Coming of Age
Janey was at the fall Senior Campfire Party when she felt the itching start. Left side of her neck, just below her ear. She scratched at it absently, looking across the fire at the flickering crescent of Virginia’s face. The shadows tucked under her cheekbones and deepened the black she’d rimmed her eyes with, giving her a dramatic, gothic look.
They shouldn’t be here, technically. They were only sophomores. But Virginia had an agelessness about her, a fiery, chest-first confidence. “Since when are there rules about a party,” she’d asked, rolling her eyes.
Now Virginia was laughing at something one of the boys had said, her teeth flashing sharp in the darkness. Janey scratched at her neck. She watched as the boy slid his hand from Virginia’s knee to her thigh, noted the way Virginia took a drink from a can and pretended not to notice.
A slick of envy rushed through Janey’s belly. She couldn’t tell if she envied Virginia, with her easy confidence, or the boy, the way his hand was locking now around the sharp part of her hip bone.
“Smoke?” Janey jumped and stopped scratching. Another of the boys was squatting next to her, just outside the circle of light from the flames. He held up a white packet. Janey nodded. The itching on her neck had gotten sharper, and she swung her hair across to cover it. Maybe a cigarette would distract her.
The boy lit a cigarette between his lips, then handed it to her. She placed it between her lips, felt the slight dampness of his tongue, a sour memory of beer. Like a kiss, she thought, sucking in, letting her cheeks collapse and holding the smoke under her tongue. She breathed it out of her nose, savoring the sharp sting. The boy sat down next to her. He was saying something, but the itching was back and she couldn’t pay attention. It was worse than poison ivy, which she’d gotten last year playing capture the flag in these same woods. It was hot, burning, insistent, consuming, as if there was something under her skin, clawing at her from beneath.
Janey tried to bring her attention back to the boy, noticing the group had gone quiet. Glancing around, she saw that Virginia was looking expectantly at her from across the flames. She’d missed something again. “Right, J?” Virginia prompted.
The itching was flooding her collarbones. It was unbearable. “Gotta pee,” she mumbled, unfolding her legs and pressing away from the fire.
“I’ll be here,” the boy with the cigarettes said, taking a draw and winking through the smoke.
Virginia raised an asking eyebrow, but the nicotine and the intensity of the itching had flooded Janey’s head in a rush as she stood, and she stumbled away from the fire, cracking twigs and scattering leaves in front of her hastiness.
It couldn’t even be called itching anymore, she thought through the haze that had settled
over her mind. A strand of hair stuck in her mouth and she pushed it away. She realized she was dripping with sweat. Suddenly she longed for her mother’s cool hands, the mother to whom she’d lied, saying she was sleeping at Virginia’s, how were her hands always so cool? She would know what to do.
“Calm down,” she whispered to herself, aloud. “Calm down.”
She stumbled again and her hand braced against a tree trunk. It was sturdy and the bark was thick and rough. Good, she thought, feels good. She rubbed her neck against the scraping trunk, a flood of hot relief with every push. Her skin was cracking, splitting, she could feel the tickle of her sweat sliding into the opening, between the layers of her skin.
Hasty, breathless, she tore at her clothing, pulling her sweat-stuck shirt away from her body, clawing open her bra and letting it fall, still rubbing against the trunk, her shoulders now, gasping with gratitude as the itching rolled down her body. She used her feet to shove her jeans off one leg at a time, wriggling the knobs of her spine against the tree now, short strokes, feeling the skin sliding down and away. Her eyes filmed over with tears and she closed them against the dark. She felt the skin resist over her hips, sticking hard on the sharp bowl of her bones, but it gave at last. The top layer of skin on her legs fell away quickly, helped by gravity and the pouring sweat. It bunched up, sticky between her toes, but she dragged her feet backwards against the ground until the skin popped and was free.
The sudden ease was like a rush of cool water. Her panting breath sounded loud, and she crouched, exhausted, next to the empty suit of herself, thin and pale against the grass. Slowly,
her breathing calmed, and a warmth crept over her. Her new skin was raw and pale against the
darkness. Every flicker of air that brushed her shot a sharp tingle across her body. She was electric. Dense. Whole. Clean.
Moving slowly, Janey straightened up again. A twinge of shame ran through her as she glanced down at the brittle ball of old skin on the ground, already so foreign and unfamiliar. She dressed quietly, careful to settle the clothing gently against her tender new skin. She folded her old skin, already drying and stiffened on the crumpled leaves, and tucked it under an arching root of the tree, pushing it back until it was barely visible and then covering the opening with a wad of twigs and dirt. She wiped her hands tenderly against the back of her jeans.
She took a deep breath, and moved back through the scrawny silhouettes of trees, toward the waiting light.