His face is so large, like the moon, looming. His eyes blaze and his whole body crashes into hers like a continent. Forests of hair where she has none, he is a man. She is a girl.
There is a differential, a gap in experience. Mind it. He’s lived through a dozen romances, but it’s her first time, really deep, madcap heart-crushing, barely breathing. Is this love or infatuation? It takes more than thirteen short years to know.
She wants. Who is she? Sable and Lori and Mandy and Myra and Virginia and Priscilla and Dolores and me. We want to explore the continent with our mouths. His strong hard on our tiny bodies. The flesh of him.
Nobody listened when I said I wanted it. Nobody believed me about how it felt in my body. It felt like I was jumping off a high ledge, tied by a magic string. Safe, but falling; I was free. Everyone told me that I’d grow up and see what happened was clearly wrong. That he was a predator, and I was a victim. I just heard that they wanted to clip my wings.
For ten years, I guarded my version of events with all the fierceness I had left. I wasn’t a child, I insisted. I knew how his body worked, and knew how to work my own. I knew how to flick my eyelashes, lift my arms so just a sliver of soft belly peeked above my jeans. I could grab gazes like they were candy. If I ever felt guilty, I pushed it away. Hey, it wasn’t my fault that the world was full of men like the one who let me steal sunglasses from the mini-mart because I let him leer at me wiggling down the aisle. It wasn’t my fault men went fish-faced at the sight of me.
I knew my desire felt like drowning in thick honey, and I knew how to let the slick of my want slide onto the tops of my thighs. I knew what it felt like to be wanted. To see a grown man on his knees, telling me I was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. And better: to believe him.
This story. The one I’m about to tell you? Some of it is a lie.
When I was thirteen, my mom’s friend, Debbie, came to visit. Debbie was my mom’s single friend—she had never married, and she was the stuff of legend. She owned a boutique, went to fashion conventions, and drove a red Firebird with a T-top. Debbie was the essence of single womanhood—confident, with her own money, and a lot of sass.
I noticed right away that Debbie’s hair looked different. Much longer than I remembered, and gorgeously permed, these cascading blonde curls hanging down around her mid-back. Looking at it, for the first time, I realized that there was hair, and then there was hair.
Imagine how delighted I was when Debbie unclipped the long, sexy hair from behind her bangs. She was still beautiful, just less than “MTV video queen beautiful.” The dirty blonde, shoulder length hair I remembered appeared.
“It’s a fall,” she said. “I got it at one of my conventions, and let me tell you, when I want to be noticed, it’s a godsend. I nicknamed it Dobbie—that’s my alternate personality when I wear it. You can’t imagine how quickly men offer to pump my gas when I pull in as Dobbie. When I go out as Dobbie, all my drinks are free.”
Dobbie was a superwoman. Powerful. Bringing men to heel.
I coveted her more and more as the minutes passed, as I stroked the curls of Dobbie, and wanted her for my very own. She seemed magical to my thirteen-year-old heart, which was already weary of being ignored. I thought if I had Dobbie, the boys I liked would fall to their knees instead of barely looking at me while they asked me if I thought my best friend, Paige, would want to go out with them.
“Try it on,” Debbie interrupted. “Your hair is close enough—I think it will match.”
I eyed her in disbelief before assenting. Me? Really?
Debbie clipped the fall into my hair, about halfway back, near the crown of my head. The curls cascaded over my shoulders and down my back. I have never had hair this long, and never so thick, so curly, so… grown up. I ran to the bathroom to check myself out in the mirror. Dobbie hid my awkward hairline pimples and overshadowed my dorky, long denim shorts. I was a dreamgirl version of myself.
I fluffed Dobbie and strutted provocatively around the bathroom. I bent from the waist and watched the hair swing down and all around my body. I watched my body move, my neck seemed longer. I looked older, powerful, bordering on womanly.
I ran out to the living room, and asked if I could go show Paige.
My mother barely looked up from chatting with Debbie and waved me off.
I strutted through the neighborhood. Near the main road, I stopped to tie a shoelace. As I was crouched over, a car whizzed by, and out of the window flew my first wolf whistle.
I blushed, and then I straightened into it. Like being hit, but deciding to embrace the sting instead of fight.
I felt visible. Watched. Noticed. It was as though the long march of prepuberty had ended, and finally there was something worth liking about me. And sure, I told myself, it was probably the hair. And sure, I knew that it wasn’t even my real hair. But still.
This was how I realized that I wanted, more than anything else, to be desired.
Before this, I always blended in. Sure, once you got to know me, I was interesting. I could hold a conversation with an adult. I was charming even. Witty. But that took more than a passing glance to know.
What I wanted now, what I realized was the most important thing, was to be recognizably special. I wanted to be hot. Sexy. Wanted.
And this was how I came to understand my power. My body was a sword. My mirror was the whetting stone.
I first encountered Lolita, Nabokov’s nymphet, when I was twelve years old. Adrian Lyne was remaking the classic film, and held an open casting call in San Francisco for a new Lolita. To prepare, I watched Kubrick’s film on the couch with my mother, eyes glued to the screen, insides molten with the dawning realization that there were other girls like me. I thought I was alone.
Lolita in the book was twelve years old, like me, but in the film they made her fourteen to make viewers more comfortable. Like me, Lolita was a victim of a desire she didn’t understand. Until I was thirty years old, I thought Lolita was a heroine. I also thought that girls like Lolita and me were rare.
Sable was thirteen when she had sex with Iggy Pop. Lori was fourteen when she was kidnapped by Jimmy Page’s tour manager and delivered to his hotel room. But she was thirteen when she lost her virginity to David Bowie. Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones started dating Mandy at thirteen, but waited until she was fourteen to have sex with her. Jerry Lee Lewis and Edgar Allen Poe married their thirteen-year-old cousins, Myra and Virginia, respectively.
Priscilla was fourteen when she met Elvis Presley; she married him seven years later. She was forged by a man during the exact period of time when she should have been forming her sense of self. “I was someone he created,” she said. “I was just a kid and I was consumed by him. All I desired was not to disappoint him.”
When I tell you that my life’s ambition was to be a famous actress, I want you to understand. I don’t mean that it was a hobby. I mean that from the age of five, when I first stepped into a yellow spotlight on the apron of a high school auditorium, until the age of nineteen, when I stepped onto a plane and left NYU, my singular obsession was to transform myself into the kind of great actress that makes history.
When I tell you about him, I want you to understand. He wasn’t just my teacher. He was the rockstar teacher of our theater program. He taught Shakespeare—the hardest, and most lauded subject. He went to Juilliard—the impossible, and most lauded school. He was born in Trinidad, and the traces of his accent under his Juilliard-perfect diction were exotic to a bunch of high schoolers, many of whom felt he was the greatest thing to ever happen to our school.
He was handsome and funny and accessible. Add to that his immense talent as a performer, and his genuine skill as a teacher. Add to that his personal charisma. His voice had a natural vibration, like a timpani drum, and it thrummed across our bodies when he spoke. Add to that he was a flirty person, really. With all of us, men and women, he had that sparkly look in his eye that said he knew what the rules were, and might sometimes break them. He was engaging. He cared what we thought. He made time for us before and after class, to tutor us and coach us.
When he asked me to babysit his three-year-old for him and his wife, I felt like I should be paying him.
When he kissed me, finally, after nearly a year of me pining for him to do it, I want you to understand how it felt. Not just the kiss part, which was magically soft and aggressive—a grown man’s kiss. I want you to understand that it also felt like I had won something. Not just his affection, his desire, his gaze. I had won the grand prize that all of my friends were after: the gorgeous, smart, talented, funny, and totally admired teacher.
I was on top of the world.
If this was victimization, my body had no idea. I was overflowing want and desire, I melted into his touch, my breath came fast, when it came at all. I lifted myself toward him, pressed closer, begged with all of my body language. If this was being exploited, if this was wrong? It didn’t feel bad. And I didn’t want to hear otherwise for a very long time.
There were moments, of course, when I felt a suspicion that I was actually overwhelmed. The same body that told me what felt good gave me indications that something was wrong. Idiot lights, but I ignored them. My feelings were too large, too foggy. I could barely breathe with him, let alone get my bearings. It was years before I knew how to say no, I’ve had enough. It was in my thirties that I discovered that I could handle the anxiety of rejecting a man, and that I was free to prioritize my comfort in my own body over making a man happy. At sixteen, I didn’t recognize a clear thought: that this was maybe a kiss too far, a squeeze too much, a mouthful of something that I didn’t really want to swallow, but didn’t know how to spit out. I didn’t know how to protect myself if that meant disappointing men.
What if I hurt his feelings?
I never worried about hurting myself. To suffer for my beauty felt like the natural order of things.
There were moments when I left my body to be with him, and my head floated near the ceiling. At the time, I thought those were indicators of my intense love and desire. I thought this was normal. It took me twelve years and a lot of digging into my guts with a therapist to understand that these moments were, in fact, markers of a trauma that I didn’t believe had occurred.
When I first started writing about myself as a teenage girl, I could only write in second person. You. As though she were so completely separated from me, she was a different person. You wanted it. You thought you were mature. You went over to his house of your own free will, and laid yourself on the floor in front of him. You were wet. You said yes. You had agency and desire. You were the one with the leverage. He lost everything, and you had nothing to lose.
Just recently, I began to see what I lost. It wasn’t a job, a wife, a house. There was no tangible evidence of my fall, no record of my mistakes to be expunged. There was only the wreckage of my early adulthood, the loss of my unstoppable nature, and the empty hole where once my confidence grew. There was only a string of decisions to run and run again, to hide from ambition, to leave the theater forever, and to disown my dedication as a childish fantasy. And the reinforcement of my suspicion that I was only visible when I was wanted, and that nothing about me would ever eclipse my objecthood.
He lost his job; I lost everything but.
When the whole world spins at his tempo, and he only has eyes for you, his gaze feels like power with an aftertaste of wonder. Wonderful. Wonderfalling.
Lolita lifts her mouth to his. Does she desire? In his fiction, she dares herself desire. Everything about her is filtered through Humbert’s narration; we only know what he will allow us to know, and what he sees is want. Her want is tidal, all of her spent crashing against the beach of him.
What might have been her slow self-discovery, he takes as his opportunity.
And what does he do? With great power comes great responsibility. Did he forget? Who was the first man to permit himself this? Before Humbert, before Jagger, before Bowie, even before Poe. How far back does this permission go?
He is supposed to say no.
Why doesn’t he say no?
Debbie drove a red Firebird with a T-top. I loved that car and the way it looked both feminine and powerful with her behind the wheel. I stared out the window and watched Debbie as she pulled in and out of the driveway, craning my neck to see her disappear down the street.
One day when I was still thirteen, while Debbie and my mom were smoking pot on the deck, I snuck into the house and took Debbie’s keys from her purse. I knew how to start a car. I thought I could handle the steering part.
I hadn’t anticipated the manual transmission.
I sat in the Firebird, in the driveway, keys poised in hand, for a long time. The heat got oppressive, the air turned thick. I put the key in the ignition and I flicked it to accessory. I wanted to press my foot down against the pedals and zoom off.
I sat in the car and stared at the gear shaft.
I wouldn’t admit it, but I was afraid.
That night I had a dream that I had started the Firebird and driven off alone.
I couldn’t see well, I noticed that right away. The night was too dark, and the headlights were dim gold holes in an otherwise overwhelming blackness. The windshield was there, but it wasn’t a portal to the road ahead, the way I was anticipating. The road was unlit. A small town, neighborhood road. It wasn’t even paved that well, let alone marked by streetlamps. There was only one streetlamp on my street, way down at the corner. I used to run into its little golden puddle of safety when I walked home in the dark, and got spooked by the witches I imagined in the shadows. In my dream, even my streetlamp showed me nothing of the road.
I could steer, but only with my instincts. If I thought about it too much, if I tried to concentrate on the words like left and right, the wheel rattled under my hands and the car seemed to buckle. If I relaxed and simply shifted my weight, the car did better. It was responsive, like it was made to hold me. Like it was mine. When I wanted to go faster, it flew beneath my body like we were one thing. Girl and machine. A fembot of my own imagination.
I felt the horrible lurching bump at the same moment that I heard the sound. Banging. I had hit something. It was big. Bad. My heart started racing. I couldn’t get my dreambrain around what had happened; I hadn’t seen anything coming.
In the rearview mirror, everything was lit up, as though behind me were a million streetlamps, all of them glowing their cold, purple light onto the macadam. I could see, clear as day, what I’d hit, and I felt the sickness rise up in my body. My stomach twisted. On the road. Not dead, but rising. It was the unmistakeable body of a man.
Rumpus original art by Jyotsna Warikoo Designs.