I tried to find meaning in being sexual. I wanted that knowledge, that secret knowledge of what it felt like when penises were inside vaginas. After I lost my virginity at 15, there was no one else for a while. As a senior in high school, I had a fast food job. I was 16, because I had skipped second grade and was therefore a year ahead.
I had been told that I would have to work once I turned 16. There would be no money given to me for college. I was expected to go to college, but I had to pay for it myself. That was the rule. I had to prove how much I wanted to go to school by paying for it myself. It's one of the reasons that I didn't dream big of private schools on well-manicured campuses. I didn't dream of those historical places where ivy grew on the walls. I focused on what I thought I could afford. A state college nearby.
And I worked. I worked in jobs that left me coated with animal fat at the end of the night from the constant fryers. I wore polyester uniforms. I worked with people who had no such dreams of going to college. Many of them were already out of high school. They took their breaks out back, smoking on the stoop. The women wore heavy black eyeliner—the symbol, then, of a woman who was not serious about school.
Serious girls did not wear eyeliner. They might wear mascara and eye shadow, a bit of lipstick, but eyeliner was a marker of something different. And yet, those girls were my work friends. One of the those girls and her husband would gain notoriety in my hometown when, a few years later, they would beat their foster child to death.
I hung out with them at work. And when the manager of the place where I worked, a 24-year old guy with a wife and two kids started hitting on me, I reveled in it. He became my secret. He would give me rides home from work—that way I didn't have to ask anyone at my house to come out and get me at 10 or 11 o'clock, and he and I would drive somewhere. For some reason, we frequently went down near the ferry dock.
It was at the end of the road my parents lived on, and from their house, you could see Puget Sound. If you traveled a few more miles down the road, you came to the ferry dock that would take you to Whidbey Island. The ferries stopped running around one a.m., and on Friday or Saturday nights, when it took us forever to finish cleaning the kitchen after customers had left, this is where I would go, with him, in his car.
The sex was awful. It was unmemorable. I do not remember pleasure. I just remember furtiveness. My own sense was that I was doing something forbidden and wicked—sleeping with a married man—but there was a disconnect between what my body was doing and what my mind was doing. My mind was engaging in something very grown up. My body was reaching for an affection and love and physical touching that it was starving for, but didn't dare ask for at home.
But the sex, as I remember it, was quick and uncomfortable. And guilt-producing for him. Only later did I realize that he must have been all of 18 when he married his wife. They had two children, and he was 24 and she was 22 and there they both were, working at some fast-food place, even though he had the exalted title of manager. He was a kind man. And she was lovely, truly beautiful in that delicate strawberry-blonde wispy way. But I cannot imagine how hard their lives must have been.
The affair ended when they decided to move back home to the southern state where they had grown up. Maybe they needed the support of their families again. As far as I knew, she did not know that he was cheating on her. I certainly never gave it away, and I marvel at my 16-year old self's ability to work with that woman on a regular basis and never tell her that I was screwing her husband. But he couldn't give me the thing I needed.
A few weeks after they left, I had an early shift. A Sunday shift, where I had to show up early enough in the morning to prepare lots of "side dishes” in anticipation of the folks who made the fast food we served their Sunday midday meal or early supper. I remember that it was a cloudy morning, a typical Puget Sound day, overcast, slightly damp, and the smell of the paper mill hung down low. That smell—of rotting wood, of sulfur and rotten eggs—permeated everything on those days. Unless a stiff breeze came in to move it away, you just felt cloaked in it, a reminder that you lived in a working class town north of Seattle, a town known as one of Seattle’s armpits (the other being to the south—Tacoma). Not Seattle itself, but a town with a storied history of labor unrest, and massacres, and fights and big log trucks and only two ways to make a living: Boeing or working in the pulp mills.
But on that particular morning, I had already made up my mind that I was quitting my horrible fast-food job. I needed to do something else this last summer before I went off to college.
My parents were letting me take the car to work since no one wanted to get up that early to drive me. I remember that just as I opened the driver's-side door I heard two enormous booms. Blasts. I felt the vibration move through the air. I looked on the horizon for some sign of fire; I assumed that one of the pulp mills had exploded, that to the north, down by the water, something would be on fire. But there was nothing. No other sound. No sirens. And so I got in the car. Turned on the radio.
On the news was the announcement that Mount St. Helens had just erupted. 20 minutes previously, the announcer said, the top of the mountain had blown off. I did the math. The speed of sound and the distance from my house were about right. I had heard the mountain blow its top.
It was a month until my high school graduation. The seismic shift didn't happen in my life on that day; it would have been a nice poetic metaphor to claim if it had. But things were shifting.