That summer before I left, the cicadas descended on Road’s End. They’d been hibernating in the ground down by the tree roots since the year I was born, still and deadlike for seventeen long years until mysterious waters inside them began to stir again. A thick desire, something chemical and dark, heated their centers and they clawed, up out of the sweet dirt, up into air, emerging hungry and horny and ready to mate. They moved in clouds over the Ohio greenness, descending on hills of lush old growth, on the blue hayfields, on the full-bloom garden my parents kept. They ate through the ripeness of that summer until all that was left was a gnawed, half-there leafing.
I listened to them as the sun set over my parents’ dead-end acreage, their electricity surging and pulling back, so loud it seemed the sun should flare and dim in time with their buzz. During the days though, they were liable to fly right into your hair and get tangled or else splatter like eggs on the windshield of the car. My dad launched nets over the early corn and hot boxed the tomato plants.
“It’s unholy,” he said, shaking his head. Those were biblical times for all of us up there on that hilltop. Deer Spring the place was called, 40-odd acres of an earnest effort at intentional living, organized by our parents who had committed themselves, and us by default, to being real peace and love Mennonites. They’d come of age in the 60s and brought the era along with them to eastern Ohio, to Deer Spring’s backwoods utopia, a peculiar tribe. “Land trust” our parents said. “Intentional community,” they explained, but never the obvious word, never “commune,” because that just sounded crazy.
My mother insisted on trying to sprout papaya trees from seeds she’d scooped out of supermarket fruit. She soaked them in water then lined the kitchen window with cottage cheese containers full of dirt.
“In Botswana, we had a tree in our backyard and there were so many I just stuffed myself with the fruit. I just stood back there and ate and ate,” she explained. She liked talking about the two years she and my father had spent there early in their marriage living and teaching and spreading The Good News on behalf of the Mennonite Church. Only one of her plants had ever taken and sprouted in the living room from a 5-gallon bucket next to the piano. My father rigged a grow light for her on the window trim above the tree. “Just a few more years until it bears fruit,” my mom promised as she crocheted.
That summer, though, it was my father. It was the cicadas. He collected a dozen in a Mason jar in the garage and screwed the lid on tight. After they stopped moving, he boiled them for five minutes in a stainless steel pot on the stove. I happened upon him as he was arranging them on a baking tray, the oven already beeping with pre-heated glee. He had lined up the animals neatly, their wings iridescent and eyes bulged. He lightly salted their green bodies, big as mice.
“Will you eat one of these with me?” he asked.
“Why are you doing this?” I demanded, this the question of my adolescence.
“I’m going to eat these locusts with honey,” he said, delighted, handing me a honey bear. “If John the Baptist did it, so can I. He baptized Jesus! Aren’t you ever curious about what it’s like to be a prophet?”
“No,” I said. “I’m not curious about what it’s like to be a prophet.” He slid the pan into the oven and set the timer. My stomach clenched. “I’m not staying around for this,” I said, letting the screen door slam behind me.
At dinner, my father reported the cicadas had a nutty flavor, the wings were crispy, that the ooze from the center was less than superb yet brightened by the sweet cream of the honey.
I spooned one bite of applesauce onto my plate and pushed it around. Network news droned on the television in which all the daily events of the empire were reported. During the commercial break, my dad started talking.
I’m a follower of Christ,” he said, spearing a green bean with his fork.
“That’s what we’re doing here, following Christ, trying to do something different, out of the mainstream, not devoting our lives to accumulating wealth.” Yeah, I’d heard it all before, and while most of it seemed good in a moral way, the words my dad used sounded crazy. “Follower of Christ.” “Accumulating wealth.” It all made me want to get in my Volkswagon Quantum and drive away. So I did.
Down the township roads and over the brown river and into West Lafayette, down Main Street which blinked with three stoplights, flashing red and yellow and green at empty intersections. You could pay by the minute to use a couple tanning beds in a trailer off an alley, and at The General Store you could buy a dusty package of gumdrops or half-alive pet gerbils, depending on your needs.
Ridgewood High with its two giant domes bulbed there like an outdated lunar station, large cylindrical hay bales lolling on the front lawn thanks to the thriving Future Farmers of America chapter. At RHS, the football players rubbed snuff and grew their mullets and rattails long. Mouse-haired girls teased their bangs into fans and rakes then poked them with plastic picks in the bathroom mirrors. Because of the farm on the northern side of town, the halls were prone to smell of hog shit in the late summer heat.
After school, rusted pick-ups outfitted with rows of lights on the cab roofs or jacked-up suspensions for mudding revved their engines. Boys in billed caps with their elbows hung out of open windows yelled obscenities and shot brown spit from the corners of their mouths. They pounded their palms on the sides of their trucks as their radios sang, Blame it all on my roots, I showed up in boots and ruined your black tie affair.
I kept driving, faster, out and up and over the looping passes of County Road 16 to the county seat, to the city of Coshocton, 13,000 people deep. Coshocton, a Delaware Indian word loosely translated as “union of waters,” so named for the muddy convergence of the Walhonding, Tuscarawas, and Muskingum rivers at the city’s western edge. Coshocton, not much better than West Lafayette but we’d take it because it’s all we had within reach. I cruised in the Quantum with fellow
Mennonite communist Abbey, down Second, past Buehler’s Grocery,
Dairy Queen, Taco Bell, Fashion Bug, Wal-Mart. Arby’s and Hardee’s, the Wendy’s drive-thru, the drive-thru liquor store. The Downtowner Plaza, Long John Silver’s and Odd Lots and Quality Farm and Fleet. In the end, we always found ourselves back at the same place, McDonald’s.
“Boys,” I murmured to Abbey as we pulled into the parking lot. Kids sat on the hoods of their hand-me-down Volvos in round pools of light as a paparazzi of moths swarmed the bulbs overhead. Others leaned on warm metal and sat on curbs.
“Boys,” Abbey cooed, real quiet, doing a tiny little dance with her hands.
Boys who played soccer and swam. Boys who went on ski vacations and listened to hip hop. Boys who wore polo shirts and were going to go to college out of state. Boys with floppy hair and boys with buzzed heads. Boys, short and tall. Boys, thin and wide. Boys hitching up their baggy pants, boxer shorts pulled tight around high, hard butts the size of mid-summer cantaloupes. Boys.
And then there he was, loud from across the parking lot, an idea I didn’t even know I’d ever had easing its way into focus, into the clear lines of his body: Mike Salmon, beyond gorgeous, the tan, the buzz-cut hair, the muscles. Oh God, the muscles. Swimmer’s bod, we called it. Broad shoulders and impossibly tapered hips, smooth hard muscles like something carved by a Renaissance libertine. We heard they shaved everything so as to be more streamlined, but could neither confirm nor deny this scandalous claim, our own little high school lacking both pool and swimmer boys and us, in turn, devoid of such rarefied knowledge of that world and its aquatic inhabitants.
Mike had crushed his heels doing a flip-turn during his last all-Ohio meet, but he didn’t seem to care. He had already re-set the Coshocton High freestyle record with a seemingly unbeatable time, so he was all right with the crushed heels, and it was summer anyway, long past the swim season and that old pain, and we went and got ice cream on our first date at one of those quaint, Rockwellian stands run by high school girls that you can hardly believe exists anymore. We rolled up in his flashy car, and he bought me pink sherbet which I nipped at, too nervous to really stomach anything. He was loud and flamboyant and self-assured. He waved his arms around and lifted me off the ground to make me squeal. He slapped high fives with his guy friends and winked at the ice cream stand girls who, in turn, looked at me with a mixture of envy and contempt, which made me feel embattled. I was ready to throw down if they mouthed off or looked at me dirty for too long, ready to bury my fists in their midsections made flabby from summer-long diets of chocolate-dipped soft serve. I wasn’t what anyone would call a big girl, but I was high on Mike Salmon which made me strong in a different way, amped by a heady mixture of lust, egotism, and the opening riffs of “Bulls on Parade” performed by my newly beloved Rage Against the Machine, what Mike and soon I simply referred to as Rage.
Rage. I liked the way it felt in my mouth, part growl, part cheer. “Bulls on Parade” made me want to head bang and seizure. It made me want to thrust in new, uncoordinated ways. The opening, witchy chant of the electric guitar—wee wee, wicky, wow wow—was interrupted by an indecipherable scream, and then Hell and Heaven split open and flying things of all sorts with sharp wings and sharp tails started having vicious sex above the Firebird in a bloody, shrieking cloud as we sped through the streets. I wanted a gun. I wanted to dry hump. I wanted to bite off the perfect mouthful of meat that was Mike Salmon’s bicep. I wanted, I wanted. Clenched and blood-filled, I wanted so much.
* * *
I did not want to pick blueberries. I did not want to weed the beans. I did not want to help with the sweet corn, husking and boiling, then impaling each cob upright on a nail driven through a board. We ran a circular chisel down around each cob, shearing off the kernels. We scraped the naked cob with the back of a butter knife to get out all the juice. My mother sat barefoot at the kitchen table in a faded apron scooping corn into plastic bags, her dress hitched up above her knees. She sang along to classical music on NPR or cassette tapes of Christian praise music or
CDs of choral cantatas sung by heavy-robed Christians.
“Come on,” she said, gesturing at the nail with the paring knife in her hand.
Better, though, to help with the corn than to help with the meat. Come fall the trees were hung with the gutted carcasses of deer. They spun slowly from ropes hung round their necks. On the night after my dad had killed his first of the season, my mom cooked its heart in a pressure cooker on the stove. The meat was pale and moved easily on a plate. I wasn’t made to eat it but I couldn’t help smelling it, an odor even worse than the taste. Liver came out of the freezer in mid-winter, fried up by my father with white onions and then sliced into iridescent bites which he sucked on as he ate. Bricks of venison meatloaf. Loops of trail bologna. Whole hanks of deer meat in big black cookers stewed in their own juices. The roasts and filets cooked with butter on the oven’s broiling pan were manageable, the meat succulent and sweet until I spotted our neighbor’s mutt Rocky gnawing on a rancid deer head or dragging a leg down the dirt road. He chewed through the hide and licked out all the meat, cracked the bones to get the marrow and left them piled in the dying, autumn lawn.
Rocky and the rest of them, the dogs of Deer Spring—pinto bean ticks sucking in their ears and necks, dried mud nuggets matted in their hair, always bad smelling, drool in long strings, yet happy as you’ve ever seen dogs, especially during hunting season. During the summers, though, they got hot and nervous, caught up in the clouds of white dust that trailed our rusted cars, snapping at the tires. They ran in herds behind us to the Deer Spring pond, cutting through the dry fields of mowed weeds, through the bands of forest, and meeting us down there, under the canopy, in the cold dark water.
As they dove the perimeter, we launched ourselves out over the pond on a tree swing knotted on rope thick as our arms. For a moment we were suspended, one second of weightlessness before we pulled back to the pond, through the glass of its surface and into the yellow underwater. There, beneath even the valley, we opened our eyes and watched as pond flecks floated and swam. Our skin felt like velvet. Fish nibbled our toes. This was their holy land, ours if we claimed it. We were told there was a larger plan. That we had been chosen was evident even if it remained unclear whether the choosing had been our parents’ or the Lord’s.
* * *
Whatever romance we may have dreamed our ways into during our childhoods evaporated as we awoke to adolescence. We discovered agnosticism and took to referring to ourselves as “Mennostics.” The high soprano part of old German hymns, the laying on of hands, loving Jesus: we now viewed all of these as inherently hilarious. When our parents moved our congregation from the country church house we shared with the Methodists to a storefront next to Your Pizza on main street West Lafayette, we both relished and dreaded being seen there in the window, praying. It was funny as an idea, us praying or passing the peace or, height of humor, washing each other’s feet in a store front as our classmates cruised by, though not actually funny to be those actual people in real life. The idea of us—we could see it there outside of ourselves, those communist Mennonites, those weirdoes. And the daily facts of our lives—muddy pond and rusty cars, the goats and gardens and raw wood—were proof of this idea, hard evidence of our peculiar identity, yet still it felt as though these parts did not add up to something entirely whole.
In high school, we swam at the pond until Todd Malenke, Jael’s dad, spotted it in the deep end with a head like a tree branch poking through the water. Snapper, he said. He devoted himself to tracking its movements. Don’t go near the cattails. Stay away from the raft. Get out of the deep end.
It was no longer safe to swim there, but honestly we were looking for an excuse. After the snapper we gave ourselves over completely to the Meyers’ new, in-ground pool, just up the lane from the pond, clean blue and framed in white cement sidewalks. We went to Forest Hill Lake and Colonial Pool where we met acceptable boys from Coshocton, from a different high school, boys who had never heard of Deer Spring.
As I left to drive to Mike Salmon’s house, my father touched my shoulder and said, “Remember who you are.” I squinted at him, then slammed the door and gunned the Quantum fast down the lane. I drove fast with the windows open and my long hair licking the side of the car. His statement assumed so much, assumed he knew who I was, that I was someone to begin with. Who was I, I wanted to ask him, his shirt balled in my fists, me shaking and shaking and shaking. The good Mennonite girl he and my mother wanted? Or was I the Deer Spring weirdo the RHS kids thought they knew? Maybe I was someone else entirely, someone nobody except I had imagined, a dark-haired girl speeding away from them with her damp bikini tucked under her clothes, a conglomeration of salt and skin and wanting, Mike Salmon’s girl, a girl they didn’t know and had never met. Maybe they all had no clue.
I took curves too fast and sang with feeling to the new Bob Marley cassette twirling in the tape deck.
“Have you heard this?” I asked Mike once I got to his house, showing him the cassette box. “It’s amazing.”
“Uh, yeah,” he said, as he tossed the case back to me. “It’s Bob Marley. He’s, like, famous.” And Mike’s sophisticated knowledge did not end with music. When we started dating, I was pretty sure he had actually done it with his ex-girlfriend, a swimmer like Mike with broad shoulders and a face that reminded me of a bat.
The year before, in what was to be the closest thing to a sex talk I would ever have with my father, he told me about a convention of Christian young people who had made pledges to maintain their virginity until they got married. They had actually signed contracts, he said, before asking me if I would have done the same thing.
“Uh, no,” I said, to which my father raised his eyebrows and tried to
smile a little.
I had, after all, kissed—and very much liked kissing—boys before Mike. I had even made out with Jeramie Selders on my parents’ living room sofa while they slept just feet away in their bedroom. As Jeramie reached his hands up my shirt and then desperately whispered, “What do you want me to do?” all I could think was, “I don’t know, but everything.”
Alone in Mike’s house, though, I lost my nerve. When we were rollerblading in the basement or eating ice cream sandwiches, I was fine. But once we ascended to the second floor and Mike showed me the guest room, running his hand over the comforter on the bed, my stomach turned. In his bedroom, he sat in his black leather desk chair, an expensive looking thing, and stroked the armrests, his legs splayed open toward me.
“It’s like astronaut sex when you do it in the chair,” he said.
“Should we go back downstairs now?” I wondered.
Put me in a moving car with Mike, though, or at the lake, somewhere quasi public where all-the-way sex would be a challenge, and my hormones quickly got the better of my nerves. We drove through Coshocton, the electric guitar of Ragecutting the humid Ohio heat and made out at every red light. At the lake we groped each other on our damp towels while our friends tried not to notice.
One afternoon, a week into our daily affair, Mike took me to the nature preserve.
“The nature preserve?” I asked.
“The nature preserve,” he said. The nature preserve seemed to me to be about as remarkable as my backyard: tall weeds and wildflowers, wooded land, a steep, sun-scalded hillside covered in yellowing grass. We sat on the hill, and Mike kissed me. Suddenly, I understood the nature preserve.
It was noon, the sun high over us, as Mike peeled my shirt off, then his. Dirt and grass stuck to the sweat on my back, and Mike’s naked, tan chest loomed above me, sweat running in one clear line between his pectoral muscles, his shoulders taut and hard. He unhooked my bra, and I whispered, “What if someone comes over here?”
“No one’s going to come,” he said, easing my bra off. “Relax.” He kissed me, pushed his hips into mine, but I couldn’t relax as I grabbed at his slick back. He pressed himself upward and looked at me, my pert seventeen-year old breasts framed by white triangles of un-tanned skin, the sweat trailing between them, down the middle of my flat stomach, and pooling in my belly button. Mike bowed his head and in one extended lick pulled his tongue across my skin from navel to neck.
“Salty,” he said.
Mike’s shoulders were broad, blocking the sun. His red forearms strained as he held himself above me, posed as if to do a push-up. I grabbed his neck and pulled him against me. We rocked our still-clothed hips together until it hurt, and then we rocked some more.
I was very aware of my shorts, the fact that they were still on and buttoned securely. Mike was no doubt also acutely aware of this fact. His swim trunks, my cotton shorts—these were the only things separating me from adulthood, from knowing the seductive and scary world beyond that of my upbringing. I could feel that world firmly and insistently pulsing through Mike’s swim trunks, but I could not—did not want to—touch it, not yet.
“What are we even doing?” Mike asked, adjusting himself and wincing up at the sky.
What?” I asked.
“You could take your shorts off,” he offered helpfully.
“No,” I said.
“Why not?” he asked.
“Someone might walk over here,” I said, motioning to the woods.
“No one’s going to walk over here,” Mike said.
“Yeah,” I said. He rolled over and sat on the hill beside me. I sat up and put on my bra. He brushed weeds off my back. We both put on our shirts, and then we left, Mike marching through the weeds in his flip flops, me trudging behind, disappointed in my lack of bravery. I got in my car and drove, back over the rivers, back through West Lafayette, back up the townships roads, back past the Dead End sign, all the way home.
* * *
One afternoon near the end, the phone rang.
“Come over,” Jael said on the phone. “It’s in our driveway.”
When I got there, Jael’s little brothers were dancing around its head near the porch stairs. Rocky the dog wouldn’t go near it and instead whined, tripping backward. Look, it’s still holding on, Todd said as the boys laughed. He lifted a pair of metal pliers. On the end, the snapping turtle’s head clamped tight to metal. The thing could take off your finger, Todd said. I watched the muscles in its jaw contract.
Its headless body sat on the picnic table in the screened-in porch. Jael and her brothers gathered around as Todd ran his knife under the edge of the shell to loosen the tissue and then began working on the legs, pushing the butcher knife hard as he could through the skin, moving it back and forth with much force and little success. It took a while to get a leg off and when he did, the snapper flesh was thick and purple gray. The thin bone at the center of the meat bent like a green twig. Todd put all his weight on the knife, palms on the metal, and snapped through.
After the shell had been loosened from the skin, after its legs had all been cut off for stew, Todd slit the snapper low across the belly, working the blade through the soft shell. He pried the body open with his hands and said well will you look at that. He scooped out a handful of orange eggs the size of big marbles and then held them in his bloody palm for us to see.
Aren’t all the way formed yet. Just the yolks,” he said. “We’ll make an omelet.” The boys cawed like birds and each took one to squeeze and poke, and I looked at Jael, who shrugged. It seemed wrong taking the eggs. He emptied out her belly into a bowl and the eggs pooled there in the bottom. They smelled. They smelled horrible, like mildewed pond towels, or Rocky’s sludged undersides, the paste of fish shit and rotted greens. There was something else there too, something I knew from the tips of my fingers after I’d stuck them down Mike’s pants and found him
hard and hot and slick. It was that musk and salt, that skin. The body oozed something thick out its leg stumps and neck onto the warped wood of the table. Later, Jael reported the omelet wasn’t fit to eat. Her dad and her brother had just a few bites before they threw it away.
I didn’t hate it there in Deer Spring. It’s just I was always under something, on my back and floating an inch below the surface, just an inch higher and I’d be up and out of it, up into the air, I’d be able to breathe. But I couldn’t. There was a big hand or a dead weight. I was stuck right there, hovering as I held my breath, looking out at this whole world, blurred and faraway. Driving and driving and speed and blind curves, Mike and his hardness and blood and his skin—all of this was as close as I could get to free.
There was only to be one more hot interlude with him that summer, a Coshocton party in a popular girl’s backyard with a pool. Abbey and I wore our bikinis underneath our clothes. Mike had pierced his bottom lip that same day, pushing a silver stud through the soft skin himself. In the bathroom at the party, under the red light of a heat lamp, Mike lifted me up and planted me on the counter, pushed my legs apart, and then positioned himself in between them, kissing me hard, his hands gripping my thighs. We considered each other there, the screams and laughter from the party outside muffled by our desires, thick and almost touchable in the red and black air.
“The lighting makes us look better,” Mike said, staring at my red-hued features and me at his, chiseled and shadowy, his eyes pure black and glittering. He looked both sexy and scary in that lighting, like an image in a soft-edged, red-toned photograph of a Mike of the future, a Mike we both didn’t yet know.
I had a thought then—a fleeting idea, one too wise and big for me to hold in my seventeen-year old mind for more than a moment—that I would not, was not humanly able, to give Mike Salmon what he wanted there in that bathroom, and he, in turn, could not give me what I was looking for either. This went beyond adolescent swooning, beyond sex, and into the rooms of our achy yearning, rooms to which we had not yet found the keys. What was in those rooms? I kissed Mike and sucked on his bottom lip, drawing blood. We crashed around the bathroom, faces soldered together, then pulled apart. He tugged at my hips. I slouched
toward him. He sighed, then opened the door that led back into the flashing blue night.
Outside, Abbey rolled her eyes at me, and we sipped beer from red plastic cups and felt murderously cool there amongst the city dwellers, the Coshocton girls in their bikinis taunting the Coshocton boys in their swim trunks. Mike was loud, as usual, and insanely lip-pierced, swilling beer as his ex-girlfriend loomed under a tree with her squadron of slit-eyed lackeys.
A few days after the Coshocton party, Mike called me to say he was getting back together with his ex-girlfriend, what now seems the inevitable and obvious ending to our romance but what, at the time, was a blindsided blow. I lamented I had not had astronaut sex with him and sobbed openly. My heart was broken, deeply and painfully, for the first time.
“You’ve only been seeing him for two weeks. Why are you crying so
hard?” my dad asked.
“I really liked him,” I mustered.
“I just don’t know why you’re so sad,” he said.
* * *
At the end of the summer, after the male cicadas had impregnated the females, after the females had laid their scores of eggs on tree branch or hay weed, after they all had crawled onto leaves shaded by other leaves, they did what all good creatures do eventually and went ahead and died. It wasn’t long before their eggs hatched to curled grubs and crawled their ways back down from where their parents had come, back down to burrow and suck on the pale carrots of tree roots beneath the trees and live there for another seventeen years.
Once the world outside had stopped moving, the fields and woods wore the caramel skins of the parents like jewelry, their feet stuck in bark grooves or under leaves or on the siding of our house. Through some magic of hip or wing, they had sloughed off their nymph bodies which, once dry and brittle, seemed far too small to have ever contained them.
I was going to college that fall, college in the city, in Washington D.C., as far away as I could get at seventeen. I was going to make city friends and ride the subway and browse museums. I would intern on Capitol Hill and probably meet Bill Clinton—there was a very good chance, I reasoned—and study abroad in Italy at a Rockefeller villa. Everything was possible. I was enrolled pre-med even though I knew equations with unequivocal answers didn’t make sense to me, but I wanted to be a surgeon so I could cut open bodies and look at what was inside.
I thought my parents had never wanted anything great. Deer Spring seemed to me just another ordinary undertaking, a quiet statement muffled by the grasses and trees, a failed Shangri-la soon to be swallowed back up by the land. I wanted them to want bigger lives, to want culture and money and careers. I was burning with my seventeeness. I was sure they could not know what it was like to feel you had to leave behind everything just to get one gulp of your own pure air. I didn’t think they knew about sacrifice or longing. I could not imagine then, and would not be able to for years, their long nights of wakefulness or cool mid-afternoon moments of perfect terror, one sharp moment that stops you whole and keeps you there inside it, staring straight through your faded dreams.