I Can't Keep Secrets

Some things are easier to write than say.

Spoiled

His name was Brett, and when I was 16, he ruined my life. 

Maybe I’m being overly dramatic. It isn’t hard to ruin a 16-year-old’s life. It might be more fair to say he changed my life by turning it upside down and shattering everything I knew and trusted about men and myself.

I didn’t say it would be nicer to say, just more fair.

Even now, almost two decades later, I wonder why, and even though I did ask him at the time, his answer gave me no satisfaction then, and still continues to haunt me. 

“I wanted to.”

It wasn’t rape, what Brett did. I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t call it rape. I consented, over and over again, even when I had no idea what I was consenting to. The first time was when I blushed and stammered out an answer to Brett asking conversationally, a slight arch in his eyebrow, “Do you ever talk dirty?”

No. I never had.

At 16, I was still a virgin in every sense of the word. I attended a strict, parochial boarding academy, had therefore engaged in no sex of any kind, mostly from lack of access, partly from lack of know-how. However, the idea had become appealing of late. I had a boyfriend, Jay, who I was very much in love with (relatively speaking: let’s remember my age: 16-year-olds aren’t capable of great emotional depth. At least, I wasn’t), and we had been…experimenting. I’d let his hand wander under my shirt, and graze my breast, and I’d taken pleasure in watching his eyes cloud and feeling the hard planes of his body against mine. But what I knew about sex could be summed up in a single abstinence-oriented health class and what I was aware of from growing up on a farm. Dirty talk was completely outside my knowledge. I had a vague idea of what Brett meant, but I couldn’t imagine actually doing any such thing.

He chuckled at my denial. “I don’t believe you.”

No, I assured him hotly, offended that he could think I would do anything so wicked, so un-Christian.

He shrugged and went back to work. I had work to do as well (we worked for the same teacher, and were supposed to be grading tests), but I couldn’t get his question off my mind. Brett had never shown any interest in me. Oh, I’d thought he was hot from the moment I’d laid eyes on him this year, but his type seemed to be a bit more exotic, and it didn’t take long for me to abandon the faintest hint of a crush and move on. Why would he ask that? Why would he ask me that? The thought moved through my brain like a bullet in an art gallery. My competitive streak lashed out, angry at my naivety. I wanted to be the cool girl, not the disappointing prude. I wanted to shock him. I wanted him to speak again and give me an excuse to change my answer.

But he didn’t. Not for another week.

“Talk dirty to me.” It wasn’t a demand, it was merely a statement of fact. And even though I had thought of a million sarcastic retorts over the last few days for if he ever dared speak to me again, they scattered away like cowardly butterflies at the hitch of foreplay in his voice.

“I…I don’t know how,” I faltered, cursing my stupid blank brain.

His smile. I can still see his smile, the way the edges of his mouth curved and the way his blue eyes crinkled at the corners when the smile reached the edge of his lips.

“Tell me what you want me to do to you. Tell me what you want to do to me. Open your mouth and say something sexy.” He swiveled in his chair and leaned forward, all attention.

I was absolutely tongue-tied. Let me tell you something about myself. I do not lack for words. Ever. A teacher once punished me for talking to much by having me go outside and talk to a post. I think the hope was that I’d eventually get bored and stop talking or run out of things to say. Half an hour later, the teacher came to check on me, undoubtedly hoping to find a much chastened Kristina, and instead found me chattering away happily. How could I not enjoy it? The post couldn’t interrupt my story.

Brett grinned again and said, just a little exasperated, “Okay, fine. Here’s what I want.” He tipped his chin down and looked up at me through long, curling eyelashes. “I want you to unbutton your shirt so I can see just the edge of lace on your bra.” He paused, waiting. It was a full ten seconds before I realized he meant immediately. I think I recognized even then that I was standing on a precipice, about to make the wrong decision. I loved my boyfriend, and I knew that if I did what Brett was asking, it would make me a bad girlfriend, maybe even a bad person, but overriding that, more powerful than any desire for goodness, I wanted to win. And somewhere in the back of my mind, I thought I could win at this, whatever it was. So my fingers unbuttoned my shirt. One button. Two buttons. I paused. This was technically far enough. I glanced up. He shook his head.

“One more,” he breathed softly. And I consented. His purr of pleasure at the sight of the curve of white skin disappearing into white lace was reward enough. It was my first experience with the power of a woman’s body over a man, and it was headier than any drug.

He reached out and gently brushed a finger across my skin, under the edge of the lace. It was shockingly erotic, but I didn’t pull away first. He did.

“Anytime I ask you to, I want you to show me.” His voice was soft, but there was no question in his words. There didn’t need to be. I was already a fish on a hook dangling over the safety of the water.

He didn’t make it easy. Brett got off on making it dangerous, and I admit, I did too. Outside the front doors of the school, my back to the glass, he asked. At work, with our boss in the next room, he asked. Behind my locker door, the hallways slowly emptying of bored students headed off to boring afternoon classes. In the library stacks. 

It seemed innocuous. I consoled my guilt by reminding myself that he was just looking, and apart from that first time, hadn’t laid a finger on me. To be honest, he seemed to be getting bored of the whole endeavor, which both relieved and scared me. I couldn’t reconcile my desire for him to leave me alone with the heat I felt when he looked at me, or curled his mouth into that devastating smile.

And so it might have ended, an unremarkable footnote in my life’s sexual adventures. But as in all stories, tragedy struck. Brett’s sister was killed in a rock-climbing accident. I’d met her once, when she’d come up from college to visit Brett. She was smart and funny, and it was obvious that he worshipped the ground she walked on. I went to her funeral, along with half the school, but I remember nothing except the terrifyingly blank look on Brett’s face. I’d never seen abject misery before. I hope I never do again.

He didn’t come back to school for a while, and when he did, it was in the middle of the annual talent show. I knew he was there before I saw him. News travels fast in high school, and he was all anyone could talk about from the moment he walked through the auditorium doors. I was afraid to see him, afraid that the light behind his eyes would still be extinguished. It was a relief that I would be the last thing on his mind. I wasn’t important to him, not like his friends were. Not like his sister had been.

I never saw him sit behind me, just felt the hand on the back of my neck, his thumb brushing against the skin under my long sheet of hair. It was a breathtakingly bold move, and I froze, mentally calculating where my boyfriend was (on stage), where the teachers were (nowhere nearby, thank God), and where my parents were (other side of the aisle). I turned slightly to look at Brett, meeting his eyes briefly.

“Hi,” I mouthed, eyebrows raised, not willing to ask out loud, “Are you okay?”

“Hi,” he responded, not answering my silent question. He was different, but I couldn’t identify exactly why, and when he smiled, it was almost the same. He didn’t touch me again the rest of the night, and I forgot he was there (I won the talent show. Victory gives me tunnel-vision).

It didn’t take long to find out what, exactly, had changed. We had drama class together the next day, and when I walked through the door, he was waiting for me.

I was early. I was always early, because everyone else was always late, so it was a perfect time to review my lines. He barely let the door shut before he was stalking toward me. “Let me touch you. I need to touch you.” His words were harsh, but his hands light at the edges of my sweater. I don’t remember what I said, if anything, or if I even nodded my assent before his hands had reached my stomach, fingers skimming across my side and up my back. He snapped my bra hooks open with an expert flick of his fingers and had a nipple in his other hand before I’d even drawn a breath. He sank to his knees in front of me, his lips hot and greedy on my bare skin. It was nothing short of astonishing, and although I was horrified on one hand, part of me couldn’t help but respond to his stark despair. I had no illusions. This wasn’t a romantic gesture. It was the supplication of a broken heart, and without a thought to the consequence, I gave in.

I’m still grateful I’d come in the auditorium from the back, and even more grateful that the drama coach decided that day to come in from the front. His cheerful whistling stopped us before anything else could happen. I’m less certain I’m grateful for that. I felt that I must seem to be visibly shaken, even as I tried to pull myself together, but no one seemed to notice, so I put it behind me and tried to ignore Brett’s constant attention, his eyes on my every move.

He didn’t stop the escalation, and he stopped trying to hide it from my boyfriend. At the school’s Valentine’s day banquet and party, Brett found a way to get seated next to me (To this day, I’m still not sure how he managed it. Seating arrangements were handled by the front office, and the ancient secretary was immune to charm or bribery: you sat where you signed up, and I know he wouldn’t have signed up at my table in advance), my glowering boyfriend on the other side. Brett’s hand slid up my thigh during during grace, gliding away the second the “Amen” was said. He started carrying his guitar around, staring me down while plucking out the melody to “Dream A Little Dream of Me.” And the things he said. I’m glad I’ve mostly forgotten the details. In the years since then, no one has been so frankly sexual, so dirty, with me. He would whisper as he walked behind me in the cafeteria, or mouth the things he wanted to do to me from across rooms. It was both terrifying and thrilling. I suppose that was the crux of his personality those days. He couldn’t help being angry at the world, and sex seemed to be the only way he knew how to let it out. The closer he skirted to getting caught by my boyfriend, the better. I couldn’t understand it at the time, but I think he wanted Jay to catch him because he knew Jay would beat him up, and he wanted to get hurt, wanted to feel something, anything.

It didn’t end that way. I wish it had. Maybe Jay could have forgiven me that way.

On a Monday morning in late winter, my boss invited all her student workers over for a home-made pancake breakfast one morning, excusing us all from classes for a few hours. It was a rare treat for kids at a boarding school, and the pancakes were heavenly. After breakfast, we played board games with my boss’s adolescent sons. I took a break and headed upstairs to go to the bathroom. On the way back, a motion at the end of the hall caught my eye. Brett was standing in the youngest son’s room, watching me walk toward the stairs. As soon as he knew I’d seen him, he beckoned to me, a predatory smile cracking his face.

I think I hesitated. I hope I hesitated. I hope I didn’t let him reel me in without even a minute fight. I don’t remember. I remember standing in front of him as his hand twisted in my hair and he crushed my mouth with his. It was the first time he’d kissed me, and to my surprise, I was repulsed. His kiss was hard and full of bitter hate and rage. I pulled away and he hissed at me. “Kiss me.”

“No.” That I remember. I said no, even if it was mostly fear of being caught making out in a toddler’s bedroom. “I can’t.”

“Yes, you can.” He changed in a flash, softening, pleading, and as always, I melted. He brought my hand between his legs, drawing my fingers across his hard cock. “I want you. I always want you.” He rested my hand against the button of his pants. “Kiss me here. Please?”

I’d never even seen an erect penis, much less touched one. I vaguely knew that he wanted a blow job, but the specifics were beyond me. Maybe that seems naive. What 16-year-old hasn’t read Cosmo, or seen porn on the Internet these days? But at that time, the Internet was barely a search-engine, and my sheltered religious upbringing hadn’t allowed for adult magazines, books, or even PG-13 movies, although I had seen a 1960s Playboy once in an antique store. It had been less than educational.

It was so unbearably awkward at first. I didn’t know if I should kneel, or what. I didn’t know if I was supposed to take anything off him or me. All I know is that I never even questioned whether or not I was going to do it, even though I really, really didn’t want to. My good sense was standing off to the side screaming at me to stop and walk away. I can see myself through her eyes as Brett pushed on my shoulders until I was in the right spot. He undid his own pants, one hand in my hair, the other guiding his cock to my mouth. I didn’t know if I should close my eyes. He did most of the work, thrusting toward me as he held my head in place with his hand. I know I bit down at least once accidentally, because I remember him wincing. I watched his face contort and relax at the moment he climaxed, filling my mouth with a hot, salty goop I was not at all expecting, but reflexively swallowed. From beginning to end, the whole thing had lasted five minutes, maybe. It was horrible.

He stood for a brief moment with both hands on my shoulders, catching his breath. A few deep breaths later and he leaned over. I thought he was going to kiss me, but at the last second, his lips brushed my cheek. “I’d kiss you, but I know where your mouth has been.” And then he walked out of the room leaving me to try and figure out what had just happened.

I don’t remember going downstairs. I don’t remember leaving the house. I don’t remember walking back across campus to the library where I found my friend Missy.

“I just gave Brett a blow job,” I told her without preamble. She was the only person who I’d told all the details of Brett’s seduction to, not so much because I trusted her, but because she was the only person I knew who would even remotely understand. She was the bad girl of our class, and I loved her to pieces for it.

“Good for you!” she exclaimed, and then looked at my face. “Are you okay?” There were tracks from tears across my cheeks, and I furiously wished I’d washed my face at least.

I shook my head, afraid to say anything else. My stomach clenched, and I had a unexpected and unfamiliar urge to throw up. She gave me a sad, knowing smile. “He made you swallow? Asshole. Do you want to throw up?”

I did, but I shook my head again. “I’m fine. I’ll be fine,” I whispered, and she rubbed my back comfortingly until the pain went away.

And that was that. Overnight, it was like I’d become a leper. Brett wouldn’t look at me, wouldn’t talk to me, and rearranged most of his work schedule so it didn’t coincide with mine. I wasn’t sorry, really, but to go from such an intimate act to being shut out in the cold was baffling. He started sniffing around other girls, drawing them in with the same combination of charm and emotional devastation that had worked so well on me. As hurt as I was by his disinterest, life was easier without his attention. And somehow, miraculously, Jay hadn’t found out about any of it. I tried to cut my losses and move on.

But there were reminders. He’d practice his guitar in the classroom near my locker, playing my favorite song when I walked by. We were still in drama class together, and occasionally, when I’d meet his eyes, he’d let me see the naked sadness there, before banishing it with his usual smirk. 

I finally worked up the nerve to talk to him. It wasn’t my proudest moment.

“What is wrong with you?” I’m sure I yelled it. I don’t think that’s a question that can be asked in a civilized tone of voice. “What was all that for? What did you want from me?”

“Exactly what I got. And now we’re done.” He practically snarled the words at me, and they fixed themselves in my mind, latching on as only cruelty can.

“But why? Why me?”

There was no reason. It was because he wanted to. Because I was there. Because I let him.

Jay found out eventually, and we broke up. I suspect Brett told him, or at least made sure it got back to him, although in retrospect, I wasn’t exactly a master of subtlety. Still, there were details no one else could have known, enough for me to suspect Brett, although his motives remain a mystery. It destroyed my senior year of high school. I lost nearly all my friends in the break-up. They sided with Jay, and I guess I can’t blame them. I think, sometimes, that I should have been brave enough to tell Jay myself. I wonder what he suffered because of my cowardice. I never asked him, never admitted what I’d done. And after the end of the year, I never saw Brett again. He was a year older and left for college, the same one his sister was killed at.

I am left with vague memories and a visceral revulsion to kneeling of any kind. I can’t bear to have the back of my head touched during oral sex. I lost my naivety to Brett, too, and whether or not anyone would think I was a victim, I promised myself I would never be coerced into anything through force or persuasion again. I would never be so gullible again. I keep hoping that I’ve finally succeeded in letting go of the emotional damage he brought, but I am occasionally reminded that I haven’t, through a surprising onslaught of tears when I tell the bare bones of the story, or raised hackles when any man is aggressively flirtatious with me. On my worst days, I think the remnants of Brett’s legacy will never be gone. But when the shadows clear, I remember how sad he was, and that his loss was greater than mine. And I remember how he played “Dream A Little Dream of Me.”

Psychic

I should tell you, I’m kind of psychic. It’s a little embarrassing to admit, because I don’t believe in psychic powers. And maybe “psychic” isn’t the right word. I prefer to think of it as being very good at predicting future outcomes. I don’t know how it works, and I don’t like to question it too much (or even think about it too much, for fear that being noticed will make the ability disappear), but maybe it’s that I can sense the many possibilities of a multi-verse. Or calculate probability with a high degree of accuracy. The one thing I do know is that I’m nearly always right. 

The downside is that I’m fairly limited in scope. I can predict the success of future relationships and pregnancy. That’s it. No lottery numbers, grain futures or stock performances. But if I look at a couple, I can tell them whether or not their relationship is doomed to succeed or fail (and often, why). I can tell when a woman is pregnant, sometimes before she even knows herself. This is not a party trick I ever trot out, by the way. No woman wants to be asked if she’s pregnant, even if she’s a month from birth, much less within weeks of conception (I would really not recommend testing that theory). 

As for the relationship forecasting, as entertaining as it might seem, it’s almost entirely useless. Most relationships fall in a middle space, between true love and eminent failure. Usually, those relationships will succeed because the individuals in them are willing to compromise for the continued benefit of the partnership. I don’t usually get a good read on those people because there’s nothing fractured or spectacular between them. They’re just in good, stable, more-or-less contented relationships. 

Sometimes, albeit rarely, I meet a couple that is so right, it makes my senses tingle and my heart sing. Real love is nearly tangible, and especially delightful when it happens against appearance, age or circumstance. These couples don’t have to compromise: they’re made for each other.

However, I am leery of telling perfect couples that I see happiness in their future. I have nothing to lose with the ill-fated relationships if they don’t believe me. But I have learned to fear what might happen if I tell a happy couple how happy I am that they’re happy. Will they simply believe me without question? Or will it make them take stock of their relationship, and in noticing the things they do like, magnify the things they don’t: the toothpaste tube squeezed in the middle, the dishes stacked in the sink, the 16 pairs of black shoes? I’d rather err on the side of caution and vicariously enjoy their ecstasy than say anything that might cause a negative reaction. 

Maybe I’m cynical, but I assume people are contrary because they usually are. And if they’re disagreeable when told good things about themselves, it’s even worse when faced with the proposition that they might be wrong. After all, there’s a lot riding this. It’s nothing less than the rest of your life with one person, and nearly everyone on the planet is preoccupied with finding that someone to love. Lots of people want nothing more than to be happily ensconced in the perfect relationship. Lots of people spend their whole lives looking for their One True Love, even paying big money to matchmakers or online dating services to help them. Lots of people say that they’d rather know whether or not it was going to work out before they invest time and energy into a doomed relationship. Lots of people are liars.

The truth is, no one wants to know the truth. Sadly, I know this from experience. In my life, I have occasionally broken the do-not-intefere prime directive and told several dear friends, “Please don’t marry this person. It isn’t going to work. You’re just going to be unhappy in a couple of years,” and although I haven’t been wrong yet, not one of them has taken my advice. It doesn’t matter how good my track record is, or how spectacular the resultant failures have been, in the heat of love, no one can bear to hear that they might be headed down the wrong path.

Even those of us that believe in logic and reason don’t like to know that there may be a flaw in our love. You don’t have to be a psychic to see this happen. Watch “The Steve Wilkos Show” for proof, sometime. Everyone knows that the girl whose boyfriend is beating her up is going to go back to him. Even when Steve asks her, “Why do you want to be with him?” she can only answer, “Because I love him.” How can that be love? She doesn’t know, she just knows that she wants to be with him, no matter the cost, no matter the pain. There’s always the hope that maybe he can change, and of course, she’s not entirely wrong. He CAN change. He’s just not going to.

And maybe that’s what I’m seeing. Not probability, not the future, just the inability to change. The girl who cheated on her boyfriend to be with the guy I begged not to marry her isn’t going to stop cheating. Not for him, not for anyone. But he married her anyway, and in two years, found her with someone else. The guy who dumped me for his fiancee says I’m biased when I tell him his marriage is going to be sexless and unhappy, and I become uncertain about my judgement and back off. But apparently, being biased doesn’t mean I’m not right. He finally ends his marriage after ten years, utterly unconsummated. I know the guy who married his girlfriend when she got pregnant isn’t in love with her and never will be, but I’ve learned my lesson and keep my mouth shut. Twelve years later (granted, about 11 years longer than I thought it would last), he’s gone. She says he changed in the last few years, and I nod, but privately I know he didn’t change. He merely kept who he was hidden very well for a very long time. Just not long enough.

Faulty

One day, everything changes. Maybe you recognize it when it happens. You see a girl across the room, and the curve of her mouth, the infinitesimal widening of her eyes when they meet yours, tell you that today is going to mean something for the rest of your life. Or you’re driving in the country on a leisurely Sunday in fall, when a tiny car passes you. You glance over just in time to see four boys, laughing, joking, practically exploding with joie de vivre. For an ugly split second, you’re consumed with jealousy that they could be so much happier than you, and the next moment, frozen in time as they run a stop sign and are t-boned by an eighteen-wheeler, close enough that the shrapnel cracks your window. Close enough that you finally know what death looks like.

More likely, though, you won’t understand the significance of today until it’s long gone, lost in the dump drawer of your memory. You might be able to guess at what you were doing, or why it was different, but probably not. And it will haunt you. Oh, it will haunt you. Why, you’ll ask, was that the day that riding your bike, an activity so rarely performed, it took twenty-minutes to remember where the air pump was, seemed like a must do instead of a will not? When, you’ll wonder, did dieting become a joy, instead of a chore. Yes, a joy. You, who never met a cheese you didn’t like, can actually exercise some self-control and only have one slice instead of one block. You couldn’t walk up the stairs without gasping, laugh without wheezing, carry in the goddamn groceries without sore muscles. And now you can bike thirty miles, run for an hour or rake the leaves that have been collecting under your junipers for the last five years. There must have been something. A particularly gorgeous day? The perfect confluence of hormones, emotions and circumstances? You’ll never know, because although you know the exact date, you can’t remember a thing about the day itself. And no amount of wishing (or self-hynotism) is going to bring that day back.

Ah, but that’s nothing compared to the first time you saw him. At least you know why you can’t remember the exact day. It’s been more than a decade since you met, but you’ll never forget the grasping hands of unexpected desire that turned your knees to jelly. You don’t have to, because you still feel it, the twist that lights your nerves on fire when he laughs or grins or walks through the front door. He still gets you, understands and even accepts the dark shadows that lurk in your soul. Except now, it isn’t fair. You can’t revel in the seamless way your minds fit together. Any connection you make now is a taunt, a whisper of the past that you aren’t free to pursue. It doesn’t stop you from thinking (like you could help it if you tried) that his mouth and hands would feel the way you remember, but it’s a hypothesis that can never be tested: he’s also tied to another life, one you can’t be a part of.

So you flirt a little, but no more than the sun and the moon do, catching glimpses of the life, and love, that might have been, if only you were allowed to occupy the sky at the same time. If only you’d met when you were older and more mature. If only he’d been strong enough to give you a chance. If only. Terrible words. It’s a frustrating irony that time and circumstance have shaped you into a better woman, lover and partner than you ever were before, and it doesn’t count for anything. All your if onlys are for naught, and you have to be the bigger person and just let them go.

On the other hand, letting go has never been your forte.

A story a day? That seems optimistic. How about a story a week.

I need to write. I need to fix words to paper (virtual though it may be), because if I can successfully bind the words, then perhaps, with any luck, the feelings associated with those words will fall away, dissipate into the great wide web in the sky.

Maybe these will all be real stories. Maybe sometimes they’ll be mixed with hypotheticals or fantasies. Maybe they won’t all be stories. Whatever it is, I need to say. Maybe you’ll want to read it.

I don’t anticipate this working, by the way. But hope springs eternal.