"Just Like That," by Patricia Ann McNair

Patricia Ann McNair

Patricia Ann McNair

Patricia Ann McNair has had fiction and creative nonfiction appear in various anthologies and journals including American Fiction: Best Unpublished Short Stories by Emerging Writers, Other Voices, F Magazine, River Teeth, Fourth Genre, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, and Air Canada's en Route magazine. She is also published in The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction edited by Dinty W. Moore. She has received numerous Illinois Arts Council Awards and Pushcart Prize nominations in fiction and nonfiction. McNair teaches in the Fiction Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago. She lives in Chicago with her husband, the artist Philip Hartigan.

Just Like That

Officially it was senior prom, but Arnie said it was more like a regular party when you think about it, but a going away party with a bunch of kids we didn't like that much all dressed up and crying and hugging—and why would he want any part of that? Not like any of us were going all that far away; mostly we were just heading down the road to Highland Community College for a couple of years, and okay, some were going into the army, and maybe to Vietnam, who knew for certain. But still.

Arnie was the only one who was really going far—a full scholarship to something-I-T out East, a place that was tailor-made for a guy like him. You know, brilliant. Not that nerdy kind of brilliant, physics and algorithms—although he was great at that too—but a different kind of genius. The kind that could sort through all the crap and find the threads, the connections, the way everything could—if you looked at it just right and put it in some kind of order—make sense somehow.

Still, it was prom night, the only one either one of us would ever get a chance to go to, and I did sort of want to go. Don't ask me why. Maybe because it was a rite of passage, you know, something to mark a specific time in our lives. Or it could have been because I was one of those kids who was going away. I guess I'm sort of smart, as well, because I got a scholarship, too, only across the river to a state university. No big deal, but my first time anywhere at all really, besides here. Here, which is a small town in Iowa you probably never even heard of before. Or maybe you did, after that night, the night of the prom. Still, even if you've heard of it, it's the kind of place that's not too hard to forget, which, when I think about it, was another reason I thought it might be fun to go to prom. A way of remembering.

So I talked Arnie into it, like I can talk him into a lot of things. Like skitching. You know, when you grab the back of a car, the bumper, and it's icy out, and you hold on and the car pulls away, slow at first, but if it's your friends driving and they know you're doing it, they'll go pretty fast pretty quick, and next thing you know they're pulling doughnuts in the parking lot of Jack's Super, and you're swirling on the ice, holding on for dear life and feeling your heart right up there near your ears. It's great. Really. But Arnie, brilliant as he is, could see all the things that could go wrong with a situation like this—which is exactly why it's so fun—and it took some convincing for him to try it. He did though, maybe because I said he didn't have to, I'd go off with Derek Jerabek and do it, and Derek and Arnie had this feud so old and deep that I don't know if they knew what was behind it anymore. Anyway, the next night Arnie's right there with me at Jack's Super, waiting his turn to grab a bumper, and he's wearing his Converses, which make the best kind of skitching shoe, all slick and thin in the sole. And when it's his turn, Arnie won't let go, he's riding that bumper like a cowboy on a bull, hanging on and hollering. And it's Derek behind the wheel and he's pulling one-eighties and three-sixties and figure eights. But Arnie holds on. And finally Derek has to stop so someone else can have a turn to get on board, and Arnie's face is frozen in this loopy grin, and I have to help him peel his hands off the bumper, one finger at a time, and his sneakers have worn clear through in places, and he's hyped, I mean, hyped like I've never seen him before and he wants to go again, right away, but his fingers aren't straightening up and his fingertips are blue, so I talk him into coming home with me for a little while to warm up, which he does but only when I promise we'll go right back out. We get to my house and I'm sort of worried, his hands are so cold and not just his shoes but his socks have holes, too, and I blow on his hands and rub his feet, and he's talking that talk guys do when they're excited, you know: “That was so fucking cool! Did you see that? Did you see me on Derek like that? Shit!” And I want him to shut up because, like I say, I'm worried, he's so cold, so when he tries to pull away from me I decide to switch gears and get his attention, and so I pull his hand toward me and slide it up under my sweater and onto my warm belly—and it's so cold, his hand, but I hold it there and try not to let my teeth chatter. And Arnie shuts up, just like that, silent as a block of ice, and looks at me, and I put his other hand under my sweater too, and then slide it under my belt, down where it's really warm, and we lay back on my bed and I get him under the covers and we're both shivering but we just stare at one another a while until his hands get warm and his breath goes heavy.

It's not like this is the first time we did anything like that. I mean, we grew up right next door to one another, so we used to play You show me yours, I'll show you mine when we were kids. And when we got to junior high, we were best friends, and one time I had this crush on this guy Joe Spalding. He was in our grade, but a little older than the rest of us, a new kid who got held back because they were moving all the time, and they moved again pretty soon after all this I'm going to tell you happened. I still remember how he had these great green eyes. And once he asked me to sit back in the carrolls with him in the library and he was back there with Derek, and we were all just sitting there and talking when all of a sudden this guy Joe says he knows that I like him and would it be okay if we frenched. Well, I could feel my stomach knot up, I was so excited, my first time french kissing anyone, and here it was, Joe with the green eyes. So I nodded, feeling a bit shy, too, maybe because Derek was there. And so Joe leans over and puts his lips against mine and sticks his tongue out and it feels sort of stiff and tastes like, I'll never forget this, salami, and he just holds it there and wiggles his head around, and I've got my eyes closed and am waiting for it to feel like something special, and I hear Derek over there snort or something, and I open my eyes, and even though Joe is kissing me, he's giving Derek this sidelong glance. And then Joe pulls his head back and wipes his hand over his mouth, and he says, “You're good,” and even though I don't know how this could possibly be, I mean I just opened my mouth and let his tongue in, I'm feeling a bit proud about that. And then he puts his hand on my neck and just like that slides it right down the front of my blouse and inside my bra and squeezes my tit in his hand, once, twice, and Derek is there still, wide-eyed and open mouthed, and I feel sick in my stomach for so many reasons I can't even begin to sort them out. I want to pull Joe's hand right back out of there, but that seems like the wrong thing to do for some reason, like after I already was there for the kiss and all, could I really back off now? And Joe's hand is rough and sort of sweaty, and pretty soon he pulls it out himself and I'm just sitting there not knowing exactly what to do or say, but smiling a little like it's all okay, no big deal, but I feel my face is burning, and my scalp is starting to prickle. And when Joe and Derek swap a glance at one another, lift their eyebrows, I excuse myself, say I have to go somewhere or something, and I walk away as casually as I can, and I can feel their goddamned eyes on the back of my jeans, and I go to the girls room and lean over the sink and look at my face which I suspect has changed, but it's the same, really, only, I think a little sad looking.

And later, at home while I'm baby-sitting the twins and Arnie comes over I want to tell him about it, because I feel like I should tell someone, I'm sort of excited even though I'm still feeling a little something else I haven't yet figured out. But Arnie already knows, that's the way it is in a town like this, nothing is a secret for very long, especially when it comes to boys, and he looks sort of mad standing there in the door, and so I tell him my side—he already knew about the crush on Joe—and here's the funny thing. When I tell him, I start to cry, who knows why that is, but I do a little, and Arnie's holding me like he has once or twice before, like when my folks got divorced, like when my dad died, and then I'm really crying. So Arnie asks what can he do, and I think about that, and I figure out that I want him to kiss me, to touch my boob, because I know that with him it will be different, nice, caring—friendly, I guess—and so he does, only he's a little nervous at first, his hand is shaking, but he's warm and his tongue is wet and soft and his hand is smooth and we stay there like that for a long while, the two of us on my couch, the twins napping in the next room, and he just leaves his hand on my breast like that, and when his tongue slips in and out of my mouth, I taste it with my own tongue and it's sweet, milky, and we both get a little fogged up, and I'm not crying anymore, but more like floating. And after a few minutes of this, he stops, pulls away, and looks at me. His glasses are steamed. He says, “Better?” and his voice is rough. And I nod and rearrange my top, my bra. And Arnie says, “Good,” and he gets up and goes to the kitchen and gets us a Pepsi which we pass back and forth, not saying anything else.

And every once in a while since then, we would come together like this, fiddle around a little. It wasn't about sex, I don't think, even though our teachers and folks kept reminding us how our hormones were going crazy and we'd have to be careful. I guess we loved one another, when you think about it, but in a friendly way, in a way that has to do with knowing each other better than we knew anybody else on the planet. So it wasn't about lust, but it wasn't exactly about love, either. It was more about something else. Like what I was saying about Arnie's brilliance, about connections and making sense of the big picture. That's it, I think.

So of course it made sense that we should go to prom together. And we were in my back yard taking turns behind the lawnmower and talking about the dance. Well, I was talking about it, trying to make my point to Arnie, who just nodded and looked away over the back fence and squeezed my dog King's chewed-up rubber ball in his hand. And the twins, Jimmy and Jerry, who were seven, were ahead of us supposedly picking up twigs and toys and sticks and things, but mostly just picking up King's dog shit with plastic bags on their hands like mittens, and they'd pretend to throw it at each other before dropping it into the bag they carried.

“Tell me again why you think we should go,” Arnie said, and the mower roared between us, and the twins screamed and laughed and ran in circles, and the cicadas made that electric noise they make when it gets hot. It was just May, but eighty out, and it sounded like summer already.

“Come on, Arnie,” I said and pounded on the mower's handle. “What's the big deal? It's just a few hours out of your life, and besides, it might be fun.”

Arnie snorted in that superior way of his that he reserved for teachers who had a hard time keeping up with his answers to their questions. I watched the muscle in his forearm tense and release as he squeezed the ball, watched the little blue vein over his wrist pop up.

“Okay, think of it this way,” I said as we turned back toward the house, making another line in the grass, “it's a favor to me. You might not feel like this, but I think that if I don't go, I'll regret it somehow. Maybe not right away, but you know, years from now, when I'm old, and I'm thinking back over things.”

Arnie hated it when I talked like this, about growing old, which I do a lot for some reason. He called himself a “fatalist,” like it was something he should be proud of like his having a high IQ was. He always thought an end—some end, who knows—was near. I thought we'd both grow remarkably old, break records like those people in Siberia. Maybe live forever.

“If it sucks,” I said, and Arnie said, “Which it will,” and I went on like I hadn't heard, “we can change the night and leave. If we don't go, we can't change things. We just won't have gone. Period.” And I was pleased with myself, because I knew Arnie got what I meant, and it was almost one of those brilliant things he might say.

We were closing in on the last few swipes across the lawn, and the twins had tossed aside their bag and were rolling around with King now, whose tongue was hanging out and dripping in the heat. Mom and Mrs. Lawlor, Arnie's mom, were on the patio drinking sun tea and listening to the radio. They both were frowning, and Mrs. Lawlor shook her head. When I got closer, I could hear enough of what was being said to know it had to do with the war. Arnie was still near the back fence, staring out across the field. I saw him nod his head a little, like he was talking to himself like he sometimes does, and then I saw him hurl King's ball as hard as he could towards—well, it was all flat, vacant field back there. Under the right conditions, that ball could roll for miles.

So we went to prom. And I thought Arnie's mom might burst when we left, the way she looked so proud and was snapping all these pictures and talking about how she couldn't wait until Arnie's dad came home later that week (he traveled for his job) so she could show him and tell him all about it. And my mom—who pretty much thought Arnie was the only male worth anything ever since Dad left us when I was eight and then came back for a bit when I was ten, which is when the twins were born, and then left again and a couple years later ran off the road one night after leaving Supples Tavern—Mom was even smiling. And we were dressed up, Arnie and me, nothing too fancy, but Arnie wore a navy blue coat and tie, the one he wore for debate team, and I had on a long purple velveteen skirt and a lavender blouse that in the right light you could see through. Which was the style. We took a pass on corsages, because it wasn't really a date, but still, we both were excited (I was at least) and even though the weather had gone insane, rain and more rain, and lightning, thunder, and wind, I knew as we ran out to Arnie's VW that this was going to be some night. And back at the house the moms were in the window, and the twins were there, too, and they were all waving. We pulled away from the curb and the wind battered against the car and the branches of the trees all bent low like they, too, were waving us on our way.

It was pretty in the gym, streamers and balloons, everybody all dressed up, and especially the lights, which were covered up with colored film. And the smell of perfume and hairspray and flowers nearly covered up the smell of wet sneakers. And the music was good. I was glad that they had decided against the band, Derek Jerabek's older brother's one, the Hendrix Connection—you can guess what they played—since his brother had been sent over to Vietnam and they still didn't have a lead guitar. So they hired a deejay and he played records we all heard every day, the sort of thing we all would dance to in the privacy of our own homes.

Arnie and I loved to dance; we danced all the time at my house. We got right on the dance floor with everyone else, all of our long dresses sweeping over the floor, the boys undoing their ties, hands, arms, legs everywhere. And we all kept moving like we had something to prove, like if we stopped, something might catch up to us. And we danced until we were drenched and the deejay put on something slow. Someone turned down the lights even more, and everyone pulled together, pushed their bodies tight against each other, two by two, and pretty much just stood in the middle of the floor, shifting foot to foot, not really moving. There was a lot of kissing going on out there, and every now and again you could see one or the other of the girls pulling her head back and looking up, her face all powdery and glowing in the light, looking like she was surrounded by some sort of haze. I kept waiting for Mr. Harvey, the principal, or one of the teachers to step in, but they didn't. And from where Arnie and I stood on the side, drinking pink punch in silver paper cups, I watched all the making out and body pressing and felt something stir in me. So I tried to look past it all, and there were the teachers and Mr. Harvey, in a huddle, talking and appearing, I don't know, worried.

And then the lights went out. Just like that. And then there was a big crash, a heavy thunderclap that was so loud and close it shook the punch in my cup. And through the gym's high narrow windows, we could see the lightning flash over and over. The panes rattled. A couple of the girls, the more dramatic ones, screamed.

“Young people,” Mr. Harvey yelled over the crowd, “young people!” He always called us that. The rest of the teachers called us kids. “Listen,” he yelled, and then there were a couple of flashlights shining on him; Mr. Granger, the wrestling coach had one, and Miss Daniels, the librarian had another. Mr. Harvey put a hand up to shade his eyes. “We have a bit of a problem here,” he said.

“Duh,” someone yelled from the center of the room. It sounded like Derek. It probably was. But no one laughed.

“Seriously,” Mr. Harvey went on. “We have been informed that a funnel cloud has just touched down in New Hope. We are under a tornado warning.”

Things went quietly wild then. Everyone talking and spinning around, some of the girls started crying and the boys, trying to be brave, talked in steady voices and held their dates' hands.

Mr. Harvey spoke again, “I'm sorry to say this, but prom is now officially cancelled.” And people made noise like they were disappointed, like they had forgotten that just a minute ago someone had told them that a tornado was on the way. “Young people, please. If I might have your attention.”

Arnie put his arm over my shoulder then. “You're shaking,” he said. I tucked tight into him.

“We will now proceed, in an orderly fashion, to the basement.” We'd had enough tornado drills to know better, we lived in what people called a tornado alley, and most of us had seen the funnel clouds each summer out over the flat fields, but still, when Mr. Harvey said the word “basement,” kids piled into the doorway of the gym, ran down the hall, and crashed together into the stairwell. The generator had kicked in; two spotlights lit the way from a corner near the ceiling. Mr. Harvey and the teachers chased after the kids. “People! Kids! People!” they yelled. Arnie held me tightly, which helped my first instinct—to jump into the crush of kids—ease up some, and we walked quickly after the crowd. Mr. Harvey turned toward us. “Come along you two,” he said, but then he saw it was Arnie, brilliant Arnie, and me, who he knew by name only because I was never any trouble, really, or anything special either for that matter, and he just nodded and then trotted toward the stairwell where everyone else was pushing and yelling.

Just when we were about to get to the stairs, Arnie stopped me. He looked into my face. “You okay?” he asked. And, you know, I really was. We could hear the noise below us in the basement, and we could hear the wind making its chugging sound outside. “Some special night, huh?” Arnie said. And he was smiling, and it was that loopy smile, like his skitching smile. And I don't know why, but I stood on my toes and pushed my breasts against his chest and put my arms around his neck and kissed him, tongue and all. And his arms went around my waist and he pulled me closer, and I could feel his hard on, right through his pants, through the velvet of my skirt. And I rubbed a little against it, felt it move over my belly, and the rain hit the windows like handfuls of pebbles. Arnie let go of my waist and took my hand and pulled me into the boys locker room, which had a spotlight shining over the door that made the place full of shadows and dark patches. He led me along one wall and into the shower room. “Here,” he said, and his voice sounded hollow and echo-y, “sit down.” He put his jacket on the floor and I sat down. And then Arnie was beside me, and we sat still and quiet, listening to the battering of things outside, to the wind, to the thunder, imagining what made what sound—was that a lamppost? A car? The rooftop? And I started to shake again. Arnie put his arms around me.

“We could die,” he said, matter-of-factly. And of course, I'd been thinking exactly that, so I just nodded. “My poor mom,” he said. And I imagined Arnie's mom in their house in the dark by herself, nervous and fluttery like she gets, her hands butterflies she can't keep still. And then I hoped she was at my house with my mom, who, in a case like this, an emergency situation, would know just what to do, would take all of them down to the cellar, the twins, King, Mrs. Lawlor, and they'd be down on the linoleum floor, leaning against the dryer, the washing machine, and Mom would get their minds off things, singing something, James Taylor, maybe, or old Beatles.

“My poor mom,” Arnie said again. And then, “I got my notice.”

And try as I might, I couldn't figure out what he was talking about. I didn't want to sound stupid, though, in these maybe last few minutes of our life, so I didn't say anything.

“A few weeks ago. I thought I'd get a student deferment,” he went on. “But they've changed the rules.”

And then, even though it was hot in the shower room, I started to get cold. I knew what Arnie was telling me. Notice. Of the draft.

“I go for my physical next week,” he said.

Arnie and I hardly ever talked about the war, but I knew that he had very specific ideas about it, like he had about a lot of things. Whenever someone we knew—like Derek's brother—enlisted or got drafted, Arnie would go into this mood that was part sad, part angry. And I knew when he got like that, quiet and steaming, it was best not to talk to him. At all. So that night we just sat there saying nothing, sat and listened to the tornado hit town. Waiting.

And then Arnie stretched out on the floor, and I kept sitting there listening past the wind for what I don't know. But what I heard after a while came from up close. And it was Arnie crying, which was very unlike him. The only time I heard him cry before was after Derek and Joe got me in the carrolls and later, after Arnie and I kissed and everything and he went to the kitchen for the Pepsi, I heard him in there, crying like this, soft and really, really sad.

So I lay down next to him, put my head on his chest. Shushed him. But that didn't help at all, the opposite in fact. Because then the crying really started, and his body shook, and I held on, my arms tight around his waist and his crying ran through me, and I couldn't help it, I started to cry, too, but I knew that I was crying not just about Arnie, about Arnie going away, to war maybe, but about everything, everything that had ever happened before in my life that had hurt me: the way Dad came into my room that first night when he said he had to leave, the way he didn't tell me the next time he left, the way Mom's face crumpled into itself when she told me about his crash, the way the twins came home with Mom from the hospital and Dad was already gone, months gone, and the goddamned twins with their bald heads and red, flabby faces, looked exactly like Dad did in the mornings when he was hung over. I cried about Derek and Joe feeling me up in the library, I cried about Mom going quiet for those months after the twins were born, staying in her bedroom, leaving me and Mrs. Lawlor to take care of the babies, of the house. I cried about not knowing what was going on outside while we were there in the shower room, I cried about not knowing what we'd find when we went outside, about what might be lost. I cried about not knowing—let's face it—anything at all.

We pressed together, Arnie and I, and the kissing started again, and we kept at it, good and long. Then I took off Arnie's glasses, unbuttoned his shirt, lifted his tie over his head. I pulled my own blouse out of the waistband of the purple skirt, and pulled it up over my head. But here's the thing. There we were, on our way to naked, and all the rest that goes with that, but instead of going forward, you know, going all the way, this is where we stopped. And I think maybe if we'd been two other people, like Derek and one of the other girls, we might have—probably would have—kept going. But let's face it, we were just Arnie and me. So instead he wrapped me up in his arms, pulled my head under his chin. And we stayed like that on the floor. And at first we started to tell little stories, you know, “remember when” and all. But then we stopped even that, stopped talking and just lay there, while the town took on the storm, while the world out there reeled.

There had been no siren, no sound at all that warned us about the coming of the tornado. What there was later, though, was a ringing of all the church bells in town to let everyone know it was over. In my sleep I heard them in my dreams, loud and low, but I can't remember what I dreamed. Arnie stirred under me, and we pulled apart and rearranged our clothes. We heard the drumming of feet in the hallway, everyone else running up from the basement, running toward whatever was going on outside.

Months later, after the town had cleaned up the mess left behind, cleared the trees out of the streets, hauled away the overturned cars, put up new roofs, rebuilt Jack's Super, Mrs. Lawlor turned up on our doorstep and fell into a heap before Mom could even get her to say what the army had told her. I was home from college for spring break, working part time at Jack's. I stood in the doorway, and in the pale, white spring light, I watched Mom go to Arnie's mother, watched her sink to the concrete and wrap her arms around her friend, watched her hold her. And my knees gave a bit under the weight of it all, but I reached for the doorknob and held on as best I could, and for some reason I thought about that ball Arnie threw over the fence that day when we were mowing the lawn. And I wondered where exactly it ended up once it stopped rolling.

“We didn't die,” I had said to Arnie on prom night before we left the shower room. Arnie just looked at me, his lips turning up at the corners, but it wasn't a smile. Not really.

Still, he nodded, I remember, and bent down to kiss me, his aim off, and he brushed my jaw with his lips. “After you,” Arnie said when we got to the locker room door. And I stepped around him into the empty hallway. We walked hand-in-hand toward the wide exit doors, and I pushed hard on the heavy silver bar that released the latch. “After you,” I said. And Arnie ran his hands over his jacket like he was smoothing it; he straightened the knot in his tie. I stood by and held the door for him, and my best friend walked right past me, just like that, leading the way out and into the wet, wrecked night.