Elizabeth Albright. Six years old. First grade. She held my hand at recess, our palms swimming in sweat and hair gel. Our hearts hiccuping in our chests while the other kids watched with wide eyes, their thumbs hooked in the loops of their jeans. “Would you like a bite of my sandwich? It doesn’t have mayo. I hate mayo.” I held her purse while she jumped rope, her bangs bouncing up and down on her vanilla forehead. The rope in the sky like a rainbow, now underfoot like the cracks we jumped to save our mothers’ backs. “I can teach you how to hawk a loogie if you want.” She tossed Owlie, my stuffed koala, a friend since birth, through the playground basketball hoop and broke his tiny plastic nose. I left her the following day for a third-grader named Jessica Gutierrez: dark hair, dark eyes, the sultriest six-year-old I’d ever seen. But when I told Jessica what I’d done, how I’d dumped Elizabeth as she instructed me to, she said, “Sorry, it took you too long,” and I was left with only my mother’s shoulder to cry on.

 

There are mosque crying over rooftops rusted in patches of yellow and orange. There are motorcycles puttering past with four-person families on their two-person seats. It’s Monday, September 1st, 6:06pm. A cockroach feels its way across the white tiles, its antennae like a blind man’s cane. It’s unaware or uninterested in the pulpy carcasses of companions stomped into the ground. They look like Rorschach tests: the silhouette of a young woman, a moth spreading its wings. An extension cord snakes from the plug beside my bed, across the room, to this computer. Soon this screen will be the only source of light, and the mosquitoes will hover in front of it. They’ll sink their beaks into places on my back that cannot be reached on my own.

 

A friend of Julie Force. Eight years old. Third grade. My older cousin was having a birthday party with her older friends. “Dad, you can’t play spin-the-bottle with a Coke can. That’s totally lame.” Green Day on the radio. Budweiser girls with bleached teeth, in red bathing suits, smiling out from posters on the garage walls. “Do you know what that is? Masturbation? When masturbation’s lost its fun?” Cross-legged on the cold cement, the bottle stopped spinning and everybody started laughing. “I can’t kiss him, he’s too young.” Long blonde hair, dangling earrings. She towered over me and I closed my eyes and she leaned over and pecked my lips. “Now it’s your turn.” We camped out in the backyard, a fire smoldering at our feet, the stars obscured by the neighborhood streetlights—they looked like the faces of camels. And the girl I hadn’t got a chance to kiss looked like a painting I’d seen of a young Cordelia: eyes closed, face like chalk. I unzipped my sleeping bag and crawled toward her like an army man. She woke in the middle of the night and found me asleep on her chest. 

 

You were the maid of honor, I was a groomsman. Our partners were in the audience, sitting in the wooden pews, and you looked across the aisle at me when the vows were spoken. “To honor, to cherish.” We stayed up talking after the reception, our significant others asleep at the hotel, the bride and groom in their wedding bed. A tunnel of trees on a suburban street. A deer in a park. The moon overhead like an empty plate. The sprinklers came on at dawn and you lifted your head from my chest and I took your chin in my hand. “What are we going to do now?” Drenched, we arrived at the hotel and showered in our separate rooms and crawled into our separate beds and slept beside our separate partners. 

 

“You’re a good-looking boy, sweetheart. You’re going to have a lot of girlfriends some day, and you have to be nice to them, alright? Don’t kiss them if you don’t want to be their boyfriend. Don’t lie and say you like them if you don’t. Because girls… Girls aren’t the same as boys, Boo-boo. They’re sensitive. And you can do a lot of damage if you’re not nice. So be nice, alright? Promise me. Promise me you’ll be nice to girls from now on.”

 

A pillow between my legs. Buffy the Vampire Slayer on Channel 7. Eleven years old. Sixth grade. “To make you a vampire they have to suck your blood. And then you have to suck their blood. It’s like a whole big sucking thing. Mostly they just want to kill you.” I don’t know if I had pubic hair, but I know I came a thin, clear liquid (what I now think of as ‘pre-cum’), and I know my vigorous, lube-less humping led to blood—a thin streak like a razor nick on a slice of tissue. “Does it say how he’s gonna kill me? Do you think it’ll hurt?” I’d cut the tip of my penis on that clean, cotton fabric, and it stung. But it didn’t stop me from trying again the next day, with the weather girl on Channel 11 and my eyes closed to the world.

 

The next time we met, we went straight to bed and stayed there for the next three weeks, leaving only to buy food at the local market, or to make breakfast, to make lunch. Your stereo was always on because your roommates were often home and you didn’t want them to hear us. “This is my, um… This is…” Your boyfriend was overseas. He’d write you letters, and you’d write him back, but you stopped signing with x’s and o’s, and soon stopped writing altogether. “You’re such an asshole. Do you know that? Do you have any idea how selfish you are?” Summer, my girlfriend, moved out when I told her why I’d come home wet after the wedding reception—a premeditated confession, my way of squeaking out of a relationship that was somehow unsatisfying. “Should you move into my place or should I move into yours?” We ended our leases and rented a single-bedroom in Chinatown. No oven. The water pressure so weak it hardly rinsed the soap off our backs. We had a view from the bedroom—the pier jutting into the sea like a plank on a pirate ship—and we loved it, as we loved each other.

 

Allie DeBoni. Twelve years old. Seventh grade. “My friend Allie thinks your cute.” We made out at a high-school football game. Our tongues moving like thumbs in a thumb war. The announcer booming above us from his tiny wooden box on the top of the grandstands. Discarded paper cups and hamburger wrappers. She wore make-up and push-up bras, plucked her eyebrows into thin lines, listened to 2Pac, and pilfered flasks of vodka from her step-dad’s liquor cabinet. “Camarillo at the forty-third yard line with George Borchard preparing to take the snap.” Our friends cheered around us like gamblers at a cock fight. “Alright, that’s five minutes. You can stop now.” We wiped our mouths with the backs of our hands. Our lips numb.Is that it? Is that all there is to it? Same thought I’d have, years later, when Sarah Walters pulled aside her pink panties and made our dry humping wet.

 

With you, there were other thoughts, like, Oh my fucking god this is so fucking good I could die right now and I wouldn’t even mind. Or, This is perfect.

 

Pink pussy. Veiny cocks. Thirteen years old. The summer between seventh and eight grade. “You sweep the shop, weed the yard, empty the trash cans into that green container over there by the forklift, clean up any oil spills, wash the tractors, stuff like that. You got any questions, I’ll be in my office.” I spent the summer with my pants around my ankles, the bathroom door locked behind me. “What the hell you doing in there? You constipated?” In the utility closet, beside the hyper-pink hand soaps and bottles of bleach, I’d discovered a pile of magazines with glossy women spreading their glossy legs across the glossy pages, their shaved genitalia filled with plastic toys or real fingers, real tongues, penises larger than I’d previously thought possible. Why would anyone want to get peed on? Some of the girls I still remember, the lipstick lesbians with their garden hose, the deep brown nipples of a girl so pretty I couldn’t help but wonder why she was doing what she was doing. Stop it. I would take care of you. I ripped her out and folded her into tiny squares and hid her in my work boots. I looked her up on the internet, searched for her email, and drafted a letter in which I proposed to shield her from harm. But she worked under a pseudonym, and the form letter that came in the mail got me grounded for weeks.

 

There are welts on my legs, on my arms, my back, my feet, my hands, my eyelids. I just came back from the convenience store and am now on my bed. It’s 2:36am. The plastic-framed mirror sways on the wall across from me, the ceiling fan swirls the hot air. My mattress has no sheets. “Where you are going? What you are doing?” The taxi drivers sat under a bamboo portico, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. They asked the same questions that everyone asks, and I answered the same as I always do. “Walking. Just walking.” A rat scurried along the sewage channel, his nose pointed toward the ground, and I floated seventeen-thousand feet in the air. “You are now free to move about the cabin.” Flight JT897. In the closet-like bathroom I slipped into the suit I’d been carrying for weeks, a suit I had to hide from you, though we shared the same duffel bag. I’d lost a shoe in Sumatra and opted to propose in socked feet. You said, “Yes.” Or you said, “You’re weird, you’re weird, you’re so fucking weird.” Your hair sticking up at odd angles. Your eyes blurred with sleep. “Yes, yes, of course it means yes. Get up. Get off your fucking knees and kiss me.” The ring was purchased at a Jakarta bazaar for 1,000 Rupiah (.10US cents). Dyed raffia, it was the only ring I could find that wasn’t polished pyrite. “It’s perfect. I love it.”

 

With Charlotte Jones, thirteen to fifteen years old, eighth to tenth grade, it’s always summer and her skin is always bronze and the light is always catching the fine hairs around her belly-button. “I don’t know why people say its fishy. You taste like olive oil and salt.” We did everything together—or everything except the thing she was saving for her husband—and something happened under the bed. A deep kiss? Heavy petting? Dry humping? Her brother played a beginner’s beat on his thrift-store drum set while her mom made ham sandwiches in the kitchen. It may have been the moment I first fell in love, my face buried deep in her neck. “Charlotte, lunch is ready!” Her dad had a hook for an arm. “Is that a hickey on my daughter’s neck?” He was the youth minister at the church I only attended to be closer to her. “If I see another one of those on Charlotte’s neck, you’ll find out what it feels like to be a fish, capice?” He held up his hook for emphasis and from the point forward all love marks, bites, and scratches were relegated to the spaces within her triangular tan lines. My penis like a plane hovering above a thin layer of clouds. “Put it in, but don’t push.” I’m sure I wanted to fuck her, though I’d never have thought in those terms back then. Fuck. No, I’d have thought, simply, I want this, and all thoughts beyond that wouldn’t have mattered.

 

Holly Something-Or-Other. Fifteen years old. Tenth grade. I went to Austin to visit my brother at his new university. “Your grandfather was Jewish? That’s so cool. Anyone with any intelligence is almost always Jewish, I swear. Dylan. Einstein. Spielberg.” We never kissed, never held hands, and barely touched. “I think his best album is the one the critics hated the most. I mean, Blood on the Tracks is good—it’s great, even—but Self-Portrait is one of those albums you can play on repeat for days.” She wore bangles on her wrists and parted her hair like an Indian scout. “See the trick is, you get it all in the middle like a taco, then you take your time with it, curl it up between your fingers, getting everything just right, and twist. The twisting takes practice, but eventually it’s easy.” I cried when I got on the plane and called her as soon as I touched down. “He’s such an asshole. He said he likes me and everything, but he hates Dylan. Says he’s sick of listening to him all the time. I told him we can listen to something else, but yeah… What are you doing right now? Are you in the bathroom?” Charlotte found my journal, every page covered in longing, every word pulsing with the tension of something secret and profound.

 

“Don’t tell ‘em. Never tell ‘em. That was your first mistake. You keep your dick in your pants or your trap shut. One or the other. But either way, it ain’t their problem. It’s yours. It’s your problem. Remember that.”

 

Sarah Walters. Sixteen to eighteen years old. Eleventh grade to freshman year of college. Auburn hair. A strip of freckles across her nose. A birth mark on her right hip. She pulled aside her pink panties and I expected blood but there wasn’t any. “I’m a gymnast. I lost it when I fell off the high bars. Broke my wrist, too.” Her parents left us alone, so we spent most of our time at her house, in her bedroom, with rented movies in the background. “Garth, marriage is punishment for shoplifting in some countries.” Sadie Hawkins. Homecoming. Prom. We played house when my parents went to Italy for a week, made breakfast, and fucked in their living room, in my bed, in the kitchen, and on the hallway carpet. “I love you, I just don’t think it’s going to work if I’m halfway across the state.” She called and I emailed terrible poetry. We slept together whenever I went home for the holidays. “You should come up for Halloween, I’ll show you around.” She was a bumblebee. I was a chameleon. “What the fuck are you supposed to be, a fucking tied-dyed dragon?” Red cups. Four-foot bongs. I woke up to text messages. Where are you? Is your phone dead? How do I get to your house? WTF? HOLY FUCKING SHIT WHAT THE FUCK IS YOUR PROBLEM? The girl beside me—Jenna? Lauren?—took my phone and tossed it onto the pile of clothes at the foot of her bed. Charlotte didn’t call anymore, and the next time I saw her she told me what I already knew. “I slept with people before we met, lots of them. It’s just, when I met you, I don’t know, I was happy.”

 

You told me to take a retreat. “Step away from your book. Go somewhere.” We’d been arguing. We hadn’t slept together in weeks. “It’s not running away, it’s getting your shit together so you can figure out the next step.” I’d spent months at my desk, writing words into this computer, printing them out, throwing them away. “Listen, if you’re gonna look at porn, can you at least clean up when you’re finished? There’s pubes all over our sheets. It’s disgusting.”

 

Queen Sheeba. Twenty years old. My third year at university. She was a thespian with a shaved head and a unibrow, nearly twenty years my senior. “Darling, lie down and let me take care of you.” Her room smelled of Nag Champa and stale sweat. We’d been eating acid. “Sheeba? I think something’s happening. I feel like I’m falling through the floor.” Her roommates footsteps thundered above us. The music they played kept looping in tiny riffs that crawled over each other like ants building a nest. “It’s fine. Just go with it.” She emerged from the bathroom in a silk kimono, her pierced nipples behind a floral-pattern that kept blooming and wilting, wilting and blooming. She put me in her mouth and it felt like all the blood in my body was about to gush through the tip of my penis. “Let me get some lube.” She shoved her fingers in my mouth and scraped her nails across my tongue. “You like it when I plays dirty? Very well then, you little fuck.” She slapped me. “Pay attention. Focus.” We did things that I’d rather not mention, showered, and went back to bed. Different positions. Different perversions. But still I left her for Vanessa, and left Vanessa for Kathryn, and Kathryn for Summer, and Summer for you.  

And I don’t know what I expect you to feel when I tell you that last night I dreamed about all of them—the firsts and lasts, the Charlotte’s and Elizabeth’s and Allie’s and Sarah’s. The lipstick lesbians with their garden hose, a kaleidoscope of body parts, an orgy of ex-girlfriends and crushes and flings. The mosques cried their morning call-to-prayer and I woke up with the mattress’ sharp springs sticking into my back, the mosquitoes buzzing around my ears, the off-kilter ceiling fan like a rogue propeller threatening to spin loose and decapitate me.

I turned over and reached for you. For only you. For you, who shall remain nameless.

On The Glory Of The Pencil

What the photo doesn't show you