She twists the lever, easing it gently past its usual sticking point, finally succeeding with a sudden jerk in opening the window to the mild breeze outside. On a mission, she can only afford a glance at the emerald of the redwoods and the celadon of the bays, at the bits of blue sky and white cloud peeking between pine needles and leaves, branches and boughs. Bending down, with thumb and forefinger she gingerly picks up Nike socks and Calvin Klein briefs strewn around the floor. Collecting scattered school papers, she straightens them into a neat pile and inserts them into a binder carelessly left on the carpet. She finds a more appropriate place for the binder in the bookcase, arranging it carefully on a stack of textbooks.
In the early afternoon, peace permeates the quiet house. It is her time, before the boys return from school—removing sneakers, dropping backpacks, galloping down stairs, opening the refrigerator door and kitchen drawers, demanding food. That morning she had shopped at Wild Oats, the neighborhood health food store that made ethical shopping easy. Non-GMO, local, organic, pasture-raised, grass-fed, sustainable, biodegradable, compostable: they vetted and labeled the carrots and kale, the fish and chicken, the eggs and milk, the tea and spices, the toilet paper and the laundry detergent so she didn’t have to. She holds the nontoxic, eco-friendly, vegan condoms she had finally located, with much relief, in the personal care section, under the essential oils. She had been worried that a store that refused to sell ibuprofen might not stock condoms. Where should she put them, now, so that they would be accessible without being obvious? She decides on the top drawer of her son’s night table. She must remember to tell him they are there beforehand, so he can access them when needed.
Pushing the drawer gently shut, she gives the room a critical look. With the piles of clothes cleared away, books and papers tidied, sheets tucked in and blankets smoothed, stale air replaced with smells of green things growing under the gentle sun, she feels a sense of satisfaction, of accomplishment. She sees herself, suddenly, like an outside observer might, as in a scene from a movie: middle-aged, a wife, a mother, still dressed in workout clothes from her morning exercise, taking advantage of her son’s absence to ready his room for romance. She wonders, What if I had a daughter instead of a son? Would I be tidying up, preparing, organizing her bedroom for alone time with her boyfriend? Am I doing this for my son because he is a boy? She stops and stands still for a moment, surrounded by the posters that dominate every wall: Michael Jordan, cheekbones chiseled and arms spread wide; Jerry Rice, football tucked under one arm, speeding toward a touchdown; LeBron James dunking ferociously, tattooed biceps bulging. Her son’s own Varsity basketball awards vie for attention on a special shelf with his middle school diploma, birthday cards, photos of him with his favorite cousin, a smooth gray rock collected from a stream during an outdoor retreat. In the soft silence, her mind wanders back to a particular day, a hot dry Arizona day, the day she lost her virginity.
She is seventeen. Visiting a boy, a tanned boy from Cuenca, whom she had met on a trip to the beach in Ecuador two years before. Now an exchange student in Scottsdale, he had invited her to visit him at his host family’s home. It is hot. Over a hundred degrees every day. Natives know to scurry from curtain-darkened homes to air-conditioned cars to artificially cool malls. Ten minutes of walking outside give her thighs a tan line where her shorts stop.
They have found a private place to be alone, to achieve the goal that had been set silently and that had remained unspoken throughout their plotting her visit to his homestay in Arizona. She finds herself on her back, on a sparsely made up mattress, in a young male’s bleak room, in the flat quiet of the early afternoon. One of the boy’s friends has loaned them his room for the half hour deemed adequate for the long-awaited tryst.
She gasps once, unable to control herself, with physical shock as he, clutching her calves and pushing her legs up, thrusts himself inside her, the pain sharp but brief. She tries to take it all in, to notice the details, to memorize the feelings: his face contorted in a grimace of concentration, her legs spread in a wide V, his eyes looking down at their meeting bodies, her red dress pushed up haphazardly around her belly and breasts, his tee shirt still covering his chest. She wonders what she should do, what she should be doing. But it is over soon. Looking back, she realizes there was no condom, even though she had come of age with the dawning of the AIDS era in San Francisco. Afterward, did he show any affection? He may have, she can’t remember. He looks for blood, but finds none. This detail remains with her, throughout the years and decades, a vaguely shameful part of her memory of that afternoon. What did he think? That she had misrepresented herself as a virgin? Did her failure to bleed disappoint his expectations? Did he want proof for his friend? For himself?
She does remember that, right after checking for smears of red, he gets up off the bed, pulling on his shorts, and leaves in search of his friend, the owner of the room. She is left lying on the bed, semen leaking out of her. This last detail distresses her sensibilities as a guest—she hurries to rearrange her clothes, packing a wad of toilet paper into her underwear before turning to the mattress and swiping at the damp stain with a hand towel. That chore done, she sits, dressed and organized, on the edge of the bed and waits. Where is he? She is bored. Cell phones, iPads, laptops don’t exist; she has not thought to bring a book or a magazine. She sighs, looking around the ugly room, at the bare walls and the small aluminum framed window.
She tries to find the boy, but cannot locate him in the darkened silence of the house. Outside, she squats down over the hot pavement in the parched yard. Resting her chest on her thighs, she picks up a twig, listlessly drawing patterns around a military line of marching ants. She interrupts their dedicated march—watches them studiously avoiding the rough tip of the twig, automatically splitting their ranks and then coming back together, relentless in their endless quest for sustenance. Heat pulses up from the ground; her eyes hurt from the harsh glare of the sun.
She feels alone. She feels left alone. She feels abandoned. She feels disrespected. She had wanted this, had colluded in the planning, had felt titillation on the phone when listening to his deep Spanish voice looking forward to their meeting, their time together, their upcoming intimacy. She had listed, with sharpened pencil on lined school paper, the pros and cons to flying out and visiting him, to having sex with him. She had consciously, deliberately, chosen this trip, fearing the ignominy of sexual inexperience going into her future. But now, squatting, her face close to the cracked cement, contemplating the militia of ants, feeling the beating of the sun on the curve of her back, she senses undertones of contempt in the act recently completed, in the boy’s departure from the bedroom, in his staying away for longer than the act took to perform, in his talking to his friend, to his male friend, most likely, she thinks, about her, about the sex, about the deflowering. Not sure where exactly they are, she imagines a posturing, a showboating, to the conversation between these boys, herself as the object, the vehicle for a demonstration of machismo.
A few minutes later, she leaves the ants alone, liberating them from the blunt tyranny of the twig in their path, and watches them seamlessly regroup into their rigid line to disappear, one by one, ant by ant, into the crackling dryness of the desiccated shrubbery.
Back in the present, still standing in the same spot on the soft carpet of her son’s room, her eyes focus on a beam of sun, shimmering from window to floor, lighting the dust motes that dance, usually invisible, in the air.
Marianna Marlowe lives and writes in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has a Ph.D. in English. After years of academic writing, she now focuses on creative non-fiction that explores, among other things, gender identity, motherhood and feminist issues. She and her family currently reside in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her hobbies include reading, hiking and binge watching British crime series. Connect with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.