My sister tells me she's had sex with the boy I have a crush on. She is two years younger than me.
All I can think to ask her is what it was like, even though I know this information will be useless to me—her brother. She knows it, too, but she cocks her head to the side, smiles, and says, "It hurt a lot at first. The second time felt better."
This is how I learn it has happened more than once.
My sister and I are very different. She is intelligent—we're in the same Algebra II class, not because I'm that stupid but because she's that smart—and blessed with good looks, high cheekbones and smooth skin, no signs of puberty's unpleasantness. When I was fifteen my face was cratered with so much acne it looked like I had road rash layered with constant embarrassment, and no amount of deodorant could mask the retched, sulfuric smell of my body odor. Jenny, on the other hand, is perfect, a modelesque waif who rose to popularity like a rocket ship the moment she stepped into our high school's halls. She is, for people like me, the worst kind of popular: she is kind and friendly with everyone, her smile the opposite of vapid, her voice soothing and steeped with interest. She is the president of the sophomore class and would be head cheerleader if she wanted to be on the squad, but she does not. Somehow, this choice has made her more popular.
And she is, she tells me, sleeping with Jeremy Cologna.
She tells me this while we both sit on her queen-sized bed, cross-legged, something we have done for as long as I can remember, each night while our parents cook dinner. It is the one thing that we seem to have in common: we cannot stand to watch the romance of our parents' meal preparations. Our parents are young and both gorgeous—our father, in fact, was a swimwear model for a time just before I was born—with full heads of hair, strong cheekbones, and sharp jaw lines, and they are desperately in love. They dance around one another in the kitchen while they cook together, quite literally taking hand and waltzing a few steps if they both turn around simultaneously, one from shucking vegetables, the other from stirring a simmering sauce. They laugh and kiss, and both Jenny and I roll our eyes and retreat.
A part of me thinks Jenny is undeserving of this disgust toward our parents' public affection, especially now that she has taken Jeremy Cologna as her own. He reminds me somewhat of our father: they both have chocolate brown hair that flips back from their foreheads into wavy locks, and Jeremy has a chin so strong it appears cut from marble. His shoulders are softball-sized, their roundness visible under the thickest sweater. He is, of course, a football star. But he also plays basketball, and would be on the baseball team if we had one.
"Well?" she says, picking at the down comforter. We're sitting in front of one another, bodies mirroring each other.
"What do you think?"
"About you having sex with Jeremy Cologna?"
"I'm not sure what I'm supposed to think, actually."
"You won't tell Mom and Dad?"
"Why would I do that?"
"I don't know."
"Do you like him?"
"Sure, I guess. I had sex with him so I guess I like him."
"Do you love him?"
She wrinkles her brow and her nose crinkles like she smells something sulfuric. "Oh, no, no. He's really too stupid for me, you know?"
"He's not stupid."
"Well, okay, fair enough, but he's definitely not smart enough."
"Then why'd you have sex with him?"
Jenny cocks her head and looks at me as though I'm speaking Russian or in tongues. "It just seemed like a thing to do at the time." She shrugs and plies the blanket between her fingers like she is spinning silk. "It seemed like it was time."
Aside from being a genius and gorgeous, my sister has been blessed with some kind of extra sensory perception about lost things. She'll be lying on the couch eating potato chips while our mother flurries about looking for her missing car keys, and Jenny will yell out that they're on top of the piano, under a stack of bills and voila, there they are. Or my father can't find his keycard for work and she'll declare between slurps of cereal milk that it's probably in the stretchy mesh pocket of his briefcase, and of course she is right. When the neighbor's cat squirted out the front door in pursuit of a loud-tweeting bird in the yard, Jenny was able to pinpoint the storm drain it had curled up in for the night. Mrs. Adams gave my sister a two-hundred dollar reward, which, to the surprise of no one, she donated to the nearest animal shelter.
There is one exception to Jenny's finding skills. And of course, that exception is me. When something of mine goes missing, her eyes get wide and she stammers out a suggestion, and she is never, ever right. The first time she realized I was immune she cried, a soft hyuck-hyuck noise, not because she thought I had tricked her but because she felt like a failure—this when she was eight years old, already knowing what failure was—and our parents crowded around her with hugs and adorations. They both glanced at me as though I had somehow done something wrong, as if I should have lied to my sister about her incorrect assertion that my Walkman was stuffed under the bathroom sink.
The doorbell rings and Jenny bounds to the front door. I am horrified to hear the sound of Jeremy Cologna's voice in the front hall.
"What's going on?" I ask my mother.
She giggles at my father's hand encroaching across her waist, slapping it away. "Jenny asked if a boy could come to dinner."
"And you said yes?"
"Of course we did."
Jeremy sits across from me, wedged between my sister and mother, and I try not to stare at him while he chews, the muscles in his jaws popping as he bites into his food. He jokes and makes my parents laugh, my father leaning back in his seat, sharp curve of his Adam's apple bobbing up and down as his cheeks turn red. Jeremy is wearing a white t-shirt embossed with our school emblem on the right side, and the fabric hugs his well-toned torso; when he plucks up a forkful of food, I can see the curve of his bicep. While my mother clears plates to make space for dessert, I imagine him and my sister having sex and find myself both aroused and disgusted.
At the end of the night, my sister walks Jeremy out, the two of them disappearing from view, and I try to make out their whispers. My parents are settled on the couch, tangled up in one another, watching a sitcom.
"He seems nice," my mother says, when Jenny walks back into the room. Her hands are clutched together in front of her.
"Yes, he is," Jenny says. Her voice is far away, somewhere I would like to be.
When the weather is nice, Jenny invites Jeremy over to use our pool. Our father is stretched out on a lounge chair, dripping water between the rubbery slats onto the terra cotta brickwork. He's just finished swimming laps, and he is gulping down large breaths, his chest expanding and crumpling like a bellows, the still-taut muscles of his stomach stretching and contracting. Jeremy waves toward us, lifting his chin just so and smiling. He has, of course, a great smile, perfect white teeth and lips that are neither too full nor too thin. Then, before Jenny has a chance to say anything, Jeremy peels off his shirt, kicks off his flip-flops, and makes a perfect dive, slicing into the deep end. I watch from my place next to my father as Jeremy's body slips through the water toward the shallow end, a tan, narrow rocket.
"Nice dive," my father says when Jeremy emerges from the water, eyebrows wriggling as they do when he offers someone a compliment.
"Thanks." Jeremy walks up the concrete steps that fan out on the near edge of the pool, slicking his hair back. I turn my head away just so, but look him over. A layer of muscle rolls over his hip bones, upper and lower body separated by a cut in his flesh that until now I'd been convinced could only be achieved by Photoshop, and a small tuft of hair sprouts from the bulb of his belly button (an outie, of course) and trails down to his low-slung swimsuit, blue with white-patterned flower blossoms.
"Either of you getting in?" he asks. Across the pool from us, Jenny is busying herself with laying out a beach towel on her own chair. She's pulled a second one next to it, intended for Jeremy.
"Catching my breath. Just finished some laps," my father says, curling his hands behind his head.
Jeremy turns toward me. "Andy?"
This is the first time Jeremy has spoken to me or said my name, and I feel as though I will melt through the gaps in my chair. I am immediately aware of the slight sag of my body; I have been running for weeks, thrusting myself through the churning summer air, clothes clinging to my drooping skin like a second layer until I nearly pass out. Although my skin has tightened some, and the pushups I grunt through each morning have started to give my upper body more definition, the moment Jeremy speaks to me I feel as unattractive as a witch, like every part of me that can still jiggle—Jeremy, of course, has none of these—is vibrating and obvious.
So I shake my head and say maybe, then shrug and lower my lounge chair into a fully recumbent position. For the remainder of the afternoon Jeremy splashes around in the water like a child, Jenny sunbathes, and I make furtive glances in his direction. Our mother brings everyone lemonade, like she's some housewife out of the 1950s, and our father makes a joke to that effect. In return, my mother tosses him in the pool when he isn't paying attention. There, Jeremy and my dad compete, swimming laps and thrashing like they're being assaulted by sharks or a gang of piranhas. Jenny shakes her head and looks in my direction; although we're both obscured by sunglasses, I can tell she is rolling her eyes. I wonder if she knows I am scowling at her. My skin burns under the sun, and I relish the sharp tingle.
My sister brings Jeremy over throughout the summer, especially when our parents are at work. They have sex, loud, in her bedroom. I've promised not to say anything.
"I thought you didn't love him," I say one afternoon after he's left. Jenny's got a towel wrapped around her hair like a turban. They've just taken a shower together, the bathroom smelling of the body wash she lathers over him. My body wash.
"I don't. But I've decided sex feels very good once you've done it a few times. And I'm pretty sure Jeremy's done it a few times."
"Aren't you supposed to be smart?" I turn on the television and lean back, wincing. I'm cherry red from too much sun, but I can't go jogging with a shirt on it's so hot outside.
"Just because I have sex doesn't mean I'm not smart, Andy."
"You know," she says, "you're looking pretty fit."
"What do you want?"
"Nothing," she says. "Just wanted to tell you."
I sit up and we stare at one another. Jenny winks, then twirls and marches off to her bedroom. My stomach rumbles.
The doorbell rings, and because I'm the only one home, I hoist myself from the couch and open the door.
Jeremy is standing in front of me. He is wearing a homemade tank top, the sleeves of one of our high school spirit shirts shorn off. Jeremy is very tan, and the veins of his forearm look glued onto his skin.
"Jenny isn't home," I manage to squeak out. My throat is dry, like I've been running.
"I know," he says, smiling at me.
The look in Jeremy's eyes makes my knees wobble like I'm in a classic movie: I recognize it because I know it is how I have glanced at him when he doesn't notice, as he emerges from the pool or chews on a wad of food at our dinner table or smiles at one of my dad's terrible jokes.
As I step back and let him through the door, neither of us speak, and he reaches out and touches the hinges of my jaw with both hands. They are smooth, warm, and even his fingertips are filled with strength. When he kisses me, his lips are like flower petals they are so moist and full.
I am gone then, a ghost of myself, as though I have been knocked unconscious.
Jeremy still dates my sister throughout the summer, but I no longer watch their hand-holding and his smiles with envy. When he emerges from our swimming pool I am no longer worried about being caught glancing at the way the material clings to his backside, revealing the roundedness of gluteal muscle that I have seen and gripped firsthand. If he turns toward me I resist the urge to smile at him. Jenny has no idea.
I know that I should feel guilty for what I am doing to her; she is happy and yaps on and on about how much she likes Jeremy. She will not admit it while she is twisting the material of her bedspread—where I know they have had sex just the day before—but I think she is falling in love with him despite her insistence otherwise. Her voice is airy and childish, and her cheeks flush when I press her to tell me what she thinks of him. I am picturing him, trailing his lips across my neck and reaching under my shirt toward my belt buckle, his hands perpetually warm, and soft, and gritted with capacity, my own hands hugging at his rounded shoulders that feel like rocks under my touch.
Despite her feelings, I relish in this secret Jeremy and I have because I know in the knit of my bones that it is real and what he has with Jenny is a deception, his way in. He has told me so through sweated breaths, his voice raspy and tingling. It is the one thing I have that my sister does not: Jeremy's true affections. I wear this knowledge like a crown, invisible to everyone but myself. It is there, heavy and golden on my forehead.
"Why don't you talk to me like before?" Jenny says. I've just emerged from the shower, and she's cornered me in the hallway.
"Is it Jeremy?"
"You don't like him, do you?" Jenny's voice is cracked like she's dehydrated.
"I don't know what you're talking about."
Her eyes are wide. "You haven't sat and talked with me in weeks, Andy. What did I do?"
Jenny appears to be shrinking. I look everywhere but in her eyes.
"You look good," she says, poking toward my midsection.
I am saved by my mother yelling for Jenny, wanting to know where the checkbook is.
"You left it in the car," Jenny says, turning away. I use her distraction to slip past, and she lets out a small peep as I surge by.
As the weather begins to cool, Jeremy and I start running together. He teaches me how to do proper pushups, bending my elbows while I lower my body toward the ground. The first time, I lose my balance and my face smashes into the grass in our front yard. Jeremy darts his hand out and trickles a finger over my jaw and cheek, asking if I am alright. He stiffens then and stands up straight, hands on his hips. I squirm up: Jenny is watching us in the window.
"Do you think she knows?" Jeremy says.
"No." I smile. "She has no clue." I turn back to her and wave. She disappears into the house.
When Jeremy and I run, I can tell he is slowing his pace for me. When I mention this he acts like he has no idea, but I see through him and I give him a shove, if for no other reason than to feel the slickness of his arm under the sheen of accumulating sweat. Jeremy sweats profusely and quickly, and he is drenched, hair lacquered with moisture, only minutes into our route. But he gives off a pleasant scent when he perspires like he's made of cloves and sugar, and I trail after him down the street like a rabid child desperate for a cupcake.
The day is cool enough, and Jeremy cranes his body around to me, abdominal muscles twisting like a wet towel, and suggests we try a longer route.
"I have an idea," he says, winking.
Jeremy leads me into a shaded park with an asphalt trail that snakes through the trees. No more than a minute into the dense foliage he stops and I nearly smash into him.
"What are we doing?"
"Being adventurous," he says.
Jeremy pulls me off the path and into the trees; his hands are slick, and he takes one of mine in his and starts crunching through the brush. After a few minutes of him ignoring my asking where we are going, we emerge in a small thicket, like something out of a movie: the grass is short and mingled with purple flowers, and a felled tree's trunk is covered with a blanket of moss. Somewhere, I can hear the slow gurgle of a creek, like someone is gargling in a hall bathroom.
When I turn to Jeremy, he leans in and kisses my throat, and my heated body is filled with a different kind of warmth. I press him back and return the gesture, the saltiness of his skin like a carnival pretzel. I graze my tongue across him and want to taste all of him. But I pull back and look him in the eye.
"I love you," I say. He smiles and I can tell he loves me too, and we fall to the ground together.
"Are you sure I shouldn't stop seeing your sister?" Jeremy brushes a streak of grass from my back. We are still panting as we walk.
"What other excuse would you have for coming over?" I say. He has a smashed flower stuck in his hair, and I pick it out. I hold it up and look at it as if I am staring through a microscope, taking in its ribbing and whispers of vein, and then I let it go and follow its looping drop to the ground. A car wheezes by us, the air billowing at the mesh of my shorts.
Jeremy's hands are cupped around the back of his head as he takes in air, the muscles of his chest stretched and rounded, intercostals the shape of piano keys. "We could just tell everyone we're running partners."
"We are running partners." I try not to grin.
"You know that if I'm seeing her, I'm still, you know."
"Having sex with her," I say.
"Isn't it weird to you?"
"Is it weird to you?"
Jeremy bites his lip. "A little bit. I mean, I like—well, I don't know."
We turn onto my street and I stop walking. "Jeremy." It occurs to me that I have not really said his name ever, and it tumbles out of my mouth like spilled milk.
I swallow, trying to make my voice as silky and unwrinkled as I can. "You still like girls, don't you?"
Jeremy crunches his lip. I can see his tongue rolling against the inner side of his mouth. "I think so, yeah." He presses a smile on like a temporary tattoo. "But that doesn't change anything."
"I know it doesn't," I say, and continue walking. Jeremy follows suit.
Jeremy, after a swimming date with my sister, is about to leave our house and is standing at the front door. All he needs to do is keep walking.
But instead he turns around and holds up his naked wrist and says, "Oh, hey, I can't find my watch. I didn't leave it around here somewhere, did I?"
I am leaning against the wall, and it takes all of my energy not to slide down like putty. Everything moves in slow motion and is blurry with fuzz, like I am looking through a white cotton shirt.
Jenny turns around like she is stuck in molasses or has a stiff neck. She is starting to say, "Oh, it's in—"
She stares at me. Jeremy's watch is lost somewhere in my room, probably under my bed.
For which, of course, there is no good reason. Except.
The look in Jenny's eyes tells me she knows. The cavernous O of her mouth tells me she knows. The wash of tears forming tells me she knows.
"Andy?" She squints and a few drops streak down her cheeks. Jenny turns back toward Jeremy.
He is looking at her with a half-stupid, half-guilty look, and he is paler than I've ever seen, sheeted white. I expect him to puke, but he sucks in a long, piercing breath that whistles through his cheeks.
We stand there together, the three of us statues, Jeremy and Jenny and I in a line, my sister trapped in the middle. I don't feel shame or fear as I expected. Instead, I feel my chest expand, my spine stretch as I stand tall and smile at my sister. She wilts like a dying flower, a time-lapse video of its browning and curling in on itself. My smart, gorgeous, loved-by-all sister reduced to a puddle in our foyer. Watching her slip down against the wall, my smile fades and I feel a similar emptiness gurgling from somewhere in my middle. Jeremy hitches his shoulder a few times, wondering if he should say something, reach out for her, but with our secret revealed there is no reason for him to hold on to her anymore. He and I lock eyes.
Months and years from now I will think of his face and recognize the self-destruction in Jeremy's gaze, the realization that the truth will come out and that he is not ready for that yet, an uncertain nausea that will plague and haunt him long after we are no longer involved. When I remember this I may, even, have some sense that in this moment I know that we are not destined for one another, that, it turns out, I am strong where he is weak, and that he needs someone like my sister in order to feel right. I will also recognize that this is the moment that my sister and I begin to drift apart, my caring, supportive, perfect sister, whom I have blindsided with this thing that she and I will never speak of. But at this moment, when I am the one in Jeremy's eyes and he and Jenny and I all know it, even though I want to reach out and comfort my sister, the strongest thing I can feel is this new thing, this power of winning.
Title graphic "Ready for the Dive" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2015.