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Love and Trouble

I opted to change my status from “virgin” to “non-virgin” on January 16, 1991, the same night that George H. W. Bush’s White House announced Operation Desert Storm, a U.S. military operation with the aim of expelling occupying Iraqi forces from Kuwait. I was a senior in high school, and it was my boyfriend Kal’s eighteenth birthday. To commemorate having attained the age at which he could vote and when, a generation earlier he would have been conscripted into military service, Kal requested two things: a calzone from Patrizio’s, a three-star Italian restaurant in Highland Park Village, and sex. I’d been holding him off for a few months, because the nuns at St. Rita Catholic School instilled in me a belief that premarital sex was the gravest of sins. I was also under the impression, based on a conversation with my mother years earlier at Kip’s Big Boy restaurant, that there were two sins that could never be forgiven, even if you confessed them the very next day to a Monsignor: murder and premarital sex. As my mom explained the relative gravity of various sins, I plucked a maraschino cherry off a single scoop chocolate fudge Sunday. The cloying flesh of the cherry suddenly tasted like the sweet nothingness of an eternity in hell.

Beyond eternal damnation, I wasn’t positive Kal loved me—right before Christmas break he’d gone to the Dallas Museum of Art with a freckle-faced cheerleader while I was home studying for a biology exam. When I confronted him about the cheerleader and the museum, he told me it was no big deal, even though the cheerleader bought him a matted print of Fredric Edwin Church’s The Icebergs that he hung in his bedroom. 

Hours before the big birthday date, I drove up north for a hair appointment, ignoring the radio stations talking about American fighter aircrafts launching from Saudi Arabia. And I’d love to report it was just a trim, but it was a trim and a perm, so it took over two hours and left my hair smelling like I’d dunked it in fertilizer. Everyone at the salon seemed to be talking about Bush and bombs. “Are we at war?” a woman asked the receptionist when slipping her credit card back into her wallet. The receptionist held one finger over her lips. “Ssshh,” she said, as the Paula Abdul song faded out and the DJ recited the latest news. Rick, the stylist who’d overseen all of my perms since eighth grade, had a thick George Michael mane with blonde highlights, unnaturally tan skin, and a girlfriend, which my mom thought was very suspicious given his line of work. I believed him, though. There was a picture of a bespectacled blond woman taped to the corner of his mirror, and I didn’t know shit about the real world, but I knew that stereotypes were a kind of violence, small bombs detonated in a seemingly casual observations. 

Rick had always seemed quiet but friendly and definitely game for hair salon banter. But this time he said only that he had family in the military, and then silently rolled my limp brown hair into the rods that would kink it, Texas-style, for up to six weeks. I wanted to tell him about Kal and the birthday calzone, but the air felt heavy with perm chemicals and the stress of the news streaming in about Bush’s airstrikes. Under the black cape Rick draped around my neck to protect my skin from ammonium thioglocolate, I knitted my fingers together; left hand over right, right hand over left.

I hadn’t told any of my friends I might go all the way with Kal, even though half our conversations concerned doing the deed. We talked about sex in coded language in the student lounge, when we were cruising Midway Road after school, when we spent Friday nights at each other’s houses. Cate and Georgia had been doing it since sophomore year, but Cate was from public school and Georgia’s parents were divorced so of course they were ready for sex. Jill, Britt, and I—lifelong Catholic school girls with still-married parents—were on team “everything but.” I didn’t tell any of them my plans because it seemed safer to contain the information. The less people who knew I’d done the deed, the more easily I could pretend it hadn’t happened if I regretted it after the fact. Also, maybe God would be less angry about the sex if I skipped the post-hoc download with my friends. I imagined God’s displeasure at my comparing notes with Cate and Georgia, and what if my succumbing to Kal acted as a kind of recruitment-to-sex tool for Jill and Britt? Unforgiveable. 

Deep down, I wished Kal and I could be one of those couples from a bygone era that just held hands and kissed in the parking lot of a soda shop, fictional teenagers who lived only in my imagination and didn’t struggle with desire, morality, pleasure, and damnation. They had high pony tails and slick pompadours, cool skirts and letter jackets, and they ate a lot of French fries. 

I didn’t like the pressure of sex, and I knew there was something off about my calculus—have sex or lose Kal’s attention. I was supposed to have self-esteem—if he didn’t want to be with me on my terms, then he could kiss off. I also wanted to claim the title of feminist, but here I was plotting to do whatever it took to keep a guy who had those icebergs on his wall. Truth was, I was sick of the hot shame that heated my body when he complained about his blue balls. It wasn’t cool to be so uptight, such a prude, such a stick in the mud. All my wishing for a fantasized version of 1950 wouldn’t make it materialize in 1991. My fear was that if Kal dumped me, then I’d be encased in the resin of prudishness. Other guys would sense it on me. Maybe I’d earn an eternal life with the Savior, but I’d have to survive a very lonely stretch of decades in the meantime.

By the time I made it back to my car at five thirty with my freshly permed hair, the local radio station was taking listener requests. A young mother from Mesquite sobbed into the phone, worried about the situation in the Middle East, and to console her, the DJ offered Bette Midler’s From a Distance. The song had gotten some radio play in the past few months, but I understood why it would become an anthem of this new, possibly wartime, era. “From a distance, you look like my friend,” Bette sang in her smooth, earnest alto, “even though we are at war.” There was also a repeating lyric, “God is watching us,” which wasn’t very soothing to a Catholic school girl who was about to have sex for the first time.

“You look nice tonight, Cee Cee,” Kal said, when he came to the door. I blushed with pleasure, as I always did when he used the nickname he gave me. Maybe he did love me.

At the restaurant, he held my hand and said thank you for the calzone. We didn’t talk about the missiles flying through the desert half way around the globe. At the table next to us, a group of men in sports jackets talked about oil and chemical weapons, as I tucked my hair behind my ear. When Kal excused himself to the bathroom, I wrapped my fingers around my water glass. Through the water, they looked over-sized and distorted. I thought to myself: We are at war. Our country is at war. But war was just a three-letter word, and I couldn’t appreciate the weight of it. War was heavier than cup or dog, but it was as abstract as God or hell. What did war look like? What I saw on the evening news while I ironed my skirt were streaks of light blazing across a dark sky. A crude replica of a Pink Floyd laser show. The images shimmered with haunting beauty. How could beauty be any part of war? What about the bodies, where were they?

I understood war as a feeling. It was the terror that creased my Grandma’s face whenever she talked about the year my dad spent in Vietnam. She’d point to the chair beside the TV and say, “I sat in that chair and bawled like a baby every night while watching the news. Worst year of my life.” War was the quiet faraway grief in my Dad’s silence any time Vietnam came up. War was the tight look on my mother’s face when she reported that she and my dad walked out of theater 20 minutes into Platoon.

The truth was, I couldn’t find Iraq or Kuwait on a map. The desert of the Middle East might as well have been another planet. But that’s probably how Grandma felt about Vietnam before her son landed there in 1968. A war has long arms that can reach all the way across the world; it could reach you in your farmhouse in rural Texas as you sat next to your TV and your picture window. 

Would my 18 year old brother get pulled out of Louisiana State University and be sent overseas in that weird desert camouflage with the pattern that looked like The Flintstone’s cartoon rocks? Kal wouldn’t have to go, I figured, because he’d blown out his knee in a basketball game against Thomas Jefferson High School a few weeks earlier. He’d been devastated that a torn ACL spelled the end of his high school basketball career, but maybe that would turn into a blessing if he didn’t have to fight in the Persian Gulf.

Why not go all the way with Kal if our country was at war for the first time in my lifetime? What did any of this matter—biology class, the college acceptances, the state of my hymen—if we were going to die in a chemical warfare attack? Plus, he looked so cute in his red plaid button-down. 

Once I surrendered to the idea of never seeing the face of God in the afterlife, the hard part was finding a place to park the car. In tony Highland Park, one of the wealthiest zip codes in Texas, police cars regularly patrolled the quiet streets, chasing away anyone with a low net worth, non-white skin, or a car with an insufficient muffler. Vigilant police officers had shooed Kal and I away from three different parks in the course of our four-month courtship. The first time I drove to Kal’s a policeman stopped me on Preston Road two blocks from his house. I was going three miles over the speed limit, but surely he stopped me because my car was a beater. Two-toned tan Cutlass Supreme. 1979. We called it “The Dookie,” and it stuck out in a neighborhood accustomed to hosting Mercedes, BMWs, and Range Rovers on its smoothly paved roads.

Kal and his family weren’t all that fancy, even though they lived in the bullseye of Highland Park right by snooty SMU. His parents rented a townhome because his dad was a J.C. Penney’s exec nearing retirement and doing a final stint in Dallas. Kal was the youngest of seven kids, and his parents had no intention of setting down roots in Texas or in the South. They showed up from Long Island during Kal’s junior year with thick East Coast accents and were gone for good within two years.

Kal had been a big deal back in Long Island. “The senior girls couldn’t get enough of me, even when I was a sophomore,” he told me the night I met him. Four months after my status change on that January night, Kal flew “home” to Long Island to attend prom with the group of friends he grew up with. He’d billed the affair as a group thing, not a date, but when he returned I saw a hickey on his neck. We were at mass—in the middle of a hosanna, and I looked up and saw the bruised-looking skin above his collar. Maybe he loved me, as he swore he did, but his love had nothing to with fidelity.

On his birthday night, we ended up on a cul du sac on a street called Shenandoah, which seemed like it belonged to another state. We were in Texas for God’s sake. The street should have been called Big Steer, or Fort Hood, or Ranger Road. No cops found us on Shenandoah, and it’s hard now to account for my lack of fear. I guess I’d spent hours obsessing about missiles and Hell so whatever punishment the Highland Park cops would mete out to two horny kids on this inauspicious night felt trivial by comparison. We kept the radio on, and Prince sang about doves crying. I slid over to the passenger seat, and Kal climbed on top of me, careful of his bum knee. Other than Kal’s pants, we kept all of our clothes on, simply shoving things to the side (my underwear) or out of the way (my bra, his shirttail). It wasn’t so different from the other times, the times of “everything but,” and I felt a buoyancy through my body from no longer having to police my perimeter. And I knew the jokes about the brevity of high school boys’ performances, but it was a welcome relief because there’d been no time for a patrolling cop to discover us and rap on the window to tell us to move along. And the truth, which I planned to hide from everyone, was that I enjoyed it. I’d shuddered too. I let myself give into the pleasure of Kal’s and my body in the reclined front seat for a few hot, brief moments. 

On the ride home, Kal fiddled with the radio station, and across almost three decades this irks me still, because it was my car for one thing and also he should have been tending to me. I’d just given away the care of my soul. Also, Kal favored masculine classic rock like Dire Straits, Led Zepplin, Neil Young. I braced for a blast from a stringy-haired white man with a guitar, but Kal landed on Linda Ronstadt singing a song called Willing. “I love this song,” Kal said, turning up and singing along. In the driver’s seat, I burst into tears because now I was going to hell, and I wasn’t sure it was worth it. I’d been willing, sure, but now what? Kal held my hand and told me that nothing had changed. 

I went to bed wondering about the vastness of God. Was he in the planes with the American soldiers launching Patriot missiles? Was he suffusing the White House situation room with grace and filling the heart of Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr. with mercy? Was he with the people—families, children, innocent animals—huddled together in terror in Kuwait? Was he watching over Sadaam Hussein and his generals as they aimed their Scud missiles?  Was it possible God had been distracted when Kal and I were boning on Shenandoah? 

The next morning, my dad made several visits to my bedroom doorway to rouse me for school. “You’re going to be late, if you don’t get going.” He left a slice of buttered toast in the bathroom where I threw my hair in a ponytail and brushed my teeth before jumping in The Dookie. First period was English, my favorite subject. Our teacher, Ms. Holmes, was a rosy-cheeked, white-haired leprechaun of a woman who looked sweet as a cooking-baking grandmother, but was actually rigid, humorless, and obsessed with the imagery in The Rape of the Lock. Every single morning in her class, I held out hope that she’d surprise us by becoming one of those cool English teachers from the movies who save kids’ lives with poetry, but she never delivered.

“Take out a piece of paper and a pen,” Ms. Holmes said. “Our country is at war. Write, write, write. Keep your pen moving. Don’t say a word. You’re going to write until the bell rings.”

Luckily, she told us we would be turning in our writing or I would have filled the lines with my perseveration about what I’d done the night before. Was I going to Hell? Since I’d done it once, should I keep doing it? Should I tell my friends? Could people tell by looking at me what I’d done? When I went for my physical in July, would Dr. Scholemer be able to tell I’d become sexually active?  All of those questions swirled but never surfaced on the page. Instead, I poured my heart out about the flashes of light across the desert and the Bette Midler song. Somehow my stream of conscious writing led me to Holden Caulfield and his obsession with the ducks in Central Park. I wouldn’t let myself write anything about the bursts of hatred I felt for Kal and how bereft I felt about the gulf between me and the good girls like Jill and Britt. I was no longer one of them. Gulf war indeed. All of that loss and rage and confusion hovered between the lines, staking claim to the silence between each sentence about President Bush, the missiles, and Salinger’s protagonist. I buried my story deep in my body, beneath the words of war: attack, operation, desert, missile, coalition, oil, oil, oil.

How strange that your whole after-life can change after a few moments of premeditated abandon in the front seat of a car, and you don’t have to tell a single soul. How strange that my fingers and wrists looked the same, my teeth felt the same, and my skin remained that same combination of oily and dry that Seventeen Magazine had been educating me about since middle school. But I was so different. I wanted to write about that, but instead I wrote about the footage on CNN and Bush’s desert war. 

When the bell rang, I gathered my books and heaved my backpack over my shoulder. I slid the pages I’d written onto Ms. Holmes’s desk and hustled through the hallway so I could deposit my lunch in my locker and head off to biology. As I descended the steps to the lab, a whiff of formaldehyde stung my nose. Shark dissection. My stomach tensed at the thought of the next hour’s tasks: cutting, slicing, and poking for organs that matched the diagrams in our textbook, all while trying to ignore that terrible smell. I took two more steps and then turned around. The nurse’s office was at the top of the stairs. There, I could lie down on a cot on a darkened room for the next hour. I wrote my name and the magic word, cramps, on the sign-in sheet by the door. The nurse directed me to a cool dark room where, from behind my closed eyes, I watched beautiful, terrible missiles light up a darkened sky.

Christie Tate lives and writes in Chicago. In her current work she is investigating the various forces that shaped her sexuality, the local and the global.