By Robert Martin
Things about Khamsay that made her different from me: she was a junior (one year older than me), with a pierced tongue and dyed hair (Manic Panic purple), she was a girl (woman), she was brown (Cambodian?), she had a car (Camaro, yellow, rusted at the wheel wells) with a Fugazi sticker on the bumper. Yet somehow our worlds overlapped, the counter-culture bubble of a Venn diagram that would only exist in an upper-class suburban microcosm like West Linn High School. What comprised that overlap: we were both insulted by the clean-cut kids with the moniker “dirtbag” because we both smoked cigarettes between classes in the senior lot. We both liked music more than most other things. I knew her enough to mumble hello, but only if our common friends were present. She was terrifyingly cool. I didn’t think about her much until Jake told me he’d fingered her in a movie theater.
“Just like, woop! And it was inside.”
We were walking to school, twenty minutes late for first period. It was our sophomore year. This marked the first vagina either of us had encountered directly. I called him a liar.
“She’s an upperclassman. She has a car. She’s a dirtbag.”
Jake didn’t deny lying. He didn’t insist it was true. So I knew it was.
I asked a dumb question: “So are you two, like, a couple?”
Jake shook his curtain-like hair in front of his eyes. “I stuck my hand down her pants while the movie was playing. Micah was right next to her. Right in the next seat.”
I laughed uneasily. I wanted to ask, “Why would you do something like that?” but thought it was probably an answer I should already know.
Jake went to the commons to see who else he could tell, and I camped in the library for the rest of first period. I wanted desperately to know what movie they’d seen, whether it was Pulp Fiction or Natural Born Killers. I assumed it was Pulp Fiction, the one I wanted to see. Then I thought of vaginas, and little else, until second period started.
In the spring Micah invited me swimming. I assumed “swimming” was code for smoking cigarettes under a bridge, but he showed up in trunks with a rolled-up bath towel sticking out of his backpack like a bouquet. He’d been home-schooled a while and this meant he was older than the rest of us, but besides his driver’s license you’d have thought he was the lamb of the flock. My shoulders were twice as broad as his, and Jake already had four inches on him. Micah had the charisma, though, and this was why the cool upperclassmen liked him.
The swimming spot was in the next town over, not a long drive. We trolled a crowded access road looking for a parking spot, had to turn around at the dead end, go back and park at the end of the line. As we walked back toward the high, baking cliffs above the river, our flip-flops smacking the pavement and our towels draped over our shoulders, I confirmed that the yellow Camaro I’d seen on the first pass did in fact bear a Fugazi sticker on its bumper.
“Fugazi’s here,” I said.
“I know,” said Micah. “We’re meeting her. I told you that.”
“No you didn’t.”
“It’s fine, but you didn’t tell me that.”
We found her a ways off from the swimming hole, sitting alone on top of the cliffs behind a pair of enormous sunglasses. She sat cross-legged, dangling foamy pendulums of saliva from her lips and delicately directing them into the tiny craters in the rocks. When we approached, she sucked hard on a cigarette.
“Hey,” Micah sat down beside her.
She stabbed the cigarette into one of her saliva pools. “This place is crazy balls,” she said, her androgynous voice, so mismatched with her petite, angular features. But she was right about the place being crazy balls: It was the first truly hot day of the year, and high-schoolers were everywhere. Shirtless jocks with muscles all over their chests and arms, girls with breasts pressed together and their butts sliding out from beneath their bright-colored bikini bottoms, all of them lounging on the rocks or jumping into the water and shrieking with the long drop. It was no wonder Khamsay had set up in such an isolated place—they were a different species. It was like we’d stumbled upon a herd in the wild, and we had to be careful not to alert them to our presence.
Micah spread his bath towel on the rock and ripped off his t-shirt. You could see more joint than muscle in his arms and shoulders, but he had abs like a boulder field and liked to show them off. I kept my clothes on. I said to Khamsay, “Hey. I’m Richie.”
She gave me a look that said, I know who you are, dipshit.
The grimy six-pack she pulled from her bag was covered with markings in a language other than English. “My dad has, like, cases of this stuff in our garage. He gets it shipped from Phnom Penh because my uncle owns the only Cambodian market in town, and he and my dad do not get along.” She lifted a dusty bottle from the cardboard cradle and read the odd markings on its label, as if those secret phrases were familiar.
None of us had brought a bottle opener, so we didn’t end up drinking any of the warm Cambodian beer. We sat and smoked and didn’t talk much. Mostly we watched the absurdly endowed teenagers all around us occasionally flip or dive but mostly plunge feet-first into the water. They yelped and grunted and celebrated their uninhibited bodies, all skin and libido, pulling themselves dripping back up the rocks. They paid no attention to us whatsoever.
Micah stubbed out a cigarette just as Khamsay had, in a little pool of spit he’d curated in the rock. Khamsay lay on her back, her arms by her sides. The twin cups of her bikini obeyed their own forms, oblivious to her small breasts. The nubs of her nipples peeked out, little periscopes. Micah was looking elsewhere, maybe intentionally. I glanced occasionally at her face, but mostly let myself succumb to the fascination of these odd dermal objects. I couldn’t tell if she didn’t know or didn’t care that I could see them.
After a while she adjusted how she was sitting and the cups of her bikini righted themselves, and it was as if they’d never been exposed. I asked Micah on the ride home whether he’d noticed. By the way he said “No,” I knew he’d also seen Jake’s hand down her pants at the movies.
We bummed so many smokes in the senior lot that Mike Taylor dubbed us “the bum squad.” Mike wore horn-rimmed glasses and sported a moustache and muttonchops that I envied with every wisp of my sideburns. After he doled out Marlboros and cursed our being underage, he and his minions left the parking lot. More and more often, Khamsay stayed behind, sitting on the hood of her car, lording over us three sophomores.
“I wanna get high,” Khamsay sighed on a Friday.
The buzzer for final period rang.
“I have to go to class,” Micah said. He held out his unfinished smoke for anyone to take. I took it, no reason why—my own was still burning between my fingers.
Jake said, “Let’s do it. Let’s get high.”
Micah skinny-shuffled his way toward school, two hands on the back of his pants so they wouldn’t fall down as he crossed the street.
Khamsay hopped off her hood and said, “I’ve probably skipped enough too, but here.” She dug into the tight pocket of her jeans and pulled out a small foil packet. “Have fun, boys.” She trotted across the street and caught up to Micah just as he was entering the school. I saw her reach out for his arm, her mouth open to say something. They disappeared together, and Jake and I were suddenly alone with what we calculated were two tabs of acid. We peered at the small squares of white paper, which looked innocuous on their own, like they’d been cut with scissors out of a sketchpad. He pressed one against the tip of his index finger and it stuck there. I stepped back and shook my head, dropped both smokes on the ground and stomped them out. I was about to suggest we think it through when Jake popped the square on his tongue like it was nothing. It made me wonder how well I knew Jake.
“I’m not taking any,” I said.
“Good for you. Go to class.” And then he left me there in the lot. I watched him walk off toward the football field, cutting into the woods behind the grandstand and into the nature preserve that bordered our school. I envied him as I walked tardy to class.
No one could find Jake after school. Micah and I waited around for a bit—the three of us were going to head to Micah’s to play guitars and whatever—but after a while we decided to head back without him. I was worried. Micah didn’t care about anything, or was able to look like it. It was a difficult trait to imitate.
As we were walking, Khamsay practically ran us over to offer us a ride. “Hop in,” she said, folding the passenger seat forward. She turned off her radio as soon as we started moving, like she expected us to talk.
“We haven’t seen Jake all day,” I exclaimed. “He was supposed to come home with us.”
“He’s fine,” she said.
“Did you see him? Do you know where he is?” I said, but even without music her car was the noisiest thing I’d ever been inside of. Neither Khamsay nor Micah looked concerned. They must have known something I didn’t, and I tried my best not to let my worry show. I leaned forward over the seat and shouted, “What’s Fugazi sound like?”
She shouted back, “It means ‘fake,’ I think. I saw in a movie that it means ‘fake.’ I don’t know if that’s where they got it.”
Micah turned in his seat and yelled, “They’re punk,” which at that time referred to about eight genres.
“Like The Offspring? Or…”
He nodded. “But less Hollywood.”
Khamsay said, “God, radio music is awful.”
I kicked myself for naming the Offspring instead of any of the legit punk bands whose names I knew. Khamsay said, “I wouldn’t say Fugazi’s ‘punk’ though. They’re so much more than that.” She pulled onto the highway and her engine roared so that talking was pointless. I sat back and wondered what it meant for a band to be “more than” their genre. I thought about that for a couple seconds, considering whether the music Micah and I made could be more than a genre. Then I thought about Jake lost in the woods on acid and the ease with which he’d taken the acid in the parking lot, which reminded me of the ease with which he’d slipped his finger inside of Khamsay’s vagina, which reminded me of Khamsay’s vagina. It seemed absurd that this woman with a raucous Camaro and complex thoughts about punk rock had a vagina, but I had secondhand proof that it was true.
Micah’s mom welcomed us at the door, greeting Khamsay by name. “How’s the figure skating going?”
“Hi, Mrs. Tinsley. Skating’s good thanks.” Khamsay grinned—beamed, actually. She was the most wholesome pierced-nosed, Manic Panic-wearing, Camaro-driving teenager on Earth. Micah’s mom said it was fine if we wanted to “practice our guitars,” but Micah had agreed to complete all of his homework first.
“Figure skating?” I asked once we’d sequestered ourselves in Micah’s room. He sat at his desk, getting to work on his math. Khamsay sat on the bed and flipped open a textbook. I fingered the tower of CDs beside his stereo and chose Ill Communication, which was everywhere that spring. I climbed onto the bed beside Khamsay. My leg pulsed against hers. That slight physical contact permeated heat throughout my body. Trying to read was useless, but I flipped the pages of my chemistry textbook so slowly it looked like I was. After a few minutes, Mrs. Tinsley peeked her head in without knocking. She shot Khamsay and me a disapproving look, but didn’t tell us to get off her son’s bed. “Jake’s at the door,” she said. “I think something’s wrong.”
Micah rotated in his chair. He waved his pencil and said, “Send him in,” Don-like.
She glanced again at Khamsay and me. We’d separated by a centimeter, an inch. “He’d like you to come outside. By yourself.”
Micah shot a look at the two of us on his bed, letting us know he would prefer if we didn’t take advantage of this opportunity. Mrs. Tinsley left the door wide open.
Khamsay jumped to Micah’s window. “He looks like he’s been crying,” she said. I stood closely behind her. Her hair smelled of Pantene, the same shampoo I had in my shower at home. Her skin smelled like soap, and a little of the musty vinyl of her car’s interior. I must have known before this moment that I wanted to touch her and feel her insides just like Jake had, or else I’d been tantalized by the thought of her openness to such an act. But the immediacy of my desire to press myself against her came as a surprise all the same. I strained against my pants and lifted my hands awkwardly like they no longer belonged at the ends of my arms. She shifted her weight, oblivious, but I took it as a sign and stepped back, relieved. I shoved my hands in my pockets and pinched my hard-on until it subsided. All of this occurred within a matter of maybe thirty seconds, during which Jake and Micah were standing on the walkway in Micah’s front yard, about ten feet from Micah’s bedroom window. Jake was hugging his arms around his chest and trembling like he’d taken an ice bath. His eyes were swollen but open wide, like he’d been crying. His lips hardly moved, but Micah leaned close in his standard slouch, listening intently.
“Looks like he’s still tripping pretty hard,” I said.
“It’s fake,” she said. “The acid. I cut the paper out of my sketchbook this morning.”
I looked again at Jake trembling on Micah’s steps. “Are you sure? Look at him.”
She cleared her throat and turned around. “It wasn’t acid,” she said. Despite having stepped away from her, we were still standing so close that if I wasn’t six inches taller we might have easily kissed. I leaned; she touched a button on my shirt, a little poke. She said, “Do you want to come? Do you want to watch me?”
My hard-on fluttered and seemed to somersault in my pants. “Excuse me?” I managed.
She said, “You asked me about figure skating. I have a competition next weekend. You can come if you want.”
“Oh. Cool. Sure.”
We heard the front door close. Neither Jake nor Micah was in the front yard. Khamsay and I jumped back on Micah’s bed. Better if he thought we were making out than spying on him through the window. He walked in and glanced at us. He didn’t say a word—not about us, not about Jake—just un-paused “Root Down” and resumed tapping his eraser.
Jake wasn’t at school the next Monday, or Tuesday, or Wednesday. I assumed he was sick, or suspended. I pressed Micah for details but he always slithered out of answering.
The next weekend Khamsay picked me up not in Fugazi but her parents’ minivan, driven by Khamsay’s dad. Her mother rode shotgun. They were quiet and sat with extreme posture, like just being in this country was a formal occasion. Khamsay and her little sister sat in the captains’ chairs between us and her parents. Khamsay’s father eyed me through the rearview. I sat in the back row beside Micah, who barely acknowledged me when I climbed in. He looked out the window like he wanted it to hurt, but he’d been so distant in the last couple of weeks that I’d moved on. I figured our band was over.
Khamsay’s dad said “Hi,” a sound like “Hai,” stiff with foreign stress. Her mom didn’t acknowledge me. She seemed nervous, and so did Khamsay. At a red light I leaned forward and as quietly as I could I asked Khamsay if she was okay.
“I’m just going through the routine. It has a big jump in it. I’ve never landed it.”
Her mother, staring straight ahead, whispered something in Cambodian. Khamsay fired something back. I’d never heard her speak Cambodian before—it was like watching a lizard climb out of her mouth and perch on her shoulder. It changed everything about her. She and her mom had a little exchange that annoyed Khamsay, and she broke her stone-faced pose to roll her eyes. Then in English she said, “My mom says that I’ve landed it in practice. Never in competition. But I will today.”
Nobody spoke for the rest of the drive. The silence was respectful, I guess. But it was awful. I was desperate to ask Micah what was going on—Jake’s disappearance, Micah’s silence, and now I was in a luxury off-road vehicle full of Cambodians on our way to a figure-skating competition. This was not my life, but here I was. I obeyed the silence until Micah and I parted ways with Khamsay’s family. They moved with habitual purpose to a passageway reserved for coaches and contestants. Micah and I moved with resigned assumption toward the bleachers. I opened my mouth and hoped for a concise question to emerge, but instead a girl from my American History class skated up to the railing and waved at us. “Richie!” she said. “Hi! Hi Micah! What are you guys doing here?”
Morgan. She had unflattering red hair, burnt orange and curly. At school she often wore overalls, but here she sported a tight fitting, sparkly gold leotard with long sleeves and pointless frill around her waist.
“We’re here for Khamsay,” Micah said.
“Oh, cool!” she said. “She skates right before me. You should stick around and watch me, too!” and she waved and skated off. I had no idea Morgan ice-skated. I was surprised she knew our names.
“Do you think their parents force them into this?” I asked. “Like those pageant mothers?”
Micah looked like he was about to spit. He said, “Khamsay’s parents are cool. She loves this stuff. It’s all she talks about.”
“I’ve never heard her talk about it.”
“You barely know her,” he said. He sat up straight, then slouched back down. “I don’t even know why you’re here,” he said. He crossed his arms in a shrug so transparent even I couldn’t miss the message.
“Dude, I don’t like Khamsay,” I said.
He rolled his eyes and hunkered further into his huff. I traced his bad mood back through the previous couple of weeks. I landed on the glare he’d shot Khamsay and me when he came back into his bedroom after conferring with Jake. It was the last time I’d seen Jake, but that wasn’t what I focused on right now: it was Khamsay and I, pretending that we hadn’t been eavesdropping at the window, silly smirks on our faces. Micah must have thought we were pretending not to have been doing something else.
“We weren’t making out, if that’s what you think.”
Micah didn’t say anything.
“When Jake came over to your house? When Khamsay and I were on your bed? We weren’t kissing or anything. We were spying on you and Jake through your window. That’s when she invited me to come to this thing.”
“I don’t even care,” he said. “Whatever.” But his demeanor had changed: this was something, or the tip of something. A thread I could unravel later, when I’d resolved the other mystery that had been tormenting me all week.
The skaters practicing on the ice swirled around each other and spun and looped and wagged their arms in elegant postures, and then a polite buzzer sounded and they filed off the rink through a thin portal at one end.
I said, “Okay, so I know it was fake acid. It wasn’t real.”
Micah scanned my face, seemed to consider a variety of responses, and arrived at “Duh.”
I spotted Khamsay in the causeway. Her mom and dad and little sister were giving her a pep talk. She did a lot of nodding. She was wearing the same leotard as Morgan but in purple.
“You can’t tell anyone,” Micah said, and he leaned close to me as if the bleachers were full of people who wanted to know about Jake. “He thought it was real, right? So he went to the quarry to trip, but Hansen was there waiting for kids skipping class, getting high, and Hansen like ambushed him and caught him and called his parents, and Jake was so freaked out that he admitted to taking the acid even though he hadn’t taken any. His dad was super pissed that he’d even try to take it, and so he threatened to send him to military school.”
“His dad threatens that all the time, though.”
“But dude, if your kid starts taking acid? You know? He probably meant it this time.”
I couldn’t explain it, but something about this possibility relieved me. That he was gone, that he’d been punished, that he was safe.
A skater was preparing to take the ice, a little girl who couldn’t have been ten years old. A few hoots from aunts and friends fluttered through the cool air, then the crisp opening chirps of a Disney score crackled over the speakers.
“So Jake’s dad sent him to military school? Why wouldn’t you just tell me that like a week ago?”
Micah leaned closer. He seemed almost giddy to be sharing the secret he was about to share. He said, “He ran away. When he came over the other day, that was him running away.”
“And he told you where he was going. You know where he is.”
A woman behind us cleared her throat, maybe the skater’s mother. Micah and I stopped talking for the duration of the routine, but the pride on his face was his answer. Micah had been helping him. Micah was the one friend Jake trusted. I finally knew the situation, and the situation was that I was even more on the outside looking in than I’d known.
There was nothing to do but watch the little girl glide over the ice. She swished backwards around the rink and did a serviceable job through moves that were probably incredibly difficult. I realized quickly that I was a poor spectator of figure skating: all I could do was stare at their trim legs, wait for glimpses of their crotches. When the skaters were this young, I felt trapped and immoral.
Then Khamsay slid to her starting point in the center of the rink and looked good, strong. She was at ease in her skates, waving and smiling to an audience she must have imagined to be much larger and more invested than we were. Micah and I gave a couple of distinct claps as she settled into a pose. Her eyes scanned the bleachers, and when she found us her smile dropped—a coincidence, as the first notes of her music began to play. It was a deep, churning, bass-heavy passage, joined by propulsive drums and dark, discordant guitars. I’d never heard music like it: no melody to speak of, just angst and energy and control, like a tight grip, like a fist in the air. Micah leaned over and whispered, “This is Fugazi.”
I said, “This sounds nothing like The Offspring.”
Khamsay skated ably, the same swirling and spinning and hopping of the previous skaters’ routines. There must have been a list of required maneuvers. But toward the end she picked up speed, circling the perimeter of the rink with her hip-frills fluttering. Micah leaned forward on the cold metal of the bleachers. Khamsay planted a toe and launched into the air, her arms tucked and her ankles crossed, her face puckered in concentration as she spun what I later learned was a mere one and a half rotations. Her skate came down smooth, pointed forward. As she landed her other leg swung around and completed a balletic line behind her. She punched her arms in rhythm with the music and she skated back to the point on the ice where her routine had begun, and then it was over, and she left the ice with her hands on her hips and no expression on her face.
Deductions from a few technical errors I couldn’t detect—her wrists were too soft, a slight hesitation leading into the jump, things like that—cost her the competition. Morgan won handily, she was better than everyone, even I saw that. But Khamsay’s parents were ecstatic that she’d landed the jump, and in honor of that accomplishment they invited us to join them at Chuck E. Cheese’s.
“It’s tradition,” Khamsay shrugged. “Ever since I started skating as a little girl.”
She was happy at the restaurant, finally congratulating herself for landing the jump. “This is great! Why do people ever stop coming here?” Micah smiled at the scantly populated play structures, the kids with their bad haircuts. Mostly he was smiling at Khamsay, and mostly she was smiling back at him. After my second slice I began to understand that his being in the stands had contributed in some way to her ability to land the jump. My presence didn’t seem to register.
We didn’t play whack-a-mole or jump in the room of plastic balls; we sat and munched at the pizza, which was passable. At one point Chuck E. Cheese and his animatronic jamboree started playing. There was much lurching and jangling in the otherwise empty room. One of Chuck E.’s eyes drooped in a creepy wink that Khamsay imitated too well—we all laughed, especially Khamsay’s little sister. As the parents were paying the check, I caught Micah and Khamsay flirting with their feet under the table. “Caught” isn’t the right word—they were doing it blatantly, right beside the sister and me. And that’s fine, I thought to myself. That was probably always the case. I was just slow to notice things, which had probably always been the case as well.
On the way home Micah and I resumed our place in the far back of the SUV. I leaned over and in a whisper suggested that we write a song for Jake. “Record it and send it to him, like a farewell.”
“Man…” Micah said. His eyes were closed. I watched the small rhythms of the road shake his cheeks.
“Do you think he’s coming back? I mean, either he’s a runaway or his dad sends him to military school. So the band’s pretty much done.”
“What band?” he said. “We were never a band.”
I leaned back into my side of the seat, not letting my head touch the window but getting close enough to feel the cool of the glass. This stung, and I let it. We had been a band. Jake had named us, something nonsensical and ridiculous that I didn’t like and didn’t agree to, but he’d given us a name. We’d been a band, in theory. I thought.
The car bumped along and I registered the soundlessness coming from each of us: the contented parents in the front seats; Khamsay brimming behind them; her trooper of a little sister slumped against the armrest, asleep; Micah beside me, busily mapping his own world; me with my churning discord testing the edges of a silence I didn’t yet understand, though I was beginning to suspect it was only a matter of time before it found its way out.
Robert Martin is a writer and editor living in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he works as the Director of Operations for the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association. His work has appeared in Two Cities Review, Revolver, Great Lakes Review, Sixfold, and elsewhere. He is at work on a novel.