I met Janice in a dark crowded bar in Barcelona, Spain, just a few days after her seventeenth birthday. She was from Switzerland and even though she didn’t look it, she was younger than my little sister. I was twenty five, living in a funky little apartment near the beach, and had been trying my hand at teaching English for about six months.
Janice was too young for us to have much in common but she was also too young to notice. Because of our age gap, and the simple fact that her English was only slightly above average, our conversations consisted mostly of asking each other meaningless questions and laughing at things that weren’t very funny.
The bar was located in El Born, a sketchy neighborhood turned trendy just a few blocks from where I lived. It was Friday and nearing midnight so the narrow alleyways were beginning to fill up with people.
Janice was the one who started the conversation. She came up next to me as I was waiting to order a drink at the bar and winked at me with both eyes. I laughed and so did she and when I asked her what her name was and where she was visiting from, I didn’t think to ask her age. If I had, the conversation might have ended where it began.
I bought her a fruity, non-alcoholic drink even though it was expensive and I was verging on broke. When I asked, "Why the juice," she told me she wasn’t drinking. I nodded and got myself a beer that the bartender said was from her home country of Brazil. It cost more than a beer ever should and I wondered if she was really from Brazil.
We went to a corner of the bar and took a seat at a table with a half empty bowl of old popcorn on it. We began our attempt at chatting each other up. Her name was Janice and she was, in her own words, "Almost eighteen." I was from California, "a lot older than almost eighteen" and not drunk enough to ignore my conscious. She was younger than my little sister— a fact, that when pointed out to her, made her blush as if it were meant as a compliment. She had on a tight black long-sleeved shirt that plunged down her chest and a silver necklace that dangled between her tits the way a string might dangle in front of an old cat. Throughout the conversation she would occasionally look down at her chest, making sure "her babies," as she referred to them, were doing okay as she shimmied her neckline down a centimeter or two at a time, exposing more and more as the night dragged on into its warm, hazy darkness.
At one point in our conversation, right after I had told her I was a teacher and she had responded with, "Why can’t I ever get a hot teacher like you," and long after it had become obvious that she was attracted to me, I found myself staring down into the long neck of my beer bottle, hoping that by some miracle I would be saved from looking at this young Swedish girl’s tits for even a second longer. I imagined her having an older brother which made me think about my own little sister which in turn made me feel like a piece of shit.
I looked up at her and noticed her straw snugged tightly between her lipstick red lips and I could tell by the way her jaw was moving that she was chewing on its end.
I looked around for a sign that told me where the bathroom might be.
“What’s your favorite color?” she blurted out as I turned my attention back towards her. She smiled and let the straw fall back into her juice. The end of it was crumpled and chewed, just as I had suspected. “Mine’s pink,” she said with a bashful giggle that I was certain she picked up somewhere—maybe in a movie—and was trying to imitate in order to be cute. I found it slightly unattractive and pointed at my shirt, which was black.
She hesitated. “That’s not even a real color,” she said, but didn’t press it any further. I glanced at her chest and then caught myself, immediately thinking that this girl was trying to con me—via her perky tits—into feeling like a piece of shit. I was boozed up enough to be thoroughly confident in my observation and decided to become annoyed at her trickery.
“How’s the beer?” she asked.
I raised it to the light. “Good,” I said. “It’s from Brazil.”
She nodded and looked down at her breasts, again tugging down on her shirt. I knew that she knew that I was looking, which annoyed me that much more. She seemed completely unembarrassed and smiled.
“How’s the juice?” I asked, nodding up from her tits to her eyes.
I pointed at her drink. “The juice? How is it?”
“Is that how you call this?” she said with another purposefully cute laugh. “What’s the word?”
“Juice,” I said, louder this time. Unsmiling.
“That’s funny,” she said.
I looked around the room without really knowing what else to do or where else to look, and then I thought of my friend, Kenny, who told me about this disaster of a blind date he had with a fat girl and how he just started asking the most absurdly random questions he could think of in order to make the whole experience a little more entertaining for them both. I asked her the only one I remembered, “So,” I said, turning towards her. She was already looking at me. “What if there was this big telephone booth sized box, right?” I said, realizing suddenly that the light hanging between us wasn’t too dim but entirely too bright. And the bar—I mean come on! How fucking loud can a bar this small get? I was drunker than I thought I was. The whiskey and cokes I had before coming had officially caught up with me. But she didn’t seem at all annoyed or bothered by the fact that she was one hundred percent sober and I was one hundred percent not.
She nodded for me to continue and so I slurred on. “So there is this box . . . . And what if when you get into the box it has this magical power to make you endlessly happy. What if this box could artificially make you feel nothing but pleasure. But if you decide to get in the box you can never leave.” I nodded, thinking that was all there was to the question and feeling confident in my delivery.
I realized that my eyes were scanning down to her thighs and then I felt ashamed because she was young. So young. And I wasn’t even all that attracted to her in the first place. But when she caught my gaze she seemed to understand and she took a sip of her never-ending juice and gave me a look like I had just asked the most interesting, intelligent question that she had ever heard and it felt good enough to make me feel bad about it.
“Would you get in?”
She furrowed her brow and paused for a moment, her smile sinking to the crumbles of stale popcorn on the table. “Yes,” she said. “I would get in.”
I tried to stand and then immediately forgot why I had stood up. I registered her answer more out of politeness than interest, and figured I had to somehow follow it up, so as not to look like a total moron. “So you’d get into the box even if you knew it would be fake?”
“Of course,” she said. “Wouldn’t you?” She looked at me standing there awkwardly in the corner, hovering above my chair. “Do you have to pee or something?” she asked.
And then I remembered that peeing was in fact the exact reason I had stood up. I looked around, “No,” I said, lying. “I was just going to wave down the bartender.” And then I sat back down and finished the rest of my beer just in case I had actually gotten someone’s attention. I tried to hold in my piss.
“Well?” she asked. Her straw was back in her mouth and she spoke with her lips.
“Would you get in the box?”
“No, I don’t think so. It wouldn’t be real. Why would I?”
She seemed to be reaching the end of her drink. “But you wouldn’t know that because you’d be happy.”
“That’s interesting,” I said, uninterested. I reached into my pockets, thinking to leave a tip and get on with my night. She saw what I was doing and grabbed her handbag from somewhere near her feet and began to pull out a few coins of her own. Her sleeve slipped just barely down her arm and I noticed a few faded white marks running in straight lines across her wrist. They were spaced out and parallel to one another and at first I thought they looked like lines of cocaine carefully laid out on a table. And then it hit me that these little white lines on her wrist were scars. She caught me looking and quickly pulled her sleeve back up to her palm. It was the first time that night that she seemed at all embarrassed. I caught myself wondering what this "almost eighteen" year old girl from Switzerland was doing in Barcelona—if she had come here with anyone and who was paying for the trip. I wondered what had caused enough pain in her short life that she had tried to escape into another.
Then we stood up to leave and as I grabbed the sticky metal handle of the door, she cut in front of me and stepped outside and I followed, looking around for a good Spanish tree to piss on.
It wasn’t until a block or so from my place that I really registered that Janice was still walking with me. I wondered how I was going to break it to her—the fact that I wouldn’t lower my standards enough, even if I was drunk, to sleep with her. I shuffled around for my keys and stared at the door, noticing, for the first time, how the paint in Spain was thinner than back home. It looked as though I could have peeled it right off with my fingernail.
“So what are your plans for the night?” I asked.
She looked at the keys in my hand and then at me. “Do you have a couch?”
“Yeah,” I said, “that works. I’ll sleep on the couch.” And then we stepped into my tiny apartment that smelled a bit like garbage and piss and more than a bit like old beer and stale smoke.
She set her handbag down on the table and took a seat on the couch. “I can sleep on this,” she said, patting her hand on the cushion. “It’s big enough. This will be fine.”
I was relieved because it was the exact offer I had hoped she would make. I wanted to sleep in my own bed. I looked around without really knowing what to do with myself. Her tight black shirt pressed against her tits more than ever. “I mean, we can probably share the bed,” I said, staring at them.
She was younger than my little sister.
“I’m sure the couch will work,” she insisted, grabbing her purse and digging around inside. She pulled out an orange pill bottle and jiggled it as if to see how much of its contents were left. Then she pressed her palm down on the cap and shook out the matted white pills, shoveling a few into her mouth without any water to help them go down.
“What are those?” I asked.
“My medicine,” she said, nonchalantly, as if it were the time she had to get up in the morning. She pressed the cap back onto the bottle and threw it into her purse.
“What’s it for?” I asked.
“Me,” she said.
I wasn’t sure if she was being clever or if she really just didn’t understand the question. But moving past it in an effort that surprised even myself, I began to slip out of my jeans and take off my shirt.
She looked up at me, confused at first but smiling at her chance to play along. She quickly followed suit and stood up and began to peel off her own clothes. She stopped at her laced pink panties and black bra and looked at me as if asking a question.
I answered. “Have you ever jumped in the Mediterranean?”
She giggled and shook her head no.
We stood on the shoreline looking out into that black moonless sea and I thought to tell her how cold it would be, but then figured she’d find out soon enough. She reached her hand over to me and without thinking I took it in mine and squeezed. I realized that it was the first time I had really seen her in any kind of careful way. She looked different than she did in the bar. Her hair was platinum blonde and she had the figure of a woman instead of a girl. There were a few bumps on her cheeks and forehead that with the help of makeup and the cover of darkness had gone unnoticed. But she wasn’t ugly. Her lips were full and her smile was rather striking and her eyes seemed honest in their whiteness. I looked down at our hands rocking back and forth between us and realized that I liked the way she looked at me.
And then I noticed, for the second time that night, the scars running in straight lines across her wrist. She saw me staring but didn’t pull her hand away. I looked up at her and for some reason thought about the bar we had been in, and how she hadn’t had a single sip of alcohol, at least to my knowledge, all night. “Why did you get a juice earlier?” I asked.
She answered me softly and without looking away. “My mom drinks,” she said.
It was the most beautifully sad thing I had ever heard and it didn’t answer the question at all, and yet it answered it better than anything else could. I rubbed my thumb across the palm of her hand and then brought it down to where the scars ran. They felt rough but at the same time delicate, like stitches in silk, or something small holding together something larger. I was drunkenly afraid in that moment that if I pulled my thumb away this girl might come undone and crumble into the sand. But the feeling passed as quickly as it came and I said nothing more and tugged on her hand, dragging her into the water like I was a monster born from the depths and she was a princess that no one would notice was missing.
When we got out it was cold but not as cold as before we got in. Her head was soaked and her hair was pressed in a slick sheet against her ears and neck. Her makeup ran in smears from the corners of her eyes to the lines of her jaw. Now she looked like a seventeen year old girl; eager and anxious and afraid with a glow of red deep in her cheeks.
We made our way back to my apartment and crawled into bed together. I didn't try anything that night and she seemed okay with that because she didn't try anything either. She just buried her cheek against my chest and traced her fingers along my ribs until she fell asleep.
And she snored. God did she snore. Like a fucking wildebeest she snored. And when I woke up she was gone.
Terek Hopkins grew up in a small beach town in California. He received his B.A. in English and Creative Writing from the University of Oregon in 2014. He now teaches English in Barcelona, Spain. He has been previously published in Unbound.