Joyland

New York |

Spying

by Taylor Larsen

edited by Michelle Lyn King

With his notebook already open, Daniel scanned the yards in front of us for the most interesting thing to take note of. The air was heavy, unmoving, but the shade protected us from the day’s violence, the brightness that seeped into every corner, exposing, confronting. I was one year older than him and possessed none of his air of authority. He had a large, impressive head and a small delicate body. His hair was strikingly black and the curls always clung to his skull as if pasted on. I, on the other hand, was tall for my age and continually embarrassed by my tree-trunk legs and long, stringy hair. We both would have been a lot happier if the gods had just switched our bodies during our respective times in the womb, giving him more of my massiveness and me more of his fineness of frame.

It was summertime and we were not signed up for day camp like other kids at our school and were instead subjected to day after day of entertaining ourselves. We had just come onto the broad platform that spread across an extensive tree that straddled our yard and the yards of two other neighbors.

Daniel—how to describe him back then? People were always touching him. Female babysitters were drawn to his petite frame and compact, handsome face. They were attracted to his serious nature and were always trying to pull him into their laps. They instinctively reached for him over me because they sensed that he had no interest in them and instead wanted to be left alone. They could feel how badly I wanted to be handled and this repelled them. My mother touched him often. She took naps with him and stroked his hair. My father hit him on three occasions when he really deserved it, but usually only tripped or shoved him in fun, unable to resist the intensity of presence that his tiny body commanded. I even found myself touching him, reaching out to pull him to me every now and then, when I had enough courage.

I was deeply relieved when Daniel invited me up to the tree house this time since sometimes he didn’t. Now I wouldn't have to come up with my own plan for the day, wouldn't have to call my boring friend Amanda to come and play with me.

Following him out into the yard, I passed the empty pans and dishes on the counter from when Daniel had made himself pancakes earlier that morning. He had used the stove, something he was not supposed to do, and I knew he would get in trouble for it, probably a slap or shove by my father. No matter how many times things like this happened, he never changed his behavior. His was a stubbornness you had to admire. Instead of needing to be formed and developed by life's experiences, his personality emerged intact from infancy and waited to impress itself upon us.

Once, Daniel had left the oven on all day and night, slowly roasting some meat he found in the back of the freezer. After that episode he was forbidden to use the oven unsupervised, and here he was, master of it.

"Willful boy," Dad would often say, yet there was a teasing quality to the tone of his voice, suggesting respect. So much attention was paid to this tiny creature. I knew he had a power I lacked.

The tree house consisted of a few boards nailed together to create a small platform about twelve feet off the ground. It afforded the best views of two sets of neighbors, as the houses on our street were claustrophobically close together. It was nestled in the branches and we found that we were able to see out onto much of the surrounding properties easily. Other children usually wouldn't see us as long as we stayed quiet and were sitting down. It was a relief to be hidden, out of view.

The Dennisons were our usual target, though we often spied on several other families. Every now and then we would leave our property and hide behind the Thomas’ bushes and observe their comings and goings. Their house was noticeably uglier than the other houses on our block, although every house was ugly. All were small, all were in pitiable condition.

More and more we watched the Dennisons. I was fascinated by Maggie Dennison because of her lovely pale skin, her curvy body, and the reputation of defiance she had earned at high school. I hoped that we would catch her with a boy in her yard, though we never had. Daniel’s searching eyes seemed keen on this idea too, though he had never admitted it to me.

I opened my green notebook and Daniel had his red one and the scribbling began. First we wrote down every object that was in their tight square of a lawn: bat, plastic seahorse raft, small, round above-ground pool, box with beer bottles. Maggie and her younger sister Kate usually came out on Saturdays to play games in their pool. Mrs. Dennison, pregnant for the fourth time, was almost never outside of the house.

The yard was still. Daniel had his binoculars out and was scanning the scene. I looked over at him, afraid the lack of action happening before us was somehow my fault. Daniel held a lime green pencil between his fingers, deep in thought. Maggie came out of the house in her rainbow bikini. We both began furiously writing. She was dragging a fluorescent green half-inflated inner tube behind her, moving with lazy limbs across the yard, a disinterested look on her face.

I looked over to Daniel's notes: stomach almost entirely flat, long legs, small love handles, nipples cannot be seen. I was pleased with myself for noticing first that there was a line of dark hair along her bikini—I wrote: pubic hair along bikini line. She got down on all fours and began blowing air into the tube, her face turning red with the effort. We had charted Maggie’s progress over the years in our notebooks, watching how her body had changed and the bathing suits covering it also had changed, becoming skimpier and skimpier. Her father came out and sat with his beer in a plastic fold-out chair, alternating between watching his daughter and gazing out blankly over the small, dull yard. Daniel often drew pictures of Mr. Dennison because his coat of body hair was so extensive, so thick, calling to mind a gorilla or a dog. I squinted to see what brand of potato chips Mr. Dennison was eating and noted it.

As the heat intensified, I could feel the back of my neck slowly start to burn. I began to get bored but did not want to admit this to Daniel. It was essential I pretend that I found this game as exciting as he did. Why did we have to be up here? Watching Maggie, my stomach hurt. She floated face-down, her arms hugging the inner tube to her chest, her legs sprawled out behind her, and her butt muscles flexed. Every now and then she would give a little kick to keep herself moving and this would ripple through her butt, causing each cheek to wiggle a little just above the surface of the water. I noted this and then set down my notebook, looking at Daniel with irritation. I was tired of observing other people, tired of envying others.

"Can we do something else?"

"You can. I want to stay here."

I crawled down the tree pausing at each step and grabbing at the bark and then finally jumped and landed awkwardly with a loud thump. Back on the ground, I could see Maggie in the pool through the chain link fence. She looked up from her drifting.

"Hey, Meg, what are you doing? Come swimming," she called out lazily.

I paused for a moment. She had never invited me over. She rarely talked to me.

"Really? I have to get on my suit." I called back, smiling hesitantly.

"Do it. I'll be here."

She was at least three years older than me. I couldn't imagine why she wanted me to come over. I felt a stab of pain when I thought over which bathing suit to wear. Would it be possible to cover up my thighs? No. I went into the house as silently as possible. Mom and Dad were still in their room. They liked to sleep in on Saturday mornings.

I put on my bright pink one-piece that Mom got me at the end of last summer at JC Penney. I wore shorts to cover most of my legs. Maybe I could somehow leave them on if I sat on the side of the pool and dipped my legs in. Maybe she wouldn't notice if I left them on in the water.

My heart was racing as I pushed open the screen door and went out into the sunshine. I grabbed a towel from the line and opened the gate to her fence.

Mr. Dennison looked up at me and then back down at his beer. He then waved his hands in the direction of his pool. Every Saturday of that summer he either sat out in the backyard or he barbecued. When he stood by his grill, he would leave the sliding glass door open so he could look in on whatever sports game he had playing on the TV in the living room.

I walked over to the edge, and Maggie floated toward me.

"Get in," she insisted, already exasperated with me. I felt dread as I set my towel down, remembering that Daniel was recording each moment in his notebook and he would note the appearance of my body next to Maggie’s in the pool.

I put one foot on the first step.

"Why are you wearing your shorts?"

I began to blush and looked down.

"Take 'em off. Let’s see what you got."

Her father looked up in interest as I removed my shorts. He had a slight smile on his lips, but otherwise he still seemed bored, sedated.

I stood on the edge of the green-blue water in my pink bathing suit, ashamed, tall, and towering over a drifting Maggie. The blond hair on my legs seemed to be standing up straight, and my pale skin to stretch on for miles. I was aware that I was being watched from above, from below, from beyond. Daniel could have been writing any number of things in his red notebook.

I went onto the second step and paused. The water was surprisingly warm, like bath water or piss, and it was nauseating to be even knee deep in it. Maggie left her tube and began to walk towards me, a bizarre grin on her face. She splashed me, sending warm chemical-heavy water into my face. I pretended to laugh although the whole scenario was angering me more and more. I couldn't help but splash back. I was staring at her bikini top. One side of the fabric was sagging a little, almost exposing a nipple. She instantly saw me looking at her and grabbed me, wrapping her legs around me and pulling me under. When we resurfaced her father was nowhere to be seen. She slipped back under the water and then exploded up in front of my face. A quick glance to the tree showed only the top of Daniel's hair.

An unexpected burst of courage overtook me and I said, "I'm leaving if you keep doing that." I turned away from her and prepared to walk up the steps.

"Sorry," she said, and grabbed my hand. She was counting on me to keep her from the boredom, the thick, unnamable gray zone that constantly hung over our heads every summer. It was thrilling to realize that I had something to offer.

"Okay, I'll stay," I said coyly. We drifted around the water taking turns springboarding our legs off the sides of the pool and then floating mindlessly before another burst of action. We established a rhythm: I drifted while she pushed, and vice versa. I noticed that one of her straps had fallen off her shoulder, revealing a little more of her right breast and I was grateful for this, knowing that it was at least partly for my benefit. Eventually, the strap slid off completely and she tapped me on the shoulder and went underwater. I followed her under and it was here, in a flash, that she showed me the full thing, untucked from the suit, as she grinned devilishly. The nipple was light pink and fascinatingly real. We came up for air. I looked up to see if Daniel could have seen the spectacle under the water but it occurred to me that he most likely could not. He was gazing down at us, squinty-eyed, and frustrated. Later on he would force me to report everything he had missed, like he always did. But for now, he couldn't extract a single thing from me.

I floated on my back, happy. She kicked in relaxed circles staring up at the sky. I wondered if she would let me touch it. I had nothing of the sort under my bathing suit and wanted to feel what would one day be mine. I pulled on her arm and we went back under, smiling at each other and blowing bubbles. I scrunched up my face, causing her to laugh and we pushed off the bottom up towards the light.

There was a commotion in our yard. Daniel was yelling at both of my parents, who stood underneath the tree house yelling up at him.

"Daniel, I warned you a thousand times about using the stove. You fucking come down here before I come up. I'll send your father up for you. Would you like that, huh? To be thrown down? Get down here!"

Maggie looked over, interested. I came up next to her to watch the scene. My mother was in her robe and my father was still in his pajama bottoms and tee shirt. There was a moment of silence as Daniel began to climb down from the tree. Usually he was left alone while he was in the tree house—they never asked him to come down. His small legs were trembling and all his heroic poise was absent. His head was bent when he hit the ground, as though he knew all the neighbors could see his awkward and pathetic descent from the ledge. I had only seen him like this one or two other times and he had always recovered himself right away, his defiance was always quick to return. My father seized this moment of weakness and slapped him hard across the face. He stumbled and almost fell over from the blow, but remained standing, but looking down. The embarrassment of this episode was somehow immeasurable and I felt rage and an instantaneous desire to protect Daniel. As if sensing this, he looked over, trying to see me. But I was locked in place, unable to act decisively—I wouldn’t be able to protect him. I knew the sting of my father’s slap. I knew my mother’s dead eyes. I‘d had my fair share of beatings. It wasn’t my turn now. I could not stand to look at him, nor at my Dad, still dressed in pajamas even though it was the afternoon, as he grabbed at the back of Daniel’s neck and propelled him forward with a series of shoves. I wanted them gone from sight, and as soon as they were, I felt a great relief to be in the water with Maggie.

Then it hit me—our privacy was now endless. Daniel was gone from the tree and I would not be watched. I was free of him and for a split second I felt happy that he had been shamed, disempowered, because he was, after all, just a little boy, littler than me, and not the giant he pretended to be. The yard was silent and I turned my eyes to Maggie, floating only inches from me.

We were both uncontrollably giddy—her father was gone, and mine was inside punishing Daniel. We were free to do whatever we wanted. I imagined the day as it would unfold. We would swim for awhile and then go into her house for ice cream and to watch movies in her room. I would call my parents and ask if I could stay there for dinner and they would let me. I would sit on the edge of the tub while she had a bath and she wouldn’t want me to leave so I’d sleep over. I wouldn’t have to go back to my own house and report in with Daniel. I wouldn’t have to suffer through dinner or see my Dad drinking beers in his chair in front of the TV. My parents’ constant bickering would not reach my ears. At Maggie’s house we’d stay up late and talk in bed and give each other back rubs. Then we’d fall asleep in her bed with the window open letting in a warm summer breeze. The family would be so pleased with my presence that they’d want me to come over every day. I would do the dishes after meals and tell wild, funny jokes. I would make her somewhat despondent parents laugh and bring out the best in everyone.

I followed her around the pool in fierce zigzag motions, cascading down to the bottom and then erupting to the surface. My courage was reaching a ridiculous level and as we clung to one side of the pool, panting from our zestful movements, I reached out a hand and cupped her breast. Her eyes lit up in momentary excitement and then they flashed resentment. She pushed off the side back into the center of the pool, covering her chest. I realized if I had just waited, she might have let me touch her. The weight and gravity of my mistake had me momentarily paralyzed. I saw the summer spread out before me, the solitude, with the incorrigible acts of Daniel punctuating the otherwise boring string of days. I felt the sting of the spanking he was now receiving, and I remembered the strange look on Maggie’s father’s face—that mindlessness that loomed like a threat over everything we did.

I saw poor Maggie, defeatedly kicking around the pool, until she slowly got out of the water, pulling her tiny suit to cover as much of her body as she could. She avoided looking at me and went into the house. I wanted to call after her, to say sorry, but knew it wouldn’t make a difference.

I sat on the steps of the pool, neither wanting to stay in the Dennisons’ yard nor wanting to go back into my own. I had hours to kill before dinner. Then the worst part happened: Maggie came back out. She felt the same as I did—that the boredom was too much, that she would compromise herself to avoid it. I wished she had stayed inside after what I had done. She was wrapped in a towel. I wanted her gone from sight and yet when she invited me in, I was relieved not to have to return to my own house. We pretended nothing had happened and decided to go up to her room. We spoke in whispers, as Mrs. Dennison was asleep on the living room sofa, her bloated legs propped up against the side of the couch.

Their house was noticeably dirtier than mine. The furniture was dingier, the colors blander. A dull fan turned in the corner. The living room drapes were closed and the shadowy room seemed to be a slowly churning vortex of darkness and pale light.

Sadly enough, after years of spying and snooping, I knew the Dennison’s habits better than I should have. Daniel and I had once gone through their garbage and had discovered a stack of old Playboy magazines concealed under a shiny black trash bag. We looked through them separately—I took one half of the stack to my bedroom while Daniel took the other to his own, an unspoken agreement to share the buried treasure. Turning the pages I had felt desire curdle in my stomach in unexplainable ways as I stared at the firm bodies and the fierce, desperate looks in the women’s eyes.

Now I was here with Maggie, closer to the source than I had ever been. Once we were alone in her bedroom, I wanted to make up for what I had done. I sat obediently on the edge of her bed.

“Here, you should get out of your wet suit,” she said. She threw me a dry change of clothes and I changed in front of her, deliberately trying to not cover myself so as to inflict as much humiliation as possible on myself. She watched me, looking over my misshapen body, unbudding in the crucial places and overdeveloped in others. The clothes clung to me, as I was much larger than Maggie. Once I had changed I felt sure she would let me watch her change, and I waited expectantly for this to happen. We could at least go look for the Playboys in her Dad’s closet. The tension in the room was unbearable. To ease it, she lowered her straps and revealed her breasts for a moment before snapping on her bra, and then slid off her bikini bottom and pulled on her underwear. There was the dark patch of hair and the lovely thin legs. I could hardly believe she existed—to be housed in such a form as hers would be too much. Having revealed the inequality in our two bodies to the open air I thought I had evened the score or gratified her in some way. She was smirking at me again as she noticed the excitement clearly displayed all over my face.

“I should help my mom with dinner, it’s getting late,” she said, yawning. "I don't really know why I invited you in."

“I can help you guys.”

“No, you should go home.”

I waited there, hoping that the moment would prove to be unreal. She didn't say anything else, only flipped a magazine open and began casually reading.

"You know you can always come over to our house," I said. She looked up at me and then said nothing. Then she scanned her eyes up and down the length of my body and looked back to her magazine, smiling to herself.

"What? What’s funny?"

She sat up in her bed and looked at me, her face suddenly ablaze with tense emotion. "You. You are."

There was really nothing to say at that moment so I just stood there, staring at her, waiting.

“Go. Go home,” she said, dismissing me with her hand.

As I entered my yard I felt exhausted. I thought about climbing up into the tree house and waiting there until someone came to look for me, but then decided against it. I saw no purpose in such games— they were only a way to delay some inevitability. Daniel might be cooking up some scheme in his room, defiant as ever, unbreakable. Or he might be huddled up on his bed, crying, getting angrier and angrier, and nursing his bruises from the fight with our parents. I didn’t know in that moment which it would be, and for the first time it didn’t matter to me. I half-hoped Daniel would be moping and broken, because I had already seen him dethroned, ungloriously coming out of the tree. I felt an equal revulsion for Maggie, knowing I would never be invited into her yard again. I pulled open the screen door to the back of the house and stepped inside, prepared for whatever scene might await me. My parents were up in their bedroom—I could hear the TV running behind the closed door from downstairs.

When I approached the door to Daniel’s room, it was partly open as if he had been waiting for me to come back. He lay on his bed almost exactly as I had pictured, and this coincidence solidified my brewing fears. His forehead was speckled with red marks, mysterious little dots that appeared on the rare occasion that he cried. He turned toward me, not knowing what to say, and then leaned over the side of the bed for his notebook. Seeing the faded red cover brought up a rush of pain as I realized the sad futility of his projects.

"Tell me what happened over there," he asked, his voice still hoarse from yelling and crying. The page was open and the last line read: They are underwater…

I thought of what to relay and found I could produce nothing. The moment was untranslatable. The silence was awful as he waited, his pencil near the blank page to which he’d opened. He looked so tiny sitting there, perched on the bed. His eyes were frantic as they looked up into mine. I thought of how to help him. His bottom was surely numb from the spanking. When I was spanked, he stayed away as well. When I was slapped, he did not rush to my defense. We were alone, each of us. In a decisive moment that was to create a permanent sense of distance between us, I said nothing and left the room.

In the hall, I heard him call out to me once, and then silence.

I went downstairs in search of something. I thought of the scene that had taken place in the yard earlier that day—the commotion and the yelling. Upon finding the downstairs quiet, I realized that the magnified gloom that hung about the rooms, hovered over our lives, barely perceptible, like a dull headache, was far worse than the biting pain of punishment.

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