Posted on September 17th, 2012
I am fifteen, when it starts, or fifteen and a half, and I have cut off most of my hair. We are in the same creative writing class, and I’ve started to write these poems, about an older boy that I don’t know, because it’s safe, and whatever adolescent longing I’ve accumulated from being the bookish, blush-prone, chubby nerdy girl who then developed a love of backpacking and wearing men’s boxer shorts as outside shorts doesn’t matter, in between the syllables. One of these poems, I can’t remember which, makes you write me a letter, and hand it to me, as we’re leaving class. The letter tells me that I have stunned you. You have a girlfriend. I ignore them, those two stray marks near the end, the x, and the o.
When I write back, and we have never had a conversation yet, outside of talking around ourselves in class, it begins a series of passed pieces of paper in the hallways, growing steadily fatter. I write more longing odes about a boy who isn’t you, you tell me about lying on the cool tiles of the bathroom floor as the weather grows warmer. I get chosen to attend the same young writer’s conference, in Vermont, that you went to last year, because you, also, are older than me. I realize that I will turn sixteen while I am there, and this seems like a sign, somehow. It seems like something.
Our teacher is a small, kohl-inked eyed woman, whose irises are a remarkable glowing golden yellow brown, and what I don’t tell her is that, in her compact curvaceousness, whenever she talks about love, or her lover, I think so. There is hope. Hope for the non-smooth-limbed of us, the short of us, the those of us who cut off most of their hair and whose bodies are always willfully full, instead of waningly slender. Who tape their shoes together, and their nerves, and button their old lady cardigans tight. When I show up to be driven to the woods to sit and write with other earnest teenagers, you show up too, and hand me a present. Books of poems, each different, each with an inscription in your spindle script. They are written by communists, alcoholics, South Americans. You say you look like Tom McGrath. You tell me I am better than one of them. It is like a cake I have eaten, sweet and unexpected, and we still say nothing. And, at the bottom of the bag, tapes—each with a handmade cover. On one, a clear blue sky, a weathervane, white drifting clouds. On the other, a bottle green wall, a telephone booth. I can’t listen to them, yet. I know that I can’t. Good luck, you say. You will be great. I say thank you, and I know it’s the wrong thing.
I get in the black Saab, and think that it is like my teacher, compact and startling in its ferocity, and she drives in a way that exhorts the car to find the right words, choosing lines up the curving back roads in a steady, growing hum of barely leashed catastrophe. There is music that I don’t know on the radio, and she tells me that it’s the Smiths, and I think that she is the most glorious thing, the brightest, the best, everything the secret parts of myself want to be, and because I am fifteen and a half, I don’t say that. I say ‘cool.’ The driving is carbonating my blood. I am so rarely in any moment, but I am in this one. Black car, black tar, black music, the fine hairs on my neck. The golden cuff on the upper slope of my ear. The heavy weight of the unsaid in that bag of books near my feet, tipping their edges against my shin with each sharp banking turn.
The girl that I am rooming with, in our old farmhouse at the edge of the meadow, whose wide porch looks back towards the barns, houses, and cluster of buildings, is a mouth breather at night. She doesn’t believe in deodorant. Our room takes on the subtle smell of night skin, and onions. She performs herself, red hair, glasses, an eastern European name, poetry about sex, loudly, daily. I button myself up inside my dad’s old oxford shirt. His old jeans. My duct-taped shoes. I hold your letters inside my head when she talks about fucking. It seems like a country I’ll never visit. I run a hand through the animal-pelt brevity of the hair on my neck, catch the eye of the brown-haired, no nonsense girl I’ve befriended from another room. We grin. The way that we did when we were all doing introductory tai chi on the lawn, and told to exchange our energies in widening circles between us. This is my dance space. This is your dance space. I think about all of the unspoken languages and their grammars. I don’t think about you, but feel the ghost of you following me across the lawn, and sliding down my back on the way in to the dining hall. It is May, but cold here at night, still. Your gaze seems like some sort of heated beam that followed me from Connecticut, and never fully disappears from somewhere behind my lungs.
I never tell anyone, so I’m not sure how they know, on the second to last day, that it is my birthday. But suddenly, in the middle of the noisy hum of dinner, the local college a cappella group arrives. And they are performing. And then, I am hauled onto the lap of the shaggy haired, grinning, oh god you’re cute frontman, and he, they, are singing happy birthday to me. They all are. The room is full of it. I have turned into a tomato. The most pleased tomato in all of Christendom. And there is cake. Glittering with candles, with the perfect voices, with the less perfect ones, with the sandalwood smell of the twenty year old boy whose arm has come casually around my dimpled waist as he tells me to have a happy birthday. To get in touch when I am eighteen. I eat a piece, thinking that the future tastes like buttercream.
When later, I slip away from the too much, all at once tightness, with the sweet sting of frosting still sticking to my newly sixteen year old mouth, I discover that it has snowed. I am too warm from the barn, from the blood that won’t leave my face, and the wind that comes over the field brings both grass and winter with it in a cool kiss. There are so many stars. I start in the darkness, towards the distant glow of our porch lights, knowing that other friends are waiting there. I feel the taut curve of my full stomach against the waistband of my father’s pants, and it feels good, it feels clean, to be here, my feet going numb in the unexpected white. I finally listened to a tape last night, which felt like an adult intimacy, songs chosen to go from a small hissing reel directly into my waiting ear. While I walk across the field, your words, and the last song, rise up, in two spare voices. I sing them to myself, in the not-spring, not-winter air. “and a tricky young southerly wind/came at me with its high whistling sound….I turned around to face it/with real arrogance burning inside/and I drank in/the whole, wide world.”