I was a pretty late bloomer when it came to boys. Most girls in my hometown started holding hands in third or fourth grade, kissing in fifth or sixth, dry humping—as teens are wont to do—by eighth. But, because it was a small town, most of the kids with whom you attended kindergarten ended up right alongside you as you graduated, and if you’d forged an elementary school reputation as chubby and unlikeable, it was pretty hard to shake.
I ended up getting my first kiss at 15, when I went to visit a friend in rural Maine and got to be the exciting new girl for a few weeks. I was Californian and blond enough, and everyone was impressed at how I wore sunglasses even when it was overcast. That first kiss came from a young aspiring pharmacist who was a foot shorter than me and had tricked out his car to look like KITT from Knight Rider. He was a nice guy. My second kiss was from an older boy with a devilock, so that’s one I can be proud of.
My slow development was further stymied by homeschooling, which I’d taken up in seventh grade for reasons that are neither relevant nor terribly interesting. The point is: that year, I ended up in a charter school program that had me taking classes at the local community college, which was terrifying after years of studying alone.
I was socially inept and uninterested in dating of any kind until the first day of my sociology course, when this guy walked in and obliterated all solitary impulses: he was wolfishly handsome with straight black hair cut in a perfect rock ’n roll shag. He also dressed like a sexually aggressive 11-year-old at a mall goth store in baggy jeans and bowling shirts, and of course he had a wallet chain—but teenage hormones make a person discard not just reason but taste as well.
I stared at this guy throughout that entire first class, in disbelief of his cheekbones, and my infatuation persisted even when he spoke for the first time, when our urbane German sociology professor answered someone’s stupid question about evolution, and mentioned, offhand, the lemur.
“Oh yeah!” the beautiful one interjected. “Like aye-ayes.”
“Pardon me?” said the professor.
“Oh, yes, like those aye-aye things in Madagascar. Natives kill them because they think they’re demons.”
In retrospect, this interaction revealed nothing, but at the time I sat there in class drawing hearts on my notepad as my own swelled with thoughts of He likes animals!
In this way, teenage girls have no survival skills and are unequipped for the world.
For the rest of the semester, I’d stare at him longingly through class and think of him around the clock despite knowing I’d never work up the confidence to speak to him myself. Or to anyone. I knew no one in the class and spoke to no one on campus. I’d show up, attend my classes, go home and quietly do my homework. Every day.
As the semester progressed, I noticed a few of the more sexually advanced girls (all of them 19 or 20) would talk to him after class. To this day, I always get kind of jealous of women who can sit on desks and make it look so insouciant and enticing and effortless and it’s exactly thoughts like these that make me the sort of person who cannot sit insouciantly on a fucking desk.
One such girl ended up sitting next to me in class one day. A few minutes before class began, I took off my sunglasses and slid them into their case. She caught the designer logo labeled inside and looked at me startled, as if the weird, unlikable lump of matter beside her had suddenly become sentient. Little did she know I’d gotten them from an outlet mall.
“Great glasses,” she said in that slow, contralto, drawn-out way that advanced teenage girls do so well. “I’m looking for a new pair. I lost mine over spring break.”
I was really frightened that this girl was talking to me, because she wore hoop earrings and tight pants. I looked at her with wide eyes and she must have interpreted this as awe, because she continued.
“Yeah, I was down in TJ, partying like a rock star.”
“Oh,” I said and I had absolutely no idea where that was. (Tangentially, I did not crack the code that LA and Los Angeles were the same place until high school.)
“Yeah,” she said and grinned coyly. “My nose still hurts.”
“Did you fall on it?”
She paused for a moment and looked at me, unsure. Then she laughed. “You’re funny. What’s your name?”
Her name was Tiffany. Before long, she started sitting next to me in class and asking me questions about homework. Soon after, some of her other attractive friends started to sit in little satellite formations around us. They were all cooler and older and sexually experienced and carried themselves as such. I was waiting for them to figure out I was 16 and a virgin and slept with the lights on. Or that I maintained a scrapbook filled with pictures of my favorite action figures. Or that I drew portraits of myself eating spaghetti with Dostoevsky, one noodle strung between our lips like in Lady and the Tramp. Or that I was wearing Batman underwear from the little boys’ section of JC Penney. Or that I’d spent my last two months’ worth of Saturday nights making a suit of chain mail.
Another day after class, Tiffany came up to me and asked what I was doing later that night. I told her I didn’t have any plans and she said some of her friends from class were organizing a study session at her place. The midterm was about two weeks off and our professor’s tests were notoriously hard, so I agreed.
She motioned to the tall, beautiful teenage boy. “We’re going to study with him.”
I tried not to show the thrill in my spine and shrugged. “Cool,” I said. Just like in the movies!
“It’ll be really fun,” Tiffany continued, “four girls and one guy,” and it was here she offered an exaggerated, cartoonish wink. She gave me directions to her place and told me to show up around eight, which I thought was pretty late to start studying, but I figured she was so popular she must have lots of social engagements to attend after school or had to buy more hoop earrings and cutoffs.
I went home and ritualistically showered, slathered myself in the nicest moisturizers I owned and meticulously obscured my face in cosmetics. I made a bunch of flash cards from the text we’d been studying because I figured men were impressed by fastidiousness. Then I sat back and stared at the ceiling and wondered what it would be like to finally talk to him. I told my parents where I was off to and left half an hour before eight because I am chronically early to everything. I figured that punctuality, in addition to prim organization, would make me irresistible.
I was the first one at Tiffany’s apartment, which was the kind of space you fantasize about when you’re a teenager living with your parents: a windowless basement in someone else’s house with low ceilings and no stove. She let me in and asked if I’d like some Turkish coffee, which I found supremely exotic.
I cataloged every object in her apartment, awed at her independent adulthood, one in which you cooked things on a hot plate and had a print of Starry Night taped to your wall. All other decorative art in Tiffany’s place came in the form of—I’m serious—framed vanity shots of herself. One whole wall was just a bunch of black-and-white headshots, arty portraits, candid photos of her smiling with her eyes closed or being held up in a bikini on the beach by a row of ripped, interchangeable dudes. There was even a painting of her with a sheet slipping down to reveal her breasts. She came over to me looking at all the photos and handed me an espresso cup.
“I used to model,” she said.
I was so out of my league.
“Why’d you stop?”
“They kept telling me my legs were too long.”
I nodded with intense admiration.
“They want girls to look perfect but not, you know, like too perfect,” she said and shrugged with all the wisdom and experience one could have in life.
Even with an age difference of just three years, she seemed infinitely older than me. I wanted her to teach me to be like her. I wanted to sleep on a mattress on the floor in a windowless basement and demonstrate my cursory knowledge of art history and decorate with glamour shots of myself and steal perfume from the mall. I wanted to have to walk through someone else’s living room to take a shower. And then.
“So,” she said, looking contemplatively at one of the photos of herself as I wondered at the vastness of her thoughts, “let me take your bag.”
I handed her my backpack, weighed down with textbooks and flash cards and binders and even a stapler, because you never know.
She looked confused. “Did you bring toys?”
I looked at her and recalled that our entire interaction since the beginning had been a delicate series of facial expressions indicating I knew what she was talking about when I absolutely did not. I considered for a moment and concluded there was no way to fake this one. “Pardon?”READ MORE