It took Sophie a while to remember the title, but she did. It was The Trials of Life. Their father had recorded the show back when VHS was still a thing, hand-labeling the tapes so Sophie and Christine could watch them in the summer.
It was different from the other nature shows, the ones that gave you a sinking feeling as the predator drew closer and closer to the prey, a leopard nearing some herd of wildebeest, or whatever leopards ate, until it could jump up on the sick one. No, in The Trials of Life, there was David Attenborough, quietly explaining the ways animals grew up, made homes, took care of their young. There were quiet creatures like hermit crabs and termites and naked mole rats, and the larger beasts, when they did kill, were somehow forgiven for their trespasses.
Christine was leaning across the kitchen table and poking her sister in the elbow. “He asked you a question, dummy.”
“What?” Sophie said. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t listening.” It was late. The four of them—Sophie, Christine, Steven and Davis, who was a friend, though not a close one—were sitting around the kitchen table in Christine’s third floor apartment, the whole selection of liquor, beer, and wine assembled at the table’s center. Christine had knocked over the nearly-empty rum bottle in her effort to get Sophie’s attention, and she righted it with a flourish of one wrist.
“I asked what you’re taking this semester,” said Davis. Sophie looked at him, and felt she was noticing him for the first time. He was leaning the chair back against the wall, his legs spread wide, straining the frayed seams on his cutoff jeans. She didn’t even know if he was in school. “General eds,” she said. “Writing. Biology.” This last was why Sophie had been trying to remember those old nature tapes. Her teacher had showed an animal video in class, and she’d been disappointed—surprisingly so—by her own boredom with it. Sophie got up from the table and went to put what was left of the wine back in the refrigerator. “I want to keep it cold,” she explained. No one said anything back.
“She still hasn’t picked a major,” said Christine, to Davis. Sophie had just begun to attend college, the same one where Christine and Steven, her boyfriend, went. Christine was trying to get her out of the high-rise dorms. She worried about her little sister, she said, with all those other kids smoking and pretending to be adults.
“She has time,” Steven said. He was drinking whiskey, the ice making pleasant clinking sounds inside the glass.
“I’m taking differential equations this semester,” Christine continued. “I needed an elective.”
Steven rolled his eyes. “Who takes differential equations as an elective?”
“I hate math,” Davis said. He had produced a lighter from his pocket and was tossing it from hand to hand. He had a lot of facial hair, more than most of the boys Sophie knew so far from school.
Christine finished her beer and tossed the can in the trash. “Math is easy. You just have to practice.”
“But you’re an engineer,” Steven complained. “You have the math gene.”
“What’s that on your lighter?” Sophie asked, looking at Davis. It was one of the fat ones, and had an image printed on the plastic handle. He grinned, and tossed the thing on the table. Sophie leaned forward. It was a cartoon of a naked woman, her lips and nipples miniature red pinpricks.
Christine leaned over and looked. “Sleazy,” she said. “I like it.”
“I have to pee,” Sophie said, but she didn’t. She left the kitchen, and went out into the living room. The couch looked defeated, so she sat down on the floor, and found the hardwood mercifully cool. She allowed herself to lay all the way down until her cheek was touching the wood. It was dusty, but not terribly so.
One scene from Trials, she remembered, involved a kind of wasp who injected her eggs inside a living caterpillar. The unsuspecting creature harbored the wasp’s young until they hatched and ate their living vessel from the inside out. There was a hyper-close-up shot of the caterpillar dying as the translucent wasp larvae poked through its radiant green skin, these tiny little worms full of purpose, both sinister and innocent, propelled by an imperative somehow beyond them, doing only what they knew was possible. It made her shiver, even now, to think of it, even on a night like this one, a night hot enough to make you angry. Global warming, Sophie thought.
Then Christine was there, holding a cold beer can against her neck.
“Ouch,” Sophie yelped, pushing the beer can away. She sat up.
“You don’t know how to be drunk,” Christine said, grinning down at her sister.
“Remember when we used to watch The Trials of Life?”
“David Attenborough,” Christine said. “What a sexy voice.”
Steven and Davis came into the living room and sat down on the couch. “What should we do now?” asked Steven.
Davis leaned his head back and closed his eyes. Sophie could see his chest rising and falling beneath the gray-white T-shirt.
Christine said, “Let’s play strip poker.”
“No one ever actually strips,” Steven retorted.
“We’d have to promise.” Christine took a swig from her beer.
Davis, eyes still closed, continued, “it’s boring.”
“Everyone sits around and looks ugly and naked.”
“You don’t play strip poker with the lights on,” Christine said. “You have to do it in candlelight.”
“Doesn’t matter. It’s still not a sexy thing.”
“Then what is a sexy thing?”
Steven reached for Christine and grabbed at her hip. “You, baby.” Christine rolled her eyes, but still sat down on the edge of the couch, and Steven wrapped his arm around her.
“What are you doing this semester?” Steven asked Davis.
“I don’t know.” He scratched his chin. “I might just work for my dad.”
“Are you even in school?” Sophie asked.
“I already have my Associate’s.”
“He’s a mechanic,” Steven explained.
“Oh, so you like cars.”
“I like money.”
There was a silence, and Sophie looked around the room. The streetlight outside filled the room with an orange ghost light, and the boys looked shadowed, their skin color odd in the dim.
“Do you want some clothes?” Christine asked Sophie. She was standing up from the couch. “I have a bag for you. I forgot until now.”
“Maybe,” Sophie said. The two girls went into Christine’s bedroom, but it was even warmer there, and, very suddenly, Sophie felt tired. “It’s too hot to try anything on,” she said. “I’d rather wear nothing.” She flopped down on the bed.
The sheets smelled like her sister. When she was younger, Sophie had hated this scent, its sallow mildew reminding her of Christine’s pubic hair. Now it made her think of home. A pair of pants sat next to the bed, the waist round and open, as if Christine had evaporated and her pants dropped to the ground like leavings.
“That’s Steven’s side.” Christine was climbing over Sophie, kicking the twist of sheets into the gap between the bed and the wall.
“I don’t care.”
“He sweats when he sleeps. A lot.”
“What do you mean by a lot?”
“He makes a print. It’s too dark in here to see, but the sheets are stained.”
Sophie laughed. Her body felt heavy. She allowed her upper arm and shoulder to casually lay against her sister’s, and Christine didn’t move away. Overhead, the ceiling fan swayed on its fixture, the blades moving at a fantastic rate. “I am really drunk,” Sophie said. “The whole room feels like it’s spinning.”
“Just go with it. Breathe.”
“Is there anywhere we could go—where we could see the whole city?”
“You are too romantic.”
“Let’s go somewhere where the air moves.”
“Who would drive? Everyone’s drunk, not just you.”
Christine giggled, giving her sister a big look. Sophie giggled too. Christine had the same color eyes she did, a vague flecked color between blue and brown. In the past, they had been mistaken for twins.
“We should change into bathing suits.” Christine climbed over Sophie again. She pulled a handful of cloth out of the top drawer of the dresser, and threw it at her sister. Bikinis rained down, spandex and lycra falling cool on Sophie’s skin.
“You wore this on the Outer Banks trip,” Sophie said, holding up a blue top with a metallic gold ring between the bra triangles.
Christine grinned. “Check this one out.” The bikini she held up was skimpy and white. Sophie had never seen it before.
“A white bathing suit seems like a bad idea.”
“You don’t swim in it,” said Christine. “It’s just for looking good.” She was taking her clothes off, pulling her shirt overhead to reveal her narrow shoulders and a sweaty gray bra. Sophie watched for the flash of her sister’s nipples, and then, there they were. Christine tied the white strings around her neck and then attended to her bottom half. Sophie took the Outer Banks bikini, and found it fit her well. They pulled sandals out of the closet and walked back into the living room.
The men had a deck of cards out now, but they weren’t playing anything. Sophie heard the cards ruffle, then snap together in Davis’ hands.
Steven turned around. “Beach babes,” he said. His forehead shone with sweat and he seemed on the verge of becoming sloppy drunk, real drunk.
Davis raised his eyebrows and said nothing. He shuffled the deck again.
“What are you going to play?” asked Christine.
“Poker,” Steven said, though this seemed only to be an excuse—neither man was moving to set up the game. The seemed to be waiting for something. Maybe, Sophie thought, they wanted to let the night descend fully. No respectable person played poker before it was fully dark.
“I thought Davis said no to poker,” said Christine.
“We’re playing regular poker. You girls already stripped.”
Everyone laughed. Sophie said, “I’m bad at poker.”
“You all decide,” said Davis. “I’m going to smoke.” He pulled himself up from the couch and nodded at Sophie. She smiled.
“You don’t smoke,” Christine said.
“I do in the dorms. Sometimes.”
“Are you going to let your sister tell you what to do?” Davis was holding a smashed packet of tobacco in his hands.
Sophie got up.
From the back porch, you could only just see the sky. Sophie gazed up and out through the set of rickety stairs leading to the apartment above, standing so she could see the few stars that still shone through the gaps, declaring themselves against the wash of city light.
Davis was opening the crushed plastic bag, allowing the smell of pot and tobacco to enter the air. Beyond the parking lot below, where Christine’s Honda sat, there were more buildings, windows into other apartments. Most of the people who lived in this area were students, Sophie knew. In the distance, there was another porch, where a group of people stood laughing and drinking also. The ends of their cigarettes flickered in the air like fireflies. People everywhere, the entire city a jungle of flesh and bone and noise. She leaned against the railing, the feeling of wood coarse against her bare stomach skin.
“This stuff is quality,” Davis was saying. He had made a spliff, and was handing it to Sophie. She fumbled a bit, then took a long drag. The taste was harsh, and she tried to hold the smoke inside her as long as she could, a moment of panic rising, then falling—conquered—as she locked her lips shut.
“I might have to stay here tonight,” Davis said.
Sophie released the smoke from her mouth and body very suddenly, letting out a sharp cough. She wheezed, “I’m sure Christine will let you sleep on the couch. She’s nice like that.”
“So you think your sister is nice?”
“I don’t know,” said Sophie. “I guess.” She looked over at Davis, but he only stared out into the city, in the same direction she was looking. She had never met or talked with a mechanic before. Well—even if he wasn’t a real mechanic, he was close. One of those men who used his hands, cozied up with dirt and sweat, minded nothing. He pinched out the end of the spliff, snuffing its small glow, and set it down on the railing. “I think she’s full of shit,” he said.
Sophie sputtered. “Uh—Christine?”
“Never mind,” Davis said. “I have a question for you.”
“Do you have any piercings?”
“I mean, interesting ones.”
Sophie paused. “Why do you ask that?”
“Just wondering.” Davis shrugged.
“Do you have any?”
Davis had turned, and was looking at her now. His eyes flicked down to her hip, where the metallic ring framed a white section of her skin, like a window. Then back to her face. “You have any idea what a Prince Albert is?”
Davis tapped his crotch, right at the line of the zipper. “Here’s a hint. It’s painful.”
Sophie took a step back. “Aren’t all piercings painful?” She reached up and gripped the small studs in her earlobes. Her first pair had been glittery green, her birthstone—peridot, for August. Christine, who was February, had an amethyst set just like it.
“Some more than others.”
“Okay, I believe you.” She held up her hands, trying to ward Davis off with her palms, but he drew closer to her anyway, pushing her hands out of the way with his own. His elbow knocked the remains of the spliff from the railing, and Sophie caught a glimpse of it fluttering down and away.
“Do you?” he whispered. He put his hand on her upper arm, and his palm felt rough and hot.
“I swear. I believe you.” Sophie tried to pull away, but Davis slid his hand down her arm until he had her by the palm. He pulled her to him and thrust her hand past the waistband of his shorts.
There was a momentary struggle. Sophie staggered, falling against Davis a little as he held her. The cave of hair and skin surrounding her hand was moist and hotter than the apartment, though it had the same closeness, the same lack of air. He was pushing her deeper and deeper, a battle taking place between cloth and the limit of joints and skin. Her breasts brushed against Davis’ chest, and though a cry rose up into her raw throat, she swallowed it, keeping it down as she had with the smoke from the spliff. Davis’ free arm wrapped tight around her back, and she felt his fingers between her shoulder blades. They were desperate, strong, asking her body a pressing question she thought she had no answer to. Then—fold and bulge, a vague genital outline in her trapped hand.
Sophie’s fingers probed, and so, too, did Davis’, spidering, pressing atop hers. She felt it. The hard of metal. It was hot, warmed by its connection to his body.
“Why did you do that?” Sophie asked quietly.
“I like it,” Davis whispered, his lips at her ear. The ring felt smooth and foreign in her fingers, like a tooth in the back of someone’s throat, knocked out and lodged there after a fight. “It makes me feel like a man.”
Sophie closed her eyes. It was a terrible thing. In her hand, the penis stopped feeling like one, and became to her like a hot chunk of humid meat, its soft dimensions reminding her of a lumpy worm. She thought about her father. Though she knew his VHS tapes of the nature shows, like Trials, must have been grainy back then, she didn’t remember them that way. In her mind, the colors of the animals were always dazzling, their stories permanently confounding—who knew such things existed in the world?
She moved her fingers, and Davis murmured. “That’s right,” she heard him say. Sophie squeezed a little, testing out the organ’s sponginess. She could feel it growing hard, and she wondered if the rate at which it was changing shape was quick, or slow—on average. Davis was motionless, quivering, and she quivered with him, her body forced to take on the resonant frequency of his tiny motions and adjustments.
Then she heard it—the low sound of footsteps in the kitchen.
“Do you have a problem?” Davis’ voice came rumbling out from his chest into her body, and Sophie realized someone was standing on the other side of the screen door. She pulled back quickly, and this time, Davis let go. Her hand was free again.
Christine was standing there, her arms crossed.
Sophie froze. Her sister wasn’t smiling—no, it was more like her face was searching for something, eager and dog-like. “Steven is puking,” Christine said, almost whispering.
“Give him some water,” Sophie replied. That was what you did when someone was so drunk they became sick. You gave them water. Didn’t Christine know that already?
Christine was pointing behind her at the cluttered kitchen counter. “We should do shots. Sophie. Do you want to do shots?”
Sophie turned and looked at Davis. He ran his hands through his hair and smiled at her. Without looking back at Christine, Sophie put her hands around his body and pulled herself to him. His erection pushed into her pubic bone.
“Pick me up,” she said, and Davis put his hands around her hips. She wrapped her legs around his waist. How, she wondered, had David Attenborough, done it? He even managed to get inside those massive African termite mounds, the ones like skyscrapers. Her teeth clicked against Davis’, just once, but enough to make Sophie shiver again, that same cold she had found on the floor of Christine’s apartment. The buzzing inside had been fantastic, Sophie remembered, so industrious and living, the wild harmony of beating insect wings. A man could stand up inside one of those mounds—she remembered this being true, though Attenborough only lay on the floor and looked up into the colony’s great darkness. Sophie pushed her tongue into Davis’ mouth, tasting the tarlike residue of pot and tobacco, the base wetness of his tongue. Amazing, she thought—a man coffined inside a pile of earth like that. From the outside, you’d never even know he was there.
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