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