That spring, spying on Meredith in AP chem, Trevor and Neil had exulted to see that she didn’t know to cross her legs when she wore miniskirts. Every day they made bets on which underwear she’d be wearing. There was a rotation of patterns—flowers, bees, candy or polka dots—that coordinated with the color of the polo shirt she wore and the narrow ribbon she wove into a skinny braid in her long hair. When they figured out her obsession with matching they thought it was hilarious. After that it wasn’t hard to guess right. They kept a tally of the underpants-guessing competition, and whoever had the low score at the end of each week bought the winner a quart Koolee.
When, as graduation neared, the rumor went around that Meredith had started seeing a professor at the college, they made bets on that too. Trevor said it was definitely true; Neil wasn’t sure. But winning this bet required serious sleuth work. To track the underpants, they only had to go to the front of the classroom, get a Bunsen burner or a beaker from the lab cupboard, then return to their desks, stealing a glance under Meredith’s chair on their way back. She sat carelessly, legs uncrossed, absorbed in her textbook, unaware of what she was showing, or leaned back, chatting with Ella, which gave an even better view. To find out what she was up to with the professor, they had to devise a more elaborate strategy. They concocted plans, bought night-vision goggles and other equipment, made charts, called themselves Supercops.
Meredith had no idea of any of this. She completely disassociated her newest extracurricular activity from her high school life, and, really, from herself. If anyone had asked her about it point-blank—which they wouldn’t have, because practically everyone in school was a nerd or a Baptist, and because Meredith was a goody two-shoes, in spite of her lapses at leg-crossing—she would have denied it.
She approached her sexual initiation like an elective. She wanted to master it, become truly proficient.
But that semester, the last few months before she would leave Kansas to go to Brown, Meredith—the good girl, the polyglot bookworm, indulger of siblings, pleaser of parents, singer of songs, maker of puff pastry—had decided she needed to learn sex before she went out East. She did not want to feel like a rube among the Ivy League freshmen, who she thought would ooze jaded ennui. She approached her sexual initiation like an elective you’d take to pad your college application—like photography or tennis or candy-striping. She wanted to master it, to become truly proficient, before she landed on campus.
And so, a few months before graduation, she was relieved to meet a tutor who could instruct her in the physical rites of passage, a young professor at the college where her parents taught. Young in his own estimation, that is—he was 30, which to her, at 18, seemed monstrously, unknowably old. She had met him on spring break in Tulum, where he’d ended up with her family and two other families from the college, on a Mayan temples trip. He’d had a breakup, was at loose ends, she overheard the adults saying sotto voce as their group wandered Cobá. On the beach in Tulum, he laid his towel beside hers, spoke with her of Duras and Dante, bought her a green coconut with the top cut off and a straw in it so she could drink its juice, told her to call him Mark, not Professor. On the last night of the holiday, she crept out of her villa after the others were asleep and joined him on the beach, where he’d said to. He kissed her in the dark, on the sand, amid the palms. Her face was sunburned; his stubble made her chin bleed. Stubble! She had never encountered it before, in chastely heated make-out sessions with debate-club boyfriends who barely needed to shave. He was older, which was strange, but she decided it was an advantage. When you looked for a teacher, you wanted someone with experience.
Back in Kansas, embarking on the course in earnest and in stealth, she found her new subject challenging. She had never done anything below the waist before, apart from rare instances of cautious fumbling over jeans. Each time she advanced a step with the professor beyond the moral code she had absorbed from Laura Ingalls Wilder, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, she recoiled inwardly, felt sullied. But she forced herself to overcome her repugnance and stubbornly soldier on with the professor’s teaching; to stop being Laura, who didn’t even kiss Almanzo until he proposed, or innocent Kitty, devastated by Vronsky, she needed to become Anna Karenina or Elena Kuragina—to corrupt herself in Kansas so she could respect herself in Rhode Island. Amid these daunting assignments, she sometimes went to look at herself in the bathroom mirror in the professor’s little bungalow, as if to make sure she was still there. Contemplating her smooth, freckled face in the glass, she imagined she saw moral flaw mottling her skin, though any change was quite invisible. She got Mark to go to the Piggly Wiggly and get Ivory soap for her, thinking its harshness would blanch, purge her, but it was too drying, and she went back to Phisoderm.
This education proceeded across sporadic evenings that April and May, when Meredith would tell her parents she was driving off to see her friends Ella and Sophie, which sometimes she was and sometimes wasn’t. She didn’t see the professor that often. Maybe twice a week. Maybe three times. When she drove to his place after dinner or choir practice or school newspaper meetings, there would be wine and records in his living room—he played albums she didn’t know, Leon Redbone, Patti Smith—then the inevitable move to the bedroom, where she submitted herself to the fascination and fright of learning how a grown man’s body worked, testing her response, her reactions, as they drew nearer the goal, postponing its conclusion. She wasn’t ready yet, she told him, but soon. Then, well before midnight, the tipsy drive home in the Volkswagen, looping around the empty traffic circle by the campus strip, then up the steps to her demure bedroom, the floral bedspread, the cat, the reading lamp, her little brother and sister asleep down the hall. Breakfast with the family in the morning, then the drive to school, to first-hour chemistry class, taking her seat at her desk in front of Ella’s.
There were also the usual end-of-term exams and parties, the concert choir performance, ball games, the school play. One weekend in May, she and Ella helped Meredith’s mother throw a garden party for her father’s department, making 200 chicken vol-au-vents. Putting on white aprons to serve them, they felt like soubrettes in a farce. Mark was there; he flirted with her mother. Meredith spoke with him briefly, politely, dissembling. Then, of course, there was prom. She and Ella and Sophie triple-dated; Ella and Meredith took fresh-scrubbed boys who were just school friends, but Sophie, who was a junior, went with her boyfriend, Joel, a senior. The parents all gathered at Meredith’s house, the mothers and fathers photographing the boys in their tuxes, the girls in their rose and white gowns, under the flowering magnolia. Meredith never considered inviting the professor to her prom—unthinkable! But she and Sophie conferred privately about their separate exploits, comparing notes on the everything-but mechanics they were exploring. Sophie loved Joel, but they hadn’t gone all the way—not yet—but they were probably about to.
Meredith had fixed on the 50th anniversary of D-day for her deflowering. She had wanted to make sure it did not happen until after graduation, so she would not become a statistic, lowering the collective virtue of America’s high school girls by being “sexually active” before commencement. She told herself that, after graduation, a woman not only had the right, she had the responsibility to use her body the way she saw fit—or what was feminism for? The pill had been around for decades, couples lived together before marriage these days, a young woman should be as free to sow her wild oats as a man. Her only obstacle was her own inhibition. On June 6, after overcoming that ultimate hurdle with Mark, she was relieved to have “done it” at last, to have been disburdened of her ignorance. She was surprised, soon after, to find herself troubled by unexpected misgivings, the forlorn intimation that her loss of virginity felt to her like a loss of honor. Not because of its irreversible physical aspect, which she did not think mattered, but because she was not in love with the person she had chosen to initiate her, which she thought did.
Before D-day, Meredith recognized afterward, everything she had read or seen in novels and in life had led her to associate the granting of the final favor with profound, overwhelming, passionate love. Focused on her objective, she had forgotten about that. Remembering it now, she felt stricken. Through her single-mindedness, had she done violence to her heart? She knew she had responded genuinely to the professor’s ardor and assertiveness. She had admired him, was flattered to be singled out by one so much older, tantalized by the thought of what he could teach her. But love? No. Ashamed, she began to absent herself psychologically from her encounters with the professor, even as she continued trying to improve her skills, to achieve fluency. She was puzzled when she caught him in mental evasions of his own.
“Prosciutto e melone…,” he whispered into her ear once, as he moved his hand down her adolescent waist with constant, urgent pressure.
“Do you think I don’t know that means ham and cantaloupe?” she had said, insulted, flipping over on the mattress, putting her back between them. Wasn’t it enough for him that she was a teenager? He had more than a decade on her. Did he need to patronize her too, to see her as gullible and unschooled, in order to desire her? Why? Didn’t he remember they’d spoken Italian on the beach in Tulum, had watched a Fellini film on campus? Why would he try to trick her that way? Another time, while they were actually doing it, he had said brusquely, “Don’t tease me.” She had stopped their play at once, bristled, said incredulously, “Tease you? There’s nothing I’m not giving you!” It had only been two weeks since she had stopped being a virgin. It rankled that he would lean so soon on fantasy. Mark had looked at her, annoyed, embarrassed, and at once she comprehended, read in his eyes that sex in itself was not sex; it was what your mind made of it. There was something hot, something specifically adult, in that knowledge; it was part of the lesson: that even when you were finally, actually, really having sex, you could crave something beyond it. Maybe something more, maybe something less, maybe something else entirely.
Sometimes Meredith wished she’d chosen one of her Kansas high school friends to learn on instead—like Trevor or Neil, who spoke in Star Trek voices and Monty Python quotations—instead of the grown-up professor, whose five-o’clock shadow made her chin raw. But the boys would have gossiped, and she knew Mark wouldn’t. The professor worked at the college with her parents, which was potentially compromising, something they both understood without needing to talk about it. It would have felt indecent to Meredith to mess with her high school friends. They were virginal National Merit finalists like her and Ella; they played UNO and Boggle together, danced at school mixers, knew each other’s parents; Neil even had a gourmet club. What could they possibly teach each other of Eros? Also, she was not remotely attracted to them.
She was attracted to the professor, or at least to his attraction for her. As an oldest child, she was primed to seek adult approval. Approval this direct, this overt, made her feel she was achieving distinction, like winning a trophy in debate, and she wanted it to continue. His desire pulled her in like a magnetic field, even as she told herself it carried no real emotional charge. When he spoke to her tenderly, she did not believe his words, supposed he was playing a role, repeating a practiced script, “Prosciutto e melone.” She objectified him, found it hard to see someone so removed from her own sphere, from her own age group, as real. That was fair, she thought. It made them even. As she improved at sex with him, got used to it, began to enjoy it, she did not wish she had “saved” it for someone else; she wished she had done it earlier, with the first boy she truly loved, back in Illinois, where her family had lived before they moved to Kansas midway through high school. Her smart, cruel debate-club boyfriend, to whom she had categorically refused the act, though she yearned for it, whom she had cried over for a year after their breakup, when she was 14. Then she would not have needed to undergo Mark at all.
She never heard Trevor’s car outside of the professor’s bungalow, coasting slowly onto the gravel scree at the back of his drive. Never heard Trevor and Neil rustling in the bushes by the bedroom. Never knew about the Supercops.
As the car turned slowly into the alley, Trevor dimmed the headlights and Neil scooched down in the passenger seat, folding his legs into the hollow under the Dodge Dart’s glove compartment, his rear end hovering above the floor mat. The darkened car nosed past the overgrown junipers between the alley and the professor’s house, and paused at the edge of the driveway. It came to rest within lobbing distance of the front stoop. Trevor put the Dart in park and pulled his binoculars from the dashboard.
“Check,” he said, in a nasal whisper.
“What can you see?” Neil hissed.
“Wait a second, give me time to focus.”
Though the porch light was off, the blinds at the living room window weren’t fully rolled down. A wide sliver of light made a narrow viewing panel. Neil could see shadows blurrily flickering. Trevor clutched his Koolee and took a long slurp.
Trevor dimmed the headlights, put the dart in park and pulled the binoculars from the dashboard.
“Hurry up!” Neil said. “We don’t have all night.”
Trevor put down the Koolee and held the binoculars to his eyes.
“What are they doing?” Neil asked.
“I can’t see anything.”
“Wrong end of the binoculars, moron.”
“Fuck you, it’s dark.” Trevor flipped the binoculars. “They’re on the couch. I can see her shoulder—she’s not wearing a bra.”
“I knew it!” Neil said and jotted a note into his log. Opening a bag of Doritos, he grabbed a handful. “Can you see her tits?” he asked, crunching.
“No, his back is to the window. But second base for sure.”
Neil crowed wickedly. “ ‘And after the spanking, the oral sex!’ ”
“‘Bum, bum, bum, another one bites the dust.’”
Half an hour earlier Trevor and Neil had followed Meredith’s Volkswagen out of the parking lot of the Piggly Wiggly, keeping a couple cars between hers and the Dart, until she’d turned into the alley behind the professor’s place. Then they’d stopped at QuikTrip and gotten Koolees and Doritos. The car reeked of corn syrup, Mexican spice and salt.
“Wait, he’s standing up,” Trevor said. “Take notes. He’s getting a bottle of wine.”
“Is she drinking? She doesn’t drink, does she?”
“She must; there are two glasses.”
“Only two? Sure it’s not a threesome?”
“Idiot. Take a note. Wine, two glasses. Okay. They’re drinking.”
“Can you see her tits now?”
“I…wait. They’re getting up; they’re going to the bedroom.”
“Hot damn!” Neil crowed. In his Spock voice he blurted, “Bed, the final frontier.”
“I’ll get the night-vision goggles.”
“Moron, the lights are on.”
“Moron yourself, the bedroom is dark.”
“It’s on the other side of the house,” Trevor hissed.
“So let’s get out of the car and go around.”
“What if they hear the doors?”
“We could get arrested.”
Neil glared at Trevor in the dark. “Some Supercop you are. Don’t be a girl.”
“We won’t see anything more tonight. We might as well go,” Trevor said.
“Don’t be lame,” Neil whined. “Reverse into the alley, we’ll go in on foot.”
In the distance, a siren wailed faintly in the night, then receded.
“Too risky,” said Trevor. “We’ll come earlier next time, when it’s light enough to use the binoculars. We’ll bring hedge clippers, and if anyone catches us, we’ll say we’re gardeners.”
“Do you think they do it in daylight?”
“Give her time.”
“Trevor!” Neil said in a panic. “It’s 9:40! I’ve got 10 p.m. curfew. We’ll have to come back tomorrow.”
Trevor stowed his binoculars in the glove compartment and backed the Dart out of the drive as quietly as he could.
For weeks now, before graduation and then after, Trevor and Neil had discreetly tailed Meredith: between school and her house, between her house and the professor’s place, and everywhere in between, mostly Ella’s or Sophie’s houses or Pizza Shuttle or the campus library. Her parents were obviously completely clueless. They must have trusted her implicitly. Trevor and Neil knew better. Meredith was up to something, and the Supercops were going to get to the bottom of it.
For a while, they’d had doubts. The first week they’d racked up 90 miles on the odometer, cautiously following Meredith after school, and had come up with nothing. Ella’s mom was on the lawn once when they drove by and had waved to them to come on in. They’d played a game of Boggle with Meredith and Ella around the kitchen table. They almost abandoned the investigation that night.
But the next day Neil’s mom had sent him on an errand to the Piggly Wiggly right before curfew. As he was checking out, he saw Meredith coming through the door, hurrying to the back of the store. She clearly did not have a curfew. Sneaking back through the cereal aisle, he watched her pick up a prescription, and hid behind a tower of Froot Loops so she wouldn’t spot him. As soon as he could, he hurried to his car, just managing to catch up with her Volkswagen as she exited the parking lot, and followed her to the drive that turned out to lead to the professor. What had she been picking up at the pharmacy, so late? Was it the pill? A diaphragm? The Supercops would find out. Meredith had no idea. Neil could not wait to tell Trevor. They would have to adjust their methodology.
Early in July, Meredith’s father found an indiscreet letter she had left lying out in her bedroom and discovered the affair. By then she had already ended it, resenting the feeling of being younger, controlled, underestimated. The professor had taken her to an opulent (for Kansas) restaurant, a little ways out of town, a place that looked like Pepé Le Pew’s boudoir—floor-length velvet curtains, upholstered rococo settees. That’s what had clinched it. As they sat across a candelabraed table draped with plastic flower garlands, awaiting their escargots, afraid of being recognized, Meredith suddenly saw the trite caricature they presented to outside eyes. She was not, after all, a brave, clear-sighted modern woman who’d engineered an elegant solution for her sexual inexperience; she was just a naive young girl being seduced by an older man. That night, back at the bungalow, she had broken up with Mark, then returned to her family, her friends, her novels and her teenage-hood. She took Ella out to dinner a couple of times soon after, to Applewood or the Mexican cantina, paying for both of them with her baby-sitting money to show herself: Anyone could pay for dinner, for anyone. It didn’t mean the person who paid for you had something over you. She had been relieved to have the deed done, the lesson learned, the professor gone, so the prior pattern of her days could resume while most of summer still remained.
She’d never been in trouble before. She wasn’t a rebel, hadn’t regarded what she was doing as rebellion.
But the prior pattern did not resume, not at first. Her father was devastated when he found the letter, her mother told her—her strong, gentle, benevolent, protective father, whom Meredith had never disappointed before. Leaving aside the question of what she’d done, her mother said, how could she have left such a compromising letter in plain sight? Did she have no sense? What if her brother and sister had seen it? Meredith sobbed with remorse, crushed by her father’s heartache, her own incaution. She did not know how to make things right. It had not occurred to her that her experiments with Mark could hurt her parents; she had only worried vaguely about the risk of Mark’s getting in trouble if they were caught—not imagining she herself might get in trouble, or even knowing what that would mean, given that she’d never been in trouble before. She wasn’t a rebel, hadn’t regarded what she was doing with the professor as rebellion, exactly. She had thought she was being prudent, thought she was…well, covering all the bases. So she would be safe when she was out in the world on her own.
She did not know how to prove to her parents that she was still the same, still on track, that her conscience and ambition remained intact. Meredith assured them the thing wasn’t as serious as they thought, that it never had been, and that it was definitely over in any case. But they did not believe her. They assumed she must be deeply in love, no matter what she said, that she would not go to Brown but stay in Kansas, marry the professor, derail the brilliant future they had envisioned for her, toward which she had moved so surely, so unerringly, for so long.
The professor did not understand. He could not call Meredith at her house because of her parents, and she would not call him, traumatized by her parents’ distress. He wrote her long, condescending, tortured letters; his anger mystified her. In one, he pettishly apologized for having made her “wheel her tricycle so near the abyss.” She ignored the letters, but when more came she finally responded with a letter of one line: “I don’t see the point of beating a dead horse.” She was confused by his display of emotion; was he feigning it out of injured pride? She had not thought it conceivable that he had genuine feelings for her. Had he ever seen her as anything other than an 18-year-old girl he was sporting with? She hadn’t thought so. Was there something she had missed?
The Supercops didn’t understand either. Neil and Trevor came by her house in the Dart late in July, when she and Ella and Sophie were suntanning on the roof, drinking Cokes, listening to Cat Stevens. The boys climbed up the ladder and joined them.
“Looks like you’re back…,” Trevor said, leadingly.
“What do you mean?” Meredith said, perplexed, unaware of their abandoned campaign. “I haven’t gone anywhere.”
“Nudge, nudge, wink, wink,” Neil snickered.
“Neil, you are so not funny,” Meredith said, and went down the ladder to get them all more Cokes and some Bugles.
By then she had long since stopped talking about the professor with Ella or Sophie. She had moved on. Sophie talked a lot about Joel (they were sleeping together now, he was going to the local college, she would join him there the following year). Ella and Meredith flipped through the freshman facebooks that had come in the mail, dreaming of the distant campuses where their families would drop them in a month, far from Kansas. The next week, when Meredith went with her parents to Walmart to buy supplies for her dorm room—sheets, towels, extension cords, hangers, a bulletin board—she sensed their confidence in her rekindling, their hopes for her rebuilding. By the time they went shopping for her school clothes and winter coat, a few days before the long car trip east, she felt the beam of their trust had regained its earlier force. She felt dizzy with gratitude. It was like the return of the face of the sun.
Why couldn’t they all understand? She had just wanted to learn. Was that so strange, so wrong? At Brown, freshman year, she wouldn’t have sex at all; she wouldn’t need to, because now she wasn’t insecure about not knowing how. She could return to the warm, clothed caresses of debate-club-style courtship—ice cream, make-out sessions, second base if she felt like it. She could wait for love, for inclination. What was the hurry?