In Which While I’m Alive I’ll Make Tiny Changes To Earth

Today we begin our classic fiction series with Susan Minot’s seminal short story, Lust. Enjoy.


by Susan Minot

Leo was from a long time ago, the first one I ever saw nude. In the spring before the Hellmans filled their pool, we’d go down there in the deep end, with baby oil, and like that. I met him the first month away at boarding school. He had a halo from the campus light behind him. I flipped.

Roger was fast. In his illegal car, we drove to the reservoir, the radio blaring, talking fast, fast, fast. He was always going for my zipper. He got kicked out sophomore year.

By the time the band got around to playing “Wild Horses,” I had tasted Bruce’s tongue. We were clicking in the shadows on the other side of the amplifier, out of Mrs. Donovan’s line of vision. It tasted like salt, with my neck bent back, because we had been dancing so hard before.

Tim’s line: “I’d like to see you in a bathing suit.” I knew it was his line when he said the exact same thing to Annie Hines.

You’d go on walks to get off campus. It was raining like hell, my sweater as sopped as a wet sheep. Tim pinned me to a tree, the woods light brown and dark brown, a white house half hidden with the lights already on. The water was as loud as a crowd hissing. He made certain comments about my forehead, about my cheeks.

We started off sitting at one end of the couch and then our feet were squished against the armrest and then he went over to turn off the TV and came back after he had taken off his shirt and then we slid onto the floor and he got up again to close the door, then came back to me, a body waiting on the rug.

You’d try to wipe off the table or to do the dishes and Willie would untuck your shirt and get his hands up under in front, standing behind you, making puffy noises in your ear.

He likes it when I wash my hair. He covers his face with it and if I start to say something, he goes, “Shush.”

For a long time, I had Philip on the brain. The less they noticed you, the more you got them on the brain.

My parents had no idea. Parents never really know what’s going on, especially when you’re away at school most of the time. If she met them, my mother might say, “Oliver seems nice” or “I like that one” without much of an opinion. If she didn’t like them, “He’s a funny fellow, isn’t he?” or “Johnny’s perfectly nice but a drink of water.” My father was too shy to talk to them at all unless they played sports and he’d ask them about that.

The sand was almost cold underneath because the sun was long gone. Eben piled a mound over my feet, patting around my ankles, the ghostly surf rumbling behind him in the dark. He was the first person I ever knew who died, later that summer, in a car crash. I thought about it for a long time.

“Come here,” he says on the porch. I go over to the hammock and he takes my wrist with two fingers.


He kisses my palm then directs my hand to his fly.

Songs went with whichever boy it was. “Sugar Magnolia” was Tim, with the line, “Rolling in the rushes/down by the riverside.” With “Darkness Darkness,” I’d picture Philip with his long hair. Hearing “Under My Thumb” there’d be the smell of Jamie’s suede jacket.

“Sugar Magnolia” – The Grateful Dead (mp3)

“Under My Thumb” – The Rolling Stones (mp3)

“Darkness Darkness” – Robert Plant (mp3)

We hid in the listening rooms during study hall. With a record cover over the door’s window, the teacher on duty couldn’t look in. I came out flushed and heady and back at the dorm was surprised how red my lips were in the mirror.

One weekend at Simon’s brother’s, we stayed inside all day with the shades down, in bed, then went out to Store 24 to get some ice cream. He stood at the magazine rack and read through MAD while I got butterscotch sauce, craving something sweet.

I could do some things well. Some things I was good at, like math or painting or even sports, but the second a boy put his arm around me, I forgot about wanting to do anything else, which felt like a relief at first until it became like sinking into a muck.

It was different for a girl.

When we were little, the brothers next door tied up our ankles. They held the door of the goat house and wouldn’t let us out till we showed them our underpants. Then they’d forget about being after us and when we played whiffle ball, I’d be just as good as they were.

Then it got to be different. Just because you have on a short skirt, they tell from the cars, slowing down for a while, and if you don’t look, they screech off and call you a bitch.

“What’s the matter with me?” they say, point-blank.

Or else, “Why won’t you go out with me? I’m not asking you to get married,” about to get mad.

Or it’d be, trying to be reasonable, in a regular voice, “Listen, I just want to have a good time.”

So I’d go because I couldn’t think of something to say back that wouldn’t be obvious, and if you go out with them, you sort of have to do something.

I sat between Mac and Eddie in the front seat of the pickup. They were having a fight about something. I’ve a feeling about me.

Certain nights you’d feel a certain surrender, maybe if you’d had wine. The surrender would be forgetting yourself and you’d put your nose to his neck and feel like a squirrel, safe, at rest, in a restful dream. But then you’d start to slip from that and the dark would come in and there’d be a cave. You make out the dim shape of the windows and feel yourself become a cave, filled absolutely with air, or with a sadness that wouldn’t stop.

Teenage years. You know just what you’re doing and don’t see the things that start to get in the way.

Lots of boys, but never two at the same time. One was plenty to keep you in a state. You’d start to see a boy and something would rush over you like a fast storm cloud and you couldn’t possibly think of anyone else. Boys took it differently. Their eyes perked up at any little number that walked by. You’d act like you weren’t noticing.

The joke was that the school doctor gave out the pill like aspirin. He didn’t ask you anything. I was fifteen. We had a picture of him in assembly, holding up an IUD shaped like a T. Most girls were on the pill, if anything, because they couldn’t handle a diaphragm. I kept the dial in my top drawer like my mother and thought of her each time I tipped out the yellow tablets in the morning before chapel.

If they were too shy, I’d be more so. Andrew was nervous. We stayed up with his family album, sharing a pack of Old Golds. Before it got light, we turned on the TV. A man was explaining how to plant seedlings. His mouth jerked to the side in a tic. Andrew thought it was a riot and kept imitating him. I laughed to be polite. When we finally dozed off, he dared to put his arm around me, but that was it.

You wait till they come to you. With half fright, half swagger, they stand one step down. They dare to touch the button on your coat then lose their nerve and quickly drop their hand so you – you’d do anything for them. You touch their cheek.

The girls sit around in the common room and talk about boys, smoking their heads off.

“What are you complaining about?” says Jill to me when we talk about problems.

“Yeah,” says Giddy. “You always have a boyfriend.”

I look at them and think, “As if.”

“Teen Creeps” – No Age (mp3)

I thought the worst thing anyone could call you was a cock-teaser. So, if you flirted, you had to be prepared to go through with it. Sleeping with someone was perfectly normal once you had done it. You didn’t really worry about it. But there were other problems. The problems had to do with something else entirely.

Mack was during the hottest summer ever recorded. We were renting a house on an island with all sorts of other people. No one slept during the heat wave, walking around the house with nothing on which we were used to because of the nude beach. In the living room, Eddie lay on top of a coffee table to cool off. Mack and I, with the bedroom door open for air, sweated and sweated all night.

“I can’t take this,” he said at 3 A.M. “I’m going for a swim.” He and some guys down the hall went to the beach. The heat put me on edge. I sat on a cracked chest by the open window and smoked and smoked till I felt even worse, waiting for something – I guess for him to get back.

One was on a camping trip in Colorado. We zipped our sleeping bags together, the coyotes’ hysterical chatter far away. Other couples murmured in other tents. Paul was up before sunrise, starting a fire for breakfast. He wasn’t much of a talker in the daytime. At night, his hand leafed about in the hair at my neck.

There’d be times when you overdid it. You’d get carried away. All the next day, you’d be in a total fog, delirious, absent-minded, crossing the street and nearly getting run over. The more girls a boy has, the better. He has a bright look, having reaped fruits, blooming. He stalks around, sure-shouldered, and you have the feeling he’s got more in him, a fatter heart, more stories to tell. For a girl, with each boy it’s as though a petal gets plucked each time.

Then you start to get tired. You begin to feel diluted, like watered-down stew.

Oliver came skiing with us. We lolled by the fire after everyone had gone to bed. Each creak you’d think was someone coming downstairs. The silver loop bracelet he gave me had been a present from his girlfriend before.

On vacations, we went skiing, or you’d go south if someone invited you. Some people had apartments in New York that their families hardly ever used. Or summer houses, or older sisters. We always managed to find someplace to go.

We made the plan at coffee hour. Simon snuck out and met me at Main Gate after lights out. We crept to the chapel and spent the night in the balcony. He tasted like onions from a submarine sandwich.

The boys are one of two ways: either they can’t sit still or they don’t move. In front of the TV, they won’t budge. On weekends they play touch football while we sit on the sidelines, picking blades of grass to chew on and watch. We’re always watching them run around. We shiver in the stands, knocking our boots together to keep our toes warm, and they whizz across the ice, chopping their sticks around the puck. When they’re in the rink, they refuse to look at you, only eyeing each other beneath low helmets. You cheer for them but they don’t look up, even if it’s a face-off when nothing’s happening, even if they’re doing drills before any game has started at all.

Dancing under the pink tent, he bent down and whispered in my ear. We slipped away to the lawn on the other side of the hedge. Much later, as he was leaving the buffet with two plates of eggs and sausage, I saw the grass stains on the knees of his white pants.

Tim’s was shaped like a banana, with a graceful curve to it. They’re all different. Willie’s like a bunch of walnuts when nothing was happening, another’s as thin as a thin hot dog. But it’s like faces; you’re never really surprised.

Still, you’re not sure what to expect.

I look into his face and he looks back. I look into his eyes and they look back at mine. Then they look down at my mouth so I look up at his mouth, then back to his eyes then, backing up, at his whole face. I think, Who? Who are you? His head tilts to one side.

I say, “Who are you?”

“What do you mean?”


I look at his eyes again, deeper. Can’t tell who he is, what he thinks.

“What?” he says. I look at his mouth.

“I’m just wondering,” I say and go wandering across his face. Study the chin line. It’s shaped like a persimmon.

“Who are you? What are you thinking?”

He says, “What the hell are you talking about?”

Then they get mad after, when you say enough is enough. After, when it’s easier to explain you don’t want to. You wouldn’t dream of saying that maybe you weren’t really ready to in the first place.

“The Music of the Night” – David Cook (mp3)

“Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” – Louis Armstrong (mp3)

Gentle Eddie. We waded into the sea, the waves round and plowing in, buffalo-headed, slapping our thighs. I put my arms around his freckled shoulders and he held me up, buoyed by the water, and rocked me like a sea shell.

I had no idea whose party it was, the apartment jam-packed, stepping over people in the hallway. The room with the music was practically empty, the bare floor, me in red shoes. This fellow slides one knee and takes me around the waist and we rock to jazzy tunes, with my toes pointing heavenward, and waltz and spin and drip to “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” or “I’ll Love You Just For Now.” He puts his head to my chest, runs a sweeping hand down my inside thigh and we go loose-limbed and sultry and smooth as silk and I stamp my red heels and he takes me in a swoon. I never saw him again after that but I thought, I could have loved that one.

You wonder how long you can keep it up. You begin to feel as if you’re showing through, like a bathroom window that only lets in grey light, the kind you can’t see out of.

They keep coming around. Johnny drives up at Easter vacation from Baltimore and I let him in the kitchen with everyone sound asleep. He has friends waiting in the car.

“What are you, crazy? It’s pouring out there,” I say.

“It’s okay,” he says. “They understand.” So he gets some long kisses from me, against the refrigerator, before he goes home because I hate those girls who push away a boy’s face as if she were made out of Ivory soap, as if she’s that much greater than he is.

The note on my cubby told me to see the headmaster. I had no idea for what. He had received complaints about my amorous displays on the town green. It was Willie that spring. The headmaster told me he didn’t care what I did but that Casey Academy had a reputation to uphold in the town. He lowered his glasses on his nose. “We’ve got twenty acres of wood on this campus,” he said. “If you want to smooch with your boyfriend, there are twenty acres for you to do it out of the public eye. You read me?”

Everybody’d get weekend permissions for different places, then we’d all go to someone’s house whose parents were away. Usually there’d be more boys than girls. We raided the liquor closet and smoked pot at the kitchen table and you’d never know who would end up where, or with whom. There were always disasters. Ceci got bombed and cracked her head open on the banister and needed stitches. Then there was the time when Wendel Blair walked through the picture window at the Lowes’ and got slashed to ribbons.

He scared me. In bed, I didn’t dare look at him. I lay back with my eyes closed, luxuriating because he knew all sorts of expert angles, his hands never fumbling, going over my whole body, pressing the hair up and off the back of my head, giving an extra hip shove, as if to say There. I parted my eyes slightly, keeping the screen of my lashes low because it was too much to look at him, his mouth loose and pink and parted, his eyes looking through my forehead, or kneeling up, looking through my throat. I was ashamed but couldn’t look him in the eye.

You wonder about things feeling a little off-kilter. You begin to feel like a piece of pounded veal.

At boarding school, everyone gets depressed. We go in and see the housemother, Mrs. Gunther. She got married when she was eighteen. Mr. Gunther was her high school sweetheart, the only boyfriend she ever had.

“And you knew you wanted to marry him right off?” we ask her.

She smiles and says, “Yes.”

“They always want something from you,” says Jill, complaining about her boyfriend.

“Yeah,” says Giddy. “You always feel like you have to deliver something.”

“You do,” says Mrs. Gunther. “Babies.”

After sex, you curl up like a shrimp, something deep inside you ruined, slammed in a place that sickens at slamming, and slowly you fill up with an overwhelming sadness, an elusive gaping worry. You don’t try to explain it, filled with the knowledge that it’s nothing after all, everything filling up finally and absolutely with death. After the briskness of loving, loving stops. And you roll over with death stretched out alongside you like a feather boa, or a snake, light as air, and you . . . you don’t even ask for anything or try to say something to him because it’s obviously your own damn fault. You haven’t been able to—to what? To open your heart. You open your legs but can’t, or don’t dare anymore, to open your heart. It starts this way:

You stare into their eyes. They flash like all the stars are out. They look at you seriously, their eyes at a low bum and their hands no matter what starting off shy and with such a gentle touch that the only thing you can do is take that tenderness and let yourself be swept away. When, with one attentive finger they tuck the hair behind your ear, you— You do everything they want.

Then comes after. After when they don’t look at you. They scratch their balls, stare at the ceiling. Or if they do turn, their gaze is altogether changed. They are surprised. They turn casually to look at you, distracted, and get a mild distracted surprise. You’re gone. Their black look tells you that the girl they were fucking is not there anymore. You seem to have disappeared.


Is that a fat coat?

Danish got new money.

Molly’s not much of a crier.

6 thoughts on “In Which While I’m Alive I’ll Make Tiny Changes To Earth

  1. Great story, well-written, etc. But I’m amazed it was written after 1975. Weak-willed women pulverized by sex? These are 50s-era gender roles.

  2. I don’t know if I would call her weak-willed. It’s obviously mostly true, as well. But I do agree that one of its messages is, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

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