We are thirteen, my cousin Sally and me — girls on our own, on the roam, under the big skies of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. We’re here for the summer, living in a trailer that my aunt Helen has rented as part of a lengthy effort to seduce her law-school professor Phil, who lives next door. Phil is such a mensch that his place is always full of neighborhood boys, and Helen’s advances keep getting rebuffed, but she keeps on trying.
Meanwhile Sally and I hitchhike on the highway, carrying little dollar-store knives in our pocketbooks. We play-act holding them to the balls of anyone who tries to harm us. The big blue mountains loom around us, the fields stretching out to nowhere and everywhere. We wear halter tops and totter down the asphalt in high heels. Sally teaches me to bite off half of a wine-red bing cherry, then use the other half to redden my lips, and we sing along to Linda Ronstadt’s “Willin’.”
I been warped by the rain, driven by the snow I’m drunk and dirty, don’t you know But I’m still willin’
Back home in the trailer we open big cans of Chun King chow mein, the kind that comes with a separate little can of crunchy dried noodles on top. We drink rum and Coke till the room spins, and then nineteen-year-old Cliff comes over and takes Sally into the fake-wood-paneled bedroom down the hall, and their urgent, rhythmic moaning drifts to the bedroom where I am lying alone, still drinking. I am spinning alone just as the world spins alone, and, tonight, at least, the world seems like not a bad place, really.
I love Sally more than I have ever loved anyone. She is four months younger and six inches taller than I am. She wears a plaid shirt with snaps down the front, and when she unsnaps it, her breasts are the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. She plays the guitar and soulfully sings “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” and I’m maybe a little bit in love with her, in a cousin kind of way, or maybe this is just what friends feel. I wouldn’t know; I haven’t had many friends because we move all the time.
Sally and I need pocket money, so we get hotel-maid jobs together. Thirteen is the legal working age in Jackson Hole in 1975. I learn how to make a bed hotel-style: place the pillows on top of the folded-back bedspread, then karate-chop them and roll the bedspread up tight, to give it that sealed look a pair of hotel bed pillows is supposed to have — wrapped up like virgins, as if they’ve never been touched.
After work we link arms and stroll down the main street in our blue-jean cutoffs, then go to the drugstore for root-beer floats, stirring the melting ice cream into the sweet bubbles. Sally lasts just two days at the job. I last a week. When I finally quit, we go to the shoe store, where I spend almost all my wages on a pair of denim Dr. Scholl’s sandals while the radio blares “Sister Golden Hair.”
Well, I keep on thinkin’ ’bout you Sister Golden Hair surprise And I just can’t live without you Can’t you see it in my eyes?
Nights when Cliff isn’t around, we hitchhike to the arcade on the highway, and I feel gratified when some pimple-faced kid invites me out to the bushes and finger-fucks me. His touch does not feel good, but I welcome it.
Another night I let a cowboy named Lance take me for a ride in his car. He is in his twenties, with a big hat, and we park in a field. After we grope for a while, he tells me about blue balls, how I’ve led him on and now he has to have it. Then he takes pity on me because I’m so young, so he shows me how to use my hands and mouth instead.
What I know now that I didn’t know then:
My aunt Helen’s law-school professor Phil was a pedophile. Cliff, at nineteen, had aged out of Phil’s affections, but the other boys who hung around had not. That’s why Phil kept declining Helen’s offers of blow jobs while she left two thirteen-year-old girls alone all summer in that mountain town.
When Sally was three or four, her father, a compulsive gambler, had traded her out to his friends to satisfy his gambling debts, which is why she’d started having sex with boys at eleven.
Despite all the sounds that came from the little bedroom down the trailer hall, Sally did not enjoy fucking Cliff, and she never had an orgasm with him.
“Blue balls” is the slang term for epididymal hypertension. It refers to aching or painful testicles, which some people with male genitals may experience after sexual arousal that does not result in orgasm. Although it may be uncomfortable, it doesn’t last long.
I ’m walking down a Philadelphia city street to the train I take to eighth grade, striding forth confidently, swaying in my six-inch green-suede platform heels, proud and braless in my little crop top, makeup plastered on my face like oil paint.
Suddenly a man is dragging me into an empty concrete stairwell, poking something into my ribs, saying into my ear, “I have a gun.”
Time moves strangely: it seems to shrink, then warp.
Now I am lying on the grimy, piss-smelling concrete steps. The man is on top of me, fumbling with the fly of his pants. If he really has a gun, I haven’t seen it.
Now I am opening my mouth and screaming as loud as I can.
Now the man is getting up and running away.
I rise unsteadily to my feet, stumble up the stairs in my six-inch green-suede platform heels, walk the rest of the way to the train station, and ride my train to school.
I never tell anyone. What good would it do?
Months later, walking down another street, I see the man again, or someone who looks like him. My heart leaps like a terrified animal in my chest, and I run.
A boy from school is lying with me in my attic bedroom, trying to get his dick into me. We are friends, so it is friendly enough. My virginity strikes me as boring and burdensome, and at thirteen I am ready to be rid of it. But we are both too awkward to make that happen.
Another night I am going to a school dance, and I am nervous and don’t want to be, so I take an empty soda bottle and pour some vodka into it. When my mother sees me leaving the house with the bottle, she asks, “What’s in that?” and I say, “Oh, it’s just contact-lens solution.” I got contact lenses earlier this year, replacing the glasses that made me ugly. Now I am pretty, sort of, especially with all the makeup I wear, the mascara I glop onto my lashes with a broken brush — because more is better, I think. The purple lipstick, the eyeliner, the pancake to make my skin look smooth. Though my lie sounds preposterous even to me, my mother seems to believe it.
At the dance some guy named Joe, who must be in his twenties, takes me into the bushes and feels me up, and I feel important.
Then a long-haired fifteen-year-old named Jon becomes my boyfriend. I don’t even remember how it begins. We are just together.
Like me, Jon is sort of an outcast. I am good at school while he is terrible at it, so I do his homework for him. In bed with me he is more determined than the other boy, or we just try more times, and eventually, even though it hurts a lot, he gets his dick in me. To keep from moving or crying out, I tell myself to pretend that I am being raped, and that my life depends on my holding still, remaining silent.
What I do with Jon is not romantic. We both hate gauzy euphemisms like making love. We leave our shirts and socks on when we fuck because it’s more efficient.
Over time, despite Jon’s clumsiness, I start to enjoy it. Then, when I don’t again, I find that it helps if I smoke some pot first.
Jon lives on the far side of town, and my mother lets me spend nights at his house because she doesn’t drive. Jon’s parents like me since I am smart and therefore good for their dyslexic son. No one thinks we are having sex because we are clearly too young. I take myself to Planned Parenthood and get on the pill.
Months later, at my house, my mother walks in on Jon and me, then backs out and closes the door. Later she will say, “My baby! Really? But you’re so young! Aren’t you traumatized?” And I will just roll my eyes. And my mother will say, “But do you use protection?” And I will say, “Of course, Mom.” And that will be that.
In a way, perhaps my life does depend on my holding still.
I am fourteen when I find Valium in my mother’s medicine cabinet. (Everyone had some in the seventies; it was like a vitamin.) I start small, just a quarter of a pill at a time, then a half. I take it judiciously, use it only when I can’t stop crying. When my mother’s supply gets low, I find some more in my boyfriend’s parents’ cabinet. Yes, I help myself. There’s no one else to do it.
In her advice column Dear Abby is always telling girls to wait until marriage to have sex. As she sees it, sex is our currency, and we need to hoard it: men won’t buy the cow if they can get the milk for free. But I don’t want to be a bought cow. I want to get milked by many hands, to spill my milk all over the place without crying and then go graze wherever the hell I want.
One night Jon passes out, drunk and snoring, and I seduce his best friend, Rick, on the big pillow by the fire. It isn’t about Jon — I don’t want to hurt him. And it certainly isn’t about Rick. It’s sex I want. I want to know the world through it, or my own secret self.
At fifteen, I climb down from my loft bed and shrug my arms into a tight, low-cut T-shirt: part of my uniform, along with the six-inch green-suede platform heels and the black velvet choker I swear keeps my head attached. I outline my eyes with a thick pencil and brush mascara onto my lashes. Being what the other kids call a “slut” is what I call “having a life.”
A blond carpenter who liked my mother built the loft bed as a favor. My mother must have fucked him, since he also built a wall to divide the room I would otherwise have had to share with my sister. An afternoon or two of my mother’s affections turned one bedroom into two, like water into wine. I’m grateful for this miracle.
My father doesn’t send child support, but he visits sometimes. On one of those visits he throws a glass of brandy at me — or, as he will later claim, at the wall just behind my head. It misses my cheek by a mere inch or two, but I am not paying much attention, because by this time I am already accomplished at the art of being here and someplace else at the same time. My body can lie on the rust-colored velvet couch while the rest of me takes off like a helium balloon on a long string.
Later I’ll reel myself back in, unless the string gets knotted up on a tree branch or snagged by a gaggle of geese heading south. I love the word gaggle. I love the Canada geese: how self-possessed they are in their big, awkward bodies; the sight of their serrated tongues when they chase me and hiss. A gaggle of geese heading south, honking — that’s what I want to hear, not my father shouting at my mother, “I’m a slave under the whip! You’re bleeding me dry!”
My mother is dating a Jewish doctor now, a successful one, with a big house in a leafy, exclusive suburb. I don’t care about his success; I only care that on the way to his house there is a river, and by the river there are geese.
One day I bring a frizzy-haired artist named Ellis back to my loft bed. After we have sex, Ellis looks down at the sheet we’ve been lying on and expresses shock and displeasure at the body-shaped grease stain there. I didn’t know, somehow, about changing the sheets. It’s a loft bed, it’s dim up there, I never really look at it, and my mother never goes up there, never asks.
I have so many other things to think about. I think about my boyfriend, Jon, who fucks me, then reaches for the phone and pretends to be calling Donna, a girl from school who has waist-length brown hair and breasts much bigger than mine. Once, I stumbled into the kitchen at a party and found Jon and Donna pulling back from an embrace. As far as I can tell, being sexy is all about breast size. I think about my mother’s breasts, which were small. Were. A few years ago, when my father still lived with us, my mother went into the hospital for a few days. Afterward she stopped wearing padded bras and acquired a whole collection of tight, low-cut T-shirts that she wore braless.
“He shamed me into it,” my mother will hiss at me one night. “He called me Larry instead of Lorie. He said soon your breasts would be bigger than mine. I saw the way he looked at other women’s chests. I said yes to mutilation because I thought it was the only way I could keep him. Then he left anyway.”
But my father will tell a different story: “I liked your mother’s breasts just the way they were. I was only teasing when I called her Larry. I only arranged for a colleague to do the surgery for free because your mother insisted on it.”
So, yes, I didn’t notice the grease stain on my sheets. I’m too busy trying to ascertain what life is going to require of me, what I will have to pay and give up for it, and how best to use my body in that process. Though there are plenty of things I love, geese among them, I don’t see love as an option between human beings. What people have is need or lust, not love.
James Taylor is singing on an outdoor stage somewhere west of Philadelphia.
Come-a, come-a, come-a, come-a, come-come, come on Yeah, yeah, yeah.
I am smoking my first cigarette. Jon is talking much too intently to Donna. I’m smoking because Jon disapproves of it, and also because another boy I like smokes, holding the cigarettes between his thin fingers like something exotic — chopsticks maybe.
I whisper sweet things You tell all your friends They’ll come running to me.
I’ll smoke two more cigarettes tonight, and my lungs will hurt for days afterward, and I will never smoke again.
Jon does like Donna; I know it’s true. I can’t really blame him. I’m amazed by her breasts, too: the round, creamy globes of them; their generous, mauve-colored areolae (I’ve seen her naked in the locker room at school); the small, uneven pink berries of her nipples. She wears embroidered peasant blouses and silver jewelry handmade in faraway countries. It’s not her fault that Jon likes her entirely too much.
Jon’s erections fascinate me, too. I’m drawn to these parts of people’s bodies that seem to have lives of their own. I’m in love with every body part I’ve ever touched, and every one I haven’t. I also secretly love, in almost equal measure, the tiny coleus plants that have sprung up unaided in a cup of dirt on my windowsill. I go around the house at night turning off lights because I think the bulbs are getting tired. Before going to bed, I look out the window and say good night to everything I see: the cars, the houses, the streetlights, the trees, the bicycles.
I don’t even like Jon much, but I think I love him, whatever that means. At any rate, I grow panicked at the thought of “losing” him. I watch him work on his car every afternoon. I watch him watch cartoons. I help him with his homework or just do it for him, for which I’ve earned the nickname “Webby” — short for Webster, like the dictionary.
There is nothing particularly enjoyable about these afternoons with Jon. So why do I cry uncontrollably when I think of giving them up — or, worse, imagine Jon sharing the same dull stretches with another girl? I don’t know yet what else is possible. I don’t know how to shape the richly textured jumble of feelings and perceptions inside me into words that might actually enable me to talk to someone, to be seen, to be heard. I don’t know how to find the kind of someone who could see me, hear me. I don’t even know such people exist. So sewing patches onto my jeans from Jon’s big assortment of fabric scraps and then giving him a blow job seems pretty good, or not so bad, or better than nothing — better, at least, than home, where my father comes in a pale-yellow Jaguar to pick me up on the weekends, when he’s not out on a date with a bleached blonde named Patti who lives in a New Jersey suburb and makes red-white-and-blue Jell-O molds. Home, where my mother stumbles downstairs laughing, her T-shirt on inside out, to lock the front door behind her new young lover.
The teenage girl that I am cannot imagine a life substantially different from her parents’ lives, so she wants what she sees, what she thinks she can get. But another part of her already has what she wants, because she wants only what she has. She lies on the floor in the cool, dark space underneath the high-school stage, talking for hours with Chuck, a boy who’s a little bit crazy and talks about colors as if they were people. “See the colors flying. See the purple, see the white,” he says, and she writes it down.
On the days when she doesn’t go to Jon’s house after school, she’s free to lie on a cracked, green-vinyl trolley seat and read an entire novel during the long, slow, noisy ride from Germantown to Center City; to lurk in bookstores, going back and forth between the poetry and the sex manuals. She learns that a woman can have an orgasm by positioning herself just right under the bathtub faucet. She goes home and tries it, and it works. She discovers W.S. Merwin and falls in love with his poem “Fly,” which begins, “I have been cruel to a fat pigeon / Because he would not fly.” She sees that Merwin is talking about betrayal and remorse, that it is possible to talk about such things, and something begins to open inside her. She pages through Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and learns about a kind of love that “consists in this: two solitudes that protect and border and salute each other.”
Her poet-self grows bigger and stronger inside her, fed by the books she reads. On Valentine’s Day, a week before she turns sixteen, she breaks up with Jon. Later that week she lets another boy, Andy, pick her up for what he calls a “ride to the train.” She knows he’ll take her to bed instead, and that’s what she wants. Andy wears a blue-jean jacket that matches his eyes. She doesn’t like him, but she likes his eyes. She knows he thinks she’s a slut, but she doesn’t mind. She gets from him something she wants. Each part of the world gives her something she wants. She just doesn’t know yet what she will make out of all the pieces.