We spend the next day on Assateague Island. The adults lounge under umbrellas, sunglasses on their noses, talking over each other. My little sister and cousins have brought inflatable toys for the surf, though the rocks and rough sand puncture them mere minutes after they’ve been blown up. There’s no need for floats, though, when the kids have buckets and spades for sandcastles, and seashells to discover, and the natural pleasures of the surf. I spend the day taking long, solitary walks, letting the waves splash over my ankles and calves. From time to time, crabs buried beneath the sand will resent my trespass and nip at my toes, causing me to yelp and stumble away. We eat sandwiches for lunch, play miniature golf in Chincoteague to get out of the afternoon heat. There are no historical markers to stand over in reverence, no battlefields, no lessons to learn. It truly is our first and only real vacation as a family. Though it’s no Magic Kingdom, everything about the experience feels fresh and new. I let the sun and wind bleach away the stain of what I’d done the night before, in the thicket.
It’s dark again. After the kids get tucked into bed, the adults play bridge in Bert and Jane’s cabin. And though I know I shouldn’t, when I see that firefly light of his smoke after dark, I once more wander out the back door and sit opposite the big-nosed stranger.
He’s wearing a fancy tropical shirt, a pattern of stylized toucans and palm trees on a dark fabric, over the same baggy shorts. Tonight, he’s got the bottle in one hand, cigarette in the other. He sits with his legs spread and dangling over the cinderblock stoop, lips slick with liquor.
If I were to encounter this man back home in this condition, say in Bryan Park late at night or by the riverside, I’d steer away. I’m not naive. I know red flags when I see them. In the park, I’d have plenty of choice. I’d let someone else cope with this ugly, alcoholic mess. I’m not at home, though. I’m in sleepy, family-friendly Chincoteague, a town of salt-water taffy and themed Putt-Putt courses and tributes to the books of Marguerite Henry, everywhere one turns. It’s late at night. I’m bored. I’m horny. The ugly, alcoholic mess has given me money for a blowjob before. He might again. I’ve dealt with worse.
“You hungry for dick?” he says, staring at me.
I startle at his loud bluntness. He’s not being discreet at all. Probably no one is close enough to hear, but even in an inebriated state, he should realize the risks of asking such a question within earshot of his wife.
“Come on, son. I got what you want. Aw, you loved it last night.” He’s grabbing at his junk and giving it a firm squeeze. I didn’t love it the prior evening. I’d tolerated it for the sake of the cash. Even now, the memory of his foul seed roils my stomach. He mistakes my hesitation for negotiation. “Oh, I see.” He digs into his pocket and once more pulls out that back-breaking bifold. “That’s the way it’s gotta be, then. Fuck.”
It’s not just the sight of his open wallet that propels me to my feet—though that’s part of it. He needs to hush. “Sshh,” I warn, as I sit next to him. “Keep it down.”
His head wobbles with the effort of a drunk imagining he’s keeping it steady, as he looks into my eyes. “This is what you really want, isn’t it?” He’s folded two twenties between his ring and little fingers. Between the index and middle digits is a mostly consumed cigarette that billows smoke in my face. “How much more if you be my wife tonight?”
My pulse quickens. I keep an eye on the cash. “What do you mean?”
“Come on. How much?” I shake my head at his words, not understanding. “Be my wife. Just be real sweet to me and be my wife tonight. Okay? How much more? Twenty? Forty?”
He’s wheedling, now, but I truly don’t understand what he’s asking. Be his wife? Is he going to dress me up? Smear lipstick on my face? Will I have to wear his ring? I swallow and lick my lips, though, while he flicks the spent butt onto the ground and, as he grinds it beneath his sneaker heel, pulls another two bills from his wallet.
My reaction must be as naked as his need. He twiddles all the cash between his fingers. “Come on.” The man leans in close enough to breathe his hot, boozy breath into my ear. “Be my wife.”
“Okay.” Red flags be damned. Eighty dollars is eighty more than I had a minute ago. It’s a hundred and twenty more than I had yesterday morning. The sight of his money stupefies any parts of my brain that might whisper warnings. He’s my Pied Piper and I have no choice but to dance. I nod, breathless, my pulse racing in anticipation, and allow him to tuck the cash in my greedy palm. “Let’s go.”
Tree bark bites into my back, as he bulldozes me into it. The cotton of my tee does nothing to protect me. My head bangs against the trunk—not hard enough really to hurt, but with enough force to bring involuntary tears to my eyes. His shove knocks the wind out of me.
“You gonna be a good wife for me?” he says, looming nearer. I can’t answer; he’s clamped his palm over my mouth and jaw; the rough edge of his tobacco-strained hand is so deeply wedged against my nostrils that with every breath I rasp against years of tobacco calluses. “Yeah, you’re gonna be a good little wifey, aren’tcha. You’re gonna do what I say, because you love me.” Though it’s dark in that thicket, I can see how shot are the whites of his eyes with irregular red veins. I wonder how wide and panicked are my own. “You love me, right? I’m your husband. You gotta love me. Kiss me, baby.”
I can’t answer, but he doesn’t care. He brings his face closer and—with his hand still clamped to my mouth—plants his lips where mine should meet him. It’s this freakish act that disturbs me more than anything else that’s happened so far. I’d make out with the man if he wanted. He so obviously craves intimacy. Yet presented with its possibility, he denies himself. Four fingers separate our mouths from each other, but he passionately slobbers over them as if they’re the real thing. Once or twice I feel his tongue dart between the crevices and flick against my lips, but this is no kiss. It’s an obscene parody, and it offends me to my core.
“Good wife,” he at last whispers in my ear. “I know you like it. Now you’re gonna get what you want.” His left hand roughly unbuttons my shorts and yanks my shorts low enough for the elastic to pull tight around my thighs. He fumbles for my hole to jab a fingertip inside. He misses, poking me hard where my thigh meets my buttock. “Sweet piece of pussy,” he mumbles.
I’ve been around the block enough to assess the situation. Years of public play has taught me never to allow my little head to dominate the big one. The crude way he’d shoved me against the tree was frightening, yes, but I don’t get the sense he wants to hurt me. The big-nosed man is lost in some fantasy of his own creation that had been set in motion once I’d accepted his money. But the way he’s going about it—the mock kisses, thinking a cleft is a pussy, even the whole set-up of pretending to be his wife so he can fuck me—is so awkward and borderline comical that my instincts reassure me he’s not dangerous. He could be. Maybe he even should be. But right now, I don’t feel it.
He spins me around so that I’m facing the tree and pushes mid-spine to bend me over. Once again, the stranger covers my mouth with his stinking fingers. “Gonna make babies in you, beautiful. You want that, right? You want your husband’s babies?” With my mouth covered, I can only grunt. He spits into his free hand and sticks it down his shorts.
My pants are tangled in the vicinity of my upper thighs. When he tries to spread my legs, there’s only so far I can pull them. He doesn’t care. Once more I feel the stab of his fingers against my ass. They miss the mark by a few inches. His combined fingertips thrust and probe at the fissure where my legs meet as he growls in my ear.
“You’re gonna love my dick deep in that pussy, baby. Gonna fuck you like a man should fuck his wife. Deep and wet. Pump you full of my babies.” His breath is hot on my neck. “Pump you enough for twins.”
I feel his probing cock and I brace myself. Over the last several years I’ve had rough fucks. I’ve had hot fucks. I’ve had fucks that set my hole on fire and turned my innards to jelly, and fucks where I’ve had to lie there while I wait for it to be over. I’ve had painful fucks from dicks too big for me, and fucks where the guy wanted me to hurt. I’ve had gentle fucks, and fucks where my partner was so worried and solicitous that I had to take control. But I don’t know what the hell to anticipate from this guy. He’s been drinking. Now that I’ve sold myself for a few scraps of paper, he clearly thinks he can do whatever he wants.
What I don’t expect, however, is that he’ll miss my hole entirely and penetrate the crack between my legs. He gasps as the head of his crooked dick bursts through. “Oh, baby!” His breath singes my neck. “You’re so pretty with my dick in your pussy. I love you, baby. I love you.”
He lays his torso on mine, hugging me close. Part of me suspects he must, to keep himself upright. At least he’s liberated my mouth. When I work my jaw and moan in gratitude, he mistakes it for pleasure.
“You love it, don’t you,” he growls. His cock makes swift, rabbit-like strokes between my legs. I’ve had intercrural sex before. A few of my older partners and clients even prefer it, as it requires little preparation and usually involves less mess. But I don’t think the big-nosed man realizes he’s fucking my legs and not my hole. He seems to be relishing the sensation, either way, and I’m not about to ruin his fun. “Tell me you love it, baby.”
“I love it,” I whisper, while I hang onto the tree and squeeze tight my thighs.
“Yes, you do. You love your husband’s big fat dick. You want my babies?”
“Fill me with your babies,” I urge. “Get me pregnant.”
He grunts, pleased. “You better be ready. I’m not pulling out.”
I need this to end. Agreement seems the quickest route. “Don’t pull out.”
“Fuck yeah. Making babies in my wife. Like a real man.” He mutters these words and more to himself in a low, steady ramble. Juice from his dick, hot to the touch, has made my thighs slippery. He stabs and plunges and forces his way between them. At one point he withdraws and shoves back in with a mighty jab, this time hitting my hole and making me gasp. He thinks he’s in the wrong spot, though, and mumbles an apology before returning to the softer flesh below.
When he comes, it’s with a repeat of last night’s shudders and quakes. I can feel jets of semen splatter my legs, as well as the ground and trunk in front of us. I make pleased noises and rub my butt against him until he softens and withdraws, whereupon I fumble with my pants until they’re more or less back in place. I’m drenched with him, from head to foot.
“That was beautiful, baby,” he slurs, moving in on me with his palm cupped. “C’mon. Show me how much you liked it. Gimme a kiss.”
Our transaction was complete the moment he came. There’s no way I’m enduring that lampoon of intimacy again. I writhe out of his grasp before his hand can once more cover my mouth, and slip away through the trees back to the cabins. My shorts are soaked with the man’s sweat and semen; I can still smell the sickly scent of him all over my body, still feel his breath on my back. It’s going to be tricky, whether I’ll be able to slip into the shower and then into bed before the adults finish their rubber. One thing I know for sure, though, as I hasten back to the dark cabin: there’s no amount of money that will tempt me back into the woods with that man again.
We’re all a little worn out, our last day in Chincoteague. The cousins are so tired that they actually request a nap, come late afternoon. Bert and Jane have joined them, in their cabin. I walk into our kitchenette to find my mom and dad staring out the back window. “What’s going on?” I ask.
My mother has her arms crossed and her neck set in a disapproving posture. My dad, whose sight is poor in the best of conditions, has to press his face close to the glass to see. He’s trying to be stealthy, at least, by ducking low. Without breaking his surveillance, he says, “This fellow next door seems to be…well, under the weather.”
“He’s drunk,” my mom summarizes. “Poor sod. Can you imagine the demons he must be wrestling with?”
Outside, I hear the empty chime of a bottle being set hard on concrete. Panicked that the ugly man has attracted my parents’ notice, I pretend disinterest and deflect. “We doing dinner anytime soon?”
“His poor wife,” says my mother.
She’s the last person of whom I want to be reminded. “So…dinner?”
My dad seems unwilling to leave his spy post, but my mother looks at her watch and sighs. “Teen boys and their stomachs, I swear. I suppose it’s that time. Though if Bert calls Carter a cracker one more time, I can’t be held accountable…”
“It’s just one more dinner, one more night, then we leave in the morning,” my dad reassures. “You can make it through that.”
My mom sighs as if she’s not convinced. I’m firmly in her camp, having learned one of the prime lessons of any vacation: there always comes a point when you’d rather be home.
After we return from our final dinner out and the little kids have been put to bed, my aunt and uncle and parents gather for one last night of bridge. Through the back door, I can see the red firefly of our neighbor’s cigarette dancing in the dark. Though I’ve refrained from turning on any lights, and though I’m peeking out from behind the grimy gingham curtain over the back window, he must sense I’m there. He picks up a pebble from the ground, hauls back, and with a pitcher’s grace, nails the wood of the screen door with a loud crack.
“Stop that,” I scold in a whisper, once I’ve yanked open the doors and stepped out. “What the fuck?”
“I want you,” he says loudly. Then, acceding to my frantic gestures, he lowers his voice. “I want you, baby. C’mon. Be my wife.”
There’s no way I’m once again submitting to his messy caricature of lovemaking. Absolutely no way. I shake my head.
“You gotta. You love it. You’re my wife.”
I’m this man’s nothing. Arms crossed, and imitating my mother’s stance of imperviousness, I stand firm. “Listen. I can’t. My folks are expecting me…”
“Come on, baby.” He puckers his lips and kisses in my direction, then stumbles to his feet. “I’ll make it real sweet.” I shake my head. There’s a harder edge to his voice when he adds, “I know what’ll get those legs wide open.”
As he digs in his shorts for that wallet, I can’t help but pause. With two fingers he plucks out a twenty-dollar bill, then another. I’d resolved to walk away, but I make the mistake of hesitating. I could go through it once more. I’d be out of here tomorrow; I’d never have to see him again. I’m stock still as he pulls out a final twenty, then two tens. Eighty dollars. Eighty more dollars could numb a lot of the indignities I’d have to suffer, out there in the woods.
I’m still frozen in place when he pulls one more ten from the wallet. “You know you want this, at least,” he says, turning to spit with contempt on the ground. With a snap of his wrist, he tosses the bills into the dust at my feet, where they scatter.
I hate myself for being tempted, but it’s the disdain in his attitude that decides me. I won’t be going to the thicket with him this evening. Refusal is my clear right. I clear my throat and say, so that there’s no mistaking: “No.”
And then he slaps me.
I don’t see it coming. I’m too busy feeling virtuous to anticipate the swing of his arm, the arc of his open hand as it closes the gulf between us. He connects not with his palm, but with his stinking fingers. The slap is sharp enough a blow to make me see stars. We both stagger away from the other, mouths agape, eyes wide, nostrils flaring. With a sudden huff, the ugly man drops his ass onto the stoop. The life’s drained out of him: he seems stunned at what he’s done.
“Fuck you,” is all I say, before I retreat into the darkness, hand cupping my cheek, in the direction of the street. For the rest of the night, I sit alone on the front steps of Bert and Jane’s cabin, waiting for my parents. I’ll have to be all smiles and charm when they emerge. Pretending that nothing extraordinary has happened is the price I pay for the secret life I lead.
The next morning, while my mother oversees our departure, my job is to ferry luggage from the front steps to the trunk of our Dart. I’m impatient to leave. I miss our cats and the happy mess of our house. I miss the familiarity of my cruising spaces. I almost miss high school. I’d be happy, right now, never to go on vacation again.
And here comes Bert, manfully hauling two large suitcases to his family’s new-model car, parked next to ours. “Morning, sunshine,” he says with a false grin. “Didn’t forget to pack your makeup bag, didya?”
Now I’m really ready to go. Without a word, I turn my back on my bully and stalk back to the cabin, ignoring his jeers. If I step inside, I’ll just have another bag thrust in my hands. So I circle around to the back. My neighbor’s door is closed and the windows shut. Though there’s an empty bottle of cheap bourbon lying on their steps, at least I won’t be forced into one final confrontation. Good.
Not until I sit on the stoop for a final time do I notice bills littering the dirt. Tens and twenties, still lying where they’d been flung the night before. I look around, almost suspicious I’m being tested. Then, in a rush of motion, I’m down in the dust and pebbles, grabbing at the cash as if my life depends on it. Twenty, thirty, fifty, seventy, eighty—there should be another ten somewhere. It’s not at the foot of my steps, nor has it blown behind the metal garbage cans. My hands and knees are dirty, but I continue scrabbling for that final, elusive bill.
The back door opens. It’s my mother, hands on her slender hips, looking with disdain at the Old Crow bottle on the opposite stoop. Her disapproval gives me time to tuck a handful of grit and cash into my back pocket. “What in the world are you doing back here?” she asks, puzzled. “It’s not even nine in the morning and you’re filthy.”
“Bert…” is all I have to say to elicit a roll of the eyes and a sympathetic sigh.
“Once you’re in college, you can pick and choose when and if you see him.” She holds out her arm to summon me indoors. “If only I could be so lucky. Come on. We’re ready to go.”
But I can’t leave. In vain, I look around for that one last bill. It’s mine. Even though I didn’t earn it, even though last night I didn’t want it, there’s ten dollars to be had. I can’t abide the thought of anyone else claiming what I deserve.
Even as my eyes frantically scramble across the weedy wasteland, my feet trudge the stairs behind my mother. Every step away from that missing money is sheer torture. I have eighty unearned dollars in my hand. Eighty dollars is eighty more than I had a minute ago. It’s two hundred dollars more than I had when we arrived here. And yet I’m not satisfied.
All through my childhood and adolescence, my mother has drummed into my head that we have money enough for what we need. Enough to be grateful. They’ve somehow squeezed out a little more for this unexpected vacation. I should be happy. I should be appreciative.
Yet here I am, secretly mourning the loss of a petty sum, sweaty and sick to my stomach, my limbs trembling like I’m going through withdrawal, as I climb into our car. I could pick up ten dollars in five minutes at home. Hell, back home I’d turn up my nose at any man who assumed I was a ten-dollar trick. Why, then, do I spend our drive back to Richmond puzzling where that last bill might have fallen?
An hour ago I’d been just a kid with a side hustle, a soon-to-be senior in high school sitting on a profitable secret. The big-nosed man in the cabin next door had shown me what I really was: a junkie. I have a problem. I need more than I should. I want more than I need. I’m putting myself in the line of danger for a fistful of bills. Not just with this bozo from Raleigh: every time I climb into a strange car at night, or knock on a trick’s hotel room door, or when I disappear into the shadows along the banks of the James. I’m a slave to a flash of cash, a whiff of currency, and the promise of a sexual thrill.
“Tired out?” my mom asks from behind the steering wheel. It's a hot day and the Dart lacks air conditioning, so all the windows are open. She raises her voice to be heard over the rush of freeway wind, and looks at me in the rearview mirror. “You’ve been mighty quiet today.”
I mumble something and let my head loll, knowing I won’t be heard.
“I think he’s just tuckered out from a long vacation,” mutters my dad.
My mom isn’t so sure. “Too much vacation, if you ask me.”
Too much? It was only three nights in Chincoteague—mostly at Bert’s expense, my teenaged resentment emphasizes. Though I realize something about vacations, now, something I’d never learned from my classmates, when they returned from their amusement parks and ski trips and shopping excursions to the big city. I might be able to flee my small town. For a spell, I might be able to escape to better weather, or to different scenery, or for new sights. The one thing from which I’ll never be able to take a vacation, though, is myself.
What a fucking depressing thought.
I sit there, forehead pressed against the car’s vibrating interior and watch the pines pass by. In my private prison, I long for that lost ten-dollar bill, tossed by ocean winds, tumbling toward a flat and endless horizon.