Kissing Just For Practice (Part V)

8 Jul

Most criticism and mockery is born out of insecurity. When the guys call each other ‘homo’ or ‘faggot’, it’s because deep down, in black waters too murky for them to see through, they’re afraid that they might be gay. Amy and Lindsey’s savage critiques of other girls’ hair or clothes or make-up are rooted in the fear that they themselves aren’t pretty or cool. It’s not so much about being gay or fat as it is being the thing that’s rejected and ridiculed.

It’s kind of obvious, if you think about it. But when you’re on the receiving end, all of that recognition goes out the window. Your face warms, your nerves buzz, and everyone around you appears as confident as you feel clueless.

There was a flippancy to Shelly’s barbed remark, one side of her lips curled in muted amusement. It was the sort of dig that required you to force a smile and a fake a laugh, as any protestation or offense could and would be viewed as a sign of your uptight inability to take a joke.

‘Lighten up’, your tormentor may say with a scoff and an eye roll, somehow morphing themselves into the victim of their own attack. ‘I’m just messing with you.’

I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that she was as uncomfortable and nervous as I was. And yet, I still found myself feeling inferior, clutching my knees in an attempt to stop them from trembling. I bummed a cigarette off of Amy, even though I didn’t smoke, and fumbled with the lighter, my attempt to look cool and confident having the opposite effect.

If the playing field were leveled, and neither of us constructed our actions based around what others would think, or who came ahead on the proverbial scoreboard of a game without rules, then Shelly and I would probably just hug and cry and gargle about how we much missed and loved each other. But we’re much too cool for that now.

She sat down next to Marty, who gave me a ‘what-can-you-do?’ shrug that made me want to cry. It’s not the fact that the world is cruel that hurts. The real pain comes from knowing that a lot of people can see the cruelty, but they join the parade, anyway.

Being publicly ridiculed will never stop being terrifying, but the older you get, it’s not the taunts and laughter that get to you so much as the apologetic glance of a bystander, a look that conveys they know what’s going on is wrong, but aren’t about to speak up. Knowing that there’s evil in the world can make you shiver. The idea that the good are too sheepish or selfish to combat the evil is what makes it hard to get out of the bed in the morning.

I found myself unable to focus on any of the half dozen conversations going on around me. All of the loud and slurred debates, declarations, recantations and raucous laughter blended into one useless disjointed symphony, muffled by my preoccupation with Shelly’s presence. It hissed like white noise, though I made gestures that implied my engagement, alternating between stealing glances at her and pretending as if she didn’t exist.

At one point, Shelly bellowed out an impression of this local car salesman who shouts in bizarre, cheaply produced ads that air on late night cable. Everyone laughed, though mine towered over the throng, a little too loud and a little too stilted, just as it was years ago, back when I was trying to get my new friends to like her.

I took a look at my watch every two or three minutes, reassuring myself that Trent should be back within the next five. I had never wanted him by my side more, though the feeling made me realize that I didn’t really like him all that much. My desire for his presence was a wish for a shield or a distraction or a trump card over Shelly’s boyfriend. I wanted a sense of comfort.

Had Trent been there, he probably wouldn’t have comforted me. He probably wouldn’t have even noticed that I was hurt. Shit, he may even have laughed at the ‘Titty Fuck Girl’ crack.

After about twenty-five minutes or so, Trent and the rest of them tumbled out of the tent, giggling with grapefruit colored eyes that glowed through the slits of their drooped lids, shaking hands like senators who just struck a budget deal. He poked his tongue through his teeth as he walked towards me, dangling a Ziploc bag with a bunch of dried up mushrooms in it. Other members of their tent summit did a variation of the same as they strutted towards their respective tribes, the crowd hushing yet humming, like a concert audience when the house lights go down, The slaps of a few high fives echoed over the crackle of the fire

I didn’t really know all that much about drugs. I’d smoked pot before. I had done coke once at a college party, and snorted Adderall a few times. I’d never bought any or sold any. But I’d been around them enough to notice that more often than not it looks like the giddy high of acquiring the drugs is a better feeling than actually doing them.

Trent doled out shriveled mushrooms caps frosted with what looked like blue and silver spray paint to everyone huddled around him, hands cupped as if waiting to take a communion wafer. I lingered on the outskirts of the scrum, a part of me hoping they’d gobble it all up before it was my turn, or maybe not notice that I hadn’t taken any.

I’d noticed that Shelly had been employing the same strategy with her cluster, and at one point her eyes caught mine. It was an earnest look, and a frightened one. She cocked her head towards the woods and I nodded without hesitation, years frozen by animosity thawing in an instant as we both tiptoed away.

All of the daydreamed lectures and apologies, the half written crumpled up letters, the mold-covered anger and hurt, the years of silence and doubt and guilt that had festered to the point where it felt like amputation was the only option – it just disappeared in an instant. Slipped right off our shoulders, like the book bag of a bored student walking through the front door. And all it took was a few head nods.

Some relationships in life develop a shared intuition that can’t be weakened or rusted or forgotten by time. It’s a lot like riding a bike – it may be wobbly at first, but the muscle memory returns quicker than the fear lingers.

‘Have you ever done mushrooms before?’ she whispered, both of us hunched together behind a tree, hands on our knees, glancing around, like a team in a huddle.

‘No.’ I felt a pang of shame when I answered, though I couldn’t say why. I knew that Shelly wouldn’t think less of me because I hadn’t tripped on mushrooms before. Actually, she’d probably think less of me if I had. But most people have a hard time admitting that they don’t really know what’s going on. They spent so much of their life pretending they do that a naked admission of cluelessness somehow feels wrong.

‘Do you want to?’ She had to lower her gaze to line up with mine, which was pretending to study a patch of dirt too dark to see. I wasn’t really certain of the answer to the question, but after a brief silence scored by the chirping and humming of insects, I shook my head.

‘OK,’ she said, swiping a strand of hair behind her ear, nodding as if she’d just talked herself into something. ‘If anyone gives us any, we pretend to eat it. Just shove it in your pocket or toss it, and pretend like you’re chewing. Fake it. They’ll never know.’

I nodded along, a private’s trust in a general, the gap separating our ranks less about wisdom than courage. All I could think of was what to say next. ‘I’m sorry’ was on the tip of my tongue the whole time, but I couldn’t pull the trigger.

‘Actually,’ she said, snapping her fingers and slapping her thigh in one fell swoop. ‘Let’s just say we ate them out here. If anyone asks, we’ll rattle off some bullshit about nature and spirituality.’

‘Right. Maybe when we get back to the circle we can laugh real loud or something. Like, one of us told a joke, and we can pretend to chew when people look. Like an alibi.’

‘Nah,’ she said with a tone of dismissive wisdom picked up at some point since we’d parted ways. ‘The less noticeable you are, the better.’

We both froze up at the sound of leaves crunching under footsteps nearby. Despite no one being around to see us, we both acted out rigid and slightly over-the-top behaviors indicating the nonchalance of two people not in the middle of a deep conversation – letting our limbs go limp and dangle, avoiding eye contact, scratching the backs of our necks, as if we were strangers waiting for a bus.

‘C’mon,’ she whispered, grabbing my wrist after the crunching and laughter had trailed off, pulling me towards the campsite. ‘Play it cool. Act natural.’

The buzz of the circle had quieted, the drugs taking a bit longer to kick in than everyone anticipated. Nicole and Amy asked where I’d been with an urgency implying an absence of days. Trent offered up some mushroom caps he’d saved for me, and I waved them off, claiming to have eaten plenty with Shelly in the woods. Things quieted down again, everyone fidgeting and sighing as if life were a sluggish checkout line.

‘I think I’m starting to feel weird,’ Nicole said, her hands grasping the summit of her knees, which were curled against her chest. Her body rocked back and forth slowly, her unblinking eyes lost in the fire.

‘My hands feel weird,’ Trent muttered, mouth hanging open, holding his right hand a few inches from his face, turning it slowly.

‘Yeah, I think it’s kicking in,’ I said with a spacy drawl, the delivery as jagged and wooden as the dialogue of a porn movie. No one responded, but no one seemed to object or suspect, either. You want to be noticed, but you don’t want to stand out. It’s a fine line, but navigating it becomes almost effortless after time.

Seabury kids aren’t too hard to figure out in that regard. When The Doors come on, you say that you love The Doors. When someone says that Vice Principal Lombardi is a fat asshole, you say ‘Yeah, fuck him’. If you’re asked whether you’re ‘cool’ or if you ‘party’, always ask for a clarification (it can mean a lot of different things). Try to act bored with everything around you, but don’t be too negative – aim for a sort of indolent contentment. Make well-timed comments that don’t alter the course of conversation, but give the idea that you’re cool and interesting and self-assured, without really saying much about yourself.

It sounds kind of convoluted and complex, but it doesn’t take long before it becomes a sort of an involuntary reaction. You’ll find yourself saying or doing things and realizing ‘wait, I don’t believe that’. But everyone nods or laughs, and you feel accepted for who you are, ignoring or outright forgetting the fact that every word and action has actually been an attempt to disguise the real you.

‘Hey, can I talk to you for a minute?’, Trent whispered in my ear, the rest of the group focused on the account of someone who had, in fact, taken acid and synched up The Wizard of Oz with The Dark Side of the Moon. It, like, changes the way you look at reality, he’d confirmed, the group nodding with starry eyes as if he were some shaman.

All of it had the tired familiarity of a syndicated rerun you half-watch while making dinner. I’d heard the conversation enough times to know that you start the album on the third roar of the MGM lion, and I’d been asked enough to know that ‘Can I talk to you for a minute?’ is a lead-in to ‘I think you’re really cool/smart/funny’, which sets up ‘I’m serious. You’re different from other girls’, all of which is a coded way of saying ‘I want to titty fuck you’.

‘I think you’re really cool,’ he said after we’d walked for a minute or so in silence, shoving his hands into the pockets of his Abercrombie jeans, faded and torn by design, not natural wear. His eyes tried to meet mine, but gravitated towards the ground, pulled by the magnetic force of the knowledge that compliments and honest expressions of admiration are frowned upon, seen as a pathetic sign of weakness. Much like his jeans, the words came off more like a facsimile than something natural.

It’s easy to get swept up in the warm, buzzy idea of validation – the chase of such a feeling is more often than not what led you to such a position in the first place. You want to believe, and so you do. After all, being told that you’re cool or interesting or funny is exactly what you’d hoped for when you put on eyeshadow or dyed your hair or skipped lunch, isn’t it?

Moments like this used to bring on a reverie that made every pop song achingly poignant, large chunks of the day spent daydreaming about the names of future children and what to wear. But after enough sweaty, smelly, weird looking dicks rammed between your tits or down your throat, it all feels more like a lead-filled burden – an obligation you have to choke down like an in-law’s steamed vegetables.

I had become convinced that the only reason guys told me that I was cool or funny or different from all the other girls was because they want to fuck me. And if I wouldn’t let them, all of the stuff about how unique or pretty or smart I am would cease, or transfer over to the next girl they thought they had a shot with. I would go from a girl special enough to elicit a mix tape so urgent it had to be delivered in homeroom on a Tuesday to someone they pretended not to notice in the mall concourse.

The things I did or said or wore, my favorite books or albums or paintings, the stories of my life, the feelings that made up my soul – none of it seemed to matter. I could read Cosmo or Kant, listen to The Smiths or Hanson, vote Democrat or Republican – it amounted to little more than trivia. The only thing that mattered was whether or not I rubbed my breasts against their dicks.

‘I mean that. I’m serious,’ he said with the steady enunciation and serious look of a drunk steeling himself to appear sober. There was a faint whistle to his ‘s’ at the tail end; Trent always looked and sounded like he had a wad of tobacco in his lip, even when he didn’t (though he often did).

‘Thanks,’ I said with a purr, batting my lashes despite being unable to look him in the eye. Neither one of us spoke for a bit. It was a tense silence – the agonizing quiet of a theater when the lead blanks on their line. When I finally remembered to say ‘I like you, too’, it came out like a rushed afterthought, blurted with the frantic exasperation of a last second Pictionary guess.

I had come to realize that I didn’t really like him all that much, and knew that saying so would be his green light to move in for a kiss. But somehow I felt obligated to, even as I warned myself over and over that I wasn’t.

‘You don’t have to do this, you don’t have to do this, you don’t have to do this.’ The mantra grew louder and faster when he moved in. My mind told me to shirk away, but the body reciprocated, slipping my tongue between his lips. When he began running his hand up my shirt, the voice in my head shifted from a pleading whimper to the stern and disgusted shouts of an angry parent.

‘Don’t do it! How stupid are you? Say no! You can say no! You don’t want to do this!’

By the time he’d peeled my shirt off, fumbling with my bra hook for a few seconds before just yanking the front down, lunging for my breasts like he was a fighter who’d just survived the tenth round and my nipples were a water bottle straw, the silent pleas had crescendoed into a jumbled panic that began to lose all meaning.


It began to cool down around the time he put his hand on my head and gently pressed downward, settling into a calmer and more reasonable chant of ‘Please don’t. It won’t make you happy. ‘Please don’t. It won’t make you happy.’

I didn’t give much resistance before melting to my knees and tugging on his belt. Wrapping my mouth around him, the words became more of a lament than a warning, their rhythm a metronome to time the bob of my head.

‘It won’t make you happy, it won’t make you happy, it won’t make you happy.’

You wouldn’t have known that’s how I felt by looking at me. I moaned and flipped my hair, ran my tongue up and down his chest, winked and giggled, called him ‘baby’, etc.

It felt like I was raping myself.

Kissing Just For Practice (Part IV)

7 Jul

Marty was smart and funny, and kind of cute, in his own weird way. He was also too innocent or afraid to try anything sexual, which was nice. Not that anyone was clamoring to do anything like that with me, but it took the pressure off a bit. Marty looked at me in a way that felt as nice as I imagined sex did. At the time, that was enough.

I didn’t really see the appeal of blowjobs or handjobs or titty fucking or whatever it was people did. I just wanted to feel the swoon that Diana Ross sang about. At the time, it seemed possible to get there with only glances and flowers and maybe second base. The rest of it just seemed sweaty and smelly and awkward.

Marty was a sort of a Ken doll, I guess. I don’t mean to objectify him, and he hardly fit the profile of such a description. But at the time, he provided all of the things I told myself I needed, and for all I was concerned, the hidden parts of him were smooth and plastic and non-existent. He was the answer to Barbie’s problems, and while I wasn’t Barbie, and he wasn’t Ken, it fit the narrative.

I had met him at a Regional Model U.N. debate. He was Luxembourg. I was Bulgaria. During one of the breaks, he bought a can of Sprite from the machine and two of them came out. He offered me one, and we started talking.

Even when it doesn’t happen to one much, you can usually tell when a guy is hitting on you. There’s awkwardness and a flattery to it, regardless of whether you’re receptive or the delivery is clever. But there’s also a sense of distrust. I didn’t feel that with Marty, though.

We saw Lord of the Rings together, and had lunch a few times. As far as I could tell, he’d never heard the Hot Dog Story. Eventually he asked if I wanted to share a tent with him at All-Seniors, and I agreed. I immediately went from asking myself if I liked him to dancing around my room in celebration of the fact that he did.

Paige’s friend Jason had been planning a big set-up for the night, and had some cousin who was supposed to bring a bunch of mushrooms. I didn’t tell Marty about that part, fearing that it might freak him out. It freaked me out. Paige talked about it with a shoulder-scrunching giddiness that I tried to share, but I had never taken mushrooms before. I was worried that I’d go crazy and jump off a cliff, or shove my head through someone’s car window, or do something that would cause everyone in sight to point at me and laugh.

She had said it was kind of like acid. I nodded, like I knew what acid felt like. The only thing I knew about it was that supposedly in the 70’s some junior at South had a bunch stashed in his sock at some party. He ended up getting chased by the cops in a downpour, and all of the rainwater and sweat made the acid seep into his skin. At some point, he got the idea that he was a glass of orange juice, and it became permanent. Everyone says that he’s been in Laurelwood ever since, standing in a corner, constantly swaying and begging people to not tip him over. Though my mom went to South around that time, and she said the same rumor was around back then, only the Orange Juice Kid went to Euclid, and it was peyote.

We drove out to Millwood in Marty’s grandfather’s bird egg blue Skylark. The interior was immaculate, and there were four cassettes in the slot above the tape deck, all greatest hits collections: The Oak Ridge Boys, Alabama, Kenny Rogers, and The Ramones, which looked like the cellophane had just been ripped off it. He had probably bought it during the same mall trip that netted him the Ramones t-shirt he was wearing. It was the one black-and-white one that a lot of people had. Langley wore it on The X-Files.

‘You like The Ramones?’ he asked, drumming on the steering wheel in a manner that looked unfamiliar with the beat. Maybe he was just entering some organic Ramones phase, but I flirted with the idea that he had me in mind a bit when he decided to try on a new skin. Either way, he came off like a stilted poser, but I still found it kind of cute. I liked the idea that someone might put thought into trying to impress me.

‘Yeah, they’re great.’ I probably came across as transparently as he did. I recognized the music when I heard it, but I didn’t really know many of their songs outside of the ‘Hey-ho-let’s-go’ one.

‘This song’s about Ronald Reagan going to a Nazi graveyard when he was the president. ‘


‘Yeah, it’s called ‘Bonzo Goes to Bitburg’.Well, that’s the parentheses part. Bonzo was the name of a monkey that he was in a movie with when he was an actor. Bitburg was the name of the cemetery.’



A big part of why I liked Marty was the fact that he seemed a bit more innocent than other guys, though sometimes he seemed to have a maturity and worldliness that they all lacked. And when he finished talking, the look he gave me didn’t seem like a gauge of my reaction to what he said. It felt like he genuinely wanted to hear what I had to say.

‘My dad didn’t like Reagan.’ I didn’t want to seem as dumb as I felt, and it was the first thing that came to mind. ‘He said he fired all of the airport workers when he shouldn’t have.’

‘My dad says he saved the country from Jimmy Carter.’

Neither one of us said anything for a few minutes after that. Every now and again, I would stare at him until I sensed that he noticed, and whip my gaze toward the window. I counted green mile markers and wondered if he was doing the same thing.

A kid with bad teeth and an orange vest directed us to a parking spot, a bit too much flair and authority in the swing of the orange rods he held. Walking towards the campground, I grabbed Marty’s hand, squeezing it once he grew the courage to lock fingers. I did want him to know that I liked him, but that’s not why I held his hand. It just happened without thought, an immediate reaction to a rapid onset of paralyzing fear.

I recognized a lot of faces. The names slowly came back to me, as did the memories I’d dedicated myself to moving past (or at least ignoring). I can’t say that I ever stopped feeling like The Hot Dog Girl, but walking through the crowd at that moment, I suddenly realized that I had done a better job of getting over it than I had thought. The anguish that had hung on me like chains for years wasn’t as heavy as it had seemed. I had convinced myself that I was as weighed down as I’d felt back at McKinley. But the truth was that I could’ve been flying the whole time. I think that epiphany hurt more than the shame.

Our campsite was easily the nicest on the grounds. Marty had been talking on the way there about stopping at the North High A.V. Club’s tent, up until he saw where we were staying. After that, he was reduced to grinning and spouting the occasional giddy ‘cool’ or ‘sweet’ or ‘awesome’. I was as in awe of the whole set-up as he was, but I managed to act like it was just another day in the life.

‘What’s up, bitches!’ Paige hoisted up her arm, flashing the index-and-pinky metal sign and sticking out her tongue. The little-glow-in-the-dark ball that capped the rod stuck through her tongue was just starting its neon blush in the waning daylight. She had gotten it pierced on a whim three weeks ago when we were at the mall. The reason cited was that it made blowjobs more enjoyable for boys, but I think she just wanted to piss off her mom. I didn’t try to talk her out of it.

‘You must be Marty!’ she chirped, in the sing-song tone we all unconsciously adopt in certain social situations. I had been pretty sure that most of my friends assumed Marty didn’t exist. It felt nice to finally show proof that someone liked me, and that I was navigating the waters of dating. But her greeting made it seem like I was talking about him a lot. I couldn’t say what was wrong about that, but my face warmed with embarrassment.

‘Yeah. Hi.’ He shook her hand with a stiff awkwardness. ‘You’re Paige, I presume?’

‘The one and only!’ Her voice still possessed the hollow warmth of a telemarketer. “C’mon, let’s get you guys some beers!’

She handed us a pair of Natural Lights dripping with ice water and led us over to our tent. The plan was to sleep four in it, but it turned out that Paige’s date had come down with mono and couldn’t make it. It would just be the three of us. I questioned whether or not he existed, but I didn’t bother to inquire out loud. Most liars are only as good as their audience’s desire to avoid confrontation.

After we dropped our bags and settled in, Paige pulled me off to the outskirts of the woods by the wrist with some vague excuse. Once we had gotten far enough away from the crowd, she turned to me, holding my hands as she bunched her shoulders and squealed. It was a demeanor that she had never exhibited outside of an impression aimed at mockery. But I think it was sincere.

‘Oh my God, Shelly, he’s adorable! That’s the guy you went to the movies with?’


We both beamed like idiots, though my dopey giddiness was clouded by the notion that anyone who’s All-Seniors date had bailed at the last second wouldn’t be able to fake this sort of joy. Especially Paige. If her supposed date – allegedly a South High drummer in a punk band who looked like Edward Furlong – really had bailed on her, she wouldn’t have been able to muster such empathetic excitement. She’d be sulking and complaining and talking about how fat and ugly she was, and how love and romance was a strategy cooked up by Hallmark.

‘He’s cute,’ she said, raising her eyebrows as she fished a cigarette from her purse. ‘You guys fuck yet?’ The question was asked playfully, with a bit of a Cheshire grin, knowing that we hadn’t. She was well aware of the fact that I was a virgin, and I don’t doubt that she saw right through the fabrications of mild trysts I had invented from time to time in an attempt to hide the fact that I’d never even kissed a boy.

‘Shut up,’ I moaned, parroting the same tone of light jest.

‘Do you think he’s The One?’ I could hear the capital letters. Paige had been nudging me to lose my virginity since she had learned that I still possessed it.

‘I really like him,’ I said, the words wavering with the unadorned honesty one can so rarely let out. You not only have to have someone you trust to be nakedly open with, but you need to possess the bravery to do so. Even at my most confident, I still felt frozen in vulnerable cowardice. I think most people do. We shy away from honesty unless we feel assured that it will be accepted or recognized as universal.

‘Go get him, Tiger,’ she said with a wink, her tongue poking out of a pursed smile as she pushed me towards the campfire.

Marty was talking with a few guys near the keg, holding a beer like it was his first. I can’t explain what was going through my mind, or how I had the sudden courage to do what I did. To this day, I’m not sure if it was panicked desperation or bold action in a moment of clarity. Some days, I cringe when I think about it. Other times, I wish I could be that person again.

‘Shelly! There you are!’ His face lit up as he saw me approaching, a look I had always hoped to bring about in a boy, but feared I never could. ‘Guys, this is-‘

I grabbed him by the hand and yanked him away from the circle without exchanging pleasantries or breaking stride, his smile deflating into a straight-lipped confusion. Ignoring his nervous questioning about what was up and where we were going and if I was OK, I marched him into the woods, shoved him against a tree, and kissed him with the neck-gripping passion I’d seen on my mom’s soap operas.

He started kissing me back after he’d gotten over the initial shock. It didn’t feel anything like I’d expected. It was slippery and slimy and I felt self-conscious.

‘I want you to be my boyfriend,’ I whispered after pulling back a bit, our foreheads still touching.

‘OK’. He put his hands on my head, thumbs and index fingers wrapping around my ears. His voice was as soft as his eyes, which locked onto mine for a few seconds, both of us frozen save for our deep breaths. He kissed me again, and I suddenly understood the appeal.

‘I am kissing a guy,’ I thought to myself over and over, like a calming mantra. The idea that it was happening felt better than the act itself. I swirled my tongue around his, afraid that my inexperience was painfully obvious, opening my eyes every few seconds to make sure his were still closed. This went on for a few minutes, until we broke lips, our foreheads still pressed together, eyes locked. I don’t think either of us knew what to do next.

‘I really like you.’

‘I really like you, too.’

He tried kissing my neck for a few seconds, but it tickled, causing me to shirk away and giggle. He stepped back, holding my hands, and we stared into each other’s eyes for what seemed like an eternity I would never tire of.

‘Let’s go back to the party,’ he whispered, kissing me on the forehead.

We walked through the woods in silence, hands clasped, arms swaying, both of us trying to corral our heavy breathing. I wondered if he was as nervous or happy as I was. The confusion was a bit of a disappointment, as I’d always thought that kissing a boy or having a boyfriend would make me feel self-assured. At the very least, I’d figured it would be enough evidence to prove that someone liked me. But my mind was plagued with thoughts of my inadequacy, and a fear that he would discover them and change his mind.

‘I’m gonna go find Paige,’ I said when we got back to the clearing. ‘Want to grab us some beers and meet at the bonfire?’

‘Sure.’ He kissed me and squeezed my hand before walking off. Back at McKinley, couples had always done that sort of thing in the hallway between bells. They would peck each other on the lips, like it was nothing, and gaze at each other as they walked off, their hands touching until the last possible second. I had always wanted to someone to do that with. It wasn’t exactly what I’d imagined it would be like, but it was enough to make me shiver with joy, unable to mask my Joker-sized grin. For the first time in my entire life, I felt pretty.

The only other thing I wanted to do besides kiss Marty some more was to tell Paige what had happened. But she was nowhere to be found. I walked around the horseshoe, poking my head into tents and asking if anyone had seen her. After the third or fourth lap, I figured she’d gone off to smoke weed, or put her tongue ring to use, and went back to find Marty.

The thought of running into Karen had been in the back of my mind for years. Early on, it infected my veins, even in places there was virtually no chance she would be at. As time went on, the fear subsided, though it still lingered, to the point that I’d half-expected to see her on the beach during family vacations to Florida. But for some reason, I hadn’t even thought about it when All-Seniors rolled around, despite the fact that the event held high odds of such an encounter. On some level, I guess I knew she would be there, as everyone was. But my mind had been too crowded with daydreams and fears regarding Marty to even entertain the notion, let alone be bothered by it.

The feeling of being pretty or wanted or special vanished the moment I saw them sitting together in the bonfire circle. Marty really wasn’t Karen’s type, but I couldn’t shake the idea that if for some reason she wanted him on some drunken whim, the tender looks and compliments he gave me would instantly shift towards her direction. It made me feel like an empty vessel, every shiny and new warm feeling that made life worth living suddenly exposed as a naïve lie that only I believed.

As I dashed off into the woods to cry, I was struck by the idea that maybe Karen had always felt the same way. A participant wishes they could win the bronze. The bronze wants to be the silver. The silver wants to be the gold. The gold wants to be something more – something hazy and vague that’s not marked by a tangible accomplishment. Nothing is enough. There is no satiation.

Wiping the tears from my eyes, I decided that the best course of action was to assume that Karen was as petrified as I was. Marching back to the party, my eyes drying and my shoulders perking, I told myself over and over that whoever faked it the best would be the victor in a non-existent but pervading contest. I would treat Karen like the pathetic joke I felt like, and doing so would give me the upper hand.

I suddenly felt pretty again.

Kissing Just For Practice (Part III)

6 Jul

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.’

‘It’s safe?’

‘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.

‘Hey, Marty!’

‘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.

Kissing Just For Practice (Part II)

3 Jul

I never masturbated with a hot dog. I don’t have the slightest clue where that story originated. Countless hours of my life have been wasted pondering every possible avenue of explanation, but nothing ever adds up.

Even the most wild and improbable rumors of McKinley Junior High usually contained some kernel of truth from which they popped. John and Jane make out at a party, Jane misses a few weeks with mono, and suddenly everyone’s whispering about some secret abortion. A sophomore trying to be funny gets arrested for faux-coughing ‘Pig!’ during the break-up of a parents-out-of-town party, and come Monday, the word is that he punched the cop and stole his gun.

I had never masturbated before when that started going around. I wasn’t even entirely sure why one would. Sexuality was a foreign world that I tried to avoid.

The avoidance was partly due to intimidation, unaware that my peers who acted confident on the matter were as clueless as I was. But mostly because I knew it was something I wasn’t going to be a part of. When I was little, my mom used to sit on the couch and watch Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. She’d get all excited and shout when she saw some really extravagant luxury that looked wonderful. But when it was over, she’d realize she’d never have it, which would make her sigh and light a cigarette and stalk off to mix another Screwdriver.

That’s how I felt about sex. It seemed interesting at first. The idea of it made me feel warm and gave me butterflies. But once I sensed that no one wanted to have it with me, I paid less and less attention to it. And when my friends started doing it, they all turned into impulsive idiots, which made it even less appealing.

I didn’t masturbate for the first time until freshman year of college. It’s not like I was asexual or anything. I had buzzy feelings and tongue-tying crushes and all of that. But it was mostly based around the idea of love and sex. The act itself made me uncomfortable.

The only thing more puzzling than how the rumor got started is why anyone would feel the need to craft it. Most gossip tended to revolve around people that were noticed – the popular kids, the troublemakers, the crazies. But I had been more or less invisible up to that point.

Kids had always made fun of me, but once we got to junior high, it became less and less noticeable. Elementary school mockery is open and venomous, and everyone is fair game. Junior high isn’t much more civilized, but there’s a sense of empathy developing, as well as a hierarchy. This newfound understanding doesn’t make them stop, but it does instill a certain sense of decorum and boundaries. The open, public venom usually doesn’t get spit unless you join the fray. Any attempt to be cool or join the circle – as sheepish and innocent as the motive may be – is a murky, subconscious entry into the race for alpha status, and no one is safe. Throw your hat in the ring, and all bets are off. If you keep to yourself, people will still make fun of you, but they mostly do it out of earshot, and when they’re done laughing, sometimes someone will say ‘Aw, I feel bad. She’s nice.’

Once in a blue moon, I was an innocent casualty of someone’s need for validation – someone would need an easy mark and make a crack about me passing in the halls. Their pack would laugh and my cheeks would heat up, but most of them didn’t even know my name and the moment was forgotten before late bell. I was more or less off the radar.

Or so I thought.

Contrary to popular belief, I spent the night of Spring Formal at home watching movies with my mom. She was convinced that my inability to find a date had caused some depression that needed to be tiptoed around and soothed with distractions. I wasn’t bothered one way or the other, and was actually looking forward to going online and playing GemStone. A bunch of people I knew from the game had planned to attempt a trek from one side of the map to the other.

But I could feel the warmth in her intentions, and so I feigned excitement at the suggestion of pizza and ice cream and Blockbuster. I rolled my eyes when she shoehorned some darkest-before-the-dawn parable about meeting my dad into the conversation, and grunted with clenched teeth whenever she asked vague, rehearsed questions about my life, but for the most part I pretended to enjoy it, and at moments I honestly did.

The story caught on pretty quickly, but I can’t say when it started. I was one of the last to hear about it. But I can remember noticing something was different. People stared and pointed and snickered, especially on days when the cafeteria served hot dogs. I went from feeling invisible to wishing I was, without the slightest clue why until later that summer.

Every June our town held a festival where a bunch of carnies came through town with low rent rides and games and fried food stands. Even those who rolled their eyes when they mentioned it ended up going. There wasn’t much else to do. I went with Paige, a girl from the trailer park I played Magic with. We ended up running into some other trailer park kids, and everyone snuck off into the woods to smoke a joint. I didn’t smoke weed, but I enjoyed being a part of a group.

The guy with the weed had long hair and a leather jacket. He was a little scrawny and kind of bug-eyed, but still really cute. Sitting on a stump at the head of the circle, he rolled the joint on a cheap framed Jack Daniels logo he had won for popping balloons with darts. Everyone listened when he talked – he seemed like a leader without striving to be. At one point, I did an impression of the carnie from the balloon game that made him laugh so hard he gave me a beer from his backpack and offered me a seat on the cinder block closest to him. For a minute or two, I let myself daydream scenarios where he might like me.

‘So you go to McKinley?’ he asked, shaking the hair from his eyes. I wanted them to be the eyes of a poet. They looked like it.

‘Yeah.’ They all went to Taft, which was on the other side of town.

‘You know Greg McGill?’


‘Dave Harransky?

‘Yeah, he’s in my homeroom.’

‘Yo, you know that chick who snapped a hot dog off in her cooch?’ the kid to my left shouted with a cackle. A few people laughed. He had an underdeveloped mustache and he talked like a redneck trying to sound black. ‘What’s her name? Shelly Hudson?’

Paige shot me a panicked look, quickly trying to recover with a feigned confusion. I just shook my head and said no.

‘Did that really happen?’ asked my daydream boyfriend.

‘Shit, yeah! My cousin was workin’ in the E.R. that night!’

‘Isn’t everyone really snobby there?’ Paige asks, a bit too fast and loud, the delivery a bit wooden. This is usually the first thing someone from Taft asks about McKinley. I run with her cue, and after a minute or two the conversation shifts to syncing up The Wizard of Oz and Dark Side of the Moon.

Everyone has moments in life when they realize that their perception was totally off, and they were completely oblivious to reality. Like processing the reveal of a twist in a good thriller, your mind begins to spin, frantically reflecting on evidence that suddenly seems obvious but hadn’t been considered. I pretended to be a part of the circle, but was just following social cues at that point. I caught enough bits and pieces to realize that my fantasy poet was kind of an idiot with a grasp on reality as flimsy as my own, but for the most part, the conversation around me sounded like Charlie Brown’s teacher.

Paige painted her nails black and dyed her hair a choppy, homemade combo of jet black and Kool-Aid red. She acted fierce and jaded, but was actually pretty fragile emotionally. Most people don’t know how ridiculous their lies can be until they’re exposed for them, and a lot of the time it’s easier and less complicated to let obvious fibs pass than call them out. Judging by the adults around me, I don’t think this sort of thing ever really stops, but it was especially absurd in junior high. One of Paige’s toe dips into uncharted waters was a claim that she was training to be a Wiccan or a witch or whatever. She talked of witnessing weather spells cast and demons summoned, and when she said it I wanted to laugh, but just nodded instead, mostly to be polite, but partly out of the naïve sliver of wonder that hoped it was true. There was also some occasional mention of an off again-on again boyfriend who went to Taft. Supposedly he was a drummer in a metal band with a twelve inch dick who could fuck for hours, though I never met him or anyone who had.

Before signaling to her that I wanted to leave under the pretense of some vague prior commitment, I jumped into the rotation and smoked weed for the first time. It tasted like a pine tree and left some bitter sap on my lips. I became uncomfortably dizzy, which was disorienting but somewhat fitting. I don’t know why I decided to try it. It just felt like the thing to do.

The whole walk back I thought about asking, and I think she was preoccupied with the fear that I would. I waited until we were back at the festival, hoping that the lights and bells and people would somehow distract from the awkwardness.

‘What were they talking about back there? The hot dog thing?’ Paige fishes a black cigarette from the metal case with the Black Sabbath logo on it. A lot of people who try to act cold and tough but are really softies tend to worship Ozzy Osbourne. It makes sense if you listen to him. For some High Priest of Darkness, his lyrics are pretty vulnerable to the point of being sappy.

‘Yeah, sorry about that,’ she says with a shake of the head, swiping a strand of hair behind her ear, the seven metal rings hanging from it resembling the spine of a spiral notebook.

‘Do people think I did something with a hot dog?’ She took a drag from her cigarette and sighed. It wasn’t much different from the reaction my mother had when she realized I’d deduced the truth about Santa Claus.

‘Did you?’ There’s an apologetic whimper to the question. As she asks, her whole body scrunches and shrinks.

‘No,’ I said, with a fluster that was genuine, though I feared it would mistaken for the ludicrously improbable acting so commonplace at the time. ‘How long have people thought this?’

‘I don’t know,’ she says, suddenly remembering that her persona is supposed to be cold and calculating. She takes pronounced drags off her skunky cigarette and becomes fixated on the lights of the fast pitch booth. ‘Taft kids started talking about it a few weeks ago.’

‘What do they think?’

‘People say that on the night of McKinley’s Spring Formal, you were masturbating with a hot dog and it broke off inside you. They say you had to go to Hillcrest and have it removed.’

It takes me a minute to say something. I don’t even try to fake the impact of the blow. My legs are flimsy rubber, and it feels like I’m stumbling around with slot machine eyes, my mouth guard hanging from a drooping jaw. The whole world can see how weak I am, and I can’t even get it together enough to go down swinging.

‘That never happened.’ The look she gave me was the first of many. The eyes of someone you trust, who you think knows you, firmly meeting yours with a glint that suggests even the most adamant and logical protestations will always be tainted with a drop of skepticism. I felt like Fox Mulder. Telling the truth makes you sound crazy.

‘Did you think it did?’ I ask, snatching the cigarette from her hand and taking a drag. This was a first for me, as well, and looking back I think I did it both for the distraction and as an emphasis of my desperate confusion. ‘Since you’ve met me, have you thought that I did that?’

‘I don’t know,’ she says, chewing on her thumbnail, her self-described ‘I speak my mind, I don’t hold back, I tell it like it is’ persona suddenly nowhere to be found. ‘Maybe. But…whatever. I’m your friend, either way. I figured if it was true, you’d tell me, if you wanted to.’ She bites her lip, her shoulders deflating.

‘Well, it’s not true.’ I wrapped my arms around my chest and huffed at first, trying to look annoyed, but I couldn’t keep it together, and after a few seconds I collapsed onto her in a desperate hug a bit too awkward to have in public (with the exception of funerals, weddings, and sporting events). She hugs me back, tightly, which is the nice thing about outcasts and the downtrodden. For all of our flaws, we tend to value raw, emotional honesty with a patient understanding.


I always tend to cast myself in the role of some righteous and earnest person who is constantly trampled by the cold and superficial world around them. But looking back, maybe I took that notion or circumstance as a free pass to lash out. I wince when I think of Paige and I clutching each other as the streaming crowd around us either ignored it or reacted with eye rolls and one liners. But it was the right thing to do on her part, and it was just what I needed. It seems like a simple gesture, but it takes some bravery and selflessness, and was something that had been missing from my life for some time. I’d had it with family, but they’re family. They can only protect you out in the wild for so long.

This lack was something that I looked at for a long time as an unfair burden brought on by a low rank in a cruel world. But maybe you get what you give.

The last time I’d felt such comfort was with Karen, my childhood best friend. I’d always chalked our drifting apart up to her being another vain and shallow follower leaving me for the plastic world of popularity, as did those who tried to comfort me when it happened. On paper, it certainly looked like I was the innocent victim, and I played it that way. But as time goes on, I feel more and more like I was the one wearing the black hat.

Karen once needed a hug like the one Paige gave me. And I didn’t give it to her. Not only that, but I scoffed at her. She had been ditching me for a spot at the cool kids table, treating me like a pet or outright ignoring me whenever the two worlds collided. Our drifting apart was kind of inevitable in retrospect, but things really dovetailed the night she told me she gave her first blowjob to Mark Phillips.

He was this idiot baseball player whose dad was a dentist. He tortured me in fifth grade math class, constantly making fun of my since-corrected stutter. Karen stood up for me once, turning the heat on him with cracks about a small penis. Mark had always stood for everything that was wrong. And then she turned around and blew him.

In what could have been her darkest hour of confusion and shame, she clung to me for support, like I did Paige. If Paige had responded with the cold indifference that I did, I honestly think I may have attempted suicide that night.

As comforting as that embrace was, it was only the beginning. A few weeks after the festival, I got a letter in the mail from the Larkin Academy for Girls. I had scored really high on some standardized test and was offered a scholarship for low-income students. Most people thought the transfer was an attempt to run from the constant linger of shame. There’s probably some truth to that. If the rumor never got started, I may have protested the idea of going to a school with rich girls named Dakota who made the most impossibly perfect cheerleaders at McKinley look flawed, or having to wear itchy polyester uniforms with knee high socks.

But that’s not why I went. My parents saw it as some huge opportunity they never had, and my dad started working overtime to pay for the part of tuition that wasn’t covered. Everyone just assumed that it was because of the hot dog incident. My protestations and attempts to clarify became less and less inspired after time. No matter what I said, that glimmer of doubt would always be there. I would always be the girl who masturbated with a hot dog.

I never did uncover the genesis of the story, but for a long time I had penciled Karen in as my main suspect. She was my only vine to that world, and there was a motive. I never had enough evidence to convince myself fully of her guilt. In the end, I don’t think she had anything to do with it. Even so, she became the face of all the cruelty that I suffered.

An embarrassing amount of time was spent crafting poison-tipped lectures denouncing her fake and empty way of life, and there were a few opportunities to recite them, though I never did.

My feelings toward Karen burned, festered, scabbed, and eventually healed. The more I studied the scar, the more it felt like a self-inflicted wound. After time, she became something of a fictional character, somehow responsible for things that occurred years after we last spoke.

The idea of contacting her came to the surface a few times a year, but I never acted on it.

Kissing Just For Practice (Part I)

3 Jul

Shelly Hudson used to be my best friend. I don’t really know when ­­it ended exactly. It started some time during the summer before kindergarten. The details are kind of hazy, but I remember that we met playing Super Mario Bros. at some neighborhood birthday party. I was Mario, she was Luigi. I don’t recall any specific bonding moment or witty dialogue or shared interest that set a spark, but something must’ve happened that day, because we were pretty inseparable for the next few years.

Our Friday sleepovers – once a treat to be plotted, begged for, and arranged –became such a staple that our parents eventually established alternating driving and location schedules. It was typical teenage sleepover fare – crafting friendship bracelets of every neon fabric and cheap metal that was fashionable, eating too much junk food, developing and admitting first crushes (Special Agent Fox Mulder, both of us). As we got older, our parents – forced into an arranged friendship due to ours – would plan double dates, leaving us to giggle in the basement with rented videos while they drank in some strip mall Italian restaurant.

It became common knowledge amongst peers and their parents in our elementary school that if you invited Shelly, you had to invite me, and vice versa.

We started drifting apart somewhere around the start of junior high. If you had asked me at the start of seventh grade who my best friend was, I would’ve said Shelly, without hesitation. By the middle of the year, I probably would’ve still said Shelly, but I may have paused, the answer having been met far too often with the perplexed scrunch of whatever face I was trying to impress at the time.

‘The girl with the glasses?’

‘The girl with the glasses’ was one of the kinder identification traits people used for Shelly. She had these thick pink frames with pointy ends, the kind that are sought after in hip second hand shops when you’re older, but a sure sign of hopeless loneliness in the fifth grade. Most people thought she’d had a clueless mother with poor fashion sense, but Shelly had picked them out herself. I was there. I tried to talk her out of them.

‘The girl with the red hair’ probably topped the list, but that one felt like it came from polite guilt, as it didn’t really narrow anything down and wasn’t even her most noticeable trait. It was a politician’s answer. Plus, her hair was more of an auburn, sometimes strawberry blonde if she spent enough of the summer outside.

‘The girl with the weird dresses’ wasn’t too bad. ‘The girl with the weird mom’ isn’t exactly what you want to be known for, but at least it was relatable and not really her fault or lack. It could get pretty cruel after that – things about weight and teeth and poverty.

Eventually all of those descriptions were rendered obsolete by an incident in the ninth grade that ensured most everyone – even kids from other schools – knew her name. If someone had to ask who Shelly Hudson was, there was only one answer. ‘The Hot Dog Girl’. She became an urban legend so large that it defined every facet of her social being.

By that point I had long stopped identifying her as my best friend. If you had asked me after Spring Break of seventh grade, I would’ve probably said Nicole Kish or Amy Andrews or Lindsay Mendenhall.

At first, I made it a point to hang out with Shelly every now and again. We’d go to the movies or have a sleepover, like old times, but by then we were just going through the motions. It felt like some awkward act of charity or penance that no one wanted or needed. I wasn’t hanging out with her because I wanted to. I was doing it because I didn’t want her to hate me for not wanting to hang out with her anymore. Each get together was planned with the hope that it might alleviate the guilt I felt, or serve as some sort of proof that I wasn’t a bad person. It didn’t take long to realize that it had the opposite effect. By the start of eighth grade, our relationship had withered down to the occasional nod as we passed each other in the hallway between classes.

I’ve tried every angle I can think of to explain this in a way that doesn’t make me sound like a vain, selfish bitch, but I don’t think there is one, so I’ll just spit it out as plain as I can: I’m really pretty. Believe me when I tell you that I don’t believe this in the slightest. On the contrary, I lose sleep over the belief that I’m not. When I look in the mirror, I see the zits and scars and sickly pale twig legs of some weird girl that no one wants. I see the bones sticking out. And if they’re not sticking out, I’m losing my mind over the fat that pads them. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I know most boys want me. My breasts grew right around the time that boners started swelling, and though I’ve always felt the same, I’ve been a different person ever since.

People assume that everyone thinking you’re really pretty is some grand solution or easy path, but it isn’t. I’m not trying to sound ungrateful. I know that I’m really lucky, and most people would kill to have my problems. It’s not like I don’t use it to my advantage whenever I need to. But it’s not as rosy as it sounds.

The world can seem like a pretty lonely place when you can never fully trust that anyone likes you for who you are. I try to ignore it, but deep down I know that regardless of what I say or do, my date will still tell me how pretty and smart and funny I am. That sounds nice, and it can be at times, but in the long run it just makes you feel paranoid and worthless.

Being pretty and popular also means that a lot of people expect you to be the cure for all of the world’s ills. You’re the one who’s going to ditch the jock at the big dance for the sweet geek who professed his love. You’re the avatar that gives boys not only purpose and true love, but confirmation that the world isn’t superficial. You’re the muse, and you’re supposed to do the right thing in the end, or reward someone else for doing it. And if you don’t, you’re the problem. You’re the proof that the world is vapid and cruel. It’s somehow your fault or your lack if you don’t live up to the hope and morality of a John Hughes movie.

Anyway, Shelly and I first started to drift apart once boys noticed me. Our junior high was the pooling of the town’s three elementary schools, a combination that caused a seismic shift in the social hierarchy. Jocks became stoners, the quiet kids spoke up, popular kids suddenly had to vie for a throne they’d effortlessly occupied simply by being. Somewhere in that shuffle, I went from quirky and forgettable to hot and the subject of bathroom graffiti.

I tried to take her along at first. But it was obvious early on that neither one of us were enjoying ourselves. Whenever I brought her around, I could never live in the moment. My every word and action was part of a mission to simultaneously make Shelly feel welcome, while nudging my new friends to accept her as a part of the gang. At the time, I was unaware of the futility of either wide-eyed hope. I was trying to play God in a world where I lacked thunderbolts.

Shelly didn’t seem to enjoy it, either. At first, I thought it was a matter of intimidation – she probably just felt jealous, or inadequate, or frightened that she didn’t belong. But looking back, I think more than anything she was just confused and disgusted at the idea that I was drifting away from her for something so empty.

‘I gave Rob Phillips a blowjob last night.’ It was our last sleepover. I had always envisioned sharing details of my first sex act with her. We’d be sitting Indian style on her bed in pajamas, and there would be an initial discomfort and disgust that was mostly for appearances. She would yell something like ‘Ew! Karen!’ and scold me and smack my shoulder, but the act would quickly give way to the giddy curiosity at her core. She’d grab my wrist and scoot closer to me and ask for details.

She did say ‘Ew! Karen!’. The discomfort and disgust was real, though, and there wasn’t any giddy curiosity. I think she actually might’ve scooted an inch or so away from me.

‘What? We’ve both wanted to do it.’

‘Not with Rob Phillips.’ She drew his name out with dramatized disdain. ‘You hate him. You said, and I quote, that you’d rather have sex with one of The Lone Gunmen, because at least they weren’t apes who blasted Limp Bizkit in their dad’s Honda while-‘

‘I know. But he’s actually pretty sweet. I think maybe we were just judging-‘

‘We were judging him because he’s an Aryan zombie jock.’

‘I know he comes across that way, but he’s really not that bad. He-‘

‘He what? Told you that you were pretty? Smart? Funny? Different from the other girls?’

‘Shelly, trust me, I was as surprised as you are. I didn’t plan it. We just-‘

‘You’ve already turned into one of them.’ It sounded like she wanted to say it with a disdainful anger, but it came out in more of a choppy whimper. It still shook the room. She stopped looking me in the eye, her focus shifting to picking lint from her rainbow socks with the individual toes. ‘Rob Phillips is an asshole. He’s boring, and he’s dumb, and you blew him because he’s good looking and you’re good looking and it would make you more popular. ’

It was silent for a minute before I erupted. They were real tears, not some dramatic act meant to elicit a specific response. But I did kind of assume that she would hug me. When she didn’t, I tried my best to stifle the sobbing jags, grabbing a pillow and blanket before slinking off to the couch. I fell asleep trying to think of a good response. Never came up with one.

It’s not like that was The End or anything. But everything after did kind of feel like an epilogue. We hung out a few times, and every now and again we managed to fall back into the way it was, but even the best times had the pall of a Sunday school night hanging over it – for the most part, it was in the rearview.

We were running on fumes. I had stopped watching X-Files and she had started smoking clove cigarettes. I became a football cheerleader and she got into The Grateful Dead. She went to Renaissance Fairs with trailer park girls and I went to keg parties with basketball players. Towards the end, we probably looked more like two strangers forced to do a school project together than close friends.

Our junior high held a Spring Formal dance for ninth graders about to graduate. Students nominated a Sun Court of ten guys and ten girls, with two being voted Sun King and Queen. The general consensus was that it would come down to me or Heather Gray, the deaf girl who was president of the Drama Club. I know people never mean it when they say things like this, but I had sincerely hoped it was Heather, to the point of voting for her. If I had won, I’d once again be the bitch and everything that’s wrong with the world, proof that it’s all some shallow rigged game.

Anyway, at some point that night – maybe when Heather was crowned, or during my nine straight beer pong wins with Sun King Chad Albers as my partner, or while I lost my virginity to him on Keith Connor’s little brother’s Toy Story bed sheets – Shelly was at home masturbating with a hot dog when it broke off inside of her. I don’t really know all of the details, but I guess she panicked and told her mother, who took her to the emergency room. Somehow, word got out, and that was it for Shelly. She transferred to a private school the next year, but it followed her there, too.

We didn’t talk for a long time after that.

Hello, Goodbye

27 Jun

I’ve heard that you’re either a Beatles person or a Stones person. The Stones person is outgoing, spur-of-the-moment, ready to love and hurt and fuck and shake hands without stopping to think about it. A Beatles person encompasses a quieter, deeper thinking, more wistful disposition; equally tortured, but still guarding a piece of their soul from the world.

This is not to say that if you consider yourself a Beatles person you don’t like the Stones at all, or vice-versa. It could mean a strong preference for one, not necessarily an aversion to the other. And it’s not necessarily an issue of musical preference – do you believe that murder is just a kiss away, or that love is all you need? Are the Stones realists where the Beatles are dreamers? Answering those questions won’t necessarily define your position, but it certainly sheds some light on your nature.

While I firmly believe that this distinction is a very valid one that can tell you a lot about a person, simply receiving an answer to the question will not tell you everything. For instance – any person under the age of twenty-five will immediately want to respond with Stones after hearing the above prompt. Doesn’t mean they will, but they will *want* to. Everyone would rather be a popular idiot than a lonely genius. Not to imply that this is a division aligned with the Beatles or Stones – Jagger isn’t necessarily an idiot (but who’s going to call him a genius?).

I think I’m a Beatles person trapped in a Stones person’s body. I would be much happier spending the night in with Whitman, but my legs inexplicably carry me out to the bar with Hemingway. I want to be both, all at once, and I’m halving myself trying to do so. Jennifer is definitely a Stones girl, or at least she’s done a good job of convincing us all. She’s wearing a black vest over an MC5 t-shirt and she holds her cigarette as if it were a weapon, smoke exploding from her mouth like steam from a train whistle, signaling her jaded amusement at lesser beings. She knows that you want her, and that makes her infinitely less attractive.

‘I fucked Adam last night,’ she says, finding something fascinating in her crimson nails.

‘Why?’ Halfway through swigging my bottle I shake my head and throw up my hand with a grin that causes a little beer to seep from my lips. ‘Stupid question…I know exactly why.’

‘Clue me in.’

‘We’re just animals, right?’

‘Exactly…it was just a fuck.’

‘Then why are we talking about it?’ She loses a little of her smirk and I gain a bit of mine. I’ve drawn the Beatle out of her. She loves him, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Adam is a recurring regret, the type that she will one day look at in distant photographs and feel sad, not just because he’s gone along with her youth, but because she really loved him and has come to realize that he wasn’t worth it. She senses that he isn’t worth it now, and makes wry remarks indicating so, but she rarely admits to herself or anyone else that at the moment it means everything to her.

‘He left his watch on my nightstand and I slipped it into the drawer when he wasn’t looking,’ she confesses, her palms patching her eyes.

‘You pulled a reverse Costanza?’ She just emotes what could be considered a groan or a laugh and shakes her head, eyes still shielded from this world.

‘How about you?’ she asks, flicking her bangs and recomposing her persona. “You still talking to that one girl you said was crazy?” The thought occurs that various friends have referred to current love interests as ‘the one you said was crazy’ for far, far too long. The pitfalls of chasing Stones girls, I suppose.

‘Pretty sure she hates me now.’

‘Why’s that?’

‘Because she’s crazy…and so am I, I guess.’

“Right,” she nods, glancing up at me with the smile they always give, the barely perceptible green light to go forward with the smarmy banter until we find ourselves asking for bus times in the harsh light of morning.

When we step out for a smoke, I will plant one on her, because that’s what a Stones man would do and that’s what a Stones girl wants. And it’s been my experience that when two Stones collide, the impact often causes them to shatter, or at least chip away a bit. She will look at me for a silent and momentous moment in a whole new light, a glowing Beatles smile in a Stones world, her eyes saying why and mine saying I don’t know. She will kiss me back, with the lost foolishness of a McCartney melody and the back gripping passion of a Jagger growl, and at that moment neither one us will have the slightest clue as to which camp we’re in.

Wisecracks Won’t Make You More Stable

27 Jun

My cousin buys pot off this guy named Kirby who has his own condo out in Painesville. Whenever we go over there, he smokes a little with us and we hang around for a bit. The place smells like incense and Taco Bell sauce. There’s a lot of simulated wood grain, and a Pink Floyd poster taped to the wall (the one with all of the naked girls painted like the album covers). He’s got a huge TV with surround sound, and we usually sit in the dark and watch nature documentaries.

The other night we saw this one about moths. Apparently the reason moths are attracted to lights is because they mistake them for the moon. They don’t have a natural sense of direction, and they use the moon as a guide. So a moth thinks that it’s moving somewhere with purpose, but what it’s really doing is circling a light bulb, which will eventually fry its wings off and kill it.

I think we’re all like that in some way or another. Some of us are the moon, some of us are light bulbs, and some of us are moths. It’s just hard to tell which.

Whenever I see a movie with Natalie, I keep the ticket stub and put it in an old shoebox as a souvenir. She’d probably make fun of me if I told her. Part of me thinks that on the inside, she’d be flattered, but even if that were true, I’d never know. I’d just get mocked like I’m some kind of idiot.

Sometimes I think that deep down, when it’s late and the lights are off and the covers are pulled, everyone else thinks more or less like I do, and the rest is just an act. We’re all faking. Other times I think that maybe I’m just weird. Am I the only one who notices that ‘cool’ is just a synonym for ‘cold’? Am I the only one who doesn’t understand any of this?

Today we saw ‘Air Force One’. I spent most of the time thinking about holding her hand, or looking at her until she noticed, and then making it look like I was only facing her because I was in the first swing of some neck adjustment. Sometimes the only thing that keeps my leg from pumping like a piston is the sticky theater floor.

I’d already seen the movie with my cousin the weekend before, but when she suggested it, I told her I hadn’t. I’ll take just about any excuse to be around Natalie. She could ask me to go to church and I’d get butterflies in my stomach waiting for Sunday.

We usually go in the afternoons. Movies are cheaper during the day. She picks most of the time. I don’t really care what we see. Sometimes I hope that she goes with something like ‘Titanic’ or ‘Scream 2’; a movie that you’d see on a Saturday night with someone you liked. But she never does. She makes fun of people who would want to see movies like that while we’re looking at the listings. But then like a week later she’ll go see it with some other guy.

The theater is in the mall, and after the movie’s over we usually get Auntie Anne’s pretzels and lemonades and walk around for an hour or so. We always stop in the bookstore and show each other the books that we loved when we were kids. She calls them ‘texts’. It’s always the best part of my week. I try not to let it show.

‘I should not be eating this,’ she says as she chews, a ball of mashed pretzel wadded in her cheek. ‘I need to lose, like, seven pounds.’

‘No you don’t.’

‘Yeah, I do,’ she says, sipping her lemonade. ‘I can barely breathe in my Winter Formal dress.’

‘You have a date yet?’

‘Nope.’ She squirms in her chair and picks at her pretzel. ‘Kelly says Ryan Barkley wants to ask me.’ She crinkles her face and pretends to wretch at the thought of the idea (I’m pretty sure he’ll end up being her date). ‘Who the fuck wants to go to that thing, anyway?’

I do. She does. I mean, wasn’t she just talking about losing weight to fit into the dress she bought specifically for the dance? What’s the point of pretending like you don’t want to go? Who does she think she’s fooling? I always think about saying things like that, but never do. I just nod, maybe mumble something about everything being lame.

‘You look really pretty today.’ I don’t know why I should feel weird or guilty for complimenting someone I care about, but I always do. And she does look really pretty.

‘Yeah, right,’ she says, rolling her eyes. ‘I look gross.’

That’s why.

‘Do you really not know that you’re pretty?’ She stops mid chew, her jaw jutting like a cartoon character that’s meant to be angry or dumb. The silence is filled with food court chatter that’s too muddled to make out, except for the guy who offers bourbon chicken samples in broken English. If people in malls aren’t talking about buying or selling something, they’re almost always complaining.

Natalie is the most beautiful girl in our school. I guess that’s just an opinion, but if you looked at the disgusting things guys in our school write about her on the bathroom walls, you’d know I’m not alone in my thinking. She’s a football cheerleader. She gets straight A’s. She’s probably going to be voted Snow Queen this year (it’s between her and the deaf girl). Anytime I come across a thesaurus I haven’t seen before, the first thing I do is try to find a synonym for blue that describes her eyes, but I’ve never found anything that measures up. Imagine the prettiest swirling blue marble you’ve ever seen, except it’s full of a sadness that you can feel if you look at it long enough.

‘What’d you think of the movie?’ She already knows what I think of it. It was a dumb action movie that some rich guy approved because of projected profit margins. I know she feels the same way. She’s trying to avoid the question, and betting that I’ll let her do it. And I will. She knows that.

I think that’s the problem with the world. We’re all betting that no one is going to call us on our obvious bullshit. They usually don’t. The less we’re called out, the more we think we can get away with. The more we think we’re getting away with, the more we’ll push. The more we push, the more we actually get away with. The more we actually get away with, the worse we become. We all end up in some terrifying Mexican standoff that we all don’t want to be in, but no one will lower their gun until everyone else does.

‘I’ll go to the dance with you.’

She laughs. It’s a fake laugh. If you pay attention, you’ll be surprised to find how much of laughter is completely fake, usually the result of guilt or awkwardness.

‘I’m serious,’ I say, tucking my trembling hands under the table. ‘I mean, you’re always complaining about how ugly and fat you are, and how no one wants to take you to the dance. So…offer’s on the table. I think you’re beautiful and I’d love to go with you. Worst case scenario, you’ve got a fallback.’

What was green lit in the heat of the moment as a bold declaration of love quickly stammered and wilted into ‘if you’re not busy’. There’s a long silence. Both of us know what the other is thinking, yet we’re still afraid to hear it out loud.

‘Dan, you’re like my best friend.’


‘So it would be weird?’ I can’t tell if it’s a statement or a question. I don’t think she can, either.

‘Why? Why is going with your best friend weirder than going with some drunk moron you don’t know who’s trying to bang you?’

‘Don’t,’ she groans, sharply enough to attract the attention of a surrounding table or two. People are always fascinated by and uncomfortable with raw emotion shown in public.


‘You’re the only safe thing in my life, please don’t.’ Her tone is as weary and defeated as one of the women on my aunt’s bowling team. It’s jarring to hear it come from Natalie. She rubs her palm over her face and shakes her head. ‘Besides, I’m pretty sure Lisa wants you to ask her out.’

‘I don’t want to go with Lisa. I want to go with you.’

‘Dan, please. Not now.’ She starts rubbing her temples like a frustrated mother in an aspirin commercial. ‘I’ll be fine. You don’t have to take me to the dance. I-‘

‘I want to. Natalie, I’m in-‘

‘Stop!’ She slams her hand on the table. Everyone turns to stare at us. Her face contorts as she tries to give the appearance that she’s not on the brink of tears. ‘Look, I’m sorry, but…’ Her face goes from peach to hot pepper and the lids of her eyes begin to shimmer. ‘I’m not the idea in your head you think I am. I don’t want to be on your pedestal, and I’m not some perfect answer to your problems.’

‘Natalie, I didn’t-‘

‘Please, Dan,’ she shrieks, gaining the attention of even the bourbon chicken guy. ‘You’re my best friend. Please don’t do this to me.’ She slides out of her chair and walks off, feigning the poise and casualness of a Wednesday shopping trip, but with a stiffness and frantic pace that fools no one. Especially not me. She has to find me eventually. I drove her here in my dad’s Buick. But that’s not the point, I guess.

I just sit there while everyone stares at me. It takes me a minute to get my wits about me, but when I do, the first thing I notice is that the people whispering about me, pointing at me, raising their eyebrows, etc. all most likely think that the dispute was the result of a relationship problem. They assume we’re dating. This crosses my mind before I think to go after her. Only for a split second, but it happens.

Maybe she’s right. Maybe she is an idea marooned on a pedestal. I walk around the mall thinking about that, half-pretending to look for her, but pretty sure I know where I can find her when I’m ready. Before I go looking, I wander around the third floor of Sears for a bit. No one is ever up there and it’s quiet. I replay the conversation twenty-seven times in my head, and there isn’t an angle where I don’t seem like a jerk or an idiot.

Soft rock songs about being sad over a girl – the kind that you’re likely to hear on the third floor of Sears – always seem to be more mocking than sympathetic when you’re actually sad over a girl.

After a while I head back down and duck into the arcade to bum a Newport off Vincent. He slips me one without taking his eyes off of his game. Dusk is starting to set in, and it’s giving Natalie’s eyes a run for their money. Choking down the harsh menthol outside the food court doors, I watch a moth flutter in circles around the hazy glow of a parking lot lamp. Squinting as I stare into the eye of the sodium glow, I still don’t know if I’m the moth or the moon or the light bulb.

I do know I’m lost.

She’s right where I thought I’d find her, in the back of Borders, camped in front of Oscar Wilde. I’m not sure if this was truly her first instinct, or she wanted me to think it was. Either way, she acts like she’s annoyed that I’ve found her.



‘Thought I’d find you here.’ She laughs. It’s fake. ‘Look, I’m sorry. You’re not an idea in my head, I don’t want you on a pedestal. I’ll take whatever you are. I’m sorry I asked you to the dance.’

‘No…I’m a bitch.’ She sighs and shakes her head. ‘It’s just…look, I know you think you know me, but you don’t.’

‘Yes I do.’

‘No, you don’t.’

‘Your second grade teacher was Mrs. Donaldson. Your middle name is Ellen. You think Jerry is the least funny person on Seinfeld. You fish for compliments, but you don’t like it when you get them. Third Eye Blind was playing when you lost your virginity. You-‘

‘Dan, that’s not…’ She grits her teeth and shivers. ‘I hate myself, OK? I make myself throw up. Constantly. I took a month’s worth of Adderall in a week. I go out with guys I know I don’t like, but knowing that I don’t like them doesn’t stop me. I have no tits. I’m afraid of sex. I always-’

‘I can’t run from those things if they’re hidden from me.’ She stops talking, and stares at me with a vacancy that either tells me she gets it, or she’s lost. ‘And if you bring them out, I’ll still love you. Get fat, throw up, whatever. Just try me.’

I still can’t tell what’s going on, but after what seems like forever she smiles, and kisses my on the cheek.

‘Thank you.’ She smiles again. I know it’s a gentle letdown, but as long she kept beaming at me in silence, I’d probably stand there, grinning and trying to figure out what it all means. The store could close and open and close again, and I’d still be there, as long as she was. She shakes her bangs and steadies her warbling face. ‘I mean it…thank you.’

She eventually shrugs her shoulders and turns to stroll out of the store with a swift purpose, as if we didn’t just share a complicated moment, both of us knowing full well that she’s got to come find me sooner or later.

I’m her ride home.