Not yet fourteen. Ninth grade. First day. First class. English I. My cover is blown—if not yet to everyone else, then at the very least, to myself.
There will never be a day after this that I’ll be able to tell myself I’m not attracted to girls. I won’t be able to write it off as a passing phase or an “aesthetic appreciation.” Not after I’ve seen the girl with tan skin and honeyed hair sitting in the front row.
Melissa, I hear someone call her.
I’m fascinated by her hands and her teeth. The slope of her neck. For reasons I don’t yet fully understand, the sight of her short fingernails makes me light-headed and sweaty.
I take a seat near the back next to Cassi, who I’ve known since kindergarten. I try to act normal.
I’ve been trying to act normal for as long as I can remember.
For a week or so, I eat lunch with my junior high choir friends—all thick-framed glasses and anime obsessions—but I spend most of my time peeking around the edge of the brick wall we’re sitting against, watching Melissa hold court among the grunge freaks and drama nerds.
One lunch period, she solo performs the fight scene from Act 3 of Romeo and Juliet, jumping on and off a picnic table and using varying “European” accents to distinguish between the characters. She flings her body around with abandon, jousting at her imaginary self, surrounded by laughter. By now, a few of my choir friends have taken to watching along with me from our safe distance, intrigued and mildly terrified by this captivating creature in our midst. We’ve never seen anything like her before.
Three different guitar guys dressed in all black stare at her, slack-jawed, strumming the same chords over and over.
I could do that, I tell myself, thinking of my well-played Hummingbird at home. And I could do it better than them.
The thought, so uncharacteristic in its self-assuredness, leaves me winded, my fingertips stinging with electricity. I hide my creeping blush behind a copy of The Once and Future King.
Just then, my friend Leslie nudges me and shows me another of her cat cartoon drawings, and I realize I have to get out.
I start showing up to school earlier and earlier every morning to spend time in the English classroom before the bell rings. Melissa is usually there with some of the drama kids. I sit off to the side with Cassi (a good, low stakes choice, since she’s neither a cat cartoonist nor a theater enthusiast) and let her regale me with the explicit details of her boy-girl sexual exploits. Half the things she says go clear over my head, but Melissa laughs enough times at my desperately naïve commentary—“Wait a second. Your legs were where? Were you upside down?”—that I think I’m making some progress.
Then, one class period when we’ve been put in groups of four and are supposed to be quietly writing essays about Julius Caesar, Melissa elbows me in the ribs and whispers, “Hey, how do you spell hemorrhoid?”
I start laughing so hard the teacher suggests I take a walk.
I invite Melissa to my fourteenth birthday party—a sleepover—hopeful, but without expectation. As my friends assemble in my parents’ den, I try to stay engaged in all the gossip and snacks, but I can’t stop checking my watch. Maybe she won’t come. But what if she does? And then she appears, fully resplendent in all her indifference, wearing the same style pajama pants and black low-tops she wears to school every day.
She could never be Homecoming Queen—she’d never go to a school dance, anyway—but as far as I’m concerned, she’s the coolest girl I will ever hope to know.
Her presence surprises me, does nothing to settle my nerves, until she doubles over in laughter while we’re watching Clue, steadying herself with a hand on my knee. And then I simultaneously feel soothed and on fire.
On Monday, in seventh period Spanish, Melissa slips me a note with a little caricature of our teacher in the margin:
¿Que tal? How did we end up trapped with this woman? Let’s just go. Don’t you think? The border’s closer, but I’ve also been considering Taiwan. Or maybe Connecticut. I’ll pack the cash in a paper bag. You bring the sandwiches. I’d prefer ham and cheese, no crusts, cut in triangles, but I’m sure whatever you come up with will be fine. I’ll meet you in the back corner of the student parking lot. –M.
I try to stay calm, hold my smile down. Act normal.
On Tuesday, I bring my guitar to school, come out from behind the brick wall at lunch.
There’s no going back.
Fifteen. CD liner notes. An old skeleton key. Five cat’s eye marbles.
I’m the Boo Radley of the drama freak set.
Every day I make sure my pockets are filled with at least a few items that might be of interest to someone in the group. More often than not, these things lead nowhere. But the day I show up with the guitar tabs for every track on Automatic for the People, I strike gold. Melissa plucks the folded wad of papers from my hands and crouches down to smooth them out on the ground. I look away, stare up at the sky, afraid of what’s coming next. Maybe she’s going to rag on “Everybody Hurts.” Maybe she doesn’t even like R.E.M. Would that be a deal breaker? Gosh, maybe.
“This one,” she says, slapping at my shin. “This one’s my favorite.”
I take my time looking down. If it’s “Star Me Kitten,” I’m screwed.
The song she’s settled on is “Try Not to Breathe.” I barely know it; I’m surprised she knows it at all. She hands me the page, and I glance through the chord progression. It seems simple enough, and by the end of the week, I’m comfortable enough with my bastardized version that I plunk myself down in the grass at lunch, flip open my guitar case, and just start in.
I feel someone sit down behind me and lean against my back. I can tell it’s Melissa just from the sound of her breath. We’re spine to spine, and I’m singing, my voice rattling from my rib cage into hers. It’s the first sustained physical contact we’ve ever had. If other people exist, I’ve already forgotten them. I just keep strumming and singing straight through to the end, and when I’m done, Melissa tips her head back, resting it on my shoulder.
“Thanks,” she sighs.
I laugh with relief. “You got it.”
After that, I sense a new level of respect coming from the black-clad guitar guys, not so much because of my musical ability, but because of the attention I’ve managed to attract.
It’s not what you have, boys. It’s how you use it.
Rehearsals for The Crucible have been underway for about a week when Melissa shows up one morning with a bouquet of vibrant purple-black bruises blossoming across the knuckles of her left hand. I gasp at the sight.
She frowns and looks down at herself, does a turn. “What?”
She glances at it and shrugs. “Mr. Sanchez didn’t think I was angry enough in my scene, so he had me punch a wall a couple times.”
This is old news to everyone around us. They’re all in drama and presumably saw it happen. But my heart’s hammering away in my chest with fresh rage and indignation. I’m about to launch into a rant when I’m stopped cold by a flash of feeling. I see myself take Melissa’s hand in mine. I feel myself kissing her bruised knuckles. This impulse, this vision, this flash-forward is so visceral that I have to take a beat to make sure it didn’t actually happen.
I look down at the bruises again. Melissa is the only person I know with hands smaller and more child-like than mine.
I turn around and pretend to look for something in my backpack until I’ve sufficiently settled myself.
I’m Boo Radley. But I’m Holden Caulfield, too. I may not be one for running through the rye, but I know I can stand still at the edge and protect the things that matter.
From then on, I make it my business to be in the auditorium as much as possible.
In fact, I cut class so many times to go to drama rehearsals that the one day I don’t, our biology teacher asks if I’ve forgotten about the play. I have no choice but to duck my head and skitter out to the auditorium, or else give up the ghost on the whole scheme.
Eventually Mr. Cox, who’s taken a begrudging shine to me, enrolls me in his stagecraft class so that I have a legitimate excuse to skulk around in the darkened parts of the auditorium. But before I can offer him too much gratitude, he tells me to design a working paddlewheel for next month’s production of Show Boat. I just laugh and congratulate him on his massive over-confidence in my abilities before climbing up to the lighting booth to be alone with my notebooks.
It’s in a lull between shows, when I have no good excuse to cut biology, that we’re forced to dissect fetal pigs. Cassi, my dissection partner, bursts into tears before the first incision. I’ve always been the pasty, soft-hearted suburban sidekick to Cassi’s sun-freckled, jump higher, spit farther woodswoman. I’ve never seen her cry before, not even when we were little, and the sight disturbs me even more than the poor creature in the tray. I start doing a run of every funny voice I know how to do until we’re both laughing and crying and cutting our way through it.
Not long after that, Cassi starts joining me in the lighting booth. The sex talk has gotten more graphic, but in a way, it’s easier for me to feign interest now that I’m fairly certain none of what she’s talking about will be applicable to my future experience.
I see Melissa in every play that year. But more than that, I see every performance. And not just in the auditorium. Schoolyard monologues and backstage diatribes, full-length stand-up comedy routines in the library stacks when we should be doing research for our Social Studies Fair projects. I am the constant audience, my eyes focused like spotlights. But I’m never in the show.
Sometimes things happen, though, that give me cause to wonder.
Like the fact that Melissa never calls me after school like regular friends do but writes me letters and mails them to my house.
For about three months, we talk incessantly about our plans to write and produce a movie, a dark comedy/horror based on the time her dog got sprayed by a skunk and went nuts. It’s mostly an extended homage to the killer rabbit sequence from Holy Grail, but we throw in a million references to the Cardinal Richelieu sketch from Flying Circus even though it makes no sense, just because it’s our favorite thing ever. None of this talk goes anywhere, but it makes us both laugh, and it feels very important, even though nobody else in the group really gets it.
On a gray afternoon in March, Melissa dips her hand into an abandoned can of white paint and uses it to draw a heart with our initials in it on a telephone pole on the side of the highway near my parents’ neighborhood. When she’s finished, we both roll our eyes and walk away laughing, but for the next ten years, my heart jumps every time I drive past it.
One night, at an hour my parents will later call “inappropriate,” Melissa’s boyfriend Aaron calls. He’s crying—at least I think he’s crying—and he just keeps repeating, “You have to back off. You just have to back off,” until my dad picks up the extension in the living room and tells him never to call this number again. I’m furious but also flattered, and I end up splitting the difference, laughing into my pillow.
Because Aaron’s been in her mouth, and her pants, and her house. And I still don’t even know her phone number.
Sixteen. Boarding school. Freedom, in a way. I’m still keeping my secrets, but only by the slightest grip.
This had always been the plan, from the time I was twelve and first heard about this school: get out of my cow-town and get a real education. Just get the hell out of there and become somebody.
At twelve, though, I hadn’t considered there’d be anything back home to miss.
Now, my prized possession, one of Melissa’s black low-top sneakers, sits on my computer monitor. She’d slipped it off and given it to me the night before I left town. My throat closed at the gesture, but she’d just shrugged it off like it was nothing. Inside the shoe is a three-page letter listing every single thing she knew she was going to miss about me:
I’ll miss the way you throw your hands up when you get exasperated and run out of words.
Sometimes at night I sit on my bed and run my fingers over and over the lines of the list, my skin burning at the realization that I had, perhaps, been more than just a stagehand in her eyes.
I write a poem about her, a one-act play.
I never tell her any of this.
I go back and visit my old school, just once, and sit in that circle of soliloquies and Metallica riffs. Everyone’s talking about two girls who got caught making out at the Sadie Hawkins dance like it’s the most exciting thing to happen since this senior we all know got a bit part on some teen drama.
I say nothing—all my friends at boarding school are gay.
Melissa doesn’t say anything either.
That summer, we briefly get jobs together at Office Depot. Wisely, the manager recognizes we are unfit to interact with the public, so he sticks us in a back room where we pack school supplies in boxes according to the lists issued by the various schools around town.
We listen to The Cure on repeat.
We eat lunch together in the parking lot. I always bring the sandwiches—triangles, no crusts, as requested.
Until now, we’ve never really spent time alone together like this, away from the noisy, insistent gang. There’s no play-acting going on. No audience. It makes the whole experience feel very grown up. Sacred, in a way.
I scribble a letter to one of my boarding school friends. Long, effusive paragraphs about golden afternoon picnics and Pablo Neruda and how we’ll decorate our suite in the fall and the movie Gattaca and how sometimes at night a part of the sky turns this very specific shade of periwinkle blue and I pretend that the sky is made of enamel and I imagine myself cutting out this centimeter square portion of sky and sometimes that’s the only thing that stops me from feeling like I’m going crazy.
I don’t realize that Melissa’s been looking over my shoulder until I sign the letter and she says, “You tell your friends up there that you love them?”
Deciding that’s the least embarrassing part of the letter for her to have picked up on, I exhale and say, “Yeah,” and shove the letter into the bottom of my messenger bag.
It’s been a long-standing joke that I have coffee shop anxiety. I get overwhelmed by all the options, worry that I’ll order incorrectly, and always end up just asking for chocolate milk (which is embarrassing enough in its own way). So when Melissa asks me to meet her at the coffee shop downtown on the last night of summer, I’m already a little on edge.
She’s standing out front when I get there, and when I reach to open the door she says, “Let’s go for a walk first.” I follow her down the sidewalk without question.
There’s a little bridge at the end of Columbia Street, just before it merges with the highway, where it passes over a narrow curve in the river. We sit on the guardrail and watch the sun collapse into the horizon. I look down at the riverbed below us—a steep drop—and see that it’s practically dry.
This is it. I’ll leave in the morning, and then it’ll be senior year, and then college and whatever else lies ahead. I think we both know it’s the end of more than just summer. I want to say something real and lasting, but I can’t say to Melissa the kind of recklessly vulnerable things I say to my boarding school friends. My inner earnestness has always made me feel so dumb and unwieldy in comparison to her composed cynicism.
Finally, she says, “It’s gonna be weird tomorrow when you’re gone again.”
And I say, “It’s weird you’re not coming with me.”
And then the cops pull up.
An officer that doesn’t look much older than us hops out of the driver’s seat and starts shining his flashlight directly into our eyes.
“What exactly is going on here?” he asks in a measured drawl.
I assume he thinks we were going to jump. (Only later do I realize it’s more likely he thought we were getting high.) Regardless, I panic. I cannot get picked up by the cops the night before I’m supposed to get out of here. I think about my duffel bag, already packed and waiting by the front door at home. And the brand-new journal I’d collaged the cover of for this school year. And how pissed my mom’s going to be.
Melissa is saying something to the cop, but all I can hear is the lumbering thud of my pulse and the rough draft of the script of what I’ll say to my mom when I get my one phone call from jail.
But then the flashlight clicks off, and the officer gets back in his car and drives away. Melissa hops up and starts walking back down the sidewalk toward the coffee shop.
“What the fuck was that?” I say, getting up from the guardrail, my legs wobbling beneath me.
“Come on,” she says, throwing me a wink over her shoulder. “I’ll buy you a chocolate milk.”
Seventeen. The whole world is different now because I’ve kissed a girl.
And I know that’s stupid, but I can’t help but feel it’s true. Things have gone into studio surround sound, hyper-Technicolor, and all because I’ve said the truth out loud, tasted it, felt it pulsing underneath my fingertips. Even I’m annoyed at how simple it seems—after all those years of thinking it would, quite literally, end me—but being alive feels as easy as breathing for the first time in a long time.
In the third-floor computer lab, I bang out an email to Melissa without thinking:
I have a girlfriend. Like a girlfriend girlfriend.
I feel flush with exhilaration until the half-second after I’ve hit “Send,” and then my stomach sours on the whole thing. No one from home knows this about me yet, and now I’ve gone and put it in writing and sent it hurtling down the Information Superhighway.
Why did I do that?
It’s not because I’m hoping for some declaration of desire. I’m delighted with the girl I’m kissing at present. I think what I want is some recognition of sameness, some indication that all those little fragments of feeling were real and true, and that it’s safe to name them now.
I walk around for days in a sweaty panic, waiting for a reply. When it comes, I laugh so loud I get asked to leave the computer lab.
So, tell me how to pick up girls.
Twenty. We’re scattered like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle no one’s much interested in putting together anymore.
I haven’t seen or heard from Melissa in a long time.
In the past few years, I’ve kissed more girls, but mostly in the dark, since they’re usually kissing other people in the daylight. And the girl who kissed me when I was seventeen—now living with her Waffle House manager boyfriend—drifts in and out of my life (my car, my hands), the worst kept secret in town.
I try having a real girlfriend for a while. Kate. A calm, responsible girl who’s majoring in women’s studies and spends all her free time knitting. I try to be calm and responsible, too, but it never quite takes. I stay hungry, and angry, and while I technically don’t cheat, I skirt the edges more than once. Eventually, I wake up one morning to find Kate sitting at the end of my bed reading my journal, a thorough and lurid account of every girl I’d rather be with, all the things I’d rather be doing. Although it’s really my privacy being violated, Kate looks at me like I’m a criminal, a predator, a monster. I don’t even bother trying to defend myself.
With Kate gone, I slow dance with my roommate to “Teach Me Tonight,” and kiss her roughly in my bed, our limbs unmooring the sheets. The next day, she leaves for the beach with her boyfriend.
I spend six days alone in the apartment, eating cold meatloaf, listening to NPR, playing a video game I don’t understand. I wind up having to spend my last nine dollars for the month on toilet paper and a plunger. Another girl I am vaguely interested in invites herself over to watch an episode of The L Word, but I can’t even work up the energy to make a move.
By October, nobody’s talking to me anymore. I’ve burned too many bridges with my drunken, restless longing. Even though we’re still occasionally kissing, my roommate asks me to move out. I walk onto campus and fill out a housing application. I walk back to the apartment and get into bed and think about never getting up again.
And then a letter arrives:
I just got home from Argentina. Come and visit me at my parents’ house. Any day. I’m here. –M.
The afternoon we spend together exists in a bubble outside the realm of my actual life. We walk the streets of her parents’ neighborhood, kicking the gravel and reminiscing about all those high school shows and offstage calamities. She tells me about her travels. I mostly keep quiet. Melissa doesn’t know that I’ve been nowhere, accomplished nothing. That I’m a liar, a monster hell-bent on its own destruction. That I peaked at sixteen, and that everything since then has failed to live up to the secret desires I harbored when I was just an ex-choir girl trying to play it cool.
She looks at me like I’m worth looking at, worth knowing.
When we part ways, I take a detour to the senior parking lot of our old high school. I wonder whether, if I asked Melissa now, she’d still meet me here and run away with me. But I’m not ready to find out, not this way.
I drive back to my apartment and start packing to move out. I’ve decided I might as well get on with living.
Twenty-five. Melissa says, “I don’t mind the taste of semen all that much, but what I really need is more vagina in my life.”
I look down at my plate—sushi—and lose my appetite.
She’s married now, to a forty-year-old Bosnian she “picked up in Italy,” and they’ve got a baby.
These are facts I have a hard time digesting. But I know they’re true, have known for months, ever since Cassi called me up one afternoon. “This is incredibly screwed up. You know you two are supposed to be together, right? Doing some kind of international spy operative nonsense, or having a comedy show or something, you know?”
And I do know, maybe, that in some other life, some alternate past, something different could have happened. But—
“What am I supposed to do about it?” And I notice my hands lifting upward in exasperation.
So, Cassi did something, arranged this dinner for the three of us. She couldn’t pass up a front-row seat.
“I’m just not a monogamous person,” Melissa continues, and I try to ignore the fact that she’s blatantly staring at my chest.
It’s statements like that one that send the bile up the back of my throat. Because the thing is, for all the home-wrecking I’ve done, or tried to do, or been roped into without my knowledge, I am. Monogamous, that is. Or I’d like to be, if given the chance. I’m getting tired of being the thing on the side. I’m too old for that. I want something—someone—I can actually love, without having to sneak around.
But that’s sort of a heavy train of thought, when the present situation is that my high school dream girl is licking her lips and checking out my breasts while telling me she wants to have an affair with a woman.
Melissa excuses herself from the table, and Cassi kicks me in the shin. “What the hell, dude? I’m pretty sure she’s going to lay you out right here on the table in a minute.”
I shake my head. “I can’t do this.”
This time, Cassi is the one to throw her hands up.
After dinner, Cassi waits from a respectful distance while Melissa and I try to figure out how to say goodbye. Melissa is begging me to stick around and go with her to some bonfire at the vineyard outside of town. I’m reminded of a summer night when we were sixteen and rode out there together in secret, eating grapes off the vine. And it occurs to me that in our alternate past, that would have been our first date. And I would have kissed her there, all sticky fingers and giggles, before running back to the car.
But it’s nine years later now, and it’s late. Too late, I think.
We embrace, and as I pull away, her hand slips down into mine—our fingers interlacing in a secret wish that we could have a do-over at being fourteen, sixteen, or even twenty—and then it slips free.