My first thought when I met Goth Ryan was that he looked like the corpse of Macaulay Culkin, only skinnier. He was pale and wore a black trench coat and talked about The Crow a lot, and, though they seemed like contradictions he was also blonde, smiley, and outgoing. He had sickly, sunken eye sockets, and a high voice that broke when he became excited, and, listening to him squeak through his explanation of a conspiracy theory about the death of Brandon Lee, I realized I was attracted to him.
I mean, of course I was attracted to him. There had been very few male teenagers who managed to talk to me with my entertaining thoughts about their naked bodies. I was at that age, I guess, when even corpses looked attractive. But there were so many obstacles to our love.
For one: he professed his love for me several times very soon after I met him, which I saw as a red flag as well as a sign of questionable taste.
Secondly: once I saw his ex-girlfriend in Wal-Mart and she screamed at me to stop fucking her boyfriend, and, though I was a sad virgin who was excited by the idea that anyone would assume I was fucking anyone, she kind of terrified me.
Thirdly, and maybe most importantly: Goth Ryan was in some kind of secret sex affair with my best friend, Tara (it was secret because she had a boyfriend).
I had become friends with Tara a few months earlier. I had spent the prior school year with basically no friends or friend prospects, and thought this year would be then same. Then one day in gym class early in the school year, Tara ditched her best friend to walk laps around the field with me. She invited me over to her house that night, and we dyed our hair pink with Manic Panic. She was not like me; she was loud and made offensive jokes and wasn’t intimidated by anybody. I immediately loved her.
Tara’s boyfriend introduced us to Goth Ryan, and the four of us hung out almost every weekend and on many school nights. Goth Ryan and Tara’s boyfriend were 18 and had cars, so a lot of nights we would drive around Clearlake and find a quiet park to sit and drink in. The three of them were almost certainly taking drugs of some kind, but I was never told what drugs, and somehow had no curiosity about it.
Alcohol, on the other hand. Big fan. Tara and I always had alcohol, disgusting bottles of Watermelon Schnapps or Hot Damn that I definitely did not have any part in picking out but which I drank greedily, often becoming blackout drunk. Once completely debilitated, Goth Ryan would wrap his trench coat around me and melodramatically promise me that everything would be okay, and that he would take care of me.
“Can I kiss you?” he sometimes said, perfectly nailing a tone of wilted theatrical romance, his black lips and eyes already betraying the pain of expecting rejection. It was pretty cute.
“Okay,” I would say, trying to summon the strength and sobriety to lift my head. Depending on variables completely unknown to me, Tara would either give me a sexy-slash-approving look or an insane-slash-jealous look, and, depending on my fluctuating hormones and levels of patience with her, I would either care or not care about whatever kind of look she was giving me.
Tara and I were impressed by the Goth subculture Goth Ryan and Tara’s boyfriend took part in not just because of the black strappy clothes, black fingernails, and heavy eye makeup (which we immediately began imitating), but also their directness and openness about feelings of sadness and rottenness. These were feelings I had always secretly reveled in, but I had always felt ashamed of my unhappiness, always cried in the shower where no one could hear me or ask me what I was crying about or tell me to stop. But these two brave souls were cutting themselves in places that couldn’t easily be hidden, where others would see it and know that it was meant for them to see. There was something so powerful about that.
* * *
Sometimes, when Tara and her boyfriend were fighting, we would hang out with other boys - Gabe, the much older Incubus fan, Tyler and Matt, the dweeby boys who would sometimes find us between classes and awkwardly give us drawings of various Looney Toons characters that were clearly traced from coloring books, or Zach, the raver/computer programmer who I was “in love with.”
I sat between Zach and Tyler in English, and they would lean over my desk to make fun of each other, which, being a sad virgin for whom physical proximity to boys was the only known pleasure, I really enjoyed.
“Where’d you get those pants?” Tyler said, probably sarcastically, gesturing to Zach’s giant swishy parachute pants bungeed at the ankle.
“Pac Sun,” Zach said dryly.
“Fuck you, dude,” Tyler said. The teacher heard this and sent Tyler to sit in the closet, a common punishment from this particular teacher. Without Tyler around, my attempts at conversations with Zach seemed stilted or something.
“Tyler is so weird,” I would say.
“I hate that guy,” Zach said. I loved how angry Zach was. I loved that he hated things. I wanted to hate things, too, instead of feeling the detached resentment that I felt about most things. I wanted to feel passionate about something. I wanted to hate Tyler if only to have something in common with Zach. But Tyler was a necessary lubricant in my conversations with Zach, and I liked him for that reason. Also he was kind of funny and easy to talk to and had a cute center-part and smelled like warm bread.
“I hate him, too,” I said.
I had touched Zach’s penis once, on a road near a river. We were both very drunk, and he asked me to touch it, so I did. I had cupped and pet the flaccid thing for close to a minute, unsure of what was supposed to happen. My wrist was getting tired from being pressed against his stomach underneath his still-buckled silver studded belt as we stood in the middle of an unused dirt road, our friends a few yards away. Should I squeeze it, I thought, should I milk it?
“What should I do?” I said.
“Nevermind,” he said, “You’re drunk.”
* * *
One night, at Tara’s house, Tara tricked me into eating a significant portion of a pot brownie by telling me that it was a regular brownie that she made herself and that it would hurt her feelings if I didn’t at least taste it. After I ate it, she disappeared into another room to argue with her boyfriend on the phone. I wrapped myself up in a blanket and breathed deeply in and out, convinced I was experiencing a panic attack. Goth Ryan knocked on Tara’s door and when I answered it, he asked me to go outside. He wanted to talk about his feelings.
“Is this happening?” I said, “Are you here?”
“I like you so much,” he said, initiating a hug, “I used to think about killing myself all the time, but now whenever I start thinking about that, I think about you instead. I feel so much better lately. You are a wonder. I’ve never met anyone like you. ”
I started imagining that he was talking to me about raspberries. I imagined that he was trying to offload raspberries to me because the raspberries weren’t very good and he had to get rid of them. He had so many raspberries that he would have to devote the rest of his life to getting rid of them. I imagined Goth Ryan becoming CEO of a raspberry-offloading company that marketed the raspberries to people by using slogans like, “I like these raspberries so fucking much,” and, “The way I feel about these raspberries is so much better than the way I normally feel about raspberries,” and “Buy these goddamn raspberries or I’ll fucking kill myself.” I was endeared by the idea that he thought he could sell raspberries using emotional manipulation. Something seemed sweet about that kind of naiveté. In retrospect I see that I was super, super stoned.
“I’m going to try to get a job,” he said, “I want to take care of you.”
I nodded and rubbed my increasingly dry and puffy eyes, simultaneously acutely aware of, frustrated with, and incapacitated by my role in the universe.
Something was weird about this. Ryan seemed to be saying he was in love with me, but he was sleeping with my best friend, and seemed to not notice that I didn’t love him back, even though I kind of did. So what was the problem? I couldn’t think straight. What was the question?
“I need to go inside and… ask Tara… something… about…fruit,” I managed to say.
“Okay, I’m going to take off then,” he said. He kissed me on my temple and held my hand as I moved away from him, and we maintained intense eye contact as I went inside and closed the door.
“Ryan is here?” Tara said, “Where the fuck did he go?”
“Um,” I said, “I feel really weird right now.”
“You should just go out with him already. He is totally in love with you. He didn’t even come in to say hi to me.”
“I think I might be having a seizure.”
“Oh, you poor thing!” she said with a big smile, “You ate too much pot brownie! Here, lie down, sweetie.”
“Everybody has to grow up sometime,” she said, still smiling.
“God, I fucking hate you.”
* * *
Tara and I were inseparable frenemies. We couldn’t trust each other with any kind of secret, and didn’t show much support for one another, but we were both weird and encouraged each other’s weird behavior, and we seemed to enjoy not liking each other. More importantly, she was my social crutch, and I was her scapegoat. Hanging out together meant she made all the plans, got boys to hang out with us, and found rides everywhere. Alternately, I would take the fall if anything happened so she wouldn’t look bad in front of her grandma or boyfriend or people she had crushes on or whoever else she happened to be worried about impressing at any given time. I was being mobilized and crippled simultaneously, but I was fine with this setup. She would say, “Sorry we were out so late, Grandma. Chelsea wanted to make out with Ryan all night,” and her grandma would tell me that if I wanted to sleep over any more I had to start going to church with them. Later, Tara would tell me, “Don’t worry I’ll make it up to you,” and invite Zach over to drink Jägermeister (I think we literally only knew about the most disgusting types of alcohol available) and watch TV with us.
* * *
We invited Zach to come over on Saturday night, when Tara’s grandma would be visiting family. While we waited for Zach’s dad to drop him off, Tara called Goth Ryan and invited him to join us.
“I’m not just going to sit there and watch you and Zach make out,” she said.
Tara selflessly swept Goth Ryan away to her room as soon as he arrived. Before he disappeared, I tried to give him a look that said I don’t care what you do, and like, at all, and anyway Zach is here and we are in love, we are going to tell each other how in love we are and soon you will be merely a distant foggy memory that rarely occurs to me to think of, and when I’m older I will conflate you with someone else I knew around this time and you will become a half-person, so unimportant on your own that I couldn’t even be bothered to remember you as one being, so utterly useless in my memory that you barely exist, and but in all seriousness, I really don’t care.
Zach and I watched The Simpsons, filled up on Jäger, and pretended not to hear the occasional moaning and knocking coming from Tara’s room. We slowly became drunker and more sideways, until we were somehow lying cheek-to-cheek on the couch, both facing the TV.
“You think that’s funny?” Zach whispered feeling my smile against his face, a reaction to some reference Lisa Simpson made about Disney’s California Adventure.
“Yeah,” I said, pretending to be short of breath for some reason.
“You’re wonderful,” he said. I smiled again, somewhat suspicious of the similarity to Ryan description of me as ‘a wonder.’ I imagined Tara choreographing my entire love life, choosing the people who I would have my first sexual experiences with, telling them what to say. Maybe she was working her way towards some massive punchline that more or less plagiarized the movie She’s All That with something like “Oh, you thought you were actually cool? Oh, you thought people liked you?”
“Stay right there,” he said, getting up and moving the coffee table away from the couch, “Now hang your head over the edge. I want to kiss you upside-down.”
Zach and I kissed a little and then continued watching TV. I tried to dismiss my paranoid thoughts about Tara, which only had to do, I tried to tell myself, with the unbalanced nature of our friendship. She had control over my social life because I was unable to coordinate one for myself, not because she was some kind of mastermind scheming to fuck me over. Zach had kissed me because he liked me and was attracted to me. He had called me wonderful because he saw that I was different from everybody else, different from Tara, and was amazed by that. I had to learn, I thought, to accept the good things that came my way, instead of overanalyzing them until they disappeared.
“I like you, Zach,” I said.
“I like you, too.”
On Sunday before church began, Tara and I whispered to each other about the other arriving church members.
“Can you believe the world’s greatest lover is here?” I said, gesturing to a unshaved, dehydrated looking man with an oversized white t-shirt that read “World’s Greatest Lover” in a cartoon font on both the front and the back.
“Oh my god, we’re so close. We have to try to talk to him,” Tara said.
“We should give him some privacy. I’m sure he gets harassed by girls like us all the time.”
“I’m pretty sure he wants the attention if he’s wearing a giant fucking t-shirt advertising his talents.”
The world’s greatest lover stood up to make an announcement about the need for volunteers for the upcoming pot luck, and we both lost it.
“Be respectful,” Tara’s grandma said, trying to shush our laughter.
“Why don’t you tell Chelsea,” Tara said.
* * *
The next Monday before school, Tara found me in the courtyard and told me that Zach had given her a letter that morning explaining that he was in love with her. She told me she felt sad for Zach, and guilty that she had to let him down. I didn’t ask to see the letter, for fear of exposing the vanity that made me doubt, at least partially, the existence of such a letter.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “I know how much you like him.”
“It’s not your fault,” I said.
Later in English class, Tyler turned to me and whispered, “Wanna screw?”
He held his hand out to me, revealing a single flat-head screw. I don’t know. It was dopey and perverted but there was something sweet about it. Normally at this point I would have turned to Zach, made some kind of facial expressions or gesture to indicate that Tyler lacked intelligence and grace.
“Yeah,” I said. I took the screw from Tyler and stuffed it into my pocket. “I appreciate it.”
I could see from a sideways glance that Zach was not looking at me.
* * *
After school, Tara and I had to kill a few hours before Goth Ryan and Tara’s boyfriend could hang out with us, so we walked to Tara’s cousin’s house down some dirt road a couple miles away from the main part of town, a part of town that I should have known the name of because I grew up there, but that I didn’t know because that was not the kind of information I tended to keep in my brain. I simply allowed myself to be taken places with no actionable plan for how to get myself to a phone or familiar part of town if I needed to.
Tara’s cousin wasn’t home, so, with nowhere else to go, we approached two adult men drinking beer on a nearby porch, one who was shirtless.
“Hey, what’s up?” Tara said.
“Just drinking beers, too hot to do much,” the shirtless man said, “You’re welcome to join us.”
We entered the house and used their phone to call Tara’s boyfriend and Goth Ryan, to tell them to meet us at this stranger’s house.
I briefly wondered if Zach lived in that neighborhood. I didn’t know where he lived, so every strange place I was seemed like an opportunity to run into him.
The house was hot and stale, cigarettes burning in every single person’s hand, but we got drunk and oblivious very quickly. We played some kind of drinking card game with the two men who had invited us in and two other men who were there. The men stared at us, and Tara and I teased and flirted with each other, knowing how cute we must look in their eyes, what a spectacle we were. We hugged and rested our heads on each others shoulders and forced shots down each other’s throats. We took shots between turns, on other people’s turns, and well after the game was over.
It started getting dark, and Goth Ryan and Tara’s boyfriend still hadn’t showed up yet. We didn’t have a plan for getting home, and we were way too drunk to start planning something now. The men continued to stare at us while discussed what else we might do if the guys didn’t show up, and I turned around so that I couldn’t see them watching us.
I wish I could tell you that I had some deep emotional scarring or some perverse desire to be hurt that caused me to be this reckless, because at least there would be some form of logic to these actions. I wish, even, that I could tell you that I was just a stupid fifteen-year-old and simply didn’t see the problem with getting raging drunk in a strange house with four adult men who I had never met before, in a part of town I would not have been able to find myself out of, with a girl considerably more reckless than I was. But I wasn’t stupid. I knew what could happen to me and I just didn’t seem to give a shit.
“Ryan has a Prince Albert,” Tara whispered into my ear, hugging me from behind.
“What does that mean?” I said. I tried to nudge her away from me slightly. I didn’t feel like flirting with her anymore.
“A dick piercing. It’s hot.”
“Okay. Very cool,” I said. Tara kissed my neck and I suddenly became aware that, with three strange men staring at us (the fourth was passed out in a plastic chair) at 1am in a part of town I didn’t know, I didn’t feel like a cute spectacle so much as I felt like a future victim.
“Please don’t kiss me,” I whispered, not wanting to embarrass her (not because I was a nice person but because I was afraid of her retaliation). Then, drunkenly realizing that I shouldn’t have to tiptoe around her like that just to potentially avoid one of her emotional breakdowns, I said more loudly (but still not very loud), “Get off of me,” and scrunched my shoulders around to make hugging me more difficult for her.
Tara and I would only hang out like this for a couple more months. We were both becoming sick of each other’s shit, and sick of the strategic workarounds we had developed to minimize having to deal with each other’s shit, or sick of seeing who we would pretend to be in order to appease one another. I was sick, for example, of trying to make myself appear emotional when she was crying just so she would trust me enough to tell me what it was she was crying about, which was often a disappointing reason. And I was sick of maintaining a consistent level of shyness just to avoid upsetting her or upstaging her in any way.
“You’re such a fucking bitch,” she said, “You’re such a fucking pussy little bitch. Hit me. I know you want to you fucking stupid bitch.”
“Shut up,” I said. I had some real zingers back then.
“Just hit me, you stupid slut. I want you to. I won’t hit you back. I want you to hit me you fucking stupid pussy.”
She was making it sound pretty good. I slapped her on the cheek.
“You fucking bitch, I can’t believe you did that,” she said, and slapped me back. Blood immediately started pouring from my nose onto my clothes and the carpet we were standing on. To be fair, she didn’t hit me that hard. I’ve always been prone to getting bloody noses.
“You need to call your mom,” Tara said almost immediately, as a joke I guessed, but who could really know with her?
I pinched my nose hard, walked to the bathroom and stuck my face under the sink faucet. I knew that there were certain things you could do to get a bloody nose to stop bleeding, but I didn’t do any of them. I just let water run over my nose, washing some of the blood down the drain but mostly just diluting it and spreading it all over my face and splashing it all over the sink.
“Chelsea,” a male voice said, entering the bathroom. I imagined that Zach had seen me and Tara fighting in the backyard somehow. Maybe he lived around here after all. Maybe had come to rescue me, explain to me that the note he gave to Tara had been misinterpreted, or that she had made it up, and tell me again that I was wonderful. We would walk off into the sunset and I would touch his penis, miraculously knowing what to do this time, and he would like it.
I could hear the familiar din of Tara fighting with her boyfriend somewhere else in the house.
“I’m sorry we’re so late,” the voice said. I felt that I was being hugged from behind, saw pale, claw-like hands with black fingernail polish wrapping around my waist.
“It’s okay,” I said, and intentionally blew out the blood clot that was beginning to slow the flow of my bloody nose. I wanted my nose to keep bleeding. I wanted to garner attention. I wanted Goth Ryan to see what I let Tara do to me.
I watched the blood drip onto the ceramic sink, splattering into dozens of tinier droplets and then recollecting to form lines that emptied into the drain. I considered stopping the drain so I could see how much blood I was losing.
“I want you to be my girlfriend,” he said, making no indication of whether he approved or disapproved of the blood pouring out of my skull.
I looked up at myself in the mirror, Goth Ryan still holding my waist. I made a face at my reflection that I had seen cartoon characters make to indicate a resignation to something unpleasant they knew would happen; eyelids half closed, making direct eye contact with the camera, lips pursed.
“Yeah, great,” I said, still looking at my reflection, “That would be perfect.”
But my sarcasm sounded false and cloying. I knew I wasn’t the victim I wanted to believe I was. I knew that I was letting my nose continue to bleed. I was not making any effort to stop it.