Central Pennsylvania summers are always oppressive, but the summer I turned fifteen was particularly terrible. The hazy, humid days stretched on with no foreseeable end. My mother had returned from a month stretch in the psych ward with a new boyfriend she had met in group therapy. Our house was filled with the strange friends she had collected amongst her fellow patients. Some of them were nice (“just sad” as my mother described them) and others were prone to frightening angry mood swings. I spent the nights fetching beers for adults and washing the mountains of dirty dishes from yet another barbecue. I was lonely. I was bored. I seemed to have a permanent headache. We lived far away from my few friends and of course no one was interested in driving me anywhere. I found myself longing for the predictable daily torture offered by my long-held status as The School Weirdo. I missed the escape offered by homework and my endless list of extracurricular activities.
A relative of my mom’s new boyfriend offered me a job babysitting her two small children. I accepted, not just because I really wanted the $4 per hour, but also because they lived in the nearby town, which might expose me to other people my age. Like boys. Not that any of the boys were all that interested in me anyway.
Well, that’s not exactly true. I had begun high school virtually invisible to any member of the opposite sex (unless they were interested in geometry tutoring). I was 4’8″ and puberty seemed far away. At an Open House event in September, my mom noticed how much smaller (and undeveloped) I was in comparison to my peers. In a panic she whisked me off to a doctor to find out Just What Exactly Is Wrong With Her. After a really awkward examination, the doctor officially deemed me a Late Bloomer. This explanation pleased no one, especially me. While I had no interest in growing breasts, it would have been nice to be able to wear grown up clothes. There had been many desperate episodes in the fitting rooms at Express. Tears were shed because even the size 0 pants were about six inches too long for me. A concerned salesperson had suggested that I try Gap Kids. Furthermore, I had spent the past three years changing into my gym uniform inside a locker, lest anyone found themselves mortified by disgusting childlike body. I could feel the judgement of all of the mean girls at school (and I can assure you, MOST teenage girls qualify as “mean”).
I was trying every trick imaginable to force my body to grow up. I drank ridiculous amounts of milk. I read every teenage magazine I could get into my grubby baby hands, hoping that the wisdom gleaned from their glossy pages would stimulate the production of hormones in my body. I turned my brass bed into a torture rack of sorts, tying my hands and feet to the frame and forcing my brother to jump AS HARD AS POSSIBLE onto me. Surely that force my bones to grow. Alas, I just walked around with sore arms and legs.
And then it happened. Over Christmas break I grew six inches. None of the child-size 12 clothing that I had unwrapped just days earlier fit me on New Year’s Day. My mother was not pleased. Two months later, I suddenly had boobs. Like, I went to bed flat as a board and the next day I was walking down the hallway wearing a bodysuit as a shirt when I noticed classic mean girl Trisha giving me a dirty look. I followed her eyes to my chest and gasped at what I saw. When I finally got my period, I waited three months to tell my mom. I just had a bad feeling about it. When I finally told her after dinner (and only because I needed money for tampons), she slumped on to the table. “This is where all the trouble begins.” So much for the ice cream and Clinique shopping sprees that all of my other friends had received as a welcome into womanhood.
And now boys noticed me. At the skating rink. In the food court at the Galleria mall. At yearbook meetings and in homeroom. Of course, maybe they just wanted help with their geometry homework, too. I decided to pretend that was true, because I could already feel the troublesome appeal of their sparse mustaches and excessive cologne use. Certainly fraternizing with them wasn’t going to get me into a good college. But in the midst of a moody summer malaise, I found myself longing for just a taste of the trouble that boys could bring.
The best part of my summer babysitting job was the schedule. I worked in the mornings, until after lunch. Since typically no one was available to drive me the ten miles back to my house, I spent the afternoons in the park, reading library books and writing bad poetry until one of my mom’s friends retrieved me in the early evening. Still, the summer was boring. Until I met A. in mid-July.
The truth was, I had known who A. was since the first week of freshman year. His on-again/off-again girlfriend had the locker next to mine. He was always blocking my path to my Biology textbook. I’m sure I was invisible to him. Meanwhile, I was certain that he was the coolest boy I had ever encountered (so far). My heart had practically burst from reading his poetry submissions to the literary magazine (I was on the editorial board, clinching my nerd status). I had seen his black and white photography clipped outside the art room.
But that day at the park, when he complimented my hat–“It reminds me of something Bob Dylan wore in the sixties”–I had to pretend that I was meeting him for the first time. “My name is Amanda and I’m considering getting a serious drug problem after college.” I waved a copy of Naked Lunch during this declaration.
Soon we were meeting every day at the park to read to one another. I spent the mornings half-heartedly cleaning up Cheerios and changing diapers while I counted down the minutes until I could escape to the park. He gave me my first cigarette. He loaned me tapes and books. Soon we were having long late night phone calls. He was going to be a senior. He wanted to go to NYU. He loved Bob Dylan, Leadbelly, and R.E.M. He was going to teach me chess. Had I ever thought about cutting my hair short? I would be stunning as a brunette. I was a tiny sponge, soaking up everything he said. I could feel myself growing with every conversation. I was gradually turning into a real force of reckoning. I was going to be immense by the time the first week of school rolled around. Only one thing could clinch the deal. Only one thing would guarantee that I would be invincible by then: I was going to have to let A. take my virginity.
I had no delusions of love. I had read enough books and seen enough movies and listened to enough of my mom’s problems to know this guy was hung up on his ex-girlfriend. I knew that I was just a dumb teenage girl with very little to offer in terms of coolness and wild sex tricks. But I also knew that every one of my classmates expected me to be the last person to lose my virginity.
I wasn’t sure what to expect. As far as I knew, none of my female friends had ever had sex. I certainly couldn’t ask my mother. And all of my favorite books were written by men, so even the racy ones like Sophie’s Choice didn’t offer much illumination of the female sexual experience. I can remember very few details of the actual event. It happened in the middle of the afternoon. R.E.M. was playing in the background. I was wearing my first–in a long line–of black bras. Everything seemed awkward and sweaty and uncomfortable. Mostly I was just disappointed.
Approximately five seconds after the act ended–before we could even discuss this ostensibly HUGE EVENT–the church bells down the street exploded in cacophony. WHAT HAD I JUST DONE? What if there was a God and I was about to burn in hell for my harlotry? Or worse, WHAT IF MY MOM FOUND ABOUT THIS? I panicked and jumped out of bed. I threw my dress over my head and ran out the front door with my shoes still in my hands.
I made my way to the pizza place near the park, hoping to covertly buy a pack of cigarettes from its decrepit vending machine. Now that I was a bad girl, I should probably just embrace it. I wondered if someone would give me some beer or whiskey or whatever else bad girls liked to drink before engaging in other destructive behaviors. A quick detour to the restroom was required to see if I looked different. I had heard that it was very obvious when someone lost their virginity. I expected to see a visage of sexy sophistication. Or at least someone who looked like trouble. But instead I was greeted my baby face and its halo of blonde hair. Further disappointment.
My next stop was the drugstore, for black eyeliner and a box of Miss Clairol. I began the school year with a sloppy black dye job and my grandfather’s tweed overcoat. My classmates whispered about What Happened To Her Over The Summer. A. and I spent the year ignoring each other. I filled countless composition books with teen angst. Somewhere along the line, freshman boys started leaving notes and mix tapes in my locker. And I didn’t have sex again until I got to NYU.
Important footnote: I still maintain that I lost my virginity to one of the coolest boys ever. Definitely the coolest guy in Central PA at that time, at least. We didn’t talk for years and years, until last year, when he had one of those High Fidelity/”What does it all mean?” moments and he sought me out. He was delighted to hear that I considered him SO COOL.
Part six coming soon: College means trying everything, right?