I had been thirteen for exactly two weeks when the spot appeared on my tongue. It was the size of a newborn’s fist, ragged and pale—eerie as hell. I brushed my teeth twice, but it wasn’t going anywhere. I kept it to myself. I wasn’t scared—not at first. I’d been scrutinizing my body for days, seeking the tiniest evidence of change. Here, finally, on an ordinary Monday morning was something different, a sign of hope. Hadn’t Mrs. Alston told us our bodies would reveal their mysteries in many ways? This, I thought, was my mystery.
It was 1977, and I was trying to survive seventh grade. I believed in signs. The storm of puberty had blown in and drenched everyone but me. I was flat and scab-kneed, pony-tailed, all angles and lines—I-85 had more curves. And that had been fine with me. Fine, that is, until Lance came to live with us.
I remember thinking womanhood would come on me fast. I still prayed then, and every night I begged for my growth spurt. I didn’t have time for the drawn-out internal processes of adolescent development Mrs. Alston had told us about in class, where eggs were dropped, hips rounded, and hormones gushed, and it was all very busy and hidden, like a swarm of bees beneath your skin. As far as I was concerned, womanhood was a trapdoor I could fall through. I wanted to wake up one morning grown.
Something else had changed that spring. The girls who wore Earth Shoes and Bonne Bell lip-gloss began to fascinate me. Their silliness repelled me. I studied them with the brooding intensity of an enemy—or a lover. Their Farah-feathered hair was sprayed stiff. They were smug smugglers of tampons and tugged at their bra straps with practiced irritation. They rode the bus or carpooled, and passed me as I rode my banana-seat bicycle to school. How had they managed to slip so quickly into those grown-up selves? That’s what I wanted to know. They moved in groups—a gaggle, like geese. Mornings before homeroom, they gathered and primped in the school bathroom. I brushed my hair, pretending to care, and I listened to them, those girls. They stood together giggling at the corner sink. They didn’t really see me.
But that Monday morning, I’d lost all interest in eavesdropping. I hid in a stall until they left for class. When the first bell rang, I came out and studied my tongue in the wavy mirror over the sink. The splotch had spread and sharpened, like a work in progress. It had morphed into the very thing Mrs. Alston had showed us on the overhead projector the week before. Slender ducts that connect the uterus and ovaries, she’d said. It’s where the action is, ladies, where fertilization occurs.
There was a picture of fallopian tubes on my tongue.
The late bell rang, and I didn’t move. I’d get detention if I went to class now. I’d never been any trouble to Aunt Violet. This one don’t give me no trouble, she’d said. It’s Lance that’s going to kill me. But there wasn’t a chance I was going to be seen with this thing—a womb!—on my tongue.
I went to the school nurse.
You ought to get that looked at, she said, and called Aunt Violet to pick me up. I’ll need a doctor’s note, she told us.
When my brother arrived one bright chilly day weeks before, in February, toting his backpack and bedroll, reeking of Camels, French fries and the menacing smells of hitchhiking, my childhood began to chafe like a husk. Although Lance fell into one of his awful funks, sitting in his recliner watching reruns all day, I knew the time would come when he’d take off again. And when he did, I planned on going with him. I had it all figured out—I was naïve enough to believe myself. I’d get my diploma by mail order. I’d learn shorthand and wear pantyhose and pumps. I’d be Lance’s secretary when he worked for NASA—and I was certain my brother’s talents were needed at NASA, if he had a mind to join them.
Lance knew everything about how the world worked. He once autopsied a dead cat and brought me home the skull. He’d sliced open a pickled cow eyeball and built robots and made an explosion. He told me about The Big Ear, a telescope in Ohio that had received a radio signal from deep space. He said Sweden banned aerosol sprays because they messed up the atmosphere. Before he ran away from his father’s house up North, he’d gone to a high school for geniuses. But then something happened, and he got kicked out or quit, and he ran away and ended up with us at Aunt Violet’s.
You swore to me you would never go back to that school in Massachusetts. They kicked me out, you said, because I’m a deviant. But you were bored and miserable, and I was scared you’d leave us and go back up North. I’d ask if you were leaving, and you’d tell me to stop bugging the holy shit out of you. I asked a lot. Aunt Violet would hiss at me to stop pestering you. She’d tell me how ruined you were, dragged off to Boston where you’d got too smart for your own good, and what use was book learning if you couldn’t make it in this world? Did you ever hear her? Her frustrated love?
I never sulked. I guarded you. You had that look, you know? The look of leaving. And because I was sure you’d abandon me, I prepared to go away, too. I wanted to deny myself the comforts of life, I resolved to pull away. I willed my attachments—to home, to Aunt Violet, to Mrs. Alston—to buckle and loosen like wallpaper, so when the time came to go away with you there would be nothing—no one—to stop me. I practiced seeing Aunt Violet’s home the way a stranger might: rotten stacks of plywood, a pile of old tires, the smell of old people’s skin.
I sat beside Aunt Violet at the free clinic that Monday worried sick she’d keep me out of school the next day. I’d miss Sex Ed! I tried hard to hide how upset that made me. It was an imperative class, Mrs. Alston had told us, and I wasn’t about to miss Mrs. Alston’s imperative lesson even if I did have a picture of the female reproductive system on my tongue. Even if I had the male reproductive system, I wasn’t going miss that class. Aunt Violet pressed her hand on my forehead, and told me I was warm. She didn’t know I was taking Sex Ed. I’d forged Mrs. Violet P. Blair in that old person shaky way on the mimeographed permission slip that went out about the disturbing number of pregnancies and increasing incidents of venereal disease at our school, about the frank discussion and scientifically accurate information the specialist will have at her disposal. Asking Aunt Violet to sign such a thing would have been excruciating for both of us, and the way I looked at it, my forgery was an act of mercy. Besides, if you didn’t take Mrs. Alston’s class, you’d be stuck in Home Ec making brownies with the Pentecostal girls who didn’t cut their hair, much less take a sex class.
Even today, I can see Mrs. Alston the way she sat on the stool in front of us that first day, her skirt draped in long folds. She told us she’d delivered babies on five continents. She was as furious as a prophet in Revelations, with a look that made you swallow hard.
She was a health specialist sent courtesy of Uncle Sam, she said, and she looked serious at first as if she were going to be strict, but she had a laugh that burst from her sudden as a clap of thunder. She wore canary yellow blouses from India and a vest she’d made by sewing together her dead husband’s ties. She carried a knitting bag filled with books like Our Bodies, Ourselves and Let’s Talk About S-E-X!
In the course of our time together, she said, I want you to ask me anything. And I mean anything. I have seen it all, ladies. I’m here to enlighten you. You know what your job is?
Our jobs? We looked down or at each other, and tried to avoid Mrs. Alston’s unflinching stare. We were seventh grade girls—what kind of jobs could she mean?
Oh yes. You don’t think your school brought me in for nothing, do you? Don’t think I’ve been around the world, in tents and shacks and refugee camps telling women anything different than what I’m going to tell you here. You’ve got a job, girls. And I’ll tell you what it is. I protect me. Say it with me, ladies.
I protect me. We said it quiet as prayer.
She clapped. Say it again. Loud!
I protect me!
Whenever I clap, you ladies say it. Okay?
On the first day of class, Mrs. Alston gave us a handout about breast exams. (When your breasts come in, cherish them, she said, closing her eyes. Cherish them.) She passed around plastic models of the human reproductive system that she fished out from a large box of Styrofoam packing peanuts. Mrs. Alston told us that people were sexual beings and she said sexual relations were normal and could be dangerous but she did not say it was a sin.
Hey, I’m not the preacher, okay? I’m the teacher. We live in the real world here, right ladies? In the middle of Mrs. Alston’s talk on herpes or testicles or conception, she would stop and clap, and we would yell, I protect me.
Wide now, the doctor said, and I opened my mouth. His hands smelled of antiseptic, a scent I cherished for its authority. I still loved examining rooms then—the tongue depressors like fat Popsicle sticks, the billowy clouds of jarred cotton balls. Germs were killed in such places, wounds closed, problems solved—or so I imagined.
It’s not the cancer now, is it, doctor? Aunt Violet asked. She was hunched down in the plastic chair by the sink. She’d told me all about how cancer took Uncle Ray, the disease devouring his liver, his kidneys, his organs in days, she said, like a snake swallowing eggs. The doctors hadn’t helped. She’d never known one that did any good at all.
The doctor’s hands moved down my neck, fluttering, probing. The school nurse thought I had something contagious, and Aunt Violet was scared it was terminal, but the doctor would recognize the shape on my tongue, I felt certain, and the possibility both thrilled and disturbed me.
Well, he said. It’s nothing to worry about. What you have here should disappear soon enough. He washed his hands. He was already finished with me. I tried to be happy—I wouldn’t miss Mrs. Alston’s class. But I was stunned with disappointment. It will disappear? It was nothing?
What do you call it, doctor? Aunt Violet said. That thing she has?
Migratory glossitis is the medical term.
Geographic tongue. Named for the map-like configurations that sometimes appear—
She don’t eat right.
We don’t know what causes it, he said, his mouth gone tight. It’s… a curiosity. But it’s harmless. Really. He scratched something down on a clipboard. He wore a pained expression of duty on his clean-shaven face. He looked at his watch, but as he turned to leave, the doctor’s parting words brought me a surge of joy.
Puberty brings on a lot of changes in young adults, he told me. It’s a sign your body is changing.
It’s nothing bad, what Cassie’s got, Aunt Violet said when we got home. Big Mama and Lance were in the dark, paneled den as usual, stationed in their two lounge chairs, their faces bruised in the blue glow of television. She’s got a map on her tongue, Aunt Violet yelled. Big Mama couldn’t hear, or didn’t understand much anymore, and Lance was good at ignoring us. It’s going to disappear, nothing to worry about, the doc says.
Oh, Lord. Did I forget your sugar shot? Aunt Violet asked Big Mama.
I gave it to her, Lance said. He did not take his eyes from the television.
Thank you, honey.
Big Mama turned a little, and sighed. Her tongue waggled in her gummy mouth like a parrot’s. When Aunt Violet’s husband died years ago, he left Aunt Violet his scrap metal business, his house, and also Big Mama, his mother. Big Mama used to stand near six feet tall, chop her own wood, and run the boarding house in Palmetto, but now she sat shrunk up like paper curling in fire, watching TV all day with Lance. There were those who told Aunt Violet that Big Mama would be better off in a bed over at County, but Aunt Violet said she would never do kin that way.
Lance was watching Bonanza again. His yellow bowling shirt was wrinkled and smeared with Cheeto dust. A sore above his knee was scabbed and puss-filled, he worried it so with his scratching.
You need to get outside in the fresh air, Aunt Violet said, which is what she told Lance everyday. You need some boys your age to talk to.
Mr. Cartwright, Hos, Little Joe—they’re my friends now, he said. Even Hop Sing the Chinaman has his charms.
Aunt Violet stood with her hands on her hips, fretting. Her voice lowered. You reckon Mr. Blackenstock might come by for supper?
Lance stood up, stretched, popped his knuckles. Even then, he was scary skinny. He reached for his cigarettes and lighter. I need a smoke.
Where’s he keeping himself these days?
Don’t know, Lance said. Don’t care.
Aunt Violet sighed. Now don’t be that way to a schoolteacher who looked out for you like he did.
Lance looked at me. Newsflash, he said. They found rings around Uranus.
Devilment. That’s what Aunt Violet called Lance’s comments. But I took a secret delight in his barbs, even when they were aimed at me.
What, Cassie? You didn’t know? You are familiar with Uranus, right?
Lance, I said.
Seventh planet from the sun, he said. Twenty-two moons. And five newly discovered rings.
Run out see if we got mail, honey, Aunt Violet told me now. And then set the table.
It had been weeks since Mr. Blackenstock had eaten supper with us. For a while, he’d walked over to our house with his dog, Dolly, three or four times a week. That was soon after Lance enrolled at Palmetto High and Mr. Blackenstock was still his teacher. Mr. Blackenstock had recently moved to Palmetto and you could tell he wasn’t used to it, or maybe Palmetto wasn’t used to him. He had a ponytail and a leather necklace. He was alone in our town, with no mother or wife. He lived over on the mill hill, past the high school, in a rental right there beside the water tower. I rode my bicycle by his house sometimes, and if he saw me he would hold up his arm, his hand spread wide, a funny kind of wave. I had seen the dirty mat on his porch, the wild sticker bushes, the need for a woman there. When he came to dinner, Aunt Violet made him take home leftovers in warm, foiled heaps.
Mr. Blackenstock told us Lance was the brightest student he’d ever taught. He had Lance helping out in the lab and working on his own projects. But one afternoon Mr. Blackenstock came over and said he had a surprise for Lance. He read a letter out loud to us at the kitchen table. He told us Lance could go to a program in California that summer for the good of the world. He could go there on a scholarship from Tao Chemical. Your life is just beginning Lance, Mr. Blackenstock said. But something changed in Lance’s face, and he didn’t look happy. He kept whispering, California? And then Lance didn’t say another word through supper. He didn’t touch his food or talk to Mr. Blackenstock. After Aunt Violet served the blueberry cobbler, Lance said, I’m not taking a scholarship from Tao Chem.
What? Mr. Blackenstock said. What?
Lance said Tao Chem was an evil company that used science to kill people. He said they put chemicals in prisoner’s mashed potatoes to see what it would do to their brains. After the chemicals killed them, Tao Chem stole the bodies and carved out the brains that were all shrunk up and fuchsia pink and he said they kept them in jars in the Tao Chem labs somewhere in the Pentagon, where they were stored to this day, like rows of pickled beets. They were making a chemical in secret to make a whole class of drones for the American army.
My God, Lance. You know that’s not true, Mr. Blackenstock said.
I’m not taking one cent of Tao Chem blood money, Lance said. And then he stood up and walked out of the kitchen and sat out on the porch.
That boy might have his daddy’s brains, Aunt Violet said, but he’s got his mama’s wild notions.
Later that evening, Mr. Blackenstock persuaded Lance to come out of his room. They sat together on the porch swing.
I’ll not be the cause of this, Lance. I’ll not…you have to take it.
I don’t have to do anything, Lance said.
You can get out of here. Mr. Blackenstock put his hand on Lance’s bare knee. Don’t you see that?
Is that what you want? You want me out of here?
Lance took Mr. Blackenstock’s hand and then he leaned over and buried his face in Mr. Blackenstock’s chest. Lance’s shoulders began to shake. Mr. Blackenstock’s hands moved through Lance’s hair, across his back and down his scrawny arms. He sighed and said, Oh, Lance.
Aunt Violet’s dented mailbox was full of junk when I checked it. Nothing good, anyway. No big brown envelopes filled with little paper umbrellas, cocktail napkins, sunset postcards, twenty-dollar bills. My mother worked on cruise ships. She made people’s beds and mopped floors and hung up fresh towels, but she got to visit islands where there were monkeys in the trees and parrots in the air, pet store animals roaming around, or so she’d written once on a postcard. I longed for the day I’d reach in the mailbox and pull out another of those overstuffed brown envelopes with my name, Miss Cassandra Peters, in my mother’s fat, loopy writing.
As I walked back from the mailbox, I could make out Lance, a speck on the porch. The driveway was long and curved, and Aunt Violet’s house looked small as a game piece by the time you got to the road. A few rusted pieces of ruined cars and motorboats were strewn across the wide overgrown yard. Scrap yard leftovers. Husband parts, is what Aunt Violet called them.
Any word from Bev? Lance said, when I joined him on the porch. He was referring to our mother, whom he hadn’t seen in a year.
Why do you call her that?
Bev? That’s her name isn’t it? She’s no mother, that’s for sure.
I sat down. The porch swing creaked like a ship. He eyed the mail I carried—seed catalogs, bills, a church bulletin.
I shook my head.
You’re lucky you never knew your father. One crappy parent is bad enough. Imagine if your lineage included two miscreants.
Out of habit, I scanned the sky for hummingbirds, although it was much too early in the spring for them. When my mother had arrived at Aunt Violet’s last May, so had the hummingbirds, hovering around the butterfly bushes and crossvines, hungry from migrating all the way from the equator, the same place my mother was now.
God, that’s ugly, Lance said. He stared out at the water tower looming in the distance.
It’s just a water tower, I said. No one hardly notices it.
It’s hideous. It bears a striking resemblance to a single enlarged virus. Do you know viruses are dead? They replicate and kill living cells. That’s their mission on earth. Replicate, kill. They’re pathogens. And that’s what one looks like. He blew a smoke ring, his gaze locked on the horizon.
The smells of baking cornbread floated out from the open kitchen window, and I knew Aunt Violet would call us soon for supper. Lance ground out his cigarette. As he stood to leave, I said, Migratory glossitis. I hadn’t realized I’d memorized the doctor’s term.
Migratory glossitis, I said. I was wondering if you know what that means.
From Latin migrates, he said, to change or move. Glossa is Greek for tongue. Changing tongue.
That’s what I have. Geographic tongue is the nickname. I stuck out my tongue and he leaned in closer.
The waning light caught Lance’s diamond earring, a sliver of a thing nestled in his ear, hidden like a secret. A pimple lurked in the scraggly, soft beard on his chin. His hands were cool and tender on my jaw as he peered into my mouth. Jesus, he said.
I flushed with pleasure. I knew Lance would recognize the female reproductive system when he saw it. But I was wrong.
It just what? Showed up? This thing on your tongue?
It’s a map, he said. It’s a country. I swear…this is a southeastern Asian country, I’m sure of it. His nostrils flared a little as he concentrated, and his eyes, black and round and scary as a shark’s, were fixed on me. He was looking hard as if I were a specimen in a lab, but he was away from his recliner and his TV shows, and that made me happy.
I loved you. I loved you so much it was hard to breathe. I’d do anything to see you curious again. Even show you the picture of fallopian tubes on my tongue. Even that.
He came to my bed that night with a flashlight and an Atlas. He woke me up, and I stuck out my tongue and let Lance take another look. Then I lay down while he sat at the end of my bed flipping through his Atlas, whispering about latitude and terrain.
Burma. Shit, if it’s not Burma. I knew it. I knew I’d seen that before. Fucking Burma, Cassie.
Lance, don’t cuss.
That northern border is uncanny.
It was three in the morning. Lance wore nothing but shorts. His bony chest was smooth, with two flat, brown nipples like eyes. Why did men have nipples? I would ask Mrs. Alston.
How far off is Burma?
About as far away as you can get from Palmetto, South Carolina, he said.
I drifted off to the sounds of Lance sketching in his notebook. I dreamed I was stretched out on a beach towel, the hard, warm sand underneath me crunching like sugar. The tide came in. The gulls screamed. My mother was on her ship, docked out on the sea, waving to me. A water bird stood there at the edge of the ocean, and it was Lance. A beautiful silver heron and Lance at the same time, just the way dreams can mix up things and be right, too. One flap of his wings, like snapping a towel, and Lance was in the air, circling over the turquoise water, his shadow moving on the beach around me, a second dark bird. Lance the water bird got smaller as he drifted away, flying off to Burma.
That night you weren’t bored anymore. I watched your transformation, I witnessed your terrible euphoria. I remember waking up later, furious at myself for sleeping. I hadn’t heard you leave. You weren’t in your room. I went back to my bed and panicked. When I heard the front door latch open and close, relief filled me like a kind of ecstasy. You tiptoed past me in the hallway. Your hair was wet, you’d just gone running. You hadn’t been out like that for weeks. There was a time you’d run for miles and miles at night, all the way to the water tower and back. You remember that? Right before you dropped out of school. I’d listen for your sneakers—I could hear them slapping down the driveway towards the highway, and they’d get softer and softer, and further away. Sometimes I’d see you come back at dawn, the sweat coming off you like you’d been caught in a downpour.