By Scout Kelly
I never had a first time. If you ask me, I lie about it.
Right now, I’d tell you something like: I was 15. Because, I think that’s the closest thing to acceptable truth. What I would not say is: I never had a first time.
It’s been 10 years since the story I tell about my first time happened. I was 15, at a frat party, with my older sister’s friends, and we were very drunk on coconut rum. There were three of us, and we locked ourselves in the bathroom and filled ourselves up with the sweet liquor until we were red and giggling, nervous but acting like we weren’t. When you are young like this, the whole world revolves around your naivety.
We made conversation with the college boys. I thought none was attractive, except for one who wouldn’t make eye contact with me because he knew I was too young to be there. He tried to catch me in my lie by asking me what my GPA was. I remember looking directly at his face and telling him it was none of his business. I was there to be dangerous, volatile; I did not plan on convincing him I was a smart liar. Later, there was a basement with a disco ball where people were dancing.
With a belly full, I found red paint and dipped my hand in and wrote my underaged name and phone number on the wall with my red, dripping fingers. My friend hooked up with her crush in a closet, and she told us the story, which ended up being very uncomfortable, and none of us wanted to hear it again, and I’m pretty sure she didn’t want to tell it. Mine is a good story if I tell it right; if I told you, you’d laugh, and you’d think that I was just like you or maybe one of your friends.
In the story, the boy who I make out with on the couch, who was significantly older than me, did not feign shock and listen to his friend say, “Dude, she’s barely 16.” The story makes me seem like I was 15 and excited about the world around me and maybe promiscuous and too brave, like any 15-year-old girl who got breasts before her classmates. It’s a good story, but it isn’t the truth. The truth is hollow-boned. If you thump it, it echoes.
Later that night, I demanded to leave the party, and someone dropped me off at my older sister’s boyfriend’s parents’ house at 2 a.m., and I passed out in their hallway. I have no memory of who drove the car.
Most songbirds are born altricial, meaning they’re born blind, naked, and, for the most part, unable to move. The two parent birds are charged with keeping them warm and fed. The parents push the tiny bodies until they react, so their muscles will develop properly. The tiny, new birds are mostly just mounds of flesh. Predators — like raccoons, owls, opossums, and snakes — know this. Predator know prey when they see it. Some birds, when they spot a predator approaching their nest, use their bodies as bait, flailing on the ground and dragging a wing as if it were helpless. The actor lets the predator chase it until it’s a safe distance from the nest, and then takes off in flight.
Imagine your father seeing a predator approaching and throwing his body between you and the on-coming talons or teeth. The problem with not being a bird is that the predator doesn’t look any different from you. The predator doesn’t have gnashing teeth or a looming wingspan; the predator wears a Sunday morning pantsuit. The predator wears a sweater that smells so comforting you wish you could fall asleep on it and maybe you did. The predator is in the family and feeds you, buys you Christmas presents, and does the crosswords every Sunday morning after church. The predator has reading glasses, and goes to the hairdresser every other week to get her hair colored and curled.
In reality, your parent birds don’t stretch out their wings and beat them and cry loudly to frighten away assailants. Your parent birds leave the nest to go to work, to go to church, or to go to the grocery store. Your parent birds are confused, and don’t know how to feed you. They don’t even know how to see the predators surely coming for them and the nest. The parent birds are tired, depressed, and don’t want to deal with it. Your parent birds ask you not to cry, not to talk, not to make things difficult, because they are difficult enough already.
I don’t remember being younger than 10 years old. No matter how many times I try to rebuild the bricks of memory, they crumble. Because my memory doesn’t go that far back. It doesn’t stay clear; it doesn’t want to. It fogs in my adult brain. But what I do remember is smelling like grass. I remember hardly ever wearing shoes in the Tennessee summers. I remember the smell of litters of puppies my grandfather raised, the sweet breath of baby beagles that would eventually be trained to hunt down rabbits and raccoons and then sold for hundreds of dollars. Did I smell like grass and dog food the whole time?
So many things are easy to remember, so many feelings and smells: the stick of cobwebs on the aluminum boat I tried to sink. I floated inside of it just beyond the dock in the pond where we caught catfish after catfish, bluegill after bluegill. I still know the smell of the dry dog food we threw out to the giant catfish, watching them skim their huge mouths across the surface to pick up the bait.
But no, I do not remember the first time. Should I? What good would it do me to put an old skeleton back together, just so it can watch me in my room? When the whole history of the body is finally connected, is it not still just a dead bird like the ones I find when I go walking in the morning, lying gracefully on the sidewalk?
I know I went to the Dairy Bar afterward a few times; I sat in the sun with an ice cream cone in my hand. I know that if there is a first time it has long since been retired in the minds of everyone involved and its echoes are muffled in the heads of each contender. I know that I was a child who was fed and housed; I know that I made it out alive, a white child in the rural South. I was protected enough to forget.
I remember her saying, “Do you have trouble sleeping? I know how to help make you sleepy.” But I’m uncertain as to how concrete this memory is. Was it a dream? A memory created to sum up the years spent in the dark, a way to culminate the experiences and make use out of them?
There was a blue room, with blue sheets, and a blue quilt, and glass figurines. It was the guest room in my grandfather’s house where he lived with my step-grandmother, whom we called Granny before we understood that she had no relation to our blood.
My step-grandmother who bathed me twice a day when I stayed with them. She often slept in bed with me in the blue room. Everything in the blue room seemed like a nightmare. Every strange rule she had was unbreakable: Leave Your Shoes at the Door, Don’t Touch the Trophies, the Figurines Are Not Toys, Take Your Clothes Off at the Door and Shower After Being in the Woods, etc. It was my step-grandmother who told me while I was in the bathtub, “You’re going to grow up to be a lesbian.”
Every time I went to Parsons, Tennessee, I left with a few ticks on my skin, sucking my blood.
One night, my mother is bathing me. I ask her what the word “lesbian” means, and she stops in her tracks and asks me where I heard that word. I tell her that Granny told me I’d be one when I grow up. She tells me “no, no,” I misheard her, and I say “no, no,” I didn’t, and I’m not sure why she thinks I did. Our small argument heightens suddenly, and she throws the washcloth in the bathwater, splashing like a heavy rock in a pond, and begins to cry and grit her teeth.
Through her clenched teeth, she pushes out the words, “Stay here,” surprisingly loud. I sit in the dirty bath water, which is beginning to cool around me. I know she is angry, and I think it’s with me. She is so angry, I hear her beating her wings in the other room. But I don’t know where the predator is. I have a feeling in my gut that I have become the predator. That my mother’s wings beat at me. That was the last we ever talked about it.
Years later, at my younger brother’s high school graduation. My step-grandmother arrives in a yellow pantsuit, and my father comments that she looks lovely. She says I’m still her special girl. My father asks what she means in a way that makes me think he is asking a question that no one will answer, that I’m not allowed to answer. The question has wings, and it flies away between our faces and runs its body straight into the glass of the window, again and again, beating itself eternally while it watches the world outside.
I know that as I got older, I had an anger no one could place. Even at 7 years old, I remember my older sister hiding from me in our small, three-bedroom house with ugly carpet. I was the kid in the neighborhood who took a baseball bat to the swing set. I broke a broom over my leg, and not even my mother understood how I managed to snap its aluminum handle. She looked at me without understanding; it is a repeating image, often mirrored between the two of us. This language we both recognize but can’t speak.
Maybe, in a family of swallows, I grew up more like a mockingbird, managing to communicate in the same noises, but growing terrible in my territory.
Some birds are known as “accidental species,” sometimes referred to as “escapees.” These birds most likely bred in captivity and somehow made their way into the wild, mating with similar species, creating odd, new categories. The pink-footed goose, native to Iceland, has been found on the Atlantic coast of North America, lost. It’s speculated that it was brought to America to be studied, and escaped and copulated, learning to exist outside of its home. Do you think it knows something is amiss? Do you think it’s unhappy with the temperature?
As long as I can remember, I’ve been unhappy with the temperature. “Grumpy” is what my parents would say. My mother told me in the kitchen when I was 15 that I always saw the worst in things and would need to toughen up. She saw marks on my arms she didn’t like, scars that made me seem messed up, and she yelled, “Do you think I’m stupid?”
And I still am not sure what she meant by that, what any of it had to do with her being stupid. I’m not sure what it means when your parents beat their wings at you suddenly. At that moment in her kitchen, I didn’t know if she was the accidental species, the escapee, or if she thought I was. She suddenly stopped beating her wings, though, and suddenly started telling me that I had seen too much. I already had two dead friends, and she told me that was why I was upset. It seemed as though she was very upset. I mostly said nothing while she went through a monologue, which lasted an immeasurable amount of time. At one point she held my wrists, and at another, she waved her arms. I said mostly nothing.
I learned that if I could not hurt my own body, other bodies could hurt mine for me.
I have a defense mechanism where I become very still and wait. No bird plays dead as well as I do.
And then I wake up angry. I take a baseball bat to the swing set in the backyard. I never knew why; I never had what my parents called “a good reason.” There was nothing that happened, just a snapping sound in my head, a twig of self that broke suddenly.
When the twig breaks now, I try to go running. I try to manage the breakage, to redirect the air pressure.
I still remember the clock in my grandparents’ house. Instead of numbers, each hour was represented by a bird. I can still see where the cardinal stands. Each new hour, a bird sang, a different bird every hour. I heard every bird in the nights I spent there, one by one. Now, I know there are reasons for bird songs, usually to warn the flock of impending danger, to mate, or to locate the flock during migration. Sometimes, they sing when a storm is coming.
I stopped sleeping when I was 15.
Baby birds almost always fall out of their nests before they know how to fly. Their primary feathers aren’t even fully developed. The only way they can avoid predators on the ground is by running. The problem is, they aren’t always very fast, and if they are, it’s easy for them to lose their parents, who are still in charge of feeding them. Their chances of survival depend on the bravado of the parents.
I started having nightmares when I was 15; I mean real nightmares, the kind where you see things, and you’re paralyzed, like panic attacks at night.
I used to dream that a man in a black cloak flew over me around my room, from corner to corner. Not watching over me, but watching me.
When you stop sleeping, you live in a haze. You are in the atmosphere, but never close enough to the ground to walk. The daytime is a fog that floats across your timeline. When I was 18, and in college, I started talking out loud in an anthropology lecture, saying something about groceries and my bank account. It took almost every student in the room turning around to look at me before I figured out I was the one talking. I had no idea that words were coming out of my mouth.
I hadn’t slept in three nights, and I had been drinking coffee every five hours for those three days. Probably sucking down cheap Pall Malls to keep me awake at night, playing hymns on my guitar for the drunk boy who lived in the dorm room beneath mine, who also stayed awake at night. Sometimes, I would start seeing things during the daytime, and then I’d know that I had to sleep, and I would go and get Nyquil and drink enough to put me to sleep. This became a necessary habit. When I visited home, my mother was concerned that I kept a bottle of cough syrup by my bed. She tried to help by getting things like melatonin and more natural cures. She still gives me lavender every time I come home and worries that maybe my mattress is too hard. I tell her it’s okay and I couldn’t love her more for these gestures. I know she is trying.
When I was 19, I saw a therapist for insomnia, and she suggested I had trouble sleeping at night because that’s when I experienced trauma as a child. I was doing everything I could to become an owl in my nighttime, for my eyes to become night-proofed and have my senses heightened so I’d know if anything moved; I’d be able to hear any twig breaking.
Even if I sleep, sometimes the fog is still thick.
I hate to admit that I’ve gotten into two car wrecks because I fogged over and forgot where I was and what I was doing. I forgot to put my foot on the brake and slow down.
My ex-girlfriend, whom I wanted to be able to love wholly, I followed across the country. We lived together in East Tennessee when I was 23, and we moved to New Mexico together until I was about to turn 25. She used to pull me back into the bed at night because I would fling my body toward, or maybe away from, things I saw in the room when I was half asleep. On the night after the Fourth of July, someone set off a firework in our cul-de-sac, and I shot out of the covers and pushed her underneath the bed and told her not to move. I grabbed my shotgun and hurried her into the bathroom, covering her with my body the whole time. She finally turned to me and said, “That was a firework. It’s okay. No one is coming for us.” We had to stay in the bathroom until I calmed down enough to know she was right. We went back to bed, and I covered my head with the covers to drown out the sounds.
Eventually, her body slowly began to take mine over. I begged for it to happen and then it started happening. I learned how to dissolve myself against her. Eventually, she asked me questions; she noticed the bad thing in me flowing over into our bed like blood. I did the best I could during the day. I packed lunches; I took care of the yard. When you are sharing your body with someone, it whispers a language for you without you even knowing it; every time you close your eyes and hold someone closer to you, your body tells a truth you try to hide.
Every flinch or uncomfortable pause or the futile pursuit of a climax that isn’t going to happen talks to your partner. They pretend for a while they don’t see it, but eventually, they speak up because they have to, because, if you are lucky, they love you. She said, “You look terrified when we’re fucking, but you keep asking me to.” I was always cold afterward, and she was always worried. I didn’t understand it either. I did not know how to explain to her that I don’t know how to love her without leaving my body like I’m handing it over to her. I’m terrified of something inside of my body, of my body, of both its teeth and its helplessness.
Sometimes, I would walk the trails in the desert behind our house. I always wanted to go alone, and she got into the habit of asking “if it was okay” for her to come along with me. I became so distant and glassy eyed that she felt she needed permission to approach. The longer you love someone, the barer you become, and you can feel every inch of yourself being seen.
We sat on a mountainside after a hike at sunset, and she asked me if I was trans. She did not know what the chasm inside of me was, but she could hear the echo. I said, no, I doubted it, but I’m not sure, can anyone ever really be sure? I let us talk about gender as if it were the key to our issues. I talked about my body in a diagram. I saw it lift some anxiety from her, so I let it. I did not say: My body is a zero; it doesn’t strive to be anything other than zero.
I started scheming, planning to take off like a roadrunner, the mascot of New Mexico, sprinting through dry brush and rocks. They have been known to run up to 30 miles per hour; one of the fastest birds on the ground. I did not know where I was going. I only knew I needed to move hard and fast.
At the end of our relationship she said, Sometimes, it’s like you’re not even here.
In the New Mexico morning, quail would gather in our backyard. Their hatchlings rolled behind them like tiny, feathered marbles. When quail travel, one parent leads, the baby birds follow in a line, and the other parent is at the end of the line, guiding them toward food, water, and shelter.
If you have never had a first time, you don’t know how to count. It’s as if zero never existed. There’s no way to measure your body’s past, which takes away the conventional understanding of the present. Nothing counts.
There is no here sometimes. Something inside of me has flown away and will come back when the twigs stop breaking when the nest is good and quiet.
Now, I practice mindfulness.
I try to sleep. I pay attention and put my foot on the brake and slow down. Time still blurs. And I wear a certain fake courage when I go to the gay bar and talk to women. I make them think I am there.
When I go home to my parents’ house, the nest I fell out of and then took off running, I notice my old bedroom is blue, the quilt on my bed is blue, my sheets are blue. How many years did I stay awake in that room? How many times did I open and close that bedroom window to sneak out into the night? I notice that my mother is so much like her father. He too said nothing. He said so much nothing that lines grew into his face before the cancer grew in his belly.
My parents who say nothing; who have never said this has happened to you because how then could they keep track of my body? Like me, who has said nothing, who never got to say this has happened. And so, the body waits to begin counting. The body remains altricial. My childhood home is nestled in the woods of West Tennessee. There are bird feeders all around; if you watch out the windows in the morning with your coffee, you see cardinals, mockingbirds, robins, and even an occasional hawk or barn owl. They pick at the garden and the wild blackberries. The hummingbirds fly forward and backward, and levitate at the honeysuckle.
I’ve been with one person since my almost-fiancée. It was brief. She asked me playfully to tell her about when I lost “my virginity.” I told her virginity was made-up, a colloquialism for some experience that everyone has had and that shouldn’t be interesting. She pressed me, and I said, “I was 15.”
I got drunk once here in Memphis, on Beale Street, and took off walking on my own and called the girl who I would not let walk with me in the desert. I asked her where she was, what street she was driving down. She told me she was with someone else, and she has less anxiety now. I said that was good, but I was yelling and then I had to say that I was sorry for yelling.
A few months ago, I was at the plant nursery where I work and cut down gourds that were growing on a fence along the property. I hung them up to dry in the walkway to my apartment. This morning, when I check on them, they are brown and dry. Soon, when I shake them and hear the rattle of seeds, I will take them down and rub them with bleach like my grandfather used to do. I will clean the dried gourds, paint them, and cut a hole in them to hang in the trees, where birds will nest next season.