1997: CARLY GRANT’S BATHROOM
I fell for Carly the beginning of junior year in high school. She was a new student and had eyebrows that naturally arced like she was always sad. Under those brows were small hazel eyes but she had a wide, wide smile and inexplicably always-glossy lips. She wore a safety pin through her ear which was equally parts bad-ass and horrifying; I spent weeks sitting parallel to her in English class, staring at that safety pin.
It began tentative and with a fluttering stomach. Carly and I spent the better part of two weeks doodling in the margins of each other’s notebooks before we actually spoke. She drew a chain of daisies, interloping with the spiral edge of my book, she drew an anarchy symbol and then wrote the lyrics to Lodi Dodi by Snoop Dogg. I leaned over and drew a penis on her notebook. She added the balls, her hand cupped over her smiling mouth.
It was when we were reading Of Mice and Men in class that I fell for her, beyond using her image in the shower every morning.
She was at least a couple chapters ahead of me in the book and one afternoon, I looked over and saw her wet eyelashes. She glanced at me with a pink nose and an apologetic smile.
“This part always kills me,” she whispered and I smiled back.
Just like that, we spent the rest of the fall semester together. Carly, me, Louis, sometimes Artie and all the other jerks who had not much else to do.
Her parents were die hard Baptists and she claimed to denounce it all, the entire institution, but there was God inside of that girl, I was sure of it.
We lay on my bed, her in tube socks and me in bare feet, our heads together, making shadow puppets on the ceiling, ending with our hands clasped, making a shadow of the two of us bound together.
My headphones lay wedged between us, the volume as high as it could go, playing The Cranberries; Carly had sworn she was going to cut her hair like Dolores O’Riordan’s.
“Is it crazy I’m in love with you, Adam?” she whispered.
“No,” I said, and it wasn’t at all because of course this is what this thing is.
She sat up abruptly and smiled wide, bits of hair stuck in those glossy curved lips and I reached for her but she stood unsteadily on my bed.
“Don’t you feel ready to burst wide open?” she asked, exhilarated and luminous. I laughed and she reached for my hands. “This is what love is! God. It feels like the first warm day of spring, you know? Like Adam, I don’t think I could ever be sad, not the way I feel right now.”
It was foolish but so true and honest that I didn’t see the foolish part. But then, no one that age, in that time, in that situation would.
She jumped once and then, literally, screamed my name.
I bounced on the bed, scrambled up and jumped, making her bounce unsteadily, and I screamed her name back.
We did that for ages, jumped and just shouted our names at each other, until our cheeks were red and we ran out of breath and my parents came home.
It became a thing, we’d scream each others name in the school hallways, from across yards at parties and over the telephone, Carly and I were always screaming.
On Halloween night, there was a bonfire. I wore a Superman T-shirt, Carly wore my clothes and had my favorite hat tucked into the back pocket of my 501’s. She let her hair hang in her eyes and insisted I call her Adam when she hung her arm over my neck and planted kisses on my cheek and neck. This kid everyone called Peterman had sub-woofers the size of a small continent in his trunk and blared Nas the whole night, forcing me to explain six times to six different people exactly how and why that album was underrated, even if it was popular.
Louis, Artie, Carly & I and this kid named Kyle stood in loose circle under the pier. That year, the water had receded due to a drought and we could be under there without getting wet, to be selfish bastards that don’t share weed and talk shit about everyone else who was hanging out that night.
“So I’m trying to stick all the pills in that little tear in the center of my steering wheel,” Artie was saying, wearing a top hat with his usual get up of a blue and white button up flannel shirt and jeans. “The cop is at least you know, seven hundred pounds, so it takes him forever to huff and puff his way over there to blow my little house in but my finger gets stuck in the fucking vinyl—“
“Fuck you, it did not,” Louis laughed, joint half way to his lips. Carly was laughing, waving her hand for Artie to go on with the story.
“Scout’s honor,” Artie said, all baked and solemn, holding up two fingers before using them to tip the top hat slightly backward.
“It’s true,” Kyle piped in.
“So this asshole grabs the bag and dumps the contents down his throat,” Artie said, pointing to Kyle, “at which point I’m out my good Saturday night and a couple hundred bucks, but whatever, saved me the bust and I’m like, I’ll just punch his throat in after this, he’ll puke ‘em up, all will be good. And it would have been. But we’ve got Phoebe Sellers strung out in the back seat, right?”
“Oh god,” I said at the same time Louis did. Phoebe Sellers was a good girl, a fun girl, but I’ll be damned if she wasn’t freaking out all the time over everything. I don’t think I’ve ever even seen the girl not crying or worrying.
“Cop finally waddles up,” Artie said and clapped his hands once, “and before he says a word, fucking Phoebe screeches we need an ambulance because Kyle just ate a bunch of pills.”
“Shut up,” Carly said and Kyle rolled his eyes and nodded.
“What’d you do?” I asked.
“I took off,” Artie shrugged. “Cop gets back to his car, lights flashing, all nine yards, Phoebe is screaming, Kyle’s probably half brain dead and my fucking finger is still stuck, right? At this point I’m like, oh shit, I just made this ten times worse, another cop gets in on the chase and so I just head right downtown, because I’m thinking they won’t chase us because isn’t it like a law? If it gets reckless or whatever they’ll stop?”
“I don’t think that’s true,” Carly said, wrinkling her nose, her fingers squeezing mine for the hell of it.
“Whatever, I go downtown and I managed to lose them—“
“Seriously?” Louis asked.
“Yeah, but then we’re on like, heroin and hooker avenue and a crack-head threw a cylinder block at the back window of my mother’s Subaru—“
“Artie for real?” I asked.
“Dude, go look!” he said and pointed up past the fire and to the lot to where there was no possible way I could see the car, but it didn’t matter. He wasn’t lying.
“Soon as that happens, Kyle pukes everything up and I’m like, game over, someone’s about to die, so I turn around, ready to just take the lumps or whatever…and I shit you not, we make it all the way back, at the speed limit, in peace, with no windshield, full of puke and Phoebe having a stroke.”
“Where is she?” Carly asked.
“Dropped her at home. I don’t know. She probably died,” Artie said. “Anyway. That’s why we’re so damned late.”
For whatever reason, maybe the way Artie could always tell a story, this sent us into hysterics for what seemed like ages, passing that joint around til it was a dusty little roach, until Louis had wandered out to where the water actually did start and Kyle went to the fire and Artie pulled the top hat low on his head and pulled a can of beer from his backpack and wandered off.
Carly looked up at me with her glossy smile and I couldn’t even help the kiss that came next. Sometimes, when I was that age with that girl, I would get this overwhelming feeling in my chest, this warm and heavy weight that forced my lips into a smile. All I wanted to ever be doing was touching her or listening to her or watching the way she fiddled with the safety pin in her ear. I loved the way she hid her love for Dave Matthews and how she took a needle and red thread and sewed my initials onto the back pockets of all of her jeans and how she showed up to school with her hair still wet because she was late because we’d been on the phone all night, breathing stupid but sweet things at each other.
Late that night in the back seat of her car, with her eyes squeezed shut and mine wide open, I actually did what can only be described using a term I loathe: I made love.
I wasn’t a virgin but I definitely wasn’t some kind of sex-pro, either. I had never actually put love and sex together up until that point.
What happens is the mechanics and the worry about the whole thing just do not exist. I just remember not thinking I wanted to have sex with her, more just this urgent and panicked and desperate need to be closer to her. I mean, I just wanted her closer than we could possibly ever get.
I’ll always recall the way her arms wrapped around my neck, the way she trusted me—me—and how she told me loved me and how I pushed slowly in but so heavy, and how I never got close enough. This is how it happens, I knew then, when sex happens without planning and looking and flirting, when it happens because of love and only because of love. When there are no words of this earth and no songs ever written and no scream loud enough to express how big and consuming this feeling is, it comes out in your body. It comes out in sex. This is how it happens when you just can’t help it, when you’re sure your chest will burst if you don’t get closer and closer to this person.
It was a free-for-all after that night. In her garage, in the back of Louis’s car, on my couch under an afghan on a Saturday afternoon, we couldn’t get enough of trying it all and I spent hours between her legs, learning all about every curve and pink crevice and peak, learning what each one could do.
And then it was Christmas Eve.
“Where’d you get it?” Carly asked, her hands shook, her mauve nail polish was chipped and her hands looked unfamiliar. Which was impossible, she was the first girl I loved, the first body I knew entirely.
I unzipped my backpack, rifled around some gum, a half empty two liter of soda, a pack of cigarettes, several c.d.’s and lifted out the white and pink box that I’d buried underneath the evidence of my youth.
“The store,” I told her and thrust the box at her, like I didn’t want to be the one caught holding it.
She took it reluctantly and I saw her wet eyelashes again, just like when we began. It was possible we were standing on the cliff of normalcy and good, and so I took her cheeks with my hands and kissed her, but we were both stiff and ready to throw up. I took a step back and put my hands on top of my head.
“We should like…” she started, then sniffed and wiped under her nose. “If it’s positive, what will you want to do about it?”
Everything in me wanted to say “abort it.” It was at the tip of my tongue, but some things you don’t just blurt out because the effects of those two words would impact, one way or another, forever. Before I said anything, I wanted to know. Besides, I wasn’t even sure how I felt about abortion in general, much less my personal stance on it. In hindsight, I should have. Before we went screwing around town, I should have known how the hell I felt about all of the consequences.
“I don’t know.”
“I never thought I could go through with something like that, but I’m such a hypocrite,” she said, and then she sat on the toilet seat, put her face in her hands and cried with her knees pushed together, the white and pink box abandoned on the sink.
“Just…we don’t even know anything, just take the test,” I told her, irritable, wound so tight her crying was annoying me.
“It doesn’t matter what it says!” she said, looking up now, “What kind of person does this make me? Because Adam, I’d do it. I’d have an abortion—“
“That wouldn’t make you a bad person,” I told her, picking up the box and opening it up, because I just wasn’t willing to consider what the hell it meant about me. I had nothing against it, but then, I’d never had anything to do with it, either. I didn’t want to even have to think about it. I didn’t want to have to go that deep, I didn’t want it to be a thing I’d forever wonder about, I didn’t want this problem at all.
“Maybe not a bad person, but it’d make me a person who has no idea what her convictions are or what she believes in—“
“Oh my god. Please. Just piss on it.”
I waited with my back turned while she and her bladder predicted our fates and truly, I could think of nothing as I was overcome with complete panic. The kind so severe it paralyzes your limbs and your brain. The kind that makes such a storm inside of you, the outside of you goes completely still.
So were the next two tests.
You’d imagine celebratory exclamations and hugging and hell, maybe even a high five. But what happened is she wrapped all of the negative plastic sticks up in the box again and I stuck them in my backpack to dispose of outside of her house so her parents wouldn’t see them in the garbage. She sat back on the toilet lid and picked at her nails, I kissed the top of her head and told her I’d call later, but in that moment I knew we’d jumped some kind of shark, I knew that things would never be the same.
Louis had been waiting for me in the drive, his car idled and I got in without a word. My face felt cold and Louis regarded me with a worried glance before slowly backing out and driving cautiously down the snowy street.
My fingers were wedged into my jacket pocket, numb and freezing, and I stared out the window, thinking tomorrow is Christmas and then it will be a new year. For whatever reason, that depressed the hell out of me. I wanted this last year to go on forever. I had this urge to tell Louis to turn the car around, to take me back to Carly, but I didn’t really want that. I wanted to go back to the week before and that wasn’t possible at all. It’s just, I had this terribly hollow, niggling ache that I had just left behind something that I desperately wanted and needed, but I knew there was no way back to it.
“Fuck, man,” Louis finally breathed. “You gonna tell your parents?”
“She’s not pregnant,” I said. “It was negative. They all were.”
I felt him stare at me when we were still at a stop sign a few seconds too long. I turned to face Lou with every intention of elaborating, but no words came out. I wanted to explain, but I didn’t even know how. It turned out I didn’t have to, because Lou nodded and pulled his wool hat lower and drove on.
A couple days later Carly came over and told me she told her parents about the scare who had her tell their pastor and she can’t get it right in her head.
“I was on the brink of being someone I never thought I’d be. You give real possibilities that I’m not ready for. You make me into too much, Adam.”
She clapped her hands over her mouth suddenly, like they were band-aids that would cover up the wound of her, breaking both of our hearts.
We sat on the bottom stair for awhile, her legs over mine while she cried and I debated arguing her entire reasoning, but I didn’t. It was already over.
Instead, I told her to wait for one second, went to my room and came back down with the Cranberries c.d. and handed it to her. She slipped it under her jacket and held her hand over her heart, keeping it there.
“Cut your hair like Dolores someday. You should just do it,” I told her. “It’d be pretty.”
She got up suddenly, dried her face and walked out the door. I remember scrambling a bit too late, my heart thrashing as I ran to the door, but I caught myself with my hands on either side of the door jamb and screamed her name, the first and last tears I cried over her blurred my vision so when she looked over her shoulder at me, her sad eyes and glossy smile ran together.
She whispered my name back and gave a wave. There was no more screaming; the loud and reckless gone from us, scared right out of us by things too heavy for our still too young hands to hold.
That break up fucked me up for a long time, maybe because I was certain we were stunted by that scary moment, because there was such potential and we’d never get to see it through. Together, Carly and I learned that relationships are much more complicated than Love allows for.
When spring semester started Carly was attending a private school the next city over. We saw each other a few times, at parties or just around—she had another boyfriend by the end of the year and I hadn’t been a saint, either.
But I think all year long, I thought I’d been gaining so much, I was so damned eager to be some kind of grown, sex machine but to do it with love, smarter than the rest of my peers, but it was naïve and it cost me a lot. It was my first glimpse into the so called glamorous world of adulthood: it wasn’t sophisticated and without restraint, it was sad and confusing.
I don’t know what it is about the end of 1997, but I know that I lost something huge that year and it irreparably changed something inside of me. Maybe it was the loss Carly, maybe of love, maybe even a kid I didn’t even want, but I think it was innocence in general that was lost.
I like to think Carly fondly thinks of shadow puppets and screaming when she hears The Cranberries playing. I know I do.