Written by Caitlin Andrews
Art by Victor He
I was walking home from school in the mid-autumn evening (and this was in rural Scotland, so it was already pitch black with the ever-present risk of a vampiric bat attack) when a cluster of disorderly adolescent boys wearing Adidas tracksuits and Fred Perry trainers rounded the corner and started shouting sexual profanities at me. At first, I elected to ignore them; eleven-year-old me was objectively a bit shit-looking, and even at that age, I figured any kind of male attention was a misguided attempt at a compliment, so I held strong in my belief that this exchange was actually targeted towards whatever rogue Heidi Klum-type was wandering behind me and decided to try and make it home without further incident. No such luck.
As I kept my eyes firmly fixated on the stone wall in the distance and attempted, very subtly, to yank down the hem of my school uniform’s kilt in case their badgering was prompted by a pair of unintentionally displayed Primark underpants, my refusal to engage began to antagonise them. They wanted a response. They wanted to be entertained. So, they started screaming about the girls in my year—if I knew Christie Balfour, if I could get a message to Ella Arbroath, and if it was really true what Jen McKenzie did with that boy in the year above over the summer holidays. As their words became sharper and more littered with lecherous hand gestures (you know the ones, where their fingers make O-shapes and jerking motions about six inches from their trousers, as though they were the first hominids to ever grow penises), I felt a lump begin to rise in my throat. Home was less than three minutes away, but the concrete slabs of pavement were beginning to blend together, and I felt my feet become slack and sluggish, like those childhood nightmares of being chased by clowns, and, latterly, adulthood nightmares of being chased by rapists and dental practitioners.
Whatever happened, I wasn’t going to tell my mother. I had already decided that. But I hadn’t decided what I would do if things went really wrong; if it all took a turn for the worse; if the headlines read: “Local girl, 11, gang-raped in central Perthshire. Was reportedly wearing terrible underpants. Parents in shock.” I simply didn’t have the guts to tell my mother the truth—or worse yet, to repeat their crude, verbally incontinent words to my father, which would alert him to the inconvenient fact that I had a vagina—and watch the lines between her brows deepen in anger and fear, before quickly concealing a guilty feminist rumination about what it meant to be forty and not have disorderly teenage boys shout sexual profanities at you anymore.
After a few moments of trying to ignore the boys’ derisive snorts over my shoulder, I heard a large thunk as an Adidas-clad adolescent boy stepped off the pavement. My increasingly gelatinous legs refused to let me turn around and look him in the eye for fear of violent retribution, but I felt my cheeks begin to burn with shame as he offered up the final dose of propellant for my humiliation.
“Nice ass,” he said. “Can I fuck it?”
When I was fifteen, I had been dating my first proper “grown-up” boyfriend for a little less than a month; a tryst that mainly involved driving out to the arable farms outside Crieff late at night in hopes of lying around partially naked in his silver Toyota hatchback and watching cerebral French animations from the seventies—half of which I couldn’t fully comprehend and the other half emotionally undercut by the stabbing pain from a wayward seat belt buckle. His name was Telly, a twenty-four-year-old aspiring screenwriter from the Central Belt, who blew thick, edible clouds of fruity vapour into the air and deemed the habit so much healthier than smoking cigarettes, in spite of his weekend proclivities for taking ecstasy and cocaine and roaming around the capital like Raoul Duke without the sunglasses. Our moments together were limited, which really just meant I didn’t have time to analyse what the hell was going on.
After an evening spent trying to teach me how best to improve my sexual performance and the respective virtues of veganism, Harmony Korine, and Neutral Milk Hotel, my boyfriend revealed he had an announcement to make.
“I’m sleeping with a woman who sculpts,” he yawned. “She’s in love with me.”
Telly was clever, bonily handsome (in a way that rejected the need for conventional charisma), and had a surplus of creative talent that was only mildly polluted by a lifetime of women telling him he was too pretty for his own good. Even my mother, a woman known for her shrewdness in adopting manual skills and picking partners with strong hands, fell prey to his impish charms on the night he first darkened our front door. She thought he was handsome; he thought she was beautiful; I tried not to think of it at all.
“When did that start?” I asked Telly, coughing a little from the vapour, and trying to dissuade myself from engaging in thoughts of my mother whilst semi-naked.
“A few weeks ago,” he replied cavalierly before pausing. “We used a condom.”
If it hadn’t been for the sweet, boyish bagginess of his jumper or my own internal anguish at the premise of committing to a man whose mandatory “older guy” sex advice amounted to “Enjoy it more,” I might have considered plunging that little purple vape into his eye, but as it stood, I just refocused my attention on the Current Joys song playing over the stereo. After all, my own nights spent in the company of a man named Frank meant I wasn’t in a position to protest.
Frank was an unapologetically boorish person who had been provided with the same nepotistic luxuries as a man like Telly but abandoned them in favour of some kind of middling office job, which meant he thought that access to a company car and a few anecdotal conquests about sleeping with the sisters of previously dismissive ex-girlfriends were the pièce de résistance of tantalising sexual conversation. Occasionally, we played pool (I, to a shitty proficiency, him to a level only accessible amongst men who sweat Guinness and live in pubs), drank lemonade, had semi-public sex, and more often than not, ignored one another in favour of people-watching or staring at our mobile phones. I never had the time to get comfortable with Frank—our interactions were always shrouded by my desire to spend as much time as possible away from my parents’ house, and I went home most nights gagging for a shower.
“I believe you,” I said, after returning my attention to Telly, my brain bouncing around this half-hearted and heavily-penised betrayal and the newly increased likelihood of having HSV-2. “I’ve been seeing someone, too.”
He looked at me, and the saccharine puffing stopped.
“What?” he said, coldly, and we both heard my voice begin to falter.
“His name’s John. He has a beard.”
Telly stared at me quizzically, and for a few moments, there was silence in the car. He took a deep breath.
“You know what, Cait? I really think you might be a sociopath.”
By the time I was sixteen, I spent my weekends reading obituaries and drinking anything I could get my hands on (bordering on Mr. Muscle Drain Cleaner). After telling my mother I was taking a train to visit my ex-boyfriend at his parents’ house in Portlethen, I agreed to meet with Richard, a man who was a full-time repeat traveller of the North Coast 500 and a part-time dabbler in orthodontics. If Richard had ever taken an interest in the music of Robert Smith or Dave Gahan instead of Def Leppard and Twisted Sister (or any of the other shit he kept on cassette tapes in the back of his car), he might have stumbled across my mother at an alternative gig in the eighties, though she was unlikely to have wanted to Pour Some Sugar on Him due to his already receding hairline and eventual middle-aged propensity for dating teenage girls.
The night we met, Richard drove us thirty miles out of our way to the McDonald’s restaurant situated right next to the Broxden Roundabout—a location I remembered due to it being where a friend and I bought celebratory McFlurries upon completion of our second year at senior school. He asked me if I wanted anything from the menu, and I shook my head before watching him grab his big brown paper bag from the young, colourfully-haired girl at the drive-thru and set off in awkwardly conversational silence.
“So, why are you here?” I asked once we had arrived at an unoccupied car park, much like the stilted script of an underpaid counsellor who was probably committing at least six ethical violations.
“I don’t know,” he replied. “I hadn’t really thought about it. I guess this is just the kind of thing getting divorced does to you.”
Those words might’ve seemed poetic if they hadn’t been delivered whilst three fingers deep in a Quarter Pounder with Cheese, or if I hadn’t already gleaned from Facebook that his divorce was a borderline prehistoric occurrence.
“Do you think I’m young?” I asked, suddenly reminded of my terrible adolescent clothes, choppy red fringe, and inability to form a sentence that didn’t contain less than a mouthful’s worth of filler words or anatomical cusses.
“You don’t seem young,” he replied. “And I think that’s good enough for most people.”
I brushed the hair out of my face. Once Richard had finished wiping the thick globs of ketchup off his chin, I felt him insert his tongue into my mouth and push down hard on a contraption attached to the back of my chair, as if to relocate us to the cassette-tape-laden backseat in a manner only explicable by the existence of a James Bond ejector chair. Softly, he muttered something to himself about my “hot little sixteen-year-old body,” and the world faded out into a clumsy abyss wherein I concentrated my eyes on a piece of dirt rubbing shoulders with the fog on the backseat window. When it was all over, everything was silent.
“Sorry about that. I’d have emptied the tank earlier, but I didn’t have time after work. What’s wrong?” he asked, staring out into the darkness.
“I’m not sure. Do you feel guilty?”
He took a breath.
“No. Do you feel like a victim?”
I shook my head no, and he smiled.
“So we’re fine.”
Later on, during the drive home, I thought about what the “Local Girl” news headlines would say this time, but I relegated that thought to the place in my mind where I hid the smell of blackcurrant vapes and the feeling of Primark underpants and the buried desire I had for the pain to last forever, even if it meant following it wherever it took me. When we arrived, Richard wrapped me up in his arms.
“I’ll see you soon,” he said quietly, kissing me on the cheek.
When did you see me the first time? When did anybody see me the first time? I thought as he opened the car door and put his key in the ignition. But by the time the words came out in the order I intended them, he was already gone.