In Nikki Volpicelli’s fiction piece set in the early 2000s, a 17-year-old narrator second-guesses her relationship with a frisbee golfing, Gadzooks-wearing stoner whose sudden turn towards spirituality leads somewhere she never expected.
It was all fine, really, until the morning David walked into school wearing baggy, silver swishy pants. If I had to name the moment everything changed, it was when I watched my boyfriend walk up to my locker before the first bell—swish, swish, swish—and go in for a kiss.
My mouth was already agape. I said, “What are you wearing?”
“What, these?” he asked, pulling the reflective, sandy-sounding fabric away from his body like he forgot.
He said they helped him move more freely. I told him everyone could see his bulge even if all they were trying to do was get to class, and that felt illegal. I said as his girlfriend, the pants made me uncomfortable. He said as his girlfriend, he hoped I could accept his most authentic self. That one day I’d stop buying whatever the fashion magazines were selling and start really expressing myself, same as him. I could tell by his eyes and their wet, downturned look of concern that he was being sincere, but when he turned to walk away I swear I could hear them down the hall—sssshh, ssshh, sshh—mocking me.
I would’ve let it go if it was just that one time, but the next day, he was still wearing them. Said he’d never felt more comfortable in his life and suggested I get a pair. I walked away in silence, because I could. Because I wasn’t wearing swishy pants.
Don’t get me wrong, the first few months of dating David was a dream, like a Freddie Prinze Jr. movie kind of thing. I saw him from across a party. He was tall, he had beautiful green eyes and wore a Quicksilver tee cuffed just high enough to see the definition of his arms. He was skinny-strong, like a rubber band. I thought yeah, he’s the one.
He’d meet me at my locker every morning and drive me home after practice. He was late now and then, but he helped his dad around the house a lot. So what if sometimes he got too stoned to know the hour? He said after all the dad stuff, he needed something to take the edge off. Made sense to me, his dad wasn’t exactly the nicest guy. Very strict and condescending. Plus, David would make up for it with hours of kissing, always asking, “how’s this?” or “how’s that?” I’d answer good, great. I was a sophomore, I’d barely kissed anyone. He was a senior, and they’re always trying to teach you things—that’s just the price of admission, dating an older guy.
But then came the letter: a rejection from NYU.
I told him not to worry about it, there were other schools. He said he knew that, but he didn’t apply to them. It was NYU or bust. That was the plan as far back as he could remember. Holding that letter, it was like the earth lost its axis, he was frozen. “My dad can’t find out,” he said, rolling his shoulders back, talking more to the sky than to me. He ripped the letter into the tiniest pieces until it wasn’t paper and didn’t exist. It was a little dramatic, but that was David, all or nothing. He further proved it a week later, when he stopped brushing his teeth.
“They’re organic and fluoride-free,” he said, pausing to look at the ingredients before handing me a tea tree toothpick. He put the clear pack back in his shirt pocket. I just took it and said nothing. He seemed happy, more relaxed than I’d seen him since he got the news. Besides, no one had to know my boyfriend stopped brushing his teeth. It was our little secret that I tried to forget every time we kissed. Secrets are good, they bring you closer together.
"Those eyes. It was like God made a mistake, they should’ve gone to a king or a serpent."
It helped to stare into his eyes. I mean, wow, those eyes. It was like God made a mistake, they should’ve gone to a king or a serpent. Instead, he gave them to this shaggy-headed boy and kicked him out of heaven to live out his destiny of becoming really, really good at frisbee golf. All he wanted to do lately was throw frisbees through the woods. I tagged along, glad that he’d picked up a new hobby. That’s what I thought it was, a little escape.
After the pants, I started avoiding my locker in the morning, hauling the day’s books with me to first period so I wouldn’t have to kiss him in front of the whole school. I tried to convince myself no one really cared, that I was the only one who noticed his new outfit, but that only worked for so long. Three days into my new morning routine, he slid into the doorway of first-period Chemistry class with a hall pass just to wave hello.
“Wow, how’s it hanging, David,” Jenny said under her breath. I shot her a look and hid my beet-red face in a book, pretending I couldn’t see him there. Eventually, he slid away.
“It’s just a phase,” I told her. “Remember that summer in middle school when we collected those rubber bracelets? It’s like that.”
“You mean a trend? Girl, I don’t see it catching on,” she raised an eyebrow and laughed.
Whatever, I wasn’t going to let some stupid pants ruin this for me. For the first time, I had an older boyfriend. Someone who could drive. Who knew about the parties. Now all my friends, Jenny included, were asking me what was up every weekend. I did not want to go back to being the girl whose mom drove her around with printed out Mapquest directions. So, after school, I asked David to go shopping.
It was a 15-minute drive from the high school to the Exton Mall, and all 15 minutes were spent listening to David’s new tape, the Dalai Lama’s Chant for Healing.
“Are you okay?” I asked, five minutes in.
A wide grin spread across his face as he took his hand off the wheel to squeeze my thigh.
“I’m great now,” he said, jiggling my leg in a way that made me self-conscious. “To be honest, I thought you were mad at me. I haven’t seen you at your locker for a few days.”
I mumbled something about a class project and looked out the window. He went back to humming along.
Structure, PacSun, Abercrombie & Fitch; at every store, I implored him to try something on, anything. By the time we entered Banana Republic, his smile had worn off.
“Babe, I don’t want to buy any of this. I have enough stuff. I told you: you only gain more by owning less,” he said, flinging a tie back into the snaking pile on the table.
“I just think you’d look really good in these!” I grabbed the shorts closest to me—salmon, with little tortoiseshell buttons closing the back pockets.
“You sound just like him.” He meant his dad. He said it like an accusation. Two weeks into dating and buzzed off 99 Bananas, he told me I would never meet him. You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me, he said. He’ll just tell you what a loser I am, and you won’t like me anymore. I thought he was joking; who calls their kid a loser? But then one day dad came home early from work with a new briefcase. For you, should you ever decide to wise up and use it.
David closed his eyes and breathed out one of his chants-on-tape. He calmed down, quieter now, but I could still see the fire in his cheeks.
“Please. I can’t take you trying to change me, too.”
“Please. I can’t take you trying to change me, too.”
We drove home in silence. I was embarrassed, getting scolded like that in the Banana Republic. I decided that it was the last time I’d try to help.
A few weeks later, we met his friend Greg in the parking lot after school, and Greg told him he smelled like a ball sack. I couldn’t argue: David had adopted a new mustiness, and the thought of going down on him now made me gag. Not that we were having sex anyway; he’d bought some books on tantric and refused to touch me anymore. He just bore down on me with those hypnotizing eyes in a way that made me feel naked. He did it all the time, it didn’t matter where we were. I hated it.
As we got into Greg’s ‘97 Mercury Cougar, I could sense his apprehension. Greg babied that old thing, cleaned it and cleaned it like it was a vintage sports car. But David wasn’t phased, he just smiled and packed the bowl that now permanently resided in his right pocket. I watched from the backseat as David’s eyes turned Christmas hues. We made a left turn into the frisbee park and David pulled a branch into the passenger’s side window, raining leaf confetti in our faces.
“Yo man, get that shit out of here!” Greg said.
“We need to let what’s out in, and what’s in out,” David said, stuffing the branch in the center console. Riddles, this was his new form of communication. If you didn’t know better, you might think they were profound.
“I’ll let you out and you can walk.”
I laughed, but David didn’t. Lately, we couldn’t get through anything without some drama or a philosophical argument he began with himself. Not a party, no matter how good the party was. Not a movie, even when I agreed to watch The Secret. He’d barely drive his car anymore, said he wanted his footprint erased, whatever that meant.
By dusk, we were still standing at the seventh hole, David silent and slow, looking up at the blue-black sky, taking little puffs from his bowl. So, so high. I was hungry and had homework to do, a concept that no longer concerned him. By now, he’d stopped bringing a book bag to school, said everything he needed could fit in his pockets. Said he no longer believed in the education system and just sat in front of his teachers, clicking the tiny white eraser on his mechanical pencil.
“I thought this was your thing,” I said, spiking a disc through the shoot and past the hole. It landed in the creek and sailed toward the lake. I was sure he’d tell me what I could do next time to improve my aim. Instead, he just looked down at the orange and blue disc in his hands and said, “Every ending is just another beginning.”
I closed my eyes and sighed. Then I heard zip, zip, zip, and looked up to see David power walking back to the car.
“What’s up his ass?” Greg said, kicking a chunk of dirt at the chain-linked basket that was sinking into the mud. “Does he not realize we’re the only ones who’ll even play this fucking game with him anymore?”
It was true. The rest of David’s friends had stopped golfing after he lit a bush on fire and called it a miracle. Later that day, he bought peace beads and started picking up on energy—he claimed he was letting go, cleansing. But the things he was letting go of were the same things that attracted me to him in the first place. It sort of made me wish he’d just let me go, too.
After that, Greg stopped hanging out with us and David accumulated a few followers from the small group of guys who were always loitering around the park. There was Chipper, who could open bottles with his teeth, and Gabe, a glassblower who’d lived in his garage since he was thirteen. They just get it, he’d say. This seemed to mean they didn’t talk much when they were stoned, just listened and nodded, or stared wide-eyed as he sat in the front seat of one of their cars, throwing things out the window. Lighters, water bottles, air fresheners—he was always renouncing.
"I was so sweaty and could feel the underwire of my bra digging into my ribs as I gasped for air."
One afternoon, we all sat in the Sunoco gas station parking lot for three hours circulating blunt after blunt until it was too hotboxed to see out of the car windows. I was so sweaty and could feel the underwire of my bra digging into my ribs as I gasped for air. It was too quiet to cough. David was doing one of his mind-reading eye-contact things to Gabe in the front seat. I cut through their steady gaze to grab the Gatorade in the cupholder.
“We all want to be better than our fathers, that’s where the transformation begins,” David said, eyes suddenly more out there than in here. Gabe looked shocked, like how did he know?
I sat back and took a swig of Lemon Lime, but the only thing left in the bottle was backwash, so I broke the spell to open the door and spit it out.
“Anyone want anything from Sunoco?” I asked.
“Close the door!” Chipper gave me a dirty look and continued to suck on the blunt in the backseat.
I was in no rush to get back in that car, so I filled a Big Gulp with the slow Slurpee machine—blue, and perused the candy aisle. I heard the ding of the doorbell and felt someone close behind me. Slowly, I turned around.
“What’s up?” Greg said, smiling. His teeth were very white.
“Hey, just getting some provisions.”
“Gearing up for another long night in the woods?”
I rolled my dry eyes. “I hope not. They’re out there now, stoned out of their minds.”
“Huh. Well, let me get your provisions.”
Greg helped me haul my snacks to the counter and swiped his card to pay. He told me to keep in touch. Actually, he said, “give me a call when your boyfriend orbits back to earth, okay?” and gave me his number.
Back in the car, the last blunt was gone and Chipper was teary-eyed and punching his thigh with his thick fist. “My name is Jordan, dammit! And one party trick does not define me!” he said with a clenched jaw. Whatever happened while I was gone had made David’s hold on them more powerful than ever. As Gabe and Chipper sat there agonizing, he just nodded, smoke still escaping through his cracked window. He said, “I can help you if you let me.”
I shoved three pink Starburst in my mouth and thought, go ahead, let him try.
"I didn’t believe David was some swishy pants messiah."
I didn’t believe David was some swishy pants messiah. Unlike Gabe and Chipper, I was not convinced. It was like last fall when he got hooked on clove cigarettes. He’d chew gum all day and ask me to hold his shaky hand. I knew his hand didn’t actually shake, but I thought it was cute, his subtle way of keeping me around. Now, he was doing everything in his power to get me to run, and here I was. Why? I don’t know, I guess I figured if he quit that he would quit this, whatever this was.
But summer was going by fast, and Jenny had found an older guy whose parents were out of town until August, and no one was inviting me or David to any of the parties. I wanted everything to go back to normal. I wanted someone to kiss, to talk with on the phone for hours every night. At that moment all I wanted was an ice cream sundae with hot fudge, sprinkles, whipped cream, and peanut butter cups, and someone to split it with. Instead I had David and his disciples—these backwoodsy boys who never graduated high school, who seemed to appear out of thin air and begged him to teach them the secret like they couldn’t just rent the DVD and figure it out for themselves.
David called a meeting for Sunday night at the frisbee park, on the seventh hole—the “truth” hole. Wear loose clothing, he advised. When Gabe’s car pulled into my driveway the next evening, all three guys were shirtless. David sat in the front seat wearing only his swishies and beads. Chipper was in the back struggling to adjust his beer belly over a copycat pair. Somehow, the guys had all acquired the same silver pants—baggy, with a light honeycombed lining peeking out at the ankles. Where did they even get them, the last Gadzooks on earth?
They all shuffled uncomfortably in their seats when I sat down in my crop top and skinny jeans. I borrowed my outfit right from the pages of Seventeen magazine to spite him. But he was unphased, totally focused on someplace else, and we drove to the park in a heavy silence. The radio was low, and even when Incubus’s “Wish You Were Here” came on, David left it alone.
Outside, it was even quieter, like all the birds and crickets were watching, waiting. Gabe locked the car, our doors beeping closed as we followed David—swish, swish—into the woods, through the gangly oak tree roots and rocks. I noticed how the boys could hop over these wooded obstacles with ease. Okay, so the pants made them more nimble, so what? I walked behind a little, counting every hole we passed—one, two, three, four, five, six, and finally.
“We’ve arrived,” David said, turning back to face us. “Gabe, did you bring what I asked?”
Out of his pockets, Gabe procured his car keys, a hackysack, a torch lighter, and a thick, misshapen blunt. He held the blunt out to David and sparked it for him.
I thought, Cool, so we’re just going to get stoned, as usual. I took the blunt passed to me, and round and round it went. I thought about the last six months. How at first, David’s inquisition was sincere, flattering—Can I drive you home? Can I kiss you? Are you cold? Then his questions changed. They became more rhetorical, philosophical, and he was never satisfied with my answers, which were I don’t know, I’m starving, and Can we talk about something else? He said I needed to open up, to break free. I just wanted a boyfriend who would take me to prom, chocolate on Valentine’s Day. And now here I was deep in the woods with three shirtless guys, stoned out of my mind. But what could I say, let’s go home? David would never allow it, he loved putting on a good show. Besides, for all I knew he’d already renounced his home and was sleeping out here. I passed the blunt until it was the size of an inchworm and too hot to hold.
“Follow me to the water.”
“Follow me to the water,” David said, swooping his hand in the air. I thought I saw him get distracted by his palm as it passed over his face, but he quickly shook it off and started jogging, whip whip whip, into the woods. Gabe, Chipper, and I ambled behind.
There, in the clearing, was Hopewell Lake—a big aquamarine jewel surrounded by leafy blackness. Next to it was David, dipping his bare feet into the shallow water, beads dangling down his back and pants flap, flapping with every gust of wind. When I got a few feet away I noticed he was bent over a pile of rocks on the bank. Rocks. He was filling his pockets with rocks.
“David!” I yelled, but he didn’t hear or wasn’t listening. He just stood up and stretched his arms out parallel to the water and walked forward, deeper, like on a tightrope. Then he turned to look back at me. I saw in his eyes that clarity, that wet, green-eyed sincerity. This was it. He was letting me go.
The boys walked toward him to the water, slowly, a single file. I stood back and watched as David’s fingers traced little paths in the liquid, like come here, and it was working—there they went, like baby ducks waddling in. Without a word, Chipper filled his pockets and pushed out to meet him. Gabe, too. All ankle-deep, then knee-high, and then.
I watched from the bank, frozen. I heard them take in water with a swish, glug, swish, but those pants wanted to stay afloat. They lifted up, up, up, with little pockets of air, and got sucked down, down, down by the boys who wore them.
Drowning is quiet. It’s like the water pulls you down and it all happens underneath. It’s not thrashing and regurgitating and clinging to fistfuls of nothing. It’s not gasping for air. No. I watched their jellyfish thighs puff and shimmer in the moonlight, just below the water, just before they faded, slowly, and turned into a dream.
I stood there, waiting to see something to convince me it was real—a trail of bubbles rising to the surface, some cheap dollar-store peace beads floating back into view. I stood there, waiting, but nothing came. I took some time to breathe, just a few minutes to be here now. I listened to the tiny waves lapping at the bank—swish, swoosh, swish.
I wasn’t alone for long. Blue and red lights flashed through the trees, bright and urgent. All I could hear was the hum of the ambulance’s air conditioning. There was no need for sirens, I told them when I called that there was no rush. I listened as heavy footsteps cracked closer and closer, breaking everything in their path—the stillness, the spell. As two men wrapped the scene in yellow tape, I felt another holding onto my shoulders. He was looking me in the eye, wanting answers, what happened? But I’d already told them everything I knew. I’m calling to report a drowning.
I stayed quiet when they asked me what we were doing out there at night. Soon they would find the stones, heavy, bloating the boys’ pockets. Soon they would have fewer questions. “Shock,” one said to the other, and they blinked in agreement as they guided me back to the patrol car and wrapped my shoulders in a silvery blanket. I nodded when they asked me if there was someone I could call.
Like I said, I was looking for an older boyfriend. Someone who could drive. Who knew about the good parties. I was just getting started. That’s what I thought as I called Greg, to tell him how horrible it was, what happened.
Nikki Volpicelli is a writer based out of Philadelphia. When she’s not talking to her chihuahuas, she’s writing about life as a 17-year-old in the early aughts. She’s 32 but still not over it.
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