Boys

By Stephanie Austin

Essay

 

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My first sexual experience happened with a popular neighborhood boy when I was five and he was six. We huddled under the covers of my twin bed. He goes, “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.” He showed me. I showed him. After, we went back to what we did in 1983, which was listening to Michael Jackson’s Thriller on a record player and running back and forth across the room. My poor mother downstairs watching a Dennis Quaid movie unaware of her daughter involved in a glorious right-of-passage cliché.

Discovery of a boy’s attention. Discovery of the body. Discovery of worthiness.

 

In 1989, my family traded farmland for the desert, and we moved across the country. I liked a boy named Sam. He sat by the pencil sharpener. I sharpened a lot of pencils. Sam didn’t talk to me, and I didn’t talk to him. Two other boys in my class—one small for his age with big glasses and gangly arms and the other tall for his age with a blonde mullet—called me Harry. Later, I found out it was Hairy. They’d noticed I hadn’t started shaving my legs. “Hey Hairy,” they’d say when they saw me. When my grandma and great aunt were visiting, they picked me up from school one afternoon. The boys walked behind me yelling, “Hairy, Hairy, Hairy.” My great aunt asked me what they were saying because she’s hard of hearing. I said I didn’t know. She said she was sure they were saying something. I said, “I know, and I don’t know.”

Follow-up to Sam. Flash forward to eighth grade and 1992, our music teacher had a “bring whatever music you kids are listening to these days” day. Sam brought in Nirvana’s Nevermind. We listened to “In Bloom. The music teacher, who was invested in classical music and looked like a flamingo if flamingos were beige, listened and nodded his head in either solitude or understanding or both. I remember looking at Sam thinking I didn’t care to look at Sam anymore.

Follow-up to Nirvana. When Kurt Cobain killed himself, I was a sophomore in high school. My English teacher, who related to us by wearing flannel and asking the popular girls in our class about their dates, wanted to talk about the need to talk. A kid sitting next to me, whose real name was Sam and not a name I changed for this essay, said, “Talking about Kurt Cobain killing himself makes me want to kill myself.” Sam was the 1990s. Flannel on flannel. Grungy hair. He wore Docs or maybe fake Docs. I had fake Docs. I asked my dad for a pair of Vans for Christmas, and he came home with a pair of fake low-rise Docs that were a half-size too big. When Sam made that comment about killing himself, the class laughed. I think he was sent to the office.

Follow-up to Real Sam. I ran into him in Alpine Pizza in Flagstaff somewhere in the middle of college. Alpine is good pizza, and it’s downtown in a line of bars. The inside is dimly lit. All the booths are carved up and written all over, like if cave dwellers were drunk college kids that’s what their home might look like. Real Sam was in the booth behind me. He had the same long hair. I tapped him on the shoulder, and he turned, and I asked, “Hey, aren’t you from Lake Havasu?” even though I knew he was from Lake Havasu. He said, “Yeah,” and went back to his pizza.

In seventh grade, after my parent’s divorce and my mom’s speedy remarriage, I coped by eating. In the morning, I microwaved six pieces of bacon for breakfast and my after school snack involved Kit-Kats. My lunch included Mountain Dew and Little Debbie’s Oatmeal Cookies. My stepfather liked soda and Little Debbie’s. We had to like what my stepfather liked because that’s what happens when a man with low self-esteem has to make himself feel better by asserting control over others he perceives as weak. This kid in first hour Social Studies used to call me Jenny Craig Drop-Out. He also asked to cheat off me. I let him. This other kid in 8th grade Social Studies cheated off me too. I’d tilt my tests so he could see them. He’d take the answers and leave me nothing. He had an A in that class, and so did I. He was popular. I was not. Why Social Studies? Why not. They used me, but I felt chosen. Worthy.

 

In high school, I liked popular, jock boys who liked popular, cheerleader girls. I liked Unavailable, Painful, and Can’t Have. I liked a guy named Jared for four years whose locker was next to mine because our last names were next to each other in the alphabet. He had a peach-fuzz mustache and played basketball and baseball, and his parents picked him up in the same spot I got picked up after school. We never had a class together. I didn’t talk to him, and he didn’t talk to me. Somewhere in the middle of college, and back in my hometown for a weekend of partying because that’s what Havasu is for, I ran into him in the kitchen of my friend’s house. Lots of other kids from high school were there. I did what I did, which was get blind drunk and do foolish things like take off my shirt and walk around in my bra, which is funny in retrospect because I didn’t, and don’t, have a big rack and back then I bought my bras from Walmart so I wasn’t accomplishing much by way of sexy allurement. I said to him in the kitchen, “I liked you in high school.”

He was eating a cookie or pouring a beer. He was doing something with his hands. He said, “Oh.”

I said, “I never told you.”

He said, “OK.”

And that was it. I told lots of boys I liked them. Giving them attention meant they might like me too.

wolf posterSenior year, on the advice of a friend, I sent an anonymous flower arrangement and a wolf poster to this other boy I liked because I was told he liked wolves. If I wrote a note, the words would have rhymed because of course. We sat next to each other in last hour English. He didn’t talk to me, and I didn’t talk to him. My chemical addiction to his presence made my face burn when he’d pick up his pen. English class is the best time to have flowers delivered to a boy. High school boys love flowers. I wanted to experience his stunned joy—think Taylor Swift receiving an award but replace Taylor Swift with a 17-year-old skinny high school boy surrounded by his friends and a teacher and other girls he liked a lot better than me. The day of the delivery arrived, and I chickened out and didn’t go to school. I was living with my dad then, and I told him I had my period and he stopped me and said he got it, and so I stayed home. This is the first and last time in my K-12 career I’d faked an illness to avoid school.

By the following morning, word circled back to the boy that it was me. I stood outside the classroom with my friend Scott, who was done with classes for the day. I was like, take me with you, and he was like, ok, and I said, no, I can’t ditch two days in a row, and he said ok, and I went inside. My crush—it feels so rudimentary to refer to him like that—sat with his back to me. His friend looked at me, nodded to him, and he continued to not look at me. What was left of my self-esteem emerged from my body like a python who had finished a meal.

Scott was a good guy friend. He was a guy I could talk to, who made me laugh, and I made him laugh. We binge-watched MST3K. We went to Dairy Queen together. When his girlfriend broke up with him, I brought The Beatles Revolver over to his house, because The Beatles Anthology had come out and everyone (me) in 1995 got super into (completely obsessed with) them again. I made Scott listen to “For No One” like it was going to cleanse him.

Scott was my first. My Emotional Boyfriend. My boyfriend who wasn’t a boyfriend who supported me like a girl friend. My fresh take on an old idea.

At a party, Scott chased me around trying to throw a blanket on me. After that, my best girl friend told me Scott told her he liked me, and I didn’t know how to accept that because I didn’t like Scott in that way. Emotional Boyfriends are not supposed to like you like that because it’s not their job. I couldn’t tell Scott I didn’t like him like he liked me, and that his liking me was a violation of our friendship. Instead, I said mean things about his body. I laughed at him in front of him.

But was Scott the best guy friend a girl could ever have? Did I walk away from that friendship piled with regret? No, it wasn’t Scott. It was Foley. Foley was the new Scott. The one who was supposed to last.

 

Let’s talk about Foley. We had high school drama together. I mean, the class. We had mutual friends. He talked to me, and I talked to him. He liked me, and I thought I should make myself like him because Foley was good. We talked on the phone at night. He called his parents his “parental units” because of Coneheads, and I thought he was dorky but maybe dorky was a good thing. He asked me to Homecoming, and I said yes, and he called more after that, and slowly, slowly, I began to realize I didn’t like dorky. He picked me up for the dance in his Jeep, and he took me back to his house where I met aforementioned parental units who took pictures of us near their kitchen. They were in a pajama/lounge-wear-broken down Havasu chic combo, and I felt like I’d stopped in at a bad time. We took pictures at the dance too. Foley grinning a shit-eating grin, and me next to him feeling all the wrong feelings. At the dance, I moped. I crossed my arms. I refused to dance with him except one time. His friend Michael was there, and Michael was with another girl, and so therefore I started falling in love with Michael.

Crave what you can’t have. Inject yourself with poison because when it burns, you know you’re alive.

When I wanted to leave the dance early, Foley said he’d drive me home. Foley and I didn’t talk for a long time after that night.

No one asked me to prom that year or my senior year. Foley asked my best girl friend, and she said yes and they had a great time. The boy I sent flowers to asked another girl, and I saw them together, and I felt sorry for myself.

P.S. – Foley was my first kiss. Later that year, in the summer after we started speaking again, we were on a friend’s couch together watching a movie. I think it was A Fish Called Wanda. He kissed me in the dark under a blanket. It just happened. I was 16 going on 17. He felt wet and strange. He told our friends I bit his tongue. I had braces, so I thought maybe he mistook the braces for a bite. He said no, it was a bite. I do not remember doing it.

P.P.S. – He went into the Navy after high school. At a backyard party, he got drunk and fell over the fire and landed on my friend, the same friend he took to prom, and touched the sleeve of her pea coat with his cheek. “Will the Navy give me one of these?” he asked. At his real going away party, he cried into her lap and said he was scared, and she said it would be ok, and he said he changed his mind and didn’t want to go. But he went, and he was fine, and he started calling me from Saudi Arabia. The phone would ring at like 11 at night, and I knew it was him, and I’d take the phone into my dorm hall and we’d talk for a long time about how Saudi Arabia was hotter than Lake Havasu, about the friends he had, about the friends I had, about this guy Drew I was seeing, about girls he met in the Navy.

P.P.P.S. –We’d go to Denny’s late at night when I was home from college. I’d run crying to him when Drew did something fucked up, like literally once I pulled up at his house and jogged-skipped to his door in tears. Foley made me better. Foley said I deserved better. Foley said he battled feelings for me. I was like, fuck. No. Not Scott again. No feelings. Friends. No feelings. But then he started saying he loved me when we’d get off the phone, and I said nothing, and he said he felt like it was important to say you loved your friends, so I said ok and that I loved him back.

P.P.P.P.S. – We said when we were 40, if we were both single, we’d buy a trailer and get a kid and send the kid to the store for our cigarettes.

P. Etc. – Foley’s friend Michael and I made out at an NYE party. Michael had some fucked up teeth. I had fucked up teeth in junior high, so I guess I was cool with it. Michael used a lot of spit to kiss, and I didn’t know the difference because he was only number two on my kiss list. He tasted like Doritos. A year or so later, I lost a hand in a card game. Truth or Dare Poker or some such shit. I had to kiss one of the other guys at the table, and it was a good kiss, and I thought, oh. Oh.

 

alpine 2Drew was 21, and I was 18 about to turn 19 and just finishing my first year of college still a virgin, surrounded by unvirgins, surrounded by girls doing it better than me, surrounded by girls who seemed to know what guys want, surrounded by guys who didn’t want me. Drew and I met because our parents were dating. His mom and my dad. Drew and I sat in his truck at the end of my driveway, and he told me he’d been waiting his whole life for someone like me then didn’t call on my birthday. We stayed up all night talking, and he told me I made him a better man and then he stood me up to go drink with his friends. Drew had nice, big hands. He used his body to help me learn to use mine. He was poison, beautiful. He made me hurt, and I felt alive.

I started taking birth control pills because responsible choices. I started writing in my journal that I was in love because stupid girl. Our dates meant he’d pick me up and take me back to his place to drink because I was under 21, and his thing at the time was bars. He bought me six packs of Zima. The bag would sit between us in his truck.

In two years, we had three real public dates. He took me to see The Fifth Element. We saw another movie with John Leguizamo who played a crazy clown, and I can’t remember the name of it. He took me to Wendy’s. He had a pipe that looked like a cigarette, and he smoked it in the drive-thru. It was a pipe. You could smell the pot. Drew thought he was clever. Drew forgot his wallet, so I paid for dinner.

We had sex for the first time three months after we met. He kept asking me all summer, and I kept putting it off because I wanted it to be perfect. Perfect. Flowers, music, romance, I don’t know. I wanted a movie soundtrack. Indie music. Guitar solo. Soft lighting. Hard rain. Emotions, both his and mine. He picked me up two hours late, and he was drunk. I made a joke, not a joke, that he probably shouldn’t be driving.

Drew was back living with his mom, and we had sex in his brother’s bedroom. We had to be quiet. He lost his erection after a few minutes, and we had to wait.

He drove me home after because he said I couldn’t stay. Bleeding like a wounded warrior, I went home to sleep until the afternoon. My excitement about not being a virgin was a salve to the sad fucking reality that the fucking was sad. A few days was a week, then two weeks, then three. I had to go back to college. I drove to his house and asked what was going on but did it by knocking on the door, sitting on the couch, and watching him watch TV. I didn’t speak for an hour. I had no voice. He said he didn’t think he could do long distance. He said he was sorry. I spoke to the TV and said I thought he and I were on the same page. He answered me by offering me pot. We smoked pot in his garage, the only place his mother allowed him to smoke. It was 115 degrees outside. I drove home and called my friend, who picked me up. We went to Dairy Queen and bought Blizzards. My friend said I seemed like I was high, and I said I wasn’t.

Drew later told me his mother thought I was obsessive. I was. I called. I stopped by when he didn’t call me back. But I could never say what I wanted to say, so I wrote him letters. I mailed them. Meaning, I put words on paper about my feelings for and about him, and I walked to a mailbox outside my dorm room, and put the letter in the mail. I’d mail a letter to my mom at the same time just so I knew when she got her letter, Drew probably got his. He’d call after a letter. Then he didn’t call for weeks or months and then when he did, he’d want to have sex, so we did, and then he wouldn’t call again. I didn’t understand what that meant. He loved me. He loved fucking me. He loved fucking. Boys. Love. Attention.

 

alpine 1After Drew, I walked to the ledge and stepped off because falling felt nice. Turning 21 meant binge drinking in bars with strange men was Best Way of Living. A switch happened. The boys didn’t make fun of me. They didn’t think I was weird. The boys wanted me. I wanted the boys to want me. Wanting to be wanted. Wanting the body. I needed the want like the air, like the cigarettes I’d started smoking because fuck it, I was a badass. Some guy took me to a corner and chewed up my mouth so bad I was black and blue for days. I danced on the bar at San Felipe’s to Prince’s “Pussy Control” and Tupac’s “California.” Tupac had been dead for a year or two at that point. Another guy had a girlfriend, but he told me it was ok they were on the outs, so we snuck around and had hushed conversations on the phone and made out late at night when she was working. The elixir he offered me, Divided Attention and Obsession and Lust, tasted like antidote to old Drew, like how Drew was in the beginning. We consummated our relationship in my dorm room at 10 in the morning. When he arrived, he smelled like mint and cigarettes. He said he was nervous, and I thought that was cute. He was the second boy I slept with, and as soon as it started to happen, all that build-up that reminded me of Drew was gone, and I realized I still wanted Drew, and when this other guy touched me I felt nothing. So that drug didn’t work, and I looked for a new one.

Foley and I used to go out to the island and look at the city and smoke. After I told him about the guy with the girlfriend, he said I was being fucked up. Shoo, I said. Shoo, shoo crazy these times they are fun.

Foley met a girl, and they got serious, and they got married, and I have not spoken to Foley since.

 

Cole liked Steely Dan. He brought a tiny grill and food over to my apartment and cooked for me for our first date, so I thought that was a positive step and double fuck Foley for accusing me of being self-destructive. We had sex on our first date because why make them wait when they were going to leave anyway? He lived downtown, so we’d walk to drink and walk back to his place to drink more. Once, I drove from Phoenix to Flagstaff to pick him up from the airport. Pre-9/11, and you could go to the gate to wait for someone. Some guy was sitting there waiting for his friend. The guy asked if I was there to get my boyfriend. I said yes even though Cole never called me his girlfriend. The guy said it must be serious if I was doing an airport pick-up. Cole kissed me on the cheek when he got off the plane. I drove him back to Flag. Cole filled a pipe with pot and smoked in my living room. We were supposed to go to a movie the following weekend, and he didn’t show up because he took an impromptu trip to Mexico and didn’t owe me anything. I drove to his house to find out what was going on because I always had to do that. “I’m having an issue with my personality,” he said. I told him I was late. I wasn’t. I told him I didn’t believe in abortion. I do. I lied because he hurt me, and I wanted to hurt him on a level he could understand. I hung on for a week and called him and he came over. My apartment door was unlocked, and I was out on my balcony smoking a cigarette listening to old Hole, not new glamour Hole. He stopped and looked at me and said something like, “Wow, that’s angry music.” I said official test was negative. We went to the goddamn high-class-because-you-have-no-other-reference-point Olive Garden for lunch. He said we’d do it again, go to lunch again. Every time I’d see him on campus, I’d smile and say lunch would be great, and he said, yeah, yeah lunch, but we never lunched again.

John was Cole’s friend, and John and I never slept together just made out a bunch of times. John sold me pot. One night, when we were close to fucking but didn’t, John told me he was still getting over his last girlfriend because of course he was. He told me once she was yelling at him, and he picked her up and put her outside. He put her outside. Her friends called him a wife beater. “I wasn’t married to her,” John said.

I met James at a Halloween party. He was dressed as Sea Bass from Dumb and Dumber. I was dressed as a stalker. He insisted everyone at the party say “Kick ass, Sea Bass.” I said, wasn’t Sea Bass a psycho or something? James used to call me in the middle of the night and ask me to come over. That kind of shit was addicting, and I kept saying no, and it fueled him, and he kept calling. I got involved with his friend Peter, who was one of those genuinely nice people, just so I could make James feel more jealous. I wanted him to want me so much it hurt him. I wanted to make him hurt. I wanted to hurt. Then James started calling all the time, like a few times a night when he was drunk and crazy, and I was like, that’s it, done. I had to ditch Peter, which I did by inviting him over then calling my friend long distance and talking to her for two hours while Peter just sat there.

PM was big, broad-shouldered, and he was a waiter and volunteer firefighter. He went by his last name, Mason. He was friends with a friend of my friend, and I met him in a bar. I went to his house to do what? Make out? Drink? Feel wanted? Make him think I wanted to have sex? Feed my addiction. Make him think I was sex because me wanting sex meant being wanted. He got me into his bedroom, and he got me to take off my clothes, and he got me under him, and he got me “warmed up” by being violent with his hands. Instead of saying no, I asked if he had a condom because I didn’t know I had another choice. Self-destructive patterns of behavior make decisions complicated. He said he didn’t have one, and I said ok intending to let him do it anyway and he stopped and let me go. I went home and in glorious right-of-passage cliché, took a hot and fiery bath.

 

 

During my last semester of college, I took a humor writing class, which I thought would make me like Erma Bombeck but instead was about how to write jokes if I was writing for Bob Hope on a USO tour. This guy Kyle, a few years older than me, was cute. I chopped off all my hair—because control of something I could control—and Kyle said he liked girls with short hair, and so I was obsessed with Kyle all semester. Kyle and I talked on class breaks. He’d walk me to my car. He told me he was getting over a serious, long-term relationship because of course.

We agreed to have dinner. After dinner, he took me to a little bar and we had beer and played pool. I put Dave Matthews on the jukebox, and he said he loved Dave Matthews. He once took a girl to a B & B—which I didn’t know what that was—and heard “Crash” on the way home while she was sleeping in the passenger seat. He broke up with her because he didn’t feel the song when he looked at her. I wanted to be the girl sleeping in the passenger seat with the song “Crash” on even though some people think it’s about a peeping tom.

We’d driven separate cars to the dinner. Don’t be trapped with a man ever again. He asked to see me again but didn’t try to kiss me. In his passenger seat, I told him about PM in a real way, not in a funny way, and he took it very seriously and that conversation led to a big conversation about life and we talked until 3 in the morning. So confusing when it seems like an Emotional Boyfriend could also be a Physical Boyfriend but possibly Emotional/Physical Boyfriend just has the Savior Complex. Kyle and I spent a month going out drinking and sitting in his car or my car rationalizing why it’s not a good idea to have sex until we ended up one time having sex.

He hid me from his roommate. He hid me from his friends. We’d see someone he knew, and he’d separate from me. Shrug. Most guys I dated did this.

I went to his apartment one time when his roommate wasn’t there. He wanted me to see the movie Happy, Texas, an indie flick. Kyle said he loved that movie so much the first time he saw it, he started it over and watched it a second time. So began my love of indie movies.

He tapered off slowly. Calls every day to calls once a week. Dinner dates to lunch dates to a breakfast meeting, like he was weaning me. He said he could see our relationship going somewhere only it never went anywhere. He said if he wasn’t leaving town, he could go long-term but then he left town. We had some midnight dinner together at a Denny’s, and he said he’d be in touch, but then he wasn’t.

 

Daniel worked at Denny’s, and I met him while I was on a date with another guy, and the other guy didn’t work out. When I met Daniel again two days later in line in a coffee shop, I was like, you were the guy who said all you had was grilled cheese, and he said, you were the cute girl who was with a douche-looking guy, and I said, sounds like me, haha. Daniel and I were best friends for six months and new Emotional Boyfriend emerged. He made me laugh, and I made him laugh. We went to midnight movies. We saw Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon together. We smoked cigars and talked wounds. We tried to have a date where he picked me up, brought me flowers, and took me to a nice Italian restaurant that had candles and people dressed in all black. At the end of the night, when it came time to kiss him, I couldn’t do it and instead said I wanted to be friends.

Ryan was a friend of Daniel’s, and Ryan and I hit it off, and Ryan asked me out, which all his friends thought was good because Ryan was getting over a serious, long-term relationship because of course. Ryan still wore a ring his ex had given him, and sometimes she’d call while I was at his apartment.

On Ryan’s and my first date, I asked to go to Denny’s to see Daniel because I spent every weekend at Denny’s with Daniel and didn’t realize what I was doing was fucked up because Daniel clearly hated Ryan after that. Ryan cooled toward me though he called me to fuck me a few times. I thought I was In Love with Ryan. We hiked together, sort of. We did things during the day, like had lunch and whatever. Like, this was a guy who wanted to both kiss me both at night and in the daylight. He introduced me to his mom. He showed me how to start a fire with two sticks. I let him borrow my little TV I used to have in my dorm room. When Ryan broke it off with me, I picked up the TV from the stand he kept it on, walked down a flight of stairs, tossed it in my car where it broke, drove to Circle K, bought a pack of cigarettes that I hadn’t smoked in months because Ryan hated cigarette smoke, and sobbed and smoked and sobbed for two hours alone and then another hour at Daniel’s house because Daniel was where I always went. Ryan and I became pseudo friends after he dumped me because we had a lot of mutual friends in common. We almost hooked up one night at his house, but we didn’t. We just slept in the same bed and he didn’t try to touch me. I asked him why he broke up with me, why he really broke up with me, and he told me he thought my underwear was old, like his grandma’s underwear. I took out a credit card at Victoria’s Secret and started buying black lace thongs though he never saw them.

After I cried to Daniel about Ryan, Daniel gave me a Jimmy Buffet CD and said it would help me, but I didn’t listen to it because I don’t like Jimmy Buffet. When I returned it to his house, he said he wanted to talk to me. We went downstairs to the basement of the house he rented with some other guys. He was drunk, and I was not.

“So you’re telling me there’s no chance?” Daniel said.

“No chance,” I said. I looked down, away, everywhere but at him.

“Like 0% chance?”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

He broke us. I was already broken. Daniel held me together, like all my Emotional Boyfriends held me together, long enough to find someone else and then there was no one else but me. A few months after that, Daniel took a job out of town, and we stayed in touch for awhile and then it stopped because everything has to stop sometime.

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STEPHANIE AUSTIN's short stories have appeared in The Fiddlehead, American Short Fiction, Washington Square Review, the South Dakota Review, Eclectica, fwriction: review, and Extract(s), among others. Her nonfiction has appeared in the New England Review,'s Digital Series "Secret Americas" and at Used Furniture Review. She is a Community of Writers at Squaw Valley alum and has an M.F.A. from the University of Nebraska.

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