By Michelle Valois
My English teacher's daughter was a clever Catholic girl, whose long, thick hair fell onto her shoulders when she shook it out of its pony tail, and whose hips were far too big and bold for the boys in our class, and who earlier that night sat next to me in the backseat of Joe's mother's Mercury Marquis, her tight jeans pressing against my legs. The snow had stopped falling, and the streets had been plowed. Joe and Kevin and Lisa had picked us up and piled us in the back: Mary in the middle of me and Kevin; Lisa in the front; and all of us singing along to the songs on the radio as we drove to the fast food restaurant across from the plastics factory and then to the donut shop downtown.
At ten o'clock, when there were no other places to drive to, Joe drove Mary home. When we pulled up to her house, I got out, too. I'm staying over, I explained. No one said anything as Mary closed the car door and led me inside. What was there to say? All girls have sleepovers.
Mary's father sat in the living room reading a newspaper and listening to Woody Guthrie. Mary's mother sat at the dining room table grading tests. They looked up as we came in, glanced at their watches. Good time? They asked in unison. Mary said yes and led me upstairs. No one said anything. What was there to say?
Later, our nightgowns tangled about our bodies but not off our bodies, Mary whispered in my ear all that I could do if I wanted, and I wanted, but never would have dared if Mary had not confessed her secrets to me. Outside her big yellow house, streetlights illuminated the snow on the frozen ground but blurred out the stars in the sky above. Inside, Mary's brothers slept in rooms across the hall, Mary's sister slept on a cot in the attic, Mary's father snored so loudly no one could have heard what we were doing.
Much later, when our gowns had fallen entirely away and we were still awake, after the streetlights had blinked off, and the big yellow house had begun to yawn, my English teacher's family readied themselves for ten o'clock mass at St. Leo's in the better part of town. I lay on top of Mary and felt my heart explode from terror and from joy.
A year later, it did explode. Mary went to confession and told the priest everything. Then she went to the bars where soldiers from the Army base drank on Saturday nights. She went through a whole regiment that year, that’s what they said, or a whole regiment went through her – a penance of her own invention, an offering that would never be good enough to a god she did not even love.
My sister and her best friend offered me the details of Mary's bold hips in envious whispers and mostly fear. Good thing you stopped hanging around with her, they said. She's getting a bad reputation.
In all the neighborhoods in my hometown – the better parts and the worse parts – there were names for girls like Mary. There were names for me, too, only I didn’t know them yet.
Mary went to confession.
I never did.
Michelle Valois teaches writing and literature at a community college. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Florida Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Fourth Genre, North American Review, and others. She lives in western Massachusetts with her partner and three kids.
Photo by Dinty W. Moore