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Up From Zero
William Cuthbertson


DONNA SAYS IT'S something that's being given sincerely, that I can share with a few friends who won't take it awkwardly or turn away from me like I'm handing them a part of me I shouldn't reveal. I've passed out only a few invitations because she wants it to be a private affair, one where we can drink too much jug wine and take turns passing out the photographs of our boyfriends, or our girlfriends' boyfriends, and talk about what we did to them, them to us, occasionally what we did to each other those times when competition was tough. This is what Donna calls my coming-out party, my rite of passage, my festival of womanhood. Of course, the cards, printed up at the copy store on some fancy, off-white card stock--that color Donna calls formally impure--they all say it's a birthday party. Please join us in celebrating Anne's official such-and-such, they read. Everybody knows, though; Donna, of course, and Jolene and Julie, everyone invited knows. This party is my Seventeen, when all my friends and I will come together to acknowledge that I'm officially a woman, that by the time we get together I will have tagged my seventeenth man.

Phil, we call him. Not short for Philip, but to sound like 'filled,' which is how I'd feel. That's the nickname Donna gave to him, the same name she gave her Sixteen. He's kind of awkward, still unsure of himself. The shirts he wears have these bleached out designs on them, so he borrows a lot from his brother, Roy, especially since Roy had joined the Marines. I could always tell when Phil was wearing his brother's clothes because they had these yellow stains under the armpits. Phil didn't have a lot of money, so he had to get by with what he could.

I met him at one of Donna's get-togethers, when her father flew to Denver to sign the papers getting him out of that 'nightmare marriage.' They use that same expression, Donna and her dad: the 'nightmare marriage. I think Donna's dad knows we hang out at his place. Donna quit sweeping up after us, quit emptying the trash and the ash trays, quit putting the pot plants back in her room. The only thing her dad does about it is wash the dishes more often and complain about how the place is always a mess. He gives Donna these funny looks across his shoulder.

Donna invited Phil on a hunch, she said. She knew I was still at Fifteen and that he had been kind of an A-hole. She knew I'd like him, Phil, and even admitted that her Sixteen had been the same way. Did him once and well-done, as she put it, and then found herself waiting for him to call. Not like she really liked him. But something about the number, she says, gets a girl wanting to settle down in the back of a Volkswagon, start then and there on a family.

I talk about Donna all the time. She's been there a lot for me. She's been around a lot. She was the first person I'd ever told about Jacob, my number Zero. Donna says he doesn't really count because he was unwelcome. He was not invited, she says. Jacob is a cousin of mine who normally lives in California. He came out three years ago for the summer with Aunt Kelly. Aunt Kelly just sat around smoking the whole time she was here--this was after her divorce--so one night, when she and Mom decided to go out and smoke at the bar, he came into my room and started talking to me.

Right away you know something's off because Jacob, who was always pretty sure-footed--a high school debater, on the college council, he talks about his Economics professor the way Aunt Kelly used to talk about God--he comes into my room looking hunched over, smaller. He's smiling and saying all the same bullcrap reassuring stuff he usually says like "Hey sunshine, what are you reading?" and "How goes the fourth and future Brontė?" But he keeps looking around, counting the windows. One hand clutching his shoulder, too, pinching muscles I couldn't even see. That arm hung there like it was waiting for permission to do something, like it wanted to be let loose. At the end of it I imagined there was a mouth or a claw or tentacles in the place of its fingers.

Jacob sits down on my bed next to me and the normal hand, the free one, starts rubbing up and down my shin. It was still early but I was dressed for bed, wearing this running jersey my Dad mailed from D.C. That shirt was probably what started the trouble. In his letter, Dad said that shirt was long enough to cover the subject but short enough to be interesting. Mom didn't like his choice of words. She thought they were too insinuating. She said it was something a lonely man would write.

Mom used to teach women's history at the community college, so she knew what that shirt was up to, what it meant. I knew what was going on, too. I'd heard Donna tell girls stuff about what guys do when they want it, how they become totally interested in you and what you're doing for about fifteen minutes. But after minute fifteen they start answering everything you say with "oh yeah," or "uh-huh," just one little noise after another. Donna's theory was that those noises gave men away for what they were after. She said for sex their sense of language breaks down.

Jacob was no different. One minute he's nodding his head about whatever book I'm reading--"Uh-huh, uh-huh," he says--and next he's leaning over me running his tongue down my neck.

I push him away pretty quickly. "What are you doing? Get off of me."

"What? What do you mean?" he says, his hand jumping back up to his neck. "I'm just giving you a little kiss."

"Right. With your tongue. Get out of here."

Then he stops for a second and just looks at me, right in the eye, and I swear that's the last time anybody's done that. Somehow his good hand has found its way under my thigh and he doesn't even bother humming or hawing. He just looks at me and says, "You are such a beautiful girl."

Then he's all over me. No messing around. I keep hollering for him to get off but he pulls me away from the headboard, gets all his fingers up my shirt and starts them rolling over me like crabs. I don't remember what he was wearing--swim shorts, boxers-- but it couldn't have been complex because something goes in me. I felt it all the way to my spine.

This is the part I don't like talking about, which is how it felt, him getting inside. I don't talk about it much to anybody. Donna says that talking about it should be the easy part because that's when your body goes numb and your mind takes over, but I talked to Don Philippe about it once because he's gay and went through kind of a similar thing. Don said that the first time for him felt like the guy had stuck his thumbs up his ass and pulled him apart. Like a peach, Don said, just being ripped apart.

I remember what it felt like when Jacob "reached his verdict," as Donna calls it. One minute I'm as cold as a carrot, and the next my blood is like soup. I hated that. I still hate that feeling but Donna's been helping me out with that, talking it up to convince me it's good.

So Jacob came and pronounced his sentence, a few grunts I took as something good, and then he left me. He withered away. He gets up, looks me right in the nose, which is about as close to eye contact he can get anymore, and then says, "I guess I'll let you back to your book."

His arm has slung itself back over his shoulder, but then doesn't like it too much because both his arms drop limp to his sides. He looks around the room, counting the windows, maybe the doors. Before he leaves, he turns to me like we've shared some funny kind of secret and he says, "My Mom probably won't be back for a while. I'll be downstairs. You know, if you want to talk."

I'm lying on my back looking at the ceiling. My legs are doubled up, like they're broken or I'm paralyzed. My crotch feels like its been stuck back together with too much glue. I'm dead, my dead eyes are staring up and up, and then I hear the door shut and Jacob walking down the hall.

Phil wasn't at all like that and that's probably why I like him. That and because he was Sixteen. Donna says those two things together can be deadly for a girl, having a Sixteen and comparing it to a Zero.

When Phil and I went out the first time, a few days after we'd met, he picked me up in his yellow Dodge and brought me over to his parents' house. I remember wishing he had told me about his parents beforehand because I wasn't wearing a bra. I didn't want to be noticed too much. I didn't want them to know me at all.

Phil's parents are Mr. and Mrs. Nice People. They have this house which isn't fancy or loaded down with a ton of stuff, but it's pleasant. No coffee stains on the table, no dirty dishes lying around. The TV was on somewhere in the back of the house, which I think is a little rude, like a visitor is interrupting a melodrama, but overall they were nice. Mrs. Nice was wearing an apron decorated with all these bells.

The only weird thing about that evening, which ended up turning out well, was Phil's father looking me up and down. He glanced over at Phil, rasing an eyebrow, as if saying, "You've been kidding me, son. This is it?" It was like Phil had talked me up into being something special, the girl who would change his world.

I don't kid myself about that, that I'm going to be a supermodel or hosting a talk show, but Donna says it isn't everything. She says small bowls get filled twice.

After Mr. Nice's little look to Phil, I wanted to leave and pretend there would be no Sixteen, that I wasn't counting on it, that I was of those girls who could see a man give her that look and just thrust out her chest and keep walking. I didn't need any of them looking at me and judging me. I didn't need them to tell me how much I was worth.

I'm standing in their front room like an idiot, staring at my feet, while Phil clears his throat and says, "Well, we better catch that movie," or whatever he said to get us out of there.

But right before we left, I snapped out of it. Donna always says when you feel like you're in front of a jury, you pretend that you're the judge. Even if you can't do that, all you have to remember is that you have what everybody wants. Sex has become like personal identification, she says. Like a credit card, a learner's permit. Everybody has their own, it gives their name and numbers, and that kind of power gets you in on a lot of good things. "It's like you're Visa de Milo," she said. "The American Sexpress."

So right before we leave--and Phil is standing at the door, tucking in his shirt, making sure his shoes are tied--I stick out my hand for the Nices to shake. They're taken aback at first, him especially, but Mrs. Nice shakes me right back, smiling, wiping her hand on her apron first, andthat leaves me face to face with Mr. Nice, Mr. Good Enough. He kind of reluctantly sticks out his hand and I take it. All this time he's making only half eye contact with me, like I'm there but he's not going to give me any credit.

I take his hand and bring it up to my mouth. I kiss it in front of Phil and Mrs. Nice, but I'm looking Mr. Nice in the eye. I kiss it right between the knuckles of his first and middle fingers, that sensual place, a trick Donna and I got from a movie. I kiss it like it's the best tasting hand I've ever touched, like I'm a little bit afraid too kiss it too long because it tastes so good and I don't want to get addicted. Then I pop right back up, blink my eyes a few times, and, so I can hide my smile, I stare at the floor.

The whole family is looking at me like I'm either the most naive girl they've ever known or a discount whore. I say good night and walk right out of the room. Luckily, Phil had already opened the door or my Divine Exit, as Donna calls it, would have been ruined.

When I told that story to Donna and Jolene, they laughed and laughed and Donna said that she was going to tell that story to her cousins when they came to her about saving face. Jolene put her hand on my mine. I like that story because that's when I knew I was going to make Phil Sixteen for sure, when I put him on my list. I was moving that wood bead across the string and nobody would be able to stop me.

When we got out of the movie, which was some stupid action film about this guy whose girlfriends keep turning up dead, like the women aren't even important until they start messing up this guy's sex schedule, I could tell that Phil was really nervous. The whole deal with his father must have bothered him some but I thought he was probably acting weird because he wanted a good night kiss.

Some guys, some of the nicer ones, are always worried about that. It's like a smaller scale model of Donna's theory about losing speech. Except Phil was still talking. In fact, I don't know if I'd ever heard a man in my lifetime talk that much for that long in a row. He was talking about this trip he was hoping to take that summer, about this potato farm he was working at to get some cash.

He talked about the movie, or started to until I told him what Donna said about men being intimidated by strong women, women who knew what they were after. I told him how Donna said most movies only perpetuated the fact that men have these fragile egos when it comes to sex and that the only way they knew how to deal with it was to either kill the girl or do what the guy in this movie ended up doing, which was move away with her to some totally different city where no bad guys, a.k.a. the masculine threat, would ever be able to find her again. Donna called it cat insurance, except she used a different word.

I didn't really believe that theory. I mean, it's not the most original one I've heard. But it seemed important to see how Phil would respond. I wanted to test him, and hopefully end up giving him the benefit of the doubt. I felt bad about the scene with his father, and I wanted him to know I wasn't making a comparison. Phil seemed so nice, and kind of smart. I wanted him to like me, I wanted him to know he was liked. What's a girl to do? That's what Donna would say. What's a girl without her standards?

You could tell he was still thinking whether or not I would let him kiss me. He kept looking in the rear-view mirror, used the signal at every turn. He handled the car like his only concern in the world was to show how safe he was. He wanted that kiss.

Even though, technically, he never responded, I thought that what he did do was pretty cute. He ignored the topic. It was honest. I smiled to myself thinking about what he was going to get.

When he decides to start talking again he asks if I want to go home or if I want get a soda or something and drive around town. I had already decided at this point that if I were going to get to Sixteen and flush Fifteen out of my system, I would have to help it along.

I tell him that I'd love to get a soda but I don't like driving around too much. I can't drink and drive, I say, and--ha, ha--that gets him more relaxed.

He takes me to this drive-in, something like Arctic Circle used to be before McDonald's put them out of business, and he gets some RCs. I pull a yogurt out of my bag. I convince him to drive us way up to the subdivision that overlooks the city. The houses are really nice up there though I can't figure out what the families do to fill up all that space. I think they sit around having babies. I could imagine room after room filled with babies in bright white diapers. But Donna told me about this guy she'd been with who lived up there and his house was practically empty except for this huge couch they had in the front room. That's where they did it, she said. And it had echoed like hell. The only time she felt like she was on display in a furniture warehouse.

Phil parks and we sit there, right at the end of a loop, or a cul-de-sac, whatever that means, and I ask him to turn on the radio.

"What station?" he asks trying to be all nice.

"I don't care," I say, picking at the pleats of my skirt. "Something nice. For background." I'm thinking to myself that if he's still worried about that kiss I'm going to slap him. He puts it on some Muzak station, except everything they've stolen to make the Muzak was a country song in its former life. That was almost a point against him, Donna said later, but I thought it was as cute as anything else he did.

For a while I think Phil really is clueless, and I'm doing the math in my head trying to figure out just how far to go, whether to go at all despite my wanting to show up his big A-hole father, calculating how long after a lousy Fifteen I have to wait to get on with my life. I start drifting, floating away on the raft in my head. Then, there's this one second when my mind is not on all that crap, when I'm actually thinking about stuff like what kind of house would I want to live in and should I have kids despite what Donna says. I remember wondering what I was doing out anyway, when I had four chapters of Huck Finn to read for English, and that's when he finally comes in and saves me. I mean, I could have almost forgotten about all the numbers and this big Sixteen, but luckily Phil puts his hand on my leg--not on my thigh, but on that soft part right above the kneecap, which is important, where he put his hand--and he asks can I kiss you?

I stare at him with a complete blank and then it all comes back: the guy, the number, which is one away from Seventeen, which Donna says means the transition from all the junk 1950's Sweet Sixteen stuff into womanhood, and she, after all, started the Seventeen parties by throwing one for herself.

I speak in this rush, "Oh my gosh, I'm so sorry."

And that's it, we're there. I'm on top, kissing him, his hair, his neck, his cheeks, his nose. Finally, I get to his mouth and just before I close it off with my own I hear him say, "Oh. Oh, man," which Donna called his famous last words.

That was the best night we ever had, I think. Before either of us knew what we were in for. Our clothes are all over the place. He's reaching over my legs to lower the seat, I'm leaning forward to turn up the radio. Then he's inside me, and for once despite all my Sixteen plus one big Zero experiences I think it feels alright, that I could get used to it, that it would be alright to let a man come inside me without protection, without pulling out early, without having to do anything but relax and fall asleep in his arms--I mean, him fall asleep in my arms because usually afterward I get all jumpy and nervous like I should be doing something or going home or someplace.

Just in time I remember what Donna says which is to never let a man inside the jury box. She's reminded me about that before, not just after the Zero but the other times when I mentioned to her that I almost let it happen. Donna says that once a man is allowed into the jury box he'll want to visit it again and again. The way a good system of law works, she says, is that the juries are random, and they can't serve twice, so if you slip up even once, you have to work double-hard not to let it happen again. I'm not sure that's exactly true, the legal part, but I think she's right regardless. If I had let Phil come in me unprotected then, I would have had no precedent, as Donna put it, not to let him in a second time. That would leave me, in her words, defenseless.

I was glad to have remembered the yogurt. Some guys resent you allowing them in and then changing the venue, or the menu is what I should say. Phil took it well. He probably already forgot that first kiss. I told him about the yogurt and what I wanted him to do with it and all the technical parts about which spot was better. He asked what to do with the granola part, that little pouch of it Dannon puts on top. I laughed and said let me hang onto it. He nodded and went to work.

Donna insists that this is better anyway, in the long run, because it allows a girl to be more comfortable with herself, with her system. All the times I've done it seems okay. The yogurt can hide the taste, if the man is against the idea, and if they get out of line Donna says you can ground the granola into their eyes and make a run for it.

Phil didn't put up any kind of trouble, like I said. I even came close to being there myself, close to having it happen for me. I didn't because I was too worried about cleaning up later, about the mess this would leave in his car.

Donna says that's why I got so attached to Phil; Sixteen being the number it is, and my Fifteen having been so bad. Donna went on and on about all the reasons why it was the number and not him I was hung up on. I remember right before I quit seeing him, after Phil and I had been getting together almost regularly, him taking me to more movies--ones that he thought wouldn't offend me or set me off on one of those theories--and him calling my house even when my mother was around, I remember how Donna spent a whole Friday night talking to me about how important it was that I keep track of the numbers and not give up so close to becoming a woman. I remember that one night in particular because she kept calling it her bingo night, like she wanted me positive on how many guys she would miss.

"I hope you understand how much I love you," she said. "We've got to get you away from this guy, Anne. He wants you to be his little girl."

I never ask Donna about her system or her numbers. She's never brought it up herself except when she tells me stuff about a guy's style, the way he works his hands and eyes. So because I wanted to show her how much I valued her time, and because I thought she might understand that it honestly wasn't about all the numbers, I thought I'd tell her something about me and Phil. I started off telling her what a really sweet guy he was, the way he'd pick me up on time and pay for every other date so neither of us spent too much. I told her about that first night, and the second and third, how every time I kissed his skin it felt like I had my tongue on a 9-volt battery. I told Donna almost everything about how we did it, which ways worked and which ways didn't. I told her about his funny hair and his stained shirts, and how we we're so relaxed together afterward that I'd let his thing get small in my mouth.

Donna didn't take it like I thought she would. I don't know what she was thinking. I only brought up Phil in the first place to help her understand but that was somehow the wrong thing to do. She jumped on me right away, cutting in on my story, saying all sorts of things I didn't know about Phil. How he only even knew me because she'd introduced us, because she'd told him beforehand all the things I'd let him do. Now she had started hearing other guys talking about me, how I'd let Phil do things to me that were out of the system, things we weren't supposed to do.

She said that letting a man in the jury was one thing, but when he started telling the other men about some other stuff then he was diluting the system. He was stripping all my powers away.

She said it that way, too. "When are you gonna realize, Anne, that men don't care about who you are? You're a number to them, just like they're numbers to us. If you give yourself up to this guy, your name is gonna be equal to shit."

I tried to tell her that Phil wasn't like that, but she blew me off and got talking faster. She stopped looking me in the eye, too. It's like she was talking to the parking lot in front of us, or to the sidewalk, or to herself.

"It's my system," she said. "If you think some piece of shit like that is really going to like you, or treat you any better than the rest, then you're deluding yourself. You remember your Zero? Every man is a Zero, Anne. It's the hole where their stuff comes out. A Zero. Good for nothing. Shit."

I didn't know what to say to all this. I started wondering what was happening, why she was freaking out about stupid Phil. I tried to imagine him doing something like she said he would, but I couldn't picture it. It's like Jacob's face was being taped up over his.

She had done that to someone else, too, got down on them. It was at a Seventeen she threw last year, for Penny. Penny had only been at the school for a year or so and she transferred out right after the party. Her Dad found out about it, is what the girls said. I could imagine that, her Dad finding out. I could imagine how a father would respond to his girl.

At the time, Donna said Penny deserved what she got. Donna said it was because after every number Penny ran around announcing it, trying to get the rest of us upset.

She was in my gym class. I remember this day when every time she bent over to touch her toes Penny'd count off the same number again. "Eleven," she said, grabbing at her feet. "Eleven." It got to the point that she would look at each of us while she did it, sweeping her long blonde hair across the floor. Eleven. Eleven. I thought she should have saved her breath and had the number tattooed like streamlines on her thighs.

When Penny finally got her Seventeen she came to school the next day with her invitations. She didn't even use the ones that Donna had made. Penny's were on these glossy blue cards with the words in cursive and stamped in gold. It reminded me of an invitation to heaven or some restaurant I could never afford. She gave invitations to Jolene and me who were standing there. Penny winked like she'd never been obvious enough. You could see that she had about ten more in her hand, too, which meant she was inviting people not in on the system. None of this was looking too good.

When she handed Donna an envelope Penny didn't do anything, though. No winking. No putting her finger on her chin, saying "Golly, Donna." No playing innocent then. She handed the card to Donna and said, "Do you think you can make it? I'd hate for you not to come. You have been such an inspiration to me." And then she giggled, laughing at her own dumb joke.

Donna glared, like she was inviting Penny to eat her own shit.

Jolene and I watched Penny brush off Donna and skip down the hall. We knew Donna had something to say about this.
Donna looked at her card, reading each word about a half-dozen times. Then she looked at me and Jolene and said, "You know why she does this?"

"Why," I asked her. Jolene crunched her eyebrows and turned away.

"Because that's a hen that can't produce. If she were still on that farm she came from they would have eaten her to save the corn."

I thought that would have been it, that Donna would have let Penny go, let her spin off into the rest of her teens. There was a story going around that Penny had already arranged her Eighteen, and none of us had ever heard of a girl who got a Seventeen and kept it. Donna always says by that time it's too late to quit. She said, Bad girls are like good watches. They never run down.

But you could see the way Donna ran her fingers over the fold of the card, trying to keep it shut, bending what was already bent. Donna's head was in high gear.

When we did all meet at Penny's for the Seventeen, everything started as normal. There were a few boxes of wine that Jolene stole from her mother's pantry, and there was a little bit of pot. Donna said she thought someone was holding back on us because there was always enough pot to go around, even when we couldn't get liquor. It was almost gone before Penny began. I get high pretty quickly, so I remember being stoned and counting the holes in my shoes, making each one out to be one of my guys, reciting their names to myself if I knew them, practicing for my own Seventeen, though I still had a few to go.

Penny brought out her pictures and passed them around. I was surprised at the photos she had of these guys. One was an old prom picture, the guy's arms wrapped around some girl whose eyes were scared shut by the flash. The girl's expression, frozen like that, eyes shut and only half-smiling, gave me shivers wondering where she was now. There were a few shots where the guys were shirtless and bent forward toward the camera. I wondered how Penny had gotten them to do that, take the pictures right after the fact. I was amazed by those pictures. I held each one up to my nose to see if I could smell the man.

Penny sat on the center of the coffee table with all of us on the floor around her, like we were her little toadies or something. She treated it like a Girl Scout meeting, Penny telling the story like she had it memorized, when to raise her eyebrows and when to put her finger back on her chin. It was so dumb. It seemed so fake. I thought that I would never fake a story, even if it was really bad.

When she got around to her Seventeen, she starts going on about the great car this guy drove, how he was a full-time student at the college, how he took her out to dinner and bought her a bottle of wine. I tried to picture that, what it would be like to have a dinner, how the napkins would match the wallpaper, how the candle would reflect off the glasses and plates.

It went on like that for a while. It was too good, I thought. It was too good to happen to me. I thought it was too good even for Penny who wore her skirts clean all the time and who kept her brushed hair pulled back from her face. It was a fairy tale. "My, what a nice car you have." "My, what a nice bed this is." Where's the wolf, I kept wondering. Where's the animal, the man?

But it was perfect. He undressed her, he was nice to her, he kissed her on the lips.

I got bored and looked to see what Donna was doing, if she didn't want to believe it either. Donna was leaning back, smiling, sipping at her drink and toking on a joint. Donna didn't interrupt at all.

It must have been about ten or so, cause a lot of the girls had already left, most of the ones Penny had invited on her own. It was like the rest of us were wearing our best hand-me-downs and they couldn't coordinate their brand-name designers with ours. The phone rang in the kitchen and Penny started, like she'd been lost in her dream. She runs off, rolling her eyes, sounding annoyed when she picked up the phone. Hi. Oh. No, I'm fine. How are you? It was a man on the phone. You could tell by the way she flipped up the pitch on the end of her sentences.

"Really," she said. "No that's fine. I have some girls over, though. Yeah."

I leaned over to Donna. "Who's that, do you think?"

Donna looked at me like she couldn't remember my name. "Huh? Oh. Anne. It's probably her next big catch. Number eighteen? It must be him." Then she started laughing. These tiny snorts. I could see the dark wine crawling out of her nose.

"Wait," she said as I backed away. "Can you keep a secret? I think it's gonna be less than that."

"What are you talking about, Donna?" Donna leaned in close to me. It smelled like Donna hadn't brushed her teeth in a while.

"Don't tell."

"Don't tell what?" I said.

"I don't think Penny's had a Zero. Never. Not even once. Maybe this guy on the phone isn't Eighteen after all."

I looked at her. I looked at Donna and watched her finish off her drink, watched her pull a cigarette from out of a pack on the coffee table. I watched how she kept chuckling in these small spasms, like she couldn't help what she couldn't keep in. She struck a match and inhaled. I looked at everything Donna was doing then.

"A Zero?"

"As in never. Not a one."

Penny came back into the room. She looked around, taking a head count, wondering how long it would take to clean out the room.

"I have a visitor coming by," she said.

"Really?" Donna flicked ash onto the carpet. "A visitor?"

"Well, yeah. So, um, you guys are going to have to leave."

Jolene looked up from her shoes, blinked. Another girl, Lynda--with a "Y," she'd said earlier, spelling it out like we were dumb. "El, Why, like in why am I here,' En, Dee, Ay."--she started shaking boxes of cigarettes, pocketing the ones that rattled.

Donna stopped, like she skipped a heartbeat, or forgot to jump on the count of three, but it was only for a second. After that, that little bump, she was staring at the carpet, smoothing its pattern with her hand. Then she looked up and bared her teeth, smiling. They were purple at the edges and where they grew out of her gums.

"It's not very traditional, ruining a Seventeen."

Penny was already collecting glasses. "Well, you know. I'm sure you must have been in a situation like this before, actually desired by a man." She looked at the bottom of an empty glass and sighed, fluttered her eyes. "You know how hard it can be to refuse them." Donna pushed her cigarette into the face of the ashtray. "I have been there, honey. You can bet I have."

Penny disappeared. Not like she was never seen again, but like I said, she didn't come back to school. I saw her weeks later working at that sock shop in the strip mall. Her hair wasn't pulled back. She was wearing these baggy, brown pants. I watched her from the store window help this bitchy old woman pick out plastic barrettes.

It was so weird seeing her do that; how every time the old woman barked out a question Penny flinched and looked down the aisles to the floor. Penny rested against the counter like she was sea-sick and about to puke. It was just an old woman, I was thinking. She wouldn't even look Penny in the eye.

When I saw Jolene again I asked her what had happened. She kept glancing around like she didn't want to be seen with me. Jolene wears a nose stud. It's made out of a fake ruby or something. She kept turning her head from side to side and that nose ring looked like a railroad signal, flashing bright and serious against her face. Jolene has never spoken, though I've heard that she can if she tries. When she realized I wasn't going away without an answer, she took out that notepad she carries around and wrote like her pencil was burning her hand.

"Girl, you better shut up about that. Let it lie. Penny transferred and there's no reason for you to say otherwise," she wrote.

"What's the big deal? Who was that guy? Why shouldn't I ask?"

Jolene looked at me, her eyes narrowed, her cheeks going as deep a red as that Seventeen's wine. She underlined the part that said let it lie . Then she looked at me but I was standing my ground.

"Jesus, who are you?" she wrote. "Where are you from? A Zero, girl. Penny was given a Zero."

Jolene drew a huge circle on the sheet and held it out so I could see. Then she took her pencil and stabbed it through, two or three times, ripping half the pages of her notebook and snapping the pencil in two. I got it. I got her point. Then she threw it at me, the whole notebook. All the top sheets had been crumpled by her fist.

I stared down at that messed up paper for a second then I looked up to speak to Jolene. It was too late, though. She was already running down the other end of the hall.

This might not make a lot of sense. It does though when you understand the rules, the system. How it all comes together. When I talked to Donna about it, the rumors that she had given Penny a zero, she was honest about it. Very up front.

Donna said that the way the system worked to be so effective was that all of us had to come from the same ground. Penny thought she was better than us. She thought she was above the system. But Donna said it was fortunate that Penny left, that Penny would have ended up kissing her own reflection in the mirror. If she hadn't left, Donna said, she was sure something would have had to happen to let her realize how bad she was behaving.

What all this is about, Donna said, is what we all have in common. And what we all have in common--me, Donna, Jolene, and the others--is that we've all come up from zero. We all started off bad and have gotten better. We took what we had, which was nothing, which was what other people told us we had, and we've made it into something we own, something we have control over.

For example, with my Zero, Jacob, that whole deal has become so much a part of me that I don't know where I start and it begins. I was pretty young. Not an idiot or anything, but I didn't know what I now know about men. When I think about it I feel like somebody is putting my body in cold storage. I can feel my toes going blue, and the coldness travels all the way up--except for my head. My head just goes numb. I feel like that girl in Penny's photgraph, the one with her eyes shut, not really here or there. The scene plays over and over in my head like a movie. Jacob is looking at me, Jacob drags out his claw. I've tried talking to my Mom about it but she doesn't understand it. She points her cigarette in my direction and says to leave the poor boy alone. That divorce has been too much for him.

All this means is that what Donna says can work. We all have to start at the same place or none of it counts, not the guys you like, not the guys who don't like you. It only counts when you know where it starts, when there's a clear sense of progress. An entry wound, said Donna.

But now Donna's taken the same attitude toward me, that I've lost track of the numbers, that I'm forgetting where I came from.

When I left Phil, which is what Donna ended up saying I should do, it seemed I was getting back on Donna's track. She had already arranged a Seventeen for me, if I wanted it. If I wasn't too good for a recommendation, she said.

At first I didn't want to. Phil had been nice, had always been nice, even when he wasn't talking to me at school, when he was with his friends and I walked past him in the halls. I could tell that he thought about me, though, that I was on his mind. He would look at me, look nervously to his friends, keep following their conversation until I had almost passed right by. But just before I was out of his sight he looked back at me, watched me. He'd stare at me from head to toe like there were open mouths at the center of his eyes and he was letting them graze on me.

That used to make me nervous some, but after a while I didn't mind. I looked forward to it. I imagined the mouths opening and shutting on me. Those eyes would take me in like that a lot. They were so hungry, even if the guy never spoke to me at school.

I remember asking Donna what it was that bothered her. If I had done something, if she thought all these rumors were true. I even wondered to myself if I had done the things she'd said I had, if I had begun to block things out like before. But Donna seemed so different. Lost, like, or out of control.

She never answered me. She didn't say much to me after that at all. I saw her at school the next Monday, in her usual place over by the gym. She was talking to the boys, soliciting attention. She kept one hand on her thigh the whole the time, looked right at me, and then turned away.

After a week of this, I'd had enough. I couldn't stand being ignored because of some guy, a guy whose real name I couldn't even remember. She wasn't interested in him, though she could have had him if she was. She didn't have any complaints against him at all. It was always me. My fault. I had done something wrong but looking back I couldn't say what.

But it got to be too much. So I stopped him. I quit answering his calls, I quit going to the places where I thought I might run into him, I quit walking by, feeding his eyes. I starved him off, I guess you could say. I let those eyes shrivel up, or at least go hunting elsewhere. After that seemed to be working, when he stopped calling, stopped asking the other girls about me, stopped stuffing his nasty notes into my locker, stopped following me home in the big yellow Dodge, then I did the other thing I knew I had to do which was go tell Donna I was ready for her Seventeen. Donna had been right about that number, Sixteen. I made it out to be more than it was.

After I had told her about getting rid of the guy, about moving onward and up the scale, she took me right back in, giving me this bear hug and running her hands up my back. The next day she brought in the invitations. She handed them to me, not saying much, but she did stop long enough to catch me in the eye. She smiled, winked, and after I didn't say anything either, she took my hand, plucked it up from my side and held on to it, rubbing it over with her own.

"I think you're gonna be good," she said.

So it's all ready. I've handed out my invitations, but like I said, only a few to keep it small. And tomorrow night I meet my Seventeen, the one that will make me a woman, the one that counts. It's a couple of hours after that we're having the party.

But something strange is happening, I think. I feel a little different. Last night I was lying in bed thinking about all this, and I ended up thinking about this other guy from a while back. John Hanson, or Hascomb or something, number Four. I thought it was strange that I should be thinking about him because there really wasn't anything special to remember. He was just one along the way. Back then, I was still awkward about taking my clothes off, and I didn't talk much before or after. It wasn't until a lot later that I even stopped shaking after the boys had left. I used to be so stupid, so delicate, like if the guy blew on me my skin would go in, bend inward with the strength of his breath.

So John and I are sitting outside, on the steps of his apartment building, and he's smoking because I guess his sister was buying him cigarettes. From out of nowhere he hands me this poem. We've started this poetry section in English now, and most of it is this World War One stuff I'm not really into. The poem he handed me was different, though, older. The poet's name was John Donne. Anyway, since it was so weird to be thinking about this, having it come up from nowhere, I dug up the poem. Well, Mr. Peterson found me a copy. Peterson was so thrilled I asked him something I think he spent his lunch hour digging it up.

This is it, the part I thought was interesting, anyway.

Will no other vice content you?
Will it not serve your turn to do, as did your mothers?
Have you old vices spent, and now would find out others?
Or doth a fear, that men are true, torment you?
Oh we are not, be not you so,
Let me, and do you, twenty know.
Rob me, but bind me not, and let me go.

At the time I blew it off. I figured he was trying to get me to do him again, or he wanted me to be his date for the prom. You know how guys are with their poetry. Like it's the only thing in the world, to say what you want in as few words as you can.

Geez, this must be Old Time Memory Hour or something. I never think about this stuff. Anyway, I like the poem. I like that part of it.

You know, I wonder about Jacob. Why he did that, Zero me. Was it like Donna said, something he wanted but was afraid to ask for? Was he what I think he is? He knew better. Why did he do it if he knew better? I wonder about him. He is my cousin, after all. I wonder how much of him is in me. How much of him is in my blood.

I've been thinking about this a lot, about my Seventeen. I guess I'm excited. I feel like I'm about to go on my first date, like I should be wearing a corsage or a ring or something special, just for everybody to know. But at the same time I feel like I'm forgetting something, that I've forgotten to write something down, or to button my skirt back together.

I did see Jolene though. I talked to her right before I got here. Jolene came up to me and put her hand on my shoulder. She knew that I was nervous. She pointed out that my necklace was on backwards, too. It gave me away, she smiled.

I know a little about Jolene. Her Zero came in the middle, like Penny's. I had always thought Zeros were the first time, but not anymore. One thing I've noticed, too, is that Jolene doesn't go through her numbers that fast. Donna used to push her on that saying Jolene was going to be seventeen by the time she got to Seventeen, but Jolene just laughed like Donna was being especially funny that day.

But I was talking to Jolene, asking what I should do about being so nervous.

She grabbed my shoulder, put her other hand on my arm, and she looked at me, right on. She wasn't being judgmental or giving me some secret message, but just looking at me. It was nice. She reached into her pocket and handed me this tiny note. Jolene frowned and pointed to the letter, then made a happy face, palm to her heart.

I opened the note. It looked like some of her homework.

"0 x n = 0," it said. "1 x n = n."

She held up a finger, one hand still at her heart. Then she pointed that finger at me. She did this until I figured it out. Even thinking about it now, I think it's the sweetest advice I've ever been given.

Since then I've been going down the list, my numbers, trying to remember all their faces and their names. I can't remember them all yet, or all of what we did, but I want to be able to. It seems important, even if I wasn't important to them. I don't want them to be all bad anymore.

There are so many numbers. This is all they teach us in math, that there are all these different types of numbers; real, imaginary, infinite, negative. There are so many that they've stopped using numbers and have gone to letters to keep them all straight. When does it stop? That's what I want to know. When can I stop counting and be still? When will I be just one thing instead of a big roster of all these other people, these men who don't know me, or who can't even look me in the eye while they touch me and rub their hands on me?

I don't know where it comes from, but I see things in my head. It's like when I was in the car with Phil that first time, thinking about homework and kids of my own. But it's worse. It's stronger. I see myself graduating, walking down the aisle, up in front of that crowd. I see myself heading back to my seat, but after that I can't find it, the rest of the dream, I mean. It's like I'm lost. Then Jacob's face is floating in front of me, kind of ho-humming around like a barely inflated balloon. It turns into Phil's face, then into my father's--which is scratchy, fuzzy, because I can hardly remember him at all. I can't focus on anything. My feet and fingers feel so cold. I look down at my body. I look at my legs, my belly, my breasts, my hands.

What's happening? Is this what it means to turn into a woman?

Then something gets me, takes hold of me and starts rubbing me warm. I'm looking up. It's Donna. She's smiling, steady. Her hair is like steam. Donna is just standing there grinning.

"One more to go, honey. One more until you're a woman like me."

I feel dizzy but I don't fall anywhere. Donna isn't letting go of my arm.


Copyright © William Cuthbertson 1997
Spanish translation