Joyland

Los Angeles |

Sister, Stripper, Window

by Ruth Madievsky

edited by Lisa Locascio

Debbie lost her virginity to my eighth grade English teacher. She was in tenth grade. He was in his mid-twenties, probably. We had this bet going, me and Debbie, over when in the school year it would happen. I owed her three packs of cigarettes if it was before Valentine’s Day, and she owed me a new copy of On The Road if it didn’t happen at all. She and her ex-boyfriend Mick, a snaggletoothed amateur weed dealer, had torn pages out of my copy to use as rolling paper.

The English teacher Mr. Trace had flawless, Band-Aid-colored skin and the long, elegant fingers of someone who would have been better off as a pianist or an obstetrician. He projected an aura of subdued sexuality, like maybe he only had sex on Christmas and his birthday, and always with women he intended to marry. He wasn’t married. There were rumors that he had a long-distance girlfriend who was in medical school on the East Coast. There were also rumors that the girlfriend before her had fallen or jumped from an eighth-story window.

#

Debbie’s best friend at the time was a pig-nosed rich bitch named Lisette who wore obscene red lipstick and false eyelashes with little feathers on the ends of them that made her look like an acne-scarred blow-up doll. She hated me because I once ran into her father at a strip club and told her about it. I was there because Debbie had just broken up with Mick and wanted cash for her new weed habit. “This is way better than waiting on assholes in some gross restaurant,” she said, taking a long swig of beer.

We’d had fake IDs for as long as I could remember, not that anyone asked to see them.

“I don’t know,” I said, watching Lisette’s father motorboat a redhead in an American flag bikini. “It’s kind of the same thing. Except you’re bringing them boobs instead of burgers.”

“Which is way better,” Debbie said slowly, as though speaking to an imbecile. “Tits don’t smell like coleslaw.”

Anyway, Lisette was the one who told us that Mr. Trace’s old girlfriend may have offed herself. She’d heard it from her older brother, who’d heard it from a history teacher.

“Why would another teacher tell that to a student?” Debbie asked.

It was a stupid question, like asking why someone would defile a book to roll a joint, or why sixteen-year-old girls become strippers.

#

My sister fucked Mr. Trace on January eighteenth. I knew because he stopped calling on me after that. I raised my hand anyway, even when I had nothing to say. He called in sick the day of parent-teacher conferences and Mrs. Wormwood, the decrepit widow who taught Algebra, took his place. She told me Mr. Trace had written in his evaluation that I was his best student and I threw up on a ficus in the parking lot. I never bought Debbie the cigarettes, and she never asked for them. They broke up on February eighth. She didn’t tell me. I knew because he started calling on me again.

#

Mick OD’d on painkillers a month before the year was up. The day of the funeral Debbie took an extra shift at the strip club and didn’t come home for two days.

“Where the fuck is Debbie always disappearing to?” my mother asked the first night. She dipped a flaccid French fry in ketchup. She sliced a green bean as though she wished it were her arm.

“She’s a stripper,” I said.

My father made a tsk sound and turned up the television. Local police had drained a lake and found seven corpses. All but one were too waterlogged to identify.

“What?” my mother said. Her eyes were an abandoned apartment.

I had this sudden conviction that if I died in my sleep, she would share a bed with my corpse for days. It would be my father who called the police.

“Forget it,” I said, turning back to the TV.

Dad and I pretended not to hear her throwing plates at the kitchen wall. It was an incomplete sound, like the screech of automobile tires not followed by a crash. There was no plink of fractured glass, no supple burst of porcelain. The plates were plastic. We had learned years ago to stop buying things that shattered.

#

Lisette’s parents got divorced. Her mother moved to Switzerland with a cigar-smoking art dealer. Her father bought lap dances from Debbie and tried to feel me up outside a 7-Eleven. I let him.

“Do you believe in good and evil?” I asked him.

“No,” he said, quickly withdrawing his hand. “I believe in two things: love and medicine.”

“I don’t think I believe in either.”

I zipped up my sweatshirt. In the dark, the silver fly glistened like a scar.

#

“Is it true about your old girlfriend?” I asked Mr. Trace on the last day of eighth grade.

We were alone in the classroom, the only people indifferent to summer, to three months of sweating through our pajamas and wondering what was wrong with us, to another year passing.

His eyes were the blue of my mother’s antidepressants. “Is what true?”

“You know,” I said.

“She was sick. It was an accident. It’s none of your business.”

His breath smelled like grapefruit. I felt like I had swallowed my own fist.

“My sister doesn’t love you,” I told him.
He looked at me like I was an oddly shaped cloud. “You have a sister?”

#

Some night at the end of June, Debbie crawled into bed with me. Her eye shadow sparkled like cheap jewelry. Something hideous had happened. I could smell it on her.

Out my window the moon looked like a yellowed fingernail. We stared and talked about our plans for summer.