smoked anything before. “It’s easy, Terry,” says the leader of the circle of Catholic girls.

“Corrupting minors, again, Beth Ann,” says another girl, and Beth Ann says back, “Well, listen to Mother Superior over here. I’m going to call you Sister Karen from now on.”

And now Beth Ann turns back to you. “Real slow and steady, Terry,” she says in a soothing voice, and you’re concentrating too hard to tell her that Terry is not your name. You put it between your lips. The paper sticks to your lips and you pull them apart hoping the paper won’t tear and your lips won’t tear like paper. The joint feels like a little woodland animal you’re not sure it’s safe to get so close to. But you suck in like a pro, very slowly, and don’t retch or even cough because you are susceptible to the pleasures of doing things well and the pleasures of being seen doing things well and to the agonies of being an amateur, which might be another word for ninth grader. The others laugh and applaud for Terry. The smoke slips down your throat easily until a moment or two later when you feel as if you have come down with strep throat as well as strep lung. But soon the burning dies down or maybe you just stop focusing on it because the group has grown so friendly.


You realize a couple of the kids are public school kids, and they’re okay kids though not the kind who are usually in your subject classes and not the kind who generally talk to you. There’s Francine Keogh, who you know a little from the volleyball unit in gym when you were on the same team for a couple of weeks. But a funny thing is happening; the cliques that always seemed so immovable are rising like the smoke and blowing away somewhere far above Melvin Street. You start to take a second toke but Beth Ann says, “whoa, little dogey. You’ll need to let that one do its work.” So you pass the joint along. It’s getting small so Francine pulls a little metal gadget out of the pocket of her overalls and uses it to hold the joint and you realize you have heard the strange term “roach clip” and had no idea what it might be but now you think you know. The grass, that is the green grass in the yard, is damp. You run your fingers across it like a boy’s flat top and you think it would be funny if boys grew grass instead of hair, like human chia pets.

Someone starts to sing a song you don’t know but know that you should know because the others all know it. You haven’t realized until right now how much energy you usually put into keeping track of Randi and Lisa. Until now you’ve been like a sailor having to keep scanning for land no matter how exhausting the effort.

Now the song changes, but it takes a while for the old one to fade and the new one to catch on. This one you know because it’s on the radio sometimes. You thought it was called “Sweet Judy Blue Eyes” but it’s actually called “Suite Judy Blue Eyes” which you know because Randi’s brother Larry told you and it’s by Crosby Stills Nash and Young, or maybe not Young—sometimes Young and sometimes not Young. Francine takes off her sandals and puts her legs in the circle in front of her. Everyone else does the same. Everyone’s feet are touching. You slip off your Dr. Scholl’s. They come in three colors: red, an off-white that your mother calls bone, and blue, and yours are brand-new blue ones. Some of the kids’ feet are pretty dirty but it’s just earth, you decide. We all come from it and go back to it, so we might as well leave it on our feet.

Now the boys start to come into view even though it’s starting to get dark and everything is going out of view. Funny how the girls caught your attention first. You don’t know any of the boys but you do recognize one of them. He’s friends with a boy you like from afar, have liked all year, one of those boys with hair that goes gold on the ends in the summer and who probably wouldn’t be in any of your classes even if he were in your year and not a junior. He isn’t here, which you know because much of your loop through the house and yard was fueled by yearning for him to materialize and terror that he might. You think the boy who is here, the one with the light brown hair parted in the middle, is named Scott. He’s wearing cutoffs and an old t-shirt that’s frayed around the collar. He’s tucking his hair behind his ear even though it’s already tucked. There are a few people between you and him but you’re not sure if there are three or four, because you can’t remember whether to include yourself in the tally. The song is petering out because no one knows what to do during the long guitar parts. The joint comes around and you manage another suck on it and pass it along for Beth Ann to stub out. Everyone starts to meander. Some just stay in the grass but in new, smaller configurations. You get on your knees. There’s a space next to the boy in the cutoffs and you walk on your knees to it. There’s also a bowl of potato chips there so it makes sense, what you’re doing. The next thing makes even more sense.

This boy who may be named Scott leans his body in your direction. He doesn’t smile or say anything. He just reaches his face toward yours. You feel the ends of his hair on your cheek. You feel his lips on your lips. You seem to know exactly what to do. His breath tastes just like yours, smoke and salt. His lips are on yours but it’s funny that what you feel you feel in a whole different part of your body. Blood is pounding between your legs and you think that it’s the most delicious thing you’ve ever felt. How can no one have told you about this? You want desperately to put your fist down there like the way you know you want to scratch a mosquito bite without knowing why. Suddenly Scott’s tongue appears inside your mouth and this is another thing you didn’t know about, though in fourth grade you and Randi occasionally touched each other’s tongues for a second and then laughed and said eeww at the same instant. It has become nighttime.

Now he stands up and reaches a hand out to you to stand up too. He picks you up. You feel his feet shift as he rebalances with the new weight of you in his arms. He walks you to the back door of the house and pushes the screen door with his rear end. You already know that Paulette doesn’t have a father, which because Paulette is known for being funny doesn’t seem as sad as it would otherwise, but now it occurs to you that you haven’t seen her mother. He carries you up the half-flight of steps to the bedrooms. You feel like a character in a fairy tale or else one on a medical drama. The staircase is narrow and carpeted in thick carpeting that seems to be frosted with light-blue snow. He takes you into Paulette’s room, which is also narrow and where the blue carpeting continues, and sets you down gently on the floor. You feel the stiff carpet on the backs of your arms and your heels. You realize you have left your Dr. Scholl’s on the damp grass.

He moans and puts a hand on your breast, which is inside your bra, which is the new stretchy Danskin kind, size 32. You sort of know that boys do this but you never thought they would do it to you. Or you thought there would be years of time to get ready if one ever did do it to you. No one but you has ever touched this breast, or the other one. You haven’t imagined this far though you have imagined part of the way here. You have looked at yourself in the mirror while cupping them in your hand and pushing them together to make them look much bigger than they are though you have also sometimes wished they wouldn’t change at all. Now Scott, without saying a word, is lifting up your terry top and pulling up your bra and he leans over and puts his hot mouth on your breast and sucks on it and you feel like laughing out loud but you just moan softly. And then he does the exact same thing you do in the mirror and then does something you can’t, which is to lick the place where they meet. You feel his hot tongue on both breasts at the same time. You smell earth and potatoes.

You want him to put his lips back on your lips. But this is not what happens. He fumbles at his belt. You hear one metal piece clang another. What happens is that he is pushing gently on the top of your head. You do not understand at first what he is telling you or asking of you. But then he finishes fumbling and pulls down his cutoffs. You have heard the word boner. You have turned it over in your mind trying to understand it. The only penis you’ve seen belonged to a toddler named Kenny you babysat for last summer. It was small and pink and cheerful as a chew toy. It was nothing like what you see now. Hair like shredded wheat or a bird’s nest but where the ounce of bird should be is this enormous veined object that reaches practically to his navel. Something you might accidentally uncover under a pile of dead oak leaves in the woods and quickly cover back up and run home to wash your hands of though your hands never touched it. You put two and two together; you’re a smart girl. You’re shocked and horrified that no one told you this is how it works. This huge three-dimensional arrow of flesh and blood and whatever else is in there can’t be this size all the time. So it must grow and shrink back to normal size. He’s pushing on your head again. He speaks. Oh, please, suck me, he says. And though your head is horrified and shocked your body is having a whole different experience, again the feeling like you need to reach your whole hand and arm down and move it rapidly and you figure this must be what he’s feeling too, except that he’s grown this giant forest mushroom. He’s pushing harder. His thighs feel hard and straight and hairy, like even bigger versions of it. He is pushing it up against your face. He’s moving it back and forth to get your mouth to open on it. It’s very hard. But it’s very soft at the same time and the thin layer of skin that covers it slides readily. And now he’s pushing it in your mouth. Your tongue has never had to share its space with anything but a retainer before and it’s not sure where to go. He moans very deeply. He moves up and down.

You gag. You can’t do this. You remove your mouth, which feels it has been stretched like a too-tight new shoe and you turn your face so you’re looking at Paulette’s small wooden desk. A copy of A Separate Peace is sitting on the wooden chair. You try to get up. He isn’t using any force but he’s still on top of you with a leg on either side of you and he’s heavy. You crane your neck to try to see the door. You are afraid it’s open. You are afraid it’s closed. You remember all the people at the party. You have to get out of here fast and somehow find the bathroom and turn back into yourself.

And then you hear a stern female voice, a voice that sounds girlish but isn’t, and it’s calling Paulette’s name. It’s furious. All in one motion maybe-Scott rolls off you and lifts his rear in the air to get his shorts back on and stands up and bolts through the door, which was mostly closed. You hear the clanging of his belt again and feel the disturbance in the air. Now the door opens. It sounds just like the door of your own bedroom a mile or so away, a hollow door that catches on the fibers of the carpet. You close your mouth and push your lips together hoping to return them to their rightful size. You stand up so fast you’re afraid you might faint. You pull your top down.

Paulette’s mother is a small woman, almost dwarf-like. She’s holding a paper bag that says A&P. She’s wearing a dark A-line skirt and a yellow sleeveless blouse. She’s wearing white sandals with two buckles on each one. You know her a little because once she worked with your mother on a project when you were in junior high, a raffle or a bake sale. You swallow and it burns. You didn’t know that growing up would be so hard on the mouth and throat. She drops the bag and stands in the doorway with her hands just hanging there. She has a lot of birth marks. You know the room stinks of pot. You know your hair is a mess. You feel that your lips are growing more swollen, not less. They must be red like Halloween wax lips. You’re sure they are growing visibly.

You stand there feeling too dumb to talk or move. You’re afraid to look Mrs. Nash in the eye. The back of your neck is starting to ache as if the strep is spreading outward.

She calls you by your first and last name. You nod without looking up. You burst into tears. The crying feels very wet considering how parched your mouth is. Snot is pouring out of your nostrils.

She pulls out the desk chair and sits down. Then, because the room is so narrow, she reaches out a hand and pats Paulette’s bed. “Come sit here,” she says. “Here, hon,” she says, handing you a Kleenex. You are not sure which is worse: what happened a minute ago or what is happening now or what might happen next, even though what is happening now is not as bad as you feared it might be a second ago. You had forgotten all about having parents, but now you see their earnest eyes behind their big glasses and want to get on the floor and beg Mrs. Nash not to call them.

She pauses for a moment as if she’s just stepped to a podium to give a speech. “You know Paulette’s big brother Cal?” she asks. You nod, although all you really know is that Paulette has a big brother who is also supposed to be funny like Paulette. You don’t know why it’s important for you to know Cal.

She pauses. “Never mind,” she says; apparently it’s not important for you to know Cal after all. “Let’s just say that things happen and that sometimes girls want them to happen and sometimes they let them happen and sometimes they try to prevent them from happening.” You don’t know if she’s talking about something Cal did or something someone did to her to make Cal.

She shakes her head. “People don’t talk about these things in this town, in most towns, but the point is, they happen. They happen all the time.”

You want to talk now. You start to say “I” but it breaks apart into pieces. It sounds like the way boys used to imitate machine-gun fire in the schoolyard at recess. “Bonsai, you die!” they would scream. You are shaking.

She asks you for the name of the boy who slipped past. “I don’t know,” you say. “Maybe Scott.”

She asks you who you came with and though you’re not sure why she wants to know, you decide you should tell her.

She takes your hands and looks you straight in the eyes. “You will never, ever let a boy do something to you that you don’t want him to do,” she says. “You are not that kind of girl. You will be smart and you will be careful, hear? Now, you go to the bathroom and wash up. I have to call your parents. I don’t know what happened or didn’t happen here, so I won’t be specific, but I will call them.”

You go to the bathroom, which has pink tiles and pink fixtures, but not quite the same shade of pink. There’s a round sink with a chrome ring around the edge that hasn’t been cleaned well. You fill your mouth with water and swish it around and spit it out. You do this six times until all you taste is the chlorine in the town water and it burns when you swallow. You bring water to your face and rinse off everything that has touched it – including, among other things, smoke and potato chip grease and the Bonne Bell blush you rubbed on your cheeks a hundred years ago this afternoon. You look in the mirror and see a girl who’s had an off night. You see a girl who isn’t going to turn back now. You see a little bit of Beth Ann and like it. You see a woman. You see your little sister Pam with her ponytail bouncing in its ponytail holder. You see your nice best friends.

You yearn for Randi and Lisa but you hear Mrs. Nash breaking up the party in a loud voice and sending everyone home, and you realize that she is going to tell Larry, Randi’s brother, not to wait for you in his Chevy Impala as you are going to have to wait for your parents with Mrs. Nash and Paulette because you can’t hide here or in Paulette’s room.


It turns out you were right, his name is Scott, and every time you pass in the hall he will pretend not to know you or maybe he actually doesn’t know you. Lisa, who is half a year older than you and Randi, will get her license and take you both for a drive and when “Maggie May” comes on the radio you will roll down all the windows and belt it as you always do and no one will ever know or care what happened or didn’t happen on the last day of ninth grade, least of all you, though you will look the other way when passing Melvin Street.

You will sign up for AP Chemistry and The Tragedies of Shakespeare. You will be the first in your class to buy a college guide and you will earmark the schools designated not “highly competitive +” but “most competitive.” You will turn tough like Beth Ann, with a husky laugh and the kinds of pleasures that come fast and leave a residue, the pleasures of many beers and of biting into a bag of Lay’s and then smoking some pot to mellow it all out. You will make jokes about hangovers. All summer you will lie in the sun as usual, but now you will feel it as an actual weight on your body, the weight of maybe-Scott pressing upon you, his muscled man’s arms propped, hands on either side of your shoulders, his hot breath on your neck, his tongue in your mouth, his boner pushing its way inside your bikini bottom searching for the soft opening. Before long you won’t even know Randi and Lisa anymore.

Or you won’t know Randi and Lisa anymore, but you will lose them in a stranger, murkier way than being pulled into another crowd. The pull will come from inside a stranger place in yourself, dark and private, where peers and parents and teachers can’t reach.

You will forget all about it, but blame yourself for many things that may not be your fault. You will forget all about it, but on quiet nights you will drive to dive bars and pick up guys. You will remember every moment and imagine knocking on the door of Scott’s house and slapping him across the face in front of his parents. You will remember every moment, and think as much about Mrs. Nash as about him, and when you think about Mrs. Nash you will feel repulsed and you will wish she had been less euphemistic and you will feel she saved your life and you will tell yourself to write her a long thank-you letter.

This is where you go wrong. You become overly cheerful. You become a nymphomaniac. You become a user. You become cautious. Your grades slip. You become a weird Yale-bound bookworm. Things go right for you and you move on to tender sex with a boy you trust and love.

Years later you hear college students talking about their rapes in the name of demanding warnings about assigned readings that might reawaken the trauma and you think, for God’s sake suck it up like the rest of us. Years later you finally make it to college after you escape an abusive marriage to someone very much like Scott and you finally get yourself clean and earn a BA and then a master’s and you become a famous advocate for teenage girls who, in some convoluted post-feminist millennial way, perform fellatio readily in the back seats of bar mitzvah buses.  

Who are you, anyway? You could be anyone.






Comments


bottom of page