A Real Person
Cheryl was sixteen and thin, with straight brown hair and a face that was pretty in a pinched sort of way. She and her mother Faye lived in a row house near the diner where Faye worked as a waitress. Ten years before, Cheryl’s father had gone out one night and not come back. Faye started working at the diner a week later, and though the work left her worn down, she and Cheryl had somehow managed. It helped when Cheryl was fifteen and got a job working behind the counter at an Italian bakery, part-time during the school year, full-time in the summer.
On summer evenings, after Cheryl finished her job at the bakery and had eaten dinner, either with Faye or alone if Faye was working, she hung out on a street corner in front of a candy store two blocks from her home. When she went to the corner, she wore lipstick and eye makeup, a clean T-shirt stretched tightly over her small breasts, snug-fitting jeans, and spiked heels. She liked the way she looked when she dressed that way. She knew she looked better than the other girls who hung out on the corner. They didn’t bother to dress up unless they were going out on a date.
Cheryl knew the other girls from school, and they were friendly enough, but they were not really her friends. For Cheryl, the corner was a place to wait for a boy and, almost always, a boy came by for her in a car. On the evenings when none did, Cheryl would sit on the front step of the candy store with the other girls, smoking and chewing gum and talking until it was time to go home. Sometimes Cheryl suspected that the other girls were dying to ask her what happened when she went with the boys in their cars, but they never did. Cheryl the woman of mystery, that’s who she was.
On the evenings when a boy did come by, Cheryl would say a quick goodbye to the girls, jump into the boy’s car, and off they would go. Some evenings, after Cheryl had left with a boy, two or three others would come by, one by one, asking for her. The girls would tell them that Cheryl had been there but had left, and the girls would say no, thank you, they would rather not go for a ride. They didn’t know exactly what happened when Cheryl went with a boy in his car, but they could imagine.
* * *
As it was getting dark one hot and airless July night, a battered blue Ford pulled up in front of the candy store. The driver, who looked to be about seventeen, was alone. He parked the car, got out, and walked over to where Cheryl was standing with two other girls. He asked hesitantly if they had seen Cheryl around.
“That’s me,” Cheryl said.
The boy said, “Can I talk to you alone for a minute?”
“Sure,” Cheryl said.
They moved a few steps away. The boy said in a rush that his name was Jackie, that his friend Franny — Cheryl knew Franny, didn’t she? — had told him that Cheryl was a very nice girl who liked to go for rides, that he had been driving through the neighborhood, and thought that he would stop by the corner and see if Cheryl was there and wanted to go for a ride.
Cheryl had heard the same story many times before. Only the names of the boys changed. She looked this Jackie over as he talked. He was good-looking, with dark brown hair, blue eyes, nice, regular features. Neatly dressed too, clean khakis and a polo shirt; Cheryl liked that. She had said no to boys who looked and smelled like greasemonkeys. Before Jackie had finished his little speech, Cheryl decided that she liked him well enough. “O.K.,” she said, “and you’ll buy me a milkshake before you drop me off, right?
“Sure,” the boy said. “Sure. Of course.”
“Well then,” Cheryl said, “let’s go.”
Twenty minutes later, darkness had fallen and the blue Ford was parked under the trees along a side road in Clermont Park. Jackie had driven there slowly. As he drove, he had talked to Cheryl, but he didn’t seem to pay much attention to what she said in return, or even to pay much attention to what he said in the first place. During the drive, his voice had been hoarse and his hands shook a little when they were not on the steering wheel. This must have been the first time he had gotten up the nerve to come looking for a girl. They were always nervous the first time, Cheryl thought.
Jackie had given her a cigarette along the way. She had smoked it awkwardly, holding it with her thumb and forefinger, like a dart. The smoke made her light-headed. Cigarettes always did that to her, even though she took only rapid, shallow puffs. Once the car was parked, she threw the unfinished cigarette out the window. Jackie pulled her gently to him and they kissed for a while, jousting with their tongues, and then he began to run his hands over her breasts and she undid her bra so he could touch them skin to skin, and finally he exposed himself, and Cheryl twisted her body and crouched over his lap and began to do what they both had known she would do when she said, “O.K.,” back on the street corner.
Afterwards, on the drive back to the corner, Jackie pulled into a McDonald’s, asked her what flavor she wanted, and ran inside. In a moment, he was back with a small chocolate shake. When Cheryl reminded him that she had asked for vanilla, he said, “I forgot. Too late now,” and started the car. He drove quickly back to the corner, pulling up there before Cheryl had half-finished the milkshake. He did not turn the engine off, but instead reached across Cheryl to open the passenger side door. For him, the evening was over. Cheryl thought he could have said something nice, maybe even kissed her goodnight. As soon as she got out and closed the door behind her, he gunned the engine and sped away.
The candy store was closed, the corner deserted. Cheryl walked home under street lights that made her skin look purple. She strained to draw unmelted ice cream up through the clear plastic straw, concentrating on the chocolate taste of the milkshake as it gradually replaced the other taste in her mouth. She wondered if Jackie would ever come back to the corner, or whether it would be some other boy who said that he was a friend of Jackie’s and had heard from him how nice she was and how she liked to ride with boys in their cars.
* * *
A young woman named Laura lived four doors down the street. She was married, with three children, and was beginning to put on weight, the way some women do after they have children. One evening, as Cheryl was leaving her home to walk to the corner where she hung out, Laura was coming back from the supermarket, a couple of bags of groceries in her arms. Cheryl was dressed for the evening as always, tight T-shirt, snug jeans, and heels. Laura wore a shapeless housedress. They greeted each other as they always did, in passing, but this time Laura said, “Cheryl, do you have a minute?”
Cheryl nodded. “Yeah. What’s up?”
“This is none of my business,” Laura said, “but I see you going out just about every night looking like you’re off to meet some boys, and I feel I ought to give you some advice. I know I’m not family, but I was your age not too long ago, and I went through some things, and I learned from them, and I thought it would be good to tell you what I learned. Do you mind?”
Cheryl didn’t like to be lectured, but she didn’t want to be rude either. “Go ahead,” she said. “I’m listening.”
Laura took a deep breath. “You probably know this already, but when you go out with boys, some of them will want you to do things, sex things. They’re sexed up, and at your age so are you. That’s natural. But here’s my advice: whatever you do, don’t put out for them. What I mean is: don’t let them fuck you. It could really mess up your life. Look at my life. My boyfriend, who is now my husband, begged me to let him fuck me. I finally said yes, and I got pregnant, and because I didn’t want to have an abortion, I had to get married, and now here I am, with three kids and a husband who has a dead-end job, who has no education, and who drinks half a case of Bud Light every weekend. Some life, hunh? Take it from me, Cheryl. If you want to make something out of your life, do not put out for them.”
Laura said, “Well, there’s my little speech. Enjoy yourself tonight, but please, remember what I said.
“I will,” Cheryl said.
* * *
It had begun the summer before, with a boy who lived two streets over from Cheryl’s house. He had been nineteen and she was fifteen. He had a car and asked her one night to go for a ride. They drove around for a while, he stopped to pick up a six-pack of beer at a bar where they never carded anyone, and then they parked. He gave Cheryl a can of beer, and she drank some, which made her feel light-headed, just as a cigarette did. He kissed her then, using his tongue, which tasted of beer, and he gently squeezed her breasts. She began to feel warm and comfortable all over, and she purred with pleasure. Then he asked her to do it. She wanted to please him, to thank him for his attention. The beer had tasted bitter, but it had relaxed her, and the blood had rushed to her head and was pounding in her ears because of him squeezing her breasts, and so she said she would do it. It had not been bad. He had told her, in a thick voice, when it was about to happen, and she had pulled away, leaving him to cover himself with his hand and make little choking sounds when he came.
* * *
For a time, near the beginning, as one boy told another and night after night, they began driving up to the corner, asking for her, Cheryl had hoped that it would be a mutual thing, that the boys would do the same thing for her that she did for them. It was only fair. She even asked one or two of them to do it, but they said there wasn’t room to do it in the front seat of a parked car, and she felt foolish for asking, and so she stopped asking, and instead she relied on the firm, friendly pressure of her own fingers in the darkness after she had gone to bed.
Cheryl felt a little empty because the boys never did for her what she did for them, but it was still all right. She loved the electricity of those moments when the boys became more and more excited and they began to lose control and all their masks fell away and the eruptions came and there was wildness in the car. Cheryl felt the wildness herself, when the blood pounded in her ears, and she felt her own wetness, and what she was doing for the boys took her completely out of herself. Those electric moments, so removed from the dullness of the rest of Cheryl’s life, were why she went with the boys in their cars.
Cheryl liked riding in cars, liked the motion, liked the breeze cool on her face and ruffling her hair as it blew through the open window on hot summer nights, liked the feel of being driven around, as though she were some rich lady and the boy was her chauffeur. It was better than hanging on the corner, sitting or standing in the heat, gossiping with the girls, waiting for something to happen, but nothing ever happened. She wished she knew the girls better, but almost as soon as she started coming to the corner, the boys began to come for her in their cars, and she went with them, and while the girls on the corner were friendly enough, they kept their distance from her.
* * *
Most of the boys Cheryl went with came from her high school, but boys from the Catholic high school came looking for her on the corner too. Cheryl was surprised. From what she had heard, what she and the boys did in the cars was against the Catholic religion. But after a while she began to see how badly all the boys, Catholic or not, wanted what she did for them. In the front seat of a parked car, in the darkness, with the boy writhing and making those small choking sounds, it did not matter where he went to school or what his religion was.
* * *
If there was more than one boy in a car that stopped for her, Cheryl never went with them. She had heard a story at school about a girl who had gone with four boys in a car to a park, and had let them take her clothes off in the car and touch her all over, and had touched them where they asked her to, but then, when she had satisfied all four boys with her hands, they pushed her out of the car naked in the middle of the park and drove away with her clothes. The police found her sobbing in the middle of one of the roads that wound through the park. The officers drove around the park for half an hour, but they didn’t find the boys or the girl’s clothes. One boy was all right, but a group of boys together would do things to a girl that they would never try alone.
* * *
Cheryl’s worst time came when a boy named Ray took her out in his father’s new car. Ray was worried about the shiny leather upholstery. He told Cheryl to be careful. She said she would, but he ejaculated so quickly that she could not pull away in time. Gagging, she raised her head, lurched across Ray’s lap to his open window, and spit out as much of the thick salty fluid as she could. Some of it ran down the sparkling finish of the car door. When Ray leaned his head out the window and saw the track of the fluid, he got angry with Cheryl. Her side hurt where she had banged her ribs on the steering wheel when she went to spit out the fluid, and she tried to tell Ray that, but he ignored her. With one arm, he pushed her back against the seat, reached across, and took a rag out of the glove compartment. “Get out of the car, whore,” he said. “Wipe that door off.” Cheryl did as she was told, despite the pain in her side, and she rubbed as hard as she could, but she could not bring the bright finish back to the door. All the way back to the corner, Ray cursed her as she cowered in the corner of the front seat and cried and held her side. “I should punch your face in, you bitch,” he said.
* * *
It hurt Cheryl when Ray called her a whore and a bitch. It occurred to her that she should stop riding in cars with boys she did not know, boys who might treat her the way that Ray did. If only one of the boys she went with would realize what a nice person she was and ask her out on a real date. When that happened, she would have a real boyfriend, and she would stop going in cars with other boys, and whatever she did, she would do it for her boyfriend and nobody else. She hoped that one of the boys she went with would ask her out for a real date, but none did.
Cheryl was disappointed, but she didn’t let it show. She kept going to the corner and getting into the boys’ cars, but she began to wonder how she could change the situation. Suppose if some night, when a boy asked her to go with him in his car, she said no, not unless he did something more for her first, like go to a movie, not just treat her to a milkshake on the way back to the corner. The boy would probably laugh at her, tell her to get out of the car. She might never see him again. He would never be her friend, let alone a boyfriend. Girls didn’t do that, tell a boy what they should do, not unless they had been going together for a long time.
Then, one day when business at the bakery was slow and Cheryl was daydreaming behind the counter, she knew what she would do: she would have a party at her house and invite the boys she went with in their cars. She would invite some girls too, the girls from the corner, and everyone would have a good time, and the boys would get to know her in a different way. Maybe, after they saw that she was a real person and not just some dumb girl who did a sex thing for them, one of them would ask her out for a real date.
Faye would like the idea too, Cheryl was sure of that. Helping to throw a party would give her a sense that she was a part of Cheryl’s life. Faye sometimes asked Cheryl what she did when she went out in the evening, and Cheryl always gave her a vague answer that seemed to satisfy her. Faye always seemed tired to Cheryl, defeated even. Though Faye never said so, Cheryl suspected that she had never gotten over her abandonment by Cheryl’s father. She asked questions about Cheryl’s social life because she thought that was what a mother should do, not because she was all that interested in the answers. So long as Cheryl stayed out of big trouble at school or on the streets, Faye was content to let her go her own way. So Cheryl told Faye about her idea, and Faye liked it as Cheryl had thought she would. Together they picked a date for the party that was three weeks away, on a night Faye had off from the diner.
The next night, before a boy came for her, Cheryl invited the girls on the candy store corner to the party. They had been friendly enough towards her, but she thought of them as more acquaintances than friends, and she was afraid that they would turn her invitation down flat. They didn’t. At least no one came right out and said no. But no one said yes either. One girl said that they all belonged to a sorority, and she thought the sorority had planned to meet the night of the party. Cheryl pretended not to be disappointed. She said she understood how they had to go to sorority, but the invitation was open, and if there was no meeting, the girls could still come to the party. Afterwards, Cheryl wondered whether the sorority business was just a story the girls had made up. There were three or four sororities at school, but no one had asked her to join one.
Over the next two weeks, as Cheryl took rides with half a dozen different boys, she invited them to the party too. She sensed that they did not want to come, so she told them about the nice food her mother would serve, and how there would be plenty of everything, and how all they had to do was bring themselves, and finally five boys agreed to come. Cheryl had to tell them where she lived; none of them had come to her home before; she was just a girl they picked up on a street corner and drove off with. After the party, all that would change. It was too bad about the sorority meeting, if there was one, because it meant that Cheryl would be the only girl at the party. For a while, as Cheryl realized that she would probably be the only girl at the party, she had considered calling it off. But then she thought of how disappointed Faye would be, and how embarrassed she herself would be as she tried to locate the five boys who had agreed to come and tell them that the party was cancelled. Better to go ahead with it. The party would still give the boys a chance to get to know her as a real person. That’s what the party was for.
* * *
Faye called the neighborhood deli and ordered a couple of pounds of thin-sliced roast beef and a quart of gravy. She intended to heat both in a heavy pot on the gas range and serve them hot and dripping in hard Italian rolls. Hot roast beef sandwiches had been a party favorite in the neighborhood for as long as Faye could remember. She bought chips and pretzels and pickles too, along with cases of Coke and ginger ale and orange soda. On the day before the party, she made a big bowl of potato salad and deviled two dozen hard-boiled eggs.
The afternoon of the day of the party, Faye took a couple of hours of vacation time and left the diner early. She helped Cheryl to decorate the basement with streamers and hang a curtain in front of the furnace to hide it, then busied herself in the kitchen with the food. At about six o’clock, she and Cheryl had a snack. Then, while Cheryl showered and dressed, Faye set up the food on a table in the basement, all but the roast beef, which she set to simmering in the gravy on the range. Then she packed one of the laundry sinks in the basement with ice and the cans of soda, thinking that was better than having the kids run up the stairs to the refrigerator every few minutes.
By eight-thirty, they were ready. Cheryl put a CD on the boombox in the basement, then waited in the living room for her guests to arrive. The boys arrived in a group at twenty to nine, all five of them. Cheryl had been afraid that at the last minute they would find some reason not to come, just like the girls on the corner, whom she now didn’t expect to show up at all. Now at least the boys were here, and they would finally have a chance to see that she was a real person.
At first, the boys just stood uncomfortably in the living room. They were not good at introducing themselves to Faye, and Cheryl had to take over, using only the boys’ first names, because she was not sure about all of their last names. Everyone felt relieved when Cheryl led the boys down the stairs to the basement with its decorations, with the CD still playing on the boombox, with the soda in the laundry sink, and the food neatly arrayed on a table along one of the walls. Faye went back to the kitchen. She wondered when Cheryl’s girlfriends were coming, but she did not want to distract Cheryl by asking. She would wait to ask Cheryl until the two of them were alone.
In the basement, Cheryl pointed the food out to the boys. She could feel herself flushing with pleasure that they had come to the party. She told them to take whatever they wanted to drink out of the laundry sink. “Don’t fill up on the chips and stuff,” she warned. “There’ll be hot roast beef sandwiches in a little while. I just have to tell my mom to turn up the heat.” She pointed to the back door to the basement, which opened onto the back yard and the alley behind it. “There’s a trash can outside that door. You can put your dirty plates and empties out there.”
The boys crowded around the table and piled paper plates with potato salad and chips and deviled eggs. Cheryl stood off to one side, smiling. The CD playing on the boombox came to an end. Cheryl put on another. When she came back to the boys, she spread her hands, shuffled her feet a little, and said, “Anybody want to dance? I’m available.”
“Actually,” a boy named Joey said, “dancing wasn’t what we had in mind.” He was smirking, and he turned sideways and looked to the other boys for confirmation. Three of them paused in their eating and nodded agreement. The fourth boy, whose name was Jimmy, looked embarrassed. “Hey,” Joey continued, “you know what you do for us in our cars. Well, we want you to do it tonight, right here, now. If you don’t do it, we’re out of here. Adios. Goodbye. Get it?”
Cheryl shook her head. “This isn’t that kind of party.”
“It is now,” Joey said. The three boys who had nodded their agreement looked at Cheryl. None of them spoke. Take it or leave it, their faces said. The boy Jimmy put his paper plate down on the food table. “Count me out,” he said. “Group stuff, that’s not my thing.” He pointed to the back door to the basement. He asked Cheryl, “Can I get out this way?” She nodded, and he left.
Cheryl felt tears welling up behind her eyes. What would she tell Faye if the other four walked out?
“All right,” she said, “but not here. Up front. Near the furnace. Behind that curtain.” There had never been witnesses to what she did. She didn’t want any now. She grabbed a handful of napkins and went behind the curtain. The concrete floor was cold on her bare knees. The boys took turns, one braced in front of her, another standing lookout at the foot of the stairs in case Faye should appear, the other two drinking soda near the food table, talking between themselves, waiting. Cheryl wondered what they were talking about.
When Cheryl had satisfied the last of them and had thrown the soggy napkins in the trash, she said, “Now can we dance?”
Joey shook his head. “We have to go to another party.”
Cheryl felt the tears coming again. “Please don’t go. You haven’t even had the roast beef. My mother and I, we worked so hard to make this a nice party.”
“So what?” Joey said. Behind him, a boy was eating potato salad from a paper plate. “What do we care?” he said. He dropped the plate so that it landed bottom side up. The boy stepped on the plate and moved his foot in a circle, squashing the potato salad into a broad, creamy puddle on the floor. Another boy reached up and grabbed a handful of the streamers Cheryl and Faye had strung across the basement ceiling. He jerked the streamers loose and let them flutter to the floor. Some of them landed in the puddle of potato salad and immediately turned dark and soggy. Then the boys turned, all four of them, and filed out the back door into the yard. “See you on the corner, bitch” Joey said as he went out the door. He did not bother to close it.
At that moment, Faye called down the stairs. “Cheryl, is it time to turn up the heat on the roast beef?”