"Lincoln Fields" was the first of Jeff Miller's broadsheets, or "poster stories," passed around and tacked up in Montreal, where he lives and writes.
The summer I was eighteen I was really learning to fuck.
She lived in the neighbourhood. From my parents' house it was a ten minute walk along the roadway next to the sprawling community college, past the suburban bus station constructed of red steel pipes, and along a thin black path through one of my hometown's countless haunted green spaces. The path led through groves of fir and the summer light was tinted green through the birch leaves as the evening shadows gathered. Past a brook that smelled of dead fish was a hole in a chain link fence and across the street was her house. She sat waiting for me on the front step, cigarette in hand.
"Your nose is so straight," she often said with a sense of awe. "Paul's nose was broken so many times."
"I heard those stories," I said, her soft hand lightly tracing its way across my face, from nose to cheeks to lips.
"He got beat up every day in junior high. None of those fuckers in his band would ever stick up for him. They just ran from the jocks and left him behind." Paul was Nicole's boyfriend and the only person who visited her, other than her parents, during her stay in the psych ward of the Royal Ottawa Hospital the year before. She was full of meds, out of her skull, and Paul sat by her bedside every day after high school. Paul was also my friend, until I betrayed him by receiving a rough hand job from Nicole a month before.
That night Nicole had led me into the woods and laid down a blanket for us to lie on, surrounding it with candles. "This one is for friendship -- as the wax burns down all these little, uh, things come out of it and you give them to your friend," she explained. Sparks flickered from her lighter. "See, here's a tooth!" She dislodged a black plastic trinket in the shape of a molar from the melted wax and gave it to me. "I don't know you," she admitted, "but I'd like to be your friend." Her voice frayed.
She pulled a clear plastic container of strawberries from her purse. As we pulled off the stems and popped them off in our mouths, crickets chirped. The stars shone through the smudged June sky and the city buses growled across the tarmac of a nearby road.
"I got scouted once. No, twice!" she laughed. "To be a model. The first time was in New York City and then at the mall downtown."
"I can believe it."
Her smile revealed a mouthful of perfect teeth. "That was back when I was anorexic. When I was 14." She clipped her words and fidgeted like an injured bird when she told me her secreets. "Last week... Last week one night me and some friends were on the bus, and there was this sketchy guy with bad breath sitting behind us. He kept telling us, 'You girls are so hot.'" She made her voice deep. "'I'll give you girls a hundred bucks if you strip for me. If you show me everything.'"
"Creepy." At 18 I didn't understand the lives of beautiful girls. I didn't understand how they were both vulnerable and invincible. Nicole was beautiful -- small constellations of freckles were sprinkled across her face, beneath bleached-blond hair and azure eyes.
"Well, it was only sorta creepy. We were already drunk by then. We'd gone to the club where they never card us and we were wearing these sparkly dresses.... So we stripped for him!" She laughed as if stifling a cough. "We got off at Lincoln Fields and walked into the cherry blossom trees. He gave us each 30 bucks and we took off our dresses, our bras, and then our panties."
"Did he jerk off?"
"No, he just watched us. We stood there for 15 minutes. I got kinda cold. He left and got the next bus and we walked home. I used the money to get my tongue pierced," she said, manipulating the stainless-steel spike lodged in her tongue.
I saw her almost every night that summer, spending hundreds of hours in her bedroom. Nicole's parents barely existed, and when they did appear it was usually off-screen. They certainly had no effect on the lives of two lascivious teenagers. One night I arrived at the door of their immaculately kept house and was surprised to find them, these imaginary parents, actually home.
"Jeff! Where are you coming from?" Nicole's mother, holding an empty champagne glass.
"I was just visiting my grandfather at the old folks' home."
"That's just great," she slurred lightly. "We're always trying to get our kids to visit their grandparents." She almost clapped with delight.
Nicole's father was grey-haired and possessed the girth of a retired football player, rolled his eyes apologetically. "We were just leaving." He winked at me. By the time their SUV pulled from the lane Nicole and I were rolling around naked, our screams escaping through the wide-open bedroom window.
Sitting on her bed, postsex, beneath the duvet, she watched my penis shrivel. A slow breeze crossed the room, its walls painted the light pink of girlhood but now covered in coarse black-and-white photos and collages constructed from the pages of dissected magazines. Her floor was covered with cracked CD cases and empty packs of smokes.
"Do your parents know?" I asked. "About us?"
"Yeah, of course." She exhaled a cloud from a freshly lit cigarette. "They don't care." And how could they? What bargaining power were they left with, after coming home from work for lunch one day to find their daughter, her arms pouring blood in the bathroom? Checkmate. They might as well let her stay out all night at raves and hope she doesn't do too much coke or ecstasy. Might as well let her fuck her sketchy other boyfriend in her bedroom, and hope she doesn't get pregnant -- or put up too much fuss when you insist on abortion. Might as well let her skip school, buy her cigarettes on her bad days, and not force her to eat when she says she hates food.
Any weapon in the parental arsenal was rendered null and void by the almighty pale horse rider. Death waited patiently in the summer shadows for a chance to pass her some razor blades or a surplus of sleeping pills and shepherd her into the heaven of the teenage dead. With their passive parenting they realized something fundamental about Nicole that I never accepted -- she was a mine field. Any wrong step I made could have meant death. I was just dancing through.
We swam some nights in the pool behind her parents' house. We were free from time. We floated in the chlorinated water, French kissing and feeling each other's flesh. We grappled, but in the water there was no friction -- my skin and her own, shaved smooth, two teenagers submerged under the purple night sky.