This is Pearl. Pearl is nearly at wits’ end, taken there because everyone around her is always masturbating. She thinks that her mother masturbates in the bathroom because her showers are so frequent and so long. Judging from the well-worn magazines tucked between her older brother’s mattresses she’s certain that Tom does it, probably anyway. She wonders if the family’s habit is what drove her father away. Even her best friend, Sheila, must have begun experimenting, judging by the fact that she’d elected to bring up the subject. “Pearl, have you ever,” she stammered while looking in every conceivable direction but toward Pearl, “do you ever... touch yourself there?”
Oh my god. Her self. A part of Pearl wants to scream aloud, but she knows that screaming would only draw the world’s attention upon her self and upon her embarrassing clan, and undoubtedly its harsh light would fall upon these peccadilloes that set Pearl apart from her family.
Today happens to be Pearl’s birthday, and already she has been left alone with her cake. Her mother, having laid the cake replete with unlit, pink candles upon the kitchen table, has excused herself to take a shower. Though she had asked Pearl to wait, Pearl knew well enough that her mom would be some time in returning. Her brother was still in bed. Already Pearl was feeling that her thirteenth was the worst year she’d known. Just one week before, she had received her period, as if that were a gift. Now, just wanting to get it over with, she decides to light her own candles. Only Pearl was present to observe that it took her two blows to extinguish all thirteen candles. Such are the small rewards of living with a bunch of masturbators.
“Pearl!” her mother exclaims upon entering the kitchen, her bathrobe a bit too relaxed; “You didn’t wait. Honey, you didn’t burn yourself, did you?”
“Well that’s not fair, Pearl,” she pouts with her hand braced upon her hip. “We didn’t get to sing happy birthday. Your brother’s not even up yet.”
“He’s up, Mom.”
“Well I’m gonna go get him.”
“Mom, your nipple is showing.”
“Uh!” Mom snugs her robe closed and turns to leave. “You can just light those candles again, little birthday girl. Tommy! Get yourself out here now!”
Pearl rolls her eyes. The last thing she wants to see out on her birthday is his self.
“Tom!” Mom raps on his bedroom door.
“Yeah, Mom,” comes his muffled reply.
That was quick. Pearl slides her finger across the cake’s lemon frosting and puts the daub on her tongue just as she hears the door unlatch.
“Tom,” Mom draws her voice down and talks through clenched teeth, “it’s Pearl’s birthday. We’re ready to celebrate.”
“Happy birthday, Pearl,” Tom shouts.
“Get yourself out here.”
“Yeah, Mom. Let me get something on. Be right there.” The door latches.
Mom shuffles back into the kitchen; “I’m gettin dressed, hon. Wait, please. Will ya?”
Pearl has a soft spot for Mom’s begging. She sticks her neck out, pulls her head up, pulls a smile and nods.
For Pearl this was no small extension of generosity, for since she had awakened that morning she’d been plagued by an annoyance for the unwelcome birthday. What a cumbersome mood, and likely to spoil the only Saturday she had until next week. Lying there in bed she had reached back into the night to sort her dreams but could only recall limp stockings and sour laughter, and so she just laid for a while in her morning smell, paddling her feet evenly beneath the blankets, not bothering to listen for any sounds in the flat for she was always the first to awake on weekends. This fact only served to validate her annoyance, considering it was her birthday. So she rose from her bed, in the funereal spirit of a deceased anniversary, and made her way quietly down the hall past the sealed doors of her sleeping clan to the main room where she knelt, funereally of course, before the television screen to warm it up with a ritual jab at the power button.
Blah blah blah. Cartoons and commercials. Nothing in the blather soothed Pearl’s annoyance aside from one appealing boy who reached across the television screen for part of a complete breakfast and gave a randy wink to the viewers. But even that was bothersome; Pearl could tell he was faking it. However, the boredom had nurtured a curiosity that had been nagging at Pearl all morning alongside the annoyance. Best to appease it before anyone else was about.
Pearl left the TV on for cover and slipped into the bathroom, quietly pushing the door closed and securing the lock. Alone with her unnerving reflection in the medicine cabinet mirror, she took a compulsive inventory of her blemishes; the red swelling in the cleft of her nostril had grown larger and deepened in color. With what thankless gifts she’d already been showered this unlucky week. She stuck out her tongue in self-defense. Then snatching up her remaining confidence she turned away and, with movements educated by years of not wishing to signal to any sleeping ears that she was up and up to anything at all, she pulled a towel from the rod and draped it across the toilet lid, drew a hand mirror from the cabinet and laid it on the towel, withdrew as well the pale yellow box of tampons purchased just for her. She drew down her pajamas and panties, kicked them aside and silently recited her mother’s instructions: 1) wash hands; 2) breathe deep; 3) foot on lid, beside the mirror; 4) breathe deep again, and; 5) read the directions. Pearl didn’t doubt her mother’s experience, but she questioned her ability to advise. Wash her hands? She didn’t want to risk the noise that would make, and besides she hadn’t really touched anything but the television, oh, and the doorknob, among other things she supposed were untainting. She bit her lip and breathed deeply, straddled the toilet, and placed her foot up beside the mirror.
God. She saw her self floating in the silver oval, disordered gills of pale purple tissue dwelling between the fat folds. She forgot to breathe again. But she remembered how...
...the pools in the ditch were gilded with reflections of the bright May sky. Spring’s headlong pitch into a rainless stretch had largely drained the stream, leaving a few hale puddles cordoned by fragrant, impenetrable humps of broad-bladed grasses. Defying the unfamiliar tightness between her legs Pearl straddled the bed’s width in one long stride, and as her shadow broke the water’s gilt it revealed the pool’s green-mudded bottom stirred by a flurry of startled flight. She leaned over, hands planted on thick knees, and peered through the clouds of silt. There they were, gray lumps of pollywog, like globs of oil sunk under canopies of algae, swaying in the shelters of grass. Misshapen, loathsome primordial buds. Some already had sprouted juvenile legs from their hindquarters and their tails were being slowly drawn in to join the swelling thighs. Pearl moved her hands around and up the backs of her own thighs, wondering what reprehensible appendage was being consumed to grow them, to fill her building waist, to plump her chest.
“Hey, Pearl,” Everett stood on the lip of the concrete culvert above her. “Bagging tadpoles?”
Pearl couldn’t bear the thought of dipping her hands in that ditch filth; “Just looking.”
Everett dropped himself down into the ditch. In spite of the afternoon warmth he had blanketed himself in a green army jacket; the shoulders hung halfway to his elbows and his one visible hand looked atrophied in the clotted fabric of the rolled cuff. The other hand he kept secured in the jacket’s pocket as he sidled across the embankment to Pearl. Agile, spirited Everett. He was humming ‘Lovely Bunch of Coconuts’ as he leaned with Pearl to have a look for himself; “It smells.”
Pearl turned her head and sniffed damp canvas; “So do you.” She was surprised by the gush of warmth to her head when Everett laughed. His peach-pink cheeks were streaked with a thickening blonde down.
He rubbed his nose in the jacket; “It’s this. I found it in the basement.” Everett snapped a tan spear of dry grass from a clump between his feet and held it pointed above a cluster of unsuspecting pollywogs. Pearl, struck with an unprecedented pity for the things, nudged Everett’s shoulder, an act of subtle dissuasion, and in doing so she sensed an advantage in her mass. Everett slowly plunged the blade into the mud beyond the circle of tadpoles and stood upright; “Wanna try something?”
“Depends.” Pearl stood, feeling even larger and more momentous.
“Depends on what?”
“On my mood.”
Everett hopped up and across the embankment again and slipped under cover of the culvert. Pearl followed, and tucked herself into the concrete pipe. The pipe was dry and cool. A peat-brown stain ran along the bottom in a narrow band over which Pearl arched her legs, mirroring Everett’s attitude though being more careful to keep any part of her from touching the residue.
“What’s up with you, Pearl? You got your undies in a bunch.”
With the pad mashed beneath the strain of her jeans she felt just that way, and before prudence could restrain her she shuffled her bottom uncomfortably. The shift did not escape notice, and Everett glanced at her crotch with a slight, uncertain smile. “It’s my birthday next Saturday,” she explained. “It’s bugging me. I don’t know if I’m gonna get anything good.” The concrete made Pearl’s reason ring hollow.
“Happy birthday.” That hand in the pocket was constantly fussing. “I didn’t see you at school today.”
“My mom said I could stay home. It’s like a before-birthday present.” She was starting to feel round and greasy.
“I have a present for you. Wanna try it?”
“Close your eyes.”
Pearl closed them and listened to Everett’s fussing hand.
“Shtick out your lipsh,” he slurred, and Pearl heard a tick-tick. “No peeking.”
Pearl pushed her lips out, not knowing, waiting for a gift, for what she wished Everett might give. She smelled a burning, a smoke bitter and rich, heard Everett exhale and felt a slim stick slide into her waiting mouth. With determination she kept her eyes closed.
“Suck,” Everett sounded so reassuring, “and inhale. Don’t keep it in your mouth. I can tell if you’re faking.”
Pearl’s head was already light, as if it were sprinting ahead of her. She’d no idea what she was doing but she sucked, like on a straw, and swallowed the heat. She gagged, exploded in coughs and the culvert thundered. Through watering eyes she saw Everett in a billowing haze smiling as if he’d made both their days.
Knock knock knock. “Pearl? You OK in there, hon? I gotta potty.”
Where were we. Pearl’s birthday. Mom on one side, Tom on the other, Pearl in the middle with her cake and thirteen candles lit again. This time Pearl blows them all out with one long gust as Tom whoops in falsetto and Mom clasps her hands together to keep pride earthbound. Practice does indeed make perfect.
“Don’t move, Pearl.” Mom can hardly contain her satisfaction, and as she jumps up from behind the table her hips give a zealous shove that knocks the cake’s upper layer slightly off its foundation.
“You’re gonna dig this, Pearl.” Tom’s grin is ineffaceable. “Close your eyes.”
“Are they closed?” Mom calls through the flat. Of course Pearl doesn’t entirely trust that the two of them will remain wholesome when she’s not looking, but for the occasion she’s willing to play along. There were no wrapped gifts on the table. Something’s got to give.
“Yeah, Mom. They’re closed now.” Tom’s grin is even audible.
“Keep ‘em closed.”
“No peeking,” his face must be right in front of hers. “Now open ‘em”
“Ta-dah!” Mom’s a genius, looking so proud of herself with one hand in the air like a showgirl and the other balancing a purple, fat-tired, high-handled, white pedaled bike with a banana seat the color of, well, a banana.
“Aaaaahhh,” Pearl may as well be falling; she is incapable of forming a word. The bike looks actually a little worn, obviously used, but it is gorgeous.
“You can keep your hands off mine now,” his grin is of so many shades. “C’mon. Let’s go.”
Pearl bolts from the table at Tom’s lead and grabbing her steed by the handles she wheels it out from under her mother’s steadying hand.
“Hey, wait!” Mom cries after, but they’re already out the door. “What about cake?”
Outside Tom cuts away to get his bike, calling, “You go ahead, Pearl. I’ll catch up.”
Pearl hops on and pedals toward the cul-de-sac where the curb cuts are plentiful and sharp. Her seat’s a bit high, but her toes are set square enough to chug the crank. Without a glance to see whether Tom is following she turns into the cul-de-sac and banks through a driveway onto the sidewalk, wind rushing in her ears. She skirts a stray hose and speeds past a post of mailboxes toward the first rich curb cut. The bike feels sturdy beneath her, firm and balanced, but she’s not ready to push it and well before she hits the cut she stops pumping and lets herself coast, but even at this prudent speed the curb kicks her up to a liberating height and she plants the back-wheel squarely on the blacktop of the street and shoots on down into the big curve of the dead-end. She could have sworn that at the peak of her jump she’d seen out of the corner of her eye, past the fence across the street, the top of the culvert where she and Everett had couched last week. She’ll take the curb again at speed. Ramming down to the mouth of the street she curves back, sees Tom just approaching from the avenue, and rises off the seat to give the crank a running push. Onto the sidewalk, dodging the hose, whistling past the boxes, she doesn’t let up this time and hits the sweet spot of that curb. At the top of her arc she casts a glance and yes, there’s the culvert.
When her toes slip off the pedals there’s nothing to catch her but the horn of that banana seat as she hits the earth off-axis with a stab of pain, feet dragging the pavement, head before the handlebars. She spills and scrapes across the pavement, the bike sliding out and away. On the ground with her left elbow, palm and knee burning, she doubles up from the ache in her gut.
Tom skids up and dumps his bike to get to her side, “Fuckin A, Pearl.”
Yeah, fucking A. She feels wet between her legs.
Big brothers, even those with oppressive habits, can be a blessing in the pinch. Tom manages to lift Pearl from the ground and he carries her the block and a half back home. He even carries her to the family couch, tells their mother in fair and accurate terms what had happened, and he would have stayed on with her to the end had Pearl not mentioned to Mom in confidence that her fall had started her period again, for at that point Mom becomes disbelieving and tells Tom to retrieve the bikes while she and Pearl drive to the clinic.
By the time they are in with a doctor, Pearl is dry and her pain is but a low-placed discomfort. She receives some standard cleaning and ointments to the wounds on her left and is then put on her back and her feet into stirrups to see what damage, if any, the banana has done. To Pearl it seems as if any number of days have passed since her birthday, but as well she has the sense to realize that her own mind is doing her the favor of compartmentalizing traumas, more traumas than are due the number thirteen. With her legs in the air and her most private regions on display she really isn’t feeling all there. In fact, she is hardly cognizant that a middle-aged stranger has his face right down in those regions, that is until he lifts his head and calmly reports to the nurse, “Complete transection.”
Pearl isn’t sure of what she’d heard. She lets her head turn and rest in her mother’s palm, which has been stroking her hair, and asks from the befuddled blue, “Do I have to have a penis?”
“Oh, Pearl,” Mom strains not to weep, not to laugh, and she bends her head down close to her baby’s and whispers in her ear, “you’ve popped your cherry, that’s all.” And when Pearl looks up into her eyes with wavering understanding, Mom dons her maternal cloak in hopes to clarify; “Someday, when you have a man that first time, you’re just going to have to fake it. Just the one time.” All the reassurance her advice fails to convey, the experienced smile transmits.
All the same, Pearl remains unclear about what has truly been lost until she arrives home and receives the report that her bike has been stolen. Tom seems sorry enough, but also fairly relieved that they didn’t take his.
Indeed, Pearl feels diminished that night as she takes to her bed, a year older, robbed of such a brief and auspicious gift, and less some obscure appendage. All of the story she revisits over and again, relives it in a multitude of tellings that each fail to deliver the pacifying resolution. One thing, however, she resolves on her own: If having a man means having to lie, she’d better come up with alternatives.
Yes, there’s a thought to induce sleep, and on that thought she nurses, while her feet paddle lazily beneath the blankets. Tom is retired to his room, ostensibly sleeping. The sound of running water informs her of Mom’s whereabouts, as it implies her whatabouts. And so it is that with these time-honored instincts at work within the walls of the clan enclave, Pearl’s fingers wander down and find her mound still tender to the touch. They push with ginger curiosity upon the sensitive point, and with just the slightest extension go beyond the immediate matter and quietly, secretively, they seek, they find, and they join her to her family.