In the summer when you were a teenager, you’d climb out your bedroom window.
It went like this: Someone, almost always a boy, would come to the window, tap, tap, tap. You’d sit up from the bed, where you waited fully clothed under your blue-and-green floral Laura Ashley bedspread, and arrange the pillows into a five-foot-six lump that vaguely resembled a sleeping person, her body and face covered by blankets.
Using your arms, which were strong from gymnastics, you’d boost yourself up to the windowsill, bringing one foot, then the other, to meet it. A few feet below, an air-conditioning box awaited you. You’d slide down to it, butt against windowsill, and from there it was a quick jump to the grass, glossy and wet from the sprinkler, followed by a jog of 100 or so feet to the curb. You prayed your gossipy, religious neighbors wouldn’t see you as you hustled yourself to the idling car.
The minutes, sometimes hours, you spent waiting for the arrival of whichever boy you momentarily liked, your heart pinballing around in your ribcage, were terrifying, exhilarating. You felt like you might vomit, but the rush you got from defying your mother and her overly strict rules (you lived in an Evangelical town and were not Evangelical; she was proving a point) was so bracing that the fear was worth it. You didn’t yet know the dark paths your rebellious ways would take you down, and you wouldn’t for years. Right then, in gray, staid, boring, fundamentalist suburban Illinois, where the judgment of your neighbors, teachers, and friends, always rumbled like a looming thunderstorm, you just loved feeling wild and free.
You shared a room with your sister, who was only 13 months younger than you were, and from her you demanded stillness, silence, unstinting loyalty. She was as anxious as you were that your mom would wake up and catch you mid-flight. You lived in a tiny ranch house, your bedroom just down the hallway from your mother’s — so close that you could hear her dry little cough, the telltale sign that she was stirring from the oceanic depths of sleep. If she merely cleared her throat, your heart would belly-flop. This was in the days before cellphones, so you couldn’t text or call to abort the mission. Once you committed, you were going with the boy who was coming to fetch you, or you were getting caught. You never did, though.
In this way you hung out with boys late into the night — in the dark, cramped backseat of somebody’s car, in motel rooms rented with fake IDs, in the dank basements of homes where parents were gone and no one thought to ask where.
In this way you find yourself, at 2AM on a muggy early-August night, sitting on a wooden bench that faces a tiny manmade lake in a public park near your home, with a boy named Tony, who is three years older than you are, 18 to your 15, and known for sleeping with his girlfriends. You are a virgin; sex is still scary to you, mysterious. You don’t remember now what he said to you that night, only that one moment you are virtual strangers biding time with each other so that your friends, who are a newly formed couple, can make out in a copse of nearby trees, their leaves silvery in the late-summer moonlight, and the next moment his hand is touching your wrist in a way that leaves your entire body coursing with electricity. His mouth is on yours. His tongue meets yours. His hands move up your shirt, over your thin cotton bra, under it. You have spent many nights in public parks, leaning against a cold metal jungle gym as some nervous boy small-talked his way to a chaste, dry-lipped kiss. This is different. Tony is in control, his arms muscular and confident, steering the situation like he does the red sports car he drives at top-speed into the parking lot at school.
What happened, your friend, who is staying overnight at your house, asks, once you’ve safely reentered your bedroom and dismembered the fake pillow-bodies you created (one for her on the floor). You don’t know. You tell her you’re not sure. You honestly can’t say. You were just sitting on a bench, listening to cicadas buzz and fumbling for words, and then some primal part of you that you didn’t know existed was awakened. You only see Tony once more that summer. You watch a movie in his parents’ basement; his hands roam further still. At school that fall, when those August nights feel like unreal interludes existing outside of space and time, he’ll tell everyone you let him touch you.
In the fall when you were a teenager, you quit bothering with the window. You’d return home by curfew — a humiliatingly, and, to your mind, unjustly early 10pm — and tiptoe into your mother’s bedroom, where you’d find her asleep. (She had chronic bronchitis in those years, and a two-hour commute to and from work each day, and always seemed to be sleeping.) “I’m home,” you’d tell her. You’d wait five, ten minutes, to make sure she wasn’t going to wake up and check on you. Then you’d turn around and walk back out the front door.
You weren’t going anywhere. You had nowhere to go. Football games and basketball games, yes, but those finished by nine. They were sometimes followed by school dances, or house parties when someone’s parents were out of town. But mostly you and your friends drove a circuit you’d nicknamed the Bermuda Triangle — McDonald’s to 7–11 to Denny’s and back again. You’d loiter inside each place long enough for the manager to threaten to kick out “the whole lot of you,” maybe buy fries or a Coke or a plate of eggs with a handful of pocket change collected from the group, and then you’d begin the entire cycle again. Occasionally, you’d mix things up and drive to Taco Bell.
On early fall nights when it was still warm, you’d drive to a glorified patch of trees the county speciously called a “forest preserve,” and sip beer that was lukewarm and bitter from sitting too long in someone’s car. It was only a matter of time before the police came, hollering, “Move on, people” and “You’d better not be underage and drinking!” The police were forever showing up. The specter of them was ever-present, like a skin condition always threatening to erupt. You lived in fear of them. If you got arrested, you might not get into college, and that, you knew, was your only way out.
One evening, in a wooded area just off the highway, a group of you sit talking and drinking wine coolers, the only ambient noise the river of cars flowing past. A police car pulls into the thicket without turning on its headlights; the officer clearly means to creep up upon you, but the lack of light also renders him unable to see you. You hear the low growl of the engine, the sticks and brambles cracking under tires, and you scatter like small woodland creatures, hiding behind trees and bushes. The cop turns on his headlights. Two boys are illuminated by the bright twin coronas of light. He pushes the first one, a blond kid named Ryan — all the boys at that time are named Ryan — against his car, face-first. The kid meets the door with an audible thud. From where you are hiding, crouched in the weedy dirt behind the trunk of an elm tree, you can’t see anything, but you hear this, and you begin to shiver, your body quietly convulsing from fright.
In the winter when you were a teenager, you rode around in cars. Thinking back now, it feels like you spent most of those colorless icy winter days in cars. You didn’t much care who drove; you just wanted a ride. Otherwise you were forced to walk to school, and the only dignified way to do that was without a hat, gloves, or scarf. You also swore off tights, even when wearing a skirt — too matronly, uncool. You lived thirty miles west of Chicago; the wind-chill factor was often many degrees below zero. Minutes into your three-mile walk, your legs had already gone numb and you’d start to panic a little. But you wouldn’t admit you were frozen. That was the unspoken rule.
Your drivers were always boys. Some mornings it was Tom, the hulking, free-spirited quarterback who lived around the corner. He’d pull up in your driveway, honking his horn and shouting “Hurraaay uppp!” out his window, to the visible dismay of your persnickety, judgmental neighbors. On the days he drove you home, he’d joyride through store parking lots with you and your younger sister in the backseat, performing donuts on the ice and crashing his old blue jalopy into empty shopping carts, hooting and hollering all the while. You roared with laughter; you laughed until your stomach ached. Nothing was ever funnier, you were sure of it.
Other mornings, Scott came to get you. (The boys who weren’t named Ryan were named Scott.) Scott, a senior with mischievous eyes so brown they were black. Scott, who had carefully reupholstered his sensitive, intelligent, gentle decentness with a smart-assed, macho persona. He took you to your winter formal: you wore a crinkly teal-green taffeta dress with a mermaid waist and poufy sleeves; he wore a cropped jacket and bolo tie. At the after-party at the Red Roof Inn, in a room somebody’s older brother had rented, he pretended to get drunk and pass out because (you knew) he was afraid to kiss you.
Instead of honking from your driveway, Scott waited in the foyer of your matchbox-sized house, while you finished shellacking your bangs with hairspray and shoving folders into your backpack. A long, gilded oval-shaped mirror hung in that hallway. He’d pretend to admire himself in it. “I’m so good-looking, don’t you think?” he’d say, while both your sisters collapsed into a pile of giggles. “Don’t you think I’m hot?” he’d deadpan, flexing his biceps before the mirror. “I just wish he were a little more homespun,” your mom said, the night he took you to the dance. And when your Evangelical next-door neighbors forbade their daughter to talk to you because boys like Scott were always turning up in your driveway, you felt sad but also indignant and strangely superior. Some nights, as you climbed in somebody’s car to ride shotgun, you looked up to see your erstwhile best friend — the girl with whom you’d baked sugar cookies and played Pictionary and watched Spaceballs, ran sprints up and down your block and gone to weekend “lock-ins” at her church — peering down at you from her bedroom window.
On weekends, a group of older boys came to pick you up in a vehicle they’d christened “the party van.” This was a gargantuan van from which all but the driver’s seat had been stripped (the better to fit more teenagers) and into which a “party ball” had been installed. (The party ball, a relic of the 80s and 90s, was what it sounds like: a round ball of beer with a tap in it, kind of like a mini-keg.) The van belonged to Greg, the school’s most celebrated football player — or, more accurately, to his parents, who were surely unaware of his crafty renovations. The trick was to see how many people you could cram inside. Like a carful of clowns you’d pile in, and drive around the Bermuda Triangle while drinking beer from red plastic cups. Folded up on some boy’s blue-jeaned lap, you counted 18, 20, 21 kids. You laughed aloud, delighted by the absurdity of it all, and said a silent prayer that the cops wouldn’t pull the party van over.
In the spring when you were a teenager, and time was reborn, you climbed into your boyfriend’s bedroom window. M, an artsy musician who wore tie-dye Grateful Dead shirts and came to meet your mother in bare feet, lived in a small, well-ordered basement room, his bed pushed up against the egress window you crawled through. Upstairs, where you ventured only once, his parents lived in spectacular, florid squalor — today, you would call them hoarders, but you didn’t know the word at the time. His dad taught philosophy at a university in a neighboring state; his mom taught “family planning” at the local community college. She left condoms for M and his older brother in end-table drawers around the house. The family had three Volkswagen vans, two of them defunct and sitting like lifeless old boxcars in the driveway, and a Volkswagen station wagon, which smelled of sauerkraut that had spilled and soured when nobody bothered to clean it up. In the foyer downstairs hung a pot-leaf poster that read “Free Your Mind.” You never met his parents. This seems strange now, considering all the time you spent with their son.
In M’s room, under the cover of darkness, the two of you swig a violet-colored liquor called “Purple Passion.” You take your clothes off and lie on top of each other. Naked and wrapped in towels, you smoke pot from a bong he’s fashioned from an empty two-liter bottle of 7-Up. When you think back to those years, you understand now that you were trying to find private spaces where you could experiment, where you could teach yourselves about your predilections and desires, away from the meddling, critical eyes of adults. And so, you retreated to basements, to forests, to the backseats of cars — to secluded, hidden, sometimes-perilous places.
You lost your virginity with M., on the floor of your wood-paneled basement rec room, while your mom was out of town for work. You were 15 at the time. You remember it with the sharpness and clarity of the pain you felt tearing you in half as it happened. You wore cutoff jeans over a blue-and-white gingham body suit; he unbuttoned it at the crotch. Your sister and her friends had just brought ice cream from Dairy Queen for you. “Your ice cream is melting!” your sister kept yelling from behind the door at the top of the stairs. “She doesn’t want the ice cream!” M. finally yelled up. Later that night, standing at the freezer spooning the soft, half-melted mess into your mouth, you notice you have rug burns spanning the length of your back.
From then on, you follow him everywhere. You drive to the Indiana dunes — great waves of sand that look straight out of Star Wars — and take acid. Every grain of sand is magnified, beautiful, like your life feels right then; you try to count them all. With your X-Ray vision, you can see all the bones and muscles in your friend Bernie’s shirtless back. You take LSD again one night in your basement. M watches a film about heroin addicts shooting up. It rattles you, begins to haunt you, so you stand in front of the bathroom mirror, the very thing everyone warns you about, and observe the hollows of your face deepen and flicker and shapeshift, transforming themselves into shadowy caverns you are afraid to stare at for too long. You sleep with him a few more times. It’s joyless for both of you. You can’t give pleasure because you don’t know what pleasure is.
When summer comes again, he tells you he’s moving. His professor-father is taking a sabbatical in Germany, and M wants to end your relationship in advance. Something in you fractures. No one told you about this part. You cry until your eyes are bloodshot; eat hot fudge sundaes from McDonald’s; write long, intemperate letters you never send; tape songs of heartbreak from the radio, spending hours hovering, waiting, waiting, for the right moment to press record. You are a lovesick cliché, and on some level you know it, but you cannot seal yourself up. You lie in bed, suffocated by your sadness. Mid-summer, while you are away at a dance camp, your sister gets caught executing your former maneuver, and your mom nails two boards over your bedroom window. You yell at your sister, ask her why are you so stupid. But inside, you don’t really care. You stopped climbing out windows months ago.