He lumbered into tenth grade home ec class about a month into fall semester, a big bear of a boy with a short, neat haircut and a freshly washed T-shirt and jeans. He was just out of juvey, according to the high school rumor mill, and the story involved a robbery, a car heist, or a gun, depending on whose version you heard. It wasn’t impossible to believe. In the ninth grade, he’d punched his right hand straight through a closed window in third-period English class. No one knew why.
Mrs. Rabinowitz added him to the cooking pod on the far left, which, until that moment, had consisted of me and my friend Nadine in our own little L-shaped, blond-wood kitchen.
He plunked himself down on a chair at our matching little blond-wood table. He didn’t look all that dangerous to me.
“Hey,” he said, nodding slightly. David was his name.
“Hey,” we said back.
Then he smiled.
This was the fall of 1979. Jimmy Carter was, more or less, running the country. In India, Mother Teresa had just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and a few dozen miles from where we sat, the Shah of Iran was receiving cancer treatments at New York Hospital, which meant relations between the U.S. and Iran were about to get a whole lot worse. But in suburban Spring Valley, our most pressing concerns were whether Bruce Springsteen would return to Madison Square Garden and would Mrs. Rabinowitz notice that David had just dropped a chunk of hash into our bowl of brownie mix. She didn’t.
As he poured the chocolate lava into the square silver pan, I saw the ragged scar winding up the side of his right thumb where his hand had been stitched back together. He asked me to put the pan in the oven because he’d lost enough feeling in his hand that he couldn’t tell if he was getting burned until too late. He said this matter-of-factly, not in the kind of overdetermined, attention-getting manner I’d come to expect from 15-year-old boys. When I took the pan, my knuckles bumped into his, and an electric current ran up the front of my body like a zipper from my thighs to my breasts.
I had no sexual experience to speak of, other than a few sloppy tongue kisses in the ninth grade with a round, pale boy I’d found about as sexually exciting as a dial tone. I’d agreed to “go out” with him for a few weeks simply because he was the first boy who’d ever asked. In the spring of that year, I’d traded my silver aviator-rimmed glasses for contact lenses and let my unruly neck-length hair grow into long, bouncy curls. The suddenness of the transformation startled everyone, including me. Overnight, I’d gone from being an object of ridicule, tall and awkward, to an object of interest to males. My mother had predicted this would happen one day, and despite my stubborn insistence that she understood nothing, nothing! about me, she was right. Boys on the cusp of manhood were everywhere now, miming air guitar riffs at public bus stops, hanging out of car windows brandishing half-empty bottles of beer, taking cigarette breaks at loading docks in lower Manhattan on days when I accompanied my father to work. All of them signaling their appreciation of the female form with catcalls and low whistles and invitations to accompany them into dark movie theaters, into their cars, into their bedrooms when their parents weren’t home.
Plenty has been written about the objectification of women in our patriarchal culture, but if anything, it felt as if the girls I knew objectified the boys, using them to affirm our sexual currency. To me, boys existed exclusively for my own purposes, to be teased and cried over, their behavior providing raw material for endless hypothesis and analysis. Showing interest in one meant positioning yourself somewhere in his orbit and manipulating your behavior to get him to notice you. What to actually do with his attention once it was obtained was a far less calculated plan. Like a preschooler who believes the teacher sleeps at school at night, it was hard for me to imagine that boys had regular lives outside my range of vision. The idea that they brushed their teeth in the mornings, or fed cats, or bought black concert T-shirts at the mall, was nearly incomprehensible.
Still, I badly wanted one of my own.
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