One Sunday evening in November of my senior year of high school, after an eight-hour shift at the grocery store where I scanned wet cartons of milk and plastic-wrapped chunks of animal flesh, I folded into the faded sedan I’d inherited from my Aunt Ramona, and I drove to my boyfriend’s house. That car had the locked-in odor of a fast-food picnic on the beach in the peak of summer, so I always drove with the windows down, unless it was raining. Nights in November were chilly, but it was a dank chill that bordered on muggy. Also, at night, I could more easily smell the noxious pollutants from the chemical plants that laced our Gulf Coast town. Basically, in my last years living there (I went away for college and never came back), I felt dirty and irritable, always. Driving to Quentin’s house, though, I experienced a fleeting contentedness like lulls between intermittent pokes of a pebble in my shoe.
When I let myself into Quentin’s house that night, I found him watching our high school band’s previous spring concert.
My high school years were divided into two seasons: marching band season and sit-down band season. Quentin was Drum Major, and the culmination of marching season was the Texas State Marching Band Championship in December, just three weeks away. I was used to him geeking out over recordings of marching shows, but sit-down concerts? The video was shaky, the view of our band obstructed by the backs of heads.
“Why not just listen to the CD?” I said.
“I’m trying to see something,” Quentin said.
On the television, our band director, Mr. K, was front and center. Without his face providing context, his pointy, veiny ears looked like bats’ wings.
Other than Mr. K, all I saw clearly were the front-row woodwinds. The rest of the woodwinds, including myself, were nothing more than tufts of hair or shimmers of light reflecting off instruments.
“What are you trying to see?” I asked.
The sofa was littered with clumps of gray fur. Ghost Cat revealed only traces of himself to me—faint, gritty paw prints on the marble coffee table, moon-shaped slivers of shed claws beneath my bare feet. Quentin said Ghost Cat was just “nervous,” but given I’d been hanging out at Quentin’s house several nights a week for eight months, Ghost Cat’s shunning felt personal. I didn’t blame him, though. If I could easily hide beneath furniture, I would do it, too.
Without taking his eyes off the screen, Quentin leaned in and pecked me quickly on the cheek. Like a baby, Quentin smelled of spit—a hazard of his chosen instrument. The brass musicians shook out their spit valves after practice, flinging spit onto white cloths. The brass musicians sometimes missed. Spit stained the floors of the risers where they sat. Sometimes, I presumed, spit must have soaked into their pants and their shoes.
I repeated, “What are you trying to see?”
Quentin hesitated. He looked at me, considering. “Don’t get mad.”
“Mad or angry?” I said.
“Angry,” he said. “Either,” he said. Quentin sighed. Then, “Mr. Kirby says the way Becca Lars plays, there’s no way she’s a virgin.”
My shoulders felt like they were being ratcheted closer together by wire and pliers and the mean hands of my former orthodontist.
Quentin had always been serious about band, but since becoming Drum Major his level of seriousness had been EXTRA. Weekends while I scanned groceries, he was at the Band Hall doing whatever it took to remain Mr. K’s numero uno.
What was required, it seemed, was that Quentin entertain Mr. K’s perverted talk. A few weeks earlier, Mr. K had said of breasts, “You don’t need more than a handful.” Quentin had imitated Mr. K squeezing an invisible breast—a motion that made me think of a jellyfish pumping water in and out of its gelatinous body.
Becca Lars was first-chair clarinet and pretty much always had been, since the sixth grade. Also, she had once been my best friend, until she dumped me December of our junior year. In fact, that was largely the reason I was with Quentin. When he’d asked me out to dinner at the Olive Garden, on Valentine’s Day of all days, via a yellow Snoopy card and a droopy pink Gerbera daisy, I’d thought I was the loneliest I’d ever be in my life. It’s funny now how I’d imagined loneliness as a thing I would one day shed, a skin I would bust out of.
I said, “That’s ridiculous. What does it even mean to play clarinet like a not-virgin?”
Quentin said, “Well, she does play with passion.”
I studied Becca on the television, looking for some evidence to support Mr. K’s assertion, but I didn’t know where to direct my attention.
Quentin said, “Hey, when do you practice on the weekends? Before work? I think if you’d just apply yourself a little—”
Quentin assumed I aspired to move up chairs. I hadn’t told him I hated clarinet.
If I could have returned to the fifth grade when we were paired up with our instruments, I would have chosen percussion. I longed to beat the drums, crash the cymbals, strike the wooden planks of the xylophone. Truth is I hadn’t chosen clarinet. A mustached man, whom I later learned was the sixth-grade band director, placed a clarinet in my hands and said, “How about a clarinet for Claire?” He didn’t show me any other instruments. I didn’t know I had a choice.
Another assumption Quentin made was that I was a virgin.
It’s true I considered myself a virgin, despite what I’d done with boys at my cousin Denise’s house Saturday nights when Uncle Kenny was bartending—most, but not all of it, pre-Quentin. As strange, and sexist, as it seems to me now, I felt back then that oral sex was less serious than intercourse. That “oral sex” has the word “sex” in it didn’t faze me.
The point is, though, Quentin had never bothered to ask. My reluctance to have sex with him was all the evidence he thought he needed.
Sitting there on Quentin’s sofa, watching him watch Becca, I wondered if Mr. K, too, assumed I was a virgin. Our band director had no business thinking about the virginity of any of his students, of course, but if he was going to think about it, I didn’t like him deciding that Becca, of all people, was more sexually experienced than me. There was no other realm in which I could realistically compete with her.
I said that Mr. K had no business talking about female students like that to male students.
Quentin sat up straighter. “He wouldn’t have said that to just anybody.”
“Also,” I said, “no way has Becca had sex. She hasn’t even kissed anyone since the eighth grade.”
“How would you know?” Then Quentin said, “Sorry,” and he squeezed my thigh.