Adolescent girls hate each other, but it looks so much like love. It is a worshipful, lovestruck hate. It is a desire to possess the other, to exceed her. It is swimsuit-swapping, ass-admiring, fits of laughter. It is gone too soon. What I wouldn’t give for one last pool party, one last crank call, one last overnight, four spoons in the ice cream container, stolen VHS porn, Headbangers Ball.
We hated each other, needed each other, wanted to be each other, wanted the others’ wardrobe or parents or freedom or curfew or breasts or SAT scores. We hated each other for the way, in the others’ presence, our own needs bloomed. I longed for Larissa’s private phone line. I longed for Marie’s cash, for the air of neglect she carried, her dreamy uprootedness. I longed for Trish’s glossy bob, her peach manicure, how boys in baseball caps wanted to defile her, how they did defile her but how she kept getting cleaner. This was the core of our group, me and Larissa and Marie and Trish, but there were others too, girls who came and went and gave us more to envy. Rachel’s poise. Sasha’s handsprings. Jamie’s height, her neck, her otherworldly grace. Fiona’s legs. Did it not stand to reason that if I loved them, submitted to love, I would be better than them? What you love you rule. We loved each other fiercely. We were loyal. In our love we were a sisterhood, free of anger, full of the vaguest hate.
I’m thinking in particular of one summer, the peak of all this. Nothing important was happening in the world because we weren’t yet in it. Where we were was not the world, but Marie’s backyard. Marie’s mother had left years before, and her baffled father was always at work, so it was ours. There was a pool. We were pretty. Any one of us was more or less pretty than the next, but collectively, as a whole, in our swimsuits, in our tans, we were pretty pretty. Also we were bored, hot, over-rested, under-read, and hungry. Maybe this is true of all girls at sixteen? I can’t say. I speak only about a group of middle-class girls during one New England summer when our bodies were different from any bodies that had come before. I speak only about those days between wars, Clinton still president, Monica still just a girl like me, bored, better than anyone else, sunbathing in her own backyard. I speak of those days when we examined ourselves in Marie’s full-length mirror and decried our flaws, then waited for another girl to soothe us and decry her own flaws so we could soothe her. Our favorite game was bicker and repair, bicker and repair. We wanted to hurt each other, and to be loved, somehow simultaneously. How? One day we ordered a pizza.
It was my idea to stage a tableau. There were five of us. I remember the greasy phone in my hand. “I need a pizza,” I said into the phone. “I need it so bad.” So bad, plus heavy breathing. This was for the benefit of my friends. Where had we learned that tone of exaggerated, abstracted horniness? Music videos. Showtime, the Movie Channel. Our parents’ porn. We shouted fake orgasms for each other. We longed to depict extreme pleasure in the most realistic way. I never had an orgasm with my boyfriend, so busy was I at the dual task of getting him off and convincing him that I was experiencing profound ecstasy. We were sixteen in the suburbs. We practiced sexy talk, sexy dancing, sexy gasping and moaning, yet it never occurred to us to seek the feeling below the noise. The group was happiest when some guy came over, a kid from school who hadn’t grown into his feet, so we could try our skills on him, the trilling, embellished orgasms, the doublespeak. We loved to watch him squirm, flush, this boy in his basketball clothes. Larissa, the boldest and saddest, would ask aloud whatever we wanted to know: “Do you have an erection, Brian? Did we give you an erection?” Everyone was named Brian.
We left a sign for the pizza man, a piece of paper taped to the front door: All tied up! Please come around back! Trish suggested that we underline “come,” so we did.
The pool was inground, glistening blue, with a diving board, a blue and white rubbery floor meant to look like tile. We arranged ourselves carefully. I fancied myself the director, given my background in musical theater, and instructed each friend to occupy a provocative position. Marie, sweet, sleepy Marie, a languid girl with supernaturally blue eyes, stripped off her clothes. She lay belly-down on the diving board, a towel covering her ass—she was also the most modest. Larissa and Trish, nude, submerged, clung to the edge of the pool, their breasts squashed against its wall, the details of their lower bodies blurry in the water’s depths. Someone else, some girl from our rotating cast of extras, sat on the hot cement and tangled herself in the garden hose. She wore a bottom, no top, but made sure the hose covered her nipples. (We understood nipples to be obscene.) I don’t remember who that girl was, but I do remember the darkness of the pavement where it touched her wet suit bottom, remember the iridescent green hose against her light skin, remember her asking, “Are you sure this is smart?” I remember a flash of anger.
I wore a bikini, its bottom pulled low on my hips, its top positioned high, revealing the swell of my breasts. This bikini was navy blue with white polka dots; it belonged to Marie, whose father compensated for his baffledness by letting her order anything she wanted from catalogues. I bound my ankles with the dog’s collar. Then I took another of Marie’s bikinis, just the top—pale yellow, two limp triangles joined by some string—and used it to lash my hands behind my back. It was a performance of bondage. I was free, could move at will. Yet I arranged myself on a patio chair, my back arched, my body practicing the fraught, helpless intensity you find in Playboy photographs.
I remember our tremulous breaths. The burble of the pool’s filter. I remember the glossy, dinner-plate-sized leaves of the maple, the low chorus of insects, the air’s stillness. It was hot. Low nineties, humid. We waited. Far above, a jet’s guttural noise, its silver contrail like a zipper that might split the sky. We looked at each other, frozen in our places. We wondered: Who would the pizza man be? What would the pizza man do? (It never occurred to us that it might be a pizza woman—such a possibility did not exist.) The man, whoever he was, was driving right at this moment toward us in his compact car, a tented sign—best pizza cheap—on its roof. He was bringing us food and he’d take twenty bucks away with him. This was the exchange. But we would give him more. We would explode the transaction.
Believing we had something of worth, believing we could blow his mind—this was a pleasure so fierce and so full, so clamoring, that it both thrilled and repelled us. We waited in silence, posed like mannequins, cold-eyed, untiring. Marie said from the diving board, “I’m getting eaten by mosquitoes.”
Someone—it must have been Larissa—said, “Soon you’ll get eaten by the pizza man.”
We laughed. It was not true. This was not about our pleasure or his. Our goal was not to get off or to get him off, though we did hope he would get an erection. We were fascinated by erections, captivated, mortified—they haunted us, how at once dumb and sentient the penis was, how little it understood us. We felt for it the kind of tender reverence that borders on pity.
“I bet he’ll want a taste of Trish,” Larissa said, and I thought this was a good possibility. Trish, with her neat bangs, her tiny ass, her impeccable square-tipped fingernails, her sweet manners. She had kissed several lacrosse players and gone to second with the quarterback.
“You’re disgusting,” said Trish. “I have standards. You let anyone go down on you. You’d probably let Brian Kennedy do it!”
This was a joke: Brian K., our pariah, was always the punchline.
“Never! Not even if he had that thing removed!” said Larissa, but Trish had spoken a truth—Larissa was the most sexually experienced. “Sorry I’m not as pure as you,” Larissa said. “Sorry I didn’t save myself.”
“I haven’t saved myself. You know that.” Trish had fooled around with several athletes, but she only had sex with one—a month earlier she’d lost her virginity to Seaver, a point guard. There’d been a conference call afterward, the three of us listening on the phone as Trish methodically described the whole event: the stolen key to his grandparents’ unoccupied house, the bedsheet placed on the carpet of the living room, a sickly sweet scented candle she finally asked him to blow out (“It smelled like perfumed tampons!”), and how she’d cried afterward and he’d held her, how he’d said, “What a sweet girl, what a sweet girl,” like she was his daughter.
The sun beat down. We were not wearing sunscreen. This was the era of baby oil, or of tanning lotion you squeezed out of a plastic banana.
“I’m glad I waited,” Trish announced.
“You won’t feel that way later,” Larissa said, pushing off the wall. She dunked her head in the water, flipped it up, then swam urgently back to position. Her arms were an Olympian’s. She was the tallest of us, the fullest, the only one whose chest could rightly be called a bosom. She said, “I was glad I waited for Rich. Until I met Connor. I was glad about Connor until I met Doug.”
We groaned on cue—Doug! Larissa could do so much better. We said this all the time, a chant, a plea, a promise, a question: You can do better—and we said it now.
Then sleepy Marie, whose mother was gone, whose pool it was, whose collection of bathing suits and blazers and movies and jeans I envied, said, “I’m the pure one. Of all of you, I’m the purest.”
Technically it was true. Yet for some reason Marie didn’t seem pure. We didn’t know why, couldn’t say why, why some girls give off an air of having been tainted, having done it all, no matter what they’ve done or haven’t done—it was a ruthless fact, a cruelty, so no one said anything.
“I love you anyhow,” said Trish to Larissa. “Whoever you have sex with. You know that, right?”
Trish was prone to these kinds of social reparations—she feared offending, was always asking if we knew how much she loved us—You know? Right? You know I love you! You know I don’t judge!
“I know you love me,” said Larissa. “I also know you judge me for what happened in Doug’s basement.”
“Oh stop, please,” Marie sighed. “I can’t bear hearing anything more about that basement.”
I decided we should return to the present. “He’ll probably get a hard-on,” I said.
“I really do not want to see his dick,” Trish said.
“Yes, you do,” Larissa said. “You talk a good game, but we all know you’d love to see it.”
“Seaver’s is the only penis I want from here on out.” She said “penis” with pinched, false confidence, how one might repeat the word at a spelling bee. We always laughed and we laughed now.
I said, “We’ll blow his mind.”
“I’m not blowing him.” This was Marie. “Under any circumstances,” and we all groaned. The groan said: We are good girls, don’t forget it. That’s what our groan said then, fifteen years ago, and it’s what I’ll say now, to you: We were good girls. Don’t forget it. We are good girls now, still. We have always been good girls. Remember that.
We knew about Gloria Steinem and Hillary Clinton and the obese woman in overalls who wrote screeds against pornography. We knew that you didn’t have to shave your armpits if you didn’t want to. (We wanted to.) We knew that you can’t dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools. We pretty much knew there was a master’s house. And yet we made the tableau and invited a man to witness it, a stranger, a guy, someone who probably thought yes you did have to shave your pits. We made ourselves objects even though we were the same girls who cursed the gym teacher when he made the faintest suggestion that we weren’t tough, even while we abhorred the passivity of certain mothers, picketed the drugstore that only hired boys. No, it didn’t make sense, but fuck sense. That’s what we said to each other. “Fuck it,” I said. “This’ll be fun.” They concurred: Fuck it. Fun.
We placed the cash on the table. We undressed. Why? The tableau does not care about why. You arch your back. You work onto your face an expression of yearning. When you make a certain face for long enough, your body starts to believe it. You make the yearning face. You yearn. You make the trapped face. You are trapped. You wait.
We waited. We heard a car, but it moved past.
He was driving toward us, driving through the quiet suburban streets toward this house, and soon he’d approach the front door, read our sign. Soon he’d come around back. He would open the fence. He would wipe his brow, the pizza box resting on his hip, so that his arm and box and hip made a triangle. Sighing, sweating, he’d climb the lawn toward the pool. Then he would stop walking. He would stop breathing. He would look at us. Cream-skinned Marie dazed on the diving board. Larissa and Trish in the water, Larissa doing that thing with her tongue, running it around the rictus of her mouth, Trish combing her excellent hair with her fingers. What’s-her-name. And me, the ringleader, in bondage, free. We were a we. Look at us. One was not better than the next. He would see us as a posse, a team. Not one with big boobs and one with bad teeth, not one who wouldn’t get into Harvard, not one whose mother had a drug problem. The power of the plural, its joy, its falseness, its intoxicating rush, that was us. He would take us all in, the we, like a snake consumes an egg.
And who would he be?
He would not be fifty-five, twice-divorced, with a craggy, avuncular face. He would not have a muscle in his back that required constant heating pads and a wife’s expert fingers at bedtime. (One of us would marry him.) He would not be an earnest redhead, soft-stomached and bright-eyed, a man who refused to say “no” to anything, a man who couldn’t flex a muscle, whose kindness felt criminal, who surely deserved pain if he couldn’t inflict it. (One of us would divorce him.) He would not be a shaggy art student, a nervous pill-popper, a sweet kid even at forty. He would not be a sweet kid at forty reluctant to take his depressed wife to the hospital, wanting desperately to keep her home, near him, even when she could barely remember her name. (One of us would sleep in his bed.) He would not be a man who loved like a puppy, a man for whom adoration was a vocation, who hadn’t found a real one and so made a religion of his reverence. (One of us would date him.) He would not be a long-distance runner. He would not be a man with a predilection for wife-swapping and biceps that belonged in a glossy magazine. (One of us would walk away from him with masterful courage, even while he wept.)
The pizza man was no one. He was ours collectively. He obliterated our envy of each other, for he was our creation equally.
Nothing destroys a fantasy like a real person.
The sweat-stained T-shirt, the drugstore flip-flops, the eyebrows a shade darker than his hair, all that abrupt, workaday particularity—I didn’t like it at all. He was not ours. I wanted him to be vaguer, blurrier. He wore faded blue jeans cinched at the waist with a red fabric belt. His damp T-shirt said the name of a mid-tier college in a bordering state. Roundish face, fair skin, cheeks just shy of doughy. A wide, flat nose. His ears stuck out. His hair, dark blond, was parted on the left side, slicked back. He resembled a camp counselor. We watched him walk toward us.
Until he arrived, he belonged to all of us. Once he arrived, I wondered what he thought of my tits.
He crested the hill. Stopped walking. My heart clattered. I was ashamed of its clattering—I was supposed to be the coolest of us, unmoved, fully in possession of my body. I heard water moving in the pool but did not turn to see which girl had failed to keep her position. I kept my eyes on the pizza man, whose eyes moved from me to the girl wrapped in the hose, to Trish to Larissa to Marie. His eyes made the rounds, then met mine again. I was closest to him. I tried to take deep breaths, to calm my heart, but I shook a little; I couldn’t help it. The pizza man—did his heart clatter? Did he shake?
Why am I calling him a pizza man? He was a boy. He was my age. Now he licked his lips, but not in the lascivious way Larissa had done. He licked his lips like a kid before a difficult math problem. He squinted. He said, “Uh, what’s going on here?”
I had my lines memorized. I was an actress. My response came out cool, coy, with a tinge of mocking boredom: “Oh my. I seem to be all tied up. It’s been a rough day, as you can imagine. I’m just desperate to put something in my mouth.” I nodded toward the pizza, which he was holding at the level of his hip, his groin. I bit down on my lower lip. My gaze was steady.
He said, “You guys, uh, okay here? I mean. What’s—uh. What’s. I mean, what’s happening? You okay?”
Worry crossed his face. Concern. That was not allowed. Did he not see that we were in control? The pizza man had no power. He was no one. A menial laborer.
The worry seemed to fade. But what came next was worse.
It was excitement. It wasn’t sexual excitement. He blinked. His eyes betrayed his own fantasy: a rescue fantasy, a Superman dream. No. I wouldn’t have it. This wasn’t about him, we needed no rescuing, we needed nothing but his awe, nothing but whatever involuntary things his body wanted to do for us.
“We’re just A-OK,” I said. “We’re enjoying this hot day. We’re perfectly in control here.”
He blinked again. Nodded blankly. “Okay then.” His eyes did another round, met mine once again. He had not looked at my breasts. Would he ever look?
I needed him to look, to look at me, and he wouldn’t.
The sun beat down.
Then he looked. He looked at my breasts, and then lifted his eyes again to mine, and I saw his face was no different. He did not flush. He looked at my chest with a dull, obligatory curiosity, the way one might examine a box turtle at the science museum.
He said, “Well, enjoy the pizza then,” and turned away.
We’d made our exchange, it was over, but we stayed in our positions anyway. We looked at each other. All this effort, all this prettiness, all our willingness . . . it had to add up to something bigger than us. We were like grenades with our pins pulled. Soon there’d be an explosion. Soon something would happen. Our eyes made the same rounds his eyes had. I looked at Marie’s creamy back. I looked at Larissa’s mouth, her breasts, at Trish’s fine, sharp clavicles. I stared at the girls, their haunches, their wet hair, their patience, their boredom, their love, their hate, their sex, their futures. They looked at me. We did this for each other, saw these parts, admired them all. No one said anything. The suburbs didn’t heave. Finally Larissa lifted herself from the pool, walked dripping to the table. She looked down at the pizza like someone who had no idea how to eat it, and said, “I’m starving.”
Sarah Braunstein is the author of a novel, The Sweet Relief of Missing Children (W. W. Norton & Co., 2011). In 2010 she was named one of “5 Under 35” fiction writers by the National Book Foundation, and in 2007 she received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award. “Bondage and the Pizza Man” is one in a series of essays about suburban adolescence. She lives in Portland, Maine. (10/2011)