The Violent Femmes’ album, Violent Femmes, echoes a gamut of adolescent anxieties, and when I was the age the narrator is when “Fritos” starts, I listened to the album on repeat, haunted most by the spoken lyric, “…this will go down on your permanent record.” I wrote this story with that worse case scenario in mind wherein one social misstep reverberates for decades, as teens so often fear it will. Why Fritos? I guess I’ve always thought they were a little foul, the chip equivalent of a toenail, thick and smelly.
Kara Vernor’s fiction has appeared in Wigleaf, No Tokens, PANK, Hobart, and elsewhere. She is an Elizabeth George Foundation Scholar at the Northwest Institute for Literary Arts, and her chapbook, Because I Wanted to Write You a Pop Song, is available from Split Lip Press. She is currently working on a series of shorts inspired by questions asked in middle school sex ed classes.
The rotating Pepsi bottle slows to a stop, its spout eyeing you, lucky you. Jack is up on his knees, high-fiving Brady, shuffling toward you from across the circle. You think of Jack earlier, standing by the basement fireplace fisting Fritos into his mouth, the flakes and crumbs falling to the carpet like jumpers from a high rise. It is a tragedy, really, the breath that lies in wait, a sour armpit of warm salami and cardboard corn. You know. You kissed Cory B. a few weeks ago at a similar party with similar chips.
Still, there are eighth-graders here. What you do matters. With only a second until his lips meet yours, you push up to your knees and lift your tank top and training bra to your chin. You are a watcher of soap operas, and if they have taught you anything, it’s when all else fails, strip. You say, Here, kiss me here, and then you wait to feel if he will. The room is silent, everyone staring at your plank of a torso, your pancake boobs.
Jack leans down and kisses the left one, a peck befitting his grandma’s cheek, and then it’s over. You drop your shirt and sit back in your spot, though you have to ask for the bottle because everyone is still staring.
They wait until the next day to call you a slut. You want to plead your case about Frito breath, but it’s too late. You read about yourself on bathroom walls and lose most of your friends.
In high school, word follows, and word is you’ll fellate anyone for a pack of cigarettes. Once a week, some guy flashes his pack at you while his friends laugh into each other’s shoulders. You are a rite of passage. You are most definitely the sluttiest flat-chested girl ever to sleep with one-point-five people before graduation.
In college, you reclaim your dignity through a series of Frito-based sculptures and performance art pieces you post on YouTube, pieces that eventually make their way to the Frito-Lay marketing team. They fly you to Los Angeles for test shots, shots they tell you capture your “je ne sais quoi,” and you accept the offer to be their new spokeswoman. They put you in a push-up bra and you become famous, but only in the Aren’t you the lady who? kind of way. At 28, you are replaced by an animated, Frito-loving Buddha, but by then you are rich and ready to move on.
A week into your unemployment, you receive a Facebook invitation to your high school reunion. Jack, that eager-mouthed boob-pecker, will be there with his wife, who, according to his profile, he met at dental school. He has two kids and a golden retriever that looks just like him. You imagine making an entrance in a designer dress, working the room with poise and a dainty laugh, everyone saying, We were wrong about her, and, She’s the girl in those chips commercials! But instead, you’ll be on a tropical island, sipping the water of a cold coconut, having sex with new and tan people, and finally allowing yourself to earn your reputation. You’ll think of Jack in passing and only then to wonder if he brushes and flosses according to his own advice, if he is anything like people think him to be.
by Kara Vernor