BLESS OUR TEENAGE HEAT
Alison Yale watched it happen every morning. The rush of blood to his extremities erupted before the bell for first break. Whatever caused it kept her up at night – an extra pulse of his heart? A subtle tightening in the whorls of his brain? His hands always snapped to his face before it happened. He felt the minute tremor – the internal liquefaction – the same way an animal senses a coming earthquake.
It was the beginning of her second to last year of high school and the Okanagan basked in a late, hot summer; dry heat blazed through the valley, scorching the contours of the faded hillsides late into September. Tristan started coming to class in more than his everyday outfit of a t-shirt and cut-off jeans. Alison watched him lumber to his desk, three rows over. He tipped his backpack off his broad shoulders and slouched into his chair. A loose hooded sweatshirt draped itself on the points of his body – his wide, rounded shoulders, tan and freckled wrists. Sweat glistened at his temple, beside the curl of his dark hair he kept parted to one side. She leaned back in the stiff-backed plastic chair, her thin dress settling on the concave curve from the base of her small breasts to the new swell of her hipbones.
The clock hand ticked to half past the hour. Without turning to check the time, Mrs. Armour rose from her swivel chair to quiet the morning chatter.
“Class,” she said. “Attendance time.”
She called out names and waited with her eyes on the clipboard for the response of here. Neat pencil ticks accompanied the name of each responsive student. Tristan ignored the morning ritual; yesterday, everyone had gotten back their school photos. Tristan's lay in a jumble on his desk. The snip of his scissors and fluttering drop of the photos interjected roll call. Alison found herself listening to the slivered sounds rather than the English teacher. The annual exchange of wallet-sized portraits was an key social event. Students traded two-by-three inch portraits with coy inscriptions penned on the back of the photo. Best friends engraved mutual secrets, swore eternal fealty in blue ballpoint pen. Crushes implied interest. Those with a mutual dislike passed out photos with passive-aggressive jabs written on the back. (These gifts were often later mutilated by the offended party – the eyes struck out with scissors or burned beneath a lighter flame.)
Alison hid her photos in the front pouch of her shoulder bag, cut with neat edges and stacked like a deck of cards – ready for distribution.
“Ebony Cristie,” Mrs. Armour's pencil paused over the the name.
Ebony Cristie failed to respond, occupied with the task of readjusting her tube-top over the twin sunrises of her cleavage. Three seats ahead of her, Tristan dropped his scissors. A dark spot swelled at his nostril, before trickling reddown over the indent above his lips. He clamped a palm over his face. A few red drops flecked his desk as he jumped up, one hand pinching the bridge of his nose. He lunged out of the classroom. The door slammed with a hollow reverberation that rattled through the room.
Why did it happen to him? Was his heart too big for his body, a genetic mistake, an oversized muscle that pumped with the pressure of a fire hydrant? Alison imagined the constant throb of a heart like that, a ventricle that squeezed every beat out like a last gasp. She imagined the steady pulse up his neck, through the carotid artery, out the radial in his tan arms, down the thick aorta in his belly. She saw the beat flickering beneath his skin, like the phosphorescent blinking of a sea creature.
Alison raised her hand.
“May I go to the bathroom,” she said.
The closest bathroom was down the hall and to the right. A water fountain perched between the two entrances: tiled blue for boys and pink for girls. She bent to drink, conjuring an arch of water. As she did, Tristan popped out of the boys' side and cleared his throat. He tossed a crumpled tissue in the trash and breezed past her, leaving Alison with the scent ofsweat and piney deodorant.
Alison had noticed Tristan on the first day of Grade 10. She had been standing beneath the one spindly tree on the front lawn, blowing on her green tea to cool it down, her shoulders hunched against the morning chill. Buses growled into the parking loop, dropped off students, and pulled out again with backwards belches of gray exhaust. Another school bus screeched to a stop at the curb and the front doors split open. He stepped off. He held his skateboard under his arm, straight-backed beneath the weight of his backpack. Denim shorts and a hooded sweatshirt hung off the still unfilled frame of his body. The strangeness of his figure startled her. She knew most of her high school classmates from elementary school. She could at least put a name, if not an adolescent biography, to each face she had encountered since starting secondary school. He strode past her, hiking up his shorts with his free hand.
The other skateboarders had been loitering behind her that morning, waiting for all the members of their collective to arrive. They all turned to stare as Tristan walked up to the school's entrance. He paused with a hand on the greasy metal bar of the double doors. He acknowledged the attention, said hey. They propped their boards upright and leaned on them, bending their elbows, flexing the muscles in their upper arms.
“Where'd you come from?” said Kyle Swift.
Tristan turned to face them. He told them he came from Abbotsford. Alison knew Abbotsford was close to Vancouver, but Tristan didn't exude the glamour or pretension she expected of someone from the big city.
“Where you been all summer, then?” Kyle persisted.
“I don't know, man,” said Tristan. “Around.”
He left. The group of skateboarders argued over him. No one had seen him at the Polson skate park, dipping back and forth on his board in the cement bowl. No one waited in line behind him at the board shop as he picked out new griptape or bearings. No one saw him trucking down the sidewalk on a blazing July afternoon, with his shirt pulled off or dark with sweat between his shoulder blades, under his arms, at the apex of his chest.
Lucas Carr pulled a crumpled package of cigarettes from his back pocket and lit one. He inhaled, squinted, didn't give a shit that smoking in front of the school was punishable by suspension. Alison usually tuned him out, but after he blew an exaggerated stream of smoke he said he saw Tristan before he strolled up the school's cement walkway that first Monday in September:
one of those last warm nights in August, he and Brett Harwood had been skulking down the old train tracks, behind the movie theater. No streetlights were built back there and the two trekked out from the parking lot to smoke, because in the crystalline dark the stars looked like castor sugar slung on hot tar. They both clamored onto an abandoned and graffiti tainted boxcar. The door of the boxcar was broken. Inside, a ratty blue blanket was bunched in one corner with empty tin cans scattered around the gray floor. But, no one had lived in that car for months. The cans were so old the glue on the labels had let go and the paper lay limp like pairs of wings.
Lucas and Brett shared a joint. A rhythmic swish moved towards them. At first, they were too absorbed in their cloud of smoke and starlight to notice the noise.
“I thought maybe it was all those little points of light,” Lucas recalled, “twirling away up there, crackling like crushed gravel.”
Brett saw Tristan strolling down the tracks and spat a swear. He jabbed an elbow in Lucas' ribs. First, Brett assumed cop then figure of authority and then the horrifying possibility occurred to him that a squatter inhabiting the busted train car had returned and would murder them both for trespassing. Stoned, the two spent several moments immobilized by fear, convinced whoever lived in the old caboose had come back. But, Tristan didn't hop into the back of the boxcar. He strode past, swinging his skateboard into clumps of the hip-high Red Switch Grass. He didn't notice them, didn't stop, just kept stepping across the wide oily ballasts of the tracks.
Dreaming, Alison slumped limp at her desk. What was she supposed to be working on? Hazy afternoon sun dripped from a skylight to pool in honey bright puddles on the floor. It gave the tired blue carpet the luminescent shimmer of a peacock feather. In her dreams, the light always swelled and flexed like the tide stroking the shoreline. Both clock hands drooped from their single joint to hang over the sixth digit. Mrs. Armour stood up, the folds of her black stretch velvet dress bunching in rolls above the huge expanse of her hips. Her long fingernails ran down the roster of names. Ebony Cristie uncrossed and crossed her legs, tanned umber with electric flashes. Lucas Carr laced his knobby fingers together on his desk and closed his eyes. It was too bright. Alison squinted, struggling to keep her eyes open as the sunlight illuminated Tristan's bent head. The edges of his dark curls turned gold. Sweat creased the line of his jaw, the messy row of fine stubble. He turned his face towards the warmth falling from the skylight. A vermillion trail seeped from one of his nostrils. They flared. Blood dripped from the bright oval of his face. He raised his hands to catch the blood as it surged to spill over his parted lips.
Alison jolted awake, tangled in the smothering folds of her down comforter. Her pajama pants were knotted around her ankles. She fell asleep with her head still tilted back, hand tucked in her underwear. She kicked her pajamas off, sat up, and swung her feet over the edge of the bed. Her alarm clock was set to go off in five minutes.
Alison had seen her first nosebleed behind the Christmas tree five years ago. She had been eleven: withdrawn and obsessed with Marcel Dyf, a 19th century artist who painted portraits of his young wife perpetually wearing red lipstick and bow-adorned bouffant hair. Alison coveted her grandmother's framed print of Claudine Dyf, in which she lounged in a white dress, legs crossed. In the painting, Claudine adjusted the back of her serpentine ponytail with one hand. The volume of her locks would send Alison into fits of jealous emulation, in which she would backcomb her hair in front of the bathroom mirror and wrestle it into a ponytail with scraps of gift wrap ribbon.
Alison had obsessed over her grandmother's print until her father bought her a book on Marcel Dyf. She dissolved hours studying his portraiture – the emphasis of pose caught in brush strokes, the expressions toned with careful restraint. Dyf caught his wife in colour over and over again.
Christmas always brought her parents' friends, the Williams. The Williams lived in an obscure city to the north called 100 Mile House. They arrived on the doorstep during winter break, a week or so before Christmas, toting bottles of wine, almond-studded cheeses, and a son even quieter than Alison. His parents cropped his hair close to his head, so neat that all the strands pointed in one direction. He had a somber set to his lips and would usually play at whatever Alison suggested.
That year, the two of them were huddled behind the Christmas tree, guessing at the gifts swaddled in red paper that shone when picked up and angled into the lamplight. A small box in her hands, Alison leaned over and kissed the the boy's soft mouth. The gesture was casual; she wasn't prepared for the shock that zipped through her as if she had bitten into the string of lights wreathing the tree above them.
His nostrils flared. Red trickled from one of them. He bent forward over a cupped palm.
In Biology class, Alison labeled diagrams of the circulatory system. She marked major veins: jugular, brachial, subclavian, axillary, ulnar, radial. The figure on the white page was hollow – the suggestion of a man standing with outstretched hands. Mr. Isman scratched homework assignments on the blackboard. His plaid shirt collected chalk dust at the cuffs as he wrote. Read pgs. 414-444. Finish circulatory system assignment. Alison moved onto the next diagram: Heart Anatomy (Interior View.) The drawing of the heart looked like a clenched fist. Circulation spun itself through the three layers of the heart: the outer pericardium to myocardium to smooth inner endocarium. The heart was a treasure chest of muscle. Did the system began with the superior vena cava on the left – or did circulation begin with the aorta? Alison mused. Did the whole thing begin when deoxygenated cells were inhaled into the heart and filtered through the atria, muddled in the ventricles? Did circulation really begin with the systole – that electric jump of the muscle? It seemed magic: blood following a complicated dance of steps seventy-two times per minute inside of her.
She looked up at her classmates, hunched over the silky pages of their textbooks. The same system flickered inside all of them. But this biology, perfected through eons of animal struggle, changed so easily, so frequently. An impact on the skin left the bruise of crushed capillaries. Excitement caused the heart to jump, to rattle around in her chest like a popcorn kernel in a frying pan. The quiet creep of epistaxis – a nosebleed – was silent and painless, a mystery of the body. The touch of the internal body and external world seemed like a beautiful puzzle.
After biology class, Mrs. Delaney spoke with her hands. Alison tapped her pencil eraser on her desk as the art teacher paced the length of the chalkboard, enunciating with flexed fingers.
“Self-portraits are so important,” she said, “because they allow the audience to see how the artist perceives himself and so offer the shape of the lens he perceives the world with.”
The clock's hand ticked to 2:35. Everyone flipped their sketchbook closed, snapped their pencil cases shut, and heaved long shuddering sighs. Alison stood in line to rent out supplies, sketchbook tucked under her arm. She signed out a tin of square charcoal sticks.
The bathroom Tristan rushed to every morning was at the other end of the school from the art room. Alison wove through the flow of people pushing out the double doors into the late afternoon. Her shoes made a hollow scuffing on the baby pink tiles. Both stall doors hung open. Alanna Cuthbertleaned her hips against the sink, scrubbing at her tight sweater with a wet paper towel. All Alison knew about Alanna was that she played every team sport the school offered, except rugby. Alison set her sketchbook on a dry spot on the counter and shrugged off her backpack.
“Did you spill something,” she asked.
Alanna shot her a glare, perfect eyebrows narrowing over the bridge of her nose. “I dropped my fucking lip gloss.”
Alison retrieved her charcoal sticks from her backpack and braced her sketchbook against her ribs. Alanna spat curses like sneezes, finally giving up and chucking the paper towel in the garbage. Alison tested loose sketch lines as the girl rifled through her purse. She pulled out a tube of lipstick, popped the cap off, and twisted. The tube was empty except for a mashed nub of red.
“Oh my fucking god,” she said, raising her arm to slam the lipstick into the garbage.
“Hey,” said Alison, “can I have it?”
Alanna tossed it in the sink and stomped out. Alison set the tube next to the the tin of charcoal.
The next day, after lunch hour, Mrs. Delaney paced the assembled row of self-portraits with one arm tucked behind her back. She pointed to flaws in proportion and gave jerky nods of approval to pieces she liked. Alison's portrait stopped her. With dark smudges and shading, Alison had documented the embarrassing expanse of her forehead, usually hidden by a long shock of bangs. Her eyes loomed luminous and glassy, big enough for her to be chased with dollface, dollface across the playground all through primary school. Her face curved round and childish, more like an eighteenth-century portrait than a modern piece with sloping cheekbones. Delaney jabbed at the line of red running from Alison's nostril and down her chin.
“What's this?” she said.
“It's lipstick,” said Alison, conscious of the whole room turning to her for an answer.
“I can see that,” said Delaney, “it's certainly not oil pastel. But, what is this? Why the nosebleed?”
“I don't understand them,” said Alison. “I mean, there's anterior epistaxis and posterior epistaxis. Your body has this whole perfect system and then there's a flaw. It could mean nothing or it could mean anything. Your capillaries could just be too fragile or your systole too strong or you could have hemophilia. You don't know. It's like this metaphor for how everyone is this unpredictable mystery, even to themselves.”
Delaney laughed. “I used to get them all the time as a child. I don't think nosebleeds are so romantic.”
Alison felt everyone staring at her. Her face felt too hot.
“I just think they're very beautiful.”
Mrs. Delaney's critique rattled her. The next morning, the typing exercises of Career and Personal Planning offered a quiet respite. She didn't want to talk to anyone. The soft tapping of computer keys filled the room like the pop of soap bubbles. She snuck glances at Tristan. He wore the button-up denim shirt he dressed up in for his school photo. On picture day, Alison had opened her locker to hang up her coat when she spied him down the hall. His lanky skateboard friends surrounded him. They teased him, popping the pearl snaps on his breast pockets.
“Lookin' good man,” they said. “Lookin' sharp. Where'd you get this number, hey?”
He shook off their snatching hands, rolling his shoulders upward as he pulled the tails of his shirt until they untucked from his jeans. His mom wanted him to wear it, he said, bunching the loose ends of the shirt in his big hands. The fabric slipped above his belly bared skin three shades whiter than his arms and neck. Alison saw the elastic of his underwear, the dimple of his hip. She slid her hand up her loose t-shirt and touched the hollow of her bellybutton with one fingertip.
Lucas Carr sneezed on his computer screen. He pushed his chair out, got up, and strolled down the aisle to Mrs. Armour's desk. He ripped a tissue from the box. Across the room, blood rushed from Tristan's nostril with the pressure of the tide. This morning he wasn't fast enough. He lunged up with his hands cupped beneath his chin as red flecked his keyboard. He coughed once into the bowl of his hands. Breaths short, catching in his chest, he ran from the room. The door banged shut. Everyone paused for a moment, fingers poised above the keys, and Alison thought she heard Tristan panting in the hallway.
She kept to herself that afternoon in art class, perfecting sketchbook assignments. Still, she ended up loitering after the bell at the end of the day, touching up a charcoal portrait. By the time she finished and lined the charcoal sticks in their metal tin, the hallways had emptied of students. She grabbed her backpack and jacket from her locker. Down the stairs, she clattered to the ground floor, and strolled down the bare halls towards the double doors that opened to the front of the school.
She missed a step when she saw him. Tristan hunched at the glass display case for the school's artistic endeavors.
“Hey,” she said, already walking past him in case he didn't acknowledge her.
“Hey,” he half-turned to greet her. “This one's yours, right?”
He pointed to a water colour exercise she had painted at the beginning of the term. Three apples depicted in opaque shades of red. Two stood together while a third lay sideways in the foreground. He smiled.
“Yeah,” she said, panicking.
“I like art,” he said, rubbing a hand over the back of his neck, “but I'm shit at it.”
“I bet you're not.”
She took a small step towards him, then a larger step away.
“Nah,” he said and reached out to press two fingers to the glass, over her painting. “You're great, though. I always see your stuff in the halls.”
The heat in her belly boiled over. It rose like steam through her chest and the back of her neck.
“Oh,” panicking, she pressed the knuckles of her right hand to her lips. “That was just an exercise. I'm actually working on a series of portraits.”
He lifted both eyebrows and waited so long for her to continue she had to. What could she say? What does it feel like when your nose bleeds? Was his belly full of magma, his heart a rattling tectonic plate? Did he needle love out of his chest like a splinter caught beneath the epidermal layer of skin? She imagined his body wracked by constant thrills.
“We could trade school pictures, if you want. I'm collecting them as material for my project.” The hard consonant of the p skipped out of her mouth in a stutter.
“Hey, sure.” He pulled a wallet photo from his back pocket. “I'm collecting everyone in our grade, just cause – no project.”
He smiled, again. They sat cross-legged on the linoleum. She passed him a photo from the stack inside the square pouch on the front of her bag. He placed his skateboard right-side-up over his knees, using it to write on. The note on the back of his photo was wobbly from the hard grain of the grip tape.
you're a real sweet girl
see you in class
Dreaming, she lay on the school's checkered linoleum. The afternoon sun coated her body like honey. She looked into the light, let the sun seep into her eyes and fill her brain. Her limbs hung loose and heavy. She passed her hands over the arch of her collarbones. She touched her small, pointed breasts. Her flesh glowed gold. She lowered her hand. Her fingers touched the bare skin above her navel. Her hand was Tristan's hand; beside her, equally naked, he touched the base of her stomach in the same place he had touched his own on picture day. She rolled to her side, lazy, luxurious, and ran her tongue from the ball of his broad shoulder, across his chest, and up his neck. His index and pointer finger pressed into her pelvis, two hard points. Yes, yes, she murmured into his neck. Touch me. Do it right now. Touch me, now. She clutched him and tried to press her long, narrow waist into his. She wasn't sure where her body was anymore. The light from the window above suffused her. It blinded her; it absorbed her.
Awareness of her body came back to her in two hard points. She raised her hips and her shoulder blades dug into the linoleum. She welcomed the resistance, the sting of hard floor against bone. His fingers splayed her labia. The empty hallway of her high school held its breath. She opened her eyes. She had closed her eyes? Tristan touched her stiff clit. His face hovered a moment from hers. His features sharpened. The honeyed light skipped across the length of fringe falling over his forehead, touched his green eyes with gold, and lit up the blood smeared from his nostril to upper lip like a string of Christmas lights. Alison kissed him, her tongue flicked past her lips, and rubbed against his. His index and pointer fingers – the fingers that pressed pencil to thumb while he filled out exams, the fingers that blotted out his cheek and jaw with tissue while he bled, the fingers that touched his navel beneath his button-up shirt on picture day pushed inside her, finally.
Alison woke up, underwear wet. The digital clock on her bedside table read 3:44 in red block letters. She kicked off her pajama pants and underwear, delving into her cunt with her own fingers, replaying the dream in her mind, and stroking herself. She imagined Tristan at school the next day. Her heart pumped like a fire hydrant, flickered like a minnow.
Violetta Leigh majored in creative writing at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. She has published by Geist, (Minola Review,) In Shades magazine, Situate magazine, and Active Fiction Project. She is the lead editor of experimental text-based magazine 'U/X' and coordinates literary events with the Real Vancouver Writers' Series. She thinks perfection is ugly and in the things humans make wants to see scars, failure, disorder, distortion. Find her online at www.violettaleigh.com.