Eliza Rosen was a senior at the Crestmont-Maguire School in Berkeley, happy except for having to take chemistry and apply to colleges and straighten her hair. Her hair was awful: curly all over, not just at the ends, and bushy in the rain. She spent hours setting it in oversized rollers, then sitting under her portable hair dryer with the rubber bonnet that puffed out with hot air, like a Jiffy Pop pan on the stove. The heat burned her scalp and the tips of her ears, but she sat for the required hour, reading Seventeen and Glamour, where Christie Brinkley frolicked on beaches, not even bothering with sunblock, which Eliza's dad, who was a doctor, said you needed if you didn't want to end up with melanoma.
Jack never mentioned her hair.
He picked her up on Friday downtown, far from school. Her best friend, Terry Trefethen, who knew about cars, said you could tell Crestmont-Maguire paid the teachers shit because Mr. Galloway drove a Vega, but Eliza didn't care. She slid into the passenger seat, heart pounding, so happy, and Jack leaned over and kissed her on the lips. "Hey, sweetheart," he said, and it was a good thing she was sitting, because otherwise her legs would have buckled.
Jack lived in a cottage behind one of the big old houses in the Berkeley Hills. He made sure no one was watching from behind the main house's drawn curtains as he pulled up the driveway. Eliza slung her book bag over her shoulder. If anyone knocked on the door, she'd be able to say Mr. Galloway was just giving her extra help on her American Government paper.
The cottage was dark, with oak wainscoting and green curtains the color of an old pool table. To Eliza, it smelled like a man. Outside the window, across from the plaid couch where she sat, two boughs of a pine tree shuddered in the breeze that blew in off the bay.
Jack got their drinks: a beer for himself, chocolate milk for her. She didn't really like chocolate milk all that much, but the first time she'd come, that's what Jack had given her, and now it was like their tradition.
"How was school?" he asked, sitting beside her and taking a swig from the bottle.
"Okay. I got my paper back in French."
"How'd you do?"
"That's my good girl," he said, settling himself, extending his arm across the back of the couch, meaning that she should lean back too.
He was a little taller than her father, with thick hair and a curly beard and light blue eyes that looked almost yellow. He had a paunch. She was a little afraid to see him without clothes on; she thought he might look fat and old. But she was a little excited too. He always said, "Not yet." He said they had to go slow. For now, they just kissed.
"How was your day?" she asked shyly, loving how it sounded so girlfriend-y, or maybe even wifely.
He laughed and pulled her onto his lap. "You are so adorable," he said.
While he kissed her, she thought of what Terry and everybody else would say if they knew, and how she could taste weed on his breath, and how sweet it was that he was a grown-up man who could have picked anyone, and he had picked her. He rubbed the flat of his hand over the front of her sweater, and she sighed into his mouth and thought that she didn't mind not telling, she didn't mind at all.
"You taste like milk," he murmured.
After a few minutes, she pulled away. "I'm so hot," she said. "Can I take off my sweater?"
"Oh, no," he said, kissing her softly on her mouth. "No. Leave your sweater on."
"Don't rush," he said. "It's better this way, what you're wearing. You have to learn," he said, "what clothes can do."
When he kissed her again, she felt him getting bigger under her legs, and she thought how lucky she was, to be with a man who knew so much, all the tricks. Boys just wanted to be naked.
After a few more minutes, he picked her up and set her on the couch. "Back in a sec," he said.
She sat, catching her breath. She could hear him in the bathroom: a shocking intimacy.
When he came back, she said, "Did I ever tell you about the man peeing?"
"What man peeing?"
"When I was ten, I used to catch the bus to school. Right behind the bus stop, there was an empty lot, except for a grove of trees. I was alone, waiting for the bus one morning, and I saw this old man in the trees, holding himself, peeing. He was wearing a hat and coat. But I could see him. Everything."
"What did you do?" Jack asked.
"I told my mother. And she said if I saw him again, not to look."
Jack gathered her in his arms. "Poor baby," he whispered.
He was hard again.
"No one to rescue you," he whispered, and she almost cried because he understood.
On Saturday, Eliza and Terry were in the Mustang, blasting KFRC in the drive-through line at the Jack in the Box on San Pablo. They were drinking Coke slushies they'd picked up at the 7-Eleven first when Terry, looking in her rearview mirror, said, "Oh, my God. It's Galloway."
She looked in the mirror and saw him right behind them, sitting in the Vega, one arm resting on the window frame. A woman sat next to him. She was wearing sunglasses and a white peasant blouse with puffed sleeves and embroidery at the collar. Eliza couldn't tell how old she was because of the sunglasses.
"On a date," Terry said, still looking in the mirror. "I bet she's thrilled."
Eliza didn't answer. Her head was spinning.
"Jack in the Box in a Vega with a big spender."
Eliza slid down in her seat.
"Who cares if he sees us?" Terry said.
"I don't want to embarrass him."
"Who the fuck cares?" She honked the horn and stuck her hand out the window, waving. "Hi, Mr. Galloway!"
Eliza clenched her eyes shut. "Shut up!"
Terry brought her hand inside and rolled up the window. "I'm gonna tease the shit out of him on Monday."
They inched up to the window. Terry rolled the window down again to take in the food. She passed the bag over to Eliza. "You want to eat here or the Rose Garden?"
"I kind of want to hang out here. To see if they make out or something."
"They're not going to make out in a drive-through line."
Terry shrugged and turned onto San Pablo.
"Don't you think it's pathetic? I mean, a Jack in the Box? And she was cute too. She could do so much better than him."
"Bennie and the Jets" came on. Eliza hated that song. "Galloway's sort of cute." Just to see what Terry would say.
"He's kind of a hippie, though. And the way he's always bragging about Vietnam, how he lied so he wouldn't have to go," Terry said, and Eliza knew that she didn't think he was cute at all.
On Euclid, almost there, Terry said, "Steve better not think he's getting away with Jack in the Box."
Steve Bingham was Terry's boyfriend. He worked as a caddy at her parents' club, where she'd met him one day at the outdoor bar.
"But the Vega. I mean, maybe it's all Galloway can afford," Eliza said, and then thought, Why am I defending him?
"Yeah, well, it doesn't have to be Trader Vic's, but it's got to have silverware," Terry said. She saw a place at the curb and braked hard, getting ready to back up. She was the best parallel parker at Crestmont-Maguire.
"Maybe it was a teacher from another school," Eliza said. "Maybe they were going to some social studies conference." Now that the Vega was nowhere in sight, this seemed entirely plausible.
Terry looked over her right shoulder, concentrating on the back and forth, until the Mustang sat neatly, exquisitely at the curb. She ground the shift into park and killed the ignition. "If it's a date, I'm not eating out of a paper bag."
They took the food to the grass so they could see the playground. Terry pointed out a woman breast-feeding a baby, a kid throwing tanbark, dads who were cute. The sun was hot, the way it was before Halloween, and the grass was dry and prickly and smelled faintly of dog shit. Eliza took a bite of her cheeseburger and then wrapped it up, saying she wasn't hungry. She lay back on the grass and closed her eyes, and finally Terry stopped talking. In the silence, Eliza watched the red-black sky behind her lids thud with the pulsing of her blood, which quickened whenever she let herself think.
She saw him in the halls, and every day in American Government. Usually she watched for opportunities to catch his eye. But as the days ticked by, she found herself doodling aimlessly in her notebook, not looking up. "Anything you'd like to add, Eliza?" he asked on Wednesday, clearly puzzled. She was usually anxious to participate in class. "Not really," she said, affecting boredom.
When he picked her up on Friday, she slid into the passenger seat, and before she had even closed the door, he was on her, kissing her hard, pressing his tongue between her lips until they parted. "I've missed you," he whispered. "I've missed you so much."
"People might see," she whispered back, alarmed at the way her body slammed itself up against him, the violence between her legs.
"I don't care," he said. His kissing was like erasure, a wiping out.
Back at his house, on the couch, he held her gently on his lap.
She was tongue-tied. She had rehearsed just what she would say, and now she had forgotten all the words.
Then something new. He pushed the white pleated skirt of her school uniform up and let his fingers glide over her thighs. "Let me see," he said, and, not sure exactly what he wanted, she held the skirt hem higher, at her waist. "Little flowers," he said, looking down.
"Is that all right?" she asked and he nodded, tracing a finger along the elastic leg opening of her panties, from her hip down to where it was wet. Then he kissed her again. "Sweet," he whispered.
She tried to slow down her breathing, tried to keep her knees together when he tugged at the gusset, baring her. "Just a little," he begged, as though she had forbidden him. His finger, when it was all the way inside, only hurt a little and then stopped. "Yes," he said, moving it. "Yes." But he stopped before she wanted him to. She held her hot face against his shirt, knowing he had seen the way she squirmed, her knees splayed.
Later, when he stood at the kitchen counter, stirring her chocolate milk, he said, "You weren't yourself this week. Everything all right?"
He cocked his head. "Really?"
She stared at her hands, pressed together in her lap, like praying. "I saw you last weekend."
"At Jack in the Box."
He stopped stirring. "Really?"
"You were with someone."
"Yes. Yes, I was."
She couldn't look at him. "Who was she?"
He brought her the milk, then sat next to her. She felt him watching her as she took a sip. "Why do you want to know?" he asked.
"Because... because." She stopped. It wasn't a fair question. "I don't," she finally said.
"Well, now, you did ask. And I want to know why."
"I don't know," she said miserably. "Because you're supposed to. If you think, maybe..."
"If you think maybe what?"
"Somebody's cheating," she mumbled.
So ashamed. As though she'd been the one caught doing something wrong.
"Did we ever agree that we were going to see each other exclusively?"
"No," she said, shocked. Wasn't that just the way it was, if the guy called you "baby" and said he couldn't stop thinking about you?
"Did I ever tell you that I didn't want you to see anybody other than me?"
She must have looked so miserable. He put his hand on her knee.
"Did it ever occur to you that that woman might be my sister?"
She looked up, turning her head so quickly that a tear flew off her lash and splashed on her bare arm. "Is she?"
"As a matter of fact"—he leaned toward her, lowering his voice in a way that made it sounds like a gentle warning—"and not that it's really any of your business, yes. That was my sister, Jeanette."
"Oh, Jack." Now that she'd been released from anguish, tears of embarrassment ran freely down her cheeks. "I'm so sorry. I... I just knew it was something. But I couldn't get it out of my head."
He took the glass of milk and put it on the coffee table. He forced her head into the cranny under his chin and encircled her with his arms. "It's all right, baby. It's all right."
The slow hammer of his heart soothed her. She almost fell asleep in his arms. But after a while, he eased her upright. He took both her hands in his and gazed seriously into her eyes.
"So we agree, now, that there'll be no more of this," he said.
"No more of what?"
"No more accusations. No more probing into my private life. Yes?"
She pulled her hands out of his. "You said she was your sister."
"Eliza, that's not the point. The point is that we can't let your jealousy and possessiveness get in the way of what we have." He re-grasped her hands and pulled them to his chest. "I have to protect you from your worst impulses," he said.
Before she could answer, he was kissing her again, and it felt different now, maybe because she wasn't on his lap for once. "I don't know what I would do without you," he murmured into her mouth, and she knew it was a declaration and an apology all rolled together. She kissed him back, acquiescing, ready to be happy again.
Now she thought more about what he was doing every day after school. Before, she'd just assumed he'd gone home and graded papers, made himself a TV dinner, read before bed. Now she wondered who he was with, if he went out with friends, if his parents lived nearby.
"What does Jeanette do?" she asked the next Friday, as they were driving up to his house.
"She's a teacher also. Fourth grade," he said.
She liked that he didn't sputter or hesitate, that he remembered exactly who she was talking about.
"In San Francisco," he said.
"Is that where you're from?"
"Uh huh," he said, checking his rearview mirror.
"Do your parents still live there?"
She felt foolish. Maybe grown-ups didn't talk about their parents to each other. Maybe that was a teenage thing.
She bit her lip to keep from asking more: where he went to high school, if he'd played any sports, if he'd gone to prom, if he'd had a girlfriend back then. She kept silent. She knew if she asked any more questions, she would sound insecure, which Seventeen said was something boys really hated.
The next Friday, she slid her panties off when he asked her to. Saying no would have been equivalent to suspicion.
"Shh," he whispered when she screamed a little. "It only hurts for a minute." And she bit her lip, willing it to be true.
On Sunday morning, she woke up early and called Terry, who had a phone in her room.
"It's not even seven!" Terry moaned.
"Come get me," Eliza whispered. "I'll be outside."
Half an hour later, they were parked down the street from Jack's driveway, shivering in the cold car, the morning fog thick and drippy around them.
"What are we doing? Who are we waiting for?" Terry asked, her arms crossed around her middle. "Oh, my God. I can see my fucking breath!"
Eliza believed Jack, believed everything he had said. She wanted proof before she told Terry the whole story, and this—his solitary Sunday morning walk, maybe, or a glimpse of him tidying up the living room, taking a small-size pizza box out to the garbage can—would underscore his innocence, his love for her.
"Can we at least listen to the radio?" Without waiting for an answer, Terry turned on the ignition. "Touch Me in the Morning" came on. "This song is so sexy," she said. "That's one of the things I can't wait to do. Wake up with Steve. Morning is when boys get the biggest hard-ons."
Eliza wasn't in the mood to talk about Steve or hard-ons. She wished she were home in bed, under the bedspread, reliving Friday afternoon yet again, the manly slap of his belly against hers, his ferocious growl at the end.
Terry grabbed her arm. "Look!"
And there they were—Jack and the woman in the Vega at Jack in the Box, who was most definitely not a sister named Jeanette, judging by the way they were kissing on the driveway, she in bell bottoms and Frye boots, he barefoot in pajama bottoms, wrapping a blanket around them both. "Holy shit!" Terry breathed, and Eliza nodded, unable to look away, because it was romance she was seeing, or something that looked a lot like it, anyway, and she was in the habit of studying romance whenever she came upon it. The way the woman raised herself a little on her toes to reach his mouth, the way he held her face in his hands: She mentally archived it all. Her long, straight hair. Duly noted.
"How'd you know where he lives?" Terry asked.
"He told me once," she said, and even though she could feel Terry's hard, questioning stare, she didn't say another word.
She pretended to be sick to avoid seeing him. She dismissed her parents' admonishments about how grades really counted now, and didn't she think she was playing with fire, risking C's, lying around the house when she didn't even have a fever? She ignored Terry's phone calls. She lay on the couch for days, the image of them kissing beneath the blanket wrapped around their shoulders burning itself in her brain. The blanket would have been warm from the bed from which they'd just risen.
In the end, it was her father she told first. Not about how Jack had wooed her, or how they had been together. She would never tell a soul about that. She had promised.
But she told him how Jack had joked about Vietnam, how he'd said you could get out of it if you were smart enough, without going to Canada. And how he knew someone, a cardiologist, an old friend from high school, who'd lied and said he had a heart murmur. Eliza's father, a radiologist, was offended and disgusted that a fellow member of the medical profession had enabled such a sniveling, cowardly act.
He called the police, and she told again. Then her parents escorted her down to the station, where she told someone else, a man who wore a regular suit, not a uniform. "What's this guy teach?" he asked after she'd finished.
"American Government," she said, and he half-laughed and said, "Figures."
Two weeks later, when she went back to school, a new teacher had taken over the American Government class. No one talked about Mr. Galloway or seemed to miss him. She eased into her seat, relieved that it was over.
But at the end of the week, she was shocked to see the yellow Vega parked down the street from the school. When the lights flashed, she steeled herself and walked toward it.
"Want to get in?" he asked as she approached the open driver's-side window.
She shook her head no.
"Why did you tell?" he asked. "That draft stuff. It's ancient history. And I trusted you guys." He looked down at his lap, then back at her. "You especially."
Her heart ached, hard like a stone, because she'd hurt him. And then in her throat: a rising of everything pushed down.
"Two years in fucking jail, maybe! Why?"
"Because you lied."
"Eliza." He leaned toward her. "I did not lie to you."
She knew that everything—what her future held, what she would come to believe about herself—depended on what he—they—said. Seventeen said so.
"I would never lie to you," he said.
She could feel all her body's cells lunging toward belief.
But when he tried to touch her, she stepped back, out of reach, saving herself.
Title image "Afterthought" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2018.