In the summer of 1979, I was Mark Merlini’s girlfriend for four hours. He lived down the street and suddenly seemed cute, so we kissed for about a half-hour on the hill behind his house, facing the Route 11 bypass in Gilford, N.H. He kissed with his mouth open, so, of course, I opened mine. Our mouths created a strange suction, which I found unpleasant and a little stupid. When I broke up with Mark—after I’d walked home, had time to think about things and called him on the phone—he thought he’d frightened me with his sexual prowess.
“We don’t have to make out,” he said. “I guess we moved a little fast.”
“It’s not that,” I said. “I just don’t like you.” After he protested a few more times, I hung up. My reason for breaking up with Mark was no more truthful than his vows to keep us together, but it was the best I could do when I was 11.
Boys like Mark were a dime a dozen. I was either friends with the guys in grade school, or their rivals, with a reputation for being as tough, as quick and as mean as any guy. I gained their respect by outlasting them at dodgeball, standing alone in the circle while they pitched the kickball and missed me, one by one.
I thought I knew as much about sex as I did dodgeball; I just hadn’t put my expertise into practice yet. I read a lot and was a know-it-all about plenty of things I’d never done, and though I can say, now, knowledge without practice is pretty close to ignorance, I really thought I had a handle on things at 11.
I began working that year, too, in a boardinghouse for men managed by my Uncle Joe, who lived there free in exchange for taking care of the place, keeping it clean. I rode my bike downtown, and Joe and I would split up and each take a room, change the sheets, vacuum and dust, seeing each other only at the end of the afternoon when we’d fold the sheets from the dryer, putting them away to use the next week.
The boardinghouse was always empty—I never saw a soul—and the rooms were so neat that you wouldn’t think anyone lived there at all, outside of Uncle Joe. Each room had standard issue furniture, dark brown and clunky. The bedspreads and curtains were the heavy polyester of cheap hotel rooms in the typical colors: olive, orange, mustard yellow. The rooms were ugly and sad, and I imagined that the tired, old men who lived in them had lives too dull to be messy, had too much time on their hands to be much good at all. But signs of life popped up in the most unexpected places. Above the door frames, between the mattresses and the box springs, and inside the closets were the most impressive and frightening pictures of naked women I’d ever seen.
These were not your run-of-the-mill, foggy-lensed Playboy shots of cute, clean-shaven girls wearing cowboy hats and bandannas and holding lollipops. These were mean women crouching toward the camera, ready to pounce and claw. Their thick, meaty thighs were spread wide, with piles of dark, curly hair and wet, pink vaginas that looked menacing, terrifying to me. I’d seen the Playboy Bunnies and I’d seen my mother lounging in the bathtub of our one-bathroom house when I absolutely had to go, but I’d never seen women like these before. Their sexuality was a weapon; their bodies housed something dark and powerful and completely alien to me.
I could accept the childlike image of the bunny, and I felt close to the mature, maternal sexuality of my mother’s body, but I had no idea what to do with the force in these split-wide, come-and-get-me pictures. I didn’t know if their power was something I would have in me, if it was something I’d need to hide in the way those sad old men slid those pictures beneath their mattresses or inside their closets, afraid of their desires.
Until I worked in the boardinghouse, I had this vague idea that boys were the ones to make the moves and the mistakes. After all, Mark Merlini had asked me out, and I broke up with him only because he wasn’t doing it right. And I suppose I would have broken up with him had he tried to travel more bases than an 11-year-old girl would be comfortable with. But Mark Merlini never made me as uncomfortable as those women of the boardinghouse did, and to this day, I admit that I’m still more comfortable dealing with the desires of others than coming to terms with the strength of my own.