Jenny’s baby was born on a Tuesday. When she and her husband Joel drove past the Shell station on the corner of Asbury and 10th, it was filled with cars and people. What did they care about the gas station? They were on their way to the hospital, terror in their hearts, almost triumphs in their thoughts, shouts in their throats – would the baby be perfect? Would something go wrong? Jenny’s body was wracked with lightning pains that went limb to limb, vein to vein; her hand rested on her belly, which kicked and rolled like a churning sea, her eyes shone like insanity. How, inside of this, could they have seen the family of rats chewing on the gas line underneath the ground – the fibers of the rubber tube splitting one by one, the trickle of brown fluid growing to a river and the cigarette thrown carelessly out the window of a ’94 dodge duster down the sewer into the pits of the earth?
When they came back, 18 hours later, with little Elizabeth sucking on Jenny’s breast, the Shell station was gone, a smoking black cavern. They drove past. Joel gripped the steering wheel, grinning, frowning, then grinning again, his young wife, blown-open blissfully, cradling the life that the two had created. How could they have noticed – driving at 30 mph, chewing on hospital pizza – the stenciled body marks against the halls of the carwash where teenage kids exploded with their girlfriends, the sour-apple lollypops melted into their crushed Christmas-ornament skulls, their school rings coating their flesh with gold and gems, their blue jeans left like confetti on the roofs of the neighborhood, their teeth sprinkled like snow in the air? How could they have cared – Jenny, with her newborn daughter drinking from her, Joel holding the baby’s little foot in his hand, the two singing along to a Beatles song on the radio?
Katie and Sam drove down Asbury at 5 a.m. The sun was about to die over a large building that read: SELL YOUR STUFF! CHEAP! 1-800-433-3300. It said to call some guy named Larry. Katie and Sam were 17 and had just lost their virginity to each other. When Sam came for the first time inside his girlfriend, his first thought was what his father was doing right at that moment. He would probably be sleeping like an idiot, thought Sam, his belly resting like a large egg on his Rodeo belt-buckle, his legs splayed carelessly on the family easy chair, his tongue hanging out of his face like a melted cherry popsicle. And, thinking this, with his naked ass sticking up in the air, Sam laughed very loudly. His father spanked him until he was 15. Now he was a man and his father was nothing. Sam’s laugh grew louder. Katie, warm, dismantled, alive, laughed with him – not because she knew what he was laughing about, but because everything was funny and beautiful. WHY ARE WE LAUGHING? she cried. I don’t know, Sam said, his eyes blooming tears. I LOVE YOU. And then: Yeah, so, we just had sex, Sam whispered. I know, said she. And then they looked at the phone – who do we tell?
Lying there together, glistening, listening to Bob Dylan whine about atomic bomb threats they would never know, hands holding each other, feet tangled together like boats after a hurricane, Sam told her that even though it sounds cheesy and retarded, he had just lived out a dream and the dream was to do it, finally, with her, and, how long had he loved her? Since third grade – shit, how wonderful it was that he could do it with her, and, having done it, it no longer seemed such a frightening cliff-jump into manhood deal, but like, well, the most natural thing in this world. Katie agreed, smiling, smelling his arm that had that familiar “Samness” that drew her to him.
Sam’s parents were out of town and Katie told her parents she was sleeping over at the Johnson’s where she had regular late-night babysitting job. In the car, still tingling, sliding down Asbury, they held hands and bobbed their heads to the radio’s pulsing. We need gas, Sam said, pulling into the Shell. Should I charge it to my parent’s credit card? Yeah, she said. And go buy some more condoms for fuck’s sake. Sweet, good idea.
They still had a few more hours until Sam’s parents got back from a golfing trip to Florida. It was all so exciting. Was there a rule on how many times you could do it in one day? They had done it 13 times in the last 26 hours. Each time was different. Katie told Sam that, each time he went in, she would naturally think of a different vocabulary word from her SAT memorization list. The first one was “indefensible” – then “macabre,” “enervating,” “beneficent.” Then, as things got going, as her whole body melted into one slow flowing syrup, the word would be split apart – each letter, each syllable breaking away like atoms – and then, in a feeling she could hardly explain, they would come back, fusing together again like the atoms of a molecule and, somehow in her mind she know that this molecule, this thing, was fused together invisibly to a trillion other molecules that made up the whole world – their bodies, their cars, their televisions, the birds, the trees, atomic bombs, Bob Dylan, everything.
If only her SAT tutor could see her now, Katie thought – that small bird-like woman with her crucifixion necklace and her degree from Wesleyan, and her little lips always telling her to do this and do that or “you won’t go anywhere, now will you?” Oh, but she was going! Sam was all hers, and he smelled good and listened to good music. You want anything else? Sam asked. No, she said, smiling. The Shell sign blinked yellow above them like an artificial moon slice. Everything was calm and secure. You sure? A kiss would be nice. He leaned inside the window and smooched her. What did her lips taste like? Strawberry? No, she said, blackberry cr