Don't Stand So Close to Me
When the script is totally flipped
When I was fourteen, I started checking coats at the neighborhood restaurant where my mom was the daytime manager. I only did this twice a week from 6-9pm, during the rush, and only for this one particular winter. It was a way to make some spending money so I could keep up with the kids at the private school I attended, where I had a hefty scholarship. It was nice to see my mom when I got there, even briefly. Sometimes I’d work from 4-8pm and we’d have a two-hour window when we were there together. I’d sit behind the partition and watch her work the room. She was the kind of person who could do twelve things at once without being phased. She knew how to make people feel good. I loved watching her, she was so glamorous and smart, and as long as I behaved well, which I always did around her, she seemed proud to introduce me as her daughter. My mother was not one to heap on praise, nor was she affectionate with me, so anytime I felt that she was happy with me was amazing, I longed for her attention and approval. The nighttime manager would always arrive at 6pm and be there til closing. He was twenty-seven, very charismatic, very high energy (I found out much later this was due to a pretty rampant cocaine habit), and even my mom thought he was adorable. He drove a Camaro, he lived on Long Island and would commute to work. When he walked in, he would call out, “Good Morning!” even though it was nighttime. Everyone loved him, all the women thought he was a catch.
Sometimes I’d bring homework to do, or I’d have a book to read. It was fine, as long as I was ready if anyone was heading my way to check a coat. The nighttime manager, we’ll call him Tom since that was his name, would often come and talk to me. He’d ask what I was reading, or how my day had been. He told me it was impressive that I was so studious, he said he’d never taken school seriously. He said I was beautiful, and one day I’d be breaking hearts left and right. I couldn’t believe he was taking any kind of interest in me - after all, I had braces, I was enormously insecure, already restricting calories and feeling like I never measured up. He made me feel special. Even though he was twice my age, I developed a huge crush on him. I thought he was the bees knees. I started writing his name all over my journals, and writing my name with his last name at the end of it, because I was sure there was some way I’d grow up and we’d get married. I didn’t do the math, this was all just girlhood fantasy.
The only experience I’d had was with this boy in my grade who I thought was everything. He was creative and smart and he had a band, and what more needs to be said, really? It was eighth grade. We “went out” for two weeks, which meant we held hands in the hallways at school, and we kissed. He was my first kiss, and the first person to teach me that kissing wasn’t just two people smooshing their lips together, it involved tongues. That was a real shock to me. So while it was a very quick relationship, it was significant. He was sweet to me. Things ended with no explanation or drama…we were just fourteen and there was nowhere to go with it, so we shifted back into friendship. That was the extent of my knowledge, and so when I would fantasize about kissing Tom, I would just kiss my pillow. Whenever I thought about us kissing, it was always far off into the future, when I was a grown up.
One night after a shift, a shift when the restaurant had been slow and Tom had spent most of the night leaning against the wall next to the coatcheck talking to me, I went down to the office to get something my mom had left behind. She used the same desk Tom used at night, during the day. He followed me down into the office and I assumed he was going there for a reason. I bent over the desk to get the paperwork my mother needed, and when I stood up, Tom put his arms around me. He said he’d been fantasizing about kissing me for weeks and just couldn’t wait any longer, and then he leaned down and he was kissing me. I was shocked, but I kissed him back. It was a man-kiss, not a boy kiss. He had stubble, he pulled me in close, he knew what he was doing. It took my breath away. After a minute, he stopped and looked down at me, “Oh boy,” he said, “you are dangerous.”
A year before all this.
Then he told me I absolutely had to keep this between us, that he would get into very serious trouble if I told anyone at all. I promised him I wouldn’t tell a soul, and I meant it. I replayed that kiss over and over again for days. I couldn’t quite believe it had happened. Anytime I felt uncomfortable or unsure at school, I’d think about him kissing me, and feel special. I was used to keeping secrets, I’d kept countless secrets for my dad, and I never talked about my mom’s alcoholism anywhere outside her innermost circle. I knew how to keep this massive thing that had happened to myself. I wondered if it would happen again, or if it was just the one time. I didn’t have to wonder for long, because the next time I went to work and every time thereafter, Tom found reasons to be down in the office, and reasons to call me down there, too. I’d never be in the office for more than a minute because he didn’t want anyone to be suspicious, but he would grab me and kiss me and I just couldn’t believe it. I tried to act totally normal before and after these office moments so he wouldn’t get into trouble, but it wasn’t easy. I could almost feel my eyes lighting up when he walked into the room, and I felt sure other people must be able to hear my heart racing, but I did my best.
It was widely known at my mom’s that I had this huge crush on the nighttime manager, and even my mother’s friends teased me about it. My mother announced to me that for my fifteenth birthday she was going to allow Tom to take me to dinner and a movie. I couldn’t believe she had set up this surprise for me. As the mother of a fourteen year old daughter, I still can’t believe it, but I suppose she trusted him. He picked me up in his red Camaro (of course it was red) and we drove down to Little Italy to a restaurant he knew. There were candles on the tables. I felt like I was in a dream. We went to see a film called F/X, but I barely took it in, I was just overwhelmed to be sitting in a movie theater next to him.
This situation carried on for six months, until the weather turned warmer and a coat-check was no longer necessary. When you’re fourteen and then fifteen and carrying around a huge secret that you can’t share with anyone, not even your closest friends, it’s like being inside a bubble. The only person who can exist in that bubble with you is the person in on the secret. And when you can’t share the biggest thing that’s happening in your life with anyone else, you can’t really be close to anyone else. I spent all of my time waiting to see him or thinking about the last time I’d seen him. I guess there may be some people out there who would give this man some credit for keeping it to “just kissing” but I’m not one of them. He didn’t hold back because of ethics or my age, he said he never wanted to be anyone’s “first” so if I wanted to go do that with someone else, then we could be together. I spent a lot of time trying to understand that logic, assuming this must be some kind of very adult way of thinking about it, but there was absolutely no chance I was interested in that scenario, so kissing is where it stayed. And then once I wasn’t working there anymore, things just slowly faded away. I heard from him less and less, and then not at all. I felt crushed, but I also remember feeling relieved, like I had when I told my dad I didn’t want to hear about his lady friends anymore. Some part of me just wanted to go back to being a kid, but in reality, I hadn’t really been a kid for a long time.
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I wish I could say this was the last time a grown man overlooked the fact that a girl gets one girlhood and only one, but I can’t. There are a few moments in time that I wish I could travel back to - as the me I am now. I don’t think of time as linear, I think of it as cyclical and overlapping, so while I can go back to certain moments in my mind and feel the feelings and extend some compassion to my girlhood selves, there are a choice few moments where I wish I could be me, as I was then, and have me, as I am now, bust through the door. One such moment happened when I was sixteen, now fully in high school, when the head of the History Department called me into his oppressively small office for a chat. He was a pipe smoker like my dad, and I remember the way the smell of the sweet tobacco hit me like I was walking into a wall when he invited me in. His office was really like some kind of converted, narrow closet. He asked me to sit down. I was confused because I didn’t have him for any of my classes, and I was a good kid. Straight A’s, and on my way to skipping my senior year of high school and heading to Columbia University.
Why was I in such a rush to graduate? Aside from feeling desperate to be away from both households - my dad’s where he barely spoke to me now that I was unwilling to be his therapist, and my mom’s where everyone actively avoided the topic of her alcoholism and rage toward me - I had a crush on a twenty-four year old teacher in my high school. He was a history teacher, but not my history teacher. He wore cargo pants and high tops. He looked like a kid and he often acted like one, too. I loved talking to him. He seemingly reciprocated my feelings. He didn’t act on them physically, but we were in an emotional relationship by anyone’s standards, and just waiting for me to graduate. Or so I thought, but he actually had other plans. The one person who was my history teacher had lost his mind. I had been working with him after school so I could learn the second year of American History on my own and be ready for the Achievement test a year early. He was willing to help me. But then it got weird.
There was a day he said he knew if we’d met in college we would have dated. He must have been 35. He was married. I was 16. I had less than zero interest, and if we’d met when he was in college I would have been in diapers, or maybe I wouldn’t have even existed yet. If time had somehow bent so that we could both have been twenty at the same time, even then I would have had less than zero interest. I was shocked that he said that to me, and I left. I never asked him to help me learn anything again. I showed up for his classes, did the homework, took the tests and that was it. I dropped out of Model U.N because he ran it and he chaperoned all the travel weekends when we’d debate other schools. I didn’t want to be anywhere near him. Then he called me at home because he was distraught and I told him to get it together. I said I was absolutely not interested in him in any way and there was no chance of that changing. I was angry, and I didn’t hide it. Then he sent a love letter to my house, which I tore into shreds because I knew if my mother found it, his life would be over. His marriage would be over. His job would be over.
So there I sat in the oppressively small office with the bearded, pipe-smoking department head and he said: “I wanted to talk to you because you are wreaking havoc in my department.” This is the moment when I wish that I, as I am now, could bust through the door and grab me, as I was then, and tell that bastard that actually no, it was not me wreaking the havoc, it was the men in his department who needed this shaming. I didn’t have the words then, and I was still protecting those men. That’s what I was trained to do. So I sat there feeling naked and miserable, admitted I had a crush on the one guy without saying it was mutual, and told him the other guy had developed some kind of obsession and I really didn’t know what to do about it other than stay away from him. If he ever talked to my teacher, I don’t know. It didn’t occur to me that it would have been absolutely fine if my teacher lost his job, his wife, his life as he knew it. It didn’t occur to me that grown men should realize there are repercussions to their actions and that I didn’t have to pay the tab.
In Nabokov’s book, Lolita, Lolita is described as a tomboyish twelve-year-old named Dolores. She becomes the step-daughter of Humbert Humbert, a twisted pervert obsessed with young girls, who grooms her and then repeatedly rapes her. He gives her the name Lolita, and destroys any chance she had at a normal childhood. That’s the story. She is not some vixen peering over her heart-shaped glasses sucking on a lollipop as the film’s poster would have you believe, nor is she fourteen (which would have been just as horrific, mind you), she’s twelve, and she’s just a normal kid. Or, she was just a normal kid until her mom married the wrong man and then died in a car crash leaving her to fend for herself. It wasn’t her fault - it isn’t any child’s fault if a man finds her attractive and doesn’t have the moral and physical fortitude to walk away. It isn’t any woman’s fault, no matter what she’s wearing or how much she’s had to drink, if a man takes advantage of her. The men need to do better. And my god before you say it, not all men. I’m married to one of the good ones, believe me, I know. Just many of them. Too many of them.
Do you know how many women I’m going to hear from after I publish this essay? It’s going to be a lot. Amidst all the allegations about Russell Brand this week, is the side-note that one of his accusers was sixteen when they were in a “relationship”…and he was thirty-one. Sixteen is the age of consent in the U.K. where this relationship took place, and I suppose that’s why most of the conversation has centered around other aspects. I don’t know if you remember being sixteen, but I do. Part of being a teenager is that you think you know everything. That's kind of the key thing about being a teenager. You have all the confidence in the world, and not a lot of life experience. Then life continues and you realize that you didn’t know everything, like how utterly devastated you’d be when a grown man came along and wreaked havoc with your heart, your mind, your life. You know when you know, and by then the damage is done.
If you’d like to meet me in real time for a talk about what it feels like to grow up in a culture or a family that leaves you to fend for yourself, and how to feel powerful, sane and steady regardless, I’ll be here Friday, 9/22/23 at 11:15am PST, or you can wait for the Come As You Are Podcast version. If you’d like to meet me out in the world, I’d love that so much. Here are two possibilities. (Registration for Joshua Tree closes September 30th!)