Hung in the doorway, I stared at my mother with dumb eyes and slouched. I crossed one ankle over the other. I folded my arms, and I paused to let the screen door give my tail a good slap before releasing a sigh.

I was never any help at all, she told me, with the scolding look of faux concern that only genuine Southern-born women knew how to accurately produce.

"Dammit, Demi! Can't I count on you for anything? Dishes, laundry? Dinner?" she swore, letting her right hand fall from her forehead to the kitchenette table. Her old blue china dishes quivered inside their glass display case. The fridge hummed a quieter melody.

It seemed to me that we'd been through this routine before - every day for twelve consecutive years, actually. For a few hours, I would receive praise for my hard work around the house, my efforts in school, my honesty and trustworthiness, and suddenly, some tiny thing - or nothing at all! - would set her off. After one particularly fantastic explosion, my father pulled me to his lap and brushed my black hair out of wet, greenish-brown eyes. He lowered his voice to a gentle whisper and carefully explained to me that his bride just had a "short fuse," and that I was to be cautious about what I did to light it.

In my opinion, there was no fuse. My mother was a recyclable, self-relocating land mine. Anything could detonate her, and after one blast, I could never tell what might ignite her again. It wasn't as though there were strict rules as to what she was sensitive to; her children simply had to tiptoe through the field and hope that his or her feet were not blown off.

My mother's insensitive screaming, and the terrific vocabulary that accompanied it, used to make me cry when I was twelve or thirteen. In high school, I realized that my tears satisfied her sickening need to exemplify her sovereignty over me, and I decided that I would not supply another moment of that sadistic pleasure. In an unreasonable conflict, I learned to lean on a wall or doorframe, and I matched her volume with a bored expression and film-noir tone of indifference. Certainly, this fueled her rage, but when I refused to be afraid of her, she could do so little to harm me psychologically.

Even now, at four in the afternoon, I could see her anger climbing higher, until its base could no longer support the length of its body, leading to its eventual collapse. My mother's forearms trembled with tension. Her lips were pulled into a thin, whitening line. Eyelids tightly closed. Shoulders poised. Perfect teeth clenched, until -

"Well, fine!" she screamed. In fury, she threw her chair back as she stood. "Just go off and have a wonderful fucking evening! I hope you have the time of your goddamn life!"

I maintained my calm disposition. I shrugged and answered, "I'm sure I will. Thank you."

To an outside ear, my reply must have sounded disrespectful. How little they knew! My remarks were not meant for insubordination, but for the building of a protective partition that would, in the coming years, divide my family completely.

That night, I laughed. I did deserve some scolding from my mother, but not over household chores. My plans for the evening, as I told my parents, involved a birthday dinner and DVDs with my boyfriend Levi and his immediate family. The real agenda - the one I had agreed to several days before - was to pick up some groceries from the local supermarket and cook for Levi's 21st at his apartment, whose location was supposedly undisclosed to me.

At 1300 hours, I arrived and began my culinary work. By some miracle, I was allowed the use of Levi's Le Creuset cookware - hundred-dollar saucepans and skillets I'd never seen in a real, operable kitchen before. Expensive, classic staples like that made me feel so inadequate.

Every now and again, Levi would pop into the kitchen and grab my hips, covering the back of my neck in kisses as I tried to stir soy sauce into a mixture of lime juice, chicken broth and melted peanut butter. Once, he came in and poured a shot glass of Sweet Tart - part orange soda, part Kool-Aid and, most importantly, part Everclear. 190-proof.

I looked at the glass, then at Levi, and asked, "Are you serious? I don't think I can do it."

"The first shot is the hardest," he assured me. "And the second shot sucks, too. But it gets easier after those two."

I dipped my tongue in, skeptical of the flavor.

"Tastes like artificially sweetened rubbing alcohol," I told him, as if stating something obvious.

"Yeah, well, you have to actually drink the whole thing to really taste anything."

"I'm too nervous."

"You don't have to if you really don't want to."

"No, I do. I just can't do it if you're, like, waiting for it and everything. I don't perform well under pressure."

"Okay," Levi agreed. "I'll go back into the living room, and you yell for me when you're done."

I nodded. "Sure."

The shot glass was frosted. It was tinted cobalt blue at the base, but the color faded out into a smoky transparent toward the rim. There was a small nick on the lower half. The dark liquid inside sloshed around and threatened to leap out onto the linoleum floor; my hand wasn't too steady. Further into my scrupulous inspection, I noticed that the overall shape of the glass resembled a communion cup from church.

How blasphemous, I thought, but I turned the bottom up and swallowed Sweet Tart in one motion.

After a moment of waiting, I still felt unchanged. I didn't feel sexier or more dangerous than I had on the drive over. There was no dizziness. There was no sense of enlightenment.

Disappointed, I called from my position in front of the stovetop, "All done!"

Levi appeared in the doorway, between me and the dining area. His face was pinched into a smirk and he answered, "So? Whatcha think?"

"Okay, fine," I began in artificial confession. "Tasted like sweetened rubbing alcohol and a hasty rebellion against one's mother. Easy."

Laughter rolled out of my boyfriend's chest, heavy and resounding for such a slender guy. The volume was nearly overwhelming, and the full, robust sound of it revolved around us like a rogue bowling ball. Annoyed, I pushed his shoulder and asked, "What's so freakin' hilarious?"

"You," he giggled with the remaining tremors of his merriment. "You're, like, what? A hundred pounds? Five-ten? You think sour gummy worms are unbearable and you expect me to believe you can down a bit of Everclear? Lemme see you do it."

"Are you questioning my integrity?"

I looked him up and down and took the pasta off the back burner.

"Uh, yeah. I am. You are over at some old guy's apartment, without your parents' permission."

"Not as old as I'd like, sweetheart. Pour me another."

Shaking his head, Levi opened the freezer and pulled out his Sunkist bottle, half-drained of illegal substances. He spun the cap off. Raising an eyebrow, he proceeded to flood the shot glass a second time.

"You did it once, then you can do it again, right?"

"Yeah, whatever. Easy."

Again, I tipped my head back and poured the contents of the glass down my throat. It stung a little, but I felt no real physical change.

"See?" I asked, wiggling Levi's glass in front of his nose. "Nothing. I don't see what the big to-do is all about. It's just gross-tasting."

Obviously shocked, Levi threw his hands up and cried, "You're crazy - people love this stuff! And what do you mean? You don't feel funny at all?"

"Nope," I shrugged. "Now, where's that third shot? Isn't it supposed to be better?"

I scraped our meals out onto some pottery-style plates that I found in Levi's dishwasher. Hanselmann. I covered them in Thai chicken with peanut sauce.

"Good luck eating that," I warned, only halfway joking. "The first two bites are killer."

"Well, we better take them sitting down then, huh?"

Like a robot subject to the signal of a remote control, I allowed myself to be led to Levi's black canvas futon. We placed our plates on his glass-and-wrought-iron coffee table, which was probably a Pottery Barn purchase financed by his wealthy parents. Expensive, classic staples like that made me feel so obtuse.

I impaled a strip of chicken on a stainless-steel fork, whose handle was covered in black vulcanized rubber. Cuisinart. Suspicious, I put my culinary experiment to my lips. It tasted sweet and light - a mild success! I tried another bite, this time with pasta and pineapple. The linguine was a perfect al dente, and so I permitted one last congratulatory nibble before announcing that I was finished.

"Already?" Levi asked.

"Yeah, it's not all that great," I told him.

He punched my knee and offered a wide smile that employed the use of every muscle in his face. "It's not all that bad, either. You didn't even poison me! Or burn down my kitchen."

"Yes!" I cried, mocking victory.

It might have been the most delicious, tender delicacy ever discovered, but I still could not have consumed more than a few bites, especially not in front of an audience. Even if part of that audience was 760 miles away and temporarily intangible.

Relaxed, I leaned back on the futon and put my bare feet on the coffee table. Levi followed my lead, and I gazed over at him. I studied his face:

Brown eyes, nondescript. Black hair, monotonous. Unimpressive jaw line, thin lips, perfect teeth. I examined his body:

Toned arms, uninteresting. Tapered torso, standard-issue. Broad shoulders, strong legs, sinewy hands. There was nothing special about Levi's looks. He didn't dress in any spectacular way, and he had no identifying marks.

He was just safe. It seemed prudent, to stay with a devotee who was somewhat less attractive than his newfound idol. I'd been involved with beautiful boys and, to an extent, handsome Older Lovers. I remembered the climax and culmination of every pretty relationship.

Perfection segued into mediocrity.

"What're you looking at?" Levi interrupted, grinning a little.

I shook my head, my cropped hair swishing one beat behind the motion. "Nothing. Just observing."

"Oh," he replied, drumming his fingers against the edge of his seat.

Sometimes, our conversations fell completely silent, but Levi never seemed to notice. He retained his blissful smile and continued to dote upon me. During these moments, I would often bring up something random in order to distract me from his clingy sentimentality, or I would take advantage of his kindness and use it to my benefit. After all, I was a curious seventeen-year-old, both sexually and culturally, and I wasn't shy about asking for answers and favors.

From time to time, Levi was sort of my bitch.

"I know you have rum in your freezer," I began. "And I want some."

"It's spiced, not sweet at all."

"Don't care."

Levi rose from the futon and made his way into the kitchen. When he reappeared, he was carrying two clean shot glasses and a bottle of Tattoo. He fell into place beside me.

"I don't think you'll like it very much," he cautioned. "Not a lot of girls do."

"I will," I assured him with a smile. "Because I'm not just any girl. I'm swell."

Swell was a word I liked to use with great frequency. It reminded me of old shows on TV Land and retro cartoons, and nobody ever said it anymore. I poured myself a drink.

More dark liquid. I watched it move inside the new container, adjusting to its surroundings before I dispensed it into my mouth. It went down easily, without the stinging of Everclear, and I asked for more.

"You like it?" he asked, apparently shocked.

I shook my head slightly, up and then down.

"You don't need a chaser?"

"No, I told you. Swell."

Levi laughed and cried out, "Damn, sweetie! You're a better drinker at seventeen than I was. But tell me when you think you're tipsy - I'm cutting you off, then."

Admittedly, I was a little proud of myself for besting a Levi, and I didn't want to quit drinking until I was in danger of poisoning. I didn't feel buzzed at all, not after drink three. Not after four, five and six, either.

There was some DVD playing on Levi's silver television, but I didn't care. I tipped over into his lap and demanded more rum, because I felt like I should be experiencing something. Fluidity? Increased sex drive? There was nothing, which produced quite a discouraging sensation in me.

I guess I'll just force the trip.

"Let's play strip 21," I challenged, despite my lack of luck and skill in card games. And the fact that three weeks ago, I hadn't even known the guy I was asking to play it with.

Levi's face brightened and he declared, "I'm dealing first!"

I watched him shuffle the deck with hypnotizing accuracy and rhythm, laying one card over the other in rapid succession. He let me cut, and flicked one card my way. Per dealing instructions, he kept the next card for himself and turned two more over - one for each of us, suits and numbers visible. I glanced at my hand.

Nine and two.





"Damn! Bust. My turn to deal."

"Ah, I don't think so," Levi said. "You have to take something off, first. You lost that one."

I grabbed the bottle of Tattoo and stole a long drink. Reluctant, I wrapped my fingers over the hem of my black-and-gray rugby cardigan, pulling it off over my head without unbuttoning it at all.

"Fair is fair," I sighed, but my boyfriend's mouth was agape with what might have been a strange mixture of annoyance and surprise.

"That is not fair!" he shouted. "You're wearing, like, a thousand layers!"

"Don't be silly," I mused, flashing my teeth. "It's two tank tops, and one can make up for my pants, which I am not taking off for you."

I'd never been bottomless in front of anyone who wasn't related to me, particularly if the person in question was of the male persuasion, and I wasn't about to begin with Levi. My body was too sacred, too confidential. It wasn't even a question of morals, really, but aesthetics - I couldn't let him see me until I had perfected my physique, until I had become ideal.

A compilation of angles and edges.

Besides, I never wore underwear, so I was at a disadvantage from the start. Our game continued, however, and I wound up topless, braless, and without my flats. The floor was littered with my apparel, when so few of Levi's clothes were missing from his person, and I announced that my next deal was the end of the game.

I did manage to win that round, and I watched Levi's snakeskin shoe come away from his foot and rest, forlorn, beside a leg of the coffee table. Marc Jacobs. Expensive, classic staples like that made me feel so second-class.

Defeated, I slapped my denim-clad legs and tilted my head back in exasperation. I squeezed my eyes into thin lines until the popcorn ceiling was a gradient blur, barely visible through my ridiculous lashes.

"What are those?" I heard Levi ask. The warm skin of his forefinger brushed against my belly.

Had I not been slightly inebriated, I probably would've jumped from my place and snatched my shirt from the floor. Instead, I looked at the waistband of my jeans and lazily confessed, "Scars."

"Well, no shit," he retorted. "But from what?"

I chuckled under my breath and told him, "From a godforsaken X-Acto knife, that's what."

"You put those there? On purpose?"



I made a nasty face at him and shot, "What are you, two? Next you want me to explain to you where babies come from?"

"If it's a hands-on course, then yes. I do."

"Keep dreaming."

Levi prodded my stomach again and persisted with his interrogation. "So, why? Why'd you cut yourself?"

Serious now, I turned to sit opposite of him. I put his scratchy, shadowed face in my hands and lowered my head so that I could look up into his eyes. Ordinary, brown eyes. "Baby, I'm crazy. I got a lotta problems, and it isn't any harm to mark myself up a little if it saves me from insomnia."

I heard myself reverting to an old Southern dialogue, and I added, "Plus, I'm starting to feel a little funny. Lighter, I guess."

"Alcohol," he explained. "You're so tiny, I thought you'd feel it sooner."

"That's the weird thing. The tinier I get, the slower I am to feel everything."

Everything, from drunkenness to desire - and weren't the two contiguous? Yes, I was certainly very slow to feel everything.