Losing it

No lover but the first will ever know me as both a child and a woman.

Published February 13, 1998 11:14AM (EST)

I was 17, laid up in bed with gauze stuffed into the corners of my mouth, sick to my stomach after having my wisdom teeth pulled. I felt woozy from painkillers and restless inside the stuffy house; it was summer. My boyfriend came by with daisies and a milkshake. He sat on the edge of my bed gently touching my cheek with the back of his hand, feeling sorry for me, with me. There wasn't much to do. We were stuck inside and couldn't even make out.

That night he carried me from my bed and placed me in the back seat of his black Jeep. The roof was off and he had made a bed with pillows and blankets in the back. He told me to lie down, then he covered me up to my chin and tucked the blanket around my sides. "Just look up," he told me. "Look up at the stars while I drive around, and try to forget about the pain." The elegant suburban roads were silent and the air was thick with humidity. With his left hand steady on the wheel, he reached his right hand back and held onto my leg for the whole ride.

That year we made our home in the back of his car and between the sheets of my twin bed, anywhere we could carve a small piece of freedom -- which, at that age, at 17, seemed more important than sex. Wordlessly we pledged to protect one another, to be each other's family. It was Us Against the World, an expression I didn't even know back then, I only knew what it felt like. I found my self -- or who I thought I was -- buried somewhere beneath the blanket that was him.

It was a feeling I had read about, the giddy splendor of finding someone who could show you how to read a map of yourself. Young love began with Judy Blume. When I was 9, her books, manuals disguised as literature, were the preferred contraband at sleepover parties and overnight camp, where the "good parts" were read aloud by flashlight. I kept my copy of "Forever" -- tattered, with the binding Scotch-taped -- under my bed. On the cover, the book was billed, as if in blinking neon lights, as "a moving story about the end of innocence."

Katherine, the 17 year-old narrator, meets Michael at a New Year's Eve fondue party in suburban New Jersey and the two fall hard for each other.

We kissed one more time and then he touched my face gently and said, "I love you Katherine. I really mean it ... I love you."

I could have said it back to him right away. I was thinking it all along. I was thinking, I love you, Michael. But can you really love someone you've seen just 19 times in your life?

Well, yes. Especially if you're 17.

"Forever" is more about sex than love, but then in high school it's hard to tell the difference. Katherine struggles with her decision to lose her virginity -- she feels her body is ready, but not her mind. Eventually, though, the time is right.

Page 115 of my copy of "Forever" was folded back, the corner creased. It is the "losing it" passage and I read it over and over, thinking it a was a blueprint for all girlkind, thinking that when it happened to me it would happen just this way.

I tried to relax and think of nothing -- nothing but how my body felt ... "Are you in ... Are we doing it?"

"Not yet," Michael said, pushing harder. "I don't want to hurt you."

"Don't worry. Just do it!"

"I'm trying Kath, but it is very tight in there."

"What should I do?"

"Can you spread your legs some more ... and maybe raise them a little?"

Katherine and Michael's early attempts at intercourse were strained and miserable. He came too early, she was in pain. But eventually things picked up. With access to her family den and the keys to his sister's apartment, the couple was able to sneak off and get some whenever they wanted. The sex added a layer of urgency and intimacy to the relationship and soon the young lovers were promising that they would be together -- yes -- forever.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

For me, the yearning would start spontaneously, just by glancing at him as he turned his face against the wind to light a cigarette. The way his hand gripped the stick shift or he gingerly picked up my cat could set me off. He unlocked a door somewhere inside me and I was tentatively stepping out of myself and into a dangerous and delicious place where my eyes were always wide and my mouth always watered.

Both of us lived with our mothers, who were too preoccupied with their own traumas to get in our way. While they loomed just above the surface, we bobbed around in our secret erotic underworld. With my back against my bedroom wall, we twisted in my twin bed, maneuvering and exploring. There were moments of transcendence and some of horror. It was never anything he did, just that sometimes, when things got too rough or weird, or when my girl brain wasn't communicating with my woman body, I would turn away from him, hating him, unable to speak.

On weeknights I brought the phone with me into bed so we could talk until we fell asleep, not in each others arms, but close. What did we talk about for all of those hours? What was it that we had in common? I don't recall. Whatever we shared, I can still smell it, damp and sweet like moss. Whether it was a love born from sex or from comfort and security, it was real to us then and remains the most palpable, pure love I have known. Only he understands what it was like in my house. No lover but him will ever know me as both a woman and a child.

"Forever" wasn't enough once I was in high school. The characters seemed too scripted, the love scenes underdeveloped. It wasn't enough to know that Katherine "came," I needed to know exactly how she got there. Their lives lacked the tortured pathos of teenagehood that was the badge I wore each day. I no longer saw myself in them.

Only recently did I discover the book I was yearning for then -- "Into the Great Wide Open" by Kevin Canty, a richly textured story not only about sex, but about how alienation can flourish amid love. It's a tale of two fucked-up kids suspended in the stultifying haze of suburban anguish. It's not a new tale, but the way Canty tells it, it becomes brutal and fresh.

In a van, on the way to a weekend retreat for teens, Kenny Kolodny falls in love with Junie Williamson's neck. Stoned out of his mind, he fixates on the back of her head, staring at her short, "butchered" hair and her pale skin, wanting desperately to know her. "I want to be inside you, he thought. Both ways. The way that men's bodies ended at the skin, no way out; but women's bodies had a hole in them, a place you could enter ... the longing wouldn't stop, the isolation. He wanted to escape himself. I want to be inside you, Kenny thought and sent the thought her way, so she would at least know."

Kenny and Junie -- both smart, jaded and depressed -- live on the periphery of their high school universe. Kenny's family is a shambles -- his mother is locked away in a mental institution, his father is a stay-at-home alcoholic. Junie is a rich girl with suicidal tendencies. The couple discover sex within the walls of Junie's fancy suburban home. To Kenny, Junie is ambiguous, fragile and erotic. Her body, her gestures and her troubled mind keep him perpetually titillated. "This was new to Kenny: he had always been a visitor to girls' bodies before, quick to come and quick to go. Now he owned one girl's body."

Kenny narrates their love story 10 years after the fact, as a 27-year-old. He recalls how they navigated their convoluted world of pleasure and pain, testing the limits of desire. It was all new, this drama, and they acted out their roles tentatively, wanting to fall deeply but holding back out of fear. Still, all these years later, Kenny is tangled in Junie, still trying to figure out what it all meant.

"Fucking after fights was best, the edge of anger pushing them hard against each other so a little of the fight spilled over: you're mine now, you're mine now, you're mine now... She thrust against him, she dared him to make her come. The loving touch, and then the other kind. His teeth on her nipple. Junie bites. Nothing either of them wants to know: how close they've always been to violence, fuck you, no fuck you."

To be young and in love is to know instinctively that the romance will eventually end -- that your young self will eventually grow beyond the cocoon you formed together. While you are
falling, unchained, through the prism of someone else, you are aware that
each second is numbered, each kiss a gift. "Kenny saw her body like it was something he was leaving behind, the lasts sights of a familiar city disappearing in the rearview mirror; and for the first time he saw that they could fuck this up. Until then he assumed that love would make them bulletproof."

It's been ... how long? He called recently to tell me he's dating someone new. It doesn't sting anymore, when he tells me about the other women, though it did for years. We do this -- keep each other appraised of our jobs, relationships, whereabouts. If we lose track of each other, then we would have to bury our relationship and all its twisted shards, and we're not ready for that. Those pieces made us feel alive once, once we were bound in a fury of adolescent passion. If we can't be sure of each other, if we lose touch, then it's really over. The relationship draws its last breath and we're forced to surrender -- to admit that finally, without our consent, we have grown up.

By Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

MORE FROM Lori Leibovich

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