When I was sixteen I loved a boy who came up to my shoulders. We’d walk down the high school hallways holding hands, and to reach him my whole frame would shift about twenty degrees, which is I think why purses always fall off one end now. Back then we were blank slates, and attraction was a simpler thing; we had seen less advertisements and movies. We hadn’t lived alone or found necessary guidance in gender roles. Power was something our parents had.
He was beautiful: his hair was long and feathered. He was the fifth boy I wanted to kiss, the second boy I actually kissed, and the first whom I loved kissing. His smile took up half of his head and his teeth were whitewashed bricks. The first time we noticed one another we were at a playground near someone’s parents’ house. I had just jumped off a slide and landed inelegantly in a pile of wood chips. He said to me, “Adrianne, you look kind of like an egg.”
Then he grabbed my scarf and ran. My friend said to me, “I think he likes you.”
“Hmmwhat?” I said. “Who?” I watched him running across the field, my white wool scarf billowing behind him like some kind of ridiculous fantasy. My heart barged into my throat, where it remained for days.
Three months later:
He would break up with me in the school auditorium (a Teen Magazine quiz I’d taken just days before had asked: “How important is it to be a good girlfriend?” “Pfft!” I’d scoffed, confusing indifference with feminism, and circling not at all). I wouldn’t cry until the doors had closed behind me.
The first boy who’d kissed me would look up from his copy of Inherit The Wind. “What’s wrong!” he’d cry, running to me.
Four years from then:
I’d be visiting home on winter break from college and we’d go to the same New Year’s party — to ignore one another as we mixed drinks in the kitchen, then dance together near the DJ, and then pull one another deliriously toward a hallway. I couldn’t stop smiling. “Why do you keep laughing?” he’d ask.
I now know to stop kissing men who ask me this question; we have fundamental differences in our life philosophies and will never communicate properly.
Twenty minutes from then:
I hit my fist into the top of his head as hard as I could, stood up in disgust, knocked on Melissa’s bedroom door, and asked her to drive me home.
“. . . Adrianne? It’s late.”
“I know, I’m sorry. It’s just . . . I need to go.”
She wandered through the dark of her room, pulling on layers of clothing, while I stood a few feet away from his already slumbering form. He was still snuggled on the floor, dimly outlined against the blankets by a streetlamp’s light shifting through the venetian blinds. All grey and softness. I couldn’t tell if I wanted to punch him in the head again or hold him like a velveteen rabbit. We tip-toed around him and out the door: that was the last time I saw him.
But first, I was sixteen and he was fifteen, he had just grabbed my scarf a few days before, which I had spent filling a diary with declarations of his beautiful face, and now there was a party in a friend’s basement after we’d all gone sledding: our noses red with cold, bowls of chips on the coffee table, a movie on the TV, our friend Brendan sitting by the CD player and singing along. If man is five, if man is five, if man is five . . .
“Who is this?” I asked. “I love it.”
Everyone was distracted; musical instruments were brought out, Cheetos thrown. Melissa and Joel, married eleven years later, were possibly flirting. Nate was probably playing a keyboard or a bass or whatever he played. I’d loved him too, but earlier, and unrequited so whatever. What movie was on? I can’t picture it. I walked near the couch and the boy who called me an egg suddenly grabbed me around the waist and pulled me onto his lap.
And thus began a new happiness.
I’ve never been a person who touches other people. I didn’t hug my friends or cuddle with my family. My little sister used to try and snuggle up to me when we shared a bed as kids and I’d shove her away, pressing a jagged line into our sheets with my finger. “Do not cross this,” I’d say, “or I’ll kick you.” And as I grew up, it wasn’t that I didn’t want that natural touchiness my friends had with one another; I just felt like it was too late for me by then. I didn’t know how. I was a bundle of limbs and sharp angles. I didn’t have the right. To touch was to potentially invade.
But when the boy with the beautiful hair and whitewashed teeth reached out his slender arms and pulled me onto his lap, I melted into the couch.
In retrospect I was probably crushing him. He was like 5’2″. Still, he managed to surround me, fold me in. I was mute for the rest of the party, overcome with his closeness and warmth. He didn’t let go. Time stopped, everything was feeling. No other firsts would compare with that first time of being held.
Melissa drove me home and could tell I was trouble. I beamed and stared dreamily out of her car window.
“I just . . . don’t want you to get your hopes up so high,” she said. “It seems like this meant a lot to you, and maybe it was just . . . a passing thing for him.” Her eyes darted off the road to meet mine. “You know, I hear he’s kinda slutty.”
“I know, I know,” I insisted. “But I don’t care. We could never talk again. Anything terrible might happen tomorrow or months from now, we could date or break up or he could ignore me forever. It doesn’t undo tonight.”
When I got home I opened my CD player and slipped in my Rufus Wainwright album. I lit all the candles in my bedroom (it was the late 90s, we had a lot of them) and I curled up on my bed and I made a line of pillows and I wrapped my arms around it. I felt overwhelmingly safe. The warmth of his arms remained in my elbows, and I thought it would never leave. Loved! Loving! Happy, happy, happy.
Sure, easy for us, then. I didn’t know the sting of loss; I couldn’t dread that yet. I hadn’t built a library of ways to be hurt, evasion strategies, plan b’s. No bridges had been built to preemptively cross. Just me, on my desert island, an ocean shroud all around, with its mysterious creatures lurking beneath.
The main thing was, back then present happiness wasn’t predicated on the assurance of future happiness.
Last night I was walking back to my boyfriend’s apartment from at party at 4 in the morning. It’s been snowing and sleeting and raining pretty much nonstop the entire month I’ve been here, and the streets were a labyrinth of rutted ice and deep puddles. The wind rattled in the trees. And then, everything was quiet. No cars on the road at that hour, no bicyclists, no other pedestrians. Just the ice and wet streets, the gentle chatter of my boots. The party had given a glimmer of a feeling: that envelopedness, that excitement of something new, the ocean all around. I thought about being sixteen and wedged between pillows.
Also other tendernesses, other surprise sweetnesses — other ways to have been suddenly held. None of them lasted forever; each had its tip-toe out scene, its sting or regret. But so far, none of those endings have been what has stuck. When I think of you, I think of how we met.
You’re leaning over the counter top, your sleeves covered in sawdust — “Actually,” you say, “I forgot to ask — do you want to grab dinner sometime or something?” You’re sitting on top of a bronze turtle at the zoo, one hand raised to the sky in victory; I snap the photo. I’m wearing taffeta and your sleeves are cut off: the bottle points to me. We’re laying on a conference room floor surrounded by popcorn kernels and our shoulders are connected by an electric current: I lend you my sweater for a pillow and afterwards it smells wonderfully of your hair. (I know this because I brought it to my own face, to inhale; I know this because I hoped it would.) Your hand is on my waist and you’re spinning me around the room, telling me this is how your parents met. We’re on your porch and it’s getting cold — I say “I’m going to just scootch next to you, if you don’t mind” and your hand naturally falls on my shoulder, like it had always been there. It still is.
Warm, assuring, close, whatever might happen later. We could live this way.