He is the third.
I am not yet eighteen, but close. He is definitely mid-twenties. His courtship, brief though it will be, horrifies my parents, and in hindsight, rightly so. "Guys like that are only after one thing," my father warns, voice gravelly, still reluctant to acknowledge his daughter's sexuality.
"How do you know? Maybe he's in love with me." Me, the mouthy teenager.
"You know, I was once that age too, and I remember what it was I wanted," he retorts, and suddenly I'm repulsed; maybe it is I who hesitates to recognize sexual agency. I quell an impudent desire to correct him, to tell him maybe it's me that's after the one thing.
So this man, I'll call him Craig. His blue collar heritage hangs about him, a cloudy cologne lingering on the scars around his eyes, on his square shoulders, in his buzzed blond fuzz atop a face that shows desire in place of tenderness, resting in the creases of the white undershirt he wears uncovered, in the folds of the re-worn denim, resonating in the heaviness of his clunking work boots. The slow rhythm of his gait, the way he squints as he pulls deeply on his Marlboro cigarette, the wallet attached by a chain: you know this man. We all do.
It is evening, outside the town pool hall. In a car, maybe his, maybe mine, I dip my hand under my skirt, beneath cotton panties, and run it over myself. Then, I tickle his lips with my long finger just to watch his eyes dilate. I toy with that new electric power, playing with its novelty. I am ignorant; I have yet to learn the dimensions and risks of these games.
Some weeks pass, and I still haven't given it up. He takes me to the county fair, in Ventura. I say he takes me, but I drive us, in a car my parents paid for. Maybe his is in impound. Maybe it's been repossessed. Maybe his license is suspended. Whatever the reason, here we are, on the Ferris wheel. We fool around, rocking the carriage, my laughter ringing as we roll and dip and climb. When the ride is over, we sit near the wheel's apex. Suddenly the height derails me; I'm out of touch, I've gone too far, and I want to get back down on solid ground.
Afterward, we walk the beach. I inhale the briny air, pick my way through strewn kelp strands. His thick hands, so accustomed to manual work, paw me; his breath, hot, hits my face in animal pants. I tell myself I like it. It will be years before I understand this heat, learn to identify the Stanley Kowalskis of the world. Before us, out of the sand, rises a beachside motel.
"You want to?" His voice is trimmed in anticipated thrill. It's those eyes; not beauty, but desire. They reflect a me so different than what the mirror shows. I giggle in acquiescence, try to settle into the satisfaction of being bad. But walking to the office, I trail him, my hand all but disappearing into his as he leads me. At the door, I stop short.
"I... it's just, um, I can't do this, you know... right now," I say. I am weak, unwilling to go on the dare in his eyes, still too good a girl in spite of myself.
He spins to face me. Maybe it's shock, maybe anger, maybe disappointment that edges his voice with desperation. "Aw, listen," he says, swallowing each of my hands in his own, "I'll be good. It'll be fun. I promise. I want to make you feel good. Don't you want to feel good?"
I waver, casting a glance at the peeling teal paint, knowing the carpet will be coated in years of sand no vacuum can remove. The place is run down, used up: all the things I don't want to be. I shake my head, dipping it in shame. I know what men call girls like me.
Our walk back to the car no longer rings in giggles; it's a slog, our feet sinking in the sand, each step a battle against the inevitable. At my car, I realize I've lost my keys. We figure, Craig and I, that they slipped from my pocket on the Ferris wheel. After a cursory search of the fair's perimeter, there's a morose wait for the locksmith, a touchy silence edged with disapproval.
At his doorway the next week, he's bucked up. "Come in for a drink? I've got some whiskey." Underage, I'd never turn down a drink; naive, I didn't recognize his command of that fact. A decade later, under my husband's tutelage, I will learn to love whiskey, to roll a top shelf sip on my tongue tenderly, appreciating its dimensions. But tonight I sputter, noting only the raw heat and not the smoky flavor.
After our drink, we wander into his living room. He doesn't flip a light switch. Though there's a couch, I choose the bean bag chair in the center of the floor, halfway between the dormant television and the sofa. It seems a solitary seat. The light shines, eerie, from the kitchen doorway.
When he kneels before me and opens my knees, I know that this is it, that I am in this for the long haul, that there is only one ending to this night. At first, there is a genuine, though short-lived, effort to make it nice. But I don't say, "no, like this," or "please," or "more." Unschooled, I think I shouldn't have to tell him what is good and what is not, that men are mind readers, able to listen for more than words.
And let's be clear, before the gloves come off, that this wasn't my first rodeo. I'd kept a longtime lover in high school, and we learned together the ins and outs of coitus. I knew orgasm's twitchy shiver, first at my own hands, then at the hands, or other parts, of a few lovers. But tonight, this man, with his rough animal nature, disregards my pleasure as his own escalates.
Little foam beads crinkle beneath me, rubbing squeakily against one another, and I sink further into the bag. With each pump I am pushed deeper, and the fullness of the bag begins to rise over my ears. Past his grunting face, through the sliding glass door leading to a patio, I see the streetlight outshine the stars, brighter, harsher, so artificial, dimming each genuine twinkle of beauty beyond it. Slowly, these lights fade, obliterated as the fabric of the bag swells over my face.
Only my body remains now, exposed to the rough carpet, feeling the rawness of the repetition on my backside. I'm back on the Ferris wheel, wishing this ride were over and I was on solid ground. I've given up on me, and all I want is for him to finish so I'm not saddled with his guilt. He's still at it, and things are getting sore. I'm clenching my teeth, squeezing my eyelids together, but the water leaks out anyway.
Soon enough, he spills himself into the latex that shields us from each other's histories. Careful, he pulls away and disappears to dispose of evidence and wash up. As I unbury myself from the bag, it wheezes, reinvigorated with air. I replace my cotton panties. I don't bother to clean up.
"Leaving so soon?" His question, so innocent in its total heedlessness. I'm slinging on my shoulder bag, slipping on my shoes. "I thought we could watch a movie or something." He indicates the sleeping television, places a hand indicative on the sofa.
I shake my head. "No, thanks." My finger taps my bare wrist, then points to the microwave clock. "Gotta go. Curfew. My parents'll kill me if I'm late."
"Right," he says. "Parents." When he moves in for a kiss, I keep my mouth closed. "I had a great time tonight," he says, eyes fixed on mine.
"I'll call you tomorrow."
In the car, I don't remember a seat so firm. Wiggling myself in gingerly, I pull into gear and drive home slow, on side streets. I watch the streetlights slide past and wish them out of the way, wanting to see stars.
Let this be a lesson from me: Feel good.
She is the fifth.
We share the bed, as we have for years, on weekend nights sandwiched between school days, punctuated with popcorn, juvenile secrets and sneaking out. It's late, after two goofy movies, and we've settled into the bed we'll share again. We are girls, just edging into adulthood; for me, graduation looms. She has short blond hair; she sweeps her longer bangs sideways past her forehead and tucks them behind her ear, where they curl below her lobes.
She cuts my hair, and her own; I relish each moment she rakes her fingers against my scalp, tugging at clumps between her first and middle finger, then snapping the scissors over it unhesitatingly. Anticipation spirals through me when she stands there, weight on one leg, hip into my shoulder, belly grazing so close to my face that I inhale her. In these moments, I picture circling her hips with my arms and burying my face into her soft places. In just a few months, when she drops out for good, she will become a hair stylist.
I never sleep well in her bed, always reigning my hands in, pinning them inside my knees. She's between boyfriends now, and I'm never very committed; in fact, it was her disapproval of Craig, more than my father's, that brought him to his neat end. It had been just her anyway, for years. All my youth, wasting, waiting on a dream, on the illusion of an us.
"Hmmm?" She rolls closer to me, retreating from her sleep, eyelids sagging. "What's up?"
"Do you ever think about, you know... being with a girl instead?"
"You mean, like a lesbian?"
"Well, yeah. I guess. I mean, can't people do both?"
She tinkles with sleepy laughter, little bells rolling and chiming in her throat. "Of course people do both." Her pink lips part in a semi-smile; so unlike mine, her top lip rolls in one continuous arc, not dipping down and up again under the nose. Instead, her lip always pushes up and out, an impudent dare.
It appears I've asked a silly question, but I pursue this in seriousness, seeing no way out but through.
"Well, do you think you'd ever want to?" I juggle my words, trying and failing to choose only the right ones. "Do both, that is. I mean, uh, not at the same time." A hesitant chuckle escapes me.
"Oh, I don't know. I've thought about it. Why?"
It is then that I press my face to hers, sweeping those lips with mine gently, shivering, urgently nervous. Relief bathes me when she doesn't pull away, when she pushes into our kiss. She is so soft, much softer than men with their lumpy necks, their sandpaper faces, their pawing hands.
"Do you like it?" I ask. She is a skittish kitten I fear I'll frighten if I press forward too quickly. Such a little soft thing to hold in my hand, to pet and rub and stroke, I crave the satisfaction of making her purr. The night balances on a knife edge, teetering between potential conclusions.
She nods, and sweeps her hands around my neck. Pulling her closer, I press my lips to hers again, running my hand under her shirt, absorbing the softness so like my own, heading up instead of down, cupping her small uncovered breast, wild with wonder at my bravery, but it is this act that topples my house of cards. She inhales sharply, pulls her face away from mine, and now I know I'm done for. "I can't," she says, casting down her eyes. I suck my hand out of her shirt like a tongue into a snake, my mind spattered with ricocheting remonstrations. She rotates her body away from me, making clear her intention to sleep.
There I lay, watching the rise and fall of her back, knowing, now, the dips of its soft places, its hills and valleys. I want to curl myself behind her, to write my question on the mattress with my body. I don't dare, now. I roll the other way, inhaling my shame, the streetlight shadows fuzzy with my tears.
Jenna and I will never speak of this night. The morning will progress in its usual ways. Later, she will get a new boyfriend. He will also love her; many men will. A nice enough guy, he too, is eventually pushed to arm's length with the chimes and tinkles of her coy laughter. I will pity him, know intimately the pain of his downcast face.
And then, much later, I will leave, follow a new love's promise far away. Too late, I learn how she sank into disrepair, how the bad habits we started together consumed her, how she did not defeat her demons. I will wish that I could have saved her, could have pieced her together, made myself a glue between her broken parts.
Let this be a lesson from me: Accept fate.
He is the ninth.
I am eighteen, maybe nineteen, even. My boyfriend, Oscar, is twenty-six. He likes me because I am a wild thing, because he thinks he can tame me, make me his pet. He's studying film at the local college, where he tracked me down after class, inviting me out, flattering me, telling me I made such intelligent comments during lecture.
Oscar is serious, Chicano, an activist. Solidly built, with broad shoulders, jet black hair, and thick hipster glasses that will be cool in ten years, he dwarfs my small frame. His mother dotes on me, bakes me Mexican sweet-bread because she doesn't speak English. My own parents esteem Oscar for his long term goals, his pharmacy day job, his solid handshake.
Despite his flattery, Oscar disapproves of me. Perhaps it's my underage drinking, or my cigarette habit. Or maybe my penchant for flashing strangers out the window of his boxy SUV. In any case, I am not serious. Most times Oscar is able to contain his disapproval; it doesn't stop him, for example, from riding me into his bedroom floor when he takes the notion, or pinning me in the back seat, beneath the streetlight.
Once, as the novelty of dating wears off, we are invited to a party. We go, we visit, we drink—well, I drink. A joint is passed; Oscar coughs disparagingly and waves the proffered white roll away in disgust. I am embarrassed of him. Tensions rise. He swipes up his coat and fixes me with a stare, pupils buried, invisible in the dark blanket of his eyes. "Let's go," he demands.
My hands find my hips; my chin juts forward. "Can't we just have a little fun? I mean, shit. Why does everything have to be so serious?"
"Serious?" he retorts. "These people are doing drugs."
"Oscar," I wheedle, "it's just a joint." I smile, laughing it off. "It's not like people are doing coke off a hooker's ass, man."
The joke does not lighten his mood. Instead, he huffs out the door, and I watch his Isuzu Trooper roll responsibly slow down the street, picturing its driver buckled up tight. It is still early in the evening; my only flicker of concern about his angry exit is that he was my ride. I pour another drink and stew until Javier sidles next to me. I remember Javier from another party, out in Pomona a few months prior, remember people calling him Javi. He is a year or two older, a head of bronze curls. One of his top front teeth is dead; it glints the color of coffee. This imperfection, however, doesn't prevent him from flashing wide smiles frequently. I like Javier immediately, for his unassuming build, his affable nature, his quick jolliness. As we chat, my angry steam dissipates.
Eyes squinting playfully, Javier says, "Come with me," lifting his head in an indicative nod. "I want to check something out." The smile shows it's a request, not a command, but I comply. I sense Javier has something fun in mind. Maybe there's a pool out back, I theorize, or perhaps a game room with billiards or darts.
We weave through clusters of people, climb a set of carpeted stairs, and arrive at the appointed destination. When we cross into the dark room, Javier spins, fixing me with a kiss, sandwiching me between him and the wall. The light switch juts between my shoulders, and he presses his lower half into mine. His reason for bringing me here bulges through the denim that separates us, and my hand moves to it like a second nature. Our mouths slide together, and even if I could pull away, I wouldn't. When he lifts his face from mine, it is I who am smiling widely.
"I have a boyfriend, you know."
"Oh, yeah?" His hands wander, gentle investigators beneath my blouse. "So where is he, then, if you're here?"
"He left." Our eyes have adjusted to the darkness, and the streetlamp streaks through the blinds behind him. "Didn't like the party, I guess."
"Too bad." Gripping my fingers gently, he takes careful steps backward, one at a time, into the dark room, finally flopping conveniently on a bed. The frame rattles when he pulls me down on top of him, eliciting laughter from both of us, and I smile at his one-handed maneuver to unclasp my bra, wondering aloud if men are taught this trick in gym class. As we tug clothing off one another, breathless, I anticipate his weight covering me, pressing me into the bed, subsuming me in his desire.
Instead, he swings me up onto him, makes himself a throne to my reign. This is unexpected. Naked, striped by lamplight coming through the window, I rock and sway. I squeal with laughter when Javier finagles my leg out from under me, toppling me, rolling us like cut logs in a river. Time has stopped. We move together, synchronous, like dancers. I think of nothing but how good I feel. I think nothing of Oscar.
After Javier and I part ways in the morning, we won't meet again. Later, at a different party, my good friend will also spend a night with Javier, but this will not bother me; I learn to value being unencumbered. Slowly, I begin to chafe beneath Oscar, although he persists in dating me, even after I share with him what passed that evening with Javi. It will be six months before I gather the gumption to leave. And then, sitting in the front seat of his Isuzu, when I tell him I do not love him, and never have, he will say just one thing: "Another one bites the dust."
Let this be a lesson from me: Be real.
He is the fifteenth.
This is after. After I moved with Paul to Portland. After he left for no good reason. After the months of quiet sobbing, the stolen money, the basement apartment. After the bald man who wouldn't hear no, wouldn't hear "stop." After the man with the open shirt, his bosomy wife, the three of us in the dark. After six hundred miles with two hitchhiking men. After all this, deep into the hopelessness, I am twenty-one when I arrive in Portland for the second time. I am grasping at straws, threading a life together one stitch at a time. I stumble into a pod of twenty-somethings, among them Leif, with a shock of blond hair, ocean blue eyes, pierced nipples and a quiet silliness.
Leif smiles at me often, his gaze unbroken, almost daring, when I catch him in this smile. But as time passes, he rarely speaks to me, despite the wide openings I create for him to pursue me—the way I am accustomed to being pursued. Requests for coffee, an invitation to dinner, or a simple proposition: with Leif, none of these dates materialize. Instead, each exchange of pleasantries is followed by an awkward lull, until my eyes cast about. Then at this, the slight shift in my shoulders, my mouth open for goodbye, his conversation takes on renewed urgency while remaining pitifully pedestrian. Once I turn to leave a second time, a second time he engages me in nervous chatter. He pulls me into his rotation each night but never invites anything more.
For a month or longer, this scene plays on repeat. One morning, our crew of friends is crowded over coffee, clinking spoons and tipping creamers. I have an appointment downtown, and as the hour looms, I invite Leif to walk me to the nearest transit stop, holding out hope for history's revision. We pass a natural food store, and I suggest we stop in for my favorite, soy ice cream sandwiches, to offset the August heat. I ward off his skepticism with assurances that fake ice cream is, in fact, just as delicious as the stuff from cows. As we settle into a curbside perch near my stop, beneath a streetlight dormant in mid-afternoon sun, Leif takes a bite of his sandwich. "Ugh!" He spews the chocolate-coated treat into the street, combing his tongue with his fingers.
"How can you eat this shit?" he says.
I'm sputtering now too, my laughter ping-ponging between the neighborhood houses. High on mutual joy, grinning at a joke only we've shared, Leif leans toward me, face suspended near mine, dilated eyes mirroring my own, my breath now coming in short bursts through parted lips. The familiar thrill, the anticipation of the pressed faces, the slippery wetness, the speeding heart rate, last a full, heavy minute before his head swings toward the street again.
"Think the bus is late?" He changes the subject, nervous, hesitant, and unwilling.
Moments later, when the bus wheezes in, Leif waves as I tuck into the windowed hull, dry lips haunted by the phantom promise of his taste.
After my meeting, I wander downtown, my throat tight, my gut an empty socket. At a sidewalk cafe, I select my stranger, a young man my age, filtered cigarette dangling casually between his fingers, his other hand gripping a daily paper. This man is devoid of detail in my memory: a faded photograph. Perhaps his hair is brown, perhaps black. He's likely taller than me; I'm rather short. Maybe he's in Chucks, or maybe Chacos. Perhaps he wears sunglasses. Flopping down assuredly at his wrought iron table, I ask, "Gotta smoke for me?"
He smiles, shows a little surprise, and sets his paper down. "Sure." He reaches into his pocket, pulls out his pack, flips open the lid, and slides a slim cigarette toward me with his thumb.
"Light me," I demand, and he does. I inhale deeply, playing my game like chess. After that transit stop, I need to fill that empty socket, to come alive beneath a validating gaze. "So," I say, "What will we be doing this evening?" His eyebrows rise.
"Hunh?" he answers. What to make of this? A girl, out of nowhere, seated like a proffered candy in a dish.
"What would you like to do?" I ask.
"Hunh," he says again. He glances up the street, toward the downtown cinema. "I don't even know what's playing tonight. Do you?"
"Nah," I wave my free hand. "Let's rent one."
Ten minutes later, we are cruising Blockbuster's aisle. He selects "Donnie Darko," which turns out to be a horrifically unromantic selection. His apartment, a third floor brick walk-up, is small and untidy, papers and old cups strewn across most surfaces. I clear a seat on the sofa and settle in for the movie, more Halloween than Valentine's Day. Once Jake Gyllenhaal dies for good, I'm drained, hollow, wondering what it is I'm doing—ready to fuck a faceless man, engage again in that pathetic battle against my own emptiness.
He turns to me. "It's pretty late. Trimet's not running anymore," he glances over his shoulder toward the apartment's sole bedroom. "I'll take the couch."
I'm appalled at this unexpected offer. "You don't have to be so polite," I reply. In fact, this unsteadies me, thwarts my plan, baffles me. After years of being taken on a whim, not one, but two men today have respected me, made no demands, had no expectations. The world as I know it has ceased to function in accordance with the rules I've learned.
"I know," he dismisses my protestation, lifting off the couch a little, presumably headed to spruce up the bed for me.
"Don't be so polite," I say, intent. I lean into him, press my mouth over his, feel his compliance, the evening's desire he's blanketed beneath courtesy. Climbing onto his lap, I whisper, "Got a condom?"
Like his name and his hair color, I don't remember the sex. I do remember how I lay after he slept, socket still empty, despising myself. I remember the following morning, waking ahead of him, naked, sticky, ashamed. I remember inching out of the bed, willing away creaks in the floorboards, and disappearing through the door before he woke.
The next day, his calls go to voicemail three, four, five times before I finally answer. "What are we doing tonight?" His request echoes my own line.
"I don't think we like to do the same things," I say. A stone of nausea settles in my middle. I picture Leif's face when it hovered so close to mine, papering this image over the last night, imagining Leif in the place of his poor substitute.
"You like movies. Let's go out and see a movie."
"I really don't like movies all that much."
He pauses, considering. "You're going to college. How 'bout the art museum?"
"I don't think so. Thanks anyway."
"Well, what do you like to do?" he asks. His voice is tinged with frustration.
I suck in my breath. "I don't think you understand," I begin. "This is over. We aren't going to a movie. We aren't going to the art museum." I pause, then lay it on the line. "This is a one night stand," I tell him.
"Hey, you came on to me," he retorts, defensive, and rightfully so. "You like me. I want to take you out." A pause, and I can hear his frustrated exhalations. "I don't think you understand: I don't have one night stands," his voice is soft but firm.
"Well," I hear my voice, heavy with shame. "You just did."
Three days later, at four in the morning, on his front stoop, where the street lamp's dappled light sifts through laurel leaves, Leif's lips finally meet mine. We linger, luxuriating in the timelessness of the moment, and after, he does not peel off my clothes and press himself over me. For him, power and desire do not confuse themselves, and by extension, I will cease confusing them. Instead, we trespass beneath early morning stars, into a park, hollering down slides and jumping off swings, the fresh discovery of love like a child's unbounded joy. We split open the night with laughter.
Three years later, on our dining room table, Leif will arrange tea lights in the shape of a heart to surround a modest ring with a tiny diamond. I will weep, and nod, and smile. Over the next six years, we will welcome two sons, and in the space between them, Leif will press my face into his chest as the doctor tells us the baby in my womb is dead, without a heartbeat. Nine years, five months, and twenty nine days after that early morning, in a slick Alaskan winter, Leif's truck will slip on ice-coated roads and slide into oncoming traffic. He will be crushed between the center console and the driver's side door. His ribs will crack, his guts will spew blood into his abdominal cavity, and doctors will race him to surgery. He will survive, and so will the tenuous thread that weaves our lives together.
Let this be a lesson from me: Pursue love.
Title image "Hear Ye" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2016.