I was aware of the man before I could see him. Felt him, really, and knew right away how he was thinking of me.
We were at Rexall's drugstore down the street. He was behind me, in the hair section. I didn't turn around. I picked up a bottle of Prell shampoo and read the label. As I was reading, I saw a hard-glass reflection in my mind's eye; a view of me from the back—a small girl, in short pleated skirt, cotton blouse, penny loafers without socks that revealed nice ankles, thin legs, dark golden pigtail that showed a white part and slender neck. I knew what he wanted, too, and that it was probably only a passing thought. I thought I could change things.
Hook a man, that was what my Uncle Trip called it. He said a woman had "hooked" him once, like spearing bait onto a fishhook. Even his mother, he said, had done this to a man once, "reeled him in with her pineapple upside down cake." That's what I'm doing, I thought. Hooking.
I kept pretending to read, leaning into my foot then standing crookedly, one loafer on its side. Like a kid.
I put the shampoo bottle back and rose on my tiptoes, reaching for something on the top shelf.
He cleared his throat.
"Need some help?" he asked.
I fell back on my heels.
"Oh, thank you," I said.
"Which one do you want?"
"That one," I said, pointing to a bottle of hair spray "For my mom," I said, "not me."
He handed me the bottle. I looked up at him and smiled. He was tall. He swallowed and I watched the lump in his throat wobble.
He was in his early thirties, maybe even late twenties, I decided. His hair was dark brown, almost black, very curly, streaked with gray at the temples. He was skinny, without the kind of wiry strength that would have made his lankiness attractive. I liked his eyes, though. They were green and distorted behind chunky black glasses.
"Oh, this isn't what I thought it was," I said, "It's banana scented. She doesn't like that kind. But thanks anyway."
"Here, I'll put it back," he said, taking it.
"Do you live around here?" I asked, looking at him sideways through my crook's eye.
"Oh, sorry. I was just wondering. For my mom, you know. I just thought you seemed nice."
"Well, thank you. I like to think so."
"My mom is single," I added, "so I like to help her out with dates. I want to buy her a birthday present. I don't have a lot of money, though. Do you think drugstore perfume is a cheap gift?"
He touched his crumpled hair, considering.
"Not at all. But you know your mother, I don't."
"I thought it would be nice to give her something impractical. She always buys practical things."
"Well, that sounds like a very sweet idea to me," he said.
"This looks good," I said, picking up a bottle of Windsong. "I like the commercial for this one," I said, "This man holds onto a beautiful lady's scarf because it smells like her, and the song says he can't forget her because her Windsong stays on his mind."
"I don't know anything about perfume," he said, and smiled. His teeth were very even, very white.
"Do you have a girlfriend?" I asked him.
"Well, what does she smell like?"
"I don't know."
"Does she wear perfume?"
"I think so."
"Does she smell spicy, or fruity, or like flowers?"
He laughed, then shrugged his shoulders.
"Spicy, I'd have to say."
"I think my mother should have something light and flowery. Maybe this one would be good," I said, lifting up a sample bottle and spritzing it.
"What do you think?" I asked him, holding my wrist up for him. He sniffed.
"Smells pretty," he said.
I pressed my wrist to my nose, breathing in its cloying scent.
"Ugh," I said, "too sweet."
I sprayed another atomizer onto my wrist and held it up to him again. His hands shook as he held my hand, palm open to his face. He took it into his own and pressed it against his face, wrist against lips.
"This is lighter," he said.
I jerked my hand back, smelling.
"Nahh," I said, "I think it's because they're too cheap. I'll have to get her something else."
I watched as he bought some antihistamines and shaving cream.
"Do you have allergies?" I asked him.
He looked down at me, smiling. He didn't want me to go.
"Well, are you allergic to ice cream?" I asked.
"I was going to get some ice cream after this. I have enough for both of us. Do you want some?"
He glanced at his watch then looked around the empty aisles. He seemed flustered.
"Why not?" he said. "I have time. My treat, "he added.
"Thanks," I said, focusing on Madge's red and gold badge as she rang up the sale.
When we stepped outside his glasses steamed. He paused, wiped them off with the tail of his shirt, squinted, readjusted them. Then he took a crumpled tissue from his pocket, and blew his nose. He looked down at me, bemused.
"How old are you?" he asked.
"Fifteen," I lied. Knowing he knew I lied, but also knowing he didn't know I knew. I crossed my arms over my breasts. He wanted me young, even younger than I really was.
I ordered a double scoop, Rum Raisin and Mocha. He watched me as I ate, and I was careful, neat, licking the tips of my fingers, wiping the corners of my mouth, taking little bites so the ice cream would last. I sat on one foot, and let the other one swing back and forth. The chairs in the Baskin Robbins were shaped like little school desks.
He licked his chocolate cone quickly, eyes fixed on my mouth. He was Hooked. I knew this completely, but still hoped I might be wrong.
"So you have a girlfriend," I said.
"So I guess you wouldn't be interested in a blind date with my mom."
"No. But I'm honored you'd think me suitable," he said, in a formal, artificially chivalrous way. His voice seemed to come from somewhere behind him.
"That's O.K. To be honest, she wouldn't go out with you anyway. She's dating a real jerk right now." The lies were coming so easily.
"That can be rough."
"I can't stand him," I added.
After we had finished, I walked him to his car.
"Do you need a ride anywhere?" He asked, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
"A ride home would be nice," I said.
He held the car door opened for me. My legs stuck to the hot vinyl seats.
"Where do you live?" he asked, pulling out of the parking lot. He was a nervous driver. Or maybe I made him nervous.
"Just take me to the park," I said, "I don't want to go home."
"You mean the one behind the schoolyard?"
"Yeah, that one."
And then it happened so effortlessly. As he pulled into a residential neighborhood, I brushed his leg with the tips of my fingers, as softly as I could, so that he could ignore it if he wanted to.
He circled my hand with his, and his grasp was light, supplicating. I didn't resist.
"I'm sorry," I said, "I need money."
I felt his hand tremor, and wondered if I had said the wrong thing, if he had ever done anything like this before. I didn't look at him, but stared at the back of the hand covering mine. It was hairy, even the knuckles were hairy, and very white. The fingers were bony and tapering, and rounded like spoons. A boy in my class, Tim Loudermilk, had fingers like that.
"How much?" he asked.
I bit my lip, waiting. There was still time to pretend I hadn't said anything, to get out of the car. I knew he would let me out, that he wouldn't make me do anything. He was gentle, I could tell he didn't want to hurt me.
"I don't know," I said, "a lot. I'm sorry," I repeated. "We need it, though. My mom and me."
He swallowed audibly.
"Two hundred," I said, "two hundred dollars."
"I can take that much out," he said.
I didn't know what he meant.
"Of the bank . . . You'll have to wait, though. Do you mind waiting in the car? There's a branch only a few miles away."
"Yes," I said, "I can wait."
His back straightened, and we drove the rest of the way in silence. It felt safer now, probably for him as well, knowing we had made a decision.
He pulled into the bank. There were only a few cars in the lot.
"I won't be long," he said, "I'll leave the car on for you, so you can have air conditioning. You can listen to the radio if you want."
I turned on the radio after he left. It was tuned into the easy listening station. I watched his back as he entered the building. He was too tall for his jacket; the sleeves didn't meet his wrists. Neck hairs curled into the collar of his shirt. His gait was loose and fluid. It gave his skinny body a kind of grace. He looked better when he was moving.
When he came out, he wasn't smiling. He handed me the money as soon as he jumped into the car.
We didn't speak for several minutes.
"I can't take you home with me," he said.
I rested my hand against his thigh, then felt another shiver pass over his body.
We drove for awhile. He pulled onto the freeway. I closed my eyes, not wanting to know how we were getting to wherever we were going.
When I felt the car slow I opened them and saw that we were passing a strip of motels. He pulled into one that seemed abandoned. I scanned the buildings. Sandy colored cinder block boxes. A huge cement parrot perched on the entrance sign. There was also a swimming pool filled with dirty water.
"Jesus," he whispered, "Jesus Christ."
We pulled into the circular driveway.
"Wait in the car," he said.
I ducked my head down and waited for him to come back. It seemed to take a long time. We drove to the back row of buildings. There were no other cars.
I followed him into the room. It smelled of mildew. The room had its own air conditioning unit and he switched it onto full blast. The carpet was deep, an ugly brown-orange, like old rust. The walls were puce. There were two twin beds; one was missing a head board.
I sat down on one of the beds, pushing my shoes off with the soles of my feet.
He sat down next to me. Then cracked his knuckles. I almost jumped at the sound they made, a popping noise. Like a pop gun.
He didn't move. Finally I reached up and lifted the glasses off his face. He seemed so scared.
I rested his glasses on the bed table, then sat on his lap and wrapped my legs around his waist. Closed my eyes.
His hands shook against my back, and he pressed them into my shoulders. His breath was shallow, whispery against my neck.
"What is your name," he said, so softly he sounded as if he were speaking to himself.
"Jennifer," I answered, without stopping to think.
"Jennifer," he whispered, "Jenny."
He didn't take my clothes off, and he kept his pants on. All he did was rub against my panties until I felt my underwear slightly dampen. Then his whole body shook, and he began kissing me, my throat, my eyes, my braid. He pressed my face into his chest.
"God! God!" I felt the huge Adam's apple convulsing against my fingers.
When he was finished, he started to whimper.
"Please," I said, "don't feel bad." I rolled off of him, touched his curly hair. It felt rough.
"God, Jennifer," he said, "how old are you?"
"I'm not a little girl," I said, "I'm a teenager. Don't feel bad."
"I told you. And this isn't the first time, either. So don't feel bad," I repeated. And pulled his sad face into my lap. I felt something open and shut inside me. A physical opening and closing, like a valve in my heart. It wasn't love that I felt, of course it couldn't have been. But it was something like love, a mixture of gratefulness and yearning.
I told him thank-you, and asked him to drop me off somewhere close to my house.
I thought, as we passed the Rexall's, Dot's Coffee Shop, and the English Aires apartments, that everything might look different, but each building was the same. I told him to stop at Dot's parking lot; there were a few parked cars and a delivery truck. The three scattered palm trees at the edge of the lot were yellowed and dried-up looking. I wondered if they always looked that way; I couldn't remember. It had been rainy, and those dead looking trees didn't make sense to me, but I didn't know much about the lives of palm trees.
I didn't look back or wave as I walked away from his car. And didn't think about what had just happened. I was only thinking of the bare fact, the real, true, fact that there were two one hundred dollar bills tucked in the heel of my loafers. Better not step in any puddles, I thought.