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I had sex for the first time when I was fourteen. I can sum it up nice and neat for you like they do at the end of that game Clue. Jimmy Mendelson. In the shed behind his house. With a rubber I stole from one of my dad’s tackle boxes. I’d found the rubbers a few months earlier, but had suspected my dad had other women for a good while before that. But that’s another story.
With Jimmy, I had been prepared for it to be short, painful, and underwhelming. That’s what the girls at school who’d done it said it would be like. But it wasn’t like that. It hurt like crazy, or at least it did at first. Soon though, I found myself loving it, the violence of our bodies slamming together, the pleasure that grew out of the pain. And it went on so long, I kept thinking the sun was going to come up. Little Jimmy Mendelson! Who would have thought he had it in him? But when we finished and I went back to my friend’s house where I was spending the night, it wasn’t even midnight yet. Johnny Carson was still doing his monologue.
All this was in Brockton, where I grew up. My dad worked the docks in Quincy and my mom was a secretary at the church rectory. In the summers, when I was still too young to be left home alone, she brought me to work with her so she didn’t have to pay for a sitter. I remember the pale yellow paint on the walls there, and the priest with the moustache that looked like a little broom, how he didn’t talk much but one day he told me I was a very pretty girl and that when I got older I would have to watch out for boys. It’s funny to think about that now. That priest and his warning.
When Jimmy moved away, I cried every night for a week. Not because I thought we were in love and were going to get married or any of that nonsense, but because it meant he wouldn’t be there to fuck me any more. And yes, we did call it fucking, even at that age. I remember the first time he said it while he was inside me. It was like he’d struck me on the side of the head with his fist; the word had that much force.
But I found someone else soon enough, a kid from further up Highway 1 whose name I can’t remember now. His house was behind the Ponderosa. He was attractive but timid and didn’t stick around long. Then there was Levon, who was named after the Elton John song. He was a biter. He left red, staple-shaped marks on my breasts. He came over to the house a few times, and I remember my mom saying she liked him and then me saying no, she just liked the song. And then the two of us laughing.
I started seeing Joe while I was still seeing Levon, and at first I worried that I would say Joe’s name while I was having sex with Levon or vice versa. Then I went ahead and did it, mixed up the names on purpose, just to see if I could get away with it. Joe didn’t say a thing, just closed his eyes and kept pumping away. I’m pretty sure he knew about Levon anyway. He didn’t care as long as he was getting his. Levon didn’t take it so well. He threw me across the room, gave me a black eye. So my dad picked him up one Friday night when he was leaving the restaurant where he bussed tables, drove him all the way up to the reservoir, and parked the truck on the ridge overlooking the water. He set a boning knife on the dashboard between them. You want to be the man? he said. You can take that knife and try your luck here, or you can walk your ass home and never come near my daughter again. Levon chose the second option.
I didn’t find out about all that until I went away to college, to a tiny school on the North Shore. My mom told me the day she moved me in. Dad and her were divorced by then but still seeing each other all the time, getting along better than ever it seemed. We went out for waffles and she told me about dad threatening Levon. Please be careful form now on, she said. I said I would. Then I asked her if she and dad were in love again. I was going through a sort of sentimental phase. Over the summer I had met Brent, who was different, quieter than all the rest up until that point. He was a musician, a sax player who’d moved from Connecticut. He told me he loved me twice that summer. I dodged it the first time by saying I was in love with his fingers. The second time I didn’t say a thing. What do you know about love? my mom said, smiling weakly at me from across the booth. Nothing, I said. Not a thing. I remember taking my hands off the sticky table and pushing my cheeks up with my index fingers, trying to act cute. But inside I was hurting. I was eighteen years old. And I had already convinced myself that I would never know love.
In college, there were plenty. Plenty of boys who thought they were men. I was with more than I care to remember. It’s not worth going into. The dingy bedrooms all blend together. All I’ll say about that time is that it’s almost funny how much worse it was – the sex itself, that is – than it was in high school. You would have thought they’d get better as they got older. Maybe it was all the beer. Brent, of course, had stopped calling after a few months. I wasn’t surprised. I had engineered the whole thing, made it easy for him to find out about the others. I knew the names he would call me well before he said them.
After I left school, I got a job with a shipping company in Worcester. Answering phones just like my mom did for the priests. I got a cheap second-story apartment next to a factory, walking distance from my job. I told myself when I moved in I would be here for two years, just long enough to save up enough money to move to Boston. I still haven’t left. I can’t say that I like it here, but I also can’t say I don’t like it here. If you’ve ever been to Worcester, you probably know what I’m talking about.
My dad came to visit last week. He comes maybe two or three times a year, stays one night, never any longer, then heads back to Brockton in the morning. He misses my mom, who’s been dead for going on five years now. Anyway, this last time he was here, he felt the need to tell me how he’d been unfaithful to her when they were married, and that it was his fault they got divorced. He said there was only one other woman, which was a lie. I used to sit on the roof outside my window when I couldn’t sleep, and I can tell you there was more than one car that brought him home in the middle of the night, more than one silhouette consumed by his in the dark.
“She was so good, Gracie,” he said. “Your mother.” We were sitting at the kitchen table, drinking coffee after dinner. “I didn’t deserve her.” He looked at me like he wanted me to be shocked, angry. He was like a little kid waiting for his punishment, waiting for his grown daughter to yell at him. And when I didn’t say anything, I could tell he knew. That I had known about his cheating all along.
His face tightened, went mean. “Well. At least I didn’t get around as much as you do.”
I took a deep breath, feeling as I did so the sting he wanted me to feel. “That was uncalled for,” I said.
“Right,” he said. And with that, he got up and stood at the living room window for a long minute before going to bed. After I finished my coffee, I went and stood in the same spot. The big maple that obscures the rail yard in the summer had thrown off almost all its leaves. They made a bright yellow ring on the small square of grass behind the building. It was cold in the apartment because I was waiting to turn on the heat. But I felt a certain warmth, as if my dad’s body had left its heat behind when he went to bed, and I was standing inside it, rooted like that tree in its circle of leaves.
The next morning, he acted like nothing had happened between us and I did the same. The news on the TV said a woman was dead after getting hit by a commuter train in Framingham. He had toast and I had an orange and he left after giving me the same rigid hug he always gave me.
I have since thought about what I might have said to him. How I’m a different person now when it comes to men. How I haven’t been intimate with anyone in a long, long time. But of course I didn’t say any of that, and will not. I’d like to think I am past the age where I feel the need to explain myself to anybody, my father included.