Before I knew what love was or what porn was and before I had any truly close friends, I had dreams about how I would meet my soul mate. For a while it was a unicorn. I would be in a field and I would see a unicorn in distress. I would know because of its high keening sounds that were strained but still beautiful. When I touched its mane its wailing would subside and its wet nose would nestle into my hand and that’s how I would know we were meant for each other.
When I stopped being into unicorns I dreamed of a guy in a food court. He’d look like my dad — like he hadn’t shaved in a while, but only because he had better things to do. He’d be eating a soft pretzel by himself and all of a sudden he’d start clutching his throat and chest. Everyone else would sit stunned like they were watching Planet Earth carnage, a cruel act of nature. Only I would have the courage to leap out of my chair and give him the Heimlich. He would look up at me with sheer adulation as he spilled bile onto the linoleum tiling. Then we would kiss right there on the ground and never stop kissing, even though his stubble scratched, because that’s what love is like.
I had glow-in-the-dark stars on my ceiling. This almost certainly contributed to my inflated sense of self.
The first real crush I ever had was my friend Sharon. I was in maybe fourth grade. Sharon had long red hair that curled naturally and thin arms with freckles. She had a huge bedroom that was all lavender and soft surfaces, and she knew how to French braid.
Back then I was welcome at Sharon’s, so after ballet class Sharon’s mom would drive me and Sharon back to their house, where she would make us popcorn and leave us alone, whereupon we were free to do whatever we wanted, which was typically (a.) blending unblendable items in the blender; (b.) cleaning unblendable items out of the blender; or (c.) acting out stories with Sharon’s medieval action figures, outfitted in draped fabric and tiny rounded scepters which failed to inspire fear or awe, although it didn’t really matter, because they always ended up getting smashed together in simulated passion when the queen and prince eventually fucked, which was the end of every story. Sometimes the princess would walk in on them and scream, “This is messed up!” Although we did not know it, we were extremely horny.
My second crush was Sharon’s brother. He was fifteen and smart. After Sharon’s mom made us popcorn she would go pick Sharon’s brother up from robotics club, and he would bust through the door talking about “Arduino,” which was a robotics thing, which is how I knew he was smart. Sharon loved to knock on his door after he had retired to his room and ask whether he was building robots, and whether we could see any of the robots, and if any of the robots were girls and if he had a robot girlfriend, which I really wanted to know. Sharon’s brother would hit the doorframe so hard that our heads bounced against the door they had been pressed so tightly against, and he would say something like, “Get out of my room,” or roar or hiss like some hooded demon, at which point Sharon and I would shriek and run back to her room with not only pillows and beanbags, but also an entire aquarium of stuffed angelfish and narwhals and octopi on which we could rest our heads as we proceeded with our epic action figure porno drama.
One time when Sharon’s brother yelled, “Get out of my room,” Sharon yelled back, “We’re not in your room, you slut!” Sharon’s mother emerged from the depths of her office — she was one of those mothers who had jobs — and grabbed Sharon by the arm and whisked her away for a talking-to, so I was left standing alone and small in front of Sharon’s brother’s bedroom door.
The door opened and Sharon’s brother peered out. I was suddenly embarrassed.
“Sorry,” I said.
“It’s okay,” Sharon’s brother said. “I’m sorry too.”
“Cool,” I said.
Sharon’s brother pointed at my shirt. The shirt had a Triceratops on it, leaves sticking out of its mouth. “Cool shirt,” he said.
“Thanks,” I said. “It’s a Triceratops.”
“I know it’s a Triceratops,” he said. He considered for a second. “Do you know what D&D is?”
I did not know what D&D was. “Yes,” I said.
“Look at this,” he said. He opened the door wider. I saw mounds of clothing and posters of people in gas masks. “You can come in,” he said.
We walked to his bed, which was covered in oversized charts of pencil-drawn monsters and numbers I couldn’t decipher. He pointed to the top chart.
“Usually I’m the Dungeon Master but my group likes to rotate,” he said. “So I have a character now.”
I looked closer at the drawing in the top left corner. It was a tricked-out bird, or maybe a person in bird armor, stoically grasping a scepter. I didn’t know what to make of it. Sharon’s brother wasn’t very good at drawing.
“Birdfolk,” he said proudly. “His name’s Orr. He’s lawful good.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Do you want to see something really special?” he said.
I briefly wondered if he was going to kiss me or perhaps take his shirt off. Then I realized that was insane. “Okay,” I said.
Sharon’s brother ran to his closet and dug through piles of something I couldn’t see. “Look,” he said, extending his arms to me. For a moment I wasn’t sure what I was looking at. After a second I understood that it was a pair of wings — or, rather, a harness with wings attached — that looked leathery and aged and, when paired with a Jedi-like cloak or hood or bedsheet wrapped around the body, could turn an earthbound fifteen-year-old into something foreign, something that made its home in the sky.
“I wanted to wear them to school but Mom said I couldn’t,” Sharon’s brother said. “It would have been iconic.”
“They’re really cool,” I said.
Sharon’s brother held the wings out to me. “You can try them on,” he said.
I turned around and slipped my arms through the straps. The wings weren’t as heavy as I thought. It was like I was wearing a backpack, ready to go somewhere.
“Most birdfolk don’t want to go on quests,” Sharon’s brother said. “It takes an exceptional circumstance for one to leave their tribe and undertake the adventurer’s life. But there’s this new way of playing where every time you become emotionally connected to someone you get a string that attaches to them, and every time they’re in trouble you feel a tug on your string, and if you don’t go find them that seriously affects gameplay.”
I adjusted the straps on my shoulders. My heart was close to the surface. Sharon’s brother told me I looked great, and I smiled with pride, because there was no mirror in Sharon’s brother’s room, so I had no reason not to believe him. If Sharon’s brother had had a mirror I would have looked at myself, but he didn’t, so instead I looked out the window of Sharon’s brother’s room, through which I could see a tree and the house next door and a sliver of gray sky, which is what I focused on as I stood, the sky in front of me and Sharon’s brother behind me, and the sky felt attainable, and as if to prove it my knees bent slightly, which was my body telling me I was ready for takeoff.
My third crush was Dave. Sophomore year I started to get sick of push-up tests in gym class and stagnating at cafeteria tables and friendships based on inertia. Dave was different. He was smart and wore button-down shirts and almost had a beard.
After English class one day, Dave told me my thoughts about Flannery O’Connor were really thoughtful. I laughed and said, “Aren’t all thoughts thoughtful?” which I think he liked. I scared him because I was really good at debates. He stuttered and said, “I thought that right as you said it. I guess great minds think alike.” And great minds did think alike, in the weeks to come, between third and fourth periods, reviewing readings, working side by side. Great minds think alike, I thought, when one Friday in class I read a short story I wrote about a guy deciding not to propose to his girlfriend, and he said blushingly in front of everyone that my command of language was “economical” and “masterful,” which for all I knew it was. Great minds thought alike during evening study hall, when he invited me to sit in his car — he had a car! — and we were out the door before he finished his question. Great minds think alike, I thought when he read me a story he’d written about a man moving to New York and I understood the story meant he was going to kiss me. I knew he was going to kiss me before he even did it. I started loving school. I started taking my Adderall like I was supposed to and started drinking a lot of Pepsi.
Dave told me I had a great imagination. He had a great imagination too. I believed him. I felt mature and smart. I was smart. Dave told me I had a great imagination and he told me I was pretty. No boy had ever told me I was pretty before, which had in previous years caused me to worry that I wasn’t pretty, but now I realized that my prettiness was a secret for smart people, a secret that Dave and I shared. Dave knew I was pretty from the afternoons spent in the school’s practice rooms and evenings in his cool big car and the photos I sent him on weeknights after I said goodnight to my dad, when I closed the door to my room and closed it again to make sure it was closed, and turned on my bedside lamp so shadows pooled in my clavicles and down my chest, and sent pictures and pictures from my bed to his, where I imagined him lying with his phone where my head would be, cradling the side of my face until he fell asleep, like married people who stay married. Sitting in class watching Dave talk, I knew he knew what I looked like, and what I looked like was somebody who was pretty, and who had a great imagination, and who had a great mind. As I looked at Dave I held my beauty tightly under my T-shirt, and my heart pumped Pepsi into my body, and even though my dad would have freaked out if he knew what I was doing instead of staying after school to study and even though my grades were definitely dropping and even though I was skipping drama club, of which I was the vice president, and math club, of which I was the assistant vice president, I kept looking at him as my brain zoomed out of the classroom. I was miles away from Forest Ridge High School, and I could do as many push-ups as I wanted, and even though I was on the ground I could feel the rush of air below me.
That year I didn’t have a date for homecoming. Pressed against the door of the instrument closet, Dave said just because he didn’t want to go didn’t mean he didn’t like me. I looked up at him and said I understood.
I didn’t have anyone else to take me because I had been spending all my time with Dave. Also I probably wouldn’t have been asked anyway. Dave had started calling me “secretly beautiful,” which on good days I loved, but on other days I would have preferred my beauty to be slightly less secret so boys, even stupid ones, would hold the door for me even though my hair was a bad length and my legs were sticks and I didn’t own foundation or highlighter or anything to make my face more visible to someone who wasn’t looking.
I was very surprised when Sharon asked me to go to homecoming with her. Clarification: to get ready for homecoming with her. To be honest, I thought she had gotten too cool for me, based on her band T-shirts and how she leaned back in her seat and how she turned down every boy who asked her out until they stopped asking.
She asked me after English class. “Did you like the story I wrote?” she said.
“Yeah,” I said. “I liked the unreliable narrator.”
“I’ve been watching a lot of Hannibal,” she said. “Do you want to get ready for homecoming at my house? I can do your makeup. I have a new eyeshadow palette I want to use on somebody.”
“Okay,” I said. “That sounds fun.”
“Get excited,” she said. “Because my house has a shit-ton of Pop-Tarts right now, and ‘Rock Lobster’ will be the only music available.”
Even though we were probably only getting ready together because we didn’t have dates and it would be sad to get ready alone, I was excited to have someone to get ready with, to talk about things girls talked about, to figure out what those things were. Sharon seemed excited too. She came up to me after class the next day and handed me a sprig of lavender.
“For your corsage,” she said, smirking at me.
“Ha ha,” I said. “Where’d you get that?”
“From my yard. It was fate. Lavender is for lovers,” she said. I laughed and looked around for Dave but he had left the classroom already. It was just me and Sharon, two girls doing nothing.
Sharon’s mom was thrilled to see me. “I’m thrilled to see you!” she said. “We haven’t seen much of you these days. I still have pictures of you guys in your ballet socks and nothing else!”
“Terrifyingly cute,” Sharon said, pulling me up the stairs.
Her room was just as soft and purple as before, every stuffed animal in its place. Now there was a Transformers poster on the wall and a taped-up picture of a man in a huge suit.
“You might think to yourself, this is not my beautiful wife,” she said, following my gaze. “Truly an icon.”
“What?” I said. “Let’s put our dresses on.”
Sharon’s dress was black and tight. When she pinned up her hair, curls fell around her face like a princess. She was beautiful and always had been beautiful. My dress was navy and white striped. It had a red anchor on it. My dad had bought it for me on a trip to Florida.
Sharon saw me looking at my dress. “Do you want to borrow something of mine?” she said. “I’ve got something pretty good. I wore it last year but no one will remember.”
It was a light purple dress. It had a skirt that fanned out when you twirled, which I did. My back was exposed and cold. I felt delicate.
“You look nice in my clothes,” Sharon said. “Seriously. You look like a fairy. You belong in an ice cave.”
“That’s me, ice princess,” I said.
“Holy shit, I forgot to tell you,” Sharon said. “Did you hear that Sheila Goldstein got fingered by Ross Wallace on the ski bus? It was literally under a blanket. Everybody on the ski bus knew what was happening. I wasn’t there. If I were, I would have been like, ‘Stop, guys. This is insane.’”
“That’s crazy,” I said. “Wow. With everyone watching and everything.”
“I know!” Sharon said. “These are our peers. Getting it on in public. Orifices gaping. Don’t you think that’s wild?”
“I already said it was crazy,” I said. “Sheila must be really embarrassed.”
Sharon looked suddenly suspicious. “Have you gotten fingered by a guy?” she said.
“No,” I said. “You know that.”
“I don’t know. We don’t always get to hang out so I don’t really know what your life is like,” Sharon said.
“Well, that’s why I’m so glad we’re hanging out now,” I said.
“Me too,” said Sharon. “Come here. I’ll do your makeup.”
Sharon sat me down and brushed eyeshadow onto my eyelids, making little sounds like she was really thinking about what she was doing. My eyes were closed, obviously, but I could feel her breath on my face, which didn’t smell minty or anything but didn’t smell actively bad. She breathed with an open mouth but it wasn’t annoying; it just made my face feel alert, shifting, like a field disturbed by the wind.
I snuck out of the dance to meet Dave when Sharon was in the bathroom. I felt a little guilty imagining Sharon waiting by the snack table, but I was excited because I had never been on a real date before. Dave and I sat on the curb of the 7-Eleven, bag of mini donuts beside us, and drank our Big Gulps with locked eyes.
“You look great,” Dave said.
“Thanks,” I said. “First time shaving my legs in months.”
“That’s funny. I love how real you are. Truly. You’re really real,” Dave said.
Sitting next to Dave on the pavement, far away from dancing classmates, away from mascara and toned legs and red and white cheerleading uniforms and white teeth and white eyes and white teeth on red lips and chalkboards and Post-Its and excruciatingly teenage teenagers, I believed him. I felt elevated. I smeared my lipstick (Midnight Violet) a little with my hand. I was really real.
“I’m happy we finally got to go somewhere,” I said. “We’re always sneaking around at school.”
“Me too,” Dave said. His hand walked up my inner thigh, under Sharon’s dress.
My legs clamped shut without me willing them to. Dave gently pried them open. “Someone’s going to come out of the 7-Eleven and see us,” I said.
“No they’re not,” Dave said. “It’s nighttime. And besides. Nobody from school is here.”
His finger traced the edge of my underwear. I shut my eyes.
“I don’t understand,” Dave said. “I just want to give you what you want. What do you fantasize about?”
My face got hot. “I’m fifteen,” I said, bitchily. “Am I supposed to have fantasies?”
But I did have fantasies. I had a great imagination, according to English teacher after English teacher. My fantasies were just embarrassingly low-key. I imagined me sitting on the curb, the same but sharper: blue tongue, red straw, neon, hoop earrings, acid nails, white shoes like the sun. I imagined being pretty. I imagined two teenagers in love who were going to go to the same college, or go to different colleges but still think about each other.
“Do you ever wish we met some other way?” I said.
“I guess,” Dave said. “But I’m glad we met.” He smiled. His teeth were blue.
“Okay, here’s a fantasy,” I said. “We meet at a high school dance. We lock eyes from across the room and it’s fate. I have an eyebrow piercing and you have a Vespa. I get an abortion and you take care of me afterward and buy me all the UberEats I could dream of. Five years from now we’re wearing the same shirt, riding matching bicycles. Taking care of plants together. You’re my hot date to my book release.”
Dave laughed. He looked nervous. “You’re funny,” Dave said. “I meant like a sexual fantasy.”
“I know,” I said. “But don’t you think that’s cute?”
“You’re cute,” Dave said. “Wait. In this fantasy, you’re the published writer?”
I tried to laugh but it came out stupid so I shoved a mini donut into my mouth and swallowed, which as it turned out was even more stupid than my laugh sounded, because something about me is that I have a narrowing of the esophagus, which means I need to eat with caution, because one moment I might be eating something as innocent as a tortilla and the next moment I’m choking heavily over a trash can, or, if no trash can is available, I’m choking while running around frantically to find a trash can I can throw up into, which is what I proceeded to do, though there was no trash can to be found. The mini donut was powdered white. It was a fist in my throat. I coughed and coughed, imagined puffs of powdered sugar coming from my mouth.
“Lauren?” Dave said, watching me. “What’s happening? Lauren, what the hell?”
I was making undead retching sounds and my face was probably red and I was crying for sure. I pounded on my chest and then choked myself until I dislodged the mini donut. Dave and I looked at the mini donut’s corpse, small and wet on the pavement. “Jeez,” Dave said. He put his hands in his pockets.
“Should I have helped?” Dave said. “Should I help you in a situation like that?”
“No worries,” I said, wiping my mouth with my hand.
When my dad found out about Dave, he suddenly became a great parent. He took my phone away and read all my texts, even the dirty ones, and he grounded me and I had to text him pictures of me at drama club and math club every day, because how was he supposed to know that I was really going to practice? And what the fuck, Lauren, how was he supposed to know that anything I said anymore was true? And what the fuck, Lauren, don’t kids talk to their parents? Isn’t that how parents know how to protect their children? And seriously, Lauren, you couldn’t have realized your photos upload to the family computer? He told the school. Dave and I were never going to see each other again.
I didn’t do much the month I was grounded. I did a lot of sleeping. Everybody at school knew what had happened but they talked to each other instead of me about it. I went to drama club and math club but I would sit silently in the corner and eat a lot of cereal and then go home and lie in my room. My face was stained soft. I never washed it.
I spent a lot of time in the space between sleep and waking. I thought of this photoshoot I saw online of couples vacuum-sealed in plastic. I thought of the telephone that’s just made of two cups with string, a string spilling from my window down the roads and back alleys of Spokane to the base of Dave’s bed. I knew it was fake and Dave and I weren’t going to talk anymore. It was a child’s toy. I knew that. It was just something I imagined.
I went on the Internet a lot. I took a depression test but at the end there was no button to tell me my results. I didn’t know how I felt. I looked at pictures of pretty girls online, strangers and acquaintances. Sharon and her cool friends, who were all into lo-fi demos and radical softness and smoking a ton of salvia. I saw on Facebook Sharon was having a party called “Gal-entine’s Day.” I wasn’t invited. It made sense. Dave was her favorite teacher.
My dad had to go have another meeting with the school. How to move forward. It was overkill: Dave was already fired, I was already embarrassed. Whatever. He shipped me off to Sharon’s house. “I can’t leave you at home,” he said.
“I get that,” I said.
Sharon’s mom made us popcorn and got out of the way. I was humiliated to see Sharon and Sharon was not happy to see me. She was wearing a circle skirt from American Apparel and some fingerless gloves with holes in them. “Why didn’t you tell me?” she said. “I could have helped.”
“It never came up,” I said.
“If you had told me I wouldn’t have asked you to the dance,” she said.
“You only asked me to get ready for the dance together,” I said.
“Okay,” she said. “I miss you.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Okay,” she said. “I’m going to the bathroom.”
I watched Sharon walk to the bathroom and then opened the door to Sharon’s brother’s room. It was unchanged. A lava lamp bubbled on the desk. I walked to the poster of the gas mask man. Underneath the picture, it said in block letters: THE PYRO.
“Like it?” Sharon’s brother said, sitting up in his bed. I screamed. “It’s cool,” Sharon’s brother said. “I’m home for the weekend.”
“How’s college?” I said.
“It’s happening,” he said. “Coding on coding. I can legally drink now, so that rocks.” His voice softened. “How’s high school?”
“It’s fine,” I said. “It sucks.”
“That’s high school for you,” he said. “Don’t worry. Soon it’ll be just a speck of dust out the window of the plane as you speed away into a new life: your undergraduate degree! Ka-blam! Liberal arts! Are you sick? You look sick.”
“I’m fine,” I said. “I just need some air.”
Sharon’s brother pushed open the window next to his bed. “You can come sit on the roof,” he said. “It’s safe. I did this all the time when I lived here.”
I crawled out the window and onto the roof, and Sharon’s brother followed. I could see trees and houses and a cat on the street. I felt better already.
“What do you think? Cool and refreshing, right?” Sharon’s brother said.
It was cool and refreshing. “Yes,” I said in a funny voice. “Cool and refreshing.”
Sharon’s brother laughed and pointed at a trash can down below. “That’s Forest Ridge High School,” he said. “Some dump you can barely see and won’t even remember once you leave.” He pointed at a tree, a rustling and a flash of blue. Some bird. “And that’ll be you,” he said. “Flying away.”
“You should be a guidance counselor,” I said.
“I’m an RA,” he said. “Wait a second. You’ll love this.” He clambered inside through the window and reemerged holding something behind his back. “Okay, get ready,” he said. He shoved something brown and mottled at me. “Ta-da!” he said. “Ready for liftoff!”
I took the dirty thing from him and shook it open. It was the wings he had shown me six years earlier. I couldn’t help but smile.
“I remember these,” I said, standing up. “You were a pretty big nerd back then.”
“Still am,” said Sharon’s brother. “Come on. Put them on and fly away from all the stupid shit that doesn’t matter! I know you want to.”
“I don’t want to,” I said, laughing. It had been a long time since I had spoken to a boy close to my age. “I’m not a nerd.”
“Just put them on,” Sharon’s brother said. He moved closer. “I’ll help you.” He plucked the wings out of my hand. He grabbed my arm and pulled it through one of the straps. We were still laughing but my arm hurt. “Stop touching me,” I said, giggling.
Sharon’s brother’s laughter stopped. He looked suddenly sober and young. “Oh my god,” he said. “Oh my god, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to invade your personal bubble.”
“What?” I said. “I’m fine. We were just joking around.”
“Consent is never a joke,” Sharon’s brother said. “I should know. I’m an RA. And after what happened to you…” He trailed off.
“What happened to me?” I said. “Can’t you take a joke? You used to be so fun. What happened to me?” I tapped on his chest. “Hello? Anybody in there?” I said. “What happened to me?”
Sharon’s brother took a deep breath. “Look,” he said. “I’m sorry. I know what happened. Sharon’s been crying for weeks. But just because you got groomed by some loser teacher –”
“Don’t touch me,” I said. “You creep. Don’t touch me.” I was telling the truth. I didn’t want him to touch me. In fact, I wanted him as far away as possible, so I pushed him, not particularly hard, just enough pressure to dislodge something stuck inside a person, but his foot caught on the tiling, and as I watched I wished that he was the one wearing the wings, not I, as they may have kept him aloft for a few seconds longer, or shrouded his lanky form when he landed with a pop on the cement, or at least turned him into something else as he fell, a creature that was brave in moments of danger instead of screaming and clutching at nothing all the way down, a creature that knew what to do in the air.
Now I’m doing great. I take community college classes and work at the 7-Eleven on weekends. When customers ask me how I’m doing I say I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been. I eat calcium chews every day so I don’t get rickets. I drink smoothies that I make myself. If I feel like something’s stuck in my throat I do visualization exercises. I think of forests and rushing water and things that I can’t fathom the size of. I think of bird’s-eye views.
Sharon’s brother’s ribs have healed now. So I assume. His mom said he wasn’t taking visitors and Sharon didn’t respond to any of my texts. I sent a card.
I think about him on slower days. I think about how we’ll meet if we meet again. When the wind rushes in the 7-Eleven door, I’ll know it’s him without looking. We’ll lock eyes from across the Pringles cans and I’ll swallow hard. He’ll be limping, taped up. I’ll slide some Neosporin across the counter. “This one’s on me,” I’ll say.
I’ll think about him the whole day after he leaves. I’ll remember happy stories, things I forgot. When it’s four in the morning and the stars are out, I’ll decide to leave early. I’ll feel him behind me as I close up shop, dimming the lights on a world of objects whose time is up.