She was thin. That morning, after her swim practice, she fluffed her hair with some mousse that made her somehow look even thinner, her strangles of almost-curls falling past her shoulders in a way that appeared effortless (read: messy) despite her well-planned outfit.
He picked her up in a green Toyota, political stickers hanging from his mirror. They listened to Elliot Smith as they drove to school in the car. (His choice, of course. She’d never admit it, but sometimes, when she was alone in her car, she listened to the country station.)
It was quiet for a bit, then, “Did you finish your history homework?”
“Not yet,” she sighed, as she pulled her thick textbook from her bag. Undoubtedly, she was going to have to work through lunch again. She didn’t mind, because undoubtedly, had she eaten lunch, she would have thrown it up anyway.
“How was hanging out with Will?”
It was fine, he said. She slid her hand across the center line and placed it in his, linking his free hand as the other coasted on the steering wheel. Occasionally, he would break grip and reach his hand up to change the CD player. She rested his head on her shoulder and cleared her throat. It had been extra scratchy lately.
She hadn’t always thrown up. It was something that came up and out of her when she started puberty, a habit that had grown until it now anastomosed with her daily routine: her body’s way of rebelling against the end of a childhood that deserved to have gone on longer and should have had more joy than it did.
Her childhood had been what most people would label as “adult experiences”: alone, mostly; reading books to pass the time, terse family interactions, the loss of a mother, having to understand and empathize with the mood swings and schedules of the adults around her. She was picked up by a nanny at school every day until she could drive. Some of the other moms would make pitying eyes at her at school events when her mom wasn’t there.
She backlashed by excelling to show them all up, and perhaps to show her parents what they missed when they were working. She participated in everything she could, got every high mark she could, and stressed more than she should. This is what it must feel like to be normal, she thought. Life is hard. Life is not good, but I must go on.
He made her feel different. He took drugs, but was very smart, and didn’t seem to really subscribe to the idea that you needed to accomplish things to be seen. He was just seen, wherever he went, no matter what. He attracted eyes like flies to a lamplight.
When she met him, he had a diaper, clean, pinned to his bedroom wall. When she asked what it was, why did he have a diaper on his wall, he was squeamish and quickly pulled it down, which amused her. He had long, black curly hair and wasn’t thin at all. People at school thought he was strange. She loved him.
That’s probably why, when he insisted that they have sex, she eventually caved. He was her world—her real world, the one apart from the achievement and the need to look a certain way and the one where the noble work of her parents kept them at arm’s length from loving her. (Or was something wrong with her that kept them away? She could never tell.)
At first, she didn’t want to. They had had a rough year—she had pronounced them broken up after he was away all summer and she found herself fancying a lifeguard she worked with. Not as smart as him, but less taxing to be with. (This shouldn’t have come as such a surprise to her—does anyone expect a man with diapers on his wall to be an easy companion?) As the lifeguard faded into the background they had been together, off and on, and he had even had the audacity to try to sleep with one of her best friends. A month of moping and 15 pounds lighter, they had rejoined only to surmount on this terrible question: when would they ever have sex?
“It’s been two years,” he said.
She said no, she was Catholic. She wanted to wait until she was engaged at least.
He persisted. Eventually, she got so sick of talking about it that she finally, exhaustedly relinquished. “Fine. Okay. Yes, yes, I’m sure.”
She still didn’t really think it was a good idea, not in the way she thought that a first time should be a good idea. In her mind, she had surmised that she would be entangled with the love of her life before she entangled her limbs with anyone else’s. But, she thought, they’d done every other first anyway, so it made sense that he should have this, too. It didn’t feel like a gift. It felt like the final piece, tearing from her. She was falling apart—he may as well finish the job.
So they did it. It was slow, and she didn’t feel as good as when he just used his fingers. It was over in less than 10 minutes. She started crying.
“Was it worth it?” he asked.
“No,” she said, and cried some more.
“Did I do something wrong?”
The silence was cavernous and hurt her the way your ears are hurt when you drop a book in church and it makes a louder echo than it should. She knew the answer, but it would take too long to explain.
“No,” she said. “I just want to go home.”
She got in the car. He had followed her out.
“See you tomorrow?” he said.
“Sure,” she sniffled, not necessarily knowing what was the matter. The tears kept leaking from her eyes.
Arriving home in the dark, she crept downstairs to avoid her parents with her tear-streaked face. They would be concerned. She felt a little guilty, but mainly, she felt an uneasiness that was hard to pin down.
She might have cried because she had begun to sense something about her existence: that she was utterly failing at steering the ship of her own life. Her first time was not in the arms of her husband in the hotel room after her wedding, or her fiancé. It was not even in her twenties with a man she wanted to marry, subversive yet practical, like she’d planned. It was in the dark basement of her almost-ex-boyfriend’s alcoholic mom’s house, an event filled with love but mostly sadness and resignation, instead. She might have cried tears of awareness of something she couldn’t yet comprehend, the pain deriving from what could only be felt as a ripping of an internal cloth, a rip that changed her perception.
For years, looking back, she’ll think that this moment was the moment that taught her–no, forced her–to realize that it was all okay. That sometimes, you love someone and then you leave them. Perhaps, you still love them for years, and you cry when you hear about their engagement a decade later, when you’re 25 and single and cold and alone in your car. Then, later that evening, you run into them by chance at a bar and look them in the eye and, through a broken smile, utter the first words you’ve spoken to them in 8 years: “She got a good one.”
Because perhaps, she’ll think, the boy who pins diapers on the wall will always be yours, only yours, forever and ever. And you are glad you gave him the best gift you could, because he was the one that deserved it. Perhaps, the hurt is for the light that shines on the other side.