I Didn’t Know

We would sit on the Spanish steps until our lips were swollen and chapped, until our tongues were coated with the taste of cigarettes, until our skin had melted and darkened from the heat of the sun. We would sit there wanting to be older, or at least look older, assuming everyone was staring at us, assuming everyone wanted us. We wanted our lives to advance, but we didn’t know in what direction. We would wait, patiently watching the “baggy-pants boys,” as we called them. They were such a rarity in Italy that when you found one you had to hang on. “The baggy-pants boys” also consisted of leather-, chain-, and spike-wearing punks, tie-dyed hippies, and fifty-year-old drug addicts. They had a designated corner where they would all meet and disturb the peace while policemen hid around corners watching from afar. Every day we went there we would move closer and closer to their corner. We were spiders, and they were insects trapped in our web.

I had never seen Gian Luka there before. I figured he was new, so I let my cigarette dangle from my fingers as if offering something, as if telling him that everything I had was there for the taking. I didn’t think I was enough for him. I didn’t think I was enough for anyone. I liked his deep dimples, messy hair, and “I-don’t-care” attitude. I wanted him. I wanted him to want me. We all had a designated baggy-pants boy that we would watch like a dog begging for food at the dinner table. Our heads cocked, our eyes open, longing. We wanted them, not knowing what we wanted. He asked me if I would help him with something, would I come with him. I said yes, putting one weak foot in front of the other hoping “help” didn’t mean far away, hoping “help” didn’t take place in a bedroom. He led me down the Spanish steps and around the corner. I followed his shadow, not him. I was afraid of him. We stopped at a soiled public bathroom, and he told me to wait there as he kneeled on the stairs below me. He told me to tell him if someone was coming, as he took out a coffee can and began putting the contents of it into plastic bags. “Drugs,” he said. “But not really. I mean this is just herbs and wood an’ shit. But we sell it to the tourists ’cause they think it’s drugs.” He started up the steps and along the way back kept singing a line from a song that went, “Don’t worry, be happy.” But when he sang it with his Italian accent, it sounded more like, “Done wary, be ’appy."

“Let’s go for a walk,” he said, taking me to a back alley where we sat on a doorstep, speaking in two different languages, not understanding one another. Silence prevailed. And then he grabbed me, sticking his tongue down my throat, jamming it between my teeth, folding my tongue like laundry. I could taste the beer as his saliva collided with mine. I didn’t know if I liked it. It was my first kiss. I didn’t know.

He took me farther down the alley and leaned me up against a cold, stone wall; my left leg rapidly shook as he fingered my stomach, as he undid each button on my grey pants quietly, as if what he was doing was a secret, or wrong. My shirt climbed my stomach, and I could feel the stones become part of the small of my back. My left leg shook faster, each time springing my knee forward, and I thought about how I could flee. I planned out each step in my mind as he touched me. I saw my knee spring forward, hitting him in his crotch and running. I saw myself under water, clean and cold, wrapped in a blanket of seaweed. He touched me like I was a popsicle on a hot summer day, and he had to touch every inch of my body before I melted. When he reached the last button, he asked me if I had ever had sex before. “Yes,” I said. I thought if I said yes, it would make it easier to say no. I don’t know what my reasoning was, but I didn’t want him to realize that I wasn’t enough. “Do you want to have sex?” he asked. “No,” I murmured apologetically, then added, “’Cause, I mean, my friends are waiting for me.” As if I had to have an excuse, as if I had to explain why I wasn’t ready. I remember the padded bra I wore. I remember worrying if I had put on enough deodorant. Then I began to worry if I had put on any deodorant at all. He slid his finger along the top of my underwear, the underwear my mom had bought two sizes too big. The underwear lined with black lace and black bows. The underwear I had gotten when I had my first period. He exhaled into my ear, and I could feel my eardrums beat against his breath, wanting to burst free, to escape. He placed his hands on my waist and drew them toward the fly of my pants. I can still see him sliding each button through its hole. In black and white, in slow motion, in disappointment. I wasn’t enough. And I knew it. During my walk home I kept pushing piece after piece of gum into every region of my mouth. I chewed rapidly, trying to get rid of the taste of his juicy tongue and leftover saliva.

My friends screamed and bubbled in excitement, having made our first contact with the baggy-pants boys. I thought I was happy. I hoped I was happy.

“Did you like it?”

“Don’t you think it was a little quick to let him touch you the night you met him?”

“Was it fun?”

“Does he know you’re a virgin?” My friends filled my room with curiosity as we lay on the floor. They didn’t really care what the answer was. They already had their own visions of what had happened.

I lay there, crossing my legs and squeezing my thighs together as if someone was trying to burrow between them. I didn’t want to go back the next day, even though I knew I should, even though I knew I would. I hated the fact that he touched me, I hated myself for letting him touch me. And I hated the fact that I disappointed him, and that I wasn’t enough. I perceived his touching me as a compliment. I never thought someone would want to touch me. I never reckoned someone would, at least not for a long time. I didn’t like the smell of his breath. I didn’t like the temperature of his body, or the texture of his skin. I didn’t like him touching me. I didn’t like him wanting me because I didn’t want myself. I clasped my thighs together and wished they would become stuck like that forever. I still didn’t know what I wanted, but I knew I didn’t want him. I didn’t like my mouth being invaded, my eyes searched or body groped. I didn’t like my breath smelled, my voice heard or my ears whispered to. I didn’t know I wouldn’t like any of it. It was my first kiss, my first touch. I didn’t know what I wanted. I didn’t know.

We went back the next day. And the next day. And during the two weeks after my first kiss, we went there every day. We met his friends. Orso meaning bear, Giallo meaning yellow, Pizello meaning small penis, Diego, Matteo, and Carmello. Orso was roughly 275 pounds. Beady eyes that stalked you behind glasses that pinched the fat on either side of his face, squeezing sweat from his face like pulp from an orange. He would pull me onto his lap and bounce me, the fat jiggling in his legs, like I was sitting amidst a bowl of Jell-O. He would press his goatee upon the back of my neck and rub it up and down, up and down, up and down. His bristly hairs stinging my flesh, the smell of ham on his breath. I didn’t like his hairs on my neck, I didn’t like sitting on his lap or the scent of ham. They called me their doll, but I didn’t mind. It made me feel good that they wanted me. One night as I was lying on the steps, Jean Lucas appeared above me.

“Come on,” he said. “Why are you doing this to me? Let’s go for a walk.”

“No,” I giggled, pretending to be ignorant of the fact that he was serious. His dry hands moved up and down my arms casting flakes off my sunburned skin upon the stone steps.

“Please,” he pleaded, while some of his friends stood behind him watching, telling me to do it, to go with him. I imagined the stones again. I imagined him moving up and down on top of me like the ebb of the ocean. I imagined him being inside me, and I hated myself. I hated myself because I didn’t want to have sex, because I wasn’t ready. How could I let someone else in while I was trying to get out? I knew I was going to have to disappoint him. I stood up delicately, trying to seem as if I were enjoying myself, as if I were having a good time. As if I were still six, and I giggled at the word sex, thinking it was a secret game.

An acquaintance of ours, Lily, came along the next day. She was from Milan and wanted to see Rome. So we brought her to the Spanish steps. He didn’t say hello. He made it clear he didn’t care that I was there. He was shirtless and drunk at three in the afternoon. Beer glistened on his bottom lip like dewdrops on flower petals. He looked Lily up and down and leaned against a wall complimenting her loudly. “Anna—you see this? You should get your belly button pierced like this. And you should get your nose pierced.” I said OK, propping my hand upon my forehead; the sun was beating down on my back. It was beating a migraine into my head. Gian Luca turned his back against me. Lily told us to get together for a picture as Jean Lucas leaned into her. I knew she was preparing me, apologizing for what would follow later in the evening.

He came and sat next to me, smiling, with his eyes rolled up in his head.

“Kiss!” she said. “Anna smile!” So we did. We pressed our lips together, it’s just skin I thought. I didn’t want to kiss him, but I thought that if I could convince him I still wanted him, then maybe he would stay with me. If I could convince him there might be a chance of me letting him in, of my giving myself up to him, maybe I wouldn’t be such a disappointment. I felt like a pimple exploding on a teenager’s face. Being pushed together until my insides ran out and I deflated into a red wound of humility. I kept asking myself, Why won’t I let him fuck me? It’s all nothing but skin made up of organisms and tissue and stuff. It’s nothing but a body. My body. He asked Lily to go on a tour of Rome with him. She said yes, looking at me with an apologetic look on her face, handing me the picture. I knew what that tour would consist of—a bedroom maybe, most likely an alley. He winked at me like we were best buds and he was about to score bigtime. My friends tried to stand in front of me. They tried to prevent me from seeing. But I knew. I ran my tongue along the inside of my mouth and tried to forget the feeling of his teeth on my lower lip and hands clinging to my waist. I heard the English language as it surrounded me, tourists commenting on the Spanish steps, closing in on me, suffocating me. I waited for him to return. I didn’t know why.

He fucked her three times that afternoon. He fucked her earrings from her ears, he told me, as if pointing out what I had missed. The opportunity of a lifetime. He was telling this to me while I smiled, pretending to be listening to another conversation. But no one else was talking. “I gotta go,” he said to his friend. “My girl is waiting for dessert.” He placed his hands on my knees. “Ciao,” he whispered pityingly, extending his neck toward mine with expectations for a kiss; I turned my head and kissed his cheek. I almost said thank you. But he was already gone.

He never got to see my belly button pierced, or a stud in my nose. He never got to see my red, purple, blue, orange, brown, black, or green hair. He never got to see how hard I tried to be enough. I never learned how to say no. I didn’t know I would ever have to. I was thirteen years old. It was my first kiss. I didn’t know I wouldn’t like it. It didn’t know what he would want. I didn’t know, and I still don’t. I continue to lie at night squeezing my thighs together, gazing at the picture of our lips pressed together, taped above my bed, dreaming of days where I may be enough.

This work received a Gold Award in The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards of 2002.

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