There's a story I don't tell about two stupid things that happened.
One thing happened the summer before high school started. I was at the beach by myself. My friend Lori and I were supposed to ride our bikes there together and then she couldn’t, so I went alone. When I got there, I went for a swim in the ocean and then I spread out my towel and lay down on my belly to read. I was doing the summer reading for freshman English. I was facing the pavilion because the sun was in my eyes when I faced the water.
After a while, I became aware of a few boys hanging out on the porch. Later on, there were more. Eventually, without really looking up at them, I could tell there were maybe 15 boys on the front porch, all standing together in this weird, quiet tableau. One of them giggled. Suddenly I realized. They were trying to look down my bathing suit. Well, stuff like that happens all the time. I wasn’t really sure why they were so determined, but I also wasn’t going to let on that I knew.
As I shifted around and turned pages, there were a couple of other noises that made me wonder exactly what was going on. I tried to take a subtle look at myself, and I saw that one of my breasts had completely come out of my bathing suit top. You could see everything. It was, I guess, worth standing quietly on the porch for however long it had been. I hated to think of how long it had been. I yawned theatrically, pushed my book off the towel, and put my head down so the show would be over.
There was a chorus of disappointed Awwws. I pushed my face down into my folded arms and wished I never had to lift it up again. I heard them walk away.
I didn’t like going to the beach for a long time after that.
I know it sounds crazy to claim that this...incident...had such an effect on my life. Maybe it wouldn’t have, except a couple of those boys knew who I was, and it was only a week before school started back up. They talked about it. People think boys don’t talk the way girls do. Oh, but I forgot! The girls took up the thread. And there were a lot of girls who were thrilled to spread the story of how I flashed the boys at the beach.
You’d be surprised how a stupid little story clings to you, when you’re 14, and after. It spread--this is a cliché, but like wildfire, and just as scary. I could feel the heat of it on my face. There was no way to put it out. Even though I knew which boys were the source, I just couldn’t walk up to them in the halls and say,
“I wasn’t flashing you on purpose, and you know it.” Now I would. Now I say things like that to guys--and girls--all the time.
I’ll always feel like it set me up for the next thing, the other thing, the bigger thing.
Mike was in my English class freshman year. That first day, when he walked into class, he took my breath away. I didn’t know he was this big Cross-Country star, the freshman who was winning statewide meets. I just thought he was beautiful.
That afternoon I told my little sister Lily about him, and she said,
"Boys can't be beautiful."
“Boys can be beautiful,” I told her. “His face is perfect--all chiseled lines, like a statue. And he’s tall and muscular, but graceful, too.” She listened eagerly. I started giving her what I called the Mike Report every day.
“He has such cute shoulders.”
“He asked me if I had memorized the list of prepositions.”
“My notebook fell off my desk and he picked it up for me.”
“I teased him about his Mickey Mouse t-shirt and he smiled!”
Then I heard that Homecoming was going to be a Sadie Hawkins dance. There was a rumor that the Student Council president--she was one of those girls who's not only gorgeous but also looks 25--wanted to humiliate her ex by asking some totally unsuitable guy. I still don’t know if it was true, because by the time the dance rolled around, Keeley and that guy were back together, and of course they were Homecoming King and Queen. I wasn’t really following the Keeley story anyway, because I was trying to work up the nerve to ask Mike to the dance with me.
I wanted to get to know him as well as possible; but I didn’t want to wait too long in case someone else asked him first. I asked Lori to find out if he had a girlfriend or someone girlfriend-adjacent, and she asked the other girls on the freshman volleyball team. No girlfriend. There had been someone on-again, off-again in 8th grade, but she was away at boarding school.
One random Thursday I psyched myself into it. I had meant to prepare, wear an especially cute outfit, have some funny things to say, but then I just decided it was better to surprise myself and get it done. It was one of those October days when it suddenly gets hot again. At the beginning of the day I had on a flannel with my jeans, but by fourth period I had tied it around my waist and I was just wearing a cami with a bandeau underneath. When the bell rang at the end of class, Mike bolted out and I jogged after him.
“Mike!” I said, too loud, wincing when not only Mike but a bunch of other people in the hall turned around.
“Yeah?” he said, seeming sort of irritated. Half of me was thinking, “bail! bail!” and suddenly wondering if he even knew my name, but the other half pressed on.
“I was going to...I wanted to ask you something.” At least the other people kept walking, and it was just us left in that stretch of hallway. He turned to face me, seeming friendly enough.
“I was going to ask you...I wanted to ask you...if you wanted...would you like...will you go to Homecoming with me? I mean, want to go to Homecoming together?” That was better, that part at the end. I should have practiced after all, I thought.
“Homecoming,” he said, and his eyes traveled down to my chest, and stopped. I crossed my arms in front of me without thinking, and he looked back up at my face.
“Sure,” he said. “Let’s go to Homecoming.” He didn’t smile or say anything more, and we stood there for a minute until I finally said,
“Thanks,” which made him laugh, and then I made myself laugh too. Don’t comment on how awkward this is, don’t comment on how awkward this is, I said to myself, and then blurted, “Awkward!” which he ignored.
“Gotta run,” he just said, and I said, awkwardly,
“Of course. Later.” He took off. I went in the girls’ room, splashed some water on my face, which felt hot, and put my flannel back on.
Nothing changed between us in class, and Mike didn’t suggest that we hang out after school or go to a movie or anything like I kind of thought he might do. It seemed like people might be whispering about me in the halls, but that wasn’t new. I asked Lori to do damage control whenever she could.
“If you hear people talking about that day at the beach, could you please tell them it was an accident?” I said to her.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Tanya,” she said. “You need to let this just die down, let people forget about it. You’re the one making a big deal about it.”
“That’s not true,” I said, “I’ve never talked about it to anyone. Only you,” I said. “But people act weird to me.”
“Well….” she said.
“Don’t be mad, okay? But you kind of make people be weird to you sometimes.” She let out a big breath.
“What? What does that even mean?” I said. We were walking downtown to get coffee, because it was Friday and she didn’t have volleyball practice.
“Nothing. Just, you’re so intense, Tanya. About everything, not just this. Let it go.”
“It’s not fair, people are saying something that’s not true.” I said.
“This is what I’m talking about, this is not some cosmic injustice. Suppose you did purposely flash a dozen guys at the--”
“I KNOW! It would be better if you had or if you made a joke of it, that day or when school started. It’s better to make a joke of everything.” I didn’t even know what to say to that. We walked a block in silence.
“So you won’t help me,” I said.
“I just don’t think it’s a good idea,” Lori said. We walked a little farther.
“Maybe you should be happy they wanted to look,” she said.
“ARE YOU SERIOUS?” I shouted, and a mother with a stroller across the street looked over at us and shook her head.
“No, no,” Lori said. “Just, I don’t know. Forget I said that. Are you excited for the dance? What are you wearing?”
“I’m not sure we’re going. He never says anything about it,” I fretted.
“Of course you’re going. My mom’s taking me dress-shopping tomorrow, do you want to come with us?”
Lori had a boyfriend already, a soccer player. Everything for her was--not easy, but easier than it was for me. She and Alex found each other right away, and she didn’t even have to ask him to Homecoming, they just fell right into making plans about driving and flowers.
“I might wear something I already have,” I said.
“Tanya you can’t,” Lori objected.
“Why not? Who cares if I wear my 8th-grade graduation dress? Mike wasn’t there.”
“You just can’t,” she said. “Ask your mom for some money, and we’ll pick you up tomorrow morning. Okay?”
“Okay,” I said.
Two days before the dance, I had to stop Mike after class the same way I had when I invited him.
“Yes?” he said, looking past my shoulder down the row of yellow lockers.
“Are we...are we still going to Homecoming?” I said.
“Sure,” he said, “Right.”
“Do...my parents need to drive or--”
“Nah, I can get a ride. There’s guys from the team going, probably. Party after, too,” he said. “Look, I have to go. I have that class across the building, remember? You’re always--” and he took off. I didn’t get a chance to tell him my dress was black, so any color flowers were all right.
On the night of the dance, I had to put off my mother’s questions.
“I don’t know exactly when he’s coming. It starts at 7.” Raised eyebrows. “He said someone from the Cross-Country team would drive us. I don’t know the guy’s name.” They freaked out, and I panicked, saying,
“You have to let me go! I’ll never live it down if they come to pick me up and I’m not allowed to go in a strange car.”
At 7:19, after my parents had reluctantly given in and asked me many more anxious questions, a horn honked in the driveway. My father frowned.
“It’s because we’re late,” I said, grabbing the black clutch bag my mother insisted on lending me and the white rosebud boutonniere I had ordered from Jessie’s Florals. “Otherwise he’d come in.” I went out the door and waved, dashing down the front steps and teetering a little on my shoes, even though they were only two-inch heels. It was warm for November and I didn’t bring a coat. The back door of the car opened and I looked inside, then climbed in next to Mike.
“Hi!” I said, and handed him the plastic boutonniere box. “This is for you.” I tried not to look around or seem expectant. That was good, because there was no corsage anywhere. Mike looked at me in my dress, which I loved: it was tea-length, with a full black tulle skirt, a velvet bodice, and black illusion yoke and sleeves. I thought it looked like Odile in Swan Lake, or an ice skater.
“Kind of goth,” he said. “I thought you’d wear something...sexier.”
“It’s not goth,” I said, “It’s like...Emma Watson.”
“Or a nun,” he said.
“You look nice,” I said pointedly. He was wearing a tweed blazer and a striped tie with a white shirt.
“Thanks,” he said. We were still in the driveway, and I realized the couple in front had been watching our whole exchange, and the girl was chuckling.
“I’m Andie,” she said, “and this is Cole. Mike, you should probably be a little nicer to your date if you want to have any fun tonight.”
“I’m very nice,” he assured her, and Cole, who still hadn’t spoken to me, backed out of the driveway and peeled off down the street. I sighed quietly, thinking about my parents hearing that noise from the house.
It was not fun. I did everything wrong, from filling a plate at the buffet--apparently no one eats dinner at the dance--to “hanging around” Mike too much.
“Aren’t any of your friends here?” he asked me.
“Well, Lori’s here but she’s with Alex…” And you’re my date, I didn’t say.
“What’s with the puppy dog eyes?” he mocked. They filled up with tears. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he said, almost angrily. “We don’t have to stay here much longer, I’m just trying to figure out where we’re going, and then we’ll have some real fun.” I glanced at the dance floor, and he followed my gaze to the couples, currently swaying slowly. “You don’t care about all that, right?” he said. I shrugged and shook my head.
“I’m going to go to the ladies’ room,” I said, to escape the conversation, and he said, absently,
In the ladies’ room, a curvy girl with a chin-length bob was standing at the sink, crying.
“Everything’s going wrong,” she sobbed, and I nodded and went into the stall to get her a bunch of toilet paper. I handed it to her and she wiped her face.
"Want to tell me about it?" I asked.
"Not really," she said, gulping a little but obviously trying to get it together. "I don't think my date likes me very much."
"Join the club," I said, and she made a face, so that was the wrong thing to say.
We both went back to the dance, and I gave her a kind of encouraging pat on the arm before we parted.
“What took you so long? Who's that fat girl?” Mike asked as I walked up.
“She’s not fat,” I said, and I watched her rejoin her date, a tall dark-haired boy with a friendly, open face. They disappeared into a crowd by the photobooth. “I didn’t think you cared where I was,” I said. I tried to make it flirtatious but gave up halfway through the sentence, because I was feeling the first stirrings of some long-overdue anger. Mike picked up on it.
“Hey, don’t be mad,” he said, putting his hand on the small of my back. His hand was warm, and his shoulders were just as broad and his face just as cute as it had been when I saw him in English class on the first day of school. Cuter, because he was smiling down at me, seemingly just for me. “I just hate this kind of scene,” he explained. “I’m looking forward to later, when we can talk.”
I looked around.
“What do you want to talk about?” I said.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he said. His hand was still on my back and his thumb stroked my waist a few times, which made me shiver a little. “How hot you are.”
I know. When I tell myself this story now I can’t believe what a jerk he is. I knew, I knew at the time what a jerk he was. Part of me knew. I was such a baby, though, I was still a little girl. I didn’t think I was, but I was. I look at the freshmen now that I'm a senior and I can’t believe how little and fragile they look--the girls and the boys. They’re so vulnerable sometimes it makes me feel angry, but mostly I feel protective.
The funny thing is, the morning after that dance, I woke up feeling a million years old.
At 9 o’clock, Mike told me we were leaving. I hadn’t danced with him or anyone. I hadn’t eaten. I had talked to a few people I knew from middle school, and I had spent as much time with Lori as I thought I could without ruining her night or making her mad. She didn’t act mad, at all; but I could tell she was puzzled by the way my date was going. For a while, we watched Mike make his way around the gym, slapping backs, punching arms, and laughing loudly.
“He hates dances,” I had explained. “I guess he doesn’t like dancing, a lot of guys don’t. Some runners are putting a party together.” She nodded. Alex’s parents were taking them to a diner and then home after the dance, so there was no chance we would end up at the same party.
“The dance goes until 10,” I said to Mike.
“You’re always arguing,” he said. “Aren’t you looking forward to hanging out with me?”
“I’ve been trying to hang out with you,” is what I should have said. I couldn’t seem to say much, that night. I had the weird feeling of being in a dream--the kind where you can’t take a step, or open your eyes all the way, and especially the kind where you can’t speak. I knew he was being a jerk, but I thought maybe it was my fault he was being a jerk. I thought I was doing something wrong. I returned to the back of Cole’s car and rode to some random junior’s house, in a neighborhood I didn’t know, on the other side of the river.
It was a dark neighborhood, full of tall trees and big houses far apart from each other, not like my street. We parked in front of the house and the four of us walked around the back, Andie giggling and the rest of us silent as we clomped across the hollow-sounding wooden deck to a set of sliding glass doors. The kitchen was dark but light and sound spilled from an open door that showed a carpeted stairway. Cole and Andie headed for the basement but Mike grabbed my arm as I started to follow.
“What’s your hurry?” he asked, slinging an arm around my waist and spidering his fingers up my rib cage.
“I thought the party was down there,” I said, pointing. I could hear the shouts of people enthusiastically greeting Cole and Andie. I didn’t mention how hungry I was after abandoning my embarrassing buffet selections, and that I would give my life for a handful of broken chips at this point.
“Haven’t you had enough of other people? Shouldn’t we get to know each other a little?” he asked. He moved to put both hands around my waist.
“This nun costume thing is growing on me,” he said. It hurt my feelings, but at least it was a compliment.
I’m so angry at my 14-year-old self. I know, I know, I’m not supposed to be.
He kissed me, in that dimly lit kitchen--I remember noticing a frog statue wearing a tuxedo and holding a bottle of wine before I closed my eyes. It was a good kiss, for a first--it was my first. Mike was gentle and his lips were soft, but as it went on it also felt urgent, insistent, in a nice way. He held me tighter and I held him back. For the first time all night I felt like he was as excited about me as I was about him. When he let go I staggered a little, and laughed.
“What?” he asked sharply.
“Nothing,” I said, and I put my hand on his arm to reassure him. “Let’s sit down somewhere.” We wandered into the next room and sat on a soft, suedey couch, sinking lower than I expected. Mike got up on his knees and hovered over me. I pressed myself into the corner of the couch.
“You’re so tense,” he said. “Relax.”
“I’m not tense,” I objected.
“You are,” he said. “Don’t you like me?” It was dark but I could see his adorable face, his eyes twinkling with charm and concern. I blushed, which I remember hoping he couldn’t see. I said,
“I like you a lot,” and then, “Do you like me, though?”
“Of course I like you,” he said, and he leaned in to start kissing me again. One hand was behind my head, and the other was stroking my side, which felt amazing. Suddenly I felt the hand move around to my back, and I felt and heard my dress being unzipped. I sat up.
“I…” I said, but he continued to unzip, and pushed my shoulder down with his left hand, pressing his lips back down onto mine.
“I want to see you,” he said. “You’re so hot.” I wished he would stop saying hot. I wanted to be beautiful, or pretty, or even cute to him. He pulled my dress down off of my shoulders. I wasn’t wearing a bra because I didn’t want the straps to show under the illusion fabric. As I spoke, I pressed my hand on the velvet part of the bodice so it wouldn’t flop over.
“If I’m hot, it’s probably because there’s a whole person, like, on top of me,” I joked, and it did not work well at all. Mike stopped and looked at me, confused and seemingly angry.
“Don’t you like me?” he repeated. “If you don’t like me, I can stop.”
“I told you I do like you,” I said, and my stupid voice wavered and rose.
“Shhhh,” he said. “You don’t want anyone to hear us.” I bit my lip and turned my head away. “You’re stubborn, you know that?” he said. I knew that saying “I’m not stubborn” would not help my case.
When I tell this story--well, I don’t tell it. I told it to myself a lot at first and then I learned not to. I’m not sure I know the whole story...anyway, if I told anyone this story, it would sound very different than it felt at the time.
At the time it felt like I kept making mistakes. Now, it looks like the mistakes are
1) giving in
2) not knowing Mike was a jerk
3) sticking around.
At the time, it felt like the mistakes were
1) making Mike mad
2) maybe hurting his feelings
3) ruining a chance for us to be together.
I stopped being stubborn. I looked back up at his face, into his eyes, and tried to believe I saw love there. Then I closed my eyes, and Mike and I are still the only ones who know what happened after that.
This story that I don't tell: I might start telling it.
Vera Vaughan Hough is a good mother, bad housekeeper, avid reader, and aspiring author. She lives in her beloved hometown, between two rivers and five miles from the sea. She likes to run and to acquire all her information accidentally through narrative.