After science class, Lorena waited in the bathroom behind the portables, just in case. But Jenny Stallworth didn’t show up there anymore. Until one day, she did.
“There you are,” Jenny said. “I was looking for you.”
“Yeah?” Lo made herself look busy at the sinks.
“We should hang this afternoon.”
“Is your mom around?”
“No, she’s working late.”
“We can do it at your house then. I know where it is.”
Lo didn’t understand how this could be true. But there was Jenny when Lo arrived home, in full makeup and skintight Calvin Kleins. A few of the corner guys were eyeing her, spitting through their teeth. Lo hurried them inside.
Jenny flitted around, taking in the paneling, the daybed where her mom slept beneath the blanched portrait of sad blond Jesus, while Lo rushed into the bathroom and ripped down the dingy bras and compression stockings hung from the shower rod. She and her mother kept the apartment scrubbed, but it still smelled of fry grease.
Jenny pulled a lighter and a hard pack of Virginia Slims from her pencil case.
“Where’d you get those?”
“My mom stashes them around the house.”
“Won’t she notice if they’re gone?”
“She forgets. That’s kind of her thing.”
“Maybe we should go out on the patio?”
Lorena puffed at one of her mom’s Trues, while Jenny sought to perfect what she called the French inhale, jutting out her jaw and pulling the smoke into her nostrils. “I’m getting a head rush,” Jenny said. “Shit. It kind of stinks out here, right?”
“That’s the Campbell’s plant.”
“Like, the soup?” Jenny made her gagging noise.
Lo could see how lame her room looked: the stucco, the twin bed with its dark rayon bedspread. Worst of all was the little study center she had made at her desk, color-coded by subject. Jenny barely registered any of it. She flung herself down on the bed and asked for a Coke. When Lorena returned with two cups of cola, Jenny was holding a tiny bottle in her palm, which she displayed like a game-show model. “Chivas Regal,” she announced.
“I didn’t know they made that size,” Lorena said.
“They give these out on flights. Aren’t they just, like, too cute? Wait, have you ever been on a plane?”
Jenny poured herself most of the bottle. “My parents are such assholes,” she said. “I know you think they’re, like, this perfect couple.”
“Did something happen?” Lo said.
“You know why they got married? My mom was knocked up. It’s like they don’t think we can do math.”
“Does she know you’re here?”
“She thinks I’m at Young Life. Making some business plan with God. What a joke. Why did your parents split?”
“My dad just wanted to move out.”
“C’mon. There’s always something else.”
Lorena remembered her father appearing in the middle of the night and her mother—her gentle mother—rushing at him, punching, cursing in Spanish, Tony stepping between them, her dad knocking Tony across the room, a neighbor threatening to call 911, her mother wailing No! No policia! Then someone was setting her down on the mattress she shared with Tony and telling her to go to sleep, it was just a bad dream.
“Are they fighting or something?” Lo said.
“We don’t fight, Jennifer. We discuss. What fucking bullshit.” She flung the mini bottle and it tinkled across the linoleum. Jenny got up to check out the framed photo of Tony in his navel dress, the one her mother kissed every night before bed. “He doesn’t look like a thug. He looks like a chihuahua in a sailor suit.”
“Don’t let the uniform fool you.”
“Yeah, but, like, what did he do that was so bad?”
“He pulled a gun on a guy,” Lorena said. “He was at this gang initiation thing and some dude got in his face.”
Jenny’s pale smirk was gone. “Holy shit. What gang was it?”
“They’re called the Latin Kings.”
“He’s a Latin King?”
“Not anymore. He was just hanging out with the wrong people. That’s why he joined the navy.”
Lorena was worried her friend would press her for more details. But Jenny suddenly announced that she was bored and dug a cassette of Blondie out of her backpack and lit another cig and French inhaled and began flinging herself around, singing, One way or another, I’m gonna find ya, I’m gonna get ya, get ya, get ya. “Are you wasted? I’m wasted as shit. C’mon, Lo. Loosen up. You could have a guy over here every day and your mom wouldn’t know shit.” Then, as if she had just thought of it: “Hey, we should totally do that.”
Which was how Peter Stinson wound up at the apartment, an actual tenth grader, tall, sneering, his hair gelled into a frosted blond wedge. “You’re the best,” Jenny said, as she led him into Lorena’s room.
Where else could Jenny Stallworth behave this way? Not at home. Not with her real friends. Lo knew she was being used. But she was using Jenny, too, remaining close to her family. It was what people did. Her father used her mother for sex. Her mother used her father to reach the United States. She had used Tony’s delinquency to enthrall Jenny. There was no shame in any of it. Lo told herself this each time Jenny came over.
School ended and Lorena took the job her mom had arranged, washing dishes at a retirement home for two hundred a week, under the table. One evening, Jenny called to invite her over for a swim party. It had been months since she’d been in the Stallworth home. She had starved herself the entire time. Her curves had become pronounced, womanly. She found a consignment store where, if she hunted patiently, she could find clothes with the right labels, that flattered her new figure. The transformation sent Mrs. Stallworth into a rapture.
“Look at you! Ravishing! I’d kill for all that hair.” She insisted the girls come along for a pedicure. “A little gift for surviving middle school!”
They went to a place in the fancy downtown mall where Asian women buffed their feet with pumice stone. “Isn’t this nice?” Mrs. Stallworth kept saying. They had tea and sandwiches at a Russian tea room, then little desserts called patisseries, each of which had a thousand calories. Lorena could feel herself sinking again into the world of the Stallworths, the cool leafiness of the Fabulous Forties, a world without the drumbeat of duty, where time itself was a luxury.
The moment they got home, Jenny pulled Lo into her room. “She’s like this all the time now.”
“Frantic. Clingy. Wait till cocktail hour.”
“What happens then?”
Clothes spilled from Jenny’s closet onto the carpet. A bowl of macaroni and cheese sat congealing on her desk. “This place is kind of a sty, huh? We had to let Lucia go last week.” Jenny locked her door and peeled off her top. “Come on. Get into your suit.” She sat on her bed in her fancy bra and watched Lo undress.
“What are you now?”
“I don’t know. 34C.”
“C? You’re a C.” Jenny’s face collapsed. Within a year, she was going to be the prettiest girl in their class but all she could think about was her flat chest.
Out by the pool, Jenny rubbed in Coppertone and let the sun broil her. Lo stayed in the shade, so she wouldn’t get too dark. Jenny’s older brother Glen turned up with two friends, who stood behind him like jumpy lieutenants.
“Who’s your friend?” one of the boys said to Jenny.
“That’s Lo.” Glen nodded. “She’s grown a couple of cups since the last time we saw her.”
“Pig,” Jenny said.
Glen jumped into the pool in his soccer shorts and splashed the girls and his lieutenants followed. They leered at Lo’s chest. The pool, with its soft magnifying water, was like a staging ground for desire. But Lo knew her face wasn’t right. She looked too much like Lucia the maid. Jenny hated her body but she knew how to flirt, how to be needy and a little hateful at the same time.
Glen fired up the grill and made hot dogs. Mrs. Stallworth let them eat around the pool, why not, it was summer. She had to visit a sick friend, but whoever wanted to could stay over. She liked having a full house. She stood and stared at her children, smiling with a glassy intensity that made everyone a little nervous.
She’s lonely, Lo thought. Her mother was lonely, too. But her loneliness had seeped into her, taken its place within her private cabinet of disappointments, while Mrs. Stallworth flaunted hers like a goblet of wine. If she spilled enough, everyone would have to look and she would no longer be alone.
It was no secret where the wine coolers were. Glen hauled them out the moment his mom drove off. Lo sipped hers carefully. Glen said they should play a game. It was called Pimps and Hos. They sat around on the patio making up rules. The object of the game was to get the girls naked. This was the object of every game ever devised by teenage boys.
Glen ran to the cabana and came back with a snorkeling mask, which the boys took turns using. Lo’s body was being seen but not touched, like the photos in magazines. She sat on the pool steps in her bikini bottoms, one hand in front of her breasts, the other grasping her wine cooler.
She wondered if she would see Mr. Stallworth and what he would do if he caught them. She imagined him standing by the edge of the pool, staring down at her body. Everyone else had somehow disappeared. The wine cooler tasted like cough syrup. She couldn’t let go of it. She felt as if she were watching a movie of herself, one of those horror ones where the ugly girl gets killed first. She stood and wobbled toward the patio. One of the boys whistled and the other called out for her to dance and began singing “La Cucaracha.”
“Fucked up,” Glen said, laughing.
Jenny tapped on the bathroom door. “You okay?”
Lo said she should be getting home. She had church the next morning. “Wait for my mom,” Jenny said. “She’ll drive you. You don’t want to ride your bike all fucked up.”
They went into her room and Jenny locked the door.
“Go hang out,” Lo said. “They’re waiting for you.” She lay down on the carpet, which spun.
“It’s okay. I don’t even like those guys. They think they’re hot shit. That one dude, Trent—he’s a fag anyway.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s just something I heard.” Jenny flung off her towel and wiggled out of her bikini; the stark white of her skin shone against her tan like a second suit. Then she threw on a T-shirt and pulled a bottle of Absolut from beneath her bed. “This mixes with orange juice. You can hardly taste it.” She went to the kitchen and returned with a giant plastic mug. “Don’t look at me like that. It’s mostly ice.”
A car pulled up outside and Lorena edged toward the window. Down below, Mr. Stallworth emerged from his Jeep and began heaving camping gear from the back. The flare of his triceps made her gut hop. “That’s your dad,” she said. “You should put that stuff away.”
“Don’t stress. He won’t come upstairs,” Jenny said. Then, rather abruptly, “What do you think of Peter Stinson. He’s kind of a dick, right? I gave him head, like, a month ago. He kind of made me. His crotch smelled like old laundry. Is that gross? Do you think I’m a slut?”
“Of course not.”
“He’s fucking some slut from Roseville now.” Jenny took another glug from her giant mug. “I’m telling you cuz you know how to keep quiet. If you say anything, I’ll tell everyone you were the one who sucked him off.” Jenny started laughing, then she was sort of crying.
“Are you okay?”
“Of course I’m okay. I wanted to do it. I was fine with it. It was so nothing.” She closed her eyes. Within a minute, she was asleep.
Lo got up to get a towel, just in case. There was a small window, through which she could see down onto the pool. The boys were still out there, pale bodies flickering in the blue water. Glen had the scuba mask on and he kept dipping his head underwater to look at his friends. Lo knew then—without wanting to—what his secret was.
She slumped down onto the carpeting and stared at the glint of the Absolut bottle. The Stallworths were careless. Sloppy. They could afford to be. That was the thrill they imparted. She felt liberated among them, from the confines of her discretion, the prison of careful habits she had constructed. The risk of getting caught was the heart of the whole thing. That was what Lo would decide in the end, though the end was still a long way off.
From All the Secrets of the World by Steve Almond. Copyright © 2022. Excerpted with permission by Zando. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.