All-Seniors’ Bonfire was a long standing tradition that took place on the Saturday after public school graduation, out at a camp site in Millwood. At some point during the late 70’s or early 80’s, a group of local kids with representatives from all four high schools (North, South, Lake Catholic and The Larkin Academy for Girls) came into contact with Dale and his wife Carol, who owned the sprawling, cricket-scored campground forty miles east of town. They were a law-abiding, God-fearing couple from the sticks who on paper seemed like the type that would shake their heads at such an arrangement, but enough money exchanged hands to convince them to turn a blind eye once a year.
The event was for juniors and seniors of those four schools only. No exceptions. The juniors were tasked with arranging and paying for every last detail, a burden undertaken with the knowledge that such efforts would be repaid with interest the following year.
Everyone went. And I don’t mean ‘everyone’ in the high school sense, which often implies some limited scope only concerned with the who’s who of popularity. I mean everyone. You could skip four years of ‘must attend’ dances and parties and sporting events, either out of disgust or fear, but All-Seniors had an aura of mandatory attendance that even the loneliest of outcasts abided by.
Strict and straight-laced parents who normally vetted such events with skeptical interrogation encouraged their kids to attend, going as far as offering rides to and from. 4.0 Student Council members that had never put back so much as a drop of alcohol gulped down beer bongs to incredulous hooting crowds. Rival quarterbacks high fived each other. Bullies put their arms around their victims. Lake Catholic cheerleaders went off into the woods with South High geeks, hands clasped in reverie. The football team shared joints with the Chess Club, who hacked and coughed until tears streamed down their face as everyone laughed, but not in the hurtful way we all had for so long.
I’m not trying to paint it as some utopia where everyone realized the wrongs they’d committed and forgot the imaginary boundaries that caged them. But it was as close as it was going to get at that point. For the first time, everyone sweating through the Mexican standoff that was high school lowered their guns a bit, a few years too late. All-Seniors was the hugging, shoulder slapping, you’re-one-of-us-now relief that those undergoing hazing was put up with for. A truce had been called, if only for one night.
My senior year, Amy Andrews and I shared a tent with Trent Harwood and Greg Pergami, the starting backcourt of our school’s basketball team. I rode up with Trent in his maroon and white pick-up truck, trying to manufacture butterflies from his vacant stares, punctuated by hisses of tobacco spit echoing against a Gatorade bottle.
Ever since his game winning shot against Lincoln, I had wanted Trent to want me, and harbored daydreams of him looking deep into my eyes, stammering as he tried to find the right word to describe how blue they were. I settled for awkward silences filled by a contemporary country station that squelched the further we drove. The time was spent wrestling the notion that I would sleep with him that night in order to feel better about myself, but knowing full well that doing so would make me feel worse.
I had given vague, arm’s-length maybes to the nine other guys who had asked to share a tent with me, holding out for Trent. There was a freedom to the event that led a lot of guys to ask out girls they normally wouldn’t. Four of the offers came from South boys, two from Lake Catholic. Looking back, at least five or six of them wouldn’t have been able to stop themselves from showering me with the adoration that I sought from the star point guard. But if you give a beggar the dollar they swear will cure all ills, their focus will immediately shift to what could be had with $2.
Each All-Seniors produced a handful of gossip headlines that became the talk of the graduation party circuit. Some of them even fossilized into bar stories of legend decades later. My name had wound up on the proverbial front page as a junior, after senior Lake Catholic quarterback Scott Barnes told anyone within earshot about what we did in his tent. I wasn’t sure if it was something he had picked up from one of his older brother’s porn tapes, or something Lake Catholic kids did, or a common sex act that I was the last to know about. At that age, there was a fine line between being on the cutting edge and living in the dark.
But when the coolest guy of the school that seems better than yours says he wants to rub his penis between your mashed breasts, you let him do it. It might not make sense, and you might not derive any pleasure from it, but somehow it just seems like a no brainer at the time. I even threw in a few silky moans.
Whether I was a pioneer who was introducing the concept or the latest poster girl in a long line, I became more or less synonymous with the term ‘titty fucking’. By the beginning of my senior year, it had become a staple of lewd lunch table jokes and the expectation of every guy I fooled around with.
Trent finally asked a week before graduation, literally being pushed into it one Friday after last bell by Nicole Kish. The North High School social order was a delicate ecosystem, one often hand-tailored by its superiors. Relationships and hook ups were more the result of schedule promoters than genuine attraction. It could feel natural at times, but in the back of your mind you knew it was all an arbitrary matter of convenience.
Trent’s people had tested the waters with my people, and everyone had pretty much agreed upon how the conversation would go. It’s like when you watch John Cusack talking to Conan: it sounds like they’re just in the moment, but that’s not how it works. The whole thing has been scripted by other people hours before (at least that’s what I got from watching The Larry Sanders Show with Shelly, before we were old enough to get it).
Trent was cute and popular and good at sports, but he lacked a certain cockiness that normally comes with that sort of thing. I knew he wanted to ask me. He knew I’d say yes. But he was intimidated by me. That’s more of a retrospective knowledge, though at the time it was clear as day to even the most hormonally blind. I was just too caught up in being intimidated by him to notice. We eventually acted out the invitation and acceptance, the event’s organizers stifling squeals on the sidelines.
There was a smile and a gleam in his eye when I said yes, and it felt nice at first, but it was quickly followed by the fear that his grin was due to the knowledge that he would titty fuck me. That was followed by the dismay that even if such a fear was unfounded, he’d still probably make an attempt, because it had sort of become a necessary checkmark of having a sexual encounter with me.
But the cynical pall that surrounded the whole thing still couldn’t manage to totally seep into my skin. There was still a euphoric buzz that harbored notions of moonlight kisses and an understanding of my soul. Trent’s best friend was dating my best friend, and we were all going off to Kent State in the fall. Any reservations took a backseat to the possibility of such ideal circumstances working out. Most of life is spent trying to fit into a beautiful dress instead of having one tailored to your features.
‘You ever try mushrooms?’ The sun was melting into the broken-toothed landscape of dilapidated cornfields like butter in a pan, the color concentrating at the bottom. The truck rattled and squeaked along Route 2, and Garth Brooks was singing a song about rodeos that romanticized them for a moment. I was lost in the idea of attending one, forgetting the smell of horse shit and the Confederate flags and the bad teeth that came with doing so. The question snapped me out of it.
‘No,’ I said, burrowing my arms into a V between my thighs. ‘Have you?’
‘Nah. But a buddy of mine is getting a bunch for tonight. Greg and I were thinking we should all try it.’
‘Does Amy know about this?’
‘She said you’d be cool.’ He lifts the Gatorade bottle to his lips and fires a shot into the well of tobacco sewage.
‘What’s it do to you?’
‘I don’t know.’ He looks out the window and squints. It can be really attractive when guys do that, but it can also be a sign that they don’t have much to say. ‘It’s supposed to be like acid, but it’s a lot safer. You see things and hear things and expand your mind.’
‘Safer than acid. That’s what Sammy said.’ He squirms and sits upright. ‘It’s natural. Indians did it, in ancient times.’
‘I’ll do it if Nicole and Amy are in.’ If that were a line from an after school special, I’d mock the lazy, on-the-nose transparency. But I didn’t catch it coming out of my own mouth.
‘Sammy gave me this,’ he said, holding up a scratched cassette tape with a skeleton smoking a cigarette on the cover. I shrugged, he slipped it in, and we listened to The Grateful Dead the rest of the way to the campground.
Despite the communal, world’s colliding nature of the whole event, tent set-up still followed traditional boundaries. North kids set up in the North section, and locations more or less coincided with existing hierarchies therein. We had found a spot in a clearing pretty close to the keg station, but deep enough into the woods that it felt like actual camping. Our luck wasn’t exactly coincidental. Without any kind of plan or words or intimidation, the cool kids set up closest to the action, the convenience of a handicap spot awarded to the most able and fortunate.
A certain sense of giddy pride came from erecting the two tents taut enough to be in a catalog with barely a glance at the manual, and we toasted the achievement while relaxing in the lawn chairs we’d positioned outside them. The boys dug horseshoe pits while we listened to music from Trent’s truck radio, everyone feeling outdoorsy and resourceful.
Until we went to get the mushrooms.
The kid who had them was on the South side, at a spot that made ours look like some half-assed shanty town. Seven or eight tents formed a horseshoe around a roaring camp fire, with two kegs and a half dozen Colemans filled with expensive beer and wine coolers. Strings of lights hung from stakes surrounding the the are, and two giant speakers were set up on each side – the boxy stand-up kind professional DJ’s hauled around to weddings and school dances.
I had never heard the music that was playing as we walked it up. It sounded odd yet hip, and I was too afraid to ask what it was, in case it was something everyone knew or something that was perceived as lame. But every now and again, a song infects your soul enough that you ignore the world around you in an attempt to memorize every little snippet of the music you can, hoping the fragments recited at a later date can help a record store clerk or an AltaVista search lead you to its source. While Trent and Gary looked around for their friend who knew a guy, I fished a pen and a Macy’s receipt from my purse, jotting down ‘singer sounds like Robin Williams’ and ‘you may ask yourself’, the handwriting warbled by alcohol and the bark the words were written against.
To this day, any song by the Talking Heads takes me back to that night. Music can take your attention away from the moment, but down the line it can put you back into it far better than any clear memory can.
The Mushroom Man was wearing a faded, hole-ridden Grateful Dead t-shirt with the same smoking skeleton on the album cover of Trent’s tape. He looked like one of the twitchy, greasy, long-haired alien abductees Mulder investigated on The X-Files. The guys were introduced to him and they talked for a minute or so before ducking off into a tent with the promise of being right back, leaving me alone with Amy and Nicole.
The three of us shifted our legs and rubbed our shoulders and pretended to be interested in the tops of trees, convinced that all eyes were on us. It was a common feeling, though on this occasion it was for entirely different reasons. Suddenly the very things that had helped us to blend in and be accepted – dye jobs, smooth skin, catalog-layered outfits- served to make us stick out like freaks and invite stares.
Most everyone there was pale, and either really chubby or skeleton thin. There were a lot of acne scars and active outbreaks. Not many girls had on lipstick or nail polish, but the ones that did wore really dark colors, black or maroon. All of the guys seemed to either have long hair or shaved heads; beards tended to be wildly unkempt or meticulously sculpted. Both genders wore a lot bulky bracelets. The crowd seemed pretty eclectic – thrift-store hippies and Hot Topic emo kids and skate shop metal heads – but not inclusive enough for Abercrombie cheerleaders.
‘Karen!’ I knew the voice before I turned to see him. It was Marty Keegan, a kid I sat next to in Honors English. His dad was a chiropractor who had an office next to McDonald’s. He always smelled like new carpet, and had one of those nasally voices, with a cadence a bit wiser than its years, his tone already possessing the fake, cheery, sing-song quality of a lonely guy who makes quips about Mondays in the elevator. Everything about him was a bit too old – he parted his hair like my grandfather and dressed like an accountant on Casual Friday. He almost always wore khakis; on the rare occasion he wore jeans, they were too short and looked like he had ironed them before school. On this particular night, he was sporting just such a pair, with a black Ramones tee tucked into them that looked as crisp as if he had worn it out of the store. It was the first time I could ever remember seeing him in a shirt without a pressed collar, and the beer in his hand seemed out of place.
‘So nice to see you! Can I get you ladies something to drink?’
‘Uh, yeah, sure. Beers would be great!’ Nicole and Amy crinkled their noses and giggled when he walked off towards the coolers. I smiled and laughed, too, but I don’t think I shared their amusement. I was just happy that someone had said hello. He brought us back some Natural Lights and invited us into the circle surrounding the bonfire.
They all seemed happier. I’m sure that deep down they felt as sad and empty as I did, but as we sat around, I watched them and listened to them talk, and it seemed different. Their laughter sounded more genuine, and when they spoke it didn’t seem like the delivery of a pitch crafted while others were talking. They didn’t seem afraid of everyone else looking at them funny.
Nicole and Amy kept to themselves, exchanging whispers that most likely poked fun at their surroundings in an attempt to distract from the fear of them. I talked to Marty about Mrs. Stone, our teacher, and The Great Gatsby, which we’d read in class that spring. At one point, another song came on the speakers that caught my ear. Like the first one, it was catchy, but a little bit different. I asked Marty if he knew what it was, and he told me it was Soul Coughing. I could tell by his voice that it was something most kids probably knew, but he didn’t make fun of me or look at me like I was dumb.
I assumed that while we chatted he was harboring fantasies about titty fucking me. That’s how I felt when most guys talked to me. But I also got the impression that he would be just as content to talk with me all night, and listen to my fears, even if I didn’t want to do any sex stuff. Part of me felt a bit guilty about the possibility of leading him on. It turns out that as a pretty girl, anything you do with a guy that doesn’t lead to sex can be seen as a cruel lead on. And it’s kind of a guilty-until-proven innocent type deal, so you have to watch yourself.
‘Hey, babe.’ The words were casual, yet pronounced, the type of interjection meant as a statement (or a declaration of ownership). I had been talking to Marty about Mr. Show when her hands slipped over his shoulders. Her voice alone would have been enough to make me stop mid-sentence, but it was sight of the chunky turquoise butterfly ring on her right index finger that paralyzed me. I had bought it for her on her thirteenth birthday.
‘Hey, you,’ Marty said, craning his neck around to smile at her, nuzzling his head against her arm. ‘Shelly, this is Karen. We had class together. Karen, this is my girlfriend Shelly.’
‘We know each other,’ she said dryly, with a blank expression, kneading his shoulders. There was a sarcasm and venom to it that would’ve felt right coming from Amy or Nicole’s mouth. But out of Shelly’s, it was a bit off, like a botched subtitle in a foreign film.
She wore the same pink glasses, but they somehow seemed cool now. Her hair was still red, though more salon cherry than freckly orange, and less frizzy. The puffy bangs that had always made her look young and naïve were now sculpted and sleek, making her seem thoughtful and hip. Her knee-length dress was obviously a Hudson original, crafted in her mother’s sewing room, but it looked like the years had taught the duo a thing or two about hems and fashion. I can’t say the thing was something I’d wear, but I could see one hanging on a rack in The Buckle without Amy or Nicole mocking it. On the right day, one of them might have even remarked that it was ‘kinda cute’.
‘Hey, Shelly,’ I half-whispered, my shoulders sinking a bit and my eyes drifting toward the fire.
‘Who would have thought, eh?’ she asked with a smile, her tone sounding as playful as it did menacing. ‘Titty Fuck and Hot Dog, reunited at last.’
A half smile and a hearty exhale through the nose would’ve been enough to show that I was a good sport. But I couldn’t even fake that much. I just kept my eyes on the fire, fighting in vain to focus on the stilted, off-key plucks of someone trying to play ‘Paint It Black’. I eventually muttered ‘yeah’ in the frayed, half-hearted way one does when they have nothing to say, but have to say something.
For the first and only time since she’d berated me for blowing Rob Phillips, I felt inferior to Shelly. The years hadn’t lessened the impact of the sensation. I was no less alone and afraid than the pajama-clad seventh grader lying on a couch in Shelly’s basement, eyes fixed on the slit of light coming from the bottom of her bedroom door, telling myself that as long as it glowed, there was a chance she might come out and hug me.
My face burned from the heat of the fire and the looks of those around it as the realization set in that didn’t matter if I wore make-up or high heels or went tanning. I could find a boyfriend and let him titty fuck me, and nothing would change. Going to college or learning to speak French or writing a novel wouldn’t be enough to save me.
I was always going to feel like a scared little girl that didn’t know who to trust.