Next Time, I’ll Show You How
The middle of our first summer together, the middle of the day, we are sweat-slicked. My dark brown hair is pulled back into a low ponytail. I can feel the grease on my scalp, the oil on my face, pimples threatening my skin. Damien’s acne is a furious red, a hungry yellow. His chin-length curly blonde hair hangs limp. Baby hairs stick to his forehead.
We are in my basement, in the hangout room. A sacred space amongst my siblings and me, it’s the one room in the house where we can go with friends and not get in trouble by our parents. It’s where I have sleepovers with my best friend. She and I are down here so much we consider it our place. We even made a sign for the door: KNOCK FIRST, written in all capital letters. A twelve-year-old girl, I feel both excitement and shame bringing in a teenage boy.
Earlier, when I asked my mom, she warned, “Don’t shut the door.” Then, when I called to tell my best friend, she was mad. My guilt has been collecting in my pores, coming to a head.
Damien sits across the room, in the large beige chair that no one ever sits in. He’s smiling, smug, devious, like he has a secret he wants me to beg out of him.
“What?” Damien’s eyes press against me. I’m not yet used to the attention.
“Let’s play dare,” he says raising his bushy dirty-blonde eyebrows.
“Yeah, dare. C’mon, it’ll be fun.”
I roll my eyes; I rather show him my brother’s Sega games, our N64.
“I’ll go first.” He’s smiling the same as before. I suspect the dare to be, “eat a tablespoon of mayonnaise,” or something gag-worthy, the kind of dare my sisters would play.
“Okay,” he says, “I dare you to flash me.”
“Ha! What? No way. Pass!”
Damien’s expression flattens just long enough for me to feel his rage. “You can’t pass on a dare.”
“I just did!” I laugh.
“You have to.”
“I don’t have to do anything.”
“C’mon. It’s just me.”
Just him—did it matter?
I pull up my shirt, giving him a glimpse of my industrial-strength-hand-me-down Maiden Form bra. Lilac and lace, it’s the cutest bra I own; one of the few that fit me. This year my breasts have doubled in size, making me one of the bustiest girls in the 6th grade.
“Not like that,” Damien groans. “You know what I mean.”
“Okay, fine.” I pull my shirt and bra up over my breasts and immediately pull everything back down. “Like that?” I tease. A part of me wants to play this game. My body feels as though it is made of hummingbirds. I thrum with adrenaline.
“That wasn’t anything. I dare you to flash me for ten seconds.”
Damien’s face is flush; he enjoys the thrill of knowing we can get caught. I listen for familiar creaks on the stairs, the whip-slap of wet clothes being shaken out. My mother prefers doing laundry when Damien is here. I pause and glance out of the doublewide doors, toward the wet jeans hanging from bungee cords strung across the low ceiling. I wait: one, two, three.
I lift up my shirt. Damien sits up in the chair. Ten seconds is too long. I yank my shirt down and tuck my breasts back into their cups.
“C’mere,” he says. “I want to show you something.”
I hesitate—the hummingbirds have left. Their lightness, that jitteriness, is replaced with heaviness. I wonder, Is this what’s supposed to happen? Is this what boys and girls do?
I am slow to get up from the couch. My socked feet brush against the carpet. I stand before him, silent. He takes my hand and places it over his crotch. It’s firm, like the leg of a dog. I retract.
“What’s that? What happened to you?”
“Do you know what a hard-on is?”
It sounds similar to a phrase I’ve heard my parents say: hard up. I wonder what being desperate or broke has to do with his penis.
“C’mere. Touch here. We’re gonna try something.”
His grip tightens around my right hand. I’m clawed around him. He moves up and down. With my left hand, I press against the back of the chair to prevent myself from toppling. My forearm burns. My back aches. He moans. It’s a sound I’ve never heard. Looking down hurts my neck. I have to stare at his face. His eyes are closed. His mouth is open. More little moans. I feel dizzy, nauseous. My mind is buzzing: is mom coming, he looks stupid, god, when does this end, ugh, that noise, what am I even doing, does this mean I’m a slut now, tell him to go home, you don’t need a boyfriend, you’re so fucking stupid, how did you get yourself into this.
He lets out a heavy sigh. It takes a few seconds for me to notice that his crotch is damp.
“Oh, god, you wet yourself.”
“That’s cum. You made me cum.”
“Gross.” I grab a tissue and scrub the growing spot. The tissue disintegrates into the stain. It looks worse. “Fuck, Damien! Goddamnit! What if my mom comes down?”
“Relax, relax.” He pulls me onto his lap, wraps his arms around me. I push against him. The harder I push, the stronger he holds me. For the first time since I met Damien, I want him to go away, leave me alone.
“I don’t need that shit getting on me!” I yell.
“Shhh.” He kisses my neck, nibbles my ear. “Next time, I’ll show you how to do it through boxer shorts.”
I jerk away. “Go clean yourself up before my mom shows up. And be careful going to the bathroom. Please.”
He lets go, releasing me. I plop onto the couch, wrap my arms around my bare legs.
“Don’t worry,” he smiles. “Next time, I’ll do something for you too.”
I watch him walk away; listen as he bounds up the stairs. I don’t want anything done to me. I’ve heard my sisters shit-talk on the girls in their high school. I know what “easy” means.
I wonder, If that’s what teenage girls get called, what does that make me?
I’m not even thirteen.
We are sitting at Damien’s round wooden kitchen table. On it is the usual: a Polish newspaper, a napkin holder, four pink placemats, a black ashtray, and a black Bic lighter. Damien grabs the lighter, flicks it on and off. He hands it to me. I try. Lighters fascinate me. My parents do not trust me with fire. My father doesn’t let me strike matches. My mother doesn’t let me light candles.
“They start fires,” she warns, “You know how many fires start because of candles?”
I want to do what Damien can. Hold the lighter like a pen, click it on and off. He has big hands for a fourteen-year-old. Long, wide, straight fingers. Cool palms. I like his firm grip, the way his hands take mine.
The lighter doesn’t belong in my hands. I can feel my father’s stern brown eyes on me, even though he’s not here. He squints, purses his lips, waits for me to fuck up, just a little, so he can shout, Alright, that’s enough, before grabbing the danger from my childish fingers. I’m clumsy. My thumb slides against the grated spark wheel but doesn’t hit the fork in time. The lighter clicks but nothing happens. I try until my thumb—a red and fat nail biter’s thumb—is white-hot, engraved with tiny lines.
I toss the Bic back to Damien.
“Here you take it. I can’t do it. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.”
“It’s easy,” he says, “Watch.”
He tilts the light toward his thumb. The flame kisses the silver hood.
“Be careful!” I gasp, and he huffs out a laugh. “It’s fine. Look, I got it.”
Elbows resting on the table, he holds the lighter firm. Its sleek black body is horizontal, the tiny yellow flame vertical. Damien’s mouth creeps into a smirk. I notice the twitch of his lips. His chipped tooth catches on his lower lip.
“What?” I ask. “What’s so funny?
He takes my left arm and presses in the lighter. The burn is sharp. It reminds me of going to wash my hands after my mother does the dishes—a searing, unexpected, lightning-fast heat. I jerk my arm, but his grip is tight.
“What the fuck, Damien!” I yell. “That fucking hurts!”
I can feel my skin cooling the surface of the metal hood. The heat stops with the lighter pressed deep into my arm. He laughs, letting go. I’m staring at the red mark—a little round gravestone planted in between a scattering of beauty marks—when he says, “I’ve branded you. So all the boys know you’re mine.”
Damien pulls me into the bathroom, begins closing the door, uses my body to slam it shut. I feel like a Jack-in-the-Box. Sprung loose and maniacal. He holds my face in his hands, and we’re kissing. This can’t be my life. This isn’t my life. The universe envelops me. I am cocooned. What if I were born someone else? What if we never met? How did I get here?
Damien’s mouth is soft. We have kissed thousands of times but not all are the same. Most are dry, stale. Predictable: he tilts his head, closes his eyes, puckers his lips, and leans in, expecting me to lean in too. I do. I always do. In those moments, I’m just returning the favor, playing the part of the good girlfriend. The tender ones are rare, filling; my body warms through him.
Damien backs up, guides our bodies to the floor. I follow his blue eyes as they trail my body. Under his gaze, I am not embarrassed or ashamed. I am prone to covering myself, preferring winter, dreading summer. My mother tells me that my body is “mature” for my age, that’s why older men leer, and she has to shoo them away. I want to hide from people, especially men. I can’t hide from Damien, even if I wanted to. His hands peel back layers upon layers. His fingers move like he’s picking a lock: quick, careful, exact. Straps slide off my shoulders. Zippers are pulled down. Buttons are undone. He strips me, searching for the parts of me he wants. He finds them, gets them. Takes them, because they’re his. I’m his.
The pink tile floor is cool against my back. The entire bathroom is pink; the color of a healing scar. It’s the only room in the apartment with color. I imagine his mother hates it.
On weekends, Damien’s parents barely move from the beige leather sectional in the living room, a wide open, white-walled space that also serves as the dining room. Sprawled out on the couch, his squat father takes the longer section, his lean mother the smaller. She in a terry cloth pajama set—magenta spaghetti strap shirt veiling her small breasts, matching magenta short-shorts just covering her ass. He in a white undershirt and over-the-knee navy blue gym shorts. Both barefoot. His mother’s toes lacquered burgundy. A scorpion tattooed on his father’s left foot.
On the large glass table before them sits their essentials. Two packs of Marlboro Lights, two Bic lighters, and two ashtrays. They drink from tumbler glasses filled with vodka, maybe whiskey, green-bottled Heinekens sweating on coasters. They don’t have to get up. All they have to do is reach over.
Nothing can tear them away from the couch. Not even knowing that their teenage son is shut in his bedroom with his girlfriend. Cackles and screeches—the same noises that send my father thumping down the stairs—do not rouse them. Long periods of silence do not unnerve them. They don’t pop in “just to check” like my mother does when Damien comes to my house.
Instead, they watch television: news, game shows, singing competitions. Drifting in and out of sleep, they seem to keep the same channel on all day, no matter what show is airing. The volume never lowers. Polish blares throughout the apartment: quick, husky, guttural.
Some people think that if you are smothered by a language, you are bound to learn it. My Polish-American mother is one of these people. So was I for a little while. I live amongst the ghosts of my mother’s family; I grew up in her childhood home.
“Back in those days,” my mother says, “the Irish hated us. Being the only Polish family on an Irish block. Can you imagine! It didn’t help that my father was difficult. A very stubborn man. It’s a shame you never got to meet him, Damien. Maybe listening to you would’ve jogged his memory. Maybe he would’ve remembered Polish again.”
My mother adores Damien through this language alone. He’s true Polish—born in the motherland with the mother tongue. She tells him what her children are tired of hearing: monologues about growing up with a Depression-era mother, a hard working yet absentee father. She asks Damien to speak to her, yearning for Polish’s sticky kiss—like the ones her Babci gave her, the grandmother she ran to during her mother’s episodes of unprovoked anger and silent treatments. Sabina often said to my mother, “Who are you? You’re not my little girl.”
But Babci knew her daughter’s cruelty. She took my mother in on the days and nights Sabina did not want her. The last immigrant of their family, Babci scattered her thick-accented English sentences with Polish words—words my mother longed to hear since her grandmother’s death.
“You’re just so fluent,” she gushes to Damien.
“Naaah, my Polish is terrible.” Damien waves a hand at her. “My family makes fun of me.”
“Oh, no! It’s beautiful! I would kill to know half of what you do.”
Some days I feel replaced. My mother becomes the girlfriend. In the kitchen, where these conversations happen, I lean against the doorframe of the room I share with my older sister. I pick at the white paint, the cracked chunks—a reminder of when my father tried to break the door down after I fell asleep with it locked, and my family assumed I was dead. Maybe I’m the ghost. I feel vaporous enough to be one. A seventh grade girl, I seem invisible.
I pick and pick, my fingertips coated in white flecks. My mother is needy around Damien.
“I can hear them, but I can’t say the words. Damnit. I wish I knew so you could teach me.” She is desperate for the language she was prohibited to speak, for the heritage that both trapped and shunned her.
“We were forbidden to learn,” she remembers. “We had to be American.”
My mother’s family spoke Polish behind closed doors, when they had important matters to conceal from the children. My mother was told that being and acting American was imperative. It didn’t matter that the women fried chrusciki, dusted the crisp, golden strips of fried dough in powdered sugar, or that they packed ground meat into thick slabs of cabbage for golumpki. It didn’t matter that they prepared Easter baskets to be blessed by the priest, for whom they washed and scrubbed and ironed for days before his house visit. Or that they sent my mother to Catholic school at Our Lady of Mount Carmel, where the nuns pushed her desk into the hall and made her write “I will not talk in class” in perfect script on long sheets of yellow legal paper.
Perhaps, through my relationship with Damien, a Polish immigrant, my mother hoped to learn what she could not. But I also believe she wished that I would absorb Polish so fully it would overtake the Italian—the food she had to cook, the movies she had to watch, the family she saw most, the culture into which she married, and the ethnicity of which strangers assumed her children were 100%.
My mother didn’t realize that Damien’s family was also in this group of strangers. “Noooo,” Damien’s mother said when I first met her, as he explained that I too was Polish. With my dense black eyebrows, thick brown hair, olive toned skin, long curved nose, I looked more Italian-American as an adolescent than I ever had before, ever would again.
“She looks just like her father,” my mother’s coworkers and friends said upon meeting me. “It’s those dark eyes.” They stared into my brown eyes as if expecting my father to jump out of them. All I could hear was, “She looks just like a boy.”
Throughout puberty, my sisters and I lamented our father’s dominant features, the virus-like tenacity of the DeFilippis gene. We wanted our mother’s green eyes, her natural strawberry-blonde hair, and her smooth skin, creamy in winter, toasty in summer. We didn’t want to look the same: muddy brown everything, thick dark body hair that required constant plucking and shaving, skin that tinted yellow in winter, that took all summer to deepen into bronze.
In the beginning, I worried that Damien’s parents wanted to replace me with a nice Polish girl: thin, pale, pretty without trying, someone who could carry a conversation with them. Paranoid, I asked Damien to teach me Polish. Our lessons lasted a week. I learned the basics: tak, nie, daj mi buzi, and ciastko, cookie, my pet name. My mother expected me to recap the lessons. I couldn’t tell her the one sentence Damien taught me: zdjąć spodnie i stanik. Or how he wouldn’t translate it at first; instead he prodded me to repeat after him.
“You need to practice your accent,” he said. “Repeat after me. Zdjąć.”
“Zdjąć spodnie i stanik!”
“Zeed-jahk spod-nee eee stahn-ick!”
My mouth felt bulky—the embarrassment over my Bayonne accent barely had time to sink in when Damien reached for the button of my jeans.
“Well if you really want me to…”
“Damien!” I slapped his hand.
“You can’t get mad. You told me so.”
“What did you make me say?”
“I’ll give you a clue if you say it again.”
“You’re so immature. Something spod-nee eee stahn-ick.”
“No. Say the whole thing.”
” Zeed-jahk spod-nee eee stahn-ick.” His hands moved under my shirt. I grabbed his balls and squeezed. “Tell me what you taught me to say, or I’m not letting go,”
“Okay! Okay! It means ‘take off my pants and bra.’ But you can keep doing that. I don’t mind at all.”
When Damien opens the door to his bedroom, a wave of his parents’ presence washes in. First come their voices, heavy and thick, sloshing from wall to wall, then the haze, slow and creeping from hours of chain smoking. I remember that I am not alone, that Damien and I are not alone. My stomach churns as the tide of his family rolls in and out. His parents are in the next room. There are adults here. The thought fills me with panic and relief. I feel as though I have finally come up for air. I realize how far I have drifted from home.
Chloe DeFilippis’ work has appeared in the journal Voices in Italian Americana, in the e-anthology Olive Grrrls, and on the online publication Vending Machine Press. She holds a B.A. in English/Creative Writing from New Jersey City University. She was the 2015 recipient of the Walter Glospie Academy of American Poets Prize. Currently, Chloe is a Sales Coordinator at Simon & Schuster.