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.

Death in the Small Town You Dream Of

The town where I grew up is shaped like a woman. I rolled back and forth across the valley that lies between her bust and her hips, from crest to trough, as my family could not stop moving and fidgeting between neighborhoods after my parent’s divorce. In the winter, she is wrapped up by the tight wool of home knitted scarves and finds comfort in the hearths that pump smoke out from her belly, making her look swollen and pregnant despite how hollow and lifeless she feels. In the summer she is beautiful. Her hair is long and sways at her waist as she shimmies into the gently lapping waves of the reservoir and her forehead is sun kissed. Her meadows and small mountain peaks flourish in soft green and fifteen-year-olds stumble up them in search of a prettier view. But she is never so beautiful that she is free. Only lovely, only for three months. Even in this bliss, she remembers the things and people that make her up and she bites her lips and remains unheard, as to not upset the pleasantries that parade along her surfaces. 

She is a good woman. Her streets are controlled by stiff men in blue uniforms who tell drunk high schoolers to scatter and pull over anyone exceeding six miles per hour over the speed limit of twenty-five. The men in the middle-class homes along her spine demand her complacency too. They mow their lawns religiously on Sunday mornings, drink too many beers before dinner, and yell when their wives nag them. These habits seem built into them, inherent like the familiarity of the letters of their surname. Their lazy aggression comes out easy and settles into the fine cracks of concrete that line the floor of the half-finished basements where they watch football and feel comfortably alone. She is a good woman. She stays quiet. The husbands and business men that live inside of her still don’t think it’s enough. They wish for younger days when they were not burdened by marriage or mortgage, when their stomachs were less portly, when they felt free beneath the sky above them, not smothered beneath the delicate weight of the mundane locale where they settled down. 

She does not flinch when the cold men who dictate her breath teach their sons to do the same. She knows that she will teach all the young girls how to manage their volume and desire beneath the tension of pressing thumbs. She teaches girls to submit to giggling fits under the sour teasing of young boy’s crushes, and like it, no matter how mean they could be. She teaches girls in middle school to pinch the skin of their midsection and stop eating lunch- it’s pretty to keep yourself small, unnoticeable, almost invisible. She teaches high school girls to relish in the catharsis of full-volume music, blasting through the speakers of their cars— to enjoy it contained and alone. She teaches high school girls to glitter— high GPA’s, honors societies, great sister, beloved daughter— like the cast-in-stone shine of a freshly carved epitaph. These girls are palatable and easy to swallow- she tells them it feels beautiful to dissolve in the stomach acid of boys. She teaches them to float there, bask in the attention of young men who will soon become cruel, while they are still young and curious— too curious to punish the pretty objects that garner their attention. Curious enough to collect these shiny things like crows and treasure them for a while. 

Maybe she did not know what to do with me when I first came along, teetering on fresh, skinny legs, afraid to move. I was a lot like her already; used to the friction of anger in men’s voices and the feeling of curse words crashing and shattering along my cheekbones. Already used to the feeling of lack. Small Town taught me the most once I began to want to feel free— the sandpaper burn of my angry man moved away and only echoed in my ears every other weekend. I had a hard time learning. Little boys’ mean remarks prompted meaner ones from my mouth. I hated the way I could not finish meals, wishing to eat full plates until my bones gained more cushion and I took up more space. 

It was easier to learn in high school. I played my music from large speakers in strangers’ basements and boys disconnected the Bluetooth to bump the dull, heavy bass of their preferred monotone rap songs instead. The volume of my car speakers would get so loud as I drove around at night that I could not hear myself sing along. I began to shine too; all the tumble of emotions and moodiness and unsavory woman was buried beneath my new, pearlescent skin. I tried hard to submit myself to the digestion of boys, but no one told me how much it would scald or how bad singed hair smelled. I did not want to become a misplaced earring in the beak of a big, black bird, a collectable outlet for inquisition. But over and over again, she told me her lessons and soon it was hard to notice the discomfort of craving something that always felt wrong. I wrote poetry about boys. I kissed them. I talked to my friends about what sex must be like and taught myself to want it. The glitter was becoming itchy and I wished I could cut it off. On those late night drives punctuated by blaring music and tear-stained discontentment, I parked at the reservoir and imagined myself sunk to the very bottom, held there by cinder blocks on each ankle, disintegrating into the small town that bred me. Falling asleep at the bottom of the reservoir didn’t seem so bad. People fell asleep everywhere just to escape the feeling of drowning that choked us all the time— in study hall, after two bars of Xanax at a party, as they lost their virginity, during the Homecoming dance, as they filled out college applications to schools in driving distance. Small Town worked better than melatonin, better than tryptophan, better than any lullaby or bedtime story in getting teenagers to fall asleep. I think that most of them never woke up. 

Looking back, I wonder if my angry man felt discontent too, unwilling to become another calloused palm holding too tight to Small Town’s wrists. Maybe that’s why he left. Maybe I have him to thank for making me free to leave too. I ran away to a city plump with humidity and bashful joy that did not feel anything like from where I had come. For a year I let myself incubate and let the impressions of the grasp of Small Town fade from my muscles. Some habits were hard to extract; they were sunk into my veins like thick sap and it was hard to distinguish where they ended, and my own blood began. I remembered that it only takes twenty seven days for your skin to shed itself. I realized I was no longer what anyone expected me to be. I let myself bend and break over the rims of wine bottles, dance for the first time in my life, use my teeth to crack open nights full of learning myself better. I stopped apologizing. I fell in love with a woman. For the first time in the entirety of my life, despite the humid heaviness of New Orleans’ atmosphere, there is no more weight pressing into the pores of my sapling skin. The dank moisture in the Southern air pushed open the cracks in my body and showed me the fossils of who I was. This time it was not a learning, it was a remembering; it was a reminder that I was not drowning, I was not misplaced jewelry, I was not alone. The pearlescent skin I once gleamed in now fits me like a poorly tailored prom dress. I am glad to leave it on the side of the road in a Good Will collection container, for another girl to shimmy into and then outgrow. I hope she rips the taffeta, spills liquor on its skirt, and leaves burn marks along its edges. I hope one day it is so out-worn and tired that no one ever tries it on again. 

Published in Edition 4 of The Dilettante.

Lot 7

“So, Vron asks me if she can borrow my grinder the other day.” Bevin pronounced it like vee-ron, a nickname for her friend Veronica.“And I’m like yeah, sure, why not? Right?”

“It must be nice that you guys live so close together, so you can share stuff like that.”

“Yeah, it’s dope. She lives right down the street. But, she can’t keep any weed or anything at her house because her mom is batshit. Anyways, I give her my grinder and she comes back over after smoking. And she’s high as balls, right? And she’s smiling and she goes, ‘I have a theory… that the dust… gets you higher…’ And I open my grinder. This bitch smoked all my fucking kief.” She opened the top portion of her iridescent purple grinder, as me and the guy sitting next to me leaned in to find the top compartment that usually holds resin completely empty; we were both already laughing.

“Fucking kief thief,” the boy chuckled, head back, face flushed with a heavy red. The three of us were all sitting on the side of the curb sharing a bowl.

Bevin introduced me to Lot 7 that day. It was a student parking lot at a community college. It didn’t look any different from the college’s  other 8 lots, but once we pulled into a spot, we could see closely the wealthy Menlo Park and Palo Alto suburbs, and just past there, the salt flats and the San Francisco Bay. Up there, we could see everyone and no one could see us. 

There were several spots we went to smoke and drink at, and we could see most of them from the parking lot. Handley Rock was to the east, up on a different hill. It was cavernous and each crater was filled with layered graffiti and empty, plastic liquor bottles. On hot summer days, it was nice to hide in the caves’ pockets of shade. The view from there was less far-reaching and mostly of a valley of trees and hiking trails. We could only see in one direction, so, whenever we heard a car park behind the rock, we had to pray that the footsteps crunching across the dead leaves were just those of an amateur rock climber or someone with a bag of weed and a handle like us, instead of a furrowed-brow police officer.

To the west of the lot was The Cross, which boasts a similar view to the parking lot, but still was not as high up as Lot 7. No one knew why there was a giant white cross and a water tank up there for all of Redwood City to sin under, but it was always empty and we could spot cops rolling up the hill a bit ahead-of-time, giving us a few minutes pack up the goods, scramble into the car, roll down the window, and say we were just on a scenic drive.

To the south, there was an abandoned tunnel under a freeway with writing on the walls that read “Please let tomorrow be better than today.” Even farther south than that, there was an empty pool misplaced in the midst of a large field, also clothed in spray paint. Once, we found a couch off the road in San Carlos and smoked there too.

I lived in a very northern suburb compared to everyone else, and, whenever people came over, they slept in my away-at-Johns-Hopkins-University sister’s bed. Those nights, we’d walk down the street to the Crystal Springs Cross Country Trail, past the tennis courts, and slip through a gap in the fence. The trail was beaten down by the sneakers of college-bound athletes building their applications and running harder past the chunks of sideline filled with recruiters. We called it The Shack because we walked the beaten path to an old concessions stand, which we assumed sold candy and soda during cross country meets in the daylight. We sat along the wall with our legs stretched across the wooden deck. It wasn’t a good place to get too fucked up at because the unbeaten parts were a lavish nature preserve: big and empty and tucked in the suburbs. When the tired moms turned their lights out, it was pitch black and populated with coyotes and bobcats, and I could feel their there-ness, although we never saw any. Once, I took an edible and thought I saw a coyote walk right past the The Shack in a quick, white flash, but I was probably just too high. The cops never rolled by there, probably because we were the only group of teens who sat in the miles of nature preserve to smoke weed and drink wine. There were no abandoned bottles or lost lighters to be found.

The areas heavily populated by high schoolers were labeled “hot.” These included many state beaches and a creek bed that cut through Palo Alto which sits dry in the summer. It was littered with mattresses and shopping bags, but none of the people who lived down there ever bothered us. Once, some of us were sitting down there – it was one of the first times I ever got high – and we heard a voice call out, “Hey, guys!” We looked up to see two police officers staring down at us with their hands resting on their belts.

 “Why don’t you come on up?” We started to stand up when they asked, “What’s that next to you? A can of beer? None of you look twenty-one.” We were fifteen. We looked back down by our feet and laying between smooth, dry creek stones was a smashed beer can, full of spiderwebs.

“It’s not ours. It was here when we got here,” I said. I was surprised at how calm I sounded. I was surprised at how calm I felt.

“Alright, just come up here,” the officer conceded.

“Do you want us to bring the can?”

“No, it’s fine.”

There was a rope someone had tied to a tree up at the top and we grabbed onto it to pull our sideways selves up towards the cops.

I had gotten high and paranoid minutes before the police arrived and told everyone to put the bong, weed, and grinder back into the backpack that one boy had picked up from a pile of leaves behind a fence. He and his friend shared the paraphernalia and left it in a backpack around town for each other, since it was hard to come by a smoke shop that sold to minors, and they could only steal so many twenties from their moms’ wallets before they noticed. At the time,  my anxiety had annoyed the circle of smiling, red-eyed friends.

“You’re way too sus,” one said.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“Suspect, suspicious,” he replied.

When the cops showed up, they burst our bubble of euphoric high, found no evidence of drugs (California law stated they couldn’t search us without probable cause), and asked us what towns we were from. Most of us replied “here,” meaning Palo Alto, but I had to be honest: “not here.” The badged men smiled, “Where then?” 

“Oh, sorry. Belmont.”


The cops acted like they just wanted us to be safe and warned us about the “transients” that live down there, even though they never so much as glanced up from their camping areas when teenagers came stumbling down that ridge. Everyone said my paranoia had saved us. 

“We can’t go back there. That spot is too hot nowadays,” one boy said, as we walked past long, suburban driveways.

“The cops always treat white girls like they’re our, like, awkward Uncle, or something. You know? ‘Be safe, girls!’ C’mon. We are the ones breaking the law,” my best friend, Gianna, reasoned.

Lot 7 was densely populated at all times of day, but especially after 3pm, when school got out. I’d commonly run into people I knew from school there, and so did my other friends. I only had a few friends that attended the same “alternative learning” high school as me, but I liked the anonymity in the refurbished warehouse’s hallways. Jessie was the only one from school I ever really spent time with and, before I had my license, she would drive me up to the lot after school. Sometimes, she’d even take me to Taco Bell afterwards, when our eyes were red and her car’s A/C swirled a tornado of her Pink Sands scented air freshener and the warm smell of weed. She loved to paint wings across her eyelids and hated that girls felt ashamed for burping. Once, under the beating sun, in the passenger seat of Jessie’s car, I asked if she could pull the car up to one of the college’s buildings so that I could look for a restroom.

“Just piss in the bushes over there,” she told me.

“What if someone sees me?”

“They won’t.”

When we found other cars full of familiar teenagers, we’d pass bongs through rolled-down car windows. The only reason Lot 7 wasn’t hot was that it was a community college. Bevin told us that the campus security guards couldn’t arrest us. They could just ask us to leave, and maybe call the cops if we were disrespectful. They’d come up to windows during the day and ask us to open them, feel hot smoke rush across their face, ask what we were doing, to which we would reply, “Just chilling.” They never called the cops, even on Friday evenings at sunset, when the 50-something parking spots were full of people drinking whiskey out of the bottle in truck beds and hotboxed compacts.

Bevin knew all this about campus security because she went to the college part-time, and Lot 7 was technically a student parking lot. She took half her classes at the college and half at a public high school in a special program for “independent, self-motivated learners.” She didn’t go to class much but claimed she could transfer her college credits to a UC and be ahead when she was accepted as a freshman. She was the first person I knew with a nicotine addiction and taught me how to replace the coils and cottons in a box mod, carefully, wrapping metal around a pencil and pulling apart her bathroom’s cotton balls. She drove a twenty-two-year-old Volvo – half a decade older than me, four years older than she – and named it Thelma. “There is only one rule in Thelma,” she told me the first time I pulled hard to open the stiff door, “and it’s that you can’t say anything bad about her if you want a ride.” She strung fairy lights along the inside and always had a speaker sliding across her dashboard because there was no place to plug in an aux cord. I later learned that Thelma was named after Bevin’s babysitter who abruptly died from cancer; she left the car Bevin’s family had lent her full of hidden McDonald’s french fries and for a 16-year-old Bevin to inherit.

The first time I smoked a cigarette was at one of the picnic tables before the parking lot’s dirt drop-off. Gianna was there with pink wine, plastic cups, and her turtle-shaped pipe (I had a matching dolphin). She didn’t smoke cigarettes because her mom always did and she hated the smell, but she stood next to me while the older boy we were with helped me light the right end of the Marlboro Red. We played “Cigarette Daydreams” by Cage the Elephant and looked at the sea of lit-up towns as the lyrics played from an iPhone speaker stuck in a disposable cup: a scratchy “cigarette daydreams… you were only seventeen.”

After that, I made a pact with her that I would only smoke one cigarette per year for the rest of my life. Word of the pact spread amongst our friends and every time I’d smoke one more they’d ask: “What about the pact?” to which I’d reply, “I’ve got sixteen years of not smoking to make up for.” I never thought of death more than when I smoked cigarettes and that was only about seventeen times before I left the Bay Area. Mostly, I wished for time to move faster.

Jessie stuck around in the Bay Area for a while after everyone went to college and told me she found my pink, lacey underwear abandoned among the shrubs and crushed beer cans in the drop-off. I had gone down the hill like she had advised, pulled up my skirt and started to pee without remembering my underwear’s grip. I had to discard them, back in 2015, before going back to Jessie’s new civic.

Thelma doesn’t run anymore and Bevin and I both went to school out of state. When I was 18 in New Orleans, I met some girls and we made a routine of sitting at wood tables in a parking lot behind a college bar. We called it The Nook, which reminded me of The Cross and The Shack. I didn’t know what the word “nook” meant until today: a corner or recess, especially one offering seclusion or security.

By the time I turned 19, The Nook was blocked by gates at night and cars parked where tables used to be during the day. I asked the bar’s manager why they’d closed it and he told me they couldn’t watch people out in the back – that it just wasn’t safe.

I never asked anyone why they closed Lot 7; no one was around when I found it covered in caution tape.

Published in Edition 4 of The Dilettante.

Edition 4: Letter from the Editor

It feels like just yesterday I was rollerblading to the park with my older brother. Our hot summer days were filled with green grass and water guns, walking to the library to escape the heat because only the master bedroom had the luxury of air conditioning. Now, my most recent memories of summer are overtaken by nine-to-fives and lonely evenings, finding any which way to kill time because my friends are scattered all over the country, like seeds in the wind, chasing relationships and internships and careers. 

Embarking on this journey of adulthood has been bittersweet. I’m excited to finally have a place to call my own, a life that I have truly created for myself. I’ve become a mother to five plants and a black cat named Huxley. Some nights, though, all I want is my mom’s cooking, to be thirteen again, with no bills and no real responsibilities. Some nights, I wish I could turn back time.

The theme of edition four is chrysalis. During the pupal stage of development, a caterpillar sheds its skin (several times) before being encased in a chrysalis, in which it undergoes metamorphosis. The body of the caterpillar dies, digesting itself from the inside out, and the remaining collection of cells is reborn as a butterfly. Despite its static appearance to the outside world, this is a time of rapid growth and change. We are all in an era of metamorphosis, of emerging from our chrysalises, either in the inception of true adulthood or simply as a result of this surreal climate of crisis and uncertainty. The world as I know it is changing faster than I can keep up with, yet I’ve got no choice but to keep going. 

As I sink into my twenties and an inevitable quarter-life crisis, I reflect on my youth with perhaps an unwarranted romanticism. I know that my teenage years were plagued by depression and angst, and I’ve got an endless archive of journal entries to prove it. But looking back now, I can’t help but put on those notorious rose-colored glasses. 

It’s not that I wish to be transported back to all those years ago, but rather that I have a greater appreciation for them now. I do love my twenties. I can now love the world; I can now love myself. But growing up is scary. As someone who finds solace in lists and schedules, the uncertainty of the rapidly approaching future, one that will almost certainly contain unprecedented change and loss and heartbreak, scares the shit out of me. But as we move forward, I think it’s equally as important to remember what’s behind us, what’s gotten us to this point. The friendships, the hardships, the love. We are raised by a village, then we become the village.

Love, Vi

Published in Edition 4 of The Dilettante.