My freshman year really sucked. My only friend switched schools, so I faced the Catholic high school alone. Without that automatic Best Friend confidence, I prayed to just be ignored, lest I say the wrong, weird thing. I was nervous and bookish and also 6’1”. I wore black pants and a black sweater and never raised my hand.
I did not care that my quiet, detached attitude just seemed stuck-up; it kept me from having to talk to people. I romanticized this life of solitude, of observing life from the outskirts. I could simply loom and observe, dressed all in black. Fall and winter were spent working backstage for community theatre productions, being real bitchy to my mom at home, and lugging around Infinite Jest, just so that people would know that I was deep and intelligent.
But by late spring, some things had changed. I was still sullen and weird, but I got my braces off. I got contacts. I discovered the Atkins diet, and shortly afterward, cheekbones. I emerged from my freshman year looking, as my biology teacher put it, like I’d “blossomed into a real woman.” At the time, this was quite flattering and inspiring. Now that I was a real young woman, maybe I could put myself out there a little more. It wasn’t necessarily bad to be noticed. As a real young woman, I could do things. I could engage with the people. So I got a summer job at a theatre company.
Trumpet in the Land is Ohio’s longest running outdoor theatre production. It details the hardships that befell the first Moravian settlement during the Revolutionary War. There were many hardships, but the very worst was the massacre of 96 Native Americans with mallets and fire. Google it; it’s horrifying. But it’s also a piece of local history, so there’s an annual show with a surprising amount of musical numbers. The cast was made up of a few returning leads and a horde of undergrad theatre majors from all over the United States. If you could carry a tune and felt okay painting yourself brown six times a week, you were in!
I was only an usher, which meant that I escorted patrons to their seats before the show, waved a flashlight in the parking lot after the show, and spent the rest of the time eating bunless hot dogs, teaching myself how to smoke, and listening to the other teenage volunteers gossip about upcoming cast parties. The job was so poorly paid that it was technically volunteer work. I managed to knock out three years worth of Catholic-mandated service hours in one summer.
I still don’t understand why I was allowed to do it. I think my mom was just glad that I had a thing to keep me outdoors and fairly occupied. She’d been single for years and that summer had started to date Ron, a great guy from church. All of a sudden, she had a social life that didn’t revolve around me and my sister or third-wheeling her couple friends. She was busy and having fun. She was sprung.
I was genuinely happy for her, but also really happy for me, because now I could do whatever I wanted. I could go to Denny’s and drink one cup of coffee until the middle of the night and no one said anything. Not that I’d tried to do anything before, but now I could. The summer felt full of possibilities.
At the beginning of the summer run, I met a guy. Clay was 19 and from Alabama and an AC-tor. He had dark hair like Johnny Depp, and intense, bright eyes, like Charles Manson. He was shorter than me, but when I did the lean, it was hardly noticeable. I knew who he was from all the usher gossip; brooding, a loner, passionate. I was into it. We met when he strolled up to the picnic table to bum a smoke. He looked right at me and asked if I needed a ride home. And
I said, Yeah, I do. One sec. I went to the snack bar to call my mom and tell her not to send Ron to pick me up. Because I had a ride already. With Clay.
The first time he drove me home, he handed me a warm beer – which I refused to drink, because carbs, obviously – and he played Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash” over and over. Which was not my favorite, but whatever. He asked me if I needed a ride. Which was thrilling!
The second time he drove me home, he parked at a cul-de-sac near my house and puts his arm around me and really opened up about Dave Matthews Band and Phish and all the people he hated. Not just people he knew personally that he hated, but like, celebrities and historical figures. I should have taken that as a sign; who hates Ladybird Johnson?
The third time he drove me home, we went to the cul-de-sac, the DMB is on, and he is all over me. Kisses on my mouth, holding my head. Making out is awesome. Just the best ever. I sat there with my hands neatly folded in my lap, he made out with me all over my face, and after a while he straightened up in his seat, wiped fog off the windshield, and drove me home.
Thus a pattern was established. For weeks, practically every night, my mom’s new boyfriend Ron would drop me off at the amphitheater, I would walk people to their seats then pretend to chain smoke, then wave a flashlight. After the show, it was Denny’s, a “cast party” (which was usually just drinking a handle of vodka in someone’s barely furnished apartment) and then, my favorite part; Clay would give me a ride home.
We’d go to the cul-de-sac and make out in a very passionate yet restricted way. Like, I refused to acknowledge that either of us existed below the sternum. Clavicle, really. Just, there was nothing below the neck, for either of us. Like if you had two heads on sticks and then made them make out. It was like that.
This was not because I had morals or values; it was because I was so self-conscious and not at peace with the fact that human bodies are squishy. So we’d do that for a while and eventually he’d heave a sigh, give up, and drive me home.
I don’t understand why this went on as long as it did. I was barely accustomed to other people viewing me as a “real young woman”, and was still studying the behavior of “normal girls”, so I couldn’t have been that engaging. But it was really nice having a thing with Clay. I felt more confident because of the attention, and I was more open because of the confidence. I knew that I wasn’t invisible, and it was okay, because a dude decided I was attractive, and thus worthy of other people’s attention.
The end of July came, and I’m still in the routine of make out, sleep late, usher, Denny’s, make out, sleep late, usher, rinse and repeat. It’s Sunday, which means we all pile into the Aerostar and head to church. It’s fine. Church is the same as always. I’m getting some weird rear-view mirror eye contact from Mom on the way home, but whatever. I’m just bitchy in the back row, ready to go home and listen to some burned Tori Amos CDs.
We get home and my mom stops me while everybody else files into the house. She gives me this mournful look and says, “What is all over your neck?”, I’m like, “What?” Instantly dismissive and bitchy. As I’m saying this, I see myself in the side mirror of the Aerostar, I can see myself, I am just covered in hickies. Old ones are like greenish and fading, and there are a couple fresh blue ones just like blap- blap- blap across the front of my throat. We’d just come from church, where I’d had my hair up in a ponytail and saw some teachers, and the priest who baptized me. The whole time, I was obliviously showing off the carnage in a scoop neck.
My mom asked again: “What is all over you?” I looked my mother right in the eyes, and without hesitation said: “ You know, after work sometimes, before coming home, I get together with the other ushers…and we play a game…with a snake-bite removal kit. And I lost.”
I told my mother I had hickies all over my neck because I had been playing with a first aid device designed to suck out snake venom.
You guys, she believed me. My mom believed me. She said, “Well, it looks terrible. Use some concealer and quit it.” And that was it. No punishment, no more questions. Just knock it off with the dumb suction game. I was shocked.
Things changed after that incident. I told Clay that I was becoming more and more ticklish as the summer progressed, so he had to cool it with the neck part of our necking. This was the final insult to his manhood, I think, so a ride home wasn’t guaranteed anymore. Clay and this other guy started working on a play that they described as “Rent, but in the suburbs, not a musical”. That took up a chunk of time. I was hurt, but I understood. I was able to keep some of the confidence I’d built up earlier that summer, and another usher started giving me rides home after Denny’s, so it all worked out.
Once the season ended, Clay and I never spoke again. Which was good, because I can see now that he was an absolute dirtbag.
A few years ago, I mentioned this incident to my mom, and she provided her perspective. Apparently, weeks after that Sunday, she’d told Ron my explanation, and he’d laughed and said, “Well, you know that’s a lie.” Because of course she did, deep down. She was pissed and disappointed, but she never mentioned it, because in the time between the stupid lie and her forced realization, my sprung spell had been broken and she figured that I had gotten shit under control. And I had, mostly. Through this experience, I developed confidence in myself as a real young woman. I learned how to be open and real with people. Also, I still hate Dave Matthews Band.
Megan M. Erwin is a writer living in the Cleveland area. A 2011 graduate of the NEOMFA program and the former editor of Whiskey Island, she’s currently working on some essays about shit she’s learned.