Life lessons from a wayward teenager.
Lucinda, my pretty teenage babysitter, was crying again, and she kept talking about sin. She did not have to tell me she was pregnant for me to know something was up — I was a canny ten-year-old. Her boyfriend, Rob, was a DC cop; her True Love had died in a gruesome motorcycle accident. There was, it seemed to me, an unfair amount of gore in Lucinda's life, and I felt for her the same way I felt for neglected stuffed animals and silverware unevenly distributed in the drawer.
No matter what doubts she may have had about Rob, she believed she only had one choice. My parents smiled a lot and said supportive things. When she was not there they put their heads in their hands.
Lucinda continued to cry off and on, especially the day that Rob got mad, and set the wedding invitations on fire. She cried so much that even my little brother Judah tried to be nice to her.
Finally, the wedding day came. I had never been inside a Catholic church before. A crucifix in the air, taller than I was, thrust forward a mournful, surprisingly muscular Jesus; below it, an elderly priest approached the lectern. The priest smiled at us, opened his mouth, and paused. A great invisible hand pushed him backwards, and he disappeared with a muffled thump.
Swarthmore's campus was misty in the September moonlight as a group of us swayed towards one of the school's two frat houses, unsteady with cheap liquor. Being drunk in public still felt novel: this was only my second or third weekend at college, and I was among strangers from a mint-julep party hosted by an actual Southerner. I'd lost count of how many plastic cups I grimaced through in what I could already tell was a typical dorm room — Ishmael and Ender's Game on the bookshelf, Klimt's "Kiss" pressed against the white cinderblock wall. Someone suggested that we move on to DU. Alcohol had made me amenable to anything, even frat houses.
The smell of summer, like the light from the lampposts along the path, made the whole green world benign. We passed the school's cafeteria; to our right, a steep hill sloped up to the base of a gothic gray bell tower.
"You know," I said, "I've never been carried."
As though they had been waiting for this moment, warm, solid arms circled me, and my feet left the ground. I was too surprised to protest that I was too heavy, and anyway, with every step, someone was proving me wrong.
"Hi there," I said, when the boy put me down.
"Hi," he replied in a low, textured voice. "I'm Chris."
I was the one who was breathless. I had never even spoken to a Chris before.
We kissed for a while on the stone steps of the bell-tower. My friends Anthony and Carrie stumbled over giggling and fell down beside us, which seemed to emphasize the rightness of what Chris and I were doing. Anthony, tangled up with Carrie, suggested we go to his room, where he had two beds and no roommate.
"I'll be right back," Chris promised not long after we arrived, leaving me in one of the beds. "I just need to tell my friend from Bryn Mawr what's going on. She came here to visit me."
Even then, I knew what one did with a friend from Bryn Mawr. I lay on my back looking up the ceiling, which had the texture of cottage cheese, and felt honored to have taken precedence over the other girl. After seventeen years of chastity, of Jewish Day School, Jewish camp, boys named Ari and Avi and Josh who looked hungrily at my breasts but had no clear plan for how to approach them, it was, I felt, finally my turn.
At the end of the last day of fourth grade, my best friend Zach whispered, "I like you." I ran away. When we returned for fifth grade, we acted like it had never happened. One afternoon, while we were upside down on the monkey bars, he said, "Do you want to go out with me?"
"The half-day before Thanksgiving. We can go to Hardee's."
When the bell rang, we took our backpacks and walked to a strip mall close by. After lunch at Hardee's, he bought me a pink dollar-store bubble necklace shaped like a teddy bear.
Back at his house, we decided to play hide and seek. Quickly enough, we found each other beneath the laundry chute in his basement. He was pale for an Israeli, with brown curly hair, woodsy green eyes, and a nose that turned up at the end.
"You know that movie My Girl?" I asked.
"Yeah," he said. Of course. Everyone had seen My Girl.
"You know that scene? What they do under the tree?"
"Yeah," he said. Of course. Everyone had seen My Girl…
"Wanna do that?"
"Yeah," he said. And he kissed me.
Once home, I ran downstairs to tell Lucinda, who was folding laundry and watching soap operas. She cheered.
Anthony and Carrie, in the other bed, were doing something energetic that required a lot of breathing. I kept my eyes on the ceiling, humming, trying to figure out the various ways Chris could be Jewish. The name made it difficult to believe, sure, but he was wearing a Hebrew-language Israeli army t-shirt. Maybe it's his dad who's something else, I thought. Maybe his full name is Christopher.
"Hey," whispered Carrie. I looked over.
"Where did Anthony go?" I asked.
"He thinks that guy that he likes is hooking up with that other guy, Brandon. Ester, I gotta go home. I don't feel good."
"Five minutes? Please? Just 'til Chris gets back."
Five minutes became thirty and then the whole night seemed to pass by as Anthony tripped in and out of his room, alternating between attending to Carrie and checking in on his crush across the hall. Carrie pleaded for me to take her home. I promised I would.
Finally I saw a rising tide of bile in Carrie's eyes. Then, as we staggered up, Chris and Anthony came back, side-by-side, with very different looks on their faces. "I have to take her home," I apologized.
Gallantly, the two boys walked us to the entrance of the dorm. Chris kissed me a last time and asked for my number. Carrie made it back to our dorm before puking and I went to bed enveloped in a warm cloud of self-satisfaction, but not before sharing the story of my adventure with my friend Rebecca.
"I made out with my first Chris!" I said.
"Wow!" she said. "Your first non-Jew, and he's black!"
"Black," she repeated.
I stared at her.
"Well, what did you think he was?"
"Sephardic!" And we both had to sit down on the cool linoleum floor because we were laughing too hard.
Zach and I dated for almost a year. As our grade's first couple, we qualified as celebrities. Kiss, people would insist, fascinated. One girl followed us around waiting to catch us at it. We did not kiss much when people were not watching. I kept my pink bubble necklace on my dresser, where I could see it in the morning when I woke up.
When I got back from brunch the day after hooking up with Chris, I was greeted by a blinking red light on my phone. He had called! It was only twelve hours later, and he had called. It must have been because I had left him wanting more.
My adult romantic life was to begin at last. After false starts, fumblings, boys who called me "buddy," I would have my own boy, one who could fulfill the promises of college as easily as he had swept me up the hill.
Hi, said his voice, as calloused and sexy as I remembered. It was really nice to meet you and I had fun last night. The thing is, uh, I sort of have a girlfriend? But maybe we can be… friends?
Priests raced to the lectern. Two of them crouched over the fallen man while the third decided to take charge of the congregation. "Let us pray," he said. Everyone shifted into position until my parents and I were the only ones left seated. I looked down at the plush kneeler and over at my parents, who shook their heads.
The fallen man stayed fallen.
After an ambulance came for the dead priest, Lucinda sat on the steps, crying into her manicure, surrounded by her bridesmaids and her mother. "Darling, maybe it's a sign that you can walk away," her mother said. "No one will blame you."
Walk? Run, more like. A dead priest is a second chance, God reaching through the clouds to say, Seriously, I don't interfere too often. You really shouldn't marry this guy. Still, Lucinda refused. Maybe the baby kicked under her wedding dress; maybe she felt that the bad luck her ceremony portended was what she deserved. The church brought in a relief preacher and the wedding started over.
My relationship with Zach ended when he called me to confess that he thought he liked someone else. I cried for a few minutes and then watched The Simpsons and felt better.
Years later, he took me to our senior prom. In love with another Ester, who was indifferent, he brooded through prom, dancing with me twice, keeping an eye on her. Though my heart threw a tantrum, I kept a straight face. By then, he was hollowed out by the strain of being the most beautiful boy in school, lusted after by everyone except the girl he could not have, and I was swollen by years of the disappointment that came from being one of many.
Anticipation and nostalgia pulled at me, hard. I was still panting for my life to begin, but more, I missed the simplicity of being young with him under a laundry chute, waiting for the future to tumble down.
By the time my parents told me the end of Lucinda's story, it had been years since I had seen her.
"She's getting a divorce," said my mother.
Apparently, in addition to being an abusive control-freak (which Lucinda had known), Rob was a secret cross-dresser (which she had not). Worse, he stole her money to buy the women's clothes he wore out at night with other cops. These buddies testified at the trial that Rob was a great, perfectly normal guy, and that it was Lucinda who was crazy.
"Why didn't she keep the receipts?" raged my mother, a lawyer. "She found the receipts! All she had to do was keep them for evidence."
"She was scared," shrugged my father, also a lawyer, behind his newspaper. "Of course she got rid of them." But he was angry too.
The judge awarded Rob custody.
This is the most remarkable part of the story: Lucinda married again. How could she have? How could she move on — from the First Love motorcycle tragedy, from the Cross-Dressing Cop, from the knowledge that a man had died to save her (two men, if you count Jesus) and she'd ignored the sacrifice? She was my first Catholic; her story exposed me to my first church, my first unwed pregnancy, my first shotgun marriage, my first shotguns, my first drag queen, and my first corpse, but improbably she was my first example of resilience, too. The triumph of hope over experience, sure, but also the triumph of life over pain, which, as Lucinda taught me, is much the same thing.