Stories About Songs #3: “Jeans On,” David Dundas

Melanie makes you pack a bathing suit. A yellow bikini that she originally bought for herself. It’s too big now; she lost weight this spring. Running track; working at John Major’s diner after school; being the lithe, industrious model teen you’ll never be.

You can tell, every time Melanie comes over, that your mother wishes you were more like her. But you love to sleep. You think John Major’s creepy. You don’t care if you’re poor, because there’s nowhere good to go anyway.

“But you need better clothes,” your mother says. “For college.”

“If I get into college.”

“If you don’t go, you’ll still need a job.”

“He’s the kind of boss who puts his hand on your lower back,” you say. “I don’t want to deal with it.”

“If it weren’t that, it would be something else. The fact is, you’re lazy.”

You are lazy. Sometimes, it is a strength. Your mother doesn’t see it, but your early recognition that John Major is exhausting has saved you a lot of trouble. Trouble that Melanie can’t get ahead of. Such as John Major’s breath, smelling of bad milk, warm on her ear as she balances the register. John Major cornering her in the walk-in. John Major getting mad that she doesn’t want him to drive her home anymore.

Ben Major, Melanie’s boyfriend, doesn’t know. She thinks he would dump her if he knew. You think she’s not wrong. He’s taking you both out to the family cabin this weekend, along with Mike Roeper and Trent Visser. You desperately, desperately do not want to go.

Ben’s very cool, for a kid whose dad runs a diner. He was like that even in third grade. His T-shirts fit right, and he acted like he had a right to anything he wanted. Mike, whose dad is vice-president of the First National Bank on Peabody and Seventh, is afraid of Ben.

But he won’t be of you. You and your white leather bowling bag, filled hopefully with that swimsuit, your “good” jeans and your blue ring T-shirt. All your coolest clothes, which you already know won’t impress him.

But Melanie doesn’t have other girlfriends she could ask. Other girls in your grade don’t like her. She tries to flirt with them, as if they’re boys; she can’t ask them for what she wants, in the oblique way they’d like her to.

You’re not so crazy about ol’ Mel yourself, but you see how hard she tries. To get her B grades, to cheer for her mean fucking track teammates. To have a job and a boyfriend and a life, even if they only look okay from a distance. It’s more ambitious than anything you attempt. And she always tries to include you, even when it doesn’t win her points.

She has your loyalty, if not your love, so you’re going to the cabin this weekend, even if it kills you. Besides, you like Mike Roeper in a quiet sort of way. You wish you were a grandmother, so you could pinch his cheek and say, “Oh, if I were forty years younger.” It would be untrue, but you’d get to touch his cheek.

Trent Visser picks everyone up in his Jeep. He’s a tall boy who wears the same jean jacket every day, and you’re afraid of him. He tries to help you load your bag into the back seat, but you clutch it, embarrassed, and insist on holding it in your lap.

It’s because the zipper is broken and you’re worried it will spill your underwear all over everyone else’s luggage, but you pretend like there’s something important in there that you need immediate access to. Trent looks at you like you’re a lunatic. Melanie tries to cover by calling his Jeep “keen.”

“Is it?” he says. “Is my Jeep peachy-keen?”

Melanie shoves him. “Shush.”

He grins at her, he’s forgotten you and your bag, which you’re brooding over like a hen. You tilt your head up. July storm clouds flash between the arms of the chestnut trees. The Jeep has an open top; you hope you’ll get to the cabin before it rains.

Trent drives to Mike’s house next. It’s on the top of a hill in the northwest part of town. The oldest part of town. Every house is different, and in front of some are landscaping trucks, or smoking men holding hedge clippers. Mike’s already waiting out front, sunglasses on, chipping the paint off his black iron gate.

Melanie’s sitting shotgun, so he gets in back with you. “Hey,” he says.

“Hey,” you say.

“I didn’t know you were coming,” Mike says. He doesn’t bother to hide his annoyance.

“You were hoping it would be ‘just the boys and Melanie’?” says Trent.

“Um, doesn’t everyone?” you say, and they laugh. Even Melanie, although it’s not really funny. Especially not once Trent pulls up to John Major’s white frame house and he follows Ben out to the Jeep. His hands stroke the finish on the hood, he makes jokes the boys don’t smile at. But his eyes stay on Melanie’s pink halter top.

Ben notices it, then he notices his friends noticing. His hair is blond, parted on the side and brushed until it shines like a Boy Scout’s. But his eyes are the cool slate of a young cadet’s — level, far-seeing, and not afraid to shoot.

“You guys got enough food back there to last all weekend?” John Major says, loading in Ben’s red cooler. “Maybe I should come check on you tomorrow. Bring some burgers.”

“We’ll be fine,” says Ben.

“You got enough sunscreen, Melanie?” John Major says. “Don’t want you to burn those pretty shoulders.”

Ben spits. “I’ll worry about Melanie. You worry about getting more customers. Mom doesn’t like the books lately.”

John Major tries to laugh. He’s got teeth that are too big for his mouth. “Your mother likes to fret.”

Ben gets in the back seat, shoving Mike Roeper closer to me. “She’s got an accounting degree.”

Before we’re out of John Major’s sight, Ben’s got a cigarette going, but he doesn’t try to hide it. Everyone knows he runs his parents. Melanie looks scared, but Ben doesn’t say much to her, just kisses her on the cheek like they’re an ancient married couple, then starts talking baseball to Trent.

The official story is that the boys are staying at the cabin this weekend to fish, but Ben hasn’t even bothered to bring fishing poles. You and Melanie are supposedly just coming out for the day, then spending the night at each other’s houses. Her father, a widower, bought it. Your mother said she did, but tucked a packet of condoms into the bottom of your bowling bag. When you find them later, they make you want to cry. If only she knew.

The cabin is long and rambling, its wood-paneled walls redolent with mildew. The boys go straight to the dock. They rip their T-shirts and jeans off and swim in their underwear. You plug the fridge in. It comes on with a shudder, then you start unpacking the cooler.

Melanie hesitates by the sliding glass doors. Behind her, you see the boys diving.

“Do you want help?” she says. Her eyes are a little wide; maybe John and Ben’s fight scared her.

“Nah,” you say.

“You sure?”

“Just go,” you tell her.

And she does. She strips off her halter top sundress; her swimsuit is on underneath it. The boys stop diving to watch.
She folds her dress neatly, then dangles her feet in the water. They swarm around her like minnows.

You find a dish towel and wipe off the dusty counters. There’s a bottle of bleach in the pantry, and you use it to disinfect the sink. The porcelain has rust rings that won’t budge. You rinse the sink out, then start thinking about lunch. Mike brought hot dogs. Trent brought beer. Melanie, for some goddamn reason, brought a pineapple. Only Ben had packed properly–cereal, a bag of potatoes, milk. Some frozen hamburgers and buns he’d probably stolen from the diner. Jello.

You wonder if you could pull off fries. Homefries would be easier. You turn the oven on, start quartering potatoes.
Ben comes in shirtless, wearing wet jeans. “What are you doing?”

“Cleaning up,” you say. “Starting some homefries.”

He frowns, then pulls a beer from the fridge. His torso is slim, yet lined with dense, pale muscle, and you keep your eyes resolutely on his face. “I was going to make hashbrowns for breakfast tomorrow.”

You quit chopping. “I can stop.”

“Don’t worry about it. You want a beer?”

“Sure.”

It’s your first beer. It tastes like rotten raspberries.

Ben’s watching you chop the remaining potatoes. You pour them in a bowl, mix them with salt, oil, pepper, and dried rosemary. You dig out a baking sheet, dump the potatoes on it, then spread them in a thin layer. You wonder if his silence is pointed.

You put the potatoes in the oven, shut the door, lean against it. “What?”

“What’s with my dad and Melanie?”

“Nothing.” Outside, Mike Roeper is pulling himself onto the dock, his brown arms flexing.

A muscle in Ben’s jaw twitches. “I know she talks to you.”

You force down a gulp of beer. “Everybody likes Melanie.”

Ben runs a hand across his forehead. “I know you’re not stupid. Has he pulled anything?”

It’s not your secret to tell. “I don’t know,” you say. “Should we start up the barbecue? They’ll be hungry soon.”

Ben shakes his head. “Stop playing hostess,” he says. “This is my house. Don’t you swim?”

You think of the one time you tried on the yellow bikini. Even in the flattering lamplight of your bedroom, there was a lot wrong. Cellulite, acne, hair in the wrong places. In your shame, you looked more naked than an actual naked person.

“I’m more of a fisherman,” you say. “Brought all my best lures with me; hoped we’d be going after bass.”

Ben doesn’t get it, or he does but doesn’t think you’re funny. To be fair, it wasn’t funny, except in a grandpa sort of way. He grabs some towels from the bathroom, then heads back to the dock.

You watch him through the window, wrapping a towel around Melanie’s shoulders, and wonder what would happen if you could get over yourself for once. Shave your legs in the shower. Put on the bikini. Drink a beer on the dock with your best friend and the guys. Not care that you weren’t pretty, or that they didn’t really want you to be there.

If you weren’t so touchy, if you could be warm and easy, they wouldn’t mind you as much. It might be a good weekend. It would be better than what you’d end up doing–mothering them all, doing serf’s tasks in the kitchen. Avoiding a single honest moment.

But you don’t want to ask them for anything. You don’t want to play the grateful geek; you don’t want to owe them.
Stupid phrases from Freshman French run through your head. “Je m’appelle Lori. C’est le weekend.” My name is Lori. It’s the weekend. “Qu’est-ce que c’est que ça?” What is that? “Qu’est-ce qu’il y a?” What’s the matter?

You want to get the barbecue going. It stands there in the shadow cast by a big red cedar, needles stuck to its lid. But Ben said to stop.

The storm clouds have convened upon the west edge of the lake, where the houses are bigger, and the docks have boats tied to them. You hear a crackle, and suddenly rain is sheeting down, rebounding against the surface of the water like drops of water on a hot griddle.

Melanie screams and runs in, but the boys keep swimming. You wonder if it feels good — warm rain on their heads, their bodies cradled by dark, cool lake water.

After Melanie dries off, you decide to make hot dogs, since grilling is obviously off the menu. She rinses out a pan, and gets water boiling. You check on the potatoes. The boys lie on top of the dock, letting themselves be pummeled by the rain.

“Aren’t they cold?” you say.

“They like it,” says Melanie. Her hair is wet, and she’s wearing a pale yellow sweater and jean shorts. She slits open the plastic hot dog package, and drains the juice into the sink.

“Like what?”

“Being uncomfortable,” she says. “Pretending like nothing bothers them. It’s a game.”

“Hmm,” you say. Melanie drops the hot dogs into the water, one by one. Her nail polish is pinkish blue; you wonder where she found it.

“That was weird earlier,” you say. “Ben and his dad.”

She flushes. “I can’t be the only girl John looks at.”

“He didn’t look at me.”

She looks up, quickly. “You weren’t showing anything.” She stirs the hot dogs with a fork. “Why didn’t you come out and swim?”

“I don’t look good in your suit.”

Melanie rummages in the cupboards for a collander. “Trent was asking about you.”

“No he wasn’t.”

“He was,” she says. “You should have come out.”

Trent Visser, Star Pitcher, Driver of Jeeps, would not ask about you. “I don’t believe you.”

She shrugs, a pretty gesture. You shouldn’t hate Melanie; her mother is dead. “Try talking to him,” she says. “You’ll see.”

When the boys finally come in, soaking wet and bright-eyed, you watch Trent carefully. You even offer him mustard. But he seems as indifferent to you as if you were a piece of furniture. A pilled, worn-down armchair, a battered end table.

After the rain stops, they make a fire, and you sit outside on a wet patio chaise in your good jeans, pretending to have fun. The air is dark, and stinks of cedar. In the distance, purple mountains melt into gray clouds.

Mike Roeper rolls a joint. You pretend to inhale. Ben pulls Melanie into his lap, and they make out, while everyone pretends not to watch. One hand is under her yellow sweater. The other is in her hair, fingers pulsing white through the chestnut strands. It’s rhythmic, naked; it embarrasses you.

Trent clears his throat. “Are you going to Amy’s party Friday?” he asks Mike.

“Maybe,” Mike says, still watching Melanie. The curve of her throat, and Ben’s mouth on it.

“What about you?” says Trent. You blink, not sure why he’d even ask.

“I wasn’t invited,” you say.

“Well,” says Trent. He worries his lower lip. “When does football practice start, Mike?”

“Second week of August,” Mike says, without looking away from Melanie and Ben.

Trent stands up, decisive. “I’m going to go look for marshmallows,” he says. “Lori, you wanna help?”

Trent hustles you into the kitchen, very fucking jolly. Making jokes about S’mores and Camp Fire Girls. You force a chuckle. In the pantry, he presses you up against the canned corn, lips cold against your rain-streaked neck. You’re too surprised to react. It’s happening too quickly, it feels like it’s happening to someone else.

You can feel his cock through his jeans and your T-shirt, hot against your stomach. He’s a lot taller than you. Will they notice that you’re both gone? Will Trent talk about you later?

Trent’s hands are kneading your ass. The pantry smells of old oregano, and mice. How far will you let this go?

You break away from him. “Are you secretly fucking Melanie?”

Trent’s eyes are out of focus; suddenly, they snap back in. “No!” he says. “Jesus.”

“Are you in love with her?”

Trent grins, wolfish. “I’m not in love with anyone,” he says. “Just lonely.”

He moves in again, and you let him. There are worse things than kissing mean Trent Visser in a pantry.

The light is failing, so all you see of Trent is the whites of his eyes. And a little light edging his hair. It’s getting late, and you’re hungry again.

Trent’s hands are hot under your T-shirt, warming your clammy skin. You arch back, and he peels your T-shirt up, just as the front door opens and a cheery voice calls out, “Who’s ready for burgers?”

Down goes your shirt. You fasten your bra. Trent zips up his pants, which you hadn’t realized he’d undone.

You run to the fire pit, to warn Melanie. Neither she, nor Ben, nor Mike are wearing shirts. You decide not to worry about this. You scream at them to get dressed, just as John Major steps through the sliding glass doors, hands clutching greasy take-out bags.

His face goes white, as if Melanie were his own daughter. Ben throws her sweater at her, then stands in front of her while she puts it on. Mike hauls on his own T-shirt, his face brick-red.

“What is this, Ben?” says John Major. His mouth trembles, like an old man’s.

Ben tilts his chin up. “No one asked you to come out here.”

“This is my father’s cabin,” said John Major. “If he saw the filth — that you and your whore — ”

Melanie gives a choked cry. Ben doesn’t flinch.

“You should go,” Ben says.

John Major swipes at his face. Is he crying? Trent lurks in the kitchen, afraid to get pulled into whatever’s going on out here.

“I’m your father,” says John Major. “You can’t talk to me like this.” He tries to move around Ben, to get to Melanie.

“Sweetie?” he says, kneeling down. “I’m sorry for what I said. I know you didn’t want to do this. I know he talked you into it.”

John Major’s got a bald patch, which you never noticed before. Melanie clutches Ben’s arm. Her face is terrible.

“I can drive you home,” John Major says.

Melanie spits, deliberately. “No,” she says. “Never again.”

“‘Never again’ what?” says Ben.

Melanie stands up. “I’m young,” she says to John Major. “They’re young. We wanted to.” She shakes her head. “But you? I could never want you.”

Her voice doesn’t shake, much. She’s tall and tan and contemptuous, and you realize she’s the one you wanted, this whole time.

But it’s Ben’s hand she’s holding. Mike walks John Major to the car, still holding his sacks of burgers, and Ben starts making plans for them. She’s quitting the diner; they’re applying to the same colleges; he’s moving out of his dad’s house, and maybe into this one. If his father wants to cry about it, well, Ben has leverage.

Brave Melanie is so relieved, now that the secret’s out. Mike wants to go home. Trent drives him, then comes back, and for the rest of the (rainy, wet-mouthed) weekend, you wonder whether she told Trent to take you to the pantry, or if it were his own idea.