My grandfather was named Melvin. He came from that Jewish generation: Melvins, Hermans, Alvins, Myrons, all the –ns. His brother was Sheldon, called Shelly. I loved Shelly, at first because he showed up at Passover every year and gave whoever found the afikomen a $20, and then because I realized he was an angel, and my grandfather was a piece of shit. Mel dressed like a minor gangster, with tie pins and very thin shoes. He wasn’t one—he was a nephrologist—but he would have thrived as a loan shark. He liked taking from people. Once I asked my mother if he’d ever committed insurance fraud, which struck me as an activity he would have enjoyed. To her knowledge, he hadn’t. She thought it would have been too faceless for him. Too much paperwork. What Grandpa Mel liked, if you had a drink with a straw, was to lean over and drain the glass in your hand. He’d even do it with a cocktail stirrer. It was uncomfortable to watch.
Grandpa Mel took Shelly’s wife. He took three-quarters of their inheritance. He took their mother’s diamond ring from her hand when she died, and nobody ever saw it again. When my brother Peter and I were nine and eleven, he took Peter’s pet corn snake and released it into the yard. In an effort to be comforting, I told Peter he was nearly ten now, too old to cry over such a small, scaly pet, but, sensibly, he ignored me. A week later, we found its crushed body in the driveway. Poor little snake.
Why my mother brought her dad around, we don’t know. She doesn’t know. Importance of male presence or some shit. He liked coming over because Peter and I were sitting ducks. Very easy to con children out of their allowances while claiming to teaching them to gamble. In fairness to him, Peter and I are, as adults, excellent at poker, blackjack, darts, and pool. Also Uno, but high-stakes Uno turns out not to be a common game.
Peter likes to compete, but, even with me, he gambles only for pennies. If I lobby him to bet higher, he reminds me he learned his lesson in tenth grade. I learned my own lesson that year, involving not gambling but human decency. Specifically, I discovered that, like my grandfather, I have none. Unlike him, I wish I did. I have spent my adult life striving for it. Mel, in contrast, was born rotten and died worse. I hated him. He died the summer I was twenty, and I cried, but didn’t grieve. Shelly and Peter, my two models of goodness, told me I was under no obligation, and I took them at their combined word.
Jewish tradition dictates that babies should be named only for the dead, which means my male peers, born during their grandfathers’ lives, rarely have the -n names. Hard to know if this means a new wave of Jewish Melvins is en route. Needless to say, neither of my sons is named for their great-grandfather. I would have named one for Uncle Shelly, but the boys are four and two, and he only died last year.
My husband often says he wishes he’d met Grandpa Mel, for context. I tell him he’s better off this way, but, privately, I wish the same. My failings as a mother, wife, and general person would shrink to nothing if Reid had Mel to compare me to. I might be fundamentally abrasive and antisocial; I might prefer hustling strangers at bar pool to watching Netflix with my husband; but I have never, not ever, sucked down Reid’s entire drink through a cocktail straw. I treat my husband kindly. I am endlessly patient—he’d testify to this—with our kids. I am extremely close, still, to Peter. I do my best to be pleasant to my colleagues, our neighbors, the other adults at Mommy & Me Gymboree. In fact, I have worked hard to be decent, generous, and open-hearted to every person who’s crossed my path since twelfth grade. That was when Melvin Pasternak came to our school.
* * *
At first, I didn’t know his real name was Melvin. He was plainly Jewish, and, as I said, the name was effectively extinct among my Jewish peers. Also, he went by Vinny. Vinny Pasternak. He moved to Fairfield that August, and everyone felt awful for him, uprooted right before senior year. Even I pitied him. It was like he’d been denied his birthright. He seemed like he could have been king at his old school—he was hot, athletic, not zitty, projected sensitivity to art girls, swung his lacrosse stick with casual menace through the halls—but we had a king already, a pituitary case named Trevor Lockhart. Vinny had to settle for royal court.
I was not an art girl, but I, too, was susceptible to Vinny’s charms. Physically, he was my type: appealingly stocky, with broad shoulders and a well-muscled chest. In class, he bit his pencil when he concentrated. He wasn’t loud, but his voice was deep enough to carry through the halls. He was no Lockhart, but, like many athletes, he looked and moved as if he were older than the rest of us. I liked that.
Vinny was a lacrosse star. He played on some all-Connecticut club team, but, since school lacrosse was a spring sport, he ran cross-country that fall. It was not a big team, or a cool one. Vinny got a social pass because he did it for conditioning, but otherwise, distance runners were seen as weedy little nerds. Peter occupied a one-man strip of middle ground: He was skinny, shy, and, despite my best efforts, not popular, but he was extremely fast. Locally-famous fast. Vinny wanted to run with him. Not in races at first—he couldn’t keep up—but to train. After practices, while waiting in the car for Peter, I often saw him laughing with Vinny, roughhousing a little, bumping fists to say goodbye.
A month into school, Vinny, who ordinarily sat opposite me in our AP U.S. classroom’s horseshoe of desks, deposited himself at my side. He smelled like clementines. Our teacher hadn’t arrived yet, and the room buzzed with low chat. “Sophia,” he said, as if resuming an old conversation. We’d never spoken before. “I figured it out.”
“You’re Pete Bookman’s sister.” He seemed proud of his sleuthing. I considered telling him nobody called Peter Pete, but if Vinny did, why would I stop him? I wanted Peter to be cooler; to be safe from bullying, laughter, exclusion. I wanted to leave for college knowing he’d thrive in my absence. A nickname bestowed by Vinny Pasternak, already safely ensconced as Lockhart’s #3, could only help.
“I should’ve guessed. Bookman; Bookman. But you don’t look alike.”
“We would if I didn’t do my hair,” I said, raking a hand through it to release the floral scent of my shampoo. “Or wear makeup.”
Vinny tilted closer, as I’d intended him to. He looked at, then into, my eyes. “Don’t see it. Maybe if I had you and Pete side by side.” He made a frame with his hands, studying me through it. An odd move, but I didn’t mind. I liked how casually possessive his phrasing was. If I had, not If I saw.
Our teacher, Mr. Mullaney, hustled through the door then, manila folders heaped in his arms. We were finishing up the Revolution. Mullaney loved it. I did not. I asked Vinny, “Scale of one to ten, how likely am I to fall asleep in class today?”
A furrow appeared between his eyebrows. “You sleep okay last night?”
He sucked in his cheeks. “I’d still say three out of ten. I watch you across the classroom sometimes—I mean, not watch, but I see you. And I’ve never seen you even close to asleep.”
“First time for everything,” I said. Mullaney was writing a pop quiz on the board, his blue marker squeaking on the slick melamine. Vinny scowled at the questions. After class, he asked if I’d be at Lockhart’s party Saturday. I never skipped parties, but Vinny was too new to know that. In order to retain maximum power, I only told him we’d see.
* * *
Lockhart’s party was like all parties. Parents gone, housekeeper gone, red Solo cups on every surface, flat-screen TV beaming rap videos from the living-room wall. He’d taken no care to protect his parents’ luxury items. He knew neither of them gave a shit. Lockhart checked every box of Fairfield Warde High School apex popularity: rich, athletic, unsupervised, straight, and white. It was a bonus that he’d looked like a grown man since seventh grade. I happened to know he was, sexually, less adult than he appeared: terrified of penetration, and extremely shy with his hands.
Our school’s primary sexual currency was the blow job, in which I did not trade. I hooked up with whoever I wanted, but those hookups took only two forms. Either I had penetrative sex, or I just made boys go down on me, a practice that mostly confused and delighted them. From what I could tell, my female classmates tended to be afraid to ask for oral sex, or afraid they smelled, or, in general, afraid. If I’d been a kinder person in high school, I would have offered them some guidance. I was, after all, welcome in nearly every female clique, though a member of none. Social independence was a priority of mine. As a result, I was very well positioned to teach the girls in my grade to assert their desires. Instead, I swore the boys to secrecy, then gloated silently to myself, like a thief sitting on top of her hoard.
Not all high-school boys keep secrets, but, with a single exception, the ones I slept with did. My reversal of the usual power dynamic unmoored them, and led them to reveal—or discover—secrets of their own. Afterwards, we’d agree not to tell. People still registered my disappearances at parties, but, because nobody knew details, I was considered a mystery, not a slut. A fine line to walk, but, pre-Vinny, I walked it. I felt the usual male ripple when I arrived at Lockhart’s, trailed, as always, by Peter. I brought my brother to all parties, sometimes against his will. He was loose and relaxed at Lockhart’s, having won his race by a solid minute that morning. As we proceeded to the keg, pausing often so girls could hug me or compliment my outfit, he swayed gently to the beat of “Pop, Lock, and Drop It,” which blared through the hot room.
Vinny was playing beer pong. When he spotted us, though, he put his ball down, calling, “Bookmen!”
I nodded as he approached. Peter waved. “Hey, Mel.”
“Mel?” I asked. For a horrible instant, I imagined our grandfather oiling through the party in his sharkskin suit, doing his chickenlike dance moves, pinching Caitlin Hanover’s ass.
“Me,” Vinny said, faking shame. He looked and sounded surprisingly sober, considering our strategically late arrival. “My real name’s Melvin. Don’t tell.”
I took a slow drink to hide my distress. Once I’d swallowed, I said, “That’s too bad.”
“What’s too bad is Pete not keeping my secret.” Vinny winked at my brother, who grinned. “You know, maybe I do see some resemblance.”
Peter wrapped his arm around my shoulders. He was newly taller than me, which made it easy to lean into his side. Peter was a good wingman, if sometimes an oblivious one. Not this time. We’d spoken en route to Lockhart’s. Later, he told me Vinny had asked for help, too.
“I’m the hot one,” Peter said, a laugh edging his voice. “Clearly.”
“No question.” Vinny’s eyes flicked to my skirt, or to the point where my skirt stopped. American Apparel was big in suburban Connecticut that year, and I’d invested heavily in Spandex tubes. “But seriously. Same smile. Pete, did you know Sophia smiles when she’s bored?”
My whole body heated. I forgave Vinny his real name. “I do?”
“Hundred percent. Like this.” He lowered his head, then twitched the corners of his mouth up. Mine moved in response. He was a good flirt, Vinny Pasternak. He took me in.
We had sex in the Lockharts’ guest bedroom. Vinny wore boxer briefs, which I liked, and had a small, appealing tuft of hair in the dent between his pecs. After the initial kissing, he slid two fingers inside me, then made skillful circles with his thumb. I assumed a former girlfriend had trained him. I appreciated her efforts, but also, alarmingly, I was jealous. Once I’d come, I put on my best show: climbed on top, turned backward, bounced my ass as much as it would bounce. After, he didn’t want to rejoin the party. He wanted me to lie with my head on his chest. It was a new emotional experience. While I considered its pros and cons, he told me a secret. His family had moved to Connecticut because his mom was in federal prison in Danbury. Six years for procurement fraud. His dad was determined to visit her weekly. Vinny hadn’t been. I asked if he was angry, or if he didn’t want to see her incarcerated.
“Neither.” Above us, the white fan spun its dustless blades. I could smell the condom collapsed on the nightstand. “I’ll go eventually, but between cross-country, club lacrosse, lacrosse recruitment, and college apps, I really just haven’t had time.”
* * *
Vinny introduced me to an array of new experiences that October. We went for drives, ate hot dogs at Nathan’s, studied together for AP U.S. We had sex not only at parties, but in his Volvo in the school garage, on park benches after nightfall, and at Vinny’s when his dad went to Danbury. Their house was a square stone colonial near the water; half the rooms downstairs were still unfurnished, crammed with cardboard boxes and open Rubbermaid storage tubs. Vinny had two sisters, both in college, but, to my surprise, his lived-in room was neater than their unoccupied ones. His homework and notebooks sat in perfectly squared-off stacks on his desk, and, until we wrecked it, his bed was always neatly made.
He wanted me to meet his father. He wanted to meet my mom. I did not want him, or anyone, in our house, which we rented from Shelly. It bore significant traces of both his decades-long bachelorhood and my mom’s hippie past. If Vinny came over, she’d offer to read his tarot, or interpret his dreams. She’d tell embarrassing stories from my unremembered early childhood, which took place in a Vermont intentional-living collective. She’d be in total control.
I said none of that to Vinny. Instead, I suggested, on a drive during our shared free period, that Vinny come say hello at that Saturday’s cross-country invitational. I’d introduce him to my mom as Peter’s new training buddy and friend. Vinny was so offended he pulled over.
“Why can’t you introduce me as your boyfriend?”
We were on the Merritt Parkway, midday traffic shooting by. A yellow leaf drifted onto the windshield. I asked, “Are you Peter’s friend?”
“Are you my boyfriend?”
“I’d like to be.”
I pulled a hank of hair in front of my face. Sunlight collected on the ends, turning my splits and breakages white. I didn’t want a relationship. I wanted to be a solo actor. If I became Vinny’s girlfriend, my independence would evaporate. Everyone, Vinny included, would have expectations of me. He’d start slinging me over his shoulder at parties. He’d ask to have sex without condoms. He’d try to coordinate our college lists. If I let him be my boyfriend, I’d look up two months from now to find myself stuffed into a rhinestoned column dress for winter formal, posing for endless hand-on-hip photos with whoever Lockhart and the rest of his cronies had plucked from the female pack. All my power would vanish. All my mystery. No quantity of collected knowledge—not Lockhart’s shyness; not Evan Perlmutter’s prosthetic ball; not Dan Cohen’s plan, described in a fit of drunk sexual gratitude, to publicly become Dayna Cohen the summer between graduation and college—would protect me from being seen as an appendage, not a self.
“Can we go to New York?” I said.
“There’s no traffic. It would only take an hour.”
“We have class in forty-five minutes.”
“We can cut. We’re facing the right way on the parkway,” I added, as if that were a deciding factor. I had no idea where the impulse had come from, but I wanted badly to go. I texted Peter, who was fully in the loop on me and Vinny, Went to city w V. Cover 4 us pls. I also texted Dayna, which was a new habit of mine that fall. We were in the early flip-phone era, so the two messages took over a minute to compose. Vinny was quiet, but, when I showed him the text to Peter, he flipped the hazards off and began to drive.
As predicted, there was no traffic. Vinny put a Pietasters album—D.C. ska-punk, not bad if you accepted ska—in the CD player, and we crossed the bridge with the windows down, trumpets wailing, Vinny shoulder-dancing as he drove. I liked the incongruity of preppy Vinny loving this cheap-beer band. I liked Vinny. I couldn’t remember feeling happier than I felt sailing into Manhattan with him. Why would I be a girlfriend when, instead, I could do this? Girlfriends, it seemed to me, were bound by ritual. They traded sex for performances and tributes. They were not in control, no matter how many demands they made, and they certainly did not skip school to roam the Lower East Side.
Miraculously, we found street parking on Houston. My mom had lived nearby pre-Vermont; I was, in fact, born eight blocks east. Vinny, in contrast, had only visited Manhattan a handful of times, mainly for Columbia lacrosse recruitment. He’d never been below Times Square.
“Weren’t your ancestors Russian Jews?” I asked, laughing at him.
“Sure. And Polish.”
“And none of them ever lived here?”
A bleached-blond woman walked by in leopard tights and iridescent platform boots. A little dog blinked from her bag. Vinny blinked back at it, then shook his big head. “Always D.C. We’re the first Pasternaks to leave the DMV since 1902.”
“D.C., Maryland, Virginia. My great-grandfather owned a corner store three blocks from the Capitol.”
“Is it still there?”
He shrugged. “It got sold.”
All afternoon, we ate and walked. Bagels at Russ & Daughters, dumplings in Chinatown, cannoli on Mulberry Street. We’d never spent so much time clothed in each other’s presence before. In an overpriced thrift store, I considered sucking his dick in the dressing room with its prickly velvet curtain, but I had still never given a blow job. My first one would have stripped the day of its out-of-time magic, planted it on the record of my life. Instead, I bought a pair of ripped, patched Wranglers that Vinny said made my ass look even better than normal. I pretended to be insulted, and he corrected himself.
“Better than usual,” he said. “Better than ever. Better than perfect?”
I kissed him. “There we go.”
I wore the new jeans out of the store. On the drive home—peak rush hour, stop-and-go from Mamaroneck to Stamford—the button fly pressed painfully into my bladder, but I was too happy to care. I didn’t mind the traffic, either. I would have sat in that car for a week. As we crept past reddening maple trees and cement highway barriers, Vinny told me Columbia was preparing to make him an offer. No verbal commitment yet, but the team captain had made it clear.
“I just want the whole process over with,” he said. “I mean, I know you have to wait longer. Which sucks. But—”
“I can handle waiting. You don’t have to feel bad for me.”
“I just don’t want be insensitive.”
I shrugged. For me, the college process did not involve the level of suspense it did for Vinny, or for many of our peers. My grades and test scores were excellent; my family finances, less so. We belonged, barely, to Fairfield’s miniscule middle class. We knew Shelly undercharged us for his house. I wouldn’t have dreamed of asking him for help with tuition on top of subsidized rent, and Mel had burned through nearly all his money by then. In the car that day, I knew the path I would take: apply early to UConn, then cross my fingers for a merit scholarship. I shouldn’t say cross my fingers. I was cockier than that. I expected a full ride, and I got it.
Vinny didn’t know my plan. I’d tried to keep him assuming I was as rich as he was, and as the bulk of our peers were. Knowing the truth would have put him in a position of power. Only after cross-country regionals did I learn that Peter had already told him. My secret-keeping had gone to waste.
“It would be nice if you went to Columbia,” I said. “Easy to visit your mom.”
Vinny drummed his fingers on the wheel. “Right.”
“I could come with you.”
“To Columbia?” he asked, perking up. “Is it on your list?”
He twisted to face me. His expression told me I would never be invited to Danbury, even if he did someday go. I would never wait in the car, never ask if he was all right when he emerged from the visitors’ entrance, never get an explanation of what procurement fraud was, let alone why his mother committed it. It sounded like hookers, but my internet research had told me it involved government contracts.
I opened my mouth to apologize, which would have been a first. Before I could, he said, “That’s a girlfriendy thing to do, Sophia.”
“I could be girlfriendy.”
“But not my girlfriend.”
In the lane beside us, a sad hound pressed its nose to a minivan window. A slick banker type raised her convertible’s top. The sky was the pink-blue that precedes sunset. I imagined driving to the city next year, slipping onto the Columbia campus, stealing Vinny from his life for days at a time.
“Okay.” He looked deflated, but sounded determined. “Give me the ground rules.”
I resettled myself in my bucket seat. “Rule One: Nobody knows we’re together.”
“But we’re together?”
I saw his mouth curve up. He moved a hand from the wheel to my lap. “Good.”
“Rule Two.” I laced my fingers through his. “You can ask me to do stuff—girlfriend stuff—but I get to decide if I say yes.”
“Isn’t that the whole point of asking? That you choose your own answer?”
I ruffled his hair with my free hand. “Cute.”
He shot me a wounded look, but traffic sped up then, and he returned his eyes to the road. Vinny was a careful driver. Not a common trait at our school. In the five weeks we remained together after our New York trip, I frequently caught myself thinking about how nice it was to let Vinny drive me. I could relax completely, like a little kid. Driving with Reid is the same. On our third date, I fell asleep in his passenger seat and woke up knowing we’d get married. He teases me for that, calls it the suburban girl’s litmus test. I fake-complain, but he knows I love that memory. I like knowing I was right.
* * *
All fall, I’d been watching Peter and Vinny race. I went even to meets across the state. I had a policy of supporting Peter however I could, and cheering for his athletic achievements was an easy one. It was a nice side effect that I could watch Vinny improve. His determination to train with Peter was paying off. At every race, he drew closer to my brother. By November, they were finishing a reliable 1-2. I heard the coach, in his pre-meet pump-up speeches, referring to them as Mel ‘n’ Pete, like some Borscht Belt comedy duo. Mel ‘n’ Pete were the pace-setters, the leaders of the pack. Everyone else should do their best to keep up.
I was proud of them. Of myself, too. I loved watching my baby brother streak under the flags at the finish line, my secret semi-boyfriend at his heels. I might have felt torn if they were in more competition, but, because I knew Peter would win every time, I could be purely happy for them both. Peter always flopped to his knees in the dirt at a race’s end, often skidding with extra momentum. Vinny would collapse beside him, grab his shoulders, wrap him in a sweaty, worn-out hug. I knew their friendship wasn’t my achievement, but, from the sidelines, it felt like it was.
I wasn’t the only one watching. Vinny told me Columbia had sent an assistant coach to divisionals. He was still waiting for an offer, which agitated him, but the coach’s presence seemed to lessen his anxiety. Peter, meanwhile, was having an even better season than predicted. In the first half of November, he set three personal records—3.1 miles in 14:45, then 14:41, then 14:30. Instead of getting nervous before regionals, he got chirpy: singing in the shower, praising our mom’s awful new haircut, laughing with Vinny on the phone. I was tempted to eavesdrop, since they always talked on the landline, but refrained, which was a mistake. It would have saved everyone some grief if I did.
Regionals were the Saturday before Thanksgiving. My mom and I dropped Peter at the team bus, then detoured to Bridgeport to collect Shelly and Mel from their retirement homes, which were a mile apart. Peter had tried to disinvite our grandfather, but Shelly, saint that he was, promised not to let his brother spoil the day. It was a warm morning for New England in November, and the bare elms and birches glowed in the sun. My mom had brought a paper sack of treats from Gold’s Deli, and we spent the JV races eating rugelach and chatting peacefully. Mel worked a crossword in his camp chair. Shelly beamed beside him, wearing three sweaters and two jackets, proud as if Peter had already won.
In the lull between the women’s and men’s varsity races, I heard the unmistakable yelps of Lockhart and his core crew. They tramped across the field in their Yale sweats and duck boots, elbowing each other and passing huge Slurpees around. I was stunned. Dayna hadn’t told me she was coming. I’d assumed nobody would. We were a solid two hours from Fairfield, and besides, cross-country wasn’t cool. I couldn’t believe they’d shown, and, once they settled by the finish line, went over to say so.
“Got to watch little Pete break the sound barrier!” Lockhart explained. “Fairfield pride! Plus, who’d we be if we didn’t cheer for our boy Vinny?”
“And we’ve got to make the big bucks,” Evan added, bouncing his shoulders. “Big bets, Sophia. Want in?”
I rolled my eyes, privately thanking God my grandfather wasn’t in earshot. He’d love gambling on high-school cross-country with an idiot like Evan Perlmutter. I could just see him fleecing Evan out of his new Lexus, screeching off with the windows down, one of Evan’s beloved Kanye mixes booming in his wake.
Dayna said nothing. She shot me a look that I interpreted as complicity. She was the only person beside Peter who knew Vinny and I were involved. Even in high school, before I prioritized kindness, I knew her secret was qualitatively different from the others I’d collected. After she told me, I saw that she was truly scared. Her fear was more power than even I thought I wanted, and so, to put her at ease, I started telling her some secrets of my own. We’d hooked up that August, and within a month, we were talking nightly. We discussed college applications, Vinny, money, sex, family. I asked her what it was like to have normal parents. I’d never admitted before that I wanted to know.
Dayna talked to me, too. Our nighttime chats weren’t one-way confessions. We were, briefly, friends, though I didn’t quite realize it till it was too late. I did recognize, though, that I liked letting her bear witness to my life, and bearing witness to hers. I still look her up online periodically. She’s a lawyer in Los Angeles. She seems happy, from what I can tell.
In the months our friendship lasted, it was secret. She was, after all, still performing the role of Dan Cohen, Trevor Lockhart’s #2 Bro. As I returned to my family before the men’s varsity race began, I texted her, Glad ur here. Typing the full thought would have taken too much effort, but I was happy somebody else would know the meet’s first- and second-place finishers both belonged to me.
I wasn’t wrong. As always, Vinny and Peter went 1-2. We saw them fly by at the first mile marker, already leading the pack. A knock-kneed kid from Staples High School rode at their heels, but by the second mile, he’d vanished, replaced by a wall of panting lunks from Naugatuck. Their flailing arms alone told me they’d never keep up. They fell away at the course’s big hill, which Peter and Vinny ascended together. Vinny was wobbly and red-faced, Peter serene. I wondered if he was holding back, saving energy for a dramatic finish—or, more likely, for state championships next week.
After the hill, their forms shifted. Vinny smoothed his gait out. Peter’s stride seemed longer than usual, as if he were gearing up for speed, though he hadn’t passed the last mile marker yet. His strategy, unless facing a significant challenge, was to cruise up to Mile Three, then run the course’s final .1 mile at a flat-out sprint. I trotted down to the finish line, losing them briefly. When they appeared in the home stretch, Vinny surged into frantic motion, lowering his head like a bull. Peter sailed in behind him. My heart sped. I felt a grin breaking over my face. Lockhart & Co. leapt and howled, and I hoped Dayna wasn’t too busy celebrating to see my smile before I shut it down.
Peter seemed unfazed by his first loss in over a year. Mel complained that he would never have schlepped here if he hadn’t been promised a win, and Peter acted like he hadn’t heard. He draped his silver medal around Shelly’s loose-skinned neck, which delighted our great-uncle completely. He announced, several times, that on Monday he’d go get it framed. On the way to the parking lot, I saw Mel, nimble-fingered even at eighty, slip the medal from his brother’s windbreaker pocket. I shouted at him till he returned it, and he sulked the whole drive home. Shelly seemed unaffected, as was I. My mood was perfect. Peter, before jogging his final cooldown, had told me his second-place finish didn’t matter. His time still qualified him for states. I took that to mean he’d been conserving his forces, and, therefore, felt only joy when Vinny bounded up to me, gold medal slapping his singleted chest, and kissed me in front of anyone who cared to look. Did I know, he demanded, that the Columbia coach was here? Not the assistant! The real coach! Vinny had spotted him at the start line and known this was his day. He had to push himself extra-extra hard—and he’d done it! The coach had watched him take regionals, proving his dominance in a sport that wasn’t even lacrosse. Vinny blazed with victory. I blazed with him. We both knew he was getting his longed-for offer letter now.
* * *
I should have known. It was right in front of me—Evan told me—but I didn’t know. Not that Evan understood. He was too dumb. Dayna, driving home, figured the scheme out. She called that evening and told me to look in my brother’s wallet. It was empty, but, in his sock drawer, I discovered $870 in dirty, wadded-up bills. Peter was showering, so I had time to consider, through the rising smoke of humiliation and rage, which one I wanted to make confess. Shouting at Vinny would feel good, but already, potential forms of payback were unfolding within me. It would be better if Vinny wasn’t forewarned.
I took the cash to my bedroom, leaving the sock drawer open. Before long, Peter appeared, wet-haired and anxious, plaid pajama pants dragging at his feet. He cracked as soon as he saw his $870 on my quilt. “Soph,” he begged. “Don’t be angry. It made sense, Soph.”
I crossed my arms. “Whose idea was it?”
It was a good sign, I thought, that he’d said Vinny, not Mel. Proof that his loyalty to his new friend was already waning. He looked so small and forlorn I had to stem the impulse to free his old teddy bear, Griffin, from my closet, where I’d shut all our stuffed animals years before.
“Sit down,” I said. “I won’t shout at you. I just want to know.”
After divisionals, Peter told me, Vinny had obsessed over the possibility that Columbia might send a coach to regionals, too. He worried that his speed was a deciding factor. He told Peter he needed to lock a college spot down. His grades, never great, had taken a dive while his mom was on trial. His home life was a shitshow, his sisters AWOL. At night, he could hear his dad crying in the basement. The sound carried through the heating ducts. Vinny needed guaranteed passage out of the house, and, except lacrosse, what guarantee could he have? Why would any school want the academically mediocre son of a white-collar criminal? He just needed an edge with Columbia. He needed to win regionals.
“Is he aware of the University of Connecticut system?” I asked. “Or has he only heard of the Ivy League?” Peter was quiet. After a moment, I shook my head. “Never mind. I know the answer. Just explain the money.”
The money was so Peter wouldn’t just be doing Vinny a favor. “I mean,” Peter said, “I would have done it as a favor, probably. I still qualified for states, so losing regionals isn’t a big deal. But—” I heard him swallow. “I need new training shoes. New spikes, too. I didn’t want to ask Mom, but if I wait, I’m going to get shin splints.”
“You told Vinny that?”
“And Vinny said he’d buy you $900 worth of shoes if you let him win?”
“He didn’t pay. I mean, not his own money. He bet all his friends he’d win. Not just Lockhart and Perlmutter and Cohen. A whole bunch of guys.”
It took me months to explain, even to myself, how ashamed and furious I felt. Furious at Vinny, who’d abused Peter’s gentleness and trust; ashamed of Peter for letting Vinny exploit not only his kindness, but his need; ashamed, most of all, at myself. I’d failed to protect my little brother. I’d believed in Vinny too much. I’d thought—what? That because he liked having sex with me, his friendship with Peter had to be genuine? That he wasn’t the type of person who took advantage? I hadn’t realized that Vinny was like me. He scavenged for power. Peter was an easy mark.
In the moment, though, I kept my unsorted feelings inside. The urge to call Dayna back itched in my fingers. To Peter, I said, “Tell me who.”
* * *
Vinny bet nine of our classmates he’d win regionals. I had hooked up with six, including Dayna. I cornered the other five—Lockhart, Evan Perlmutter, Mike Billington, Jake Lau, Miles Bird—and informed them that, if they did not immediately begin telling the whole school Vinny Pasternak had bought his victory from Peter Bookman, I would broadcast their sexual shortcomings and physical oddities to every girl in Fairfield. None of them fought me. Jake and Mike cried. Evan cupped his hands over his crotch as he promised to do my bidding, as if, otherwise, I’d unzip his jeans, scoop out his fake testicle, and parade it down the hall for everyone to see.
Dayna should have been exempt. She was not. I made it her job to tell the school Vinny’s mom was in prison. I never threatened her explicitly, but I would have. She beat me to it. I have yet to let myself forget her voice shaking as she said, “If I keep his secret, you stop keeping mine. Right?”
I pressed the phone to my face. “Right.”
She didn’t resist. She didn’t tell me I was a monster. She didn’t list the secrets of mine she knew. “Vinny’s been bragging,” she said. “Talking about how he got your first blow job. He said it wasn’t that good, but he’d teach you to do it how he likes.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Protecting your feelings.” She laughed harshly. “I didn’t want you to be upset.”
I said nothing. It had been three weeks. According to Vinny, I was improving quickly. I’d been watching porn for technique. Now, self-loathing burned through me. I pictured Vinny and Dayna straddling chairs in the lunch room, laughing at my lack of skill. I knew Dayna had no other option. I knew she was playing a terrible part. I knew every day in that cafeteria was hell for her. I outed her to Lockhart anyway.
Peter won state championships a week later. In December, he placed thirteenth at nationals. Dayna had transferred to Choate by then. Not long after she left, Vinny got his offer from Columbia. At that point, he had nobody to celebrate with. I only found out because he texted me: Just so u know. His texts always came in cascades, so I waited, and, sure enough, he added, Ill be gone in 8 mo. Ill forget I ever knew u. Never coming back 2 Fairfield agn.
I didn’t reply. I had stopped answering his texts, as Dayna had stopped answering mine. I was intensely sick of myself: my vengefulness, my power-hunger, my doubly broken heart. I knew I’d done wrong. I had lost my friend. Sacrificed her for shitty social revenge. I wanted to scrape my soul clean. Peter stopped talking to me when he heard what I did to Dayna. Once I finally started explaining, he listened, but it took me years to win my brother fully back.
I tried to console myself, that winter, by telling myself Vinny was, if not worse than me, my equal. Half of me wanted, already, to learn decency. I’d started sitting with Caitlin Hanover’s clique, studying the ways they spoke to each other. I didn’t know if I could do it. I thought I was doomed to true human badness. It comforted me to think Vinny was doomed, too. I believed we were a pair of lost causes—and if I had to remember that, so did he. As a final reminder, the day after he committed to Columbia, I crossed the cafeteria to the table where he now ate alone. He had a turkey sandwich, a short stack of cookies, a Coke with a red plastic straw. When I leaned in for a sip, he said nothing. He was too cowed, or too defeated. I had taken his power. He sat and watched while I drained the cup dry.
Lily Meyer is a writer, translator, and critic from Washington, D.C. She is the translator of Claudia Ulloa Donoso’s story collections Little Bird (2021) and Ice for Martians (2022). She is a PhD candidate in fiction at the University of Cincinnati. Her short stories appear in Catapult, The Drift, The Sewanee Review, and Soft Punk, and her criticism appears online in the Atlantic, the Nation, NPR Books, and more.