Her last boyfriend was her first boyfriend. This one is her second. She is sixteen years old.
She and Bachelor #1 dated for five and a half consecutive months, so you could say she’s had a little experience with how being in a relationship works.
She never saw the break-up coming, though. She thought they were doing just fine. Then at the end of the summer, he got his hair permed. It changed him. He started wearing pleated pants. Holding his cigarette like a lady. Asking her questions about boys she went to grammar school with. It was weird.
She still can’t put her finger on where things went wrong. What she did to make him so unhappy. How she ruined everything. But she’s determined to get it right this time.
Bachelor #2 is an altar boy at church, and the only interesting reason to pay attention on Sundays. Another server approaches her after mass and lays the ground work for their introduction.
“My friend wants to know if you’re going out with anybody.”
He disappears into the sacristy with the big crucifix on that long, gold stick. She waits for a few minutes to see if anyone is coming back out, but her dad says they have to leave. She describes the brief exchange to her best friend. They try to guess what’s going on. She’s excited that someone likes her.
Once they meet, she realizes he’s always been there. She just never noticed. Over the years, they’ve shared teachers and classmates, school field trips to boring places. This history makes getting to know one another less awkward. He’s easy to be around. Kind, playful and well-liked, which are nice things for a person to be.
Her mother is strict and won’t let them hang out during the week. They chat by phone most nights. She stretches the coil wire that’s attached to the receiver all the way across the kitchen and up the stairs for privacy. Her mom yanks on the cord to let her know when it’s time to hang up. She replays what he says over and over in her head, extracting all the hidden meaning from statements like “I have to go eat” and “I fell asleep.”
Walking home from the church youth group she joined to meet boys, they kiss for the first time. On the corner of Glebe and Zerega Avenues, they stand underneath a street lamp that flickers on and off. It makes a sound like someone is being electrocuted.
Within two weeks she decides she’s in love and tells him so. Not out loud, of course. In a note. She writes and rewrites each sentence carefully until the words are close to what she thinks she’s feeling and what she imagines he wants to hear.
She joins his family for dinner on Sunday afternoons. His mother makes spaghetti and meatballs. There is cake. They sit down together in the dining room, his father at the head of the table. They shout at one another in English and Italian combined. She only understands half of what’s being said, but there is warmth in their voices.
The little sister is twelve, surrounded by brothers and thrilled with the arrival of another girl on the scene. She follows her around with the boundless energy and devotion of a puppy selected from the window at the pet shop. She is old enough for nail polish, but not makeup. This rule makes her life nearly unbearable, but only for a minute. Every song on the radio is her favorite. She is an immediate one-member fan club.
Some days, he waits for her after school. She sees him from the window of her last class, but when she gets downstairs, she pretends she doesn’t and walks right past. He calls her name, and she acts surprised. He carries her book bag over his shoulder, and they hold hands.
When they get to the house, her mother is there. She looks angry at first, but adjusts herself when she sees he is with her. They shoot the breeze on the stoop for a few minutes. He lights her mom’s cigarette with his own, and they share a smoke. He can’t stay because he has a job and responsibilities.
“My daughter doesn’t deserve you,” she tells him.
He responds with a quick laugh. What else can he do?
When they say goodbye and go inside, her mother’s mood darkens. She corners her as the door closes.
“What’d I tell you about all the fucking greasepaint?”
“It’s just eyeshadow, Mom.”
“Go scrub that garbage off your face, unless you want me to do it for you. What are you, trying to look like an easy make?”
“No. You should see what the other girls wear. This is nothing.”
“I don’t give a good goddamn what the rest of your so-called friends look like. They’re somebody else’s problem.”
She stomps up the stairs so hard, her ankles hurt.
“He’s too good for you,” her mother yells from the bottom of the landing. “He’ll figure it out. He’s a smart boy.”
Thoughts of him crowd her adolescent mind. The remaining space is filled with wondering how people see her now. Do they notice the difference? She feels safer, more popular with a boyfriend. Girls who’ve never even looked her way before involve her in top secret conversations about important subjects like sex and other options. She is certain she will need this information and pretends she already has it.
They spend more time at his house than hers. She is always welcome there. More often than not, they end up in the basement. They listen to music and make out on the couch. They do other stuff, too. Go places, get ice cream at Carvel. He’s a wonderful boyfriend. But this is what she looks forward to the most. Being wanted.
The further they go with their mutual affection, the closer they get to having nothing left to experiment with. They discuss next steps and reasons why they should skip over most of them. They move toward intimacy in fits and starts, interrupted by meals and curfews, cautious parents.
“Keep the lights on down there,” his mother says, only half smiling. They are only half listening.
When it finally happens, she is relieved to be done with her virginity. It never felt like anything worth saving to begin with. She is only too eager to trade it in for the excitement of experiences that help her forget who she is.
On Friday nights, she tells her mother they’re going to the movies. Or bowling. Instead, they pool their money together and rent a room at a drab little motel overlooking the Hutchinson River Parkway. Four hours costs thirty-three dollars. Coming here is her idea.
All day long she obsesses about this arrangement. The bold moves she intends to make that will get him to love her even more. Her exposure to the complexities of sex is limited to two films, The Blue Lagoon and Endless Love. Reruns of James at 15, especially the episode where James falls for a Swedish exchange student named Christina and becomes a man.
After supper, she swipes two, maybe three cans of beer from the refrigerator, depending on how many are in there. She drinks them while she gets ready for their date. She samples the forgotten pill collection in her parents’ medicine chest. She likes the ones that say “Do not drive or operate heavy machinery” on the label. By the time he picks her up, she is feeling pretty loose around the edges and not as scared to try new things.
Once they’re alone, she takes her clothes off under the blanket and kicks them to the floor. She is embarrassed by the big, white bras her mother insists she wear, with their thick elastic straps and bulletproof cups, her plain cotton bloomers. She wishes she had some fancy underwear, but she’d have to hide it. Her mother looks through her closet and drawers. There’s no way she could ever find out. She’d go berserk and make her stop seeing him.
She wraps her retainer in a tissue and places it on the nightstand. Both lamps and the lightbulb in the bathroom need to be shut off before they get started. In the dark, she can take bigger risks and make believe she’s the kind of girl who knows what she is doing.
Only after they’re done and she’s certain he’s asleep does she leave the bed to pee and clean herself up. She would rather die than let him see her naked. She turns the TV on, creeping back into position next to him. She watches The Love Boat and the beginning of Fantasy Island. They have sex again, but it’s different this time. There is less urgency. She wonders if she should panic or not.
She leaves a big, purple hickey on his neck, hoping he’ll reciprocate. She aches for some kind of proof that their relationship is real. He is hesitant and tries to explain that he doesn’t want either of them to get into trouble. She sulks and promises to keep it covered, so he gives in.
Afterward, they get dressed. She waits outside the front office while he returns the room key. She does not make eye contact with any other patrons in the parking lot.
Walking home, they talk about unremarkable stuff. What just happened between them is over for now, stored away until next time. It’s too hard to concentrate, otherwise. She can’t wait to tell her girlfriends about their daring exploits.
Once she is home, she realizes she’s forgotten her retainer at the motel. He tells her he will find it. As tired as she is, she stands frozen at the front door, willing him to reappear, appliance in hand. Her mother wakes up and starts asking questions. She answers each one with a lie. She pleads with God to not get caught. These are the only prayers she ever prays.
When he finally arrives, he is smiling. She hugs him tightly. His shirt is soaked with sweat. She whispers “Thank you” in his ear. He leaves without saying much.
She goes upstairs to change into pajamas. In the bathroom mirror, she studies the gift he’s left on her throat. She pinches and squeezes at the modest bruise and tries to make it bigger.