It was 1995. I was sixteen and my world was getting bigger.
Stacey had just gotten her first dick pic courtesy of AOL email.
“Do you want to see it?” she asked.
“Hell no,” I said.
“Sure you do. I can’t believe people do this. I wonder if it’s legal.”
“Did he say how old he was?”
“Seventeen. But, he looks old enough to be somebody’s daddy,” she said.
The thought of seeing a grown man’s penis terrified me. I was amazed that Stacey was so curious, so open to not only seeing it for herself but wanting so much for me to take a look along with her.
“What happens,” I said, “if your mama walks in and sees us looking at some naked man, someone you know nothing about? He could be a serial killer for all you know, looking for a good time by luring young girls on the internet. Maybe it’s funny to you but an adventure for him. A game he gets off on.”
I’d hoped that the sense of danger might distract Stacey from pursuing it further but now more than before she wanted to know about the stranger behind the computer screen.
Stacey was beautiful. Tall and thin, she wore shorts too short, to show her legs, always brown from tanning. With clear skin and perfect teeth, she knew how to keep her blonde hair straight in the humidity of southeastern North Carolina and used Clinique makeup. If it wasn’t enough for her to be so beautiful, she was the smartest girl in our high school class. Boys wanted to be with her, and girls wanted to be her. I was lucky to call her my best friend.
She was the first to bring to my attention that my earlobes were different shapes and that one of my nostrils was bigger than the other. And it bugged her that I had a cleft under my bottom lip that made it damn near impossible for her to draw my lip liner straight.
We’d spend hours in her older sister’s bathroom covering ourselves in white powder and black mascara. Stacey would match her Hot Passion lipstick to her already-painted Lady Danger nail polish. I preferred to pinch my cheeks red and use the ChapStick that tasted like bubblegum. She taught me how to stuff my bra with Kleenex, one side always more lopsided than the other, and drowned herself in Sunflower perfume between her budding breasts.
The first and only time I’d seen a penis was in fifth grade. There were three floors to my middle school. Only the first two floors were inhabitable, though just barely. The second floor housed the main office, auditorium, girls’ and boys’ restrooms at opposite ends of the corridor, and the fifth-grade classrooms. The first floor, the basement, was reserved for art classes and special education students, those not only with special needs but others of a different sort deemed at risk. I dreaded art. Each week I walked down the hallway past the classroom of special education students, who were segregated from the general school population. Such students horrified me, but none more than the sexual deviants. Boys who at the age of eleven made lewd gestures that I didn’t understand but made me uneasy and scared.
When it was time for my first sex education class, students were corralled onto the condemned third floor, riddled with asbestos. Girls were divided from boys and shuffled into dark rooms where slices of light cut through heavy metal blinds. The wooden desks were scarred with obscenities, carved with confiscated pocketknives. It was too embarrassing to look into the eyes of the other girls, most I’d known my whole life. I managed to find a seat near the back and wished that I could pull up the weight of the blinds, jimmy the window that was painted shut, or shatter its wavy glass, escaping onto the street below, eyes blinded by light. Instead, I focused on the hundreds of pencils that hung like stalactites from the stucco ceiling. There were moments when the flick of the metal projector caught my attention, and I’d see from the 1960s sex education film an illustrated cross section of the male penis, an awkward-looking contraption that looked more like my granny’s cast iron hand press pump than a bodily organ. Something of that moment sat heavy on my chest, made me dizzy and hot, like something would be learned sitting in that classroom that would somehow change me, how I saw myself and the life I’d known before.
How unfair it was that girls get periods and carry babies. I wondered what it must be like to be pregnant and if Sissy, my aunt with Down syndrome, could be pregnant or if the thought of such a thing ever crossed Sissy’s mind. I wished that my life was easier, simpler. That my life, sometimes, was Sissy’s, who didn’t have to worry about such things as sex education classes, or boys, or periods. Her life’s work was to be sure the supper dishes were placed on the table and the goldfish were fed. That each day was the same except Sunday when her family would visit and walk with her to the gas station for a MoonPie and Mountain Dew. Instead, I worried about those boys in the basement of the middle school. The ones who knew things that most didn’t and probably shouldn’t. I didn’t like the way they flicked their tongues at me. I didn’t know what it all meant, but an uneasiness crawled over my body, like when Mr. Worley leaned over me in history class, the heat of his breath hitting the back of my neck, and asked, “How much do you wash your hair? It smells so clean.”
None of it made any sense. After sex education, when the health department nurse passed out maxi pads to the class, I hid under the desk pretending to drop a sheet of paper while the other girls snickered and squealed and stuffed their backpacks with the day’s prize. None of it was a prize worth taking. Periods. Boys’ dirty looks. Breasts. I wanted none of it. I wanted to set the supper dishes, be my father’s daughter again, and hold his hand without feeling uncomfortable, and maybe every once in a while get a MoonPie and Mountain Dew.
When I was sixteen and in the midst of burgeoning hormones and first love, I wasn’t allowed to have a lock on my bedroom door. It happened after my boyfriend, Darren, was visiting and I had the nerve to invite him to my bedroom. Not a minute later, my daddy kicked the door open and broke the lock, told Darren to get the hell out of his house. Daddy said, “You don’t lock doors in my damn house.” I was mortified, thought Darren wouldn’t want anything to do with me after. But he did, made sense for him too. We both came from dysfunction. His daddy was an alcoholic who worked for the gas company. His mama worked for EMS. Each day after work they’d pick up a case of Coors and finish it by Katie’s bedtime. Katie was three at the time, his first cousin then adopted sister on account she was a crack baby. Horrible fights I’d see. Each time Darren would grab me to leave the room before things went from bad to worse. We’d go to his bedroom, watch a movie, or listen to music to drown out the noise. He’d always lock the door. Sometimes, he cried. And I just sat with him, wished we were both in different places, different times, knowing we were never meant to be, that life and our circumstances would never let us be. And that life would get a whole lot harder for both of us before it got better.
The fights would happen most after Katie’s bedtime. I could always tell how drunk his mama was on account of one thing—what they had for dinner. On her good nights, it’d be smothered country-style steak with field peas and garden tomatoes. On a bad night, microwaved hot dogs, split from the heat, thrown on top of uncooked macaroni and powdered cheese. When the fights were bad enough, Katie would knock on Darren’s door asking to come in, which he’d always allow. One night as Katie slept on his bed, his daddy grabbed a pistol and put the barrel to his mama’s head. She begged him to pull the trigger. “I’m tired of your shit, Garland. You’re too much of a pussy to do it,” she said.
Katie in her nightgown stood trembling in the doorframe not knowing whether to stay put or run. I stood beside her, holding her sweaty palm, wondering the same. I couldn’t leave her. Somehow, Darren grabbed the pistol, emptied the chamber, and scattered the bullets like seeds into the woods.
We dropped Katie off at their grandma’s house in Black Ankle, tucked her under a quilt made of housecoats and coveralls. Its smell embraced me, welcomed me like my own granny’s arms. I could feel her frail bones cloaked in parchment paper, blotted with new blues and purples, older greens and yellows. I wanted to crawl in bed with Katie, wanted to feel the knotty fingers of my granny’s hands pat mine as if to say, “This isn’t the end, child. Just hold tight.” But Darren insisted that we fly out of that house fast as hell as soon as we knew Katie was safe for the night. We needed to run, get away.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“The Hole down by Tick’s Creek,” Darren said.
“Do you mind if we stop at Ivey’s first, so I can get a pack of cigarettes?”
The air conditioning in his car wasn’t working again, and I rolled down the window. Sweat rolled down my legs. What was the use in taking a shower? I felt dirty and used. My hair began to curl, and my mascara melted. The air outside wasn’t much relief. The stickiness was suffocating. I leaned farther outside the window and counted the neat rows of tobacco waiting to be topped and suckered before harvest.
As we pulled into Ivey’s Grocery, I asked, “Do you want anything?”
“No, just hurry up,” Darren said.
I hated country gas stations and was relieved to see that many were becoming churches to house the sins of local backsliding Christians. I entered the cinderblock building and immediately wished I had worn pants. The old men sitting on egg crates fondled me with their aging eyes. I tugged at my shorts and crossed my arms securely against my chest.
“Can I get a pack of Lights?” I asked the lady behind the counter.
“That’ll be a dollar and twenty cents.” The cashier placed the cigarettes on the Formica countertop next to the novelty lighters and bagged pickles and never looked up her from her Bible.
“Oh, wait a minute. I need to get something else.” I slid open the Pepsi cooler nearby and reached for a bottle, lingering a minute, letting the freezer dry the sweat from my brow and neck. The coolness slid down my arms and legs and in between my toes in my soaked sandals. From outside Darren blew the horn for me to hurry, and I slammed the glass and grabbed a pack of salted peanuts nearby. “Here’s five dollars. Keep the change.”
“What took you so long?”
“I’m hungry. Your mama made supper, but I didn’t get to finish eating.” I poured the peanuts into the bottle. The brackish brew burned my throat.
“You’re always hungry. You eat more than any man though no one would know by the looks of you. Do you have worms?” Darren laughed. He reached across the stick shift and slapped my leg. The gesture stung, but didn’t catch me off guard. I gently rubbed my leg hoping to ease the pain.
“You should exercise more. If that hurt, it means you don’t have enough muscle tone. You’re little, but being little don’t mean you’re in shape.”
“I am in shape,” I said. “I have cheerleading practice every day, and Coach Hodges is making us run laps around the track to warm up.”
“All right, you’re a regular athlete.”
I didn’t feel like fighting, had seen enough of it for one night.
The Hole was a clearing in a tobacco field where we could go to drink and not be bothered. There was no shortage of places to drink without getting caught. Houses of friends whose parents were out of town. The lofts of abandoned barns. The banks of the sandy Black River. But, the Hole was where teenagers went to do more.
The car slowed and the paved road turned to gravel and then to dirt. Trees lined the narrow road. I rolled up the car window. It was becoming cooler now. Moths flew toward the car’s headlights hoping to settle for sleep. Garbage littered the road’s edges, and I wondered why there was so much waste in a place so far removed from anything.
When the car stopped, Darren didn’t say word. He just looked straight ahead. I didn’t have to ask him what he was thinking or if there was anything I could do to make him feel better. I knew what would make him feel better and the thought of it made me queasy.
“I have to go pee,” I said.
“Go ahead. Or are you waiting for my permission,” he said.
I walked into the woods, holding on to the trunk of one small pine after another. I felt the cicada shells crunch under my fingers. Thorns scratched my legs, and the mosquitoes followed, biting my arms and neck. A branch caught my blouse, and I fought free, unbuttoned my shorts, letting them fall to my swollen, itching ankles. I grabbed the nearest pine, feeling its sap like amber honey on my fingertips, and balanced as best I could to avoid soiling myself. I needed to steal a moment away among silence and slivers of moonlight cutting through trees to convince myself that some good could come from all of this. That as long as I gave him what he’d waited months for, things would get better. I’d finally have somebody on my side, finally somebody who’d love me. After all, there was no use holding on to something I wasn’t using.
It was the right time to be with him for my first time. So I straddled him like I’d seen in the movies, kissed him hard like I’d see in the movies, told him I loved him and that I was sorry. Sorry for how fucked up our lives had gotten, how sorry I was that my parents humiliated me each time he was there to pick me up, sorry his parents were so fucked up and that one day we’d get away from it all for good and start our life on the right foot for once, that Katie could come with us and have a second shot.
I felt his arms wrap around me, hold me tighter, stronger than all the times we’d kissed before. The motion was quick, caught me off guard. He was on top of me driving me deeper into the car seat. He kissed me deeper, pushed me stronger. I couldn’t move, felt like when I woke from dreams some nights and was paralyzed for a few minutes, couldn’t move except to push the air from my lungs, force the air from my lungs and hope it came back, forced its way in. Granny said, always said, “Times like that mean somebody put roots on you.”
The movements were quick and heavy. I tried to remember my sex education class, remember how it went.
The first shove is hard and I can’t breathe. I see the roof of the car’s interior, sections of fabric hanging from the roof and I watch them in the light of a full moon sag and sway with each thrust.
When it’s over I feel the seats soaked in blood. I feel my legs slick and warm. I see pieces of my skin like flecks over his body. I wonder how he’s going to clean my blood from the nylon fabric so his parents don’t know. I wonder how I’m going to clean myself of his semen so my parents don’t know. I grab a rag that he used to check oil to wipe away the stickiness staining my legs. Smells like dirt and oil and gas, like the filth of a mechanic’s garage.
I think of Stacey, how she told me her first time was with a senior, the brother of a friend, how he called her beautiful and cried after their first time together. How her mama worked at the local university and her daddy owned the local sporting goods store. How her eyes were always bright and the answers to homework always easy. I think of how when she heard Darren was my boyfriend she said, “You’re lucky anybody’ll have you.”