Why She Swallows Dirty Hearts

Chapter one.

I'm standing on the toilet in the mall bathroom, the sides of my wide feet curling over the edges of the seat, cutting in. I strain, sweat, tilt my chin back and peer over the top of the stall into the mirror. I watch Darla claw at the ground and sweep Skittles into her palm. For a few moments, I think she'll pop them in her mouth, but she turns her hand over the garbage bin and they scatter on top of the discarded pregnancy test I know lies there, wet and angry, the little plus sign not fading fast enough.

My body constricts and releases like a snake teasing a mouse. I should tell her I'm here, I know, but my hands shake and my mouth fills with cotton. How can I speak? My right foot slips, slaps the tile, "Fuck" slides out of my mouth.

Darla stills, whips her head to the side, listening. "Who's there?" she says. I almost don't answer, but I know Darla—she'll slither on her belly, look under every stall door, find me even if I shimmy up the air vent.

"Hi," I say, stepping off the toilet seat, opening the door, looking at her.

She shakes her head when she sees me. "I'm glad you're here," she says, stepping towards me and wrapping her heavy arms around my stomach. "I don't know what you're going to do, but I'm glad you're here."

Sometimes I feel like the March Hare in Alice in Wonderland. My mind's gone, my mind's a pile of macaroni steaming in my skull, but my friends keep me around because they love me. It's a beautiful thing to think about, teenagers finding it in themselves to love a broken friend—when you're not the March Hare.

Darla's hand is always sweaty. I hold it like an algae-coated anchor, something necessary but unpleasant, attached to my hull whether I like it or not. That's a lie. Sometimes I like it. Sometimes I grab her hand first. But mostly we meet in the middle like a compromise, or she snatches it from me when Anderson enters the room, takes steps away from me so our clasped hands hang between us like a "NO VACANCY" sign or neon "FUCK YOU".

Sometimes I like texture better than human beings. Physical texture—like the inside of baby hats you rub in Walmart or the melted asphalt filler you squish your toes into in summertime. Charles and I go to Ali's Carpet Palace and I run my hands over every rug even though I've memorized the placement of my favorites. I know when the rugs are sold, but not for how much. I'm afraid some part of my mind will feel cheated if the expensive ones aren't as soft as the cheap, so I never check the prices.

Charles doesn't think I'm weird—or he does, but he knows he's weirder. He treats his mother like a dying wife. She lays in bed and cries if he doesn't sit with her in bed all night, cries when he gets up to go to work, cries all day, wakes up her neighbors with her wailing if Charles isn't home at five-thirty sharp, even if he tells her he'll be late. I don't know how he can leave to spend time with me. I guess even healthy people need therapy.

Darla paces her room back and forth, back and forth. She asked to go to my house, but I said no, told her my father doesn't want company. That's a lie; he sits at home on his computer, doesn't come out of his study, even for dinner—he has a fridge and microwave, stocked and ready. He wouldn't care if I had a party in the living room, probably wouldn't even mind if a flush-faced couple stumbled in, laughing, apologizing, backing out and closing the door. But I never do. I guess I'm just pretending.

"We're in so much trouble," Darla says. "Well, I'm in so much trouble." Darla is the only nineteen-year-old I know with coffee-stained teeth. She bears them now, runs her tongue over them, clicks them together. "Shit, why didn't I sleep with anyone?"


"Well, and tell him about it. It wouldn't have done anything if I'd slept with someone and didn't shove it in Anderson's face."

"Darla, what are you talking about?"

"When I told him I went dyke I fucked up bad." Her eyes are sad. "Now if I tell him it isn't his, I'll have to tell him that I still like sleeping with dudes—he'll ruin my joke of a relationship with you—" this hurts, for some reason "—and I'll be back where I started, pestered by him, just with a baby inside. Fuck. Why didn't I sleep with anyone? Now I can't even pretend to myself that it's someone else's. It could only be his."

"What will you tell your mom?"

She looks at me. "Mom? Mom's not finding out. She'll make me abort it."

"You're keeping it?"

"Of course I'm keeping it. It's Anderson's. I kept everything he ever gave me."

I think, including that strange, bitter heart, but say nothing out loud.

Darla's getting bored of me. I can tell, the way she looks at other women, like she's sizing them up, like they're auditioning for the part. The only reason I stand beside her is to cause Anderson pain; we both know that. In return, I get the security of saying "I have a girlfriend" to men that approach me. It's so futile, the way they heave resigned sigh after resigned sigh, walk away without a fight. But even relationships of convenience have their taut strings, the ones just waiting to be plucked too hard and snap.

There's this one chick. She's been hanging out with us often. I can tell it pisses Anderson off, not having any guys around, and Ochuwa isn't his type—she's so skinny, so tall, they almost have the same bodies. And I'm pretty sure she's gay, anyway. Every girl Darla brings around is gay, their heads shaven and ears gauged and eyes rimmed gray.

Ochuwa makes me uncomfortable. I feel like she can tell. I feel like she's one of those hardcore lesbians who was born liking vagina and who never felt anything for a man—and I feel like she can tell I'm not one. I'm less of one. I'm lesser. I feel like she knows about Jack.

When we first started dating, Darla and I would go down to this bar because they had a broken side window we could drop inside. The first time we met Jack he was covered in sweat, had just jumped off the stage; we'd missed his band's set by five minutes.

He stumbled into us, brushing my thigh where my frayed skirt grazed the bottom of my panties. "Tear your skirt climbing through the window?" he asked, monotone.

"No. It's supposed to look like that."

"Cool." He noticed Darla rolling her eyes beside me. "I'll, uh, see you around." He touched two fingers to his forehead, turning into the crowd and the moody lights behind him.

"I wish you would at least try not to flirt with guys in front of me," Darla said through clenched teeth.

"I wasn't flirting," I said quietly, following an already-turned Darla to the bar where a couple unattended beers waited.

That was one of the longest conversations Jack and I have ever had. I meet him places. Wherever he wants. He'll send me a single text message with an address and I'll go—I haven't even saved his number, just in case Darla snoops around—and sometimes it'll be a house party at midnight or it'll be broad daylight in front of the fountain at the mall, I never know. It's not romantic. Sometimes he takes my hand when he sees me and leads me somewhere, and I'll smile at the people I pass, pretend Jack's smiling too and doesn't have a serious look on his face, not like he's angry but like he's determined and in a rush. He always looks like that.

I met Darla and Anderson in the school bathroom. I noticed them leaning against the wall as I unzipped my pants, watching me with smiles on their faces. I stopped and waited, my pants half-open. Darla put a finger to her lips. Don't say anything. I shrugged. Why would I care? Darla nodded, like she approved. As I stood there, they made out with vigor I'd never seen, throwing one another against the sink, the floor, the toilet paper dispenser—soap, paper towels, rolls of toilet paper, it all flew in the air like war debris. I felt scared, but I was fascinated. They struck me as beautiful in a way I'd never considered before, being a sophomore in high school at the time, concerned with fine-tuning my thoughts to those of everyone else. They weren't very attractive—just two grungy kids skipping class, sneaking through a bathroom window. Six-foot-five Anderson with his orange hair crushed against a wall by five-foot Darla with a jet-black pixie cut and fat cheeks. But the mismatched intensity there, the intensity that didn't quite add up, could only be theirs. I wanted the ends of peoples' eyelashes to singe when they looked at me. I wanted their fingertips to burn and their skin to crisp, flake off like broiled chicken skin. I wanted to be notorious, too.

I light a cigarette, blow my first drag out the window.

"What are you smoking?" Darla asks. We're sitting on her bed, leaning against the wall so if we tilt our chins back, all we can see are the tops of the trees in her front yard and the dark sky. There aren't many stars tonight.

"Newports. You want one?" I hold one out without looking at her.

She hesitates. I feel impatient. "Um…yes. Thank you." I cut my eyes towards her. When was the last time she thanked me for anything? I look back at the sky as she clicks her lighter. When it's darker, when you can see the stars, the constellation Gemini sits between the drainpipe and the branches of the trees. I think about Darla and I as conjoined fetuses, whether I'd kill her in the womb or wait 'til one of us was born first and one of us didn't have enough air or had the umbilical cord twisted around her neck—

I sit up, hit my forehead against the windowsill, knock Darla's cigarette onto the bed so her pillowcase smokes.

"What the fuck are you doing?" she cries, snatching up the butt from her comforter.

"What the fuck are you doing?" I snarl. "The baby, Darla. The fucking baby."

She throws herself on her bed, sobbing. Her dress flies over her head but she doesn't fix it. She's so short, she's kept the same bed from elementary school. I imagine her and Anderson having sex on it, how the springs would creak, how her American Girl dolls with drawn-on mustaches would watch them.

I look at Darla's body. Her chubby feet, unshaven shins, meaty thighs, the dark hairs peeking from the mesh holes of her panties, the little cave in her skin below her belly, and then the beginnings of a swell. I lean my knees on the bed and rub Darla's stomach with my fingertips; it's harder than I expected.

"What were you thinking?" I whisper to the soft hairs curling around her ear, lying next to her on the bed. There isn't enough room for all of me, but I don't mind.

"I wasn't thinking. I wasn't. I'm just not used to it yet." But I can tell by the way she's not looking at me that she's lying—that maybe she wasn't consciously thinking, "This is bad for the baby," but maybe she thought "I don't care," or "I didn't ask for this."

"Do you think I should put it up for adoption?"

I don't give her the answer she's asking for. Instead, I say, "Maybe you should ask Anderson," roll back towards the window, and light another cigarette. Neither of us say anything for the rest of the night.