Grade ten had come and gone, and Cody still hadn't gotten laid. His older cousin Carter told him not to worry—this was going to be his summer—but it was already the middle of August, and Cody's prospects weren't good.
Carter was visiting for a couple weeks. The local girls liked him not just because he was older, but because his curly hair and olive complexion made him kind of exotic. It wasn't hard to imagine him on the cover of one of those fleshy teen magazines Cody would see on the low shelf of the Mike's Mart magazine rack: "Exclusive: Carter dishes about first kisses!"
All Cody really had going for him was his height. He hit six foot three sometime the year before, but so far, none of the girls seemed to notice.
Cody invited Carter to go to the North End Rec dance because, like Carter said, there was nothing else to do in this piece of shit town. Initially, Carter didn't seem super keen on the idea of going, especially after Cody told him he didn't know anybody who could score beer or even coolers. But on the evening of, he changed his mind.
"Might as well check it out."
Cody's parents made them bring his little brother, even though Weiner was only twelve. Technically, you were supposed to be at least thirteen to go, but it wasn't like anyone at the dance was going to be carding people. You'd have to have a driver's license for it to work like that. Carter had his beginner's, but he wouldn't need it. Carter said he got into bars all the time, no problem.
Cody's dad drove the three of them into town. He let Carter sit shotgun so Cody had to sit in the back with Weiner. When they pulled into the empty parking lot, the rec centre seemed smaller than Cody remembered. It was a squat, cinderblock building, a grey buoy floating in an asphalt sea. Above the entrance, a faux neon sign implored party planners to Call Today! so they could book their next event.
"Looks pretty dead," Carter said.
"Yeah, I don't know if it's going to be any good tonight," Cody said, distancing himself from the potential lameness.
Cody's dad twisted around in his seat, and Cody braced for humiliation.
"Okay, boys," he said to the three of them. "No drinking. No smoking."
"Like, cigarettes?" Carter said. "Do people still do that?"
"Cody, you look after your brother. I want you to be standing right in this spot at eleven o'clock. If I have to come in there, I assure you, I will embarrass you to the full extent of my dad powers."
The three boys piled out of the car and made their way toward the entrance. Cody and his brother led the way while Carter hung back a bit. Already, Cody could smell the dry ice and feel the pulsing thump of the low notes in his chest like a second heartbeat.
Just when they were nearing the mouth of the place, Carter grabbed Cody's elbow. "Let's hang back a bit," he said. "It's still kind of early."
Cody stopped. "What do you want to do?"
Carter looked past the rec center. "Let's see what's happening around back."
Cody and his brother followed him into the shade behind the building. A wide expanse of green stretched out ahead of them, and he could see a group of kids acting out some drama on a play structure across the soccer field.
"No you fuck you," someone said, the voice faint and high in the wind.
"You want one of these?" Carter flipped open the lid on a pack of du Mauriers. The sight of the little red box thrilled and frightened Cody.
"Better not," he said and threw a thumb toward his little brother. "Weiner will probably tell."
"My name's not 'Weiner.'"
Carter slid a cigarette out of the box and put it between his lips. It dangled down his chin like a dribble of spit while he dug around in his pocket, then sprang erect when he produced his lighter.
"Does Uncle Denny know you do that?" Weiner asked.
Carter blew a grey jet from the corner of his mouth. "What do you think?"
They stood around in silence for almost a minute while he smoked.
"This is boring," Weiner said.
"Well, why don't you go play on the equipment with the other babies," Cody said.
"Fuck you. I will. It'll be more fun than this."
Cody watched as Weiner marched shrug-shouldered across the soccer field. He was trying to think of a good conversation to start with Carter, when he heard the grit of sneakers coming closer on the asphalt.
"She is such a bitch," a girl's voice was saying. "I can't believe she said that to you!"
Three girls rounded the corner. Cody immediately assigned rating: eight-and-a-half, seven, and four.
"Who's such a bitch?" Carter asked.
"My mom," Eight-and-a-Half said. Her eyes went up and down Carter, drinking him in like a Tahiti Treat.
"That's not a nice thing to say about your mom," Carter said.
"Well, she's not a very nice person. Can I bum a smoke?"
"I don't know," Carter said. "I only give cigarettes to nice people. And to be honest, you don't seem all that nice."
"I'm nice," Seven said. "Can I have one?"
"You're not nice," Carter said. "You didn't even say 'please.'"
"Plee-ease," the two pleaded in unison.
Carter sighed theatrically and pulled the pack out of his pocket. Eight-and-a-Half took it out of his hand, slid out her cigarette, and passed it to Seven who did the same. Seven looked over at Four, who shook her head and rubbed her ankle against her calf. Seven passed the pack back to Carter.
For a moment, the two girls waited with the unlit cigarettes between their fingers.
"What? I've got to light them, too?" Carter asked.
He cupped a flame between them and they took turns tucking their hair behind an ear and bending forward in puckered concentration.
When they both started coughing, Carter said, "This better not be your first time. I don't want to be responsible for like, corrupting your innocence."
Their fits turned to half-laughter.
"Jeanine's plenty corrupt," Eight-and-a-Half said. "Aren't you Jeanine?"
"As if, Hope," Seven said. She smiled in Cody's direction, and Cody noticed she had some pretty serious braces going on. She was tall and skinny—virtually titless—and she wore too much makeup. But she'd smiled at him, and he liked that about her.
After a little while, Cody noticed Weiner making his way back across the soccer field. He walked toward them but refused to look their way.
"Are you staying for the dance?" Jeanine asked.
"For sure," Cody said.
"Want to head in?" Hope ground out the butt of her smoke with her shoe.
"Maybe," Carter said, pulling a fresh cigarette from his pack. "In a bit."
Even after Carter went home, the girls texted Cody, thumbing out strings of innuendo and acronym he tried desperately to decode. Nearly a week and half after the dance, Jeanine offered him something tangible: "Wanna hang out Saturday?"
Cody's dad agreed to drive him over on the condition he brought his brother. Cody tried to argue against it, but he knew the reason he wanted Weiner to stay home was the same reason his dad insisted he go. There was no way he'd get up to any real trouble with Weiner around. The kid was natural contraception.
Jeanine and Hope lived behind the old mall no one went to anymore. It turned out Jeanine lived in one side of a duplex and Hope lived in the other. It was Hope who opened the door to Jeanine's house.
"Come on in. This is the nice half. My place is a dump."
Jeanine stood behind her wearing shorts showing off her long, pale legs. She gave Cody a chaste hug, and he caught the chemical whiff of strawberries. As they walked through the house, Cody noticed a lot of cardboard boxes labeled with short forms like "mstr bdrm" and "liv rm."
"Are you moving out?" he asked Jeanine.
"No, we just moved here from Calgary in the spring," she said. "You didn't know that?"
When the four of them sat down at the kitchen table, Cody saw there was a two-inch scratch down the side of Jeanine's cheek. It stood stark against her skin, like piece of bright thread stuck to her face. She blushed a little when she noticed Cody looking at it.
"My sister just left with her baby. He scratched me when I was holding him," she said. "His little fingernails are really sharp. Like puppy teeth."
A woman Cody assumed was Jeanine's mom appeared in the kitchen and poked through one of the cupboards. She was tall like Jeanine, but heavier, and her eyebrows looked like she drew them on with a brown marker. She pulled out a box of Wheat Thins and opened the tab with a thock. She threw a couple thins in her mouth, chewed, and swallowed.
"I don't want you kids hanging around the house all day," she said, as if Cody and his brother were regular fixtures in her kitchen. "It's beautiful outside. I'm heading over to Crystal's in ten minutes, and I want everyone gone before I leave."
"That means she doesn't want you and Jeanine alone in the house together," Hope told Cody, when Jeanine's mom left the room.
Jeanine blushed and looked at her white knees.
"So," Hope said, "the way I see it, we have two options. We can go to my house and watch Netflix"—at this she threw a conspiratorial look toward Jeanine—"or, we can walk over to Beth's and see what she's up to."
"Let's go to Beth's," Jeanine said, a little quickly.
"Is Beth the one with the mustache?"
Cody's eyes went wide. "Jesus, Weiner. Shut up."
"She does have a bit of a situation with her upper lip," Hope said. "Don't tell her I said that, though."
They left and walked past the driveways and vacant lots of the neighborhood. The sun was low in the sky and flared off the windshields of parked cars. It was starting to cool off, and Cody wished he'd brought a windbreaker.
"We should just go to the mall," Weiner said.
"There's nothing at that mall," Hope told him. "That's the dirt mall."
Just after Jeanine said they were a block away from Beth's house, two older guys came walking toward them. Cody recognized one of them as a senior from the high school. He was shirtless and wore a beach towel around his neck like an old rich lady wearing a mink. He didn't seem self-conscious about showing off his unspectacular pecs or the top three inches of his Calvin Kleins.
"Oh, geez," Hope said, laughing. "It's Howie and Kaden."
When the two guys got close, Cody could smell a combination of cigarettes, sweat, and some kind of cologne that reminded Cody of department stores. It was a complicated musk.
"What's up, H?" the shirtless guy said.
"Not too much. We're just going over to see Beth."
The shirted guy stared at Cody and Weiner. There was a cigarette behind his right ear. He turned to Jeanine, and in a faraway voice he said, "Hey, Jeanine."
"Hey, Kaden," Jeanine said.
"Me and Kaden are going to sneak into the pool at the Days Inn," the other one, Howie, said. "They just put in a waterslide. You girls got bikinis or something you can wear? If not, I mean, that's okay, too, right? We're fine with that."
Jeanine's pale face became visibly red.
"No, thanks," Hope decided for everyone. "We're hanging out with Cody and Weiner right now."
"My name's not Weiner," Weiner said.
Howie looked at the two brothers like they had suddenly materialized out of nowhere.
"You stepping out on me, Hope? That's cold. And here I thought we had something going."
Hope laughed. "You wish, Howie."
"You should come," Kaden said, mostly to Jeanine.
"Yeah, forget these guys. I mean, that one there"—Howie gestured at Weiner—"he hasn't even hit puberty yet. And this beanpole over here? How's the weather up there, Stretch?"
"God, Howard," Hope said. "Just go swimming already. Leave these poor guys alone."
"For you. But you owe me one. You coming to my party tomorrow night?"
"What about you?" Howie asked Jeanine.
"I don't know," Jeanine said. "Maybe?"
"Cool. Cool. Well, maybe I'll see you there."
The two boys started making their way down the sidewalk.
"See you, Jeanine," Kaden said.
"So long, Stretch!" Howie shouted at Cody as he walked away. "Peace out, Mr. Puberty."
Hope sighed. "Don't let him bug you. He's always been like that. When my mom worked evenings, I used to have to go over to his house after school. His mom's really nice. She taught me how to count to ten in Cantonese. See? Yat, Yee, Sam, Sei, Ng, Lok, Chat, Bot, Gau, Sup."
Cody didn't hear from either of the two girls for a few days. And then one evening, he was surprised when his phone came alive with a call. It was Hope.
"Hey, Cody." Her next statement was prefaced by the extended umm reserved for delivering bad news. "I just wanted to let you know that Jeanine's kind of with Kaden now. She wanted to tell you herself, but you know, she's basically chickenshit."
Cody could hear someone say something in the background, and then a slightly muffled Hope saying, "Shut up, you are, too."
"She thinks you're a really nice guy, and personally, I think Kaden's kind of sketchy. I mean, he got expelled and has go to this weird alternative school, now. Anyway, I just thought it was fair for you to know. I guess I'll see you in September."
When school started back up, Cody was sucked back into the familiar gears of the fall semester. He rode the same bus with its apple core stink and greasy-haired driver. He sat against his locker in the morning and looked at his phone. At lunch, he played Asshole in the cafeteria with Omar and a couple other guys. It was a comfortable sweatsuit of routine insulating him from the opposite sex.
But then, two major things went down. First, the junior basketball coach approached Cody and said he should come to tryouts. He said Cody had a "Darwinian advantage" over the other players. When the season started, Cody mostly rode the bench, but he liked having something to do after school, and he liked wearing the same jersey as all the other guys. It was nice to be part of something.
The other thing that happened was a girl asked him out. Her name was Lindsey, and she was the team manager, which basically meant she dug the balls out of the equipment locker and worked the scoreboard during scrimmages. She was a plump brunette who was a year older than he was and always called him "Rookie" during practice. One day, she said she needed his phone number—for manager stuff—and it all kind of started from there.
He didn't see much of the two girls he met in the summer. In the halls, they'd wave at him, then implode in a private fit of giggles. Once at a game, he heard someone wolf whistle and yell out, "Nice legs!" He looked up from the bench and saw Hope in the bleachers. Jeanine sat beside her and smiled a thin, quiet smile barely containing all the metal in her mouth.
Later, at the Halloween dance, Cody ran into a zombified Hope hunched over the drinking fountain. She stood up and wiped her mouth with her sleeve, smearing fake gore across her chin.
"Hey, pretty lady," she said.
Like the other members of his basketball team, Cody was sporting a cheerleader's skirt and pom poms. He'd even stuffed one of Lindsey's bras with a couple Nerf balls.
"So, Jeanine broke up with Kaden," Hope said. "She wants you back."
"Back?" Cody adjusted his girlfriend's B-cups. "What are you talking about?"
After Halloween, the few times Cody saw Jeanine around the school, she turned red and flittered away. Cody felt this ugly power, this weird, unwanted turning of tables. He tried to avoid her, but even in a crowd she was hard to miss. The two of them were like helium balloons floating above a fair. When the accident happened, and Jeanine was off school for a while, it was almost a relief.
On Christmas Day, Cody's dad telephoned Uncle Denny and they talked about whatever it was that dads and uncles talk about. After a while, Cody heard his name.
"You want to talk to Carter?"
"Sure," he said. He took the phone, still warm from his dad's hand, and went into his bedroom.
"So?" Carter cut to the chase. "Any pussy yet?"
"Working on it," Cody said.
"Man, I thought for sure you'd get together with one of those chicks from that dance."
"Nah." Cody paused. "That one girl, Jeanine, she actually got into a car wreck a couple months ago. Her face is all messed up, now. She lost most of one ear."
"Jeanine," Carter repeated the name. "Was that that chick who let me feel her up during a slow dance?"
"You're thinking of Hope."
"No, Jeanine. She was the tall one, right? With the braces? God, she was flat as a surfboard. No great loss there."
"Yeah," Cody heard himself say, "no great loss."
And it was true. When basketball season ended in February and Cody's team didn't make the district finals, his coach had the players do an exercise where they wrote down all the things they'd won and lost that year. For Cody, the tall girl with the braces didn't make either list.