I am seventeen and am informally adopted by a German geologist. He relocates “the family” to Perth, Western Australia. I fall madly in love with a younger but older boy who is a high school dropout and does nothing all day but smoke pot and practice handstands. His name, perfectly, is Caleb.
Caleb does not believe that I am a virgin. I do not necessarily believe it myself, but take offense at his Catholic schoolgirl inquiries. To prove something either to myself or to him, or simply because it is time, I propose that Caleb relieve me of my tedious purity.
The night Caleb crawls in my bedroom window it is raining and there is a rich, tropical smell in the air. I have romanticized the entire event down to my beautiful white teddy and so am quite surprised by things that go against my imagination. Things like condom wrappers, frustrated prodding and excruciating pain. Nonetheless, when Caleb asks how it was I tell him it was incredibly beautiful and continue to believe it for the rest of my life.
Caleb shows up at my window many more nights after that, and I am always happy to see him. I find relief in the fact that sex becomes less and less painful over time. While initially disappointed by his lack of affection after the act, I quickly begin to look forward to his falling immediately asleep. While he is unconscious, I twirl his ocean-hard hair into funny knots and watch his gorgeous face until I get drowsy. Then I wake him up and tell him to leave. And he goes out into the night not knowing what a buffoon he looks.
Adoring him brings about a new kind of laughter in me, and it is through this laughter that I realize I am in love.
But now Caleb and I break up, because I accidentally kiss another man one night in a bar. I say accidentally kiss but in all honesty it is pretty standard behavior. The accident then is in not taking notice that this time his brother is there.
“I think we should take a break,” is what Caleb says, when he calls the next day.
Meanwhile, I turn eighteen and my heart breaks when I realize what has happened with Caleb and I surprise myself by just how poorly I do on my college entrance exams. Still, I get accepted into a mediocre program and plan to attend university in Australia and turn down the offer at the University of Colorado.
So I meet with a career counselor to work out what classes are appropriate for my direction. I have decided I want to be a writer.
“You don’t need to go to Uni to write women’s books,” he tells me. “Just write away to any romance company and they’ll send you their format.”
“It’s something you could do from your kitchen.”
“From my kitchen?”
The counselor eyes me suspiciously, trying to ascertain why I struggle with his words. Am I even dafter than the average woman?
Meanwhile I eye him in much the same way. Eventually I tell him that romance books were not what I had in mind.
He laughs. “What then? Classics?” and sends me on my way.
I leave the meeting feeling finished before I even got a chance to begin.
Meanwhile, I have not heard from Caleb in weeks. He doesn’t return my calls, and when I call, his mother sounds like she feels sorry for me. I feel sorry for me.
If I were still with Caleb, I might not make the decision to leave Australia after my disheartening meeting with the counselor. But I am not. So I do. And I do so proudly, with a certain “Fine. Who needs romance?” attitude that I find almost communist.
Thus begins my anti-romantic phase, in which I return to America. The experience of Going To College and Being On My Own and Experimenting With Drugs and Reading Great Literature affects me deeply. I move into a house with four boys and share a bed with two of them.
The first boy is a Christian with a sexual appetite that is insatiable.
Because of his beliefs, he struggles so hard to resist this.
And I find his resistance irresistible.
The second boy is a wrestler who does not know how to make the first move.
Sexually, the year is spent as innocently and as disciplined as that. I study hard and uncover all sorts of things about the world and myself that I never knew. I am at college at a time when studies in diversity are first being initiated. I find everything I learn to be completely liberating. The drugs I take alongside my studies manage to enhance this view.
By the end of the school year I feel not only brilliant and strong but practically immortal as well.
During the summer I choose to take a trip to California to visit a girlfriend. Having no money, and being incapable of being harmed, I find absolutely nothing wrong in finding a ride through the local newspaper.
That people raise eyebrows when I say this only spurs me on more. “Poor mistrusting conventionalists,” is what I think. I believe with all my heart that I have something to teach them about life, which is something along the lines of Live Bravely and Largely. It never occurs to me that perhaps I am not the first one to embrace this credo.
Nonetheless, I allow the Christian to meet the driver I have found through the newspaper before I leave, to put his sweet, Jesus-loving heart at ease.
“Okay. There’s nothing to worry about with him,” the good Christian sighs, giving me a goodbye hug.
Much later I wonder what it was that made him think that.
We leave for California in a rainstorm and by Utah the so-called innocent man has pointed out to me both that he used to be an officer of the law and that he still carries his police baton in the back of his car.
There is no real surprise in finding that by Nevada I have not only realized my mistake but am living to regret it.
The word he uses for my feeble attempts to keep his hand from between my legs? Shy.
When we arrive in California he lets me out at a gas station somewhere in Los Angeles. I call my girlfriend and give her my location. She says, “He let you out in the worst part of town!” But everything that occurred during the course of the trip is negligible compared to the fact that I made it out alive.
The girlfriend picks me up, hands me a joint, and speeds me to Palm Springs where she has arranged for us to stay with her uncles.
The couple, John and John (“The Johns”), take us out to dinner that night and try to gently coax the story from me. It is easily over a hundred degrees, but I am trembling like crazy.
What has gotten to me is not so much the fact that I was violated as it is the harshness of finding out I am capable of being violated. This I had not known. Even with the women’s studies classes, I had not known this. I must not have been paying attention.
My girlfriend and I sunbathe naked in Palm Springs for days on end. At night I am grateful to have her in the same bed with me because I continue to be that scared. The trembling gradually ceases, but by the time my body unwinds completely, my being has a different mindset.
The mindset goes something vaguely along the lines of “I am not capable of protecting myself in this world.”
Within a couple of weeks I telephone the wrestler. “I want to come home. The Johns will put me on a direct flight to Phoenix. Can you pick me up there?”
The wrestler acts the part of knight in shining armor. He picks me up in flip-flops and a beat-up brown Honda civic and I don’t know that I have ever been that grateful to anyone.
He takes me anywhere but home, and I scarcely notice. My favorite thing during this time is to drive in his hot car with my eyes closed and my head in his lap, listening to him sing songs like, “Leave a Light On, Fanny.”
“You okay?” he asks occasionally, and I merely nod. I don’t feel like I know the words to anything anymore.
In time I grow to worship him because I believe his life is easy and free and with him I am able to be the same way. I trust that he alone is able to keep me safe and refuse to let him out of my sight.
With him I turn twenty, and leave my teenage years behind.