by Linda Davis
You’re only eleven when a boy wants to kiss you – actually, two boys. You and your best friend Ann are behind the firehouse in Ogonquit with Billy and Chris, who want to do a four-way kiss: count to 4, kiss the person next to you, then switch partners. It’s a Thursday after school in October. You’re standing in a circle discussing the kiss. You have been here since school let out an hour and a half earlier. You bunch your fingers up inside your mittens to keep them warm. You don’t feel ready. You’re the least ready of the four of you; this, you know.
“C’mon,” Billy says. “It’s easy.” There’s a twinkle in his eye that worries you – the same one you’ve seen when he does something at school he shouldn’t, like making fun of how fat Principal Campbell is by puffing up his cheeks and waddling behind her.
“How about if we do one kiss instead of two?” Chris suggests.
“That’s a little better,” Ann nods her head and so do you. If Ann walked into the firehouse and slid down the pole, you would too.
“Ready?” asks Billy.
“My mother wouldn’t like this.” Ann’s teeth are tugging on her lip.
“Your mother is not going to find out,” Billy rolls his eyes. “Unless you tell her.”
“Forget it,” Chris says, looking at Billy. “I have to go.”
“No, no,” Ann says. “Let’s get it over with.”
There’s some discussion of who will say what number. The boys quickly decide to go first and fourth, like any strong relay team.
“Here goes,” says Chris. “One.”
Ann hesitates a moment. “T-wo.”
You close your eyes when you say, “Three.”
“Four,” Billy says.
Billy and Chris will, much later, come out as gay — not that the firehouse kiss had anything to do with that. It didn’t change you – or them – at all. At seventeen, you’re still the shy, soft-spoken girl you always were, not ready to be anyone’s girlfriend. You have crushes on boys; but when it comes to dating them, you always run away.
It isn’t until you’re a senior that you fall for a guy. Late! – at least compared to your surprisingly-slutty friends. The guy is smart + cute + athletic + he lives a few towns away = fun. Shaun likes you, although there seems to be a girl from his hometown he’s involved with, too. You find this out when you invite him to your prom, and he says no. Actually, he doesn’t say no. You guess after an annoying thirty minutes of him saying, “Um, I can’t. I just can’t.” Cheryl is her name. Instantly, and for the rest of your life, you dislike this name.
Your relationship with Shaun continues in secret. You never know when he will show up at your house in his parents’ old Cutlass Supreme. You go for long drives in the suburbs with him. Maybe the relationship is about him liking to drive? Finally, he pulls over and you get to kiss. His mouth is delicious. He wants more, but you’re not that kind of girl. It’s spring now, and the nights are warm. His disco radio station is not your punk radio station, but you like the change. Like wearing high heels: not really you. Shaun smells of boy sweat and musk, so unlike the males you’re used to – your father (alcohol and cigarettes) and brother (pungent breath and oily hair).
After a few months of long weekend drives with Shaun, something other than the season changes. He shows up less when you start to want more.
One Friday, he arrives after having not shown up for two weeks. Fall is in the air (except for the leaves, of course, which are more on the ground.) You’re ready in stiff new jeans, olive top and grape lipgloss.
He’s intentionally quiet. The disco is the opposite.
“Is something wrong?” you ask.
“I can’t…” He pulls over.
Not this again, you think, remembering his famously inarticulate Cheryl-conversation. How is Cheryl? You think, but say, “It’s okay.” You want to spare him – but more you – the break-up words.
“No, it’s not that.”
“Oh.” You wait. “What is it then?”
After forever, you finally suggest that he write the words down. You extract a Bic from your pocket-sized purse (fits: lip gloss, pack of gum pen and license) and he scribbles: I can’t keep going out unless we sleep together.
You laugh. You can’t help it. You’re giddy with laughter. Partly because he isn’t rejecting you (Phew!) but mostly because you know nothing about sex or men; and it’s very, very funny to see a guy act like such a baby over a thing like sex. Like, ‘Wah, wah, I’m going to cry if I don’t get to fuck you.’ Still, you can’t laugh too much, cause that wouldn’t be nice and you are a nice girl.
You squelch that laugh, but what do you do?
If you decide to sleep with Shaun, go to number 12.
If you do not sleep with Shaun, go to number 3.
Of course you don’t sleep with him! Are you serious? He doesn’t even treat you like a proper girlfriend. You’ve never even worn his jacket or made out in his room. Face it: the relationship was good training ground for dating a married man, but not much else.
You ask Shaun to take you home, and the whole way, you’re both silent, except for that annoying disco beat, which is the best news ever: no more disco music! (silent cheering in your mind.)
“Goodbye,” you say as you slide your slim, virgin body out of the car.
Shaun hangs his head, like someone died. The Cutlass Supreme edges away very, very slowly, as if it too is disappointed with you.
If you weren’t a little sad about missing the kissing and the secrecy, which, admit it, you sort of liked, you would be rolling on the ground with those leaves, laughing.
Ralph is the big guy on your college campus of 20,000. (Kids: this is way too big for college. If you have a choice, I recommend you go to a smaller school.) Ralph is a junior, and you’re only a dumb freshman. Women love Ralph. You don’t, so of course, he likes you. He’s huge, like 6’3 or something ridiculous, with lots of muscles. He looks like a Greek God with close-cropped dark hair, perennially-tanned skin and again, lots of muscles. Not. Your. Type. And yet, you can’t resist the attention. Seniors come up to you and say. “You’re the first girl he’s ever been interested in. We thought he was gay!”
Ralph himself brags about this to you. “I’ve never dated a single girl since I’ve been here.”
“Oh?” you ask.
“I wouldn’t go near these women with a 10-foot pole.”
His arrogance should warn you off of him; but sadly, you are just a dumb freshman riding that attention train to the end of the line.
There are a few dates, including one on your birthday. At some point, you started this tradition of doing something you’ve never done before as a birthday present to yourself. You went skydiving one year. Another, you ate avocado for the first time. When the prospect of adding ‘losing your virginity’ to that list arises, it’s a fait accompli. (French 101: 200+ students in an auditorium where Nirvana played two months prior. Repeat: go to a smaller school.)
A word about the sex with Ralph. No two words. 1. All 2. Night.
Maybe he really is a Greek God?
You know nothing about sex and imagine this is normal, and that you simply dislike it. Intensely. For his part, Ralph either doesn’t like it or he couldn’t stand the failure of you not liking it since, of course he knew because you are such a bad actress (and all the rest of it.)
To make matters worse, you hated the taste of his mouth, which is really a deal breaker for you.
So that’s the end of Ralph, your virginity and that college. You leave at the end of the year, transfer to a smaller school.
After college, you move to New York and attend the United Nations of Dating: Russian cab driver, English dancer, Asian accountant, French architect, Latin waiter, African-American poet, and a slew of skinny, artistic types whose hair is half of their body weight. Once you’d easily said no. Now, you have a hard time with that word.
One night, you meet a married guy. Since you’ve been well-trained in secrecy, it’s a natural fit. Now, I know what you’re thinking, ‘you said you were a nice girl and that is not very nice.’ Well, let’s think about this. Are nice people ALWAYS nice or can they sometimes make mistakes? I’m going with the latter.
Trevor is a slightly-pudgy, older, English, semi-famous writer who you sleep with every time he comes to the states (that’s his English phrasing kicking in. You also overuse the word “brilliant” and add “as well” to the end of your sentences.) There is something other-wordly about him that you simply can’t resist. He’s like your own personal time machine. You make love in his hotel room with the History Channel on in the background. After the sex, he says, “So that was the Industrial Revolution.” Funny!
Trevor also drinks a lot, which is an excellent segue into discussing your relationship with your father.
The bad news: Daddy is not a strong man. The good news: He is funny and nice. So, even though he is a binge drinker, which ends his relationship with your mother after seventeen years, the divorce makes him stop drinking, and he and your mom remain friends. Very civilized.
However, maybe, just maybe, all those years of your dad drinking and disappointing the family had a lasting impression on you that manifests itself in your choice of boyfriends. For example:
Trevor: older, drinker, funny guy who disappoints you.
Dad: older, drinker, funny guy who disappointed you.
And yet, there’s one significant difference between the two men. Your father is nicer than Trevor. The bottle was his mistress. Trevor has two mistresses (maybe more? How the hell would you know?) You begin to think, if he cheats on his wife, maybe he’d cheat on you too?
When you start to want more from Trevor, there’s nowhere to go, except perhaps to move to England, which he suggests. (Maybe you are the only mistress for him?) There’s something incredibly romantic to you about being a kept woman in England, like you’re a character in a Thomas Hardy novel – or, even better, in his next novel, which would immortalize you for good. You picture yourself in a small cottage with a fireplace, stone floors and poor water pressure. You’d do lots of gardening, reading; and when he was with you, you’d walk on cobblestone streets to the corner pub. Your dart game would improve.
If you decide to move to England, go to number 10.
If you end it with Trevor, go to number 6.
Good for you! Maybe there’s still hope for you to become a feminist after all? You’re interested in politics and causes and start to work for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, PETA.
It’s an entry-level job, doing everything from editing press releases to keeping the coffee room stocked with soymilk. The people at PETA are cool, and you feel like you’ve found your niche in New York. Trevor calls the next time he’s in town. Someone at PETA takes the call and is appalled when you admit that you are dating a married man. She says you are as bad as a carnivore – the worse insult of all at PETA. You mumble something about your dad’s drinking, but it doesn’t fly. Soon, you agree, think it was loathsome of you. You wish you could undo that part of your life when you weren’t being a nice girl.
You meet Bobby at a club. He’s a rock ‘n roller who you see as a cause: get his band to stop wearing leather.
Bobby lives in Long Island with his parents, which sounds worse than it is. He has the entire bottom floor of their house and you prefer it to the band house: cars parked willy-nilly on the lawn, empty fridge, no toilet paper, lots of drug taking. Split screen: Bobby’s mother cleans for the housekeeper, stocks the fridge with your favorite almond butter and rice cakes, and there’s central heating.
Bobby’s parents are this adorably sweet Jewish couple who dote on you. There’s something so warm about them, like a giant blanket you lose yourself in every time you’re around them. Bobby loves his parents too, which is a good sign.
For the first time, you’re in love. Bobby and you call each other pet names, like “Poodle” and “Pony.” You watch old movies, listen to obscure music and buy him a pair of goldfish for his birthday. When the weekend is over, you take the Long Island Railroad back to the city – and your job.
His band releases an album called, Have a Nice Day and Other Songs. They go on tour (small success: two out of four of them don’t bring their leather jackets) and he sends you postcards that you sleep with.
The band is a big hit in Los Angeles. Soon, Bobby tells you he will be moving there. He tells you the band is moving into a house in Venice. He does not give you the choice to move there with him. That is not an adventure that you will get to choose. Sorry.
Bobby calls you every day from Los Angeles. Every day. Somehow, you believe that you’re still a couple, not yet understanding anything about men. Two years, ten visits and seven hundred plus phone calls later, you’re done. You tell him you can’t go on like this. First, you break up. Then he comes back and says: “I need you. It’s not the best time, but I need you.”
By now, your relationship is nothing like what it was when you were playing house at his parents’ house. The goldfish are dead and you are well on the road – about halfway there – to missing his parents more than him. Bobby has not treated you well. Your theory: if you live in the same place as him, things will go back to what they were before.
Bobby lives in the valley now. You don’t know what that means, but it sounds bad. You’ll have to get a new job and buy a car. You do have a few friends in L.A, so that’s something. Deal clincher: the prospect of never riding the New York subway again.
‘I hate L.A!’
You hate Los Angeles so much you could sing about it. The valley depresses you with all its sunshine, wide streets and slanted palm trees. Pedestrians are extinct and there’s no mailbox for miles. You imagined there would be vegetarian restaurants on every block, like in Annie Hall. Just the thought of Annie Hall makes you heartsick for New York.
You work for a lot of non-profit duds. Jobs are a lot like boyfriends. It’ll be a while before you get another good one. You tell the same oxymoronic joke about how Los Angeles is not the best town for a non-profit over and over again.
At least things with Bobby are good. He works for a record company now, which bodes well for the family in your mind. That is, until a year or so later when he leaves you for one of his co-workers, Mia (another name you will blacklist for life.)
Remember Trevor of the time machine? Well, he calls, has never stopped calling. “It’s a good time for me to go to the country and write. Is it a good time for you to come to England?” Repeat those words again in your mind in an upper class British accent. Nice, huh?
“Actually, it’s a brilliant time for me as well,” you say.
You go to England and stay at a gorgeous manor with grass that is greener than any Crayola you’ve ever seen. The grass is littered with sheep as far as your eye can see.
The manor rooms are named after different monarchs. There’s some hassle when you check in over whether you will stay in the Henry VIII or Queen Victoria room. Trevor demands Victoria, which you get, as hoped. You don’t need Henry VIII to remind you of men who can’t be monogamous.
There’s a sitting room off the lobby with a fireplace where you have drinks before dinner. You talk to an older couple that recently celebrated their 50th anniversary. You wonder what number Trevor and his wife are on and whether he’s ever taken her to this lovely place he seems to know so well.
A waiter escorts you to a table by the window. You drink more and are very pleased to be reunited with your braver self.
“Tell me again about your wife,” you say but really ask.
Trevor doesn’t react. “What’s there to say?”
“What’s she like? What’s the marriage like?”
He takes a long sip from his red wine, looks at the window, the darkened folded fields outside. “She’s a great mother…”
He may have thought this was a safe answer, but it’s anything but.
“…I feel as though someone cut out my heart. I wish I didn’t.”
If there were a violin player in the house, he’d be at your table right now. You act sympathetic to get him to keep talking; but really, you’re feeling like he’s a selfish brat.
You go through the motions: Stilton and Cheshire from the cheese cart. Brandy to the room. Sex feels foreign, like everything else.
The next day, Trevor tells you he has to leave for the day. “A bunch of work things.”
When you check out of the manor, you’re very pleased to pay the (huge!) bill for one night’s lodging and last night’s dinner. At least you can hold your head high about something.
You board a train that will take you to the continent, away from Trevor forever, and linger on every mother with child that passes your compartment, say a little apology prayer in your head.
Los Angeles gets worse before it gets better. Bobby left you with two cats and a ranch style house in North Hollywood that has nine months on the lease. You eat toast with tea for a year and watch Annie Hall every other day. The cat gets hit by a car (a metaphor!) and you nurse it back to health, grateful to have something that needs you.
Slowly, you feel ready to piece your life back together.
First stop: move to the beach.
Your apartment is a few blocks from the Pacific. After a year of only tea and toast, you’re very anemic. You get B-12 shots and start to run on the bike path with your roommate. You work for political candidates and a catering service to help pay the bills. And then you meet Jonathan who is smart + funny + athletic + cute = boyfriend?
Guess again. While Jonathan may be smart + funny + athletic + cute, he is also + married, which definitely does not equal boyfriend. You’re like an ex-smoker now, relegating people who cheat on their spouses as the lowest of the low.
“Separated,” he corrects you.
You roll your eyes. “Shmeperated.”
You walk away, but Jonathan keeps following you. You are working for a presidential candidate – the good one. He’s supporting the other. (For the judges in the audience, note: this was back when the difference wasn’t as defining.)
“Loser takes the winner to lunch,” he says.
“Sure,” you say. Lunch is lunch. You have lunch with a lot of people who you aren’t dating.
Your guy wins and on the way to lunch, Jonathan jokes that he did, too.
Jonathan continues to hang around for months. Very flattering, but really you are not considering him. He is Jewish, left-handed and was born on the same day and year in Brooklyn as Bobby. Meaning? Absolutely nothing. He really does seem to be shmeperated. Marriage lasted a little over a year, and, unlike Trevor, no kids. Does it sound like you’re making a case for him? You are, especially after he writes you a letter that is sweet, sincere and, most notably, well written. Finally, Jonathan tells you that he wants you to meet his parents soon. You’re in, cause who else would do that but someone who was serious?
Jonathan is not the boyfriend picture you had in your mind. He’s clean cut and works with money. He prefers going out to dinner to Bobby’s shut-in lifestyle. He wants to travel with you and go for a run. He likes daytime and dance music, which, of course, reminds you of Shaun, your first beau.
Shaun parks the Cutlass in the parking lot of the railroad station your dad will take to work the next morning. The street lights cast slanted shadows on the leather seats of the car. You’re there, but not really, as he undresses you and whispers your name. He’s switched the music from disco to Marvin Gaye, which makes you think he’s done this before. Leather, leather, leather is all you feel. Maybe you will become a vegetarian? Suddenly, you’re wet, but it’s not from you. Shaun hands you a beach towel to clean yourself up. You now have sand glued to your thighs and crotch. Has this towel really been in the car since summer, unwashed, or did Shaun take another girl (read CHERYL) to the beach recently?
Conversation is awkward on the way home. You are mute. Literally. Shaun is reunited with his disco beat. You already know you won’t see him again and are thinking of this experience as your parting gift.
Alas, it seems he was the one who left you with a parting gift. Yup. First time and pregnant. Just like you were warned at school and by your mom. “It only takes one time,” and, “What were you thinking?”
You can keep the baby and surprise everyone who thought you were a nice girl, or you can get an abortion because you do have that choice.
If you decide to have the baby, go to number 13.
If you decide to have an abortion, go to number 4.
It’s been a long, uneven road. You made choices, or did you? Sometimes you feel like everything was pre-destined; other times it feels like if one little variable were altered, you might be living another life right now.
You’re married to Jonathan. He’s not the person you thought you’d end up with but every single day you are so grateful for that. He’s a fantastic father to all your children – even one, that, biologically, is not his. It’s possible that it’s an older child, one that you had a long time ago in a different life. Or perhaps you and Jonathan adopted a child together? Maybe you had two boys and always wanted a girl? Two boys are plenty. Why would you need to have a girl? To teach her about making good choices, you say. Then again, in the end, it’s all up to her.