Garden Snake / MARK’S TURTLES – Madeline Cash
May 26, 2021
I WAS IN A PINAFORE AND KNEE HIGH SOCKS leaning against Mark’s chevy malibu. Mark took photos of us in his backyard in Hollywood. Mark was like thirty-five I guessed. All adults were thirty-five. My friend Sophia told me to puff my lips out more. I had just gotten my braces off.
“No like this,” said Sophia.
“Yeah like that,” said Mark.
Mark knelt to compensate for our height difference.
“Great outfit,” said Mark.
“Thanks,” I said. I was in my school uniform.
I changed into my next outfit under my current outfit the way Sophia taught me. Mark gave me some sunglasses that weren’t for the sun. Mark told me to peer over them.
“Like Lolita,” said Mark.
“Don’t smile so much,” said Mark.
All of Mark’s directions were counterintuitive. Don’t smile and, if you do, smile with your eyes. Smile with your body. My body didn’t smile. It played AYSO soccer. The only instructions I’d previously been given from someone behind a camera was: say cheese. Sophia told me to relax my jaw like I’d taken a Benadryl. She said to stop saying cheese. She said to think about photos of dust bowl families in our history class. Somber and malnourished. Think about famine when you pose. Think about the genocide. Model like you’re being persecuted for your religion. You’re Jesus stapled to the cross. I pushed my body against the car and frowned like Jesus.
“You’re getting better,” said Sophia.
“Who’s Lolita?” I asked.
Mark was an amateur photographer that hung out with teenagers. He went to an all-ages club night in Hollywood every Wednesday. That’s where I first met him. I was there with my older brother who had gotten out of jail a few months earlier. He was in jail for accidentally smothering his girlfriend during sex. We were there with my brother’s new girlfriend who was embarrassing me to death. She squatted to pee in the alley outside and I watched it puddle around her heels. She hiked up her underwear and said to my brother, “your little sister was watching me piss. She gay or something?” and she lit a menthol cigarette which meant she’d never go to outer space.
I wore my brother’s t-shirt as a dress which featured a band I’d never heard of and played brick breaker on my Blackberry in the corner. I was trying to beat my high score. Mark mistook my trying to beat my high score as an abject aloofness that had sexual purchase in the early 2000s. I overheard him ranting at these anorexic girls about steel beams and research chemicals and about Obama orchestrating drone strikes and perpetuating foreign wars and then he pointed to me and said, “this girl gets it.” Mark thought I didn’t care about anything. But I did care, deeply, about beating my high score in brick breaker. “You like [BAND]?” he asked me. I looked down at my shirt and said, “yeah” and he said, “fuck yeah.” I stopped paying attention to my game and the little ball went cascading into the abyss. Mark asked if I saw [BAND] play at [VENUE] last year. I thought about what I was doing last year. I was getting my ears pierced at Claire’s. I was horseback riding at Lutheran summer camp. An older girl was teaching me to use a tampon. I wasn’t seeing [BAND] play at [VENUE]. I said, “yeah” and he said, “fuck yeah!” Then he said, “could I take your picture sometime?” I said he could take my picture any old time and gave him my aol email. Then my brother’s girlfriend found me and said, “there you are” and gave Mark a weird look and drove us to Arby’s because my brother was too fucked up to drive and I wouldn’t have my license for another four years.
Mark reached out to my aol email about the modeling. He asked me to come to his house after school. I asked if I could bring my friend Sophia because she was beautiful. He asked for a photo of her like this: send pix :p. I sent him Sophia’s yearbook picture. All of the other kids were smiling in their yearbook pictures. Sophia was scowling. She looked perfectly miserable. Like she’d never been told to say cheese. Say divorce. Say leprosy. Say ethnic cleansing. Sophia’s photo was pronounced on the glossy paper. One of these is not like the others. She transcended the watermark across her face. Mark said, “oh, fuck yeah!” He gave me directions to his house in Hollywood which I put into Mapquest and printed out. I told my Youth Government group that I wouldn’t make our meeting. I told my mom I was seeing a movie. I torrented every album by [BAND].
We started going to Mark’s every couple of weeks. He made us cocktails that were two parts vodka, one part blue Kool-aid. His house was filled with clothes. Pants and shirts and shoes organized respectively into piles like the Holocaust museum. He had a tank of neglected turtles. Algae obscured their 360 view of Mark’s bungalow. Sometimes he’d pour the remainder of his drink into their tank and the turtles would scurry out of the neon blue water onto their rotting log. He said it seeped into their skin and got them drunk.
Sophia was in her bra on Mark’s living room floor. Mark was standing above Sophia who was modeling denim shorts but the focal point of the image wasn’t so much the shorts as it was her neon blue tongue which she stuck out at the camera. He kept saying like, “this is great” and “one more for me.” I was plastered to the sofa. One of these is not like the other. Sophia and I exchanged looks and she rolled her eyes like grow up already and so I grew up and joined her on the floor beneath Mark.
He told Sophia to kiss me. My first kiss had been the previous spring during a fire safety assembly with a Canadian eighth grader called Sam Martin. His shiny forehead was stretched taut like a canvas showcasing several large and yellowing pimples. Sophia didn’t kiss like Sam Martin. Sophia was beautiful. Sophia had milky skin and pouty lips. Sophia didn’t say cheese. Sophia looked like an angel on Mark’s shag carpet in the fluorescent glow of a wall sign that said GIRLS! GIRLS GIRLS! Mark snapped the camera. Sophia and I rolled around on the ground. Our bodies picking up debris from the rug. The turtles swam helplessly through the two parts vodka. They scrawled help us on the murky tank walls. I rolled over a shard of glass and cut my arm. Sophia lapped at the blood with her tongue. Mark took pictures from above like, “this is great. This is awesome.” I kept my eyes locked with the turtles.
Mark’s patio looked like a cartoon depiction of a junkyard. Sophia and I sat outside on the disemboweled backseat of a car. I was reading Animal Farm for school. Mark looked at the book and said, “that book’s a trip” and I said, “it’s kind of bullshit honestly” and Sophia shot me a look like don’t disparage Animal Farm in front of the cool photographer. Then I asked if I could have a bandage for the cut on my arm and they both looked at me like I was being voted off the island. Like I was first to die in the horror movie. They understood that I had never been cool. I had just been playing brick breaker.
Sophia stayed at Mark’s house. She told me it was okay. He gave me some stickers with his name on them as I was leaving which ended up on all my binders. I walked three blocks down the street to Fairfax where my mom thought I’d been seeing a movie. My mom was wearing her scrubs when she picked me up and looked like she hadn’t slept in a million years because she hadn’t. She was working the night shift at a county hospital. I was quiet in her passenger seat and she leaned over and touched my forehead and said something like, “I’m so proud of you, Madeline. I know I’ve been working a ton but you’re a good kid and I love you to pieces and you hang the moon for me and all of this is for you.” Or something like that. She said maybe she’d save up and by summer we could take a roadtrip, just me and her. Then she asked how the movie was and I recounted the plot I’d read on google earlier.