I can’t spin a yarn without unraveling some threads, so I’d best be careful with which loose end I decide to pull. There are whole large chunks of my life that I can no longer recall, so deep and so painful are those strands that my mind has hidden them. They are dark diamonds whose core of fire burned so bright that it turned from red to black. There’s a short distance indeed between a quick, pink scar and a deep, lingering sear – it doesn’t take long to navigate that space between a regular old lesson learned and a decision that will haunt you so completely that your own ghost can’t even recall the full story.
You asked me to remember my first experience with the opposite sex. Which one was first? I think I have to give it to J.E. Never once did we touch, never once did we kiss – but god did he shape me. I always had to ride the bus to school. The bus is horrifying enough because of its lack of creature comforts and its dearth of adult supervision (the one adult on board being wholly focused on driving the bus down narrow country roads), but when you’re The Loser (not just a loser, but The Loser) the bus becomes a special kind of hell from which you cannot escape.
It was the beginning of seventh grade, which was precisely that age at which boys became suddenly more interesting than they were before. It was the age at which you wanted, more than anything, to be appealing. Even simply to be accepted would do. Blending in with the crowd was everyone’s hope for salvation. But since I’d been going to the same Catholic school with the same 25 classmates for the previous 7 years, it seemed that my role as The Loser was completely entrenched. (To be fair, there was one person lower on the rung than me, but she didn’t ride the bus so I was the primary target.)
Those bus seats had the most horrific texture of anything I’d ever felt. Decidedly unpleasant, the fake plastic leather was stippled with varying shades of brown, tan, and sienna and the bumps were just big enough to cause wastelands of indentations on the back of your thighs should you be unlucky enough to be wearing a short skirt. Rips in the leather weren’t actually repaired, but merely triaged with duct tape or Elmer’s Glue. You could sometimes see the dried long drips hanging down, looking like a trail of rejected snot.
I knew those bus seats intimately because I’d stare at them. Not just stare, mind you, but not lift my eyes from the back of the seat from the moment I got on the bus until the moment I got off. I knew the skin of those seats better than I’ve ever known the skin of a lover, and they gave me just as much comfort. It was something to do, somewhere to be. Leatherland.
The day I felt the seat give way next to me was as alarming as any day possibly could be. There was someone sitting next to me. For a moment or two I didn’t dare rip my eyes away from the seat back, or perhaps it was that I didn’t know how to. My eyes cast a sideways glance, enough to know that the person sitting next to me was a boy. My heart beat in my chest, so loudly I was frightened by it. I looked up and turned ever so slightly to the left where he was sitting. I saw him, J, close enough to smell his breath. A million things flashed through my mind in that instant. What did he want? What would he say? Why was he sitting next to me? And not one of those thoughts, not a single one, was a warning. I hadn’t learned yet.
So with every last bit of my guard down, I met his eyes. And he opened his mouth, and rolled his tongue forward, and spit into my face.
The spit landed near my right eye and on the bridge of my nose, and it had a good chance to roll down towards the tip before I could think to wipe it away. Laughter came from everywhere, like knives. I did the only thing I could think to do. I turned to face forward, I reached up my hand to smear away as much of the saliva as possible, and then I studied the leather. It looked awfully brown that day.
So this is how I learned. This is how I learned to accept the smallest of kindnesses, even when they are really criticisms. This is how I learned to never question if I liked someone – it was simply enough if they liked me. This is how I learned to freeze like a deer in headlights whenever a man approached me. Because still, 25 years later, I brace myself for the warm rain of spit on my face. This is how I learned to memorize the patterns in fake leather. This is how I learned.