Please, Could You Be Tender?

We first spoke on a street in New York City under neon-lit marquees. We ate dinner across the table from each other, and later, breakfast as our thighs touched. “You’re only fourteen?” you said in surprise, as if we hadn’t sat in the same windowless room three times a week for the past eight months. “You’re so mature for your age.” I wore this comment as a badge of honor, proud that the world didn’t see me as the child I was—both a blessing and a curse. We shared gelato in Little Italy, and you held my hand as we walked back to our hotel. I thought, maybe this is what love is.

Fingers wandered under airplane blankets on the long flight home, and my pulse raced as I forced myself silent. Nobody stopped us. Why would they? I’m a big girl now. We kissed in the back of your car, parked on quiet streets. Hickeys marked my neck in the shape of a hand crushing my windpipe. I couldn’t breathe. That’s what they say in the movies, though. Love takes your breath away, right?

The first and only time you undressed me, I bled. My body had never experienced someone else. Not like this, at least. I pretend the other times didn’t happen. In your car, on the way back to school, I joked, “Wasn’t that illegal?” You were eighteen, four years my senior. You got quiet. You were quiet for the next few weeks. 

I cried to my best friend when your eyes glanced over me without second thought; we hadn’t spoken in days. “Didn’t you know? She just wanted to get in your pants.” That weekend, you picked me up to apologize and I ran from my mother before she could stop me from getting in your car. I got drunk on my first taste of vodka and stumbled around under blinding fluorescent lights, surrounded by strangers, my hand in yours. I looked at my reflection in the harsh lighting of the bathroom mirror, and she stared blankly back at me. I wrote a poem about how you made me feel like I was drowning, ice cold water filling my lungs. I broke up with you the next week. Then, I turned fifteen.

I was sixteen when we met, teeth gnashing at blood and guts and gore. I spilled my water and told you that I wanted to find a piece of my past at Burning Man; my cheeks flushed a bright red. In another universe, I’d just returned from the desert. You dropped me off with a wink and a hollow promise that I tucked into a drawer with all the rest.

We made the three-hour trip to your cabin in the woods while my mother drove my brother to a college two states away. You took my virginity in your dead grandmother’s bedroom. You had a thing for virgins. 

My best friend kissed your best friend. They lasted four years. We lasted two months, four if you count the time it took for me to end up in the hospital. “Were you trying to die?” my best friend asked me over the phone from our guidance counselor’s office. “Well, I wasn’t trying to live.”

You made me yours with a ring made out of gold wire, spiraled in at each end. We kissed in the dark before the curtains raised, Romeo to my Juliet—except, you were Lord Capulet, and I was a techie dressed in black. We slow-danced as the yelloworangered of the sunset seeped through the curtains and onto your bedroom walls. I started to cry as my heart spilled over, filling my chest and stomach and trickling down my bones. “I’m so scared,” I whispered. You pulled me closer in a tight embrace. “I promise I won’t hurt you.”

Five months later, we found ourselves sitting at opposite ends of my bed, our arms crossed tight. My third ultimatum hung in the air: treat me better or I’ll leave. Whatever happened to three strikes and you’re out? There was a brief moment of clarity. Maybe it was just a brain freeze, a masochistic sacrifice for the sticky sweet glue that held our relationship together in its fragile last weeks, but I wanted to believe in something real. I was tired of being a martyr for myself. I wanted you to fight for me.

Another year passed, and I was the girl in every song about irresistible seventeen-year-olds (at least, I thought I was). There was the twenty-something barista, then the other twenty-something barista. You were moving to Los Angeles for your band, or something else painfully cliché. I was into that, though; I was seventeen.

You invited me to the house you shared with your father. Your hand traced my thigh as we watched the Zodiac Killer go free, silently escaping his crimes. You told me that you wished I was older, that you would stay if I was staying. You pulled my hair and wrapped your hands around my throat until I gasped for air. I stopped thinking and gave in to the familiar sensation of my lungs screaming for oxygen. I didn’t leave until you were finished with me.

I moved across the country for a breath of fresh air. There’s no running from the past when it’s settled into your bones, into every inch of skin, into every kiss and sigh. I’m swimming in the ocean; I hardly know how to tread water, but I manage to stay afloat as long as I keep moving. I’ve been pummeled by waves enough times to know how to resurface.

Published in Edition 4 of The Dilettante.

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