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All the Girls We Knew in the Suburbs

It was the night before Christmas, but all that meant to us was that no one else was out and the suburbs were our playgrounds more than ever. We were two Jewish kids from the city and it was not our holy night. No family unwrapping ceremonies awaited us in the morning. Our days of unwrapping, all eight of them, had ended a week earlier, though those days of miracle light were not our holiest. Everyone thought that because they fell so close to Christmas, even if no one ever knew exactly when; they seemed to orbit around the birth of Christ like a set of moons, sometimes close, sometimes far. Our holiest rituals fell in autumn, though in truth nothing was particularly holy to us. We were not much for atonement.

They’d predicted ice that night—careful, Santa, they’d said on the news—but there was no ice when Ian and I drove out to see some girls in the suburbs. Still, families were walking home from the 10 p.m. mass so carefully, like the sidewalk was one more thing to be treated with reverence. Bundled children looked up at the sky, waiting for something to come out of it. They seemed so stupid, and I honked then sped away, through stop signs, up to the suburbs, all of which looked down on our city and took the name of whatever hill they were built on. The girls out here were like us except our parents didn’t care if we went to school with a few black kids and theirs did. Suburban parents seemed richer, though we understood this was because of property values in the city. You got more for less out here. Ian and I went to the city school where we cut class and didn’t do homework and still made honor roll, which was also more for less. Like all the Jewish girls we knew in the suburbs, which is to say all the girls we knew in the suburbs, these girls had a finished basement, which made hooking up easier. In the city we had to navigate girls to our bedrooms, smuggling them like beer up the creaking stairs. Space was cramped, walls thin, parents near. There were no such problems out in the suburbs. Even in the same house we were far away. These finished basements always gave parents the façade of good, clean fun—the foosball! the Pac Man arcade!—like it didn’t matter that we weren’t twelve anymore and hadn’t been in some time.

But it mattered. We were sixteen; we were not there for board games. Down the hall in the basement was a guest bedroom, and right away, Ian disappeared with one of the girls. This left me with the other girl, whose name I can’t remember because I barely knew it then. I had not come here to see her, nor had she come to her friend’s house to see me. We were here to be part of the façade, to help parents believe there was no sex in this large, finished basement. Though one thing I’d found was that whenever Ian and some girl were kissing and undressing down the hall, or around the corner, or on the adjoining couch, often the girl’s friend might feel compelled toward similar acts, or at least compliant about them, whether out of curiosity or boredom or the awkwardness of their muffled noises or the pressure of my silence. So it was here. We didn’t speak. We sat on the couch, each in the middle of our cushions like we might fall off. We watched the giant television. Every channel had a Christmas movie and Ian would have made a joke about this but I didn’t. I couldn’t make jokes like Ian but I was good at silence. I unnerved girls. This girl had brown hair the same color as every other girl’s hair, wound up in a high ponytail that bobbed even when her head was still. Her freckles were clustered on her far cheek, like they’d all fled one side of her face for the other. Perhaps they were fleeing me. Though that may have been another girl in another basement. On the television, two idiot robbers devised their plan, and Kevin McCallister devised his. During a commercial, I stroked her leg over her sweatpants, lightly enough that we could agree it was not happening. She was eating popcorn and she didn’t look at me. She rubbed her feet together nervously and I wondered if this caused the ponytail bobbing. I felt disdain for her, I don’t know why. She and I both knew her friend was better looking than she was and that she therefore ought to have been accepting of whatever I wanted. I trailed my hand up over her breast. She didn’t stop me. She never looked at me. She ate her popcorn. She ate the unpopped kernels while I moved over her shirt that said she’d had a grand slam time several years earlier at someone’s bar mitzvah. We were always having grand slam times at bar mitzvahs. We were not having a grand slam time here but I was trying. The girl stared at that television, like she’d never seen Home Alone before. At some point she gasped, but I realized this corresponded to some action on the television. Kevin had laid his brother’s tarantula on the robber’s face.

In the end she had popcorn stuck in her teeth and I was only tired, so when we finally left the girls after 3 a.m. it was Ian who drove, buoyed by his energy, triumphant, swerving up and down the hills back to our city. It had turned cold and the roads had iced. No one was out but us. There was a joke in the car about how Jews celebrate Christmas. Ian was smiling. He looked almost noble, though he wasn’t. He was not much better looking than me, I thought. Mostly he was just better at taking. I felt ill, as if I’d been drinking though I had not been, and even though I asked Ian to pull over he did so in a way that scared me, continuing straight when he should have turned with the road, taking us into a dark, empty space, and I felt we would sail off the side of the cliff. But it was only a little clearing, an overlook. Overlooks were another thing they had out here.

I got out of the car and beneath us the lights of our city were perfectly still and white. I was glad to live down there. It was moving, though I did not then like feeling moved. The lights stretched all the way to the hills on the other side of the city, where we’d visited other girls wearing bat mitzvah T-shirts in finished basements in other suburbs. I wanted to throw up but I couldn’t and didn’t feel like making myself. Ian got out of the car and we were peeing down the ravine when we heard the sound of an engine behind us. A car pulled into the overlook. Its headlights were off and it was just a dark block. Who could be out now? Didn’t they know it was Christmas? Our first thought was cop, but it was a beat-up station wagon, like a middle school science teacher drives. It crept toward us, crunching over the gravel, and we could see in the brake light’s dim glow that the trunk was open and something was sticking out of it. The car stopped about ten feet away from us in the dark. Its engine went silent. We zipped up. Then the interior light went on and we could see a man disguised as The Grinch.

It was not our holy night but we knew him. Our teachers had read us the book when we were children, so we would know the danger of a small heart. The Grinch scowled at us under the overhead light. His face was caked in a sickly green makeup, not quite the color of The Grinch, but the color of tile in men’s bathrooms built a long time ago. It seemed like the man who was The Grinch ought to have been bald, but we could see his sideburns led to a healthy head of black hair bushing out beneath his floppy Santa hat. Through the dark and foggy windows we could not see tinier details. Not untamed fingernails or effeminate eyelashes or potbelly, and had we seen them, could we have known what was real and what was getup? His posture was awful; hunched behind the steering wheel he seemed miniature, though I thought that if he came from his car to threaten us, he would have towered over us. He wasn’t going to threaten us, though. He was just as startled to have been caught by us as we were by him. His car was stuffed with presents, green and red boxes squashed against each other, and the burlap sack hanging out the back might have held a person until we saw the top of a Christmas tree poking out, a single ornament dangling. We looked for the antlered dog, we remembered him from the book. The Grinch brought a thin cylinder to his lips, maybe a cigarette, maybe chapstick. He seemed on-edge, impatient. He tapped the steering wheel. He fiddled at the dashboard, maybe changed the radio. What right had we to intrude upon his game?

We had none. And we were in that place between childhood and late adolescence where we’d lost our curiosity and had not yet reclaimed it. We’d lost many things. We got in our car and drove away, crunching over a gift that had fallen in the road. We did not stay to witness the man who was The Grinch backing his station wagon to the edge of the cliff, sending his cargo tumbling into the abyss. We did not stay to stop him, or to see if he had some change of heart. We did not follow him to the grimy shack where beneath a single light bulb he washed off his makeup. We did not think to get his plate number. We sped down the empty roads into our icy city, laughing at his freakishness, though when we reached our city limits and the road flattened we fell quiet, stricken by a terror that something was wrong in our own houses. That they’d been looted or ransacked, our families stolen from us. But we didn’t accelerate. We stopped at every stop sign, though we saw no other cars. We knew something awful awaited us and we did not have the courage to face it. Around us the city was dead and quiet, the brick houses too close together. I imagined the houses as teeth that needed braces to spread them out; I felt this could all be fixed. But I didn’t say this to Ian. Anyway it was too late. One day they would have to be destroyed and rebuilt completely. I wanted us to turn around, drive back to the cliff, and beg him to spare us—to pass over us—plead with him that we were on his team. We had small hearts. We did not care about anything.

But then we were home, and our houses were the same as ever, cramped and slightly warm, like someone had left the oven on, our mothers and fathers and sisters asleep, everything in its place when we felt for it in the dark. I felt foolish at my terror, ashamed of it. I resolved to forget it, and I did. We would sleep impossibly late, wear sweaters we’d unwrapped last week, see a matinee with our families while Christians ate hams, if their hams had not been stolen, and played with whatever gifts they still had left. We were all takers, but it was none of our holy nights, and it would be a long time before any of us would have to think about what we had done.

Award-winning fiction writer. Chicago Tribune's Nelson Algren Award winner. Recognized in Pushcart Prize, Best American anthologies. NEA Literature Fellow.