Julianna went on a road trip with her mom one summer to visit her mom's sister in Iowa, and then all of them drove to Arizona to see her grandfather. She was gone for three weeks, the longest she'd ever been away since they usually only went to the Jersey shore for a week in July. I got postcards and she was so bored. Nearly the biggest thing that happened was that her mom took a picture of her standing at the spot where four states meet: Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Nebraska. She hated it – the driving, the grass, the bugs – and of course it was weird for her meeting her grandfather for the first time the way he didn't know she was black. He was all right about it after the first few minutes, but it sounded like it kinda shook up the retirement community a little bit when this coffee-coloured girl stepped out of the camper van after her pale-as-white-bread mom and aunt.
She met one teenager, her cousin Aaron in Iowa, who didn't like house or rap and so wasn't as impressed as he should've been about Jule's beatboxing. He was older than her, maybe 18, and it tripped him out too having a black cousin, but for him it was like cool. He brought her out one night to the movies with his friends and they also thought she was cool and when he saw that he got her to beatbox for them and she was like oh no oh no and then, being Jule, did it and then they were asking her how to do it and how she learned and she ended up even giving them a dance lesson in the dark after the movie and telling them about LL and Bismarky. And it sounds like it helped that she also liked Bon Jovi a little bit ('he's cute, he's all 'ight, I could go there', she always said), since they all had their hair like that with the whole feather thing going on and the cowboy boots. Only thing was, Jule said, out there their dads wore boots too, so it was hard to tell if it was like a style, or just the way things were.
She asked them about cow tipping because that was what we'd heard they did for fun out there and they laughed and said they did go cow tipping sometimes but they didn't go while Jule was still there. On her last night in Iowa they were supposed to but while she was getting ready to go out her littlest cousin barged in the door of her room and it bumped into Jule's hand while she was using her curling iron. It ended up she burned her eye and drove all the way to Arizona with an eyepatch and the picture at the four corners is Jule wearing some fluorescent orange shorts, a matching tank top, black rubber bangles, her new Creeper shoes, the ones with the splotch of cow-print, actually, and a big old pair of sunglasses, but you can still see the edges of the eyepatch.
She came home and I had never seen her so happy to be back with her dad before: she was like, he ain't that bad y'all. Rather him in New York than a dandy daddy in a cornfield, know what I'm saying? We got stoned that night since she'd been straight for the whole three weeks – didn't even smoke cigarettes, since her mom didn't want her smoking around her cousins and didn't want her grandfather to know she smoked, period. So we got some smoke and she told us about the cornfields and how she was like mom how the hell did you LIVE here? No wonder you got your ass on that bus to New York back in the day. No wonder you even put up with That Man.
Jule was the only one of us who talked like that and talked to her mom like that. Then, anyway.
She told us about the movie theatre, a drive-in, and we said no way and didn't believe her. You think I'm lying, she nodded, just wait for the pictures y'all, that's all I got to say. And it was a drive-in: a big car park in the middle of the fields. So maybe that's where they had sex, really: in their cars.
Rural teenagers, we imagined, had sex in fields. High, thick prairie grasses waved in the night air just like that sea of arms at a stadium rock concert, swaying in unison from side to side until a change in the wind broke the movement and the sway drifted in a different direction: these vast flat fields of middle America that my friends and I could only picture, really, from the Little House reruns we'd seen after school. When there was a story on the news about drought or flooding and stuff there were always these barns sticking up out of the landscape, a lot of times blood red with white edges, or else metal, tinsel silvery in the midst of all of that yellowness of wheat, grass, crops. We didn't know anything about crops, of course. Well, except Easton, whose mother was a botanist and was into flower arranging, which really wasn't the same thing anyway. So it was hard for us to picture teenagers living There generally, in that expanse of space that was so empty, marked like a map of itself with ribbons of road going on for thousands of miles. And then we wondered where in that space they could have sex.
I don't know, Jule said, so stoned now she was beyond laughter, just staring down at the river and the red and orange lights from Queens stretching tentatively towards Manhattan. I don't think they do have sex, she said blankly. Aaron says things like, 'you're joshing me, Julianna, you're only joshing'. Can you imagine someone like that having sex?
The next day Jule came up to my apartment and then we went to sit in the staircase so we could smoke cigarettes. I'm worried, though, she said to start the conversation (Jule always started conversations with me like that, maybe because we lived only a few floors apart and were always talking). My mom gone and invited Aaron and that mad little girl to come visit and I swear to god, they gonna come and you watch, I'm gonna have to take Aaron out with me: you watch, my mom's gonna make my ass take that blond-you-joshing-me-boy out.
I laughed. So what? So he comes out. He's not coming to live with you.
Well, she said, it's all right with you guys, but I'm not taking him like out out. Not to the Tunnel or anything, not nowhere like that. He can come hang on the plaza, but no no no no nooo I am not having him at some club with me trying to do my thang and he all in my space saying erm, excuse me Julianna, don't you think that boy is getting a little too close to you?
C'mon, I said, you met my weird cousin Olivia last year. She managed. Not her scene, but she managed.
Jule erupted in laughter. She managed alright, only cus she got so motherfucking drunk she went home to bed. I still don't know how your moms didn't notice.
I guess she didn't know Olivia well enough to know.
True, Jule said. You walked in like that she woulda gone upside your head.
Don't you know, I said.
The next week Jule got word: they were coming. Her aunt Leona, her cousin Aaron, and the little girl who'd given Jule the eyepatch, Mimi. (Imagine that, Jule had said when her mother told her she had a cousin named Mimi: who the fuck names their child Mimi in this day and age?) She came upstairs as soon as her mom got off the phone with the news.
Oh man, she moaned. It's like they all gone family mad or something: we go out there, then we all go to my grandfather, now they all gotta come here. Next thing you know my mother gonna want to go back there and I'll spend the rest of my days the only homegirl in Iowa.
When're they coming? I made Jule tea. In her house they only had Pepsi and milk and Tropicana, so she always felt soothed if I made her tea; she thought it was quaint or something and because my mother was Irish, which it was. No other families had tea like we did.
Two weeks, she stirred sugar gloomily.
And in two weeks, there they were. And whatever Jule was, she wasn't a liar: Aaron's language was straight out of a movie. He was like 'wow!' at everything, at the buildings, the elevator (of which Mimi was terrified), the view of the Empire State Building from Jule's living room. Jule brought him straight up to me since she didn't know what else to do with him and he said wow again when he saw the view from my living room, even though it was exactly the same only three floors higher. He thought it was crazy that we had a pool in the building and was nervous swimming on his back because he could see all the buildings around it through the glass ceiling. He had corn yellow hair ('see? I told y'all', Jule whispered to me, 'all that corn seriously in him') that was down to his shoulders, cowboy boots and jeans and button-down flannel shirts that were way too hot for New York in August. He was polite and nice, actually, but man he just couldn't contain his awe of the place.
Jule was smoking in front of him now – she had told her mom that there was no way she'd agree to quitting for a week while she had to deal with bringing Aaron around with her – and he occasionally tried to tell her how bad it was for her.
Yes, Aaron, thank you, Jule said, smoke streaming through her nostrils as she examined her fake nails.
I wouldn't want to see you get sick, Julianna, that's all, Aaron said, almost wounded but not quite; he didn't seem to get a lot of stuff.
She brought him to the village and dragged me with her, brought him out on the stoops, where he said little and stared when someone eventually lit a joint and a few forties were opened. But she kept insisting to her mom that he wasn't coming to the Tunnel. No way.
But his last evening rolled around and Jule started to cave; she was too nice. All 'ight, Aaron, she said. We going dancing: you wanna come? A nightclub, you know.
We got there and found friends and Jule introduced him. Aaron from Iowa, she announced, meet everyone. Here you go y'all, she said, introduce yourselves.
Ooohh Jen, you been keeping him a secret all for yourself, Natasha said, heading over to Aaron, who was staring at the way his white t-shirt was glowing.
I should've thought of you, Tash, Jule said: you and your all American boy thang, I should've thought of you.
And we headed to the dance floor.
Only an hour or so later did we start looking for him. Won't be hard, Jule said, look for the cornfield. But we couldn't find him.
Anyone seen Natasha? I started asking everyone we knew.
Yeah, someone finally said, I saw her go upstairs – upstairs – with some guy.
Upstairs, Jule repeated.
She didn't, I said.
Oh but I think she did, Jule said.
Upstairs was actually outside, up the stairs, yes, and then out the emergency exit door that was often propped open on hot nights, onto a fire escape. We went up slowly, not talking, following the route; we'd both been down it before.
Man oh man, Jule murmured under her breath.
From the dark end of the hallway we could see the city light coming in through the door, wedged open. We went a little ways down and then could start to hear the cars and the voices drifting up from the street, feel the air coming in; our clothes were clinging to us from dancing and it was so hot inside that the midnight August air felt good. And then we could kind of hear, and then kind of see, and there was Aaron's white ass glowing like his shirt in the semi-dark.
Jule stopped dead and turned to me. I so didn't need to see that, she said loudly. I so didn't need to see someone's white Iowa ass bobbing up and down. I could see that the ass had stopped bobbing and saw Tash's eyes craning to see in the door.
Hurry up, I said to her, and then steered Jule back down the hall. C'mon, let's have a drink.
Jule paused for a minute. Well, she said loudly again, he's only been joshing me: I guess he's doing some cow tipping. We burst out laughing.
Born in New York, Oona Frawley holds a PhD in English literature and is the author of 'Irish Pastoral' and the editor of 'New Dubliners', 'A New and Complex Sensation', 'Selected Essays of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill', and the forthcoming four-volume 'Irish Cultural Memory'. She has written two unpublished novels and is currently writing a book of short stories, 'American Teenaged Sex Life', from which Cow Tipping is taken. She lectures in the Department of English at NUI Maynooth.