Joanna is fourteen going on twenty-one that’s why it’s ok to be bad. Allie is bad too and so is Ursula. Joanna doesn’t know if Z is good or not. Joanna does know that her parents are good though. She knows that they love her because they say so. They believe saving the world is the most important thing there is. Allie’s mom is another story. She wants to “talk privately” to her daughter’s friends and says stuff like, “Are you ok? You can talk to me.” Which of course Joanna can’t and won’t. Allie’s mom makes Joanna mad.
It’s summer of 1979 and Philadelphia is sweltering. Even nighttime is hot. Joanna pictures her parents in bed with the windows open. Her house doesn’t have air conditioning so it’s like an oven. Joanna is out with her friends waiting in line for Rocky Horror Picture Show. The movie should be rated X instead of R thinks Joanna. She’s glad they never check ID. Joanna is wide-awake even though it is almost midnight. Next to her is Allie who is tall with legs like a flamingo. She wears feather earrings and a friendship bracelet Joanna made for her. Allie flips her hair pulling her t-shirt off her chest unsuccessfully. It has become impossible to hide her boobs. Allie’s breasts grew into ripe fruit suddenly. Now boys always want to talk to Allie. She also got her period and carries tampons in her purse. Joanna sometimes puts in a tampon just for practice.
Allie’s shirt clings back stubbornly, she submits with a sigh. Joanna wishes she was big too. Her breasts are like hard apricots. At least she’s skinny and without a big nose. She pats down her frizzy hair. Joanna knows big hair isn’t pretty. The third girl is Ursula, standing with her hip curved away. Joanna doesn’t really know Ursula because she moved from New Mexico last year. Her jacket is suede with lots of fringes. She says it’s her mother’s. Ursula bends to tie her shoelace, giving Joanna an accidental view down the back of her jeans. Joanna can’t not look. Ursula isn’t wearing any panties.
The concrete is still radiating the August heat. Joanna’s toes are moist against the plastic straps of her jellies. She can’t wait to go inside the theatre where it will be dark and cooler. Ursula says she’s quitting school, which Joanna heard is illegal. Joanna hopes they are not the youngest ones in line. Two boys from class, David and Brian, don’t show up.
The Theatre of the Living Arts, is older than Joanna’s grandparents. Inside there are black and white photos between the velvet paisley wallpaper. One shows a pretty lady smoking in a flapper dress. She stands in front of a sign that reads The Crystal Palace. Joanna likes her beaded headband and long eyelashes. The small balconies with hand carved fronts are the expensive seats. It smells a bit moldy and the carpet is peeling. The floor seating is mostly empty. Joanna points to a spot in the middle away from strangers. This is her third time.
Ursula pulls out some whippets and a dispenser. “It’s nitrous, you know laughing gas like the dentist’s.” The canisters look like oversized bullets. The girls take turns each inhaling one. Joanna isn’t laughing but floats out of her body before the effect wears off thirty seconds later. She drops the empty canister, it rolls down hitting the front wall clinking softly. She does two more canisters and asks for a third but they are all used up.
Right away heavy velvet curtains swing apart as the short before Rocky Horror begins. Meatloaf, the singer, is trying to get it on with a pretty woman in a car to the song Paradise by the Dashboard Light. Joanna knows all the words. The actress on the screen is slowly taking her clothes off.
Rocky Horror comes on. Brad and Janet are screwing Dr. Frankenfurter secretly and watching each other on a TV. They are doing it in a canopy bed. Joanna’s legs sweat against her seat. She rests her head on the upholstered chair and lets her hair fall over the back. She forgets about her friends, imagining that she is Janet.
After the movie the girls go to buy Red Vines because those aren’t fattening. “I did it with David,” says Ursula. She doesn’t say if he is her first. Ursula isn’t anything special so why does David like her? Joanna wonders. How long did they do it for and was David on top? Has Ursula fucked a lot of boys? What a whore, thinks Joanna. She is pretty sure David was a virgin. Why didn’t Ursula tell Joanna before she did it with David? Allie didn’t know either. Joanna has never touched a penis before and she knows Allie also hasn’t. They did look through Allie’s mom’s Playboys but the pictures were only of girls naked.
“I’m a Rebirther now.” Ursula proclaims. She tells Joanna and Allie that Rebirthing is a new therapy, a very important one, one where people reenact being born. She calls it their Birth Trauma. “My mom introduces me as her sister.” Ursula adds.
“For real??” Joanna knows Ursula is only fifteen and she’s sure everyone else can tell too.
“Are they naked when they do it?” Asks Allie.
“Yeah,” says Ursula. “And they cry and stuff so we help them.”
“You’re weird,” says Joanna. Ursula keeps talking.
“They tell us their problems while they put their heads in our laps. I had six people last time. ”
“Were they men?” says Allie.
“Four, but I’m not supposed to tell anyone.” Ursula whispers like it’s top-secret information.
Joanna and Allie exchange a look. Neither can imagine Ursula holding naked men who are crying. Ursula’s mom is very strange, and sometimes there isn’t food at Ursula’s house. Another time Ursula had three one hundred dollar bills. She told them that her parents screw other people but they are staying married. Joanna resists the image of her own parents doing it. Ursula’s parents live apart and her father is a writer or something.
They get the Vines and step outside onto the muggy sidewalk. Removing a paper from the Job pack, Joanna sits and rolls a joint on her knee. It comes out loose but seals and the paper burns back before the pot fully catches. The joint is harsh and the girls cough but keep smoking on the stoop. The marble steps are comfortably cool and worn. They pool money and someone buys them a quart of Colt 45. Slugging from a paper bag, Allie plays with Joanna’s hair trying to flatten it. “Maybe you should go for an updo,” she says and all three burst out laughing.
A guy they met last Saturday invites them to a party above the thrift shop. The girls follow him over. It’s crowded inside. No one cares how old they are. A mattress that is someone’s bed is against the window. Joanna looks around but can’t tell whose place it is. Four guys are playing bluegrass on wobbly chairs. The floor is sticky under Joanna’s shoes. A purple bong is being passed around. “Hi, I’m Z,” says a guy as he hands Joanna beer in a Styrofoam cup. He flashes a curious smile. His face is boyish and his hair moppy. He’s the same height as Joanna and looks her straight in the eye. She’s sure he is older than high school.
“Thank you.” Looking around for her friends, Joanna takes the drink. She sees Allie, but no Ursula. Allie looks from Joanna to Z and the beer. Then Allie prances into the kitchen where the keg is.
Z moves into the music circle and plays the banjo like it’s a part of him. He is the shortest guy in the group, but Joanna doesn’t care about that. The guys jam and their feet pound the floor. They are doing Bad Bad Leroy Brown. Joanna sits on the mattress with her knees against a cluttered coffee table. Soon the music stops and Z finds her. He scoots in, tossing his banjo on the pillows. Their legs touch. He’s holding a pretty cigar box. Inside Joanna sees a film canister and baggy of weed. From the canister he taps out a little hill of white powder. Z cuts two neat lines with a razor blade onto a mirror with a dragonfly printed on the handle. Deftly he rolls up a dollar and sticks it up his nose. He snorts the whole line, holding his thumb over his other nostril. Joanna hears him sniff in the last bit. “Coke?” He offers. Joanna uses the rolled dollar and tries to imitate the banjo player. But she can’t, it burns.
“Breathe lighter,” he tells her gently. She does and then whole line is gone, sucked into her somewhere. Z makes one more line and snorts that too. Joanna doesn’t feel high just very awake. The rest of the party passes on fast-forward.
At three thirty in the morning the girls walk sixteen city blocks to Ursula’s dad’s apartment. He’s not there. They smoke more pot and eat SpaghettiOs. Joanna tries on Ursula’s platform boots and Allie laces them up for her. A cockroach crawls out of the bathroom and Ursula crushes it with a cooking pan that she throws into the trash. All three fall asleep on the bed. Allie’s leg wanders onto Joanna’s hip and they lay close.
Thursday Joanna’s phone rings and it’s Z. She doesn’t ask how he got her number. “Remember me from the party?” he says. “Is it ok that I’m calling you? I think your pretty.” He is the first guy ever to say that to her.
“Um...yeah. How are you?” She feels awkward, but Z doesn’t notice.
“I’m good. Do you want to get something to eat with me?”
Soon they are having gyros on South Street. He buys Joanna’s and pays with his own credit card. Z talks a lot. He points to his apartment, the one with the blue windowsills. He tells Joanna that he used to be a professional jockey. He even won some trophies before he got thrown off and the horse fell on him. He broke his back and spent a year in a body cast and missed junior year of high school. In the hospital he got hooked on morphine. But that’s all over, he says. Z sucks soda up his straw, “How old are you?”
“Seventeen.” Even though it is a lie, it feels like the truth. Z doesn’t react at all. He tells her that he is twenty-two.
“I love these.” He takes a big bite of the pocket sandwich. Joanna nibbles, trying not to chew with her mouth open.
“Come here, Joanna.” Z leans in and kisses her. It tastes like gyro but still the kiss is delicious. Z touches Joanna’s thigh under the table. She shivers. In a moment Joanna says she has to go. Practically skipping home, she can’t wait to see him again.
Friday night Ursula’s mom is having a party and invites the girls. From a small cellophane envelope Ursula pulls out a thick square of blotter paper with a cobalt splash on it. “It’s Window Pane,” She tells them.
“Uh huh.” Ursula grins.
“It’s probably not going to work,” says Joanna as Ursula cuts the tiny paper into three pieces. She makes sure each has some of the blue dot.
“How much was it?” Asks Allie.
“Where’d you get it?”
“From a guy.”
Joanna’s shred is smaller than a peppercorn and she hopes it goes all the way down. After a few minutes Joanna observes herself at the party. She is entering the kitchen with her friends. The girls eat potato chips out of a top hat. The chips become increasingly sharp until chewing is hazardous. They snap in Joanna’s mouth like plastic. Joanna gets water from the sink. She notices the rainbow inside the glass. The rainbow is dry like feathers as she swallows it. Ursula’s mom has changed into a metal bikini. Joanna hopes there isn’t going to be any Rebirthing going on.
The apartment is small and the people are talking too loud. “Lets get otta here,” says Joanna. Allie wants to leave too and Ursula agrees. Allie’s mom is away with somebody all night so they go there. David and Brian show up. The boys are both half black and half Jewish, but don’t look anything alike. Tall, David is six foot and light skinned. Brian is small like Michael Jackson with a close fro that he lets Allie pick. Ursula goes upstairs with David. Allie and Brian are on the sofa. They sit close and Allie is talking into his face.
Joanna does a headstand on the Oriental rug. Now Allie and Brian are on the ceiling. The hanging lamp cord is a stalk, the fixture a glass flower with living petals that move. The flower loves her. She grows into a butterfly with orange wings. The flower’s petals turn orange too, then aqua and gold. The colors are delicious so Joanna drinks them in with her breath. The rug becomes the sky, rippling in a circle with Joanna’s head in the center. Everything is perfect. Then Gravity undoes the headstand. Joanna rests in child’s pose on the floor. Allie and Brian have snuck off somewhere and Joanna doesn’t care at all.
“See you.” says Joanna to the empty room and Allie’s front door clicks behind her. It’s a dark night but she sees everything. Joanna isn’t one bit scared. The streets undulate but she knows the way. There are some people who talk to her then walk on.
Joanna walks to Z’s apartment and boldly knocks on the door. He welcomes her even though it’s almost two in the morning. His roommate Jerry is there and looks her over top down. He asks if she’s on acid and Joanna just nods. Z has a small kitchen and living room, a sofa and matching chair. She can tell that the milky way from the lamp isn’t real. Z’s place is normal except there’s no parents. Jerry and Z suggest a hot shower like it’s a consensus. She watches the imprints their movements generate. In the bathroom the hot water slides over her. After, they smoke lots of pot but Joanna feels nothing. Jerry goes to bed and Z holds her on the sofa. He puts his hand up her shirt under her bra and lets it rest there. He falls asleep like that. Joanna wants to go home. Carefully she untangles herself and slips outside. She arrives just before her parents wake for work and plops into bed like she’s been there all night. Still awake at eight thirty in the morning Joanna calls Allie. She watches the white trails of her finger as the rotary drags it back after each number.
“Hey,” Joanna starts in without a pause. “Is Brian still there?”
“Nah he left. Did you go home?”
“I slept at Z’s last night.”
“Did you do it?!” Asks Allie.
“No… I was too wasted. Have you gone to sleep yet?”
Finally Joanna sleeps. She wakes just as her mom comes home from work. Soon her Dad is home too. Dinner is cooking and she comes down to a set table. Joanna inhales brown rice and beans as her parents talk.
“We could have all died,” says her mom. Both parents glance at Joanna to see if she will join the conversation. They want her opinion and Joanna has one, she’s just not sure what it is. They pause unnaturally. She knows how important their words are and she wants to say the right thing but she can’t yank it up. Instead she chews a mouthful of the sturdy rice even though she’s full. She can feel it migrating down into her gut. The LSD has made her skin feel loose. She notices that her mother has a line between her eyebrows so she looks away.
“It’s still leaking,” her dad says finally.
“Scary,” says Joanna’s mother, stretching her lips. “A lot of workers were exposed.”
“We are exposed. Negligent jerks!” Joanna knows her dad is right. He’s always right. Her parents have managed to have the conversation without her. Did they forget that she’s here? “And Hershey’s Chocolate is right next to Three Mile Island. It’s definitely radiated.” Joanna perks up at her Dad’s mention of chocolate.
“Why do they call it Three Mile Island?” Joanna asks.
“Good question.” Her father is grateful for her participation. “Maybe it’s on a three mile island.” He states the obvious, but he’s humble about it. Like a big teddy bear his attention warms Joanna like a blanket. She wants to cuddle on the sofa like they used to before the world was big.
“I hope we can still eat the chocolate,” adds Joanna.
“This one’s not radiated,” Her mom gets a jumbo Hershey’s bar and cracks it into squares. It melts heavenly on Joanna’s tongue. Nobody says anything else. Without being asked , Joanna does the dishes.
Later Z calls and invites Joanna over again. This time he takes her into Jerry’s room to a real bed. It’s soft and there is a family photo on the wall. The quilt has hummingbirds on it. Z pulls down the covers and pats the bed. Joanna lies down on her side and waits. Z frenches her and takes off her shirt, then her bra. He looks in her eyes as he caresses her nipples, skin to skin. Then he unbuttons her Levis. Joanna chokes out that she is a virgin. He says he knows. He pulls off the jeans and her panties. She is naked but doesn’t feel shy. He puts on a condom from a gold packet. Then Z moves over her and pushes his way in. “You ok? Does it hurt?”
It does, but not too bad so she says, “A little.” After another minute his eyes close. Joanna stares at the ceiling as he bounces her on the bed. The ceiling is made of perfect white squares. There are eighteen in a line above her. So this is it. Finally she wont be a virgin anymore.
Ah,ah,ahh he says faster and louder before collapsing on her. Then he flips over gently, pulling her onto his chest. He is sweaty and Joanna hears his heart beating rapidly. “You ok?” he asks again.
“Uh huh.” Joanna says nothing more. In a few minutes she goes into bathroom and cleans up. “I gotta go.”
“I’ll call you.” He leans up and kisses her, but stays in Jerry’s bed. Joanna goes home and sleeps buried deep in her covers.
The next morning is Sunday. Joanna walks the nineteen blocks to Allie’s house. Philadelphia is waking up. The sweltering sun is only warm so far. Up above the skyscrapers shimmer in the early light. A homeless woman sits on a big piece of cardboard in front of the flower shop whose baskets overflow with sunflowers and roses. At a café window people line up for coffee. Some smile and nod at Joanna as she passes.
The door is unlocked so Joanna slips in. She goes to Allie’s room and sits by the open window hoping for a breeze. There is a fly buzzing against the screen. Joanna releases the screen and the fly disappears. Her friend is seated on an old office chair in front of a vanity she has outgrown. She is curling her hair. “My mom’s not here,” Allie says in the mirror to Joanna.
“Where is she?”
“Donno, probably fucking some guy.” She puts the iron down and opens a tea tin. Joanna recognizes the Thai Stick they smoked last week. Breaking it apart carefully, Allie rolls a perfect joint.
“You’re like a professional,” Joanna says.
“Shit.” Allie grinds the wheel on the lighter, and shakes it hard. Finally she gets a flame and lights the end. “Sometimes I hear her.”
“Hear her what?”
“Fucking!” Allie wheels around yelling at Joanna. The outburst wings through the room leaving a torn wake. Allie turns away and puts on cherry lipstick. She puffs nonchalantly, holding the joint between her pointer and middle finger like Madonna. It has a red tip from the lipstick. She doesn’t offer any to her friend.
Then Joanna shouts, “Bitch, what’s your problem?” It’s not her fault Allie’s mom is a slut. Then she says, “Just kidding.” Joanna laughs uncomfortably before bragging, “I’m not a virgin anymore.”
“Oh really?” says Allie sarcastically.
“Yeah really!” Joanna yells. Allie turns toward the mirror and Joanna notices that her friend is crying. Her heart lurches for a second until she realizes that Allie is also watching herself cry. She doesn’t say anything or look at Joanna at all.
“Fuck you!” Joanna races out of Allie’s house with her heart throbbing. The walk home is a blur. Joanna only thinks about lying in bed. She turns the key in the lock and pushes open the front door.
“Oh there you are. “ Her dad is reading the paper and looks up like a cat walked into the room. One he will pet if it gets near enough. Her mother is in the kitchen clanking some dishes. She pokes her head out.
“Joanna?” Who else, thinks Joanna? She runs upstairs into her room and pushes the button in the knob to lock it. Maybe she will move in with Z, she thinks. Or go somewhere else, anywhere else. She dials Z’s number, stretching and uncoiling the twisted cord. After twenty rings Joanna hangs up.
Her stomach hurts, and her back. A hot stream gushes out inside her jeans. In the bathroom, Joanna watches her blood fall into the toilet water spreading like a red jellyfish. She has cramps. The box of Tampax is under the sink. Pressing the cardboard plunger she inserts the cotton roll just like she’s practiced.