I told myself I wasn’t trying to seduce him: that sounded dirty and terrible.

Good Enough Secrets

It was raining hard the day I slept with Dan Miller.  I was nineteen, and living at home while I got my personal training certification at the local community college.  I had always been good at sports: I swam and played basketball and senior year I was the only white girl to make it to state championships in track and field.  My sister Amy, who was seventeen at the time, couldn’t even throw a football. She had short legs and skinny arms and when she graduated all she wanted was to get a job as a secretary and move in with Dan, whom she’d been dating since she was sixteen.

I drove her car to his house, which I realize now was pretty ironic.  Then, I was just thinking that the Toyota skidded less in the rain than my Honda so I took it instead.  The little black wipers heaved sheets of water off the windshield, leaving the road visible for a split second.  It was a warm September afternoon; the storm had come in suddenly on the tail end of Hurricane Mandy.  Salisbury, North Carolina was far enough inland that we missed most of the winds but the rain was a different story.

Dan’s house was on a narrow street flanked by pine trees, newish white houses for people who had a little more money than us.  I’d never been inside, but I’d driven Amy there a couple dozen times.  I’d never been there alone, and although I was nervous, I pushed that feeling to the bottom of my stomach.

It was steamy in the car.  My long brown hair stuck to my face.  I punched a few buttons on the dashboard, trying to find the A/C.  The radio blared out loudly on a staticky pop station and I realized that the last time she drove, Amy must have been singing along.  Had she been happy, or angry?  My stomach clenched and I tried not to think about Amy.  I thought about Dan instead, and my heart beat faster.

I hadn’t brought an umbrella so after I parked I ran across the flooded lawn, hands above my head.  I can’t remember what I was wearing but it was probably thin, lace cami, tight jeans.  I wore that stuff to all my classes back then, there weren’t a lot of girls and I liked the looks I got.  Guys studying training were usually pretty good looking, dim witted hulks who called our professors ma’am and sir.  I could have had my pick and instead wasted my time chasing after Dan Miller, whose only defining characteristic was that he wasn’t mine.  Yet.

Not that Dan wasn’t attractive, in his own way.  He looked kind of like Peter Parker, before he got bitten by the spider, lost the glasses, and bulked up.  When he answered the door that day, his eyes were blue and wide.

He clutched both sides of the doorframe.  He had big hands. “Hey, Liz,” he said.

“Hey.” I reached out and touched his arm.  It was hot. “Can I come in?”

I’d wanted to sleep with Dan for almost two months.  I felt like I did when someone raced faster than me.  My stomach caught and I wanted to push something.  That’s just another thing I was very good at.  Pushing, that is.  I remember breaking the girl’s nose at basketball regionals.  She was a big black girl with short hair and we had matched each other point for point until I missed.  The next time she drove in for a layup, I jumped and spiked the ball down into her face.  It was clean, no foul.  I didn’t even touch her.  The crack sounded and I jumped back, hands in the air.  The ball bounced once and then rolled, smearing a strip of blood across the shiny court.  She fell to her knees, then crumpled.

I won the game but Amy didn’t look at me on the ride home; she was afraid of blood.

Dan came into the picture December of that year; Amy was a sophomore, I a senior.  I forget how they knew each other but it seemed important at the time, like what classes you took and who you took them with.  She didn’t tell me about him until she broke the news to our parents.  The first time I met him, they had ridden the bus home together after school, and Amy was holding a handful of origami flowers.

My parents shook his hand at dinner but I was like yeah, yeah, this isn’t going to last.  That year alone I’d had six short-lived boyfriends, all of whom I’d broken up with in a matter of days.  Since I hadn’t fallen in love yet, it didn’t seem fair that she had, and it annoyed me when she made such a big deal about it.

She moped around when her grades weren’t good enough to go out with him.  She hardly ever rode home with me after school.  Amy, who’d never gotten higher than a C in any English class, started carrying around a little purple diary to write about him in.

I know it was about him because I read it.  That’s how I knew they’d had sex too.  I think she’d used a thesaurus because she’d called it “cataclysmic.”

But when I asked her what kind of stuff they’d been up to, she just tucked her short blonde hair behind her ears and said, oh not much.

“Sure you have,” I said.  “What’s one thing you have done?”

She shook her head.  “I’m sorry, Liz.  I don’t think it’s fair to tell you.”

That wasn’t fair at all.  When Wayne Lincoln went down on me in the visiting locker rooms during lunch break at a swim meet a year ago, I’d raced my ass off so I could vault out of the pool and tell her first.  I’d wanted to let her know before I told my other friends because I knew she’d be impressed.  And now that I was ready to do the same for her, she snubbed me.

“C’mon,” I said to her one day.  “I know you’ve done it.”

“How would you know?”

“You wrote about it in your little diary.”

“You didn’t read it.”

“Of course I did.”

She slapped my arm.  It was a light hit; she hadn’t put enough of her shoulder into it to make it really hurt.  But the slap surprised me.  I was still looking at the red lines on my arm when she turned around and walked away.

But I never gave up.  That’s what made me so good at sports.  I guess I always believed I was going to get what I wanted and it didn’t matter who tried to trip me or outrace me or block my shot.  So I just kept asking Amy, pushing her, until she finally told me.

I had come into her room, sat down on her bed, and asked if she wanted to play Concentration.  We used to play all the time when we were younger, and it was the only game Amy ever beat me at; she had an excellent memory.

“Fine, fine,” she said, laying out the cards. “We did it.  What else do you want to know?”

“I dunno,” I said.  Now that she’d admitted it, I felt like I’d already won.  “What next?”

She flipped over the first pair.  Ace and a seven.  She sighed.  “Can you keep a secret?”

“Of course.” I turned over two cards without looking at them.

She leaned closer, grinning. “Liz, I think we’re going to move in together,” she breathed.  “No, stop rolling your eyes, it’s true.  When we graduate.”

“You think you two will last that long?” She didn’t take her turn, so I turned over two more cards, only I couldn’t remember where any of the numbers were so I guessed.  Two and an eight.

“I’m sure we’ll last that long,” she said.

“I’m just saying,” I said, “A lot of guys I’ve hooked up with, it didn’t last.”

“This is different,” she said. “Did any of them say they loved you?”

“Sure,” I lied, nudging the edge of a card up with my toe, trying to see what was underneath. “Did Dan?”

“Last week,” she said.  “It was stupendous.” She looked down and flipped over four pairs in a row, setting them in a neat pile beside her ankle.  “Now, you tell me a secret,” she said.  Her face was flushed.

“No, that’s stupid,” I said, because none of my secrets seemed good enough.

Dad only got a few days off during the summer but sometime around the Fourth of July he’d cash in all of them and take us to the beach.  We’d been going as long as I could remember: Wilmington was only a few hours away and there were cheap rooms to rent right on the waterfront.

The summer after I graduated high school and Amy passed tenth grade, Mom let her bring Dan along.  I was welcome to bring a friend too, but I wasn’t dating anyone at the time and if I picked one person out of my group of girl friends, the rest of them would be pissed.  Plus, I kind of liked doing this one trip as a family.  I was a little mad my parents had offered to bring Dan along.  It was clear they liked him better than any of the guys I’d ever brought home: as we rode to the beach, they let him pick the radio station and laughed at his jokes.  I thought Dan was funny too—he had a soft clear voice and excellent timing—but I didn’t want anyone else to know that.  So I stared out the window at the wilting kudzu and picked at my nails.

I had expected Amy to not want much to do with me that weekend, but her complete lack of interest was annoying.  Hey guys, let’s go swimming, I said.  Let’s throw the Frisbee.  Let’s see if we can pick the lock on the minibar.  But she and Dan went off on long walks and when our parents were gone they asked me to stay out of the room. I spent the weekend scuffing my shoes through other peoples’ sandcastles and flipping through magazines on the dock.

The final night, Mom took us to a new restaurant and said we could order anything we wanted, her treat.  The place was expensive-looking, and far away from our teal hotel; it was the only seafood place I’d ever been to without fishing nets nailed to the walls.

We sat outside next to a stage that overlooked the stunted maritime forest.  An upright bassist thumbed a light beat that almost got lost in the distant crash of the waves.  Next to him, a white guy with dreds noodled softly on a beat-up saxophone.  It was romantic like a movie, and made me feel lonely.

After a few glasses of wine, Dad dragged Mom up to dance on the stage.  It was early evening and the gray sky was getting dark.  They were the only ones up there.

But then, with a similar gesture, Dan walked Amy across the room.  He was wearing slacks and a button-down that made his eyes look really blue.  He smiled shyly, and they swayed together in time to the music.  I leaned back in my chair and watched them, feeling like I’d been benched during an important game.  Dan’s glasses glinted as he leaned in to whisper something in her ear and I didn’t look away.  I drummed my fingers on the empty table, hoping they’d turn around but they didn’t.  Dan brushed a strand of hair behind Amy’s ear and she smiled.  No one had ever done that to me before.

I realized that night that I wanted Dan to love me, and so when I got back home, I set to work trying to get him to sleep with me.  When I started college, I didn’t have classes in the afternoon so I’d hang around the house when Amy came home from school.  She brought Dan with her most days, and I’d say hi to him from the couch.  I told myself I wasn’t trying to seduce him: that sounded dirty and terrible.  But it wasn’t my fault if he chose me over Amy: no matter how hard you play, when you win a game fair no one blames you—that’s just the way things go.

Twirling a lock of straightened hair around my finger, I’d ask Dan questions while Amy answered her phone or went to the bathroom.  I liked the sound of his voice, the way he laid his hands on his books.

He was smart enough to know what I was up to, so it seemed like an invitation when he didn’t tell me to stop.  I crept closer each day, asking him things that make me cringe now to think about.  Is this shirt too old to wear out? No seriously, feel it.  It’s super soft.  My, what white teeth you have, God you’re smart, bet you’re ticklish, etc.

In late September, when he didn’t come over for four days, I assumed he’d gotten scared.  I wondered if he’d told Amy about me but I was too afraid to ask her.

That Thursday, I overheard her talking to a friend on the phone.  She had to talk inside because it was raining like crazy.  Hurricane Mandy.  She said she and Dan had fought about where he wanted to go to college.  Standing around the corner, listening to her talk, I felt suddenly dizzy. I grabbed the keys to her car and ran out into the rain.

After he invited me in, Dan and I sat on his couch talking about the storm.  I could tell it was going to happen by the way he laughed nervously.  My hair dripped wet patches onto the shoulders of my shirt.  He touched a clump of it and his fingers were shaking.

I took his hand.

“I shouldn’t do this,” he said. “You know, Amy…”

I nodded. “You’re really sweet,” I said.  Even when he was trying to turn me down, it made my heart race.  I wanted someone to be that loyal to me.  It felt like I’d never wanted anything that badly.  I moved my finger up his leg.

“Will you at least kiss me?” I asked.

He blinked twice.  The rain splattered against the windows.  I said, “Please?”

He leaned forward and pressed his lips to mine.

I knew then that we were going to do it but I can’t remember exactly how it went.  I remember hoping stupidly he’d say he loved me afterwards.  He didn’t.

When we were finished he closed his eyes and put his face in his hands.  When I saw that, I felt weak and sick.  All of the stuff I’d been trying not to think about burst into my head, and I couldn’t stop thinking about what Amy would write in her purple diary when she found out. Her thesaurus probably had a lot of synonyms for “betrayal.”

“That wasn’t okay,” he said and I stumbled up.  I almost tripped putting my pants back on.  The ankles were still wet from the rain.

“You should have stopped me,” I said. I hugged my arms around myself, shivering.  I said again, “You should have stopped me.”

But a blank look had gone over Dan’s face so I walked outside into the sheets of gray rain alone.  When I got in the car, I realized I’d left my shoes back in the house, so I drove home barefoot.  I wanted to throw up but I kept telling myself he should have stopped me but it worked less and less and when I pulled into the driveway I stumbled out into the rain once more and was sick in the grass.  Then I went inside and locked the door to my room and didn’t come out even when Amy yelled in to ask if anyone had seen her car keys.

Dan came by the next day to return my shoes and tell Amy.  She broke up with him, and I remember what she said because I was crouched under the wet porch, listening.  “I’m disappointed,” she kept saying.  “Mostly, I’m just disappointed.”  When she saw me later, she didn’t scream at me as I’d expected, which made me feel even worse than if she had.  If she’d screamed, I would have known she’d known it was a game.  But she didn’t, this was something that mattered to her, and it didn’t feel like I’d won anymore.  It didn’t feel like anyone had won.


Hannah Thurman lives in Brooklyn, and completed studies in creative writing at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where she received Highest Honors for her thesis.  She has stories forthcoming in The Eunoia Review and The Rusty Nail.


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