By: Jacqueline Skokna
At the age of sixteen, just one handhold from a boy was enough to convince me that I was worth loving. If I stood myself in front of a mirror then, my reflection bounced back with a good dose of teenage flaws and insecurities: hair too flat, hips too wide, lips too thin. But put me in front of a young man, and suddenly I became the most beautiful thing in the world. If his hand embraced the side of my face, I could forget the real ugly truths about myself, like how my alcoholic father had left me at the age of eight, carving out a hole of emptiness I recognized if only subconsciously, a hole I learned to fill with the deceptive magic of touch.
The first boy I kissed was a guy named Thomas, the fall of my sophomore year of high school at a house party. He was tall, and of course, I loved that. Tall meant he would protect me if harm came my way. It meant power. I was standing in my friend Lauren’s kitchen at her mom’s house, sometime in the middle of October. It was small, but on the nice side of town. It felt even more crowded because of the size, and students from the public and private high schools in the area flooded in from the basement, the back door, the hallway connected to the living room. I only knew a handful.
Us girls were dressed like we were ready to flaunt the red carpet: sequins, eyeliner, blouses that fell off the shoulder. It never mattered as much what the guys wore. For this reason I always felt the young women at parties were the stars of the film, the young men watching us walk from room to room like we were the plots unfolding, captivated like audience members. Boy or girl, we all stood there, drinks in hand, expectant and buzzed and a little aloof at first, like we were there to see someone but we were still figuring out who.
Thomas was the one to approach me. I was horribly shy with guys in the beginning, despite the admiring glances they gave me. I was told I was beautiful by more than enough of them, but being told you are beautiful and believing it yourself are two different things. That night, Thomas’s light brown eyes flickered my way, but I was standing with two gorgeous girls from the public high school, and I figured he was probably looking at them. The girls, with their tanned skin and bright red lipstick perfectly applied. I never believed I could pull that off with my lighter complexion. They were telling me a story about some guy in their math class. I was cracking up, although it may have been the beer making me laugh so hard, and I wasn’t paying attention to the rowdy pair of baseball players behind me who were alternately lifting each other up to drink at a keg stand. All of a sudden I felt a big splash of lukewarm liquid hit my upper back, seeping through my top. I turned around, annoyed, and realized the two guys hadn’t even noticed they’d spilled on me. They were swaying back and forth, clearly wasted, punching each other on the upper arm the way guys do, telling some story or another. What the hell. I left the corner I was in and went under the sink where I knew Lauren’s mom kept paper towels.
When I turned back around, a tall guy with brown hair and a dark grey t-shirt on was standing in front of me. He was the one I thought was checking out the girls I was with earlier.
“You good?” he asked.
I smiled at his consideration, for noticing me. “Oh, I’m fine,” I said. I unrolled the paper towels and ripped off a few, folding them over another to make the stack thicker.
He introduced himself. “I’m Thomas.” He smiled back at me, his lips turning upward into a small crescent moon, his dimples appearing like two tiny holes poked into sand. “Don’t mind those guys. They’re idiots.”
I wondered if Thomas was a regular at these parties. I hadn’t seen him before. I was so attracted to him I almost forgot it was time to tell him my name. “Olivia,” I said. I put my free hand out toward him. He shook it and smiled again, this time without his teeth.
“Can I help you?” He motioned toward the paper towels.
“Please,” I said, handing him them.
He dabbed my upper back with quick touches, soaking up the beer. I laughed at how ridiculous we might have looked, but also felt an odd kind of comfort from his help even though we just met. I look back now and see that even the smallest act of care from a man sparked a blind yet prevailing trust within me, and I think, maybe this was where my problem lied.
After he was done I turned around and thanked him. He said of course and asked me if I wanted another drink. The beer in my hand was getting warm, starting to taste stale and less carbonated. I told him sure, and he walked over to the corner of the kitchen and stuck his hand inside the fridge. His walk was slow and measured; it stood out from the otherwise chaotic movements of the other people in the room, moving in every which way, drunk girls flailing their arms around one another and telling each other how good they looked that night. I knew, even then, that those compliments to one another fell short compared to just one “you look hot” from a boy. That was the way it was, and at the time I just accepted it as truth.
Thomas returned and tapped the top of the beer can three times with his finger so the foam wouldn’t spill out the edges. He handed it to me, his gaze like one a friend would give you when he wanted to say something but couldn’t find the words. I almost had to avoid his eyes as I reached out and took it from him, our hands touching for just a moment, a brief yet powerful moment. I giggled because that was what I did to ease tension. Laughter was also a way to classify yourself as agreeable, content. And guys liked this about girls. It gave them the chance to be the ones in charge.
The rest of the night passed by in a blur, thanks to the amount of alcohol I had been consuming. Thomas and I left the kitchen and traveled to the back porch, where it was a bit quieter. It was pretty chilly, but my jacket was upstairs in Lauren’s room. We talked about our classes and families and sports teams, mostly generic stuff, nothing too personal. But I could tell he was flirting with me—he told me I looked nice three different times, and I was flattered.
Thomas was on his god-knows-number beer and I felt his left arm reach around me, fitting itself by my lower waist. We had been talking for maybe an hour and this was the first time he was really touching me. I felt a rush of something inside of me—soft, warm, comforting.
“That feels nice,” I told him, resting my head on his shoulder briefly. I leaned back up and looked toward him. There was an energy between us now, growing. His arm was around me, his fingers making tiny circles on my skin.
“Does it?” he said.
I smiled and reached out to touch his cheek. It felt a bit stubbly, like running my fingers across a soft-bristled hairbrush, and felt good against my skin. The memory of my father sitting with me in our living room flashed through my head then—when I was little I would sit on his lap and sometimes reach out to feel his “whiskers,” the start of his beard. This wasn’t my only memory of him, but it was the one I liked to play over and over like a favorite record. A desire rose within me to see my father, his big stature and well-to-do smile, but he hadn’t talked to me in years. He wasn’t even a ghost, just a still living person who decided to leave, and somehow this was worse than death. He chose to leave. No one else chose for him.
“What’s wrong?” Thomas asked, noticing my worry. “What’s that face?”
I shook my head, leaning closer into him. I was close enough to kiss him now, and that was enough to distract him from the fact that I was ignoring the questions he was asking. This was first time I learned that with young men, my language always came second to my body; what they could touch was always more interesting than the things I could say. But even I didn’t care about words in this moment. I looked at Thomas while his face traveled in the last couple inches and his lips were soft on mine—this was the kiss I wanted, the one I was waiting for. After a second or two, though, he didn’t pull away, and his mouth pressed onto mine with much more pressure and strength. His tongue felt like it was being forced into my mouth and I put my hand on his chest, pushing it with enough force to let him know to back away. It was a good five seconds before he finally backed away and I practically gasped for air when he did. He apologized, his hand on the back of my head further down towards my neck, his fingers between tufts of my hair that I had taken the time to curl before the party.
“I got excited,” he explained. “I can go slower next time.”
I didn’t want to offend him, so I let it go, saying it was okay. I wanted him to touch me, just not like that.
He asked if I wanted to go to his car. I looked at his pale face that contrasted against the navy sky. There weren’t any stars because of how close we were to the city. I felt nervous and excited and mostly didn’t know what to say. But I could tell he was dying for me to say yes, and I was a born people pleaser, so yes is what I went with, that time and many times after. It was like someone else had stepped in and said it for me and I was just the vocal cords producing the sound. Yes.
He grabbed my hand and we walked down the wooden steps. Scared as I was, this was also an adventure, and it was nice to get away from the ever-growing crowd of young drunk people. We walked around the side of the house to the side street full of cars. We stopped halfway down the block by a big oak tree where a black SUV shined in the dim streetlight. He opened the passenger door for me. I hopped in, and he went around to the driver’s seat. He turned on his car and put the heat on low. I reached my hands out towards the vent and let the warm air hit my fingers. I didn’t know what to say to Thomas—of all the stories I could tell my mother and my girlfriends, nothing came up now. Even with the alcohol calming me down, an awkwardness filled the car, and I felt hyperaware of each of our bodies. He turned on the radio, a classic rock station. My dad’s old favorite, according to my mom.
“Sorry, I’m just nervous,” I told him, which wasn’t entirely false. “This is new to me.”
“Don’t be,” he said. “It’s okay. I’ll be gentle.” And his hands were on my thighs then, rubbing them softly, then squeezing them as they traveled upward, and his touching erased every emotion inside of me, until the only thing present was what I thought was love, acceptance, affection at the least.
The rest of the hook up passed like it was someone else doing the kissing, the touching— not me. We moved to the backseat. His hands pressed my body down and my head laid uncomfortably against the car door. I bent my long legs and put them sideways so my shoes wouldn’t leave marks on his window. He was on top of me then, his body heavy but warm. His mouth went to my neck, tickling me, and laughter escaped between my bouts of deep breathing. I was all body; no words, no thoughts mattered. I was on a high from his touch—never before had I received such attention from a male, and it was like he couldn’t get enough of me. So when his hand moved to my lower stomach, and he looked at me with innocence and wonder, asking Is this okay?, I nodded a few times, not sure what I was agreeing to but trusting that his hands and his fingers and his mouth existed in that moment only to make me feel good. After a few minutes of this, he told me his mom was going to be mad he was out so late, that he was sorry he had to go. His car light was on now as he dug under the seats to find his phone. Once he did he handed it to me.
“Here, put your number in,” he said, more like a command than a question.
I did as he said, hopeful he would both call me and never talk to me again.
Whatever kind of intimacy that had existed between us while we touched had passed. His car felt too quiet. I had a feeling he felt it too, and I watched as he opened the side door, motioning for me to get out. I know he wasn’t trying to be offensive, but I couldn’t hide the disappointment and hurt on my face as I stepped out. What had just happened, and why did he need to go so abruptly? He hugged me for a second or two, his sandpaper cheek rubbing against mine.
“It’s so nice to meet you,” he said. We didn’t kiss.
“Yes,” I told him. “I had fun.”
It’s not like he was unkind to me, but our encounter felt off. I felt like we should have gotten ice cream or dinner or gone for a walk before we did what we did. Still, there was something attractive about the whole thing, and I was riding on the high of his kisses after it was over.
But that night, as I laid in Lauren’s guest bed, I cried as if on command, and I pulled the covers tighter around me like they could protect me from my pain. I sucked in gulps of air like there wasn’t enough in the world for my lungs, watching the changing shadows on the wall that were a reflection of cars outside passing by on the busy street. I wondered if the people in those cars knew where they were going; I wanted to ask each one of them because maybe by hearing their answers I could figure out my own. I wished my friend Lauren could hear me, but she was likely asleep by now.
I missed my father. I was hungry for a male presence, so that night I settled for the one male to really approach me, who took me aside. I gave my body up to him, each part of me had become his to touch, and he would forever hold pieces of me I could never get back.
As you can see, it wasn’t always a handhold with boys. Sometimes it was more. My mother never knew. She was busy working, a pediatric nurse. I’d come home, wasted or buzzed or maybe totally sober—it didn’t matter—and she would be asleep already for her six a.m. shift the next morning. She’d always kiss my forehead before she left as I lay in bed still sleeping, and when I got up there’d be eggs, an English muffin with raspberry jam, and a cup of tea on the table with a note alongside it. I’m proud of you, the notes said. It’s going to be a beautiful day. I knew she meant them too, even if she wrote them in part because she knew I did not have a father who could. Yes, my mother showed me love, but her love was not what I craved.
My hookups with guys became habitual, and my party-going continued. There were always more boys than girls at the parties. This fact had made me uncomfortable at first but soon it became exciting, a blessing. It made it so we, us women, were the ones in charge. Something happened when a boy touched me, and it wasn’t just biological, but emotional, spiritual. I became addicted to this feeling, craved it like a drug.
It was always horrible if I passed a boy I was intimate with in the hallway at school or at the neighborhood deli. Sometimes they pretended not to see me, or recognize me, so I started doing the same thing to them. In every area of my life, I felt proud to share what was going on, but this was the part of me I hid from everyone, the part of me that lay behind a piece of opaque glass that was bound to break at some point, but until then, no one could see it. I was thankful for that glass.
And so the number of men I was affectionate with grew larger – Patrick, who was in my speech class; Joey, a cousin’s friend; Chris, some guy at a pool party; Anthony, a boy on the track team; Nick, a quiet genius in the math club. We never had sex, but I was still offering them my body like they deserved it, had done something to achieve it. Every weekend was the same story—dress nice, fix my hair, do my makeup just so. Get to a party, wait for men’s gazes to rest upon me, let them approach me, listen to their sweet talk. I’d smile at them, charm them, look back over my shoulder suggestively when I left to get another drink, until they couldn’t help but touch me. When they asked if I wanted to go to a room or their car or whatever spot was available, that’s when I fell silent, any power I felt I had disappeared, and my loneliness spoke for me. My loneliness only knew how to say yes.
It took me years to figure out that in each man I reached out to touch, in each man I let touch me in return, I was looking for my father. Every kiss on the cheek, every hand rested against the nape of their neck, I was really asking, Is that you? I tried to find him in their features, in the short amount of time they spent with me, but he was nowhere to be found. And after we left each other for the night, or for forever, it was like my dad was leaving me again and again, and the pain was raw, searing. Each young man slipped away from me, compounding my brokenness and the memories attached to it. I did not miss them but their bodies, always larger than mine, with hands that could wrap around the entirety of my neck, with skin tasting salty from the smell of sweat, the smell that said this is the sign of a man.
It was my senior year of high school when I finally started to wake up. I had four shots of vodka in a row that night and was lonely as usual. I just wanted a body next to me—it didn’t matter who the person was. I had learned that my body didn’t exist alone, but became real the moment another’s hands were upon it.
It was an older guy, a college student, who I started talking to that night. Robbie was a twenty-something in a flannel shirt who offered me weed three different times in the span of an hour. He was home for Thanksgiving break and was the older brother of the girl I knew who was throwing the party. She lived in what looked like a mansion to me but what I was sure other people just considered a nice house. We were in the basement, standing near the pool table, watching people play. I watched the smooth tan stick hit one of the balls with more force than I could ever get when I tried to play that game. My eyes traveled from the game to his dark brown eyes, the room starting to spin a bit from my drunkenness.
“You are really, really attractive,” he told me, his hand reaching across my shoulders and moving down to rub my back.
“Do you ever play pool, Mr. Robbie?” I said, laughing at nothing at all, but still aware enough to change the subject of how attracted he was to me. It’s not that he wasn’t attractive, but something was different about me that night. Maybe because I knew he was older, I felt violated by his touch, disrespected even though I was allowing it to happen. Usually it was touch that calmed my anxiety, but that night it seemed to be creating it. His arm felt like a weight, uncomfortable and heavy on my shoulder, but I was so used to saying yes to men, to enjoying their touch, that no was a foreign word to me.
“I was thinking we could go to my room upstairs,” said Robbie. “It’s too loud down here. I could show you my music collection.” He winked, trying to be subtle. He grabbed my hand and I didn’t try to set myself free. I told him okay.
But inside me it a war was taking place, one part of me yearning to be loved, willing to do anything for it, and the other part knowing I wasn’t going to get any from this young man, at least, not in this way, in this place. Still, I followed him up the carpeted stairs to the wood floor of the kitchen where I almost slipped on the floor that was wet with whatever type of alcohol that spilled. As we traveled into his room without any of the lights on, it hit me that I didn’t know anything about him, and he didn’t know anything about me, either. He was headed back to school in just a few days.
“Come here, you,” he said, his voice making me feel even more lonely in the pitch-black darkness. I stood with my feet planted at the foot of the doorway. I knew I had to leave, but I was frozen with anxiety, my breathing quickening in pace, tears welling up like the corners of sidewalks after rain. In my mind, walking away from him meant I was walking away from any possibility of ever being loved. The heat from the vent blew toward me, making me sweat even more in my knitted sweater, and a voice told me I needed to stay there with him because this was all there was for me, this cheap form of love where human beings are stripped from soul to body, and then to nothing at all.
But I didn’t listen to that voice. “I can’t be here,” I said, my voice soft. I pulled away from his handhold and he pleaded like a child for me not to go, reaching out toward me like my body contained the answer to whatever questions he had. I was sure that it didn’t.
I didn’t even go back down to the basement to get my scarf or keys; I would have a friend grab them for me later. I opened the back door of the house and I walked and walked and it might have turned into running. The air was chilly and filled my lungs like when you drink water too fast and it makes you choke for more oxygen. It was late and maybe it was stupid to be walking alone, but I knew I couldn’t be alone in a room with that boy or any boy anymore. I wanted to be alone, at peace, untouched. I walked down the suburban streets, focused on the squares of sidewalk and counting in my head each time I took a step. Inside the houses I passed, people were making dinner, drinking cocktails, falling in love. And there were some who were reading children their favorite storybooks before bedtime, watching movies with their families on big screens, having a cup of tea with their spouses with just the right amount of milk before going to sleep. Inside those yellow, dim-lighted front rooms with the curtains half-drawn like they were stages, daughters played board games with their fathers, laughed with them, sat on their laps, told them stories. Not me, not me, I repeated in my head, the phrase too sad to ever be a song.
But for every daughter with a father in the world was another without one, so that night I chose to stand with that group, broken yet proud, united in our loneliness. That night I walked for them, with them; I marched as a body mutilated by touch, with burn marks the shape of fingerprints only I could see. I realize now, that night was the first time they started to heal.
* * *
It’s been three years since then. My father never came back, but the important part is I stopped expecting him to. After high school, I went off to a small private college in southern Indiana. I haven’t cared much for the guys there who have tried to pursue me the past couple years. My mind is focused on other things: my studies, my girlfriends, furthering my way into womanhood. Learning what woman means without man.
Some nights in between dreams I’ll turn over in bed and remember the feel of a young man’s touch, a hand on my shoulder or waist, the brushing of lips against my neck. I let myself feel the pleasure, the fleeting rush, but when I awake he is no longer the thing I am searching for. My nighttime plans don’t orbit around him; when his gaze is upon me I’ve learned to look away. And when I cross my arms and feel my soft ivory skin, aware of each freckle and limb and hand that used to be upon it, I no longer want to leave my body. Instead, I feel it for the gift it is, my hands upon my wrist, my legs, running along the delicacy of my fingernails like an apology.
The best thing about finding the courage to say no for the first time is how it gets easier every time after. I stopped going to parties second semester of my freshman year. Three weeks into school some guy on the baseball team was flirting with me and wanted me to go back to his dorm. I told him no thanks, that I’d rather stay around a group of people, that I didn’t know him well enough. He was insistent, though, and it seemed like he wasn’t used to getting no’s with his spiked up hair, his towering stature, his jock-status.
“But don’t you think –” he continued his pleading.
“You have nothing to give me,” I said to him, shocked at my words but calm while saying them.
He stopped bothering me after that. I left the hang out early to see a movie with one of my girlfriends. I told her the story as we passed a small popcorn between us.
“I can’t believe you said that,” she said laughing.
But I could. It had taken so much of me to form those words, but when I was finally able to speak them, they came out like water.
* * *
The other day I went with my mother to church. I was home for spring break and it was a
pretty warm day for where we lived, the familiar smell of spring newness in the air. I hoped flowers would be blooming soon; my eyes craved bursts of color when all they had been seeing was the winter darkness. We walked up the twisted stone path, in between the canopy of maple trees still bare from the harsh winter, leaving spaces for the blue-gray sky to fill in my line of vision. The big wooden doors of the church were open and out traveled the sound of a beautiful acoustic guitar, switching from minor to major chords with grace and ease, the notes floating away from the instrument out into the fresh air like steam.
My mother linked her arm in mine as we walked toward the music. We wore dresses and tights and I even had on my two-inch heeled boots. It was a special occasion to be home.
“You look lovely,” she told me. And I believed her.