I have been struggling with this one a bit. I feel someone will ask me how I can be anything but outraged by my own memory when I have children of my own. Am I prepared to romanticize a similar relationship in their situation, as my perspective on my own is so clearly skewed?
And the answer is no. But that doesn’t change the story.
I was seventeen.
When you think about it, that’s about the age that we start to really push back against our parents, as we struggle to find our way. The year that I turned seventeen was the year that I was the most at odds that I would ever be with my father. I had fallen in love with the sweetest boy in the world, and lost him, and like many girls do, I thought I would never recover. I replaced that boy with anyone not-so-sweet that I could find. My father made my dates show ID at the door, and turned away anyone he didn’t approve of, so I lied about where I was going, and since I worked late in the evening, sometimes I just didn’t come home. I had my own money, my grades were acceptable if not outstanding, but at night I was sitting in my car in a parking lot flipping spent cigarette butts out the window and making long, red oozing cuts in my wrists and my thighs with a cheap stainless-steel butterfly knife so the rest of me would stop hurting. My father finally told me that I had become such an accomplished liar he could no longer know when I was telling the truth – and he was done trying. And I don’t blame him.
I wanted to be myself, and I wanted to be anyone but who I was.
So it was, on my seventeenth birthday, that I found myself at a party full of girls who were underage, and young men who were not. I had gone there at the insistence of a friend, mostly to be her alibi, as she was spending the night with just about the dumbest boy I have ever met before or since. I was out of my element, which always makes me anti-social – because you can’t fire me – I quit. I spent most of my time on the fringe, chain-smoking and trying to look as disinterested as possible, even as I was surrounded by the two demographics of people who thrive most on attention.
I spent the night on a couch in a room that had very little heat. We were outside the city limits, and I was too drunk to trust myself to find the right road, so I initially agreed to share a bed with the friend and her boyfriend. This arrangement left me repeatedly pushing the boyfriend’s hands away from various parts of me until, when I turned to whisper STOP! his eyes fluttered open and he gave the best performance of his life as he said loudly “What are WE doing? I must have thought you were Leslie.” Which is when I moved out into the cold.
At some point later, a blanket was dropped over me and I opened my eyes and there stood an actual man. Not of the same ilk that I’d been dealing with all night, he was holding a bottled beer and looking very much at home leaning against a chair across from me. Handsome enough, lean and blonde and mustached in blue jeans and boots, but nothing that would make a high-school girl swoon. Older. Significantly older.
Paying attention to me.
“Thought you might be cold out here.” he offered.
I just rolled my eyes and mumbled something about “Not sleepin’ in there with that asshole.”
He smiled like he knew. “This is my house – sleep where you want.” and he was gone.
So I did. Two weeks later, I went back.
He knew I was seventeen. Because I told him. But he didn’t send me away.
He did own the house. I am unclear on how it became a drunken crash pad on the weekends that it did, but it didn’t matter. Two stories of musty rooms a few miles west of town, surrounded by unkempt land and a crumbling horse barn. We walked. And talked. And talked some more. He made us lunch and we ate while we walked and talked even more. Eager for someone to listen, I told him everything. Everything. He looked at my eyes when I spoke instead of pawing at me or dismissing me or looking like I was a head case, like the boys my age tended to. Told me, I assume honestly, what he thought.
He told me I was smart, which I knew. And beautiful, which I did not.
He was thirty-five years old. He was at Woodstock, which was all I really needed to hear. Had been married and divorced, and had depth, which I craved. I loved to hear him talk and I listened for hours. We read the same books. I made him laugh until he couldn’t breathe, which made me feel like I had won the lottery. He wrote poetry, because of course he did. He had a subtle, sarcastic wit, and I got it.
He was my friend.
We liked each other. That’s all.
Well, not quite all. There was that. He was not my Humbert Humbert. He was not my Christian Grey or Big Bad Wolf to my Little Red Riding Hood. He never said he loved me, never promised me a future. Never coerced, or manipulated. There is not one single memory of that intimacy that makes me uncomfortable. I do not feel like a victim. When it happened, it seemed right. It seemed normal.
But it couldn’t have been.
We saw each other until I graduated from high school.
I find, now that I am a decade older than he was when I knew him, that I see him as a young man. I have to force myself to judge him – to judge myself. What could a seventeen old girl possibly have to say that would interest a thirty-five year old man, besides “yes”? He had to have been in it solely for the piece of near-underage ass. Right? Right? How could I have been so stupid?
I couldn’t have mattered. Right?
As a parent, I can promise that I would cheerfully eviscerate any adult of that age that had a relationship of this nature with my teenage daughter, or son. There is no rational reason, no extenuating circumstance that makes that relationship okay. A teenager should not be interacting at that level with someone whose life experience places them at such an intellectual and emotional disadvantage.
Except I did. And while I can’t bear to think about the outcome had my father learned of it, he was who I ran to when it all got to be too much. He never sent me away.
I was somebody’s daughter.
But not his. He was just a man.
Am I okay? Yes, I believe I am. The consequences of the choices we make at seventeen can follow us for the rest of our lives. We are surrounded by people whose lives have taken destructive turns from a poor decision made at an age when they didn’t have the perspective to make a better one. All I have from that time is a controversial story to tell. I was a long way from maturity, sometimes I still am, but I cannot – will not – malign him with implications of perversion or my own “daddy issues.”
As I write this, I find myself mentally reshuffling the deck of memories. He was most definitely a much-needed anchor for me. I also have to acknowledge that he should have never become intimate with me. But if he hadn’t, I wouldn’t have stayed. Is it possible that two fractured people making a questionable decision kept me from making a more destructive one?
I don’t know what made him choose me. He caught me when I was in free fall. Where might I have gone, if he had sent me away?