Invisible Men Make Bad Company

by Chelsey Grasso

We sit behind the wheel of her father’s red convertible, too red to be taken seriously by anyone in the neighborhood, and we banter with men who do not exist. She is in the driver’s seat. I am giving her directions. We are stationary in her parents’ driveway.

By next week we’ll be entering the halls of Jefferson Heights Middle School, but that is next week. For now, our boyfriends’ invisible figures occupy the back seat. We are not yet sixth-graders.

“Catch your Z‘s now, babe. You’re taking over in Georgia.” I admire the way Jessica uses the word babe with such authority and add it to my own vocabulary. I’ll never quite master it like she has. Even after I’ve been married for three years the word will still fall out of my mouth like something I’ve stolen.

We are headed to Florida. To Miami. We roll down the windows and roll them back up. We make phone calls, holding our fingers to our ears. We yell at the imaginary men in the back seat for making us do all the driving.

Jessica’s older sister pulls up and parks her dented station wagon behind us. “Freaks,” she remarks as she walks by and sees us laughing wildly through the convertible’s windows, talking to the nobodies that sit behind us. She is right. We stay in the car for another two hours talking to these men and talking for them. We are too old to be doing what we’re doing, but we do it anyway.

We imagine that our boyfriends are in a band. A popular band. That they send girls swooning. That they are pinned to the walls of our peers’ bedrooms all over the country. The idea of full-grown men being made up and dressed in matching denim jackets for the pages of teen magazines doesn’t yet strike us as humiliating. We argue over who gets the cute one and which one really is the cute one. We tell them how much we love them, and they tell us they know. We roll our eyes.

That summer before sixth grade, when we’re not sitting behind the black dash of Jessica’s father’s convertible, we can be found at dance camp, where our mothers drop us off every weekday morning. Because we will be entering middle school in the fall, we get grouped for the first time with the older girls. We watch as they memorize steps we can’t keep up with. We gaze as they roll their bodies like waves, puffing out their chests that are no longer flat like ours. We try to do the same, and they laugh at us. I laugh too, but when I get home in the evening, I stand in front of my mother’s mirror for hours trying to make my body move like theirs.

When I go to Jessica’s house, she gives me handfuls of tissues which I stuff down my shirt. We go through an entire box creating our figures, and then we admire them. Fully stuffed, Jessica and I stand before her mother’s dressing mirror and try to roll our bodies as effortlessly as the older girls do in class. We pull back our shoulders and jut out our tissue and let our hips follow. We do this again and again until we hear her father’s car pull into the driveway. The candy-apple convertible. We rip the tissues from beneath our shirts and flush them, handful by handful, down the toilet. When her father walks in through the front door we are children again, and we ask him if he’s left the car unlocked for us. “It’s all yours, girls,” he says. He never asks us what we do in the car. My mother asks once, and I tell her we do nothing. I tell her we just talk. She says it’s strange that we need to go into a car to talk, and I tell her it’s strange that she cares so much about what we’re doing. Then she tells me it’s her job to care about me, and it’s in these moments that I hate her.

When sixth grade begins, Jessica and I are popular. We use the fresh start at a new school to bury our days of fifth grade behind us, along with our Lisa Frank notebooks, boyband pinups, and rolling backpacks. We no longer sit in empty cars and talk to invisible men.

My parents work late that year, and they send me to Jessica’s after school most days. Her parents are working too, but Jessica has an older sister who can keep an eye on us. That’s what Jessica’s parents say. That’s what my parents believe. One time, when we’re listening to Jessica’s mom remind Jessica’s sister of this duty, we hear her sister protest at having to watch over Beavis and Butthead. We learn this is us, and for the rest of the school year Jessica and I take on the names endearingly. Hang out at my house this weekend, Beavis? I read in dozens of notes passed to me during geography class. Duh, Butthead, I always write back.

Voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soir. One evening we dance around Jessica’s bedroom mouthing these words we do not yet understand, shaking our bodies, and swinging our limbs to the music. We dance loudly and boldly behind the closed door, but we’re always listening. Listening for the sound of footsteps, of keys jingling, of a car pulling into the driveway.

When no footsteps or keys or cars come, we become braver, tearing off our clothes and swinging them around our heads like helicopter blades that will lift us from the plush pink carpet we dance on.

My mom picks me up that evening. She asks what Jessica and I did all night, and I tell her we listened to music. When she asks if I had fun, I shrug my shoulders. We ride home the rest of the way in silence, my mother trying to ignite a conversation that just won’t light.

On Monday Jessica runs up to my locker. We talk about the new biology teacher. We make fun of the boys’ voices when they crack, and their faces turn a burning red. We hide behind lockers as we change into tired gym shorts. We do not speak of the night before. That evening after we’re dropped off at Jessica’s home, we run to her bedroom and rip through magazines that tell us what our first kiss will be like and which member of Hanson really is our soulmate. We argue over the youngest until Jessica decides that he’s not even that cute and we toss the quiz to the floor. Then Jessica asks the question we’ve both been waiting for since the last time we were alone.

“Want to listen to music?” she says. I nod and she leaves the room, returning with her sister’s CD collection. We shuffle through it until we find the soundtrack to Moulin Rouge—a film our parents will not yet let us see. We turn off the lights, and then we dance and shimmy and strip in the dark. When I call my mother to beg for a sleepover she doesn’t put up a fight, and I spend the entire night thinking of the invisible men. Thinking that they are lying beside me in Jessica’s waterbed. Thinking that they have seen us dance and that they like it. These men stay around until the room starts to get light and my eyelids finally grow heavy.

In two years, when we enter the eighth grade, Jessica and I will finally be allowed to walk home from school. We will don our shortest denim and laciest crop tops even when the weather makes our legs erupt in goosebumps. We will lean on poles at bus stops and wait for the passing traffic. Men will honk and, if they’re bold, they will yell something out the window. We will bite our fingertips and twist our hair because that’s all we know how to do, and sometimes Jessica will yell something back. Something like, “Come and get it!” And then the men will slow down, and we will run and turn the corner and keep running while we laugh so hard that tears begin to wet our cheeks.

One day, when Jessica has to stay in detention, I will walk home alone. A car will honk, and I won’t look at who’s driving it. When he whistles, I’ll turn, and when he asks me how old I am, I will keep quiet. When he slows down and keeps talking to me, I will pretend that there is music playing from the headphones I have placed in my ears, and when he pulls up to the curb I will run, but it will not be in the same way I run with Jessica. I will run all the way home until I’m through the front door, and my mother will ask me why I’m flushed, and I’ll tell her I’m not flushed. She’ll look out the window expecting to see something, and I’ll tell her to get off my case, and she’ll cry. When my father gets home, he will yell at me for making my mother upset, and I will yell back. “She cries over everything,” I’ll tell him, and he will tell me that he knows. This I will wish he would not say to me.

The year we start sixth grade we decide that we are detectives. We spy on Jessica’s sister from behind the couch in the basement when she brings her boyfriend downstairs. His name is Joe, and he is OK by us. One night, we get caught. Jessica’s sister’s shirt is halfway unbuttoned when she catches us peering out from above the cushions. She tells us that we’re pervs. She chases us out of the basement like the little monsters we are. And for the rest of the night we think out loud. We wonder what it’s like to have someone’s tongue in your mouth and we make gag noises over and over. Jessica picks up a garbage can and pretends to hurl, and we are in stitches. We don’t talk about the shirt, but we are thinking about it. Later in her bedroom, we swear we will never let boys get close to us. We already know we are lying as we lock our pinkies together.

The same night Jessica’s mother brings us Taco Bell for dinner. She yells down the hallway for us to come before the food gets cold. We don’t want to go because we don’t want to have to face her sister again, but on the third shout we unlock the bedroom door and walk to the dinner table with our heads down. We are children. We come when we’re called.

In ninth grade we’ll start getting invited to parties. Parties with loud music and red cups and tequila in plastic bottles. At one of these, I’ll join a game of spin the bottle, and Jessica will disappear. I won’t see her again until it’s nearly midnight.

She’ll tell me later that night that you can’t even feel one finger, and that two feels good, and that if you can do three, then you’re ready for the real thing. That night I’ll lie in my bed and reach my hand under the covers. I’ll slide it beneath the elastic of my strawberry-patterned underwear, the underwear I wear when I know I won’t have to change in front of judging eyes in the high-school locker room. I will think about the men I cannot see. I will pin it down to one and then change it to another. This will go on until I’ll hear my mother call upstairs to me, asking if I feel all right, if there’s a reason I’ve decided to go to bed now, two hours before I normally do. I’ll tell her I was just taking a nap and that I’m up now. That I’m coming downstairs. And I’ll ask her to make me coffee, and we’ll sit on the couch together drinking it while we flip through the channels. I will lean on her. I will tell her that I love her. She will tell me that she knows. I will stay awake as long as I can, and I will be relieved the next morning when I wake up on the couch, tucked under a quilt and far away from the covers of my own bed.

On a cold November morning in sixth grade, Nicole Jenkins gets her period before the rest of us. She says she woke up and saw the muddy red in her underwear and in her sheets. Her mom has told her she’s a woman now, but Jessica and I cringe and make fun of her when we’re alone. We pass notes back and forth with pictures of blood trails, while Mrs. Jones puts up slides of Cleopatra on a sticky, roll-down screen, the same screen we will learn about abstinence on two years later. We take one of the pads from Nicole’s backpack that day and stick it to her locker when no one is looking. We watch from a lunch table that’s far enough away to preserve our innocence as the boys gather around it and laugh. One squirts a ketchup packet on it.

Nicole doesn’t show up to school the next day. When she does come back, she doesn’t talk to us. A teacher has figured out that Jessica and I were the culprits, and I pray that she won’t tell my mom. I will never know because my mom doesn’t say anything when I get in the car that afternoon, and I cannot know if that is because she is tired or because she is disappointed. I ask her if we can get ice cream on the way home and she says not today, and I say OK.

The only other time I’ll feel as bad as I do that day is when I’m in tenth grade. Blow me. That’s what Jessica says to me when she thinks I’ve said something dumb. I’ll say it one night to my mother when she asks me to do the dishes. She’ll grow quiet and walk out of the kitchen in tears.

I will be too anxious to eat dinner. I will be too anxious to do my geometry homework. Instead, I will lie on my bed, grabbing my knees and listening for my father to return home. But that night he will not come into my room. He will not yell at me. He will not even talk to me. I will be unsure if my mother has told him or not. These are things I do not yet understand. The longer I wait for him, the sicker I will feel. I will run past my parents’ bedroom to the toilet and hurl. My mother will hear me and bring me a towel. She will hold me on the bathroom floor. Tears will fall to my wrists, and I will wonder if it is both of us who are crying. I won’t look up to see.

At the end of sixth grade, when Jessica gets her period, she is the first girl in our class to use a tampon. She will say that she can get pregnant now. That if a boy gets too close to her, the sperm will seep through his clothes and into her body. When I get my period, six months later, I will wake up and think that I am dying.

I will spend a good many years after this doing everything in my power not to get pregnant. When I am told that my ocular migraines can be a potential worry for stroke when combined with contraceptive pills, I will let doctors implant a copper device in my body. This device will fail me, and when they take it out it will not be nearly as painful as when they take out the fetus. The day after I will go to my college graduation and hold golden balloons while my parents, who now do not speak to each other, stand proudly on either side of me. I will wear a chain made of Hawaiian flowers around my neck and think that nothing so stupid has ever been thought up before, knowing that they’ll be wilted before dinner has even come to an end. I will stand there and smile for photos that I won’t ever want to look at, and I will act like nothing has changed, but I will know that everything has changed.

When Jessica is seventeen she will sleep with Jeffrey Bennings in the back seat of his father’s Nissan Sentra. That night I will be jumping and dancing and sweating on the tired floors of Leigh High’s confetti-covered gym. Someone will have spiked the punch. I will return home the happiest I have ever been. Jessica will not call me that night. The next morning we will meet at Denny’s for breakfast. She will order French toast that she will not eat, I will order an oatmeal that I can’t keep down, and we will talk. She will tell me it hurt a little. She will tell me that she didn’t bleed.

Jessica will go to college in California and I will stay in Connecticut. I will ignore my mother’s weekend invites to dinner. I will only come home from school for the holidays. My father will not call me often, and I will call him even less. When Jessica comes back for Christmases, we will get together at Denny’s. When Jessica graduates, she will stay in California.

I will move to Brooklyn the summer after college and move back home three months later. I will tell my mother that it’s because I got laid off, but it will really be because I am lonely. I am desperately lonely. I will marry the guy that asks me to marry him. The guy that honks and whistles and yells out the windows when I am not sitting in the passenger seat. He will want to do things with my body that I will not want to do, but I will do them anyway. I will do them, and then I will stand in the shower until I cannot stand any longer and I will sit until the water runs cold. He will live his life, and I will live mine, and eventually, we will live ours under different roofs. Before this, we will pretend for many years that we are happy.

When I find out it’s a girl, my heart will break.

When she is born I will hold her in her candy-striped blanket and wish right then that she will never outgrow it. When the family comes into the room, my husband will try to take her from my arms, and I will not let him. He will laugh, and the family will joke. The only one who will not laugh is my mother. My husband will reach for the baby again, and I will give her up, not because I want to but because I know now that a hard silence fills the room, and that if I don’t, they will not laugh a second time. I will watch as they pass her around the room. And I will start crying as she is handed from one person to the next, and my husband will ask me what’s wrong, and my father-in-law will say something about the baby blues, and the nurse will tell me I need to rest, and my mother won’t take her eyes off me. She is the only one who will understand, and when she gets the baby, she will return her to me.

And when they all leave, the baby will latch onto my breast, somewhere I will not let my husband see or touch for months afterwards, and he will say the baby is where it all started when we argue over who gets what, and I will say no, it started long before the baby. I will tell him that he can have it all if he lets me have Sophie. He’ll agree to weekend visits.

Sophie will have lots of friends, and she will get invited to all the parties. I will envy the mothers of the misfits. I will think they’re lucky. Sophie will have too many friends. She will have a best friend named Leah, who she will spend hours with inside her room. One morning after a sleepover, I will drive Leah home, and my daughter will ask me why I pass our exit on the way back. I will tell her that we’re going to Florida. To Miami. That we don’t need anyone else. That we don’t need invisible men. That invisible men make bad company. And she will ask me what I’m talking about, and she will tell me that she can’t go to Florida. That she isn’t packed. That she has to go with Leah tomorrow, to the mall, to take pictures in the photo booth and to start looking for dresses for the junior high banquet. And she will start crying, and she will scream that she hates me. And I will tell her not to say that, and she will say it again and again until I take the next exit and turn the car around.

I will drop her off at our home, and when I see that she has gone inside the house, I will lock the doors and roll up the windows. I will sit in the driveway so long that the car starts to heat up. I will sit there until I can take it no longer. And then I will talk. I will talk to the emptiness that occupies the back seat, and I will wait, and he will not answer.

Published on June 21, 2019