“I want to start with an activity that will frame our lesson for today. Can I have a volunteer?” Ms. Amanda Kay looked across the room for a student who happened to catch her eye. I looked back over my shoulder at my science teacher, a man who had tiny tufts of hair above each ear and a belly that hung over the front of his belt buckle. He was hunched over his desk, no longer paying attention to the guest speaker here to teach us sex ed. Ms. Amanda Kay walked around the rows of desks, her heels clicking and her ruffle-front blouse rippling. Her eyes landed on Annie, who was still growing into her teeth. She was seated at the end of a row, so Ms. Amanda Kay walked to her with a series of clicks and handed her the tape dispenser.
“Now, Annie, I want you to pull a piece of tape from this roll.” Annie took the tape dispenser and pulled off a piece. “Can you look at the tape, and tell me what it looks like?”
Annie looked up at Ms. Amanda Kay, her squinted eyes obscured in part by the reflection of her glasses. “Yeah, I guess. It’s tape? It’s kinda see through and sticky.”
“That’s right. It’s nice and sticky. Does it have any dirt or lint on it?” “No.”
“Now can you please pass the piece of tape to your neighbor?” Ms. Amanda Kay nodded towards Kenny. My heartbeat flickered as he looked up from whatever he was doodling in his notebook to take the piece of tape from Annie. I wished I could sit in Annie’s seat for the trimester.
“Great, Kenny, can you please stick the tape to the sleeve of your shirt, and then pass it to your neighbor? We’ll continue this down the row.”
I wondered what Kenny was drawing. We were in an art elective together last year, so I knew he was a good artist. I always liked to see what he was drawing. He was never shy about showing me, sliding his sketchbook across the table when the teacher wasn’t looking. Kenny stuck the tape to his shirt sleeve, ripped it off and passed it to Elise. The tape moved down the row, being stuck and unstuck from shirts. When it reached Cassy at the end of the row, she tried to press it onto her shirt, but it wouldn’t stick. Ms. Amanda Kay clicked across the room and picked up the lint-covered piece of tape.
“This tape represents you.” Ms. Amanda Kay held the tape out at arms length and turned as if she was showing a picture book to a group of kindergarteners. “Not just Annie, but each and every one of you is a fresh piece of tape, ready to make a bond. When the tape is fresh, it can make the strongest bond—just like how the tape stuck best to Kenny’s shirt. But did you notice? When the tape reached the end of the row, it was all used up. It couldn’t make a bond with Cassy’s shirt at all. And look at all of the lint that’s stuck to it.”
“This is what happens when you have lots of sexual partners. You might bond so much with all of the partners you aren’t meant to be with, that by the time you meet the person you’re truly in love with, you can’t connect with them. And all that lint? That’s all of the heartbreaks and health risks you take along the way. You can avoid all of this by being abstinent, or abstaining from sex, until you’re with the person you want to marry.”
Ms. Amanda Kay went back to the front of the room. She pulled out a pile of worksheets that she passed around the room. When and how to say ‘NO:’ Strategies for building refusal skills stretched across the top of the paper. I skimmed through the exercises. They each had a fewlines to read describing scenarios, which we then had to mark whether it was something that could lead to sex, and if so, what would we say to get out of the situation. After thirty minutes of working, Ms. Amanda Kay went through the answers. Apparently, all of them were scenarios that could lead to sex. Going to the movies with your crush? Sex. Holding hands? Sex. Making out. Definitely sex. And if you didn’t say no loud or often enough, then you would be riddled with STDs. If you were a girl, you were going to get pregnant.
But what if I wanted to go to the movies with a crush and hold his hand? And what if he wanted to kiss me? I thought about what I would do if Kenny asked me to go to the movies with him and felt a heat across my cheeks. I passed in the worksheet, and wondered if Ms. Amanda Kay would teach us more next week. I would never admit it to anyone, but I wanted to know more because I wasn’t sure who to talk to about these things. I sometimes asked my cousin Reba because her older sister knew about the pill and condoms. I even heard that she’d given a few handjobs. I’d thought about talking to my mom about it, but I couldn’t do it. The conversation seemed too awkward. Ms. Amanda Kay excused us from class with a wish for a nice weekend.
I sat next to my cousin Reba, hidden away in her closet with skirts and pants tickling the tops of our heads. She held the flashlight over the magazine we’d stolen from her older sister, Katie, to read the latest on celebrity gossip, fashion and making friends with everyone. Without saying anything to each other, we agreed to pretend that those were the articles we were interested in reading, so when we reached the section about the newest sex position and tips on how to drive your boyfriend crazy, we would be able to pour over the pages. This month’s section had men telling about weird things they’d done during sex that they didn’t expect to like, which ranged from doing it on the bathroom floor because of the way the tile stuck to their skin to having their dick wrapped up in ribbon before doing it.
“Are you going to wait until you’re married to have sex?” I asked Reba halfway through the article.
“I don’t know. Maybe. I don’t want to be some huge slut, you know? But I also don’t want to be some prude who doesn’t do anything. Like I want a boyfriend and stuff.”
I adjusted the magazine in my hands. “Yeah that makes sense.”
Reba drew circles on the page with the flashlight. “Like it’s probably okay to like give a handjob or something. I mean that’s not even really doing it, you know?”
I nodded. I tried to imagine doing it in the bathroom with Kenny, but the closest thing I’d seen to a real life penis was the diagram we had to label in our biology unit on the body systems. I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to know if I wanted to do it, or even if I wanted to do it at all. Reba would probably make fun of me for saying that out loud though, because she’d already talked about which guys in her theater group she’d do it with if she had the chance.
“Do you think Kenny would want to do it with me?” I asked without looking away from the page.
“Yeah, probably. You’re pretty and guys are, like, always horny.”
At church on Sunday, we gathered in the basement, which was a large rec room cluttered with a few donated couches, bookshelves and rows of chairs that looked like ones in waiting rooms. I sat down in the middle of the row next to Reba. Youth pastor Bill walked up to the front of the room. He always wore a quarter-zip and sneakers with faded blue dad jeans.
“Welcome back to confirmation class. Last time we started talking about the virgin Mary and how God sent the angel Gabriel to tell her of His plan. Remember, from what we know about the time period, Mary would have been only a few years older than most of you in the room.”
As I processed this, I felt aware of a fresh uneven fluttering of my heart and a stickiness on my palms. I wiped my hands along the rough fabric of the waiting room chairs and said a silent prayer to God that he better not send an angel to me. I didn’t understand why Mary had to give birth to Jesus. If it was an immaculate conception, a clean conception, did it count as sex? It couldn’t, right? Because God wouldn’t have sex with an unmarried virigin just to have a son, right? I raised my hand, and Pastor Bill called on me.
“I don’t understand why God had to make Mary pregnant. He was able to make Adam from the dirt and Eve from a rib.” I wanted to continue to say that it seemed like a much easier way all together, but thought better of it.
Pastor Bill adjusted his sweater and pulled one of the chairs to the front of the room, which is what he always did when he wanted to deliver one of his, as he called them, “Big Truths” about the Bible.
“Well, God wanted to test Mary’s belief and trust in Him. This is something that God does many times throughout the Bible. Each time, we learn that we face challenges that force us to trust God. He wouldn’t give us any challenges that He didn’t believe we could overcome through faith in Him. Above and beyond this, Jesus had to be of the flesh and blood in order to accent our sins.”
I shot Reba a sideways look. She returned the glance with a slight roll of her eyes. Pastor Bill stood back up to continue his lecture on Mary and Joseph’s journey to Nazareth.
Ryan and Kenny were sitting backwards in desks that weren’t assigned to them. I would normally have told them off, but Kenny was just a desk away from mine, and he looked nice in his grey hoodie. He wore it often, claiming that it was perfect for all seasons. We made eye contact as I slid my bookbag off my shoulder. I smiled and he smiled back before I turned my attention to pulling out my books for class. I knew I had to tell Reba about this the next time I saw her because she would be excited for me.
I didn’t notice right away, but after I set up my nametent, I realized that Ryan was trying to toss bits of paper into Cassy’s cleavage in a stupid game of boobsketball. Cassy had the biggest boobs of anyone in the class. She leaned back in her chair with her arms crossed high on her chest to block the shots but kept laughing. I hated when Kenny just went along with Ryan, who always came up with games like this. Ryan had snapped my bra a few times when I sat in front of him in English class, but Kenny was better than that.
The bell rang, and Ms. Amanda Kay waited as everyone returned to their seats. She asked for two more volunteers, but no one raised their hands. I tried to avoid eye contact. She called me up to the front of the room along with Kenny. I tucked my hair behind my ear and looked down at my sneakers.
“Kenny, can you pick up this pile of books for me?” Ms. Amanda Kay pointed at one of the two piles of books on the table against the wall at the front of the room.
Kenny shrugged and walked over to the books. He adjusted the pile so the edges were aligned and then tucked them under his arm.
“Great, now Savannah, can you please pick up the other pile?” Ms. Amanda Kay asked. I walked over to the other pile and picked them up, tucking them under my arm like I
would do with my bookbag. Ms. Amanda Kay pursed her lips together in an attempt to mask a frown.
“Savannah, is that how you always hold your books?”
“Yeah, I use a bookbag, so this is how I carry my stuff normally.” I glanced over at Kenny, who was looking towards the back of the room.
“Well how would you hold them if you didn’t have a bag?”
I shifted the books to my other side. “I’m not really sure what you mean.”
“Okay well you can sit down.” Ms. Amanda Kay reached out for the books. I passed them back to her, and she scanned the room. “Cassy, why don’t you come up and help.”
I felt my cheeks go warm and hoped the color wasn’t as bright as it got in cartoons. Cassy took my place at the front of the room, where Ms. Amanda Kay handed the books to her. She folded her arms and cradled them like a 1950’s picture of a schoolgirl.
“There. Do you see how Kenny holds his books compared to how Cassy holds her books?” Ms. Amanda Kay asked the class.
I looked at both of them. They were both people holding books. It didn’t seem like anything significant, but Ms. Amanda Kay had switched me out when I didn’t do it that way.
“Cassy holds her books that way because she’s a young woman. It’s natural for women to hold their books this way because it’s practice for how they would hold a baby. Do you see?” Ms. Amanda Kay drew a swooping shape in front of Cassy’s arms.
I felt the temperature of my cheeks increase and I looked down at my desk, reading over the graffiti carved into the wood. Cassy was so much prettier than me, and now she was more womanly too. She already had some instinct that I didn’t have, which all of the guys seemed to have already figured out. And because I didn’t have that—whatever it was—no one would ever notice me, and Kenny definitely wouldn’t notice me.
I walked up the street from the school bus stop to my house. My neighbor Jackson and his friend Riley were in Jackson’s front yard. He wasn’t around very often now that he was in high school, but when we were younger, we used to be close. We would play on the swingset he used to have in his backyard, taking turns jumping off of the swings at the highest point. His parents took it away after he flew off and broke his arm when I was six and he was seven.
“Hey Sav!” Jackson waved. “What’s up?”
I stopped on the sidewalk in front of the yard. “I don’t know. Just school and stuff. You?” “Yeah same. High school is kinda crazy.” Jackson looked over at Riley, who was leaned
back on his elbows. “Do you want to hang for a bit?”
Riley made a face at Jackson. I’d known Riley for a while, but we weren’t close or anything. He had a few younger siblings, so I wasn’t surprised he was annoyed at having to hang out with someone he probably considered a baby. I glanced over at my house. I knew I was supposed to go straight home after school, but my parents wouldn’t be home for a few hours.
Besides, I was right next door with Jackson.
“Yeah that sounds good.” I tossed my bag onto the lawn and sat down beside them. “So what’re we gonna do?” Riley sat up and pulled some blades of grass, twirling them in his fingers.
“We can still play the new Smash Bros game. Sav can hold her own, and the game has multiplayer for four.” Jackson stood up and dusted off the dirt from his pants.
Riley shot me a sideways glance and shrugged. I followed the two of them into the house, placing my bookbag next to the front door. Jackson’s house always smelled like cinnamon because his mom had one kind of candle she liked to burn. I stopped in the bathroom while Jackson and Riley went downstairs to get the game set up.
As I washed my hands. I looked at my baggy t-shirt that had the logo of my dad’s favorite restaurant on the front. He’d purchased them for everyone in the family when they went out of business. I’d tie-dyed mine, so it was covered in blue, green and purple splotches. It flopped down over my jeans, which were oversized and held on by a belt I’d borrowed—stolen—from Reba. I probably looked like a kid compared to all of the girls in high school. I’d have to pay more attention to the fashion section of the magazine next time Reba and I read it.
I joined Jackson and Riley in the basement. I picked Lucario for my character, and after I got the hang of the controls, I managed to win a few rounds. Jackson and Riley were sitting on the ground, elbowing each other in an attempt to make the other drop the controller. I sat on the couch, slouched back because the seat was too deep for my back to touch while my feet were on the floor. Between a few of the games, I caught Riley looking back at me. I scrunched up my face as a joke, figuring he was a little pissed off at getting beaten by a girl.
Jackson set the control down and excused himself to the bathroom. After the basement door clunked shut, Riley sat next to me on the couch. I could feel his shoulder and leg brush against mine. I felt my pulse in my fingertips, and I glanced over at him. He put his arm around my shoulder. I tried to scoot away, but I was next to the arm rest. I wondered how long Jackson would be in the bathroom.
“We’re casual, right?” Riley patted my shoulder.
“Yeah, I guess.” I wasn’t sure if I wanted to sink onto the floor or if this was something that everyone did in high school. Some people were cooler about touch than others. Maybe Riley was one of those people.
“Cool, cool. So have you ever dated anyone?”
“Sorta.” Did Riley like me? Was he trying to flirt with me? Did I like him? I looked over at him, but he was looking at the TV, so I saw his face in profile. His nose was a bit crooked and his eyelashes were long. I didn’t think so, so why was my heartbeat going haywire? “But it wasn’t, like, serious or anything.”
“How far did you get? Like did you let him do this?” Riley reached over and squeezed my boob.
My awareness was flooded. I felt like I was merging with the fabric of the couch, the lumpy brown corduroy was swallowing me up and he was still touching me but it was too late to slide onto the floor and I felt the weight of his arm still around my shoulder and the sofa arm up against my hip and he was still touching me. He was still touching me.
“What the hell, Riley?” I tried to push his arms away, but he was stronger than me. “No. Stop it.”
Riley turned to face me, pulling his arm off my shoulder. He kept squeezing my boob and ran his free hand up my leg to my crotch.
“I said no.” I kicked my legs up, and my knee caught him in the face, which caused him to recoil. I ran up the stairs two steps at a time. I slammed open the basement door and ran into Jackson, who was walking while looking down at this phone. I clipped his shoulder as I ran for the door.
“Sav? Are you okay?” Jackson asked, turning to follow me.
“I’ve got to go.” I grabbed my bag and let myself out of the front door. I dashed across the lawn and hopped over the short hedge between our houses. When I got inside, I locked the door behind me, shut the front blinds, and then went to the back door to make sure it was also locked. I felt the electricity of the flight of flight reflex still tingling in my legs. I poured myself a glass of water and drank the whole thing. I refilled it and cut myself a slice of the leftover cake from my mom’s birthday the week before.
I went to the study and sat in my grandpa’s old overstuffed recliner that he’d given to us when he moved to the retirement home. I covered myself up in the blanket that hung off the back of the chair and turned on the TV to the afternoon cartoons. As I ate the slice of cake, I didn’t know what I should do. My phone started to buzz with text messages from Jackson, but I ignored it. I thought about texting Reba, but I didn’t know what she would say. Should I have let him do it so I wouldn’t be a prude? But I didn’t want it, so maybe that made me a slut. I couldn’t be sure. I put my phone on silent and put it down face down on the small table next to the chair.
I watched cartoons until I heard the garage door rumble open as my mom got home. I quickly tossed the blanket along the back of the chair and turned off the TV because I wasn’t supposed to be watching it on school nights. I ran into the kitchen and pulled out my book for English class from my bookbag to make it look like I’d been doing homework the whole time.
I hadn’t thought about if I wanted to tell her, but when she walked in, I realized I didn’t want to get in trouble for being at Jackson’s house. She would be mad at me for going over after school without her knowing, and she would have said no if I asked. Then I wouldn’t have been there with Riley.
Later that night, when I went to plug my phone in, I looked at the messages that Jackson sent. Most of them were asking what happened, but in the last one he wrote, “Riley told me what he did. I’m really really sorry. It’s super effing gross that he did that. If you ever need someone to talk to about it, I’m here, but…like…no pressure.”
I turned my phone over in my hands, getting the cord twisted around. I looked out my bedroom window to the solitary streetlamp casting a circle of yellowish light on the concrete.
“OK. Thanks, Jackson. I will let you know,” I texted back.
I turned my phone off. I didn’t want to talk to him about it.
Ms. Amanda Kay was talking about STDs, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the tape we passed around the week before. I felt a bit more linty now. I wanted to know if it meant that I wouldn’t be able to connect with someone I actually liked. I glanced over at Kenny, who was drawing in his notebook again. It wasn’t fair. It shouldn’t count because I said no. It’s not like I wanted Riley to do that to me.
I said no, so why didn’t he listen? Maybe I needed to say it louder or more times. But what good would saying no do if the person doing it wasn’t even going to listen? It wasn’t fair. I jammed my pencil down too hard as I dottend an “i” in my notes, causing the lead to snap.
When class let out, Ryan and Kenny caught up with me in the hall. Kenny put his hand on my shoulder. For the first time, I didn’t want him to touch me, so I shrugged it off.
“Hey don’t be like that.” Ryan said, watching the interaction.
“We just wanted to know if it’s true.” Kenny leaned up against the wall in the way I’d watched him do dozens of times in front of Cassy.
“If what’s true?”
“I heard from my brother, who heard it from Riley Killkannon’s sister, that you let Riley get to second base, “ Kenny said with a grin on his face that I’d normally think was cute.
“I’m not saying it’s true, but so what if it was?” I felt a tingle in my nose that happened before I started crying. I bit the side of my cheek to try to stop myself. I looked around the hall to see if anyone from my next class was walking by so I could slip away with them.
“Oh so you’re saying it’s true then?” Ryan interjected in the conversation and laughed. Kenny shrugged. “I dunno. Just that if you ever want to do something like that again—” “Ew. Screw you, Kenny.” I pushed past him and Ryan.
As I walked through the crowded hallway to my next class, I wiped a few tears off my face, my hands shaking from a scorching feeling of rising anger in my chest. I couldn’t believe that Riley bragged about it to more people—now everyone was going to think I wanted to do it with him. I didn’t even want to do it with Kenny anymore, but that didn’t matter. I wasn’t even sure if what I wanted mattered at all.
Stephanie Wood holds an MFA from Arcadia University and runs Cosmic Double literary journal. Her work has been published in Sad Girls Club, Grim & Gilded, Walkabout Journal, and Journal TwentyTwenty.