Perfectly Ordinary
John Bruce
Break
As his adolescence progressed, Ed's parents were deeply ambivalent about his development. From an early age, they'd felt uneasy about a certain tendency to take exactly the wrong things at face value. Once, Ed having walked to church and Sunday school since his parents hadn't attended that day, the neighbors offered him a ride home— it was at least a mile. They pulled up next to him as he started walking and opened the car door.
"Oh, no," he said, a faint look of horror crossing his face, however briefly. "My parents told me never to get into anyone's car."
"We're not just anyone," they said. "We're the Harrisons. We're your neighbors." But Ed couldn't have been more than five, and this distinction was lost on him, especially as the purpose of the prohibition on getting into cars had never been explained. He shook his head and stubbornly plodded home. There was some tension with the Harrisons for some weeks afterward as a result.
As he went through his comic book phase, his parents were concerned that he might stick there, a pimply-faced collector of first editions. They kept his allowance deliberately low to forfend this possibility. When the comic books passed and he moved to science fiction, there was a similar fear that he'd become a pimply-faced habitue of Star Trek conventions. But that passed, too, and he developed an interest in classical music: that provoked worries even more profound. He might be gay.
As a matter of fact, if you'd asked Ed, around the time of puberty, if he believed in what we all unconsciously do, the redeeming power of a woman's love, he'd likely have said he did. On the other hand, the model of a woman's love he had, which is the one men generally have, is the one given us by our mothers. Ed's mother, throughout his youth and adolescence, hectored and chivvied him with points of etiquette. "When you're walking on the street with a woman," she would say, for instance, "you always walk on the outside." The version of a woman's love he actually had, in other words, was fussy and manipulative.
Petra was about 16 and the daughter of a foreign diplomat. Ed could never remember which country she was from; perhaps it was one of the Baltics. She went to his high school, unlike most diplomats' children, who went to private schools. Her English was perfect and without accent. Her face was round and slightly chubby, its features not yet fully mature. She had a slight mustache, and her eyebrows grew together above her nose. Beyond that, her style of dress could charitably be called unfashionable, but more accurately characterized as blithely preposterous. Rather than the usual American high school footwear, she wore lace-up brogans over socks that rose halfway up her calves.
On the other hand, she had breasts, not the perfunctory, almost vestigial breasts of art, fashion, and pornography, but real breasts, European breasts, organs of palpably natural and inscrutably divine purpose. She wasn't in any of Ed's classes, but he'd noticed her in the halls, or more precisely, he'd noticed her breasts. Their presence wasn't obvious under the starched white blouses she wore, but somehow Ed sensed it. On the other hand, he had no serious plans to follow up: she simply looked too strange.
One night he went, alone, to a dance in the high school gym. Petra was there, too. In fact, she looked right at him, walked up, and asked him to dance. It was a slow dance, and she pressed herself against him. This was all a little too fast for Ed to react, and while he didn't feel completely comfortable dancing with someone whose appearance was so peculiar, chivalry combined with the sensation of her breasts against his chest. In fact, she likely had his number from the start, chivalry and boobs, plus a certain lack of confidence: his acne had abated, but he still saw himself reflected in his parents' suspicions that he would never, in their eyes, become a full person.
When the music stopped, she didn't let go. She clung to him with her arms around his neck. She'd fastened herself onto him like a lamprey. He was, on one level, fully aware that he was being manipulated. The price of her breasts was going to be allowing himself to be publicly identified as her boyfriend. He calculated the factors, the hairiness, the outlandish clothes, and in the end he didn't know if he had the self-possession to pay or not.
At the end of the evening, they extricated themselves from their embrace. The standards of decorum at a dance in a high school gym ensured that what canoodling they could accomplish was strictly limited. Petra had likely factored this into her calculations. Ed, on the other hand, left the encounter thinking he'd been able to temporize on whatever tacit deal had been suggested. Petra almost certainly did not share this view.
His notions of chivalry and romance had been deeply shaken. He suddenly saw the relationship between the sexes as a much more matter-of-fact set of unspoken arrangements, and indeed, a matter-of-fact set of unspoken outs to those arrangements. He pondered that recognition in his mind the way he might have examined a loose tooth with his tongue.
The next morning, his mother collected his laundry. "Ed," she called up the stairs a few minutes later, "some stupid girl left lipstick all over your collar." Perhaps Petra had calculated this as well. His mother, who only a short while before had been fretting that Ed was gay, would now have this as a different line item to add to her bill of worries and petty complaints. If she took the lipstick as any sign that Ed had begun to pass into the sort of life she took for granted, she gave no indication.
John's writing has appeared recently, or will appear, in Backhand Stories, Cantaraville, The Cynic Online, Dark Sky Magazine, DOGZPLOT, Hobson's Choice Zine, Holy Cuspidor, The Journal of Truth and Consequence, Literal Translations, Pear Noir!, Press 1, The Scruffy Dog Review, Word Riot, and Written Word. He has degrees in English from Dartmouth College and the University of Southern California.