A Bedtime Story From Your Future
Sometimes you’re the pursued, screaming around the moonlit hills in a silver sled; more often, you’re the pursuer, bent and barefoot in the snow; a zigzag of tracks behind, a frostbitten slog ahead. If you could just find him, the story goes.
Dropping by his apartment on a Wednesday morning, an hour after his graveyard shift had ended, you fluffed your hair and cinched your belt and walked passed the ferns and the pool and the plastic chairs, and then stopped—because rising like mist from a grave, was an enormous, white For Rent sign in his window. A lump of ice hardened behind your thorax. The guy was restless in his hometown, but he wouldn’t just vanish, would he? Hadn’t he only recently traced your spine with a drowsy finger while you lay drenched and spent and pulsing pink on top of him? You checked his mailbox (name peeled off) and returned to the window, a funhouse mirror in which your eyes became minus signs and your mouth, a cavernous maw.
Only days later, you try to convince yourself that you are finally—for the minutes trudge by—over him. After all, you are sixteen and he is twenty and there have been no promises, questions, or complaints. The year is 1976, and words such as “boyfriend” and “date” are too much like the bow tie your school counselor wears, too much like words your parents spoke during The Crusades before the invention of pre-marital sex.
Meanwhile, in the darkroom of your father’s office where you work after school, you have just pulled some films from the developer tank when two hairy-adult hands clasp your teenage breasts from behind. You hold the films in the air. The small room has space for only two, and the coffee-scented beard sighing into the back of your neck belongs, inconceivably, to your father’s friend and business partner. The tanks make their high-pitched swizzle. The bleached countertops glow in the dark. On the other side of the wall your father talks on the phone, unaware that you’re being groped by his army buddy of “twenty-six years with never a harsh word between us,” the man who would adopt you if your parents were killed in a car accident. The hands lift off and you lower the films into the fixer tank. “I’m sorry,” Captain Godparent mutters on his way out, “I don’t know what came over me.” And this briefly, very briefly, feels like power because balding men with silver beards are in charge of the world and it’s invigorating to have rattled one of them, even at your own expense. Your father is fifty-five, your godfather is fifty-five, and your doctors and the school principal and the cop who cited you for speeding; they’re the authorities. Paunchy with capillaric noses, they all seem fifty-five.
Twenty years later you will be telling your young stepdaughter that the private parts of her body should not be touched by any adult but her female pediatrician, and that no adult should ask her to keep a secret from her parents. During your own youth, however, personal sovereignty is not in the vocabulary. Nor are books on empowering daughters or raising them to assess the value of looks, bodyweight, and the obligation to please. Prime-time television does not yet praise the evolutionary aspects of the teenage brain.
Rather, adults are generous in other ways — as imparters of wisdom, imposers of safety, providers of material comfort and security. Their goal is more to guide you than to understand you; more to mold your character than to help you develop your individuality; more to protect you from influential peers than from advertising. They worry far more about your own moral lapses than about those of the surrounding adults. In short, they trust each other and seek to rescue you from your hedonic self.
Tonight, when you have toppled face-first onto your orangey pink, lime-green swirl bedspread after the day’s screamer with your mother, you will remember Captain Godparent recently asking whether you had a boyfriend. You said there was someone, but in a spasm of fragility your mouth twitched. The radar-equipped office women tilted their heads, smiled knowingly, and said there would be plenty of others. “Play the field,” they advised. You sighed. Could they not see that you were so-over the guy who left?
Later, you try to figure out how Captain Godparent managed to know something about you that you did not know about yourself. Namely, that you would not scream. Or resist. Or even ruin the partly-developed films. That you would not confront him or tell your father. Ever. That you would proceed as if it did not happen. You do this the next day and the next, until even you are surprised at how smoothly you glide by him in the hall with a cordial, efficient nod. Captain Godparent, however, begins to avoid you, leaving the coffee room when you walk in. He no longer calls you pretty or says things like, “I bet you distract the boys from their studies.” Instead, he has become curt, resenting you for what happened in the darkroom, resenting you for the way you walk or smoke or wear your mascara. The grope lasted four-and-a-half seconds, but the aftermath seems infinite, because now he is looking for a way to avoid seeing your face in the office. Perhaps he will malign your work, magnifying some petty complaint into a reason for dismissal. Worse, he might confess the grope to your father and then the two of them—who, in twenty-six years, have never had a harsh word— will then have harsh words because of you. Or they could decide that, rather than have harsh words, they could simply remove you—from the place where you see your dad after school, the place where wives and ex-wives take coffee breaks and spill intimate fragments from their complicated lives, the place where you are earning twice what any other teen job would pay toward your near-future apartment. You could, of course, speak up. Except that you have done a lot of lying recently about parties and crushed car-metal and your absences from chemistry class. Suppose you finally rev up the nerve to tell someone—the affable school counselor with a bow tie, the sympathetic office women with their tilted heads—and are disbelieved or deemed a slut? Is there any reason Captain Godparent would admit the truth? What could another adult do but make the situation worse?
Meanwhile, the Captain grows increasingly moody. So, you warm up to him, joke with him like you used to, flirt with him like you used to. The incident has passed and you’re determined not to let it rattle you the way it rattled him. Besides, your trouble ticket is full. You are perpetually in trouble with your mother. You’re in trouble with your father for being in trouble with your mother. You’re in trouble with the attendance folk at school. You’re even in trouble with a pale blonde in a black turtleneck, only you don’t yet know it. You simply cannot be in trouble at work, the place where you are most visibly an adult-in-progress.
Then one morning, when you’re curling your hair at home and Captain Godparent has at last begun to thaw, you permit the th
ought that he is a person you love—the way you’d love an uncle who collects pocket watches or talks to his canary. You loved him when you were six and he didn’t laugh when you answered the phone, “Good Evening.” You love him because he wears a tweed driving cap, paints landscapes, and opposed the draft, which is, in your conservative hometown—where The Seventies will not arrive until 1988—radical. He’s the rare adult who occasionally asks what you think. One of his sons is named after your father, and you are named after Mrs. Godparent. You try to be angry with him. You try to throw away the pair of rhinestone cat pins your godparents gave you when you were nine, but they will still be in your jewelry box when your first gray hair appears. You feel the darkroom occurrence as a loss, wholly different from that of the guy who moved away, but a loss, nonetheless. And then you smell your hair burning in the curling iron and that pure, white thought about love is gone.
Amid this mess of sorrow and secrecy and things to get over, a solution appears in the form of a potential boyfriend. Newly mustached and just a year older than you, he buys you a stuffed animal, takes you on movie dates, and will fondly remember, almost forty years later, the school-sponsored sunrise he spent with you. Gobsmacked, he rings the bell at 7:29 p.m. But his is not the touch that causes vessels to dilate and muscles to contract, and his is not the voice that launches a deluge of endorphins. His is not the figment that fills your diary with inky, urgent, anguished poems.
Over lunch, when your stepdaughter is sixteen, you will tell her about the guy with whom you fell irrationally, over the top, tires-on-fire in love when you were her age. She’ll hold her fork mid-bite and say “You? Really?”
Weeks pass and his absence hangs on you like snow on a twig. You cannot find him sitting at the all-night coffee shop with his buddies or walking his dog in the hills or riding his motorcycle on the curvy canyon road where you had wrapped your arms around his taut belly and laid your cheek on his warm, salty, tank-topped back in a fathomless peace. As far as you can tell from jumping on his neighbor’s diving board and peering down over the embankment, his car is never parked in front of his parents’ house. All that seems to have remained of him within the six-mile radius of your life is his younger brother who, in twelve years, will refer to you as the woman his older brother should have married. In your high-school geometry class, however, the younger brother pinches your butt-cheek as if to say, “I know what you do with him.” The brother is unlikely to care much about your extracurricular activities, and yet, a tease or glance from him renders you as naked as you have ever been without your clothes.
Where in a teen girl’s body does shame live? Is it in her brain chemistry where dopamine reigns supreme, and rejection registers as life-threatening? Is it in her thoughts, acutely relational? Is it in the larynx, strained for volume and clamped for silence? The bust defiantly elevated and the belly habitually clenched? Or is it simply embodied in a relentless quest for the kind of warmth that can only be gleaned from bare flesh or rare burger, edibles that arouse as they soothe and slake?
Sometimes in the meditation segment of your teen yoga class, you float your back along the ceiling and contemplate the relief of being small in the universe, a snowflake on a white field, free of the consuming oscillations between resignation and resistance, attention and camouflage, a muffle and a scream. But more often, you plod along, unaware of why an hour of chemistry class lasts longer than the life of Moses or why you spew blue fireworks around your mother and become docile around fifty-five-year-old men. What you do know is that you now eat amphetamines and wear tight tops and short shorts and rainbow platform sandals; that when your father is not remarking on the width of your hips, he is shaking his head, lips pressed together, while you jiggle down the street or bend to load the dishwasher. You also know that there was one particular person who seemed to appreciate, even relish, your shape precisely the way it is.
But he, most likely, is relishing another shape now, with hands-on homework at the college level. This currently relished shape does not sit among spitwad hurlers or ask a teacher for permission to use the bathroom; she does not hide her birth control pills or lose “phone privileges.” The places you once thought exciting for sex when he was between apartments – the beach, the park, a back seat – now seem like sandboxes for a girl with a curfew. The great frustration of your day, every day, is that you are sixteen, and there is nothing you can do about it.
When you arrive at the gas station owned by a family friend who will fix your dad’s car, the man is raging on the phone with his wife. You don’t understand much about menopausal males: they might be facing disappointment about their achievements, feeling superfluous in a youth-centered culture, seeing their own age mirrored in a spouse’s wrinkles, suffering changes in virility, and becoming increasingly aware of—or unconsciously motivated by—their own mortality. No, what you know at sixteen is that the restaurant across the street from the gas station is dark with red lamps and red booths, and nobody cards you when your father’s friend orders wine for two. Going out to lunch for something other than a burger is such an adult thing to do. When he asks about your weekend, you groan that you were stuck at a party that was “so high-school,” unaware that you never look younger than when you try to look older. After a dainty salad, you decline dessert and light a cigarette. This time when asked whether you “have yourself a fellah,” you toss off the line you’ve heard so often by now, “playing the field.”
When the bill arrives, you excuse yourself to the restroom and dart across four lanes of traffic while the man of fifty-five waits for his change. When he comes running, you roll down the car window to thank him for all, but he wants to take the repaired car—and you—for a test drive. You were not raised to say to an elder, “I’m uncomfortable with that” or even “I’ve got to get home.” You hedge. He insists. When he parks the car on a side street, your strategy is one of non-cooperation rather than explicit resistance; you have, after all, seen his temper. He gives up eventually, but the drive still ends with your jaw in the grip of his gluey fingers, amid an explicit recommendation of silence.
You are wine-woozy, almost carsick on the freeway. Home is less than an hour away, but you are not about to call your mother and reveal the ineptitude of getting lost. When you finally arrive, she sniffs your hair: cigarette smoke doused with lemon perfume. Assuming you left the gas station hours ago and went to some undisclosed location, she screeds about disobedience. You consider telling her what happened, except that this would involve an admission of drinking and driving, and, it follows, an indefinite stretch under house arrest. It would also prompt a question about your frosted lipstick and clingy top. It would not prompt a question about the logic of provocative dress as an attempt, however misguided, to become less—rather than more—submissive. Nor would
it prompt a question about how it feels to give up on yourself, to relinquish all hope of being a gutsy young female who speaks her mind; to shrink with the time-released shame of acquiescence.
Later, during a phone-gab with a friend, the two of you compete for the shriekiest “Ewww!” just like you do any time—and there are many—the topic is a teacher or boss or relative or some other libidinous graybeard from the parent generation.
Together, you rechristen your father’s friend as Ernesto Molesto. You hang up the phone feeling better, confident that you are, again, over it.
The next day at work, the office women tell you that Mr. Molesto is a client who owes your father money—giving new significance to both the favor of the car repair and the man’s teeth on your ear lobe. The women sympathize, but agree that you should not tell your father, who would only be wounded by the deed and could not undo it. This advice is issued with delicacy and respect for a seemingly unharmed teen. There are, after all, no scars or bruises; no orifice was penetrated. The incident is quickly reduced to the kind of annoyance that a female tolerates and transcends. Out of kindness, the office women have kept mum about other things as well—your makeup-caked hickey, the party you hosted when your parents were away. Their silence about Mr. Molesto is a bailout, too.
Meanwhile, one night beneath the orangey pink, lime-green swirl of your bed, you hug yourself with both arms, wishing that back when you had the chance, you had plundered your lover’s laundry basket for his sweatiest, most wrinkled t-shirt to keep under your pillow; you are perhaps more than a little in love with longing. Except that now while you’re dropping off to sleep and the leaves rustle outside your window (Is it him?) there is some relief in the false alarm. Not because the wintry ache behind your ribs has relented (It hasn’t.), and not because you’ve achieved what the next decade will call closure (You haven’t.), but because the encounters with your father’s friends have seemingly lowered your status in the animal kingdom. Both of the silverbacks had asked whether you had a boyfriend. Should you have lied, citing the constant and protective presence of a younger, stronger, overtly virile primate? (Unfortunately, you didn’t.)
A few months before your stepdaughter is old enough to drive, you will do an online search on the man, age thirty, who gave her his business card outside the shoe store. Then you will work yourself into a 4 a.m. fury, wondering whether any of your husband’s fifty-five-year-old friends would ever create an opportunity with her. In the morning, these worries will seem absurd, but they will also make you wonder whether your own mother may have stared at her nocturnal ceiling with the same question and then, by morning, dismissed it.
Eventually, you give up looking for the former lover in town, and you look for him in other guys—one with a surfboard, one with drums, one with an infinite supply of cocaine. Because whether it’s rough sex, sudden sex or red-wine-and-white-powder sex, one vasodilated body on top of another trumps pretty much any other experience. Even a fleeting euphoria involves making a choice rather than having it made for you.
At some point, you find a group of friends who are old enough to buy wine and hang out together in someone’s apartment, talking about everything and nothing. With them, you will dance in loud clubs, walk quiet streets in the wee hours, pile into a van to see the Rose Parade. Sometimes people pair off for the night; more often, not. Still, you are unaware that your liaisons, both actual and presumed, are shipwreck treasure for a friend of your former lover’s former lover, a stingray in a black turtleneck who wields a hushed, confidential voice while dispensing her masticated pearls into the ears of the vanished guy you are trying, still trying, to get over.
When your father and Captain Godparent have had more than forty years of friendship with never a harsh word between them, you will visit from five-hundred miles away. Both men will be retired and widowed by then, and when your father drives him home after the holiday dinner, strange for its absence of other females, you will ride in the back seat. That night in your old house, you will sit in your dead mother’s chair and watch a show about organisms preserved in ice, unchanged for centuries.
The upstairs toilet will still need two flushes and the window in your former bedroom will have not been opened (much less climbed through) since you lived there. By then, you will have begun a long, happy marriage. Still, on your way out of town you park in front of the apartment building where the vanished guy once lived, just to linger in the fond sadness that meanders like birdsong through your mind from time to time.
At sixteen, however, there’s much you don’t know: not long before that lump of ice crystallized in your chest, the quinquagenarian administrators at your high school had run out of strategies for a chemistry-flunking honor student with an abysmal attendance record. Nor do you know anything about mandatory reporting as it concerns the affable school counselor with a bow tie. Or that without a word to you, the administrators phoned your gentle lover—the least druggy, most together guy you knew, a college student with a full-time job—and told him to stay away from you. They could have him arrested.
“Sixteen will get you twenty,” they threatened him, pleased with themselves for having rescued you from the predations of an older man.
No, all you know then is that the man of twenty left a vacancy sign in his window and the men of fifty-five moved in.
Now, that is one lousy ending for a bedtime story. Couldn’t you, like a Hans Christian Andersen heroine, finally find the guy after a long, barefoot journey in the snow? Couldn’t your silent suffering have saved a life or birthed a swan or a spirit or a flame-proof heart?
Fortunately, there’s another ending.
When the vanished lover is fifty-five, you will accompany him to a casino hotel. The wallpaper pattern in the hallway will be an orangey pink, lime-green swirl. In the elevator, he will free you of a bulky suitcase. On other occasions, he will fly you like a kite, draw you a map, and rearrange your current bedroom to acc