I am ten years old and have just been cast as sexy for the first time. I feel the eyes of a high school boy land on the hem of my eyelet mini-skirt. Twirling a strand of my tumbling hair around my index finger, I take two steps deeper into the huddle containing my older sister and her friends. The boy turns to my sister and says, “Your little sister’s sexy. Do you mind if I ask her out sometime?”
“She’s ten,” she replies, deadpan.
I am, indeed ten, but I am already as tall as my sixteen-year-old sister. Guys are already hungry, already trying to gain access to my body as if they are on a critical conquest for the king. Their hunger both scares and intrigues me.
I’m not too sure what sex is, but I have a pretty good idea of how to act sexy from the movies I watch over and over for free thanks to my sister’s job at the cinema. They all seem to feature some version of Sexy Girl—in my eyes, a sort of superhero whose power is sexiness. The list is long but includes Kelly McGillis in Top Gun, Melanie Griffith in Working Girl, and Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. I wonder if the high school boy is right. Am I a Sexy Girl?
I tiptoe into the role wearing my sister’s high heels and Cover Girl pouty-pink lip gloss.
At twelve, I am desperate to see the hottest band in town in concert, but it's an eighteen-and-over show. I am five foot eight and the eyes of guys are falling on me even more. This seems like a power I can use at the entrance. I pull on a pleated scarlet plaid mini-skirt my mom has left over from the swinging sixties. I tape the hem up a further three inches.
I sidle up to the gate at the concert and find a guy who looks to be about twenty manning it. He’s checking I.D.s. I attempt to just walk right in.
“Hey. Hey, wait! I need your I.D.,” he calls out.
I pat my hips as if searching my non-existent pockets. “Oh, no! I guess I left it back in the car,” I lie.
My eye shadow shimmers. My lipstick teases. My knee-socks taunt. His eyes flick down me from head to toe like the tongue of a cobra. I hold my head at what I hope is a rakish angle. “Could you just help me out this once?” I ask.
“Ok,” he answers with a wink, “but stop by and see me on your way out.”
“Sure,” I say, slipping through the gate.
At fourteen, I am nearly six feet tall. I look like I know things about boys’ bodies that I do not. The phone rings. It’s my first boyfriend.
“I think we should do it,” he says, his words an anvil on my solar plexus.
We have kissed maybe five times. We have never been on a real date. He’s walked me home from school a few times. Nothing has ever happened beyond the kissing.
I feel my power falling away like raindrops through my fingers. I know this nascent romance is going to slip away because of what I will say in the next moment.
“I’m not ready for that.”
I say those same words to a few more guys over the next few years. I endure pleading, at best, and pressure and coercion at worst. No one says what I know: I act like Sexy Girl, but really I’m just a tease, the worst type of Sexy Girl. So I decide it’s time for my First Time. I don’t want it to be special or memorable; I just want it to be over with. I resolve that once I have a Serious Enough Boyfriend for a Long Enough Time, it will happen.
It happens, one crisp night, as I’m pressed into a leather car seat, with a nice enough, very religious, fellow who wears argyle socks and aspires to the wonderful world of accountancy. The furtive, abridged act leaves me feeling like I still have virginity left over. I ask my diary, “Did that even count?”
The next day he goes to confession at the church where I’ve been wearing white dresses and holding his hand in the pew each Sunday.
“What did Father Dominic say?” I ask.
“He said, ‘She’s awfully young for such a thing,’” my boyfriend replies.
I feel the sin landing firmly on me and not on him as relief floods his eyes. I realize there is a Sexy Girl worse than a tease. There are a lot of words for this type of Sexy Girl— femme fatale, seductress, Jezebel—no one assigns them to me, but I still hear them ricocheting in my head. The very religious fellow stops feeling nice enough. I quickly move on.
I feel like if I have any hope of striking the right balance as Sexy Girl, I need to fully flesh out the role. I resolve to slough off the remaining dregs of my virginity with Just Some Guy who won’t send guilt and shame flying my way. I describe the ideal candidate for the part of Mr. Second Time to my friends. I want someone who is confident, but not pushy, enthusiastic, but not hungry, and most of all, flagrantly unabashed.
My friend Trina is dating a guy from the performing arts high school; a place chock full of confident, enthusiastic—and I imagine flagrantly unabashed— performers.
“My boyfriend has a friend,” she says. “If you like him, we could double for the dance coming up.” She pauses, for a beat then adds, “He’s an actor.”
A smile flies to my face before I can stop it.
The Actor is at least a seven at his own high school, packed with aspiring and already-actually-working actors, and a solid ten at mine, full of mere terrestrial humans. I can clearly picture the serpentine lineup of girls trying to catch his eye. When we meet, I feel his sage-green eyes strike across my body like a match being lit into a flame. He slides onto the short list for the role of Mr. Second Time as I scribble his name on my dance ticket on the line marked “guest”.
The night of the dance, I mousse, hair spray, and hot-roll my russet hair up to twice its normal volume. I pour myself into a knockoff of the formfitting black lace dress Julia Roberts wore in Pretty Woman. The Actor strides in my front door, decked out in a mauve suit that looks like it came out of a Miami Vice episode. His smile shines: a newly discovered constellation, bright and bursting with possibility.
At the high school, our dates clear the dance floor as Marvin Gaye’s song “Sexual Healing” blares from the speakers. Trina and I, along with the rest of the attendees, ring the dance floor, clapping and oohing and aahing, as they dance. The Actor swivels around me and floats into me as a pack of cool girls look on choking on their envy.
A slow song comes on. He pulls me close, the heat from all six foot three of him radiating deep into my core. Our eyes meet, green fuses with brown.
“You’re beautiful,” he says.
“You’re kind,” I say.
“No,” he insists, “I’m just observant.”
His hands cradle my face. His lips brush mine. I tumble into his kiss, thinking, Hello, Mr. Second Time.
After the dance, back at my house, I beckon him with a waggling finger toward the bedroom. His bottom lip disappears under his top lip; his eyes slide to the side. He releases his lip into a smile: He isn’t expecting this from a girl he kissed for the first time two hours ago, but he’s game.
We kiss for what could be twenty minutes or a month and a half. We lay on the too-small bed running out of things for two fully-clothed teenagers to do together. I feel like I’m in the middle of the famous kissing scene in Top Gun—steamy, but also somehow lasting too long. I pull the comforter onto the carpet. We lay down on it and pull off each other’s clothes. The only light in the room is the golden glow from the stereo. It lights his tawny skin and blonde hair as he moves over me while I try to play the part of a girl who does this sort of thing all the time. This time, I’m sure it counts.
He calls the next day, just as I’m writing the words “sweet” and “gentle” in my diary. He doesn’t fling any guilt or shame my way, hoping they’ll stick on me and not him. When we hang up, I resume writing in my diary, trying not to blush. Every time the phone rings, I hope it’s him. More often than not, it is him, and we talk until the receiver starts melting into my ear.
The next time he has his place to himself for the night, he dials my number and says, the cadence of his voice rising and falling in all the right-sounding places, “It’d be nice if you came over.”
His low-key words launch flares out to all the places on my body he has touched.
I tell him I’m not sure if I can make it there: He lives across town. I’ve never driven on the freeway. He dictates meticulous directions to his apartment via just the surface streets. I tell myself Sexy Girl would be halfway to his place by now, grab my car keys, and tiptoe out the back door.
It takes twice as long as the freeway, but I make it there after all. I pull into the rain–dappled parking lot and climb into the night. Each breath I take materializes in front of me. Goose bumps rise across every inch of my skin from the cold, and from what I know comes next. I scamper to his front door; he opens it before I even have a chance to knock, folding me into his arms. I feel the warm weight of his hands resting on my hips; linger in the deep pool of his kiss. I feel his hand slip into mine, my steps following his across the threshold.
In the bedroom, silvery light filters through the window alighting on every slope and sinew as skin meets skin. The coolness of the sheets melts away. I am cocooned by the heat from his body, our chests rising and falling in synch with each breath. Afterwards, as we drift off to sleep, he holds me in his arms, not like I’m sexy, like I’m precious, like we’re brushing up against something real.
Our bodies defiantly intertwine through most of the hours that could reasonably be described as “morning”. Then I tell him I have to get going; it’s the day to pick up the photos from the dance. I race to school breaking every speed limit along the way.
I park and saunter up to the line at the photographer’s table, my tangled hair reluctantly corralled in the bun atop my head, sunlight glinting off the keys jingling in my hand. A girl from my first period dance class claps her eyes on me. She has the right perm, the right boyfriend, the right house, and the discretion of a town crier.
“I didn’t see you in class this morning,” she says, eyeing my keys. “Did you just get here?”
I let out a fake yawn accompanied by a little fisted stretch of my arms.
“Yeah, I spent the night at his place.” I smirk and feign trying to stifle a giggle. “I just couldn’t get out of there this morning,” I say, louder than necessary, casting bait for the other girls in line.
“The guy from the dance?” she asks, intrigued.
“Yeah,” I say, with the feeling of six more pairs of eyes floating my way.
“He’s cool,” she says.
“Yeah, he’s cool,” I reply. “We’re cool.”
I arrive at the front of the line, say my last name, and am handed a large envelope of pictures. I don’t rush to open it and gush like the other girls. I don’t even look inside. I just turn around and start walking back to my car, rushing home to write the words “quest fulfilled” in my diary.
Then, soon—too soon—I’m standing in front of Trina’s house with my arms wrapped around me against the cold, craning my neck to look down the street for any sign of his car and seeing none. For hours. Rumor has it he’s with another girl from his lineup.
I want to not care, but I do.
I tell myself it’s nothing. He’s done nothing wrong. We’re nothing. Nothing. All of this is just about fleshing out Sexy Girl. Caring is a flagrant violation of the script.
Soon—too soon—his blonde head materializes in my field of vision at a nightclub packed with teens from both our schools. Trina, her milky skin flared red, her eyes wild, hurls insults and indignation at him with all her might. I look on by her side thinking she might actually kill him. At some point, he apologizes—probably profusely, most likely repeatedly—but I can’t hear anything over the roar of the shame I’m trying to outrun in my head.
After giving him several pieces of her mind, Trina and I, along with our scrum of friends, burst out of the doors of the club. The cold winter air punches me, amplifying the heat in my cheeks and the warm trails of my tears. I gulp in a breath of the freezing night air—a million pieces of jagged ice.
“Why are you crying?” one of my friends is asking, just after she’s high-fived Trina.
My mouth is a solid block of ice. Why am I crying? I got the experience I’d been after. He’s Just Some Guy. We just did what I’d wanted to do. Quest fulfilled.
The friend turns to Trina. “Why is she crying?”
Trina knows why, but she doesn’t say. Instead, she puts her arm around me as we walk to the car.
Then, soon—too soon—Trina reminds me that The Actor’s play is opening that night.
“I can’t go to the play,” I say, pleading with her.
“You have to go,” she says.
“I just want to move on. I’m fine.”
“Then, curl your hair. Swipe on your lipstick. Show the whole world that you’re OK.”
We gather a protective clutch of friends and head to the play. When we arrive, it has already started. The theatre is packed; the only empty seats are in the front row. We hover in the dark behind the back row.
“Let’s go up front,” Trina says.
“No,” I say, my breath ragged.
“Listen,” she says, turning to face me. “You don’t need to hide.”
I hear his voice reverberating out from the stage to every seat in the place; see him standing tall under the lucid glare of the lights.
This is the moment that will remain indelible, tattooed in the distant recesses of my mind: The two things click together—her remark and the sight of him on the stage—and something else falls away.
I pull in a deep breath.
“Ok, let’s go,” I say, stepping out of the shadows, leading the way up front.
He stops for a beat right in the middle of a line when he catches sight of me. Afterwards, I go backstage. He navigates through the crowded room and sidles up behind me. I feel the easy warmth of his hands find my hips. He turns me around to face him, locks his eyes on mine, and says, “Thank you so much for coming.”
I stand in that little room backstage, packed with actors and other girls from his lineup boring their eyes into me, making thoughtful and complimentary comments about the play to those within earshot for what I think is a mature-seeming amount of time. Then I turn to him and tell him I have to get going. He hugs me. I feel nothing from him, nothing for him; I feel nothing save for the brush of our shared moments fluttering past into the no-longer.
I stride out of the theatre into the parking lot with my friends by my side. The cold night air envelops me, amplifying the warmth speckling my skin, not from heat in my cheeks or any tears, but from the girl I want to be. There’s no script for her, but I can feel her radiating out from deep in my core, bright and bursting with possibility.
She’s been there all along, just waiting for me to notice her, longing for me to set her free.
Katherine K. Wilson is a writer living with multiple hidden disabilities. She’s a fervent nomad passing her days on both sides of the Atlantic. Some of her recent work appears/is forthcoming in Santa Fe Writers Project Quarterly, Pile Press, and Iris Literary Journal. Follow her escapades at www.instagram.com/katherine_kwilson