When I was thirteen, all I ever wrote about was kissing and cancer. I wrote about kissing because at that point, I’d done embarrassingly little of it. At least it seemed that way to me, though looking back, I can’t imagine that every kid in my grade was the makeout fiend I’d imagined them to be then, back when they were leaving me sitting ineptly outside of the closet as everyone else snickered and wooooo’d! during a rushed game of 7 Minutes In Heaven. This was played at Donnie O’Loughlin’s boy-girl party when his mother finally went upstairs to watch The Silence of the Lambs, leaving a hooting sixth grade populace to humiliate themselves in front of their peers in Donnie’s basement rec room.
I wrote about cancer because I didn’t know enough about adult nightmares like car accidents and bankruptcy and divorce proceedings, and at the time, cancer was the most epic thing of which my brain could possibly conceive. I didn’t know then that kissing and cancer were the guaranteed moneymakers of young adult fiction, as the market was glutted with stories of beautifully wan girls breathing their last on pink princess bedspread sets, leaving the dashing quarterback of the JV football team to weep for their memory. They’d been in love, even though they’d never gotten past first base.
Though not by much at first, my writing grew more sophisticated as I got older. By the time high school came around, I’d stopped writing Cancer Erotica Lite and started writing thinly veiled stories about potheads and suicides. No reasonable person would have been fooled by this, but using Go Ask Alice as my compass, I scowled at anyone who would doubt that I’d come a long way since The Babysitter’s Club. Eventually, the apex of my literary experience was The Catcher in the Rye. This book became a testament to my existence. It proved that, like literally millions of adolescents before me, I knew my teenage angst, I WAS it, I could understand it’s generations-old patois, and I severely wanted a boy like Holden Caulfield to be my boyfriend. I wanted a boy who played on the soccer team but wasn’t an idiot, and truth be told, I could even leave out the soccer team part. I just wanted a boy who could read.
When I turned 15, I got my worker’s permit and started working at a local coffeeshop/café. After school, I’d walk down to the bus stop and take the bi-state to Grand and Gravois. Because the prospect of waiting around for a transfer next to some stooped crackhead with a drooling problem didn’t appeal to me, I walked the remaining five blocks to work. Thankfully, I had no true idea of how dorky I looked in my khakis and polo shirt (dress code for Catholic school, though my real life wardrobe was no better), because if I did I’d probably never have bothered to leave the house. As it was, though, I was unaware of how remarkably unawesome I looked and had no reason to understand that the boys I wanted were busy brooding over a bong in their rooms with The Crow VHS on constant repeat, and unlikely to notice me, romantically clueless and ambling down the sunny sidewalk to her part time job.
I closed the café around nine every night. The building was in one of those perpetually up-and-coming areas, so while there were plenty of shaved gay guys with gauges the size of doorknobs in their ears (and lips, and noses, and, so they claimed, dicks), there were also some hobos and crazies and hoodrats trying to scam free soda. Mornings and early evenings were a crush, but things still got quiet at night, when all our neighbors were busy setting their home security systems. One night, I was brushing down the bagel racks with a filthy hand broom and heard someone say “ahem.”
Turning, I saw a boy leaning against the bakery case. He was about my height (all the boys back then were; my blind date for freshman homecoming was a whole four inches shorter than me, and that was when I wasn’t wearing heels), with scruffy, almost burr-like brown hair, a misshapen and faded blue button-down shirt, and a small smile on his face like he probably wasn’t going to buy a cheese Danish. Which was good, because I’d already packed those away.
“Hey,” I said, because that was cooler than “can I help you?”
I don’t know how I even managed “hey,” because this was easily the most beautiful boy I’d ever seen in real life, and while I was aware that nobody was falling in love with anybody else over this, I can say with 100% adult clarity that at the moment, it felt like someone had sucked the wind out of my lungs. My hip bones turned to jelly and I got that rushing sound in my ears that always happens when I’m uncontrollably attracted to someone and can’t hear anything they say. Through no fault of my own, my method of seduction has always been saying “what?” over and over again to the most attractive people I’ve ever known.
“Hey,” he replied.
“Um, so, did you want anything?” (Too young and dumb to imply subtext.)
“Well, that depends,” he said, stretching his short fingers and splaying them on the bakery case. “I could stay here and drink coffee, or I could go home, which to me symbolizes death and despair.”
In my defense, I knew at the time that what he was saying was insane. No normal girl in the history of normal girls would have been hooked by that line, but I wanted my Holden Caulfield then, too, and the collapsed lungs, jelly bones, and rushing in my ears wouldn’t let up.
“You’re in college, aren’t you?” I asked.
He was. Just entered grad school, actually, for an advanced degree in philosophy. Again, no normal girl in the history of normal girls, but I was not a normal girl. I had kissed exactly three people in my life by then – preschool boyfriend Bryan Collier not included, although he was nice enough to save me a seat next to him at his McDonald’s birthday party when we were four – and although I’d stopped writing about it so much, I desperately needed to make out with someone who had a vague idea of what they were doing. And this boy, who looked disheveled enough to be interesting but not enough to be homeless, seemed like he might have an idea.
I made him a latte. He asked me to meet him at another coffee place after work. I dragged my work friend Kellie along. I figured her presence would lower my chances of getting murdered, and if the conversation lagged, we could always talk about how Kellie was once in a house fire and that’s why she couldn’t grow eyelashes on one eye anymore.
His name was Damon. This was enough. The obtuse references to William Blake and the gift of Kierkegaard’s Either/Or were romantic (I suppose) and made me feel flattered, but it was his name that sunk me. Regular people in the Midwest don’t name their sons Damon, or at least they didn’t then. To my teenage brain, growing up with a name like Damon in some small town in Illinois conditioned a person to be smarter, more dangerous, and unique. Sitting across from him in a repurposed church pew that night while some awful hippie burned awful sage in a pot by the door, I said his name over and over again in my head. Over the rushing sound (“what?”), I was trying to make him real.
He asked how old I was, and I told him I was 16. He made a face like I just suckerpunched him in the stomach.
“How old are you?” I asked.
Damon was 23. This didn’t disturb me like it should have. Law & Order SVU didn’t exist back then, and nobody was getting served lemonade in a kitchen before Chris Hansen came out of nowhere to bust them. And besides, Damon didn’t look 23, just like I didn’t act 16. Also I knew I’d get a perverse kick out of telling my friends that I’d gone out with a guy in his twenties.
We didn’t date. At least, we didn’t date in the way that I imagined dating to be back then. I went to high school during the week and played soccer or worked on weeknights. He went to school sometimes, but both of his parents were doctors so he didn’t have to do anything else. He’d come to the café and sit at a corner table while I tried to ignore the fact that he was staring at me, and sometimes we’d get coffee afterwards. Once we went for Vietnamese food and he invited one of his roommates along. The wallpaper looked like something an old lady would have for curtains. I sat on my own side of the table and picked at lemongrass chicken while they talked about the time they’d driven to East St. Louis looking for crack. We made out in cars and leaning against brick buildings, and I tasted sweet rum on his breath when he kissed me at Mardi Gras.
Once, when we were hunched over the weekly paper during my lunch break, I noticed scars on his arms. Shiny diagonal slashes all the way to his wrists. I reached out and, holding his wrist, turned his arm over. On the soft, white flesh of the inside of his forearm, I saw other scars. These were more elaborate and darker, as though they’d been carved and had healed and then been carved over again. Tracing a finger over the fattest lump of scar tissue, I asked him if he was a masochist.
He withdrew his arm, shoving his hands into his lap.
“Sometimes,” he said.
Any normal girl, right? I know. While the Adult Me should tell Teenage Me to run, run away hard and fast and quit screwing around with weirdos, and while the Adult Me has learned to ignore the rushing sound and focus on what someone else is saying, there’s still a part of me that deals with joints turned to wobbly goo, still has to reach out and steady herself on something solid or she’ll fall down. And Teenage Me wouldn’t have listened anyway, would have gone right ahead with what she wanted to do, which was to end up on a mattress on the floor of Damon’s room.
His room was in the attic. He lived with three other roommates, and the house was Typical Slob College Guy. I thought this was thrilling back then. The empty fifths of liquor, cheap comforters, and posters hanging off the walls were pure exotica. And when we climbed the stairs to his room, I saw the piles of dust congealed in the corners as residents of a fascinating new territory. Then I noticed the evil clown clawing its way out of the wall.
Although he and I would go on to get very fucked up together later in our relationship, I wasn’t on drugs when I went to Damon’s room for the first time I was completely sober, and I saw the clown before I saw the tubes of paint littering the floor and mentally matched them with the oily streaks on his cargo pants. In addition to the clown on one wall, there were paintings on the sloping dormer ceilings and on canvases propped into corners; aliens, phallic symbols, abstract images in livid vermillion and clumsily applied brushstrokes. In addition to the, um, artwork was a stereo and turntable, a few milkcrates full of records and books, and a mattress in the middle of the floor. I didn’t ask Damon about his creepy choices in decor, nor did I protest when he put on a Dead Can Dance song about Benjamin Franklin and started rubbing my back. I didn’t want to ruin the mood, so to speak, although I had no idea what sort of mood this was supposed to be. I’d never been in this situation before and was terrified to stop it; not because I didn’t want to be there, but because I’d decided that I was sick of waiting around was finally going to get my virginity over with.
"Finally." I was 16. A normal girl probably would have wanted losing her virginity to be a special event featuring flowers, candles, and someone she loved (this is judging by what I’d read in Seventeen magazine, and I admit that I’m still not an authority on the subject). I was content to have it out on a jobless philosophy student’s floor with an evil clown grinning down at me. Like my later decisions to ingest mind-altering chemicals and sign my first lease, I just wanted to get it over with. Lest I describe myself as an emotionless, sex-seeking robot, I should point out that I was hopelessly attracted to Damon, and if he’d suggested that my first time include bondage or sci-fi roleplay or wearing rabbit ears, I would have been 100% willing. But he didn’t. It was nice, normal sex, it only barely hurt, and I remember spending most of the time wondering how he thought my pussy tasted and if that hollow slapping noise of our youthfully emaciated hipbones crashing together was supposed to happen.
It was over in a few songs. Afterwards, I lay tangled up in a comforter that probably hadn’t been washed in months, wearing only my bra and thinking about how much time I should let pass before I got up and put on some real clothes. I also thought about how I’d finally done it, and how I didn’t care how late I got home or how much trouble I got in, because I’d learned to ignore the evil clown. I could just stay on this mattress and let Damon keep kissing me, and my legs were too full of jelly to stand.
Because Damon and I never really dated, we never really broke up. He moved to Colorado, leaving a sweet message on my answering machine before he left. I told the next boy I slept with that he was my first. We did it on a real bed. The only things on his wall were blacklight Led Zeppelin posters. Nothing happened to my bones.