Here comes a candle to light you to bed.
Here comes a chopper to chop off your head.
“Oranges and Lemons”
Traditional English Nursery Rhyme
There was before and there was after.
I remember the chill silk of the quilt beneath my naked skin, crisply urging me to arch my back. My small, perfect breasts, tipped with nipples as dark and tight as walnut whips, offered up to him and, beyond him, the molded Georgian ceiling. I flung my arms above my head and smiled, snaking my spine from side to side, feeling my bare ass slither against the bedclothes.
“I want to do it,” I said. “Now.”
It might have sounded spontaneous but it was nothing of the sort. I’d fearlessly made my way up to the family planning clinic and demanded the pill months before. I had decided I would lose my virginity perfectly: not drunk, not pressured, not carelessly like so many of my contemporaries. This was the way I wanted to divest myself of my virtue and this was the man – yes, man – with whom I’d do it.
Kevin looked down at me, hands fisted in the front pockets of his jeans. The long, lank flop of blond hair forever threatening to obscure his right eye did so. But I knew he was looking at me anyway. He couldn’t not look at me.
“Come on,” I whined, in what I thought must be a sexy sort of petulance. “You know you want to. You’re hard.”
His shoulders and the fists in his pockets tightened, obscuring the erection I assumed was there, was sure was there.
God knows, it had always been there before. To my mind, which hadn’t had many close encounters with penises prior to his, it had seemed a constant presence. And if perhaps I was still a little wary of it, I had overcome my initial horror of the thing many months before. In the front seat of his car, parked in the rain, drops pattering rhythmically on the roof and turning the glare of streetlamps to bright smears in the dark. In the circular booth of the restaurant he used to take me to, open past midnight on Saturdays, were he’d buy me burgers and we’d talk until two and grope each other beneath the table cloth. Against me, against my own tightly jeaned crotch, humid with its own machinations.
This was the man, I decided. Not a sniggering adolescent, but a man. Not a neophyte. Not a virgin. Kevin, I was certain, was as knowledgeable about sex as it was possible for anyone to be. I’d picked him for that very reason. He knew about Baudelaire and atomic fission and the Stalinist purges. He knew, I was pretty sure, about everything. And if at first he hadn’t known I was sixteen, I did not keep that awkward secret from him long. He’d gotten over the shock of it, I was certain, ages ago. Thirty-one, I thought, was the perfect age to be if you were going to be nominated for the privilege of deflowering me.
It never occurred to me that it might be a burden. I was beautiful. Perhaps not pretty in a cover-girl way, but exotic. Dark eyed and dark haired with obscenely plump, wide lips and a body made to take curves at speed. Small and lithe and perfectly proportioned. There had been a lot of volunteers to relieve me of virtue. The brazen, the sly, the bold and the manipulative. The drunk, the fumblers, the monstrously presumptive, the sweet even. But they were all boys. Not men.
Kevin leaned back against the fleur-de-lis patterned wall paper I’d chosen for my bedroom and let his weight carry him down to a crouch. I propped myself up on my elbows, and the room felt colder than it had before.
“Nothing’s wrong. I just can’t.”
I stared at him. A ball of something black and tarry formed in my chest and inched its way up my throat. “Yes you can.”
He propped his elbows on his knees and covered his face with his hands. “No, I can’t.”
“Why?” It was a broken-backed breath of a question. It was all I could manage.
He sighed, took his hands away from his face and looked at me with his sky-blue eyes. “You’re just too young.”
“You need to find someone your own age. I can’t do this. It’s just wrong.”
“No it’s not.” Only then did it occur to me that I wasn’t just cold – I was freezing. I tore blindly at the quilt beneath me and pulled it over my torso. “It’s me.”
“It’s not you.”
“Oh, what a fucking lie! I know what that means. ‘It’s not you. It’s not you.’ What a fucking cliche! ‘It’s not you’.” I was crying then, spitting the words at the ceiling until I rolled over to face the wall and curled into a ball.
His weight jostled the bed as he sat on the edge of it. He put a cool, long-fingered hand on my forehead. “It’s not you. I just… I can’t. I can’t be… that dishonorable.”
“Don’t touch me. Don’t you fucking touch me. Don’t you ever touch me ever again,” I whispered into the dark because my eyes were shut tight, tight against the flood of tears stinging to get free. “Go away. Go.”
“Sweetheart,” he said gently.
“Get the fuck out of here. I hate you.”
He tried again, but all the other words I had were stacked up behind the thick black ball in my throat and couldn’t get past it. The bed moved again as he stood.
In the dark cocoon of my hurt, I had no skin. The bones of my knees were pressed tight to my ribs. No skin and no organs. Flayed and gutted. The fearless girl who had stretched herself so confidently and invitingly across that bed was dead.
I grew to adulthood wearing her frightened, insecure, rotting remains.