My cousin, Layla, said you had to write a letter asking your boyfriend to have sex with you. So he would have written proof he didn’t rape you or anything. Proof you wanted it. Because a lot of girls lied about getting raped, she said. If you cared about a guy, you’d never want that to happen to him.
“So you gotta give him proof.” She leaned in closer to her bathroom mirror and smudged her eyeliner, because it was sexy. Bedroom eyes, according to the title of the magazine tutorial on the counter. “You gotta protect him.”
We were fourteen.
“Do you write him a note every time?”
“Well, yeah,” she said. “Unless you want him to go to jail. Only a slut would ruin a guy’s life like that.”
“Do you have to say please?”
“It’s a real letter, Jaycie. You gotta use manners, good grammar, say Dear Jeb, Sincerely, Layla, and all that stuff. Do y’all not learn how to write letters in public school?”
“Do you mail them to him, like with a stamp and everything?”
She rolled her eyes at me, shook a bottle of nail polish. “No guy’s gonna wait for a letter to arrive in the mail when he’s horny.”
How would I have known the appropriate delivery method? I hadn’t even had my first French kiss yet. Layla did everything before me.
Nine years later, I see her first boyfriend’s name in the news. At thirty-four, he is an incarcerated sex offender. New accusers with newly unsuppressed memories. The maple syrup floods my plate as I do the math. Jesus fuck. He was twenty-five.
How many Jeb Zawadzkis could there be in Bell County? I carry my plate to the sink and use a wooden spoon to shove the uneaten pancakes through the rubber flaps into the disposal.
“You can’t write the letters on the computer, either. Imagine if your parents found that shit on your hard drive, right? You gotta handwrite ’em. Old school. It’s more romantic that way, anyhow.” She blew on her wet nail polish, waved her hand back and forth to speed up the drying.
Sexual offender. Old school. More romantic than rapist?
I write a formal letter. To the parole board. I include unmannerly words like pedophile and predator, but my grammar is perfect.
* * *
When we were fifteen, Layla snuck out of our grandparents’ house to go meet her new boyfriend. She wore cheap red lipstick that turned orange after she applied it. “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “He just likes to see it smeared on his dick. You have given a blowjob by now, right?”
“I’ve smeared my lipstick plenty of times.” I meant by French kissing, which I’d done for the first time the weekend before. And by lipstick, I meant Burt’s Bees tinted lip balm, but she was halfway out the window, anyway.
Layla climbed back through the window and into the lower bunk a few hours later. I pulled my pillow over my head so I didn’t have to listen to her crying.
The next day while we were floating in the pool, she confessed that Mr. Lip-Dick was married. And a dad. She’d pulled her bra out from under his car seat and snagged a Brownie vest on the hooks. His daughter’s My Family Story badge came off in Layla’s hand. The iron-on backing had lost its stickiness, and no matter how hard she’d tried to press it back on, it wouldn’t stay. “He told me to just roll it up and put the whole thing in the glove box.”
“He has a little girl old enough to be in Brownies? That’s sick.”
“Brownies are the littlest Girl Scouts. He thinks I’m eighteen. That’s an adult.”
“Daisies are the littlest ones. And adults don’t have to sneak out windows.”
She flipped me off my float and went inside.
I pour a second cup of coffee, and make an online donation to the Girl Scouts. In memory of Layla.
Layla, who never held up her three middle fingers, just the one.
“Fuck you, asshole.” I say it for Layla, and for the little Brownie, who I hope never learned her family’s real story.
* * *
“They say these things crystallize your lungs, but they taste ah-mazing.” Layla shook a clove cigarette out of a fresh pack and lit up. “Besides, we’re all gonna die of something, right? You got a name?”
“Tag. How old are you?” He had a long, dark ponytail and a tattoo of a pirate ship on his bicep. A topless female pirate kneeled on the deck, her hands bound.
“Is that your first name or last?” Layla offered him one of her cloves. “I’m Sixteen.”
I choked on my exhale. It was the first time I’d ever heard her tell a guy the truth about her age. It was also the first time I’d smoked. Anything.
“Simple names keep things simple.” He shook his head at her cigarette offer. “Like hell you’re sixteen. She might be, but you’re older than that. At least, I hope you are.”
“You got me,” she said. “I’m twenty-one.”
“That sounds old enough to go upstairs.”
“Entice me.” She blew smoke in his face.
He slid a small glass vial of white powder out of his pocket and shoved right back down. I’d only seen coke in movies, but I wasn’t so naïve I could pretend that had been anything else. We were in a club, not at a house party. Upstairs was pool tables, not bedrooms. I didn’t get why going up there would matter. It was just one big, open space.
But I didn’t know yet that Tag owned the bar, and his office was upstairs. I called a friend to come get me while Layla snorted coke off his desk. She spent half our junior year bent over that desk, until she got pregnant. He paid for the abortion, and then he cut her off.
I never went back to Tag’s bar after that first night. Layla tried to go back for months after the procedure, determined she could slip past a new guy at the door. They always knew who she was. She was infamous.
She drew a picture of a female pirate captain and named her Aislyn. Her plan was to have the image tattooed between her ribs, but she could never save the money. That summer, she let a guy at a pool party tattoo a skull-and-crossbones on her instead. It was uneven and it got infected.
Aislyn was what she wanted to name the baby. Tag told her it would be a crack baby because she was a coke whore. “No kid deserves to be born like that. Get rid of it.” He gave Layla the money, a ride to Planned Parenthood, and one last vial of coke (“To help you deal after they vacuum it out, or whatever.”).
She said Aislyn would’ve called me Aunt Jaycie because we’d always been more like sisters than cousins.
A baby wouldn’t have been a good idea for her at that time, but it wouldn’t have been a crack baby. It would’ve been my niece.
For Christmas, I gave Layla the money to have her bad tattoo covered up. It was small. The rose she picked out didn’t cost much. It would’ve been Aislyn’s middle name. Rose.
We were seniors. Layla didn’t have a new guy in her life yet. Nothing to tie her down. No visible defects. Her future was still a possibility. Her past a thing she could walk away from, if she could take big steps.
I keep Pirate Aislyn in a frame on my desk. She would’ve kicked so much ass.
* * *
Layla held on that last vial of coke from Tag, some sort of sick memento. I didn’t know she still had it until she got pulled over for running a red light, and the cop found it in her console. She never could keep from mouthing off to a cop.
Her parents sent her away. Not to a different kind of school, but to live with our Aunt Dianne, whose house was filled with saint figurines and candles and rosary beads. Aunt Dianne, who intended to homeschool Layla. Aunt Dianne, who got schooled by Layla instead.
My friends all still thought smoking pot was heavy partying. They thought having a boyfriend who was already in college was a big deal. Pictures of their anchor and scripture tattoos dominated their secret social media feeds. Their ink didn’t represent anything other than rebellion. Against what, though?
I graduated from public school, still a virgin, but not so innocent.
Layla told me, when I finally got to visit her at Aunt Dianne’s house, that she had only kept the coke to prove to herself she didn’t need to do it. She was stronger than Tag thought. She wasn’t a coke whore.
I was decorating my dorm room when I got the call that Layla had run away from Aunt Dianne’s. I lay awake all night, expecting her to call, or to show up at my door.
She hadn’t actually run away. She’d been driven away, by her new boyfriend. The only guy she’d ever dated who was our age. The first time I met him was on the courthouse steps right before we walked inside so they could get married.
“James used to be addicted to heroin. But he’s clean now. We’re going to file for custody of his daughter. She’s two. Her mom’s a total disaster. That kid will be so much better off with us.”
They were denied custody. Layla had a miscarriage right after.
* * *
By the middle of my junior year of college, Layla had been a full-time cashier at Wal-Mart for almost two years, and James had just landed a full-time job at Discount Tire. His probationary period was up and he’d gotten a raise. They had a decent apartment and Layla said they could finally afford for her to cut her hours back to part-time, so she could start college, prove they had a plan for the future.
So they could win the next custody battle.
I helped her and James decorate their Christmas tree when I was home on break that year. I brought her a female pirate ornament. She wiped away tears as she hung it from a center branch. James hugged her and I could tell he knew what it meant.
I loved him for knowing that, and for loving her through it.
They were making it, despite the odds.
They both overdosed in their apartment on New Year’s Eve. Their Christmas tree was still up. Bad heroin, so I was told. As if there were good heroin.
I was guzzling champagne at a party with my old high school friends when it happened. I kissed a guy at midnight. I rang in the new year in his bed. Having lost my virginity early in my freshman year of college, sex was no longer a mystery. Partying, no longer taboo. I had the time of my life that night.
Last year on her birthday, I lit a clove cigar at her grave, took one drag and gave her the rest. You can’t get the cigarettes anymore, but Layla would think smoking a cigar over her grave was more badass anyway.
I can’t commemorate the anniversary of her death, not with a candle, or a cigar, but I’ll never miss her birthday.
My engine sputters in the driveway. I give it more gas, cue up the song she was named after, and check my purse again to make sure I have the cigar and the lighter.
This year, she gets the whole cigar. While it smolders, I’m going to show her my ultrasound, and introduce her to her future niece, Layla Rose.
Maybe she’ll be a Brownie.
But probably, she’ll be a pirate.
Shelli Cornelison writes for both adults and children. Her short stories have appeared in print and online publications. In addition to being a writer, she also teaches short fiction workshops at The Writing Barn in Austin, Texas. Shelli was an honor finalist in the Writers’ League of Texas 2017 unpublished manuscript contest in the young adult category. Find her on Twitter at @shelltex.