“Hands on, paws off.” That was her directive, although sometimes she stumbled over the order.
“What's it mean?” He had wanted to ask her since the first day she drove him home. But he was in over his head so he kept quiet. She was sixteen. Three years older than he was. She smelled like cigarettes and rosewater.
Once he surprised himself when the question slipped out.
“You know that expression, 'paws off'?” She began.
“It's like that.” She picked at her lip. “Paws off. You don't touch me.”
It made no sense. He had been touching her. They had a routine about it, now in its third week. He would wait on the corner of Pearl and Willoughby until she pulled up in her parents' brown Volvo. He would put his backpack on the floor and slip into the passenger seat trying to find room for his feet among the wrappers, metal bolts of unknown origin, and chewed tennis balls. On the first day she didn't say a word to him, not even a hello. She stared moodily ahead and ground the gears. The car smelled of dog breath and mildew and strawberry air-freshener. She braked too hard at a red light on the corner and he listened to the emphysema motor.
Without prompting and without taking her eyes off the traffic she took his left hand and put it between her legs. He stared out the side window. The sharp white sun made the back of his head ache. It glinted off passing cars leaving green spots melting in his eyes. The sidewalk was relatively clean here. His hand was cramped and felt as if it were pressed into a wool mitten warm from the radiator but still soaked through from snow. He could tell from the odd clucking grimace that the middle-aged man driving the car next to him was singing to the radio but he couldn't hear any of the song. He thought that maybe she could hear his panicked heart thumping.
She released his hand. He surreptitiously wiped his sticky fingers on his sock. It was something he learned from a friend when they'd gotten mustardy hotdogs but didn’t have napkins.
What did she expect of him? He wondered if he should tell her where to go. He turned over the plusses and minuses: if he said something, he would get home. If he didn't say anything, maybe they would keep driving like that, the two of them. He didn't say anything.
He dared to steal a peek at her. She wore a lot of black makeup around her eyes and he could see the suggestion of her bra beneath her thin orangesicle t-shirt. Breasts were a new thing in his world. They had only come into being within the last year or two and their originality hadn't worn off. In school he waged a campaign with himself of not looking. He wanted to, of course, but he didn't want to creep anyone out, so he tried not to look and usually became self-conscious to the point where the girl he was not looking at covered herself with a sweater or crossed her arms over her chest. His face would turn red at the thought of what she thought and he could practically hear the internal screaming: “Perv!” But he wasn't. Was he? Necks were safe. He could always look there.
Only when the brown Volvo jerked to a final stop in front of his house did he realize that she was a terrible driver. She turned to him for the first time.
“Here are the ground rules: hands on, paws off. Okay? I'll pick you up next Thursday.”
“Thanks for the ride.” She looked at him impassively. “Thanks.” On his way to the front door of his parents' house he was conscious of his steps.
He wondered about next Thursday. Half of his thoughts were consumed by it and they divided roughly into fear, anticipation, fear, and elation. The fear subdivided into categories: fear of saying something stupid; fear of doing something stupid; fear of seeming elated; and fear of giving into the temptation to call her.
She didn't warn him not to say anything, and he didn't. He thought about what it would be like to kiss her. With no practical experience in the matter he found the idea terrifying. He was still awake when first his mother and then his father came home. He could tell by their footsteps and he put a pillow over his head with just his nose sticking out for air. Lying that way he couldn't hear when the light switches in the bathroom and the hall were turned on or off.
It didn't occur to him that he could run into her at school. The middle school was separated from the high school, two wings of the same building. But on Monday he saw a high school girl he'd seen before. The girl's hair was half-shaved and her green CBGB t-shirt was ripped on the shoulder and held together with two oversized safety pins. Her eyes were dark. She wore a lace black bra. Her neck was normal. Just a neck. He realized that she was talking to the girl that drove him home. Their eyes met and for a second her face lit up as if she recognized him. But just as suddenly it clouded over and she looked away. He wasn't sure what to do. He went to the bathroom and splashed water on his hot face.
Social Studies was impossible. They were reading Animal Farm. Did he do something wrong? Someone asked if the book was about the Russian Revolution and a boy next to him snickered. Maybe she would forget to pick him up that week. He ran over the facts of the drive home -- did he forget to say goodbye? Did he thank her for the lift twice? Maybe that was it. He shouldn't have thanked her twice. Did she want to say hi, but couldn't because of the CBGB girl? If she liked him, she would have said hi. His face felt hot again.
She was a half hour late on Thursday.
“You're a half hour late.”
“Did you think I wasn't coming?”
It seemed like a riddle. He could say, yes, or he could say, no. He turned to look out the side window. A chewed tennis ball rolled forward from the back seat. After two blocks of silence, she took his hand. He was determined to look at her this time but couldn't bring himself to do it. He was conscious of their car driving slower than others. She closed her eyes for an instant and the car stopped short. His bag fell over. A car honked behind them.
He watched her drive off from his parents’ living room window. Then for a long time he watched where she'd been.
Everything suffered that week. He didn't want to be in school. He asked to go to the water fountain but didn't see her in the hall. No one called on him in class and he wasn't sure he'd spoken to anyone since the weekend. He thought about the brown Volvo. He thought about her. He'd never been on a date. Maybe she wanted to go out with him. He found her number listed in the phonebook and put a dot next to her name so that he could find it faster next time if he forgot it.
On Tuesday he dialed her number, hung up, checked it and called again. When she came to the phone she said, “Oh. Hi.”
“Umm, can I call you right back?”
“Okay.” His hands vibrated. He told her his phone number. She hung up.
The phone rang an hour later. It was his mother. She was sorry. Could he defrost his own dinner? Yes.
Something changed on the fourth drive home. She mouthed the words to the song on the radio. He'd never heard it before. He looked at her knee. There were the finest light blond hairs on it. He sat immobile.
“I can't pick you up next week.”
His stomach rumbled. He wondered if she’d heard it. They were driving past the tobacco store where he bought baseball cards. There was a tree outside the store that was splashed with mud.
“What about the week after?”
“Hey, can you close your window?”
He rolled the window shut. Without fresh air the smell of the car made him a little sick. Maybe she hadn't heard him.
“What about the week after?”
She pulled over suddenly. She wrenched the brake and left the motor running. He watched her cross the street without looking and sidle up to a phone booth. Her legs were visible beneath it, and he watched the lazy pattern of shifting weight. He looked at her knees. She rolled one foot over. He thought about opening the window. The radio was too loud. Fifteen minutes passed. The motor continued to idle. Should he tell her he was late? Did she know he was still in the car? Why couldn't she call from home? Why couldn't she drop him off first? After another five minutes the phone plummeted out of her hand and dangled wildly on its silver cord. She crossed the street towards him. When she reached his window he rolled it open.
“Do you have a quarter?”
He twisted his body so that he could squeeze his hand into his pocket. His knuckles scraped on something. He had a quarter and a penny. He gave her the quarter. She crossed back to the phone booth. He turned off the radio. Over the noise of passing traffic he could hear her elegant laugh. One eye filled unexpectedly. With a sudden effort he punched his leg with his white fist. It throbbed. He hit it again and wiped his eye.
When she finally sat beside him he looked at her. She stared ahead. He continued to look at her. Her face was heavier than he'd remembered. He could see what she had looked like when she was very young. He could see what she would look like in fifty years. Her face would sink. The wisps of hair by her ear would still be there. He didn't care that she didn't want him to stare at her. Next Thursday would be misery.
He noticed that she rested her hand on the stick shift. He reached out and slowly traced her knuckles with his index finger. She didn't pull away. She had a triad of bulky silver rings. He looked at the fine blond hairs against her faded rope bracelet. He put his hand on top of hers.
“Paws off,” she said. She was quiet when she said it and kept her eyes on the road.
When she pulled up to the curb in front of his parents' house she continued to look ahead and not at him. He waited with the car door open.
“Will you pick me up the week after?”
She waited for him to close the door. He did. He turned away quickly.
The house was cool and dark. It smelled of cleaning products. The banister running up to the second floor felt oiled to the touch but nothing came off on his fingers except the smell of wood polish. He sat on the stairs.
He wanted to call out and hear his voice echo in the narrow hall. If he did, he knew he'd regret it. No one would be home for hours. He knew how he'd feel. He knew the metallic ring it would leave in his ears. He considered getting the phonebook. Page one hundred and forty.
He called out and felt like a kid.