Being Good

by LA Robbins

‘I am going to kiss you so hard you’ll never forget it,’ Rod announces as I leave his yard to go home for dinner. I smile uncertainly because I want to be polite and because Melanie and a few other kids have heard this pronouncement and because I don’t know if I want to be kissed.

Rod Sanders is oldest and tallest of the three boys and two giraffe-high parents in his family.  His hair curls at the back  of his neck and a few golden corkscrews dangle over deep-set blue eyes. When he smiles his braces glint above a strong jaw. With his wide shoulders and narrow hips he could be a male model or a young Charlton Heston. At dinnertime Mrs. Sanders always stands at the back door, arms akimbo on her broomstick body, her hair, a spray-gold helmet above an aquiline nose: Charlton Heston in a wig.          

It’s fat John from up the road who introduces the idea of a kiss. He joins us some days, though I am happier when he doesn’t. John always finds a way of making mischief. He waves his arms and shouts ‘boo!’ when we walk across the makeshift balance beam and then derides whoever who falls off. John himself doesn’t attempt this feat. Or he screams that Melanie and I have coodies ‘like all gir-els’ – he morphs the word into two sneered syllables.  Nix on playing tag  because if we touch a boy, coodies could jump on him and make his head itch. John doesn’t run so tag isn’t his sport anyway. Dad says there’s no such thing as coodies but I lean close to the bathroom mirror, parting my hair to look for creepy crawlies just in case.

On this day John has come chugging down the hill from his house. He stands, chest heaving, cheeks, red apples, pudgy fingers wiggling on his blob arms. We are

cross-legged on the grass, holding dog-eared cards; Rod is teaching us to play Hearts.  John stands over us, demonstrating a  movie kiss – he saw it, live, when he was waiting for the school bus with the older kids. I already know what a kiss is, of course, but the idea of mouth mushing makes me squirm.   I climb trees and paralyze frogs by stroking their stomachs and I don’t flinch when Peter’s pet tarantula places its hairy appendages on my palm, one after the other. The Maidenform trainer bra that Mom bought lies in my dresser drawer, bristling with price tags.

‘Like this,’ John says. We look up from our cards and he has crossed his arms. He whirls around, back to us, and his stubby hands slide up and down on his swaying, blimp torso.  His sneakers take turns lifting off the grass and ‘mmmmmmm’ is the sound as his head rocks slowly back and forth on his thick neck.

Yuck. I look back at my hand – I have the Queen of Spades so need to collect all the hearts as surreptitiously as possible – but something makes me look up again.  Rod is staring at me and I know he is thinking about movie kisses and for a moment my heart is bigger than the ones I need to collect  – ba bump ba bump ba bump – and then I swallow and put down a ten of hearts to see what I can rein in.

In a few minutes the screen door opens;  Mrs. Sanders pokes her head out and her long fingers tap on the door frame like the forelegs of a hungry praying mantis. I straighten up. Her flat Midwestern voice calls to the beanpole son that’s nearest: ‘Peter, tell your brothers to come warsh up for supper.’ She retracts her head and fingers before the door thwacks shut.  We throw our cards in a pile and get up. I dust my shorts. Melanie and I start to head out of the yard. That’s when Rod says it and it comes out all in a rush, his eyes, hard and narrow,  his voice, the same: ‘I’m going to kiss you so hard – ’             

In bed that night, I worry what this ‘kiss so hard’ is all about. The words don’t 

fit with my nighttime romantic ritual. I lay on my back, wafting the see-through curtains this way and that. I am a singer in a gossamer robe that flutter-flows as I glide across the stage, one bejeweled wrist holding the microphone near my sumptuous lips. A tall, elegant black woman with enormous eyelashes and long, silky hair  – and a deep, honey voice that spellbinds listeners. Never mind that really I am a pale, freckled, pigeon-toed adolescent with pointy breast buds and a second toe longer than the first. Which looks fine on Dad but not on me.

The next afternoon in the Sander’s yard, it’s as if nothing has been said.  We are jumping rope and John is not there. ‘Christopher Columbus sailed across the ocean; the waves rose higher, higher, higher and OVER!’  The rope arcs up, then scythes the grass. The little fingers that were fidgeting in my stomach have vanished. After jump rope I practice my back walkover, which I can do on a hill but not on the flat.   We start a game of tag. Rod has forgotten about the kiss;  I am relieved and maybe a little disappointed but alas, too soon. As the sun filters pink through the chicken-wire fence Rod’s big man voice barks  ‘OK’; we all look up and the fingers in my stomach start fidgeting again because he’s looking straight at me with that hard, narrow look.

‘C’mere,’ his pointer finger is hooking and flexing. My eyebrows meet and he jerks his head to indicate that I am to follow him around the back of the house. ‘And you,’ Rod uses the same finger to jab at our small group, some winded, hands on knees, some keeled over, chests rising and falling. ‘Stay put. Back in a tick.’  Ba bump Ba bump ba bump, I follow him, tripping over my feet and then, speeding up when he has rounded the corner and I can’t see his broad back. Part of me would rather be on the grass with the others and part of me feels that I have to follow him because I need to be polite and of course, I’m curious and anyway, it won’t last long, so let’s see.

I round the corner and Rod clamps my arm in the vice of his fingers and pulls me close and then, eyes blinking rapidly, he stands there, breathing. After a minute he shoves me so that I am against the rough brick wall of their house. In the movies they close their eyes, so I do. Nothing happens. I slit my eyes open and see the large bump in Rod’s throat,  up and down, a turkey neck gobbling food.  I close them again. His musty sweat smell is near and now his braces are pressing into my lips.  In the movies they open their mouths but his pressure is too strong; my sealed lips are caught between the metal cross-hatchings in his mouth and my own teeth. I listen to the snorts of his long nose. Grinding into me with his mouth, the rest of his body, somewhere else.  I don’t breathe. I feel the stony wall behind me and I wait until for it to be over.

On the way home Melanie gives me a quizzical look and I say, ‘yeah, he did. It hurt and it took too long – like the dentist.’ I roll my bruised lips together gingerly, then let them roll out. Up between my ribs the air siphons out in a slow whoosh, like it did when I left Rod’s house. In the kitchen I do my chores and even some of Melanie’s. Not like in the movies or in the books. No soft, subtle undulations of warm lips on lips.  No body to body, arms around arms.  No ‘mmmmmm’.   More like the 15-page report I slaved over for Social Studies.  I stayed up until midnight to finish the table of contents and paste in the pictures. I always complete homework on time, in neat, cursive handwriting.  I have to do my homework before I am allowed to go out and play and that means sometimes I’m late for playing. I don’t know what would happen if I didn’t get mostly ‘A’s on my report card because I always do. John says I’m a ‘spring butt’ because my hand shoots up when the teacher asks questions. But I don’t know any other way to be and I don’t like John, anyway.

When I am 16, I get a part-time job in a department store.  We have moved to a new neighborhood and I’m way more interested in singing than kissing. I sell handbags and gloves to permed, blue-rinsed ladies mostly, but once a Frenchman bows over my outstretched hand and says  ‘enchanté ‘ and I am, briefly, enchanted. Every night I count the money in the till and write in my neat handwriting on the brown envelopes of pennies and nickels, dimes and quarters. I show up early, take short lunches and skip breaks if they need me. I follow store protocols. I also look forward to the end of each shift, when I can go home or to singing lessons with Peggy. She has a voice with a capital ‘V’.

During this time I meet a first boyfriend. Steve’s long, brown fringe sweeps sideways across his face, a scalloped shade pulled halfway down over long-lashed green eyes.  A lot of girls say he is a ‘looker’ and they have boyfriends so, when he asks me, I say ‘yes’ and I get one, too.  Steve’s romantic evening doesn’t cost a cent. We descend to his rec room where he turns on the gas fire and The Moody Blues and snaps off the lights. He lies on top of me on the orange shag rug and kisses me. He is good at this, maybe because he plays the sax.  His warm, ardent lips stir a funny pulling in me. His feverish hands move from my neck to my shoulder, then roam over my clothes and inside them, and he climbs me and mashes me until he sighs.  Sometimes he asks me to take his hot penis in my mouth, which I don’t like to do.  Yuck. Swallow a snake that might spit?  Sometimes it does, and there is hot, sticky semen that I don’t know what to do with. Steve is Catholic: real sex is verboten, but anything else is fair game.  Real sex must be better than snakes and ladders, I think, but if I suggest this, how I can be good?

At the department store one night, Mr Sorenson, Assistant Manager, asks me what kind of panties I prefer. I am subbing in Lingerie, arranging lacy bikinis into rows of beige and white. His brown hair is shellacked behind his ears and the moustache over his thin lips is wax-curled up at each end like the thin wire strands that wrap speaker cable to input. Since it’s closing time and no one is around I have been practicing a passage from Bach’s Mass in B Minor. The other altos are quicker to find the notes and Janice said I sang a B sharp, not a B. I need to get better at sight-reading; they’re all experts. A jangling of keys startles me: Mr Sorenson is unlocking the register to collect the day’s proceeds.  I cough and say ‘ahem’ so my Bach humming sounds like throat clearing. Then he saunters over with his panties query. I smile politely, wondering what is the right preference.  Through the thin wool of his suit jacket I feel the heat of his arm. I sidestep to the left. He points to the fancy ladies’ briefs on the mannequin that maidenheads the display table.

‘A full panty, up to the waist, is the best kind.’ His lips purse, making the curlicue moustache wires quiver and he steps close to put his mouth near my ear.  ‘That way you get to open the whole package.’ His fingers rifle through the bikinis that I am organizing. ‘These panties spoil it because the package is half opened – nothing left to the imagination.’  I nod and bend down to pick up a price tag so he doesn’t see my red face.  I let out my breath when he pockets the keys, tucks the fat envelope of cash under his arm and walks over to handbags.

My virgin status changes at college.  Pointdexter Peabody (OK, not his real name) is three years my senior, a be-spectacled intellectual, who seduces my mind with fascinating talk of Socrates and poet philosophers.  I occasionally come up with pithy ripostes but usually remain silent, affecting the air of a pensive scholar or a nodding sage: all I need is a beard to stroke. Peabody asks, ‘have you ever?’  I shake my head, ‘no’, and then my eyebrows go up because he is suggesting practicalities. I should go to the infirmary, get protection. ‘For now, I will use condoms,’ he announces, as if addressing a chemistry class. He is unrolling a thin, powdery cap over his dick, then using thick fingers to insert his dick into me.  Ouch, ouch; my waterworks contracts to shrink from the dry, pinching pain. Why would anyone consent to this? Will I have to do it again?  Can’t I be his girlfriend and not do this? We could talk about Socrates instead.

 I wonder why sexually attractive people are boring and why nondescript, downright nerds like Pointdexter  are compelling conversationalists. How to want to kiss the nerds? No matter what kind of upright and proper girl I want to be, now that I have done it, sex is bestial and urgent and, it seems, necessary.  What a sacrifice to procreate. Peabody wears a coat and tie to our choral concert. We singers stand on a red carpet, a semicircle of white uppers and black lowers: ‘a mouth “opening wide” for the dentist,’ says Peabody later. In his bed the final measures of Bach’s Mass in B Minor replay in my head:  bass, tenor and alto – do-oh-na-ah no bi-is pacem. Do-oh…

‘The Puritans believed that sex was only for procreation,’ our American History professor announces, attracting the attention of students who have been daydreaming or half asleep. ‘If your urine issues forth in a forked stream, that means that your thoughts stray in nefarious directions. If urine comes out in one twisted stream, this reflects the mental concentration of a pure, incorrupt soul, who engages in coitus to produce offspring. He pokes at the metal-framed glasses saddling his nose. ‘In his essays, Benjamin Franklin advocated following tenets of austere, religious faith to extol the virtues of frugality, hard work and thrift.  Interestingly,’ the prof studies us over his specs, ‘Franklin’s Protestant Work Ethic has become a crucial foundation of contemporary capitalism. Planning, hard work and self-denial lead to financial success.’

‘Puritans knew how to be good,’ I tell Peabody later. ‘They practiced peeing in straight lines to become the Elect.’  On the toilet seat I crane forward and open my legs slightly, to monitor my purity and wealth; a forked stream, every time. I am impure and doomed, having engaged in non-procreative sex and worse, before matrimony.

Why were Puritans pious? Only a few, chosen by God as Elect, could boss the others in His name.  Anyone who diverged from common morality was ostracized. Did some pay lip service, secretly tired of being goodie-two-shoes?  They were born doomed sinners so couldn’t help their trespasses. And surely their bifurcated urine emissions would have dampened enthusiasm for rigorous obedience.

The night before my Puritan essay is due, I haven’t begun and don’t know what to write.  I am singing while my friend Jojo plays harmonica.  We sit on a high hill,  fuzzy orange-purple ribbons of sunset painting the sky before us. In the valley below a train slides along, a shiny dark serpent, articulating as one boxcar after another takes the bend.  ‘Let’s go down there and hop on,’ he suggests lazily. ‘Let it take us where it will.’ Yes, I think.  Jojo and I talk-dream of a new life somewhere that doesn’t have essays and exams. When it’s dark, I go back to my dorm and stay up all night and write the essay.

It is after Peabody and after I start work as a bank representative in another city that I do jump a boxcar of sorts, with a one-night stand. I meet Mark at a party after work. He is a swarthy, dark-eyed man, with a black caterpillar monobrow. I invite him home. In the cab enroute to mine, our mouths are together and each shift and jolt spawns a delicious pull of longing. But at the flat, sex doesn’t play out like the scene in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead,  when Dominique struggles while he brutally penetrates her. Afterwards she doesn’t wash, savoring the memory.

‘Are you sure?’ Mark hovers in plank pose over my nakedness. ‘Yes,’ I sigh, dismayed that he has asked. He is gone before breakfast and I hurry to expunge the traces of my sinful seduction. Slap in the face for indulgent hedonism.

Even now, with a long time lover, when kissing and sex are familiar and experiments, safe, the faraway echo of a Puritan hymn sings that I must be gracious and solicitous, satisfy him, pay piety. But piety to what?  to the institution of coupledom? to tabloid braggadocio: ‘Harold and I Have Sex Seven Days a Week’ or ‘Ten Ways to Please Your Man in Bed’? How much sex is driven by male ego and female acquiescence? Do partners ever explore what works for each of them?

I dream I am in an Australian desert, a saxophone riff playing in my head. I pleasure myself in a shallow valley of warm sand. The sun’s heat lessens abruptly and I open my eyes; a fierce-faced aborigine, nostrils flaring, is peering into my sandy nest. Sitting up, I reach for my thin shift but he has plunged down the incline to pull it from my grasp. He drops his bow and shrugs off his quiver of arrows in slow, liquid movements. His erection makes a tent of his loincloth. With a dry, black hand he gently pushes me onto the sand and swings astride me. Warm thighs flank mine. Heat brushes up into the V of my crotch, nuzzling my bush of pubic hair. I pull him in, embrace him, like a long-forgotten passage of beloved music. When our languorous rhythm presses my back into the hot, grainy sand bed, I close my eyes and exhale – yes – the sweet irony of letting rather than doing. His smile is wider than the horizon when I open my eyes. He bends to place warm, surprisingly soft lips on mine and my juices flow.

It is a short while after the dream that I join a jazz ensemble.  We are a female octet that meets Wednesday nights to syncopate, harmonize and finger-click, shivering me to joy.  We sing by ear and our jazz is soft and warm and smooth.  Several singers, especially Debbie, have stronger, more mellifluous voices than I do. I watch the tapping of Debbie’s black boot as she conducts. ‘Every note is right but you try too hard,’ she tells me afterward, when I complain that I am not a black singer with sumptuous lips. She smiles. ‘’Too hard” robs you of a relaxed vocal register.’ She stacks a chair and then another. ‘It isn’t about the notes. And you know the dynamics and the timing by heart.’ I make a leggy pile of chairs beside hers.  When I turn to face her she says: ‘It’s about going where you don’t know where you’re going, letting the music sweep you along.’ On her cleavage, a gold, heart-shaped pendant catches the light.

L.A. Robbins: I am a published American and British author and an editor with work placed in the UK and the US. Two stories were placed in Storgy Magazine in 2019, one of which made the long list for the Fish Publishing prize, the other, now part of a published compilation.