By Isaac Blum
Valerie first touched my penis on November 8th 2011, between a swivel chair and a fax machine, in the room Len Hargreaves’ father used as an office. In a moment of semi-drunken lust, we barricaded ourselves behind the heavy door, threw ourselves on the Turkish rug, and, as they say, “went to town.” It wasn’t romantic, but it was passionate, in a clumsy, clutching and grabbing sort of way.
I don’t know how Len’s father would have felt about it, had he known. I doubt that he bought the rug so that teens could feel each other’s privates on it. But maybe he understands the way it is with teenage sexual activity. You can’t really choose the right time, or the right place for intimacy. You aren’t like the old people in Cialis commercials, secluded on a hill in matching bathtubs, with all the time in the world. You don’t have your own space, and you don’t make your own schedule, so you have to improvise. You’ve got to be resourceful and use cars, friends’ houses, or in a pinch, a Starbucks bathroom.
I know exactly when Val first touched my penis. But nobody ever comes up to me and says, “Hey, Aaron, when did your girlfriend first touch that little penis of yours?” They ask me, instead, when Val and I met. And I have no idea. In high school, at least at my high school, you don’t meet people so much as you become aware of them. One day a friend asks you about someone. They say, “Hey, how about that rack on Cara Bloch?” And you think to yourself, ‘Do I know Cara Bloch?’ And even though you’ve never spoken to her, and you can’t recall a specific instance when you’ve even seen her, you find yourself replying, “Yeah, nice rack. Really nice.” And you can picture those boobs in your mind’s eye, or her using a sex toy she got from Plug Lust as if you’ve spent time studying them.
This is how it was with Val. We’d never had a conversation, and we didn’t have any mutual friends, but when she started sitting next to me in American History, I found I knew certain things about her. She lived in Elkins Park, right off of Old York Road, a Catholic girl in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. Due to her parents’ penchant for Catholicism, she had a whole slew of siblings, including an older sister (Muriel) one year ahead of us. I even knew that she packed her lunch, instead of buying it from the school cafeteria.
There are certain other things about people which are apparent, whether or not you know them. From sitting next to her in American History class, I knew that Valerie was small and thin. I knew that she had dark hair that fell just to her shoulders, and bangs which she kept out of her eyes by tossing her head to the side every couple of minutes. I knew that she always wrote in pencil, and that she favored thong underwear and solid color t-shirts.
I also knew that I liked her, or at the very least, found her attractive, which was good enough for me. So of course I didn’t speak to her, because it was fortunate enough that she sat next to me, and I didn’t want to drive her away by talking, or looking in her direction too often. I kept my mouth shut, tried not to stare at her, and hoped that a conversational opportunity would arise.
We were enjoying a scintillating lecture about the failed presidential campaigns of William Jennings Bryan. Nobody gives a fuck about William Jennings Bryan, and because of him, and I suppose because of the textbook companies, I’m stuck knowing the key points of his “Cross of Gold” speech for the rest of my existence.
I was chewing on my pen, and I was really going at it, like a lion devouring a choice bit of warthog carcass, when my pen exploded, and filled my mouth with ink. The ink tasted a bit like blood, sweet and oddly viscous. I tried desperately to keep from swallowing, but the more I thought, Don’t swallow. Aaron, don’t swallow, the harder it became.
I grunted, and shot my hand in the air. Mr. Karl, thrilled that I was eager to discuss the 1908 Democratic Convention, called on me immediately.
I pointed at my mouth and grunted some more.
He didn’t take this to mean that my mouth was filled with black ink, so he just raised his eyebrows, and said, “Yes?”
I tried to speak with my mouth full, like I do when I’m brushing my teeth, but I was having trouble keeping the ink in. As I babbled, I covered my mouth with my hand to keep the ink from dripping onto the floor, and I jogged out the door to the bathroom.
I washed my mouth out six or seven million times. Then I walked back to the classroom, mouth entirely black, and took my seat next to Val.
She glanced over at me, and took in my black lips, and grey chin. She smiled and whispered, “Did you eat a live squid?”
“Sure did,” I replied, and I high-fived myself internally for my quick response.
“How was it?”
“A little inky.”
Mr. Karl looked over at us. He knew that nothing about WJB’s prohibition rhetoric could possibly be funny, and he turned sternly to face our side of the classroom. “What’s so amusing?” he asked.
Val, a “good girl,” shriveled up a little bit and just shook her head in an apologetic way.
“Nothing,” I said, “We were just enjoying some marine cephalopod-based humor.”
“Aaron!” Mr. Karl exclaimed. “What happened to your mouth?”
“A pen. Or a squid.”
“Jesus, do you want to go to the nurse?”
“No. I’m pretty sure it’s not toxic.”
Val had her head bent over her notes, but when I glanced at her she met my eyes. And she shook her head a little bit, but not in a disapproving way.
Later that winter, the 11thgrade took a field trip into the city to look at old chipped pots in a museum. We split up into groups of “manageable” sizes, so teachers could keep an eye on students, to make sure we didn’t break an already broken vase, or run away. Val was in my manageable group.
Val was enthralled by old kitchenware. She stared at the museum displays in awe and wonder, as a normal person might behold a pile of golden treasure, or a naked picture of Scarlett Johansson. “See that animal painted on the side?” she asked me, indicating a few fading red lines on the side of what appeared to be a small mixing bowl.
If I squinted I could indeed see the outline of what looked like a poorly-drawn horse or ox.
“It says here that was done by a girl my age. Isn’t it amazing that that many years ago, people were interested in the same stuff we’re into now?”
“I didn’t know you had an interest in beasts of burden.”
“Shut up,” she whispered, “I mean art. I mean expressing yourself.”
I couldn’t bring myself to be outwardly sincere, but I was legitimately impressed by her intense interest in old stuff. When I looked around at the other field-trip goers, even the teachers looked like they’d rather be asleep, or in line at the DMV. But as the tour guide stuttered a response to Val’s question about Etruscan marital practices, I couldn’t help but admire the wide-eyed look with which she received the answer. Her earnestness seemed to mock my inability to take anything seriously. Here was a 21st -century person who could lose herself in an historical world, just by looking at a broken pot illuminated by florescent bulbs. She nudged me, pointed at what appeared to be an ancestor of the spork, and said, “Wow.”
I said “Wow” too, but more at her sincerity than at the ancient cutlery. The only thing I was earnestly interested in was having sex with her, and it made me feel kind of dirty.
We got back to school late. Instead of letting Val wait for the late-bus, I seized the opportunity to offer her a ride home. When I pulled up to her house, she grabbed her bag, and started to thank me for the ride, but I interrupted her. “Wait,” I said, and she paused with one back-pack strap on her shoulder. I wanted to tell her that I liked her, that I thought she was cute, that I found her earnest interest in twenty-five hundred year-old crafts attractive, but a combination of nerves, and an age-old high-school taboo against honest expressions of feeling, kept me from doing so. Instead I asked her if she was planning to go to Len Hargreaves’ the next night.
“I was,” she said. “I’ll see you there.”
Valerie got out of the car and trotted toward her house.
I smiled to myself in my mom’s car. I liked this girl, and something about the way Val bounced up the walk told me she felt the same way about me.
I looked up at the sky, through the car’s moon roof, and wondered what precisely I had done to make Valerie interested in me. Maybe God was simply answering my prayer, when I asked him at night, “Please God allow me, Aaron, to deflower Valerie. I’ll do anything. I’ll stop being cruel to my sister. I won’t litter. I’ll start believing in you.” Maybe there was something charming about me. Maybe it was the odd ratio between my long, spindly legs, and my short stumpy torso. Maybe it was just good luck.
In the spring of 2012, when Valerie turned seventeen, I bought her a DVD of Hayao Miyazaki shorts and I went to her house to present it to her. I was a day late, because I’d been away with my family, but Val didn’t seem to care.
It seems impossible to find privacy at Val’s house. There are just too many people, and there is too much going on, for a couple to have a quiet moment together. There’s always a television blaring. There are usually two different people listening to two different types of music. Both loud. One couple of siblings is always throwing a ball, while another pair appears to fight to the death, little fists and feet flying in all directions. Val’s house is like a nation under perpetual civil unrest. This contrasts starkly with my own household, where things are quiet, and subdued. And sparsely populated, like Mongolia.
But really, there’s just a different kind of privacy to be had at Val’s. There’s so much crazy shit going on, that nobody pays attention to you. By the time Val’s birthday rolled around, I’d been there dozens of times, but I’d never exchanged more than a few words with Val’s mom, for instance. She was always there, but was too busy trying to keep her children from killing each other to give me more than a nod or a smile.
Val and I settled down on the sofa, and were, aside from an occasional interruption by an airborne toy, essentially alone. It was like, I imagine, being in the eye of a tornado or hurricane, whichever of those has an eye, at peace, but surrounded by chaos.
I handed Val her gift and a card. “You didn’t have to,” she said. “But I guess you actually did have to.”
I chuckled. “I wrote you a poem on the card,” I told her as she opened it.
“No you didn’t. Not a real one,” she said without looking.
I couldn’t tell whether or not I caught a note of disappointment in her voice. So I said, “Do you wish that I had?”
“If you wrote a poem, like a serious poem, I’d be in the twilight zone, looking for my real boyfriend. You know, the one who called T.S. Eliot a ‘fuckface” in front of the teacher.” She giggled and opened the card, a blank one I’d bought at the ACME, and filled in myself. “This is more like what I was expecting.”
The poem read:
Roses are red
Violets are blue
Here’s some stuff I thought you might like
Because it’s your birthday
“I love it,” she told me, “You were right about T.S.” She slid her hand up the back of my shirt, which was about as affectionate as she could be on a couch we were sharing with a seven year-old.
When I first told Valerie that I loved her, we were sitting on the beach. It was mid June, and school had just let out. Val’s tribe of a family had rented a house “down the shore,” and I’d been invited to sleep on the living room couch and wake up each morning to the sounds and flashing images of 6:00 A.M. television cartoons.
It was early evening, and the sun had just set behind us. We gazed out at the Atlantic Ocean, with her, I guess, thinking about the profundity of the ocean’s unfathomable depth, and me wondering whether Ryan Howard would ever break out of his mid-season slump. We were perched on an unoccupied lifeguard’s stand, bundled up in hoodies to fight the sea breeze, and I had my arm thrown over her shoulder. The beach was empty except for a few seagulls, in search of leftover bits of pizza or potato chips.
Val jolted me out of my baseball daydream. She put her head on my shoulder, and whispered, loudly enough that I couldn’t pretend not to have heard, “Aaron, I love you.” I was, as I think most seventeen-year-old guys would be, caught a bit off-guard. I hesitated, not because I didn’t love her, but because I’d just never thought about it. I might have loved her, but how would I know, if I’d never considered it?
I looked down, brushed Val’s hair from her eyes, and repositioned her head, so that our eyes could meet. This bit of physical action bought me some time, during which I decided that, one, I was crazy about her, whether or not it was “love” per se, and two, that if a girl tells you that she loves you, on a deserted beach at dusk, you’re pretty much required to tell her that you love her back. So with one hand on each of her cheeks, I said, “I love you too.” She buried her head into my Phillies’ sweatshirt, and slipped her hands under my shirt to wrap them around my bare chest.
Later, having repeated the same words when I kissed her goodnight, I lay on the beach house couch, and I asked myself those age old questions: “What is love?” and “Is it love that I’m feeling now?” The moonlight streaming through the huge floor-to-ceiling windows made it very difficult to sleep. So I thought instead.
How do you separate lust from love? The feeling I got when I pictured Val coyly undoing her bra, and pressing her boobs against my chest, couldn’t possibly be construed as love. But what about the feeling I got when I pictured her giggling at a stupid joke I made, her whole body convulsing with the force of humor. Was that love, or just lust too, if it made me want her to coyly undo her bra, and press her boobs against me?
I pictured those chipped pots from the museum, with their painted beasts of burden, and wondered if their creators had the same problems. What about William Jennings Bryan? Was he ever in love? Eventually I fell asleep, and woke up when Val’s little sisters emerged a few hours later, to watch the 6:30 A.M. rerun of “The Powerpuff Girls.”
On November 8th2012, Valerie and I went to a Coldplay concert, to which I’d been dragged on the premise that we had an anniversary to celebrate. The concert was at a smaller venue than you’d expect a band like Coldplay to play. Most of it was standing-room only, except for the balcony, which was twenty-one-and-over. It was attended by a mixed crowd. High school students like ourselves were interspersed with twenty-somethings, and middle-aged couples, some of whom had brought their children.
Val and I were toward the back of the standing-room area, where the crowd wasn’t as dense. We were dancing. Not dancing like you do at a club, and not dancing like you do at prom. Just kind of swaying back and forth to the music, with our arms wrapped around each other. Our heads were bent slightly forward, and sometimes our foreheads would touch, or she would nuzzle my nose with hers. We painted a picture, I’m sure, of a blissful couple. And I felt pretty damn blissful, with my hands clasped together, resting on Val’s lower back.
As Coldplay finished their set, and strolled off stage (to stand around and then return for an encore), a family of four who’d been standing just a little in front of us, started making their way through the crowd to the exit. A determined girl of about ten led the way, and she dragged her younger sister along behind her. Their father ran a hand through his thinning hair, as he tried to keep track of the daughters’ little bobbing heads in the throng of people. At the end of the domestic procession came a frazzled woman in, I’m guessing, her early forties. She was tall and thin, had rather gaunt facial features, and large bags under her eyes. As she passed, she turned toward us and said urgently, and I’m giving this to you verbatim, “Cherish your young love. Because it fades.”
“Do you think she’s right?” Val asked me after the concert. We hadn’t spoken on the way home. Val had spent the car ride facing her passenger’s side window, and hadn’t uttered a word. When I’d asked her how she’d liked the concert, she’d only mumbled in response.
We sat on the couch in Val’s living room. It was late, and her family was asleep upstairs. We had the television on in the background, in lieu of overhead light. She lay stretched out, with her head in my lap, looking up at the flickering reflections of the TV on the ceiling. I didn’t respond to her question at first, so she asked again, “Do you think she’s right, Aaron? Does love go away? Does it die?”
Valerie had always been so sure of herself, confident in nearly everything she said or did. She knew the answers to her exam questions. She knew the right thing to say to her friends, when they were upset. She’d decided that she loved me, and so she’d told me so that night in Avalon. I hadn’t known her to be unsure about anything. But there she was, staring up at me, eyes wide, asking me for an answer.
“I don’t know,” I began, “How am I supposed to know?” I wanted badly to reassure her. I wanted to have the right comforting words, but this just wasn’t a question to which I had the answer.
But my response, or lack thereof, was not enough. Valerie wanted more. “That’s all?” she asked. “You don’t know? Come on, you’ve got to have more than that. You’ve always got something to say.” Val began to cry. I had seen her cry only once before, when she’d heard about the death of Erin Lynch’s mom.
“Well, I have been thinking…” I started.
“And?” she replied through a couple of sniffles.
“Well, nothing you do is as exciting the second time around, right? Like if you go on a roller coaster, and it’s great, once you’ve ridden it ten times, it’s not quite the same. There’s no way you can repeat that same feeling. I kind of do feel like everything fades over time, in some way. Even the moon wanes,” I finished, and pointed toward where the sky would be, if the ceiling weren’t there.
“But then it waxes again, idiot.”
“But then it wanes again.”
“What? Why? What did I do?”
Now Val sat up, crossed her legs, and stared at me in a fierce, challenging way, her tear-streaked face contorted with anger. “So I’m a roller-coaster you ride and then get tired of?”
“That’s not what I’m saying at all,” I said, trying to backtrack. “You asked me a question, and I tried to give you an honest answer.”
“So why don’t we just break up now, if we aren’t going to keep feeling this way?”
“What are you saying?” My mind was racing, leaping forward, following Val’s line of questions to its logical conclusion. I didn’t like what I saw.
“Look,” she said, calming down a bit, “I’m not threatening you or anything. I’m serious. Think of it as an abstract question. Why? Why stay together?”
I took a deep breath, and looked out the window. Sure enough, because the world has a tendency to work out this way, the moon was in the sky. It was in one of those in-between periods. I was pretty sure it was a gibbous of some sort, but I couldn’t remember exactly how the lunar phases worked, and didn’t care. Fuck the moon. Who gives a shit what phase it is in? When does that affect anybody’s life? But, of course, people are always looking up at the sky searching for answers. Because God’s supposed to be up there, spinning that old moon around the earth, keeping the lunar phases in order, keeping those stars burning, and micromanaging the details of seven billion people’s lives. Busy guy (or gal).
All this cynicism, and yet, where does the Godless adolescent turn? To the heavens just like everybody else. I stared out the window at the big old moon, pleading with it for some sort of insight. How do you comfort the crying girlfriend? How do you answer questions for her that you cannot answer for yourself?
The moon, because it’s an asshole, was too busy waxing (or waning) to answer my plea. But it graciously bestowed upon me a sense of calm. I took a couple more long slow breaths, and I spoke, as I ran my hand through Valerie’s hair. “Why do you do anything, Val?”
“Is this going to be sarcastic? Because I’m not in the mood, at all.”
“No, I’m serious. Why do you do anything?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you believe in God? Or some sort of meaning or purpose in life?” I knew very well that she didn’t.
“You know that I don’t.”
“Ok, so then you do things because they make you happy. Or they make you feel good in some way. Presumably you enjoy spending time with me, so why don’t you just keep on doing it, and if or when you’re like, ‘Man, I hate that guy, I never want to see him again,’ then you can go back to the drawing board, and worry about this stuff.”
Val dug her face into my chest, to wipe her tears on my shirt. When her face emerged again, streaked red, she didn’t look particularly reassured. She hugged me tighter, but it didn’t feel like a “you just made me feel better” hug. It was snugger, more constricting, like maybe if she hugged hard enough, she could squeeze a satisfactory answer out of me.
Isaac Blumis an MFA student at Rutgers-Camden. His stories and essays have appeared, or are forthcoming in the New York Times, the Baltimore Review, the Oklahoma Review, Poetica Magazine, West Trade Review, and the Humor Times, among others. Find him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/blumwriter