FIRST KISS (an excerpt)

In high school I was an actress. For four years I hewed close to stages and green rooms and costume closets. I ate take-out for dinner in the theater lobby. I knew how to climb up to the catwalk and put colored gels on the lights above the stage. On the weekends I learned to work a hand saw and use a chalk line in the set shop. There was always sawdust in the creases of my socks. All of my friends did theater, too. At set construction we tied stripped screws to pieces of twine and placed them solemnly around each other's necks. "You've been screwed," we'd say, knowingly. By the end of a show we all got our period at the same times, our cycles linked up like tides and the moon.

Because I did nothing else but be in plays, I had to take P.E. eight times to fulfill my physical education requirement. Most people took it once. The P.E. teacher was a warm, round-faced woman with a daughter in my grade who played field hockey and had beautiful, round breasts and a sheet of white-blonde hair. She was pretty enough to be very mean like some of her friends, but she wasn't. By the time I was the sole senior in gym class her mom would turn to me for help in leading my classmates, all freshmen, in the special units.

"Alison, come on up here and let's show them some self-defense moves."

I happily obliged. I was a pro at Grab, Twist, and Pull. 

 

Holton-Arms was a small, secular all-girl's school. Private, uniforms, mostly white, mostly rich. It did its plays with Landon, the boy's school down the road. Landon had a vast campus, like a small, very expensive college, and a reputation for aggressive, macho histrionics and excessive athleticism. The helmets that dangled off of lacrosse sticks poking through the windows of hulking SUVs in the student parking lot always gave me the chills: They looked like the spoils of war, scalped skulls impaled on spears. But the boys who did the plays were nice. They were funny and non-threatening and sweetly dorky. If my girlfriends and I were just to the center of cool at Holton, these boys—skinny, fond of wide-wale corduroy, and proud to be blessed with perfect pitch—were at the far end of the spectrum at Landon.

There were exceptions, of course. In my freshman year I crushed hard on three of Landon's actors, a trio of seniors who seemed unreachably cool to me. I fell for them in rapid succession. The first, Scott Kerns, had a golden voice and perfect, sportscaster hair. That fall he played Danny Zucko in Holton's production of Grease. I sang "Summer Nights" with him at the auditions and he felt so unattainable that I saw no need to pretend I wasn't in love. Instead I twitched my hip under my plaid skirt, cut short with scissors, and shimmied close. Summer sun, something's begun / But, oh, oh, the summer nights. At the end of the song I leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek. Scott blushed with surprise and we elicited whoops of approval from the other students in the auditorium. I smiled saucily to the crowd and gave a little bow. 

Scott was dreamy, but my attention was soon diverted. His best friend Travis was tall, with enticing biceps, and he played a convincingly sexy Kenickie, the T-Birds' pugnacious and dense leader. Kenickie was unsubtle (Rizzo: What's up, Kenick? Kenickie: One guess.) and traded in a currency of hickeys and fistfights. His motivation—sex—was plain. Kenickie, and by extension Travis, was like the bad boys I would never meet if I kept doing theater, and I knew I was going to keep doing theater. I crushed hard, from afar.

 

In the spring, Landon put on the play and the girls came over to audition. In high school theater there were rules, and at Holton the rules regarding casting were clear: Seniors got the leads. You put in your time as a low-ranking chorus member or plebian stage-filler and took comfort in knowing that next year the followspot would shine on you a little more brightly. At Landon, however, nothing was sacred. In the spring of my freshman year I was one of three girls called back to read for the lead role in The Crucible. The other two girls were seniors, and the only boy there was the clear, solo contender for John Proctor, the quietly seething male lead. It was Travis. He would, I decided, look excellent in breeches. With Proctor's role ostensibly cast it was clear what we girls had to do with him. We had to sizzle.

The callbacks were at night, late, and it was cold and inky outside. At Landon the theater program was an afterthought and Mr. Zirm, the director, was really an English teacher. Once, on opening night, we performed on a wet, noxious-smelling set; construction had been finished the night before and the paint applied that morning. Something like that would never have happened at Holton. So I imagine Mr. Zirm was too late in reserving the theater for us that night, because the callbacks were in a cluttered classroom. Before we read we had to push the clattering desks to the corners of the room and clear a space for a stage. This meant everyone was pressed up close together, so the two other girls reading for the role of Abigail and I regarded each other warily from close quarters, sizing each other up and offering brief, perfunctory smiles.  

Travis was not the greatest actor, a little wooden and unintuitive, but he looked the part, and Mr. Zirm was a great fan of visual verisimilitude. I was already very tall by then and came just to Travis' nose, far away enough that I could look at him through my lashes. I stood very close.

"Give me a word, John. A soft word."

"No, no Abby. That's done with."

"You came five miles to see a silly girl fly? I know you better."

"I came to see what mischief your silly uncle's brewing now. Put it out of mind, Abby."

"John—I am waiting for you every night."

"Abby, I never gave you hope to wait for me."

"I have something better than hope, I think!"

"Abby, you'll put it out of mind. I won't be coming for you more."

"You're surely sportin' with me."

"You know me better."

"I know how you clutched my back behind your house and sweated like a stallion whenever I come near! Or did I dream that? It's she who put me out, you can't pretend it were you. I saw your face when you put me out and you loved me then and you do now!"

"That's a wild thing to say."

"A wild thing may say wild things. But not so wild, I think. I have seen you since she put me out; I have seen you nights."

"I have hardly stepped off my farm this sevenmonth."

"I have a sense for heat, John, and yours has drawn me to your window, and I have seen you looking up, burning in your loneliness. Do you tell me you've never looked up at my window?"

I started soft and coy, like something I'd seen Heather Locklear do on Melrose Place. In the middle I tried for anger, more like Brenda on 90210. In the end I was soft again, baiting and demure, trying on seduction. I did have a sense for heat—its greatest source was standing two script lengths away from me—but I had never had my back clutched or been near anyone who sweated like a stallion. My first kiss had been a month before, in the office of Landon's school newspaper.

 

In the end the role went to Lauren Ogden. She had burnished auburn hair and a beauty that was too great for high school. Appropriately, her boyfriend was in college. That fall, when she'd landed the role of Sandy in Grease we'd all muttered that she'd only gotten it because she was a good singer. Good actress or bad, when she talked about heat she knew what Arthur Miller was getting at.

 

**

It was quite possible to be waylaid by more than one crush at a time, and my infatuation with Travis and Scott overlapped with one on their friend Tarek. Tarek was unintimidating and endearingly boyish; he had round cheeks and a sweet grin. While I felt all the clichéd, fluttery things around Travis and Scott—weak knees, plummeting stomach—Tarek and I were strictly friends; his temperament rendered him totally unintimidating. But after a few weeks of feeling so comfortable around him I wondered if maybe that was a portent of something greater, a true compatibility, a soulful intimacy. I found myself looking at Tarek like a Rubik's cube, twisting him into different shapes to see if the colors lined up. Do I like Tarek? I wrote in my diary. I had no idea. He wore Cool Water cologne that added complexity to his natural, heady musk. We carried on a prolonged, teasing flirtation for months.

 

While I was still twisting him into place, there were signs Tarek was not so sweet. He was a reckless, scary driver, and once, driving to the mall after rehearsal, he swerved into the bumpy shoulder of the Beltway to bypass an artery of slow-moving traffic.

            "Tarek!" I said when he careened off the road, laughing, alarmed. I put my hand on his arm. "Tarek," I said again, applying pressure as he accelerated in his made-up lane. "Stop it!" We were going so fast I was pressed flat against my seat. What a stupid way to die, I thought, thinking of my dad and how if Tarek didn't die when we crashed he would probably kill him. "You can't drive like that," I told him when we were safe again, back in moving traffic. But I punctuated it with a nervous giggle; it came out like a teasing reprimand. 

 

It happened on Valentine's Day. I knew we had to kiss—I saw it heading toward us like a comet—but I felt strangely detached from it, like I was watching its trajectory from above. He took me to Starbucks. I drank a mocha; the chocolate syrup always went chalky at the end, coating the walls of the cup like a thin film, but I liked the way it stuck to my tongue, making me thirsty but full, the milk a warm weight in my stomach. Tarek had a key to Landon's newspaper office, a belowground warren that smelled like photo processing chemicals and had a famed, oatmeal colored couch with floundering, scratchy cushions. It was a Friday night, and the campus was empty and dark. He parked with a squeal in a spot that wasn't a spot and we let ourselves in. He played Dave Matthews. I sat on the edge of a couch cushion and wondered if people had really had sex on it. Tarek, in a desk chair on wheels, rolled over to me and leaned in. I closed my eyes right after seeing a sharp, dark hair on his cheek in close-up.

 

Later, when describing the sensation to an unkissed friend over the phone, I told her to touch her tongue to the roof of her mouth, flip it back so it doubled over on itself and then suck on it. We sat, sucking, on the phone in silence.

"Doesn't it feel weird?" I said, when I'd released the suction. "Like an alien species in your mouth?"

"I could feel my taste buds!" she said, coming up for air.

 

The kiss was awful. Any conviction I had about liking Tarek was dispelled in one long, mouth-defiling moment. He leaned in again. I jerked my head back.

"No," I said, too loudly.

"What?" He smiled at first, put his hand on my knee.

I could only shake my head. He sat back hard on the chair and scooted.

"No?" he exploded. "Are you kidding me?"

"Tarek," I pleaded.

"What is your problem?"

I looked at the floor. He kicked his heels against the floor and rolled in jerks across the room. I contemplated my knees.

"Please take me home," I said. He shook his head at me in disgust.

"Please take me home," I said again.

 

We drove in silence. I reached to turn on the CD player and he twisted the dial off with a snap. Minutes passed. Trying for levity I placed my hand gently atop of his on the gearshift. He jerked it away. He sped through stop signs and I kept my mouth shut. Later that year Tarek and an ex-girlfriend would roll over and over in that same car. They had been driving around Holton late at night—We were just talking, they said afterward—taking laps around the school's circular front drive when, during one of its orbits, Tarek's Jeep Cherokee clipped the curb and rolled down the hill toward the parking lot below, taking out earth and shrubbery with it. Tarek and the girl were both fine but later Tarek punched a hole in the wall of the men's dressing room. We all assumed the two incidents were related.

When I got home I took an endless shower and left the clothes I'd been wearing balled up in a corner of my bathroom. They stayed there for days, as long as it took me to stomach the unmistakable Tarek smell they permeated. When the horror wore off, my overriding emotion was indignation—"He wouldn't even look at me the whole car ride home!" I said as an illustration of his anger—but underneath swirled a riptide of guilt. Of all my girlfriends I was the flirt, the best at talking to boys and laying on thick the sexual innuendo. I got away with it because I was the youngest and flirted with everyone. But not kissing Tarek put me perilously close to being labeled a tease. Was he right to be angry? I hadn’t led him on so much as tested the waters, I reasoned. How were you supposed to know if you liked being kissed by someone if you'd never kissed him before?