Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1
I USED TO HIDE IN my room and imagine David Hasselhoff and I would one day get married, probably after a fast chase and definitely after we solved some crime with KITT, his talking car. Who knew that KITT was played by Bill Daniels and that he would one day be my teacher? David would wear his leather Knight Rider jacket when we wed, with his curly chest hair exposed, and I would wear a gown with ribbons and hoopskirt, and my dogs would be my flower girls. I thought he might smell like the baking vanilla or maybe gasoline straight from the pump. KITT would marry us, and we would drive off to a place where we could make babies. But the fantasy always abruptly ended there. I knew that in order for any of that to happen, I would have to grow up and leave my parents. And that would disappoint everyone.
I was acutely aware that if I could remain around the age of seven for the rest of my life, I would make my family proud. Seven, I thought, would be an age where when you danced around the living room in a Cinderella dress, they’d applaud you, but the glass slippers wouldn’t yet pose any real threat. It’s an odd thing to realize no one wants you to grow up when you’re actively doing that.
I was a sheltered only child, raised in Long Beach, a suburb of Los Angeles that people nicknamed Iowa by the Sea because of the simple small-town vibe and also because in the postwar years, it was said that “you couldn’t swing a cat in this town without leaving a patch of fur on a Hawkeye.” We weren’t Iowans, though. My people came from Texas and Saskatchewan, somewhat respectively.
I walked home from school with the same kids in the first grade as I did in the eighth, and I could smell what was cooking for dinner the second my mother greeted me at the door. In the afternoons, my mother and I would watch soap operas, and then I’d play Star Wars with my dogs and cats in a big yard with a little frog pond that was shaded with avocado trees. Our springer spaniel was always Chewie, and I was always Princess Leia. At dusk, I’d sit at the front window and wait for my father’s car to turn into the driveway. Those headlights and that turn and my dad’s footsteps walking up our porch were predictable. Every girl should take for granted that her dad will always come home.
I spent a lot of time alone. I didn’t have any siblings or first cousins or much family at all around, but I was loved—so much so that I felt guilty whenever I played away from home too long. Family consisted of my mom and dad and my grandmother on my father’s side, whose love of gardening and her obsession with the Rapture always had her at odds with the natural elements. “They say Jesus is coming this year,” she’d say. “I wonder if my grapefruits will have come in.” So much casual planning for the end of the world made me feel at home in a controlled state of chaos.
“Don’t give it up to any man who won’t commit to paying your bills,” my grandmother once said after giving me the talk about the cows and the mooching pervert who drank all that free milk from the fast titties. She thought this was encouragement for me to uphold my virtue; it turns out it was a solid business model for OnlyFans.
My grandmother was always worried about everything, but mostly about God punishing her for doing something wrong. And when she was worried, she cleaned. She was in constant zigzag motion trying to avoid a lightning strike. It all stemmed from her father who took her out of school in the eighth grade. She said he didn’t like the teacher, and she said it like that was a valid reason. “He was a man of God’s word,” she would say as she washed each dish by hand in her sink. “And he brought us up right to obey.” And she never had a good night’s sleep because of it.
Jesus watched over me through my childhood—not from some place of peace on a cloud but from a miniature gold-plated frame that my grandmother one day propped up on my dresser. Like, poof, all of a sudden there was a blond, blue-eyed Jesus right next to my David Hasselhoff lunch box and they were at odds. She said that this picture would bring me comfort. In fact, much like her father did for her, it kept me up at night.
“Talk to him,” my grandmother said, pointing to the frame. “Just tell him whatever you did bad today, and you’ll be forgiven.” I looked away fast from David Hasselhoff. “Unless it’s drugs or premarital sex,” she said. “Then you’ll have to be burned at the stake by the Beast because you’ll never get up in the Rapture.”
“Bad” felt like such a broad-ranging topic. Did she mean bad because I ate too many cookies or bad because I could feel my breasts coming in and I noticed a boy at school looking at my shirt? Bad got more complicated as I grew up.
I put an elastic bandage around my breasts at various points in my upbringing (I had gotten the bandage for an ankle sprain), depending on how guilty I felt for growing and how much I thought Jesus’s eyes were following me from inside the frame. I thought that maybe I could stop myself from having to develop boobs—or at least they wouldn’t poke out of my shirt and have that boy looking at me anymore. I was already so tall for my age that I thought if I squished myself down with something heavy on my head every night—like a book or a water jug or anything else I could find that felt satisfactorily oppressive but wouldn’t actually crack my bones—then my spine would get the hint that it had already grown enough. Maybe word would travel down to my breasts and also my vagina, which was now tingling with prepubescence. But every time I measured myself on the inside of my closet door, I found that I was losing my battle at remaining a child. And there was that tingling.
My family believed I had a weak constitution—that I was constantly under the threat of sickness and needed to be protected. They never tried to get me diagnosed with strange diseases for attention or put me in a wheelchair like Munchausen by proxy victims, but there was a constant undertone that I couldn’t handle some things—most things—simply because I nearly died at birth.
My mother, who had suffered miscarriage after miscarriage, was told I wouldn’t make it. That she would keep bleeding and all of me would eventually flush right out, just like all the others had. She looked for me in the toilet every morning. She was on bed rest for weeks, the doctors amazed that I still had a heartbeat. “You and me, we stuck it out and you came out so beautiful,” she said. When my mother was cut open as she lay on a metal slab and I was presented to the world, I was over eight pounds and screamed the moment I breathed air. But my screams or my breath were never proof enough of my strength to survive.
And that’s really where it comes from—the feeling that I should never grow up. I felt if I did, then I’d grow away from the story of my weakness and that special connection with my mom.
I believed in this fable that I was weak for some time. Though I was never unusually sick as a child and I had a strong throwing arm, I still believed that I was less able than other kids because of some trauma I suffered in the womb. Finally, when I was grown-up, it dawned on me that I hadn’t escaped death by a lottery ticket or a Hail Mary pass. I’d survived because I was determined enough to hold on.
When I was about six, I came to the shocking realization that Barbie doesn’t have a vagina. I had run straight from my bath to play with my dollhouse, towel falling off me, when I looked down and saw that I had a slit and Barbie did not.
“Grandma,” I said, running to her in horror. She was baking something in the kitchen, and I caused her to jump and burn her pinky. “Why doesn’t she have any girl parts?” I asked. I was terrified that Barbie couldn’t pee. When she saw me pointing to her flat, plastic crotch, she stopped what she was doing, kneeled down squarely in front of me, and said, “You don’t need those parts until you’re married.” When she saw that I was standing there naked, she said, “And put your towel back on, so nobody sees yours right now.”
I went back to my room, dropped my towel, and sat in a hunch with my belly rolls looking up at me, and I stared down at my vagina. I wasn’t supposed to have it until I was married, but there it was, like a sickness or something to hide. I wondered if I should sew it, like the doctor did when I cut my chin open after I fell off my gymnastic rings in the yard. Then I thought about how much I didn’t like needles or even sewing at all. Maybe I could just hide it my whole life, get married, and when my husband discovered it, he’d think it just magically appeared because we were so in love. Then I thought how I never wanted a boy to see my vagina at all.
“HAVE YOU EVER FELT good funny down there?” my friend Alison asked me as we swam in the aboveground pool my parents had just put up in our yard. “You mean in the deep end?” I asked, pointing to the bottom of the pool. There wasn’t any deep end; it was all just three feet, but perhaps I was being metaphorical. “No, I mean in your panties,” Alison said, then dipped her hair back into the water.
In my panties? I was nearly twelve and didn’t know anything about my vagina except that I peed from it and one day soon I’d bleed from it too.
“I don’t really have any fancy panties,” I said, thinking she meant those satin ones from Victoria’s Secret I’d seen in the catalogs. They looked smooth and decadent and like they did something I didn’t know about yet. They looked like the kind of panties the girls on As the World Turns wore.
“No,” she said, her laugh bubbling the water as she waded. “I mean when you touch it. My mom says it’s completely natural as long as you do it for yourself and don’t show anyone.”
She proceeded to explain how she did it, which involved wide, circular hip movements and some Nivea pump lotion. I just watched as the water whirlpooled around her as she demonstrated motions that looked less erotic and more like something that would earn fish at Sea World. “Next week,” she said, “I may try inserting a tampon.”
Alison’s mom married her third husband when we were in the first grade, and quickly thereafter, they moved up north. After that, we’d mostly see each other on holidays and in the summers when she’d come back down to visit her dad, who it seemed to me was out of work most of the time because he was always home and lived with his own mother. She was wilder than my other friends, who were mostly considered good church kids who lived with both parents under a thirty-year-mortgaged roof. I liked that she was daring. I didn’t have to be such a good girl with her, because no matter what I did, she was always worse than me.
We didn’t do anything more than talk about sex or masturbation until we were thirteen and had already been inserting tampons for some months. We were in my grandmother’s guest room when something happened. She was sleeping over, and we wanted to feel what a real French kiss was like. We had bought some good panties at the mall, and we finally discovered what they did. They were scratchy, they rode up your butt, and we spent so much money on them we couldn’t go to a movie. But I liked the way she kissed me and how tingly I felt when her body was pressed to mine.
I liked the fact that I could be sexual with her and exploratory, and no one suspected us. We could be locked away in my room and nobody would be the wiser as to what we were up to. Being gay or bisexual or having any sort of attraction to the same sex wasn’t something my family ever thought or talked about. No one was homophobic; it just never occurred to them—like snow couldn’t happen in Los Angeles but it’s lovely in Vermont. Although I knew I wasn’t gay—primarily because of David Hasselhoff—and I didn’t even know what bisexual really was, I knew that I liked girls, and I used the fact that my parents thought it was completely innocent for me to be in bed with them at night as a loophole. I always hid the Jesus photo when Alison came over. I didn’t want him spying on us, though I still apologized to him later.
I didn’t have a real orgasm until I was fourteen and had a mouth full of metal and neon rubber bands. It was entirely by accident on my Strawberry Shortcake canopy bed.
“France is like nine hours ahead,” my nerdy friend, Daniel, said as we talked on the phone. I lay back on my mattress, wondering why I hadn’t replaced the canopy top like I had my bedsheets. I had grown-up flowers on my duvet and Strawberry Shortcake with a watering can pouring down on me—an image that both glued me to my childhood and simultaneously dared me to grow.
“What’s your point?” I asked him.
“Well,” he said, “if we got on a plane now, we’d be in France in like no time. We could have lunch at the Eiffel Tower and then fly back and be home by dinner. Your parents couldn’t get you in trouble because they wouldn’t know you’ve been gone, and we’d have an international romance.”
I rolled my eyes and threw a sock up at Strawberry Shortcake.
I had met Daniel in the second grade, when his grandmother and my mother chaperoned our class for a day of computer learning at the community college. The other kids hated him because he was a mouthy nerd, and he carried a box of McDonaldland cookies he’d throw randomly at their heads, yelling, “Grimace,” if he hit someone. His grandmother had no control over him, and she hadn’t since he was left with her four years earlier. But I found him interesting. He was who he was and didn’t care that he didn’t fit in with a bunch of kids who stood in lines and stayed quiet because they were told to. I’d later discover that he knew things other kids didn’t too, like how to cheat on The Oregon Trail and who Michael Dukakis was. We were the only two who cared about the presidential election in the sixth grade.
“What if I was your boyfriend?” he asked me once and then attempted to blow bubbles of strawberry Quik from his nose at the lunch table. It didn’t work; he kept choking and half suffocating himself before it sprayed out all over creation.
“I think you just gave my answer,” I said, and I rolled my eyes.
“What! You don’t think I’m a catch? I’m going to be a millionaire. Bill Gates was like me, but I’m not a dick and I actually know things,” he said. I snorted.
“I don’t care about Bill Gates. I care about romance,” I said.
My best friend, Sue, a tiny but fierce girl who would eventually become a black belt in karate, beat him up the last day of elementary school because he tried to kiss me. We were out past the dodgeball walls, under the eucalyptus trees whose leaves we had picked just the year prior to feed to silkworms, when he turned and gave me that look—the one that can either be love or something you ate.
“There hasn’t been an afternoon as romantic as this,” he stuttered.
“Yeah, there probably has,” I said.
I knew it was coming when he cocked his head and his lips parted like he was about to suck a good flavor of Capri Sun out of that little straw. But I didn’t know what to do.
I could run, but I found myself not going anywhere. My body was betraying me.
I wasn’t supposed to want this, I was sure of that. This wasn’t David Hasselhoff or some Love in the Afternoon soap opera hunk. This was just some kid I knew. I was supposed to wait for some dazzling moment where the birds were singing, and violin music was playing, and a man in a tuxedo would give me my happily ever after. But Daniel was a boy, and I was a girl who didn’t quite feel like a girl anymore. And I wanted to feel like a real woman, if only for a few stolen moments on the grass.
But what would happen if everyone found out? What would they say if they knew what I had desired and, worse, saw that I had enjoyed it? They would talk about me, and then I’d be a girl who was talked about, and I would surely never make it up in the Rapture then.
A rush of fear came over me, and I let out some version of a scream as I physically pushed Daniel away. That’s when my friend ran in and took him out hard and fast by the knees.
His grandmother thought he couldn’t handle such a hostile environment for middle school, so she found a smaller arrangement. I didn’t see him again until ninth grade. Somehow he forgave me for that assault on the schoolyard, and we talked in secret on the phone every night.
“I got some Penthouse letters,” Daniel said, and I adjusted my pink princess phone receiver to my ear. I didn’t know what that meant except that Penthouse magazine was the one that was too dirty for my dad’s underwear drawer. “They’re kinda weird,” he said and then laughed as he proceeded to read the raunchiest, nastiest letter, with the most descriptive sexual vocabulary I had ever heard. Fucking and sucking and so much coming. The words were going over his visually aroused teenage male brain, but they were absolutely penetrating mine. My vagina felt warm and started to pulsate. And there was this soppy wet mess in my shorts. My hand was drawn down below, as I needed to rub this throbbing. I finally knew what Alison meant about that good funny feeling. And it all happened in regular cotton underwear.
“It kinda sucks just to read about things,” he said.
Panting, I laid back on my pillow and agreed.
The first boy who kissed me gave me the chicken pox. It wasn’t a real kiss, though. We were the leads in a production of Bye Bye Birdie at the local dance company that they called Bye-Bye Long Beach, but it felt so real to me that I threw up my lunch in the bathroom before it happened. I was twelve and Brian was thirteen, and the amount of hair gel he used made me think he might have expectations. Diane, our director, coached us right before showtime. “Really give it your all out there,” she told us. We did, and the little red itchy bumps arrived over the weekend—doubling down on the belief my grandmother had instilled in me that any form of sexual interaction, recreational or professional, brings disease.
I felt all-around cheated in the first kiss department. The one that I kind-of-maybe-wanted but pushed away, and the one I had that was okay because it wasn’t real left me susceptible to shingles for the rest of my life.
In my grandmother’s mind, sex was a trap by the devil, and any pleasure experienced was just the devil’s way of stealing a woman’s body and all her dreams. “Once you do it, you’re stuck, and then all you’ll ever have is babies,” she’d say, and this was possibly the most honest she’d ever be about the realities of her youth. She would never admit it, but if you do the math, she was probably pregnant on her wedding day.
My mother, who had been promiscuous in her youth, wasn’t fire and brimstone like my grandmother. She was religious, but she didn’t fear God for me as much as she feared her own mistakes would be repeated. She left her Texas Bible college barefoot and with only the clothes on her back to escape an abusive father and to marry a movie star’s kid. She met Ricardo Montalbán’s son when he was in the military stationed near where she lived. They danced at a party, and soon she was living at the Montalbán home in Beverly Hills. “One day I was in Texas, and the next I was having dinner across the table from Loretta Young,” she said with the wistfulness of rose-colored memory. She lost a baby, and the marriage didn’t last. And there were a lot of wild years in an effort to distract her from her losses, and from Texas, and from all the scars her father had left. It was as if she was always running, even well after she ran away. “Boys need it more than girls do,” she said. “You’d be surprised at what they can convince you to do when hormones are raging.”
I know that some boys kept her from realizing who she was, from pursuing her own dreams. Then she became a wife and a mother.
Between both of them, my grandma and my mother, sex became a game of outrunning the enemy—namely, boys. I knew what to look for and how to escape. But what left me awake and guilty and praying to a little gold-rimmed photo of Jesus every night were the hormones that were raging inside me.
How could I outrun myself?
I got my period the summer I was twelve, quite by surprise and in the middle of the night. I’m not sure why I was surprised. I was an appropriate age, and Alison and I constantly talked about it. She said she already had it, but she never produced any evidence, except for one wrapped tampon at the bottom of her clear-pink jelly purse. I guess the end of childhood just surprised me. I thought I’d have one more Christmas or Halloween. I sat there shaking on the toilet, lit only by an ocean breeze–scented seashell plugged into the wall, staring at the spots of blood on the toilet paper.
“This is a very grown-up thing for you,” my mother said later, as she pulled out her box of maxi pads and proceeded to show me how to stick them onto my underwear. I thought that when I became a woman, I’d get tampons, not diapers. At least that’s what Alison had said.
To her credit, my mom didn’t act weird or anything, and she gave me all the information I needed for hygiene and personal care.
“You’ve got a lot of responsibility now,” she said as she kissed my head and tucked me in.
The whole thing left me with the feeling that being a woman would be an injury I’d always have to nurse.
I called Alison the next morning and told her.
“What did your mom say?” she asked. I relayed what happened, and she laughed and said, “Well, at least it’s not like my mom. She sent a welcome card to my new visitor and told her to make sure she comes back every single month.”
When I was sixteen years old, I made the decision to lose my virginity in the fastest and least messy way possible when I saw my friend’s oldest sister crying after she returned from an all-inclusive honeymoon in Acapulco. Holly Hill had taken a purity vow in high school, and she stuck to it all through city college until she met her husband at the budget hair salon where she took appointments. She and her father had made a big deal of it when they attended one of those purity dances at the church—the ones where the daughters dress in white and the fathers give them rings to promise they won’t bone anyone until the father makes the decision that it’s time for the daughter to be boned for the rest of her life by an upstanding church boy. Well, she had now boned in Acapulco, and she was crying.
“I have no purpose now that I’ve done it,” she said, sniffling at the family breakfast nook. She was just back from her honeymoon, and this is what she was talking about? “They don’t tell you you’re nothing special once what you’ve been saving is spent.” She wailed into the tissue. “And they don’t tell you it bleeds!”
I had gone to that wedding. It was the kind of wedding I wanted, with pink flowers and Disney ice sculptures, and where the bride wears a dress with tiers like cake layers. They even brought her there in a carriage that sort of looked like Cinderella’s, if Cinderella rode in more of an SUV-type pumpkin arrangement. Everyone thought she was an angel. The ideal daughter. My dad wasn’t weird enough to do a purity dance, but wouldn’t he still want to see his daughter honest in white when she danced with him?
Or at least give off the appearance of honesty.
The truth is, I couldn’t think of any worse way to lose your virginity than on your wedding night. I could never admit this to anyone—not my mother, not the church girls, and definitely not my grandmother, although she’d probably just tell me to become a nun as long as I was still a Baptist. Why would I want to worry about bleeding all over my new husband? Or wonder the whole way through the ceremony if my vagina might split open later? And how embarrassing to think that everyone at my reception would know the precise date and time that it all happened.
I figured if they only thought they did, that would be good enough. If I could get it out of the way and get a little practice, maybe I wouldn’t embarrass myself—and I might even impress my new husband because he’d think I was a natural. Gymnasts don’t earn tens their first try, but none of us, when watching them win gold, need to see the first time they missed the bars.
I selected Daniel as the one who would help out with this task.
“Do you like that?” Daniel breathed heavily into my ear, his hand up my skirt and rubbing what he thought was my clit as we lay back on his bed. “Umm… I think it’s up higher,” I said. I knew for sure it was, but I didn’t want to tell him it was because Alison and I played a game of press the elevator button.
We had decided that Friday would be the night. Not because we planned to make this some huge, romantic weekend thing, but because his grandmother was picking up his brother from work at the JCPenney and taking him to see Coneheads.
We had the house to ourselves.
“If I let you do it one time, really fast, do you promise not to say anything to anyone ever?” I had asked him on the phone a few nights prior. The line was silent for a moment, and then he said, “How fast?” I rolled my eyes and flipped onto my stomach on my bed. “Like regular speed but before I change my mind.”
He immediately pulled up the calendar on his Apple 2GS and we settled on the date.
“Can I at least tell my brother I’m not a virgin after?” he asked.
“No!” I said. Then I thought about how his brother called him “the pink one” because he said his dick was like a baby mouse. “I don’t know. If you have to, tell him you saved up for a hooker or something.”
“I don’t think he’ll believe I picked up a hooker on my bike.”
“Listen,” I said. “Just so you know, this isn’t something all special and gushy.” I cringed as soon as I said “gushy.” “I mean, I just want to experience something for the first time, so I’ll never have to experience it for the first time again.”
“That’s weird,” he said.
“Do you want to get fucked or not?”
He shut up.
I showered twice before I left for his house that night, just to make sure I was all shaved and clean, and then I locked the door to my room and tried on every single pair of underwear in my drawer. I tried them on once, then twice, sometimes three times, and then back to pair one again, before landing on a sensible cotton blue set. I looked at myself in the mirror. I didn’t feel sexy or especially beautiful, but I was anticipating what I would look like later. And I wanted to memorize my face and my body just before my new journey into womanhood.
Daniel and I sipped the classy cocktails he made us—Midori sours to calm our nerves—with the stuff he had bought at the liquor store where they didn’t check IDs. I had bled pretty good some days earlier when we tried fingering, so tensions were high. But I was glad that I probably wouldn’t bleed tonight.
“Suck it a little,” he said, as he lay back on his bed and unzipped his pants. I had done this a few times before for him, and each time there seemed to be more hair. I wrapped a hand around it and started to lick it like Alison told me was the way to do it—like an ice cream cone you don’t want to let drip.
“Hey, part of the deal was tits,” he said to me, motioning for me to take off my shirt. I lifted it away and then nodded permission for him to take off the bra. I felt myself shaking as he watched me sitting there, tits out and bare to him. He had only squeezed them under my shirt before, and he had never stared. His eyeballs were glued to them now. “Those are some nice ones,” he said. After I determined he had enough to remember them by, I made him turn out the lights.
The smell of his Drakkar toilet water was heavy as I lay back and parted my legs. He kept stroking himself and rubbing that same place he thought was my clit.
“What’s taking so long?” I asked.
“I’m doing foreplay,” he said. Then after fumbling with a condom and a few attempts to find my hole in the dark, he pushed himself partially and then all the way inside me. I gasped and then threw a hand over my mouth and started to giggle. I had feared it would hurt and had been warned by my teenage girl magazines that not all of it would fit at first, but there I was with a whole dick inside me.
“Stop fucking laughing,” he said, and he stopped moving.
“I’m sorry,” I said, gathering myself, but some snorts escaped even as I bit my lip to stop them. He was now losing concentration and confidence. I knew I had to instill within him some masculinity again.
“It was just shocking for a second,” I told him.
That seemed to please him because, like all men, he thought it was because his dick was so big it had overwhelmed me.
I adjusted myself on his pillow and made sure I tossed out my hair. Even in the almost dark, even in secret, I wanted to be beautiful the first time a boy made love to me. He began to move back and forth, once slowly, then twice. I marveled at the fact I was actually being fucked and how great my hair looked as it was happening. Just before a third thrust, there was pounding at the door.
“Get out here, you shithead!” his brother yelled. “Coneheads was sold out. We got pizza.”
Daniel was so startled, he pulled out and then immediately came into the condom. I threw my head back onto the pillow, deflated. I thought the boy was supposed to be better at these things, and I didn’t know a girl could be so sexually frustrated about it.
Maybe that’s the true reason that Holly Hill was crying. She was promised hallelujahs and rainbows, and it was really because the dick just wasn’t any good and now she was married to it.
“They knew what we were up to,” Daniel said, pacing his room, as I just lay there with my nice hair and no follow-through.
“Why do you think that?” I asked.
“Because where the fuck does Coneheads sell out?”
When I apologized to my picture of Jesus that night, I told him how sorry I was for giving in to my lust, but then I paused and said to Jesus, “But at least no one knows about it but us.”
When I looked in the mirror, I was surprised that I didn’t look any different. Same nose, same eyes, same lanky, unsure frame. I’d expected a dick to transform me, but I was still just me. It felt somewhat disappointing.
I reached a deal with Jesus that night: he would keep my sin a secret from everyone, and I’d keep our PR game strong.