The October I am sixteen I tiptoe out of my mom’s small pink kitchen and meet a smiling, middle-aged man in a park, only a broken swing and some crushed beer cans between us, his teeth gleaming in the thick starless night. He shows me a motel key that I trace with my index finger, gently caressing his rough palm, and we don’t talk but he kisses me deeply with his bold, whiskey-soaked tongue.
I eat pretzels and read poetry for many days in the motel room and wait for him to come. One night it’s after eleven and I am still alone. I sit naked in the corroded greenish-blue tub and feel my mind shatter and explode and the leftover particles get pulled into the ice machine outside my door.
On Halloween the Amish man at the front desk calls and says the bill has not been paid for several days, and I say there must be a mistake. Of course, he says snidely, then barks that he will stop by to correct it. Before leaving, I take the candy I got from the vending machine for Halloween and leave it outside the room of two Pakistani sisters who run around the hallway in Disney princess costumes and sing Adele songs all day long.
I ride the bus with change collected from a public fountain and get off near the middle-aged man’s street, gripping a torn piece of envelope with smudged numbers and words. When I get to his house, there is a woman with tattoos on her slender arms seated on the porch, smoking a cigarette and crying as she talks on her flip phone. When she goes inside, I look through the large living room window and there are plastic toy trucks all over the carpet and a large portrait of an unsmiling little boy above an electric fireplace. My thoughts spin like pinwheels in a storm, and I vomit on a patch of daisies.
Later I wash my face in an IHOP restroom and use the last of my change to call the middle-aged man from a pay phone. A computer voice says the number is no longer in service; it bellows in my ear like a wounded animal, somewhere faraway and unknown.
I sit at a table and tell the lanky busboy with bad acne that I have no money and he looks at me the way my mother looks at sick, emaciated kids in television commercials.
After a while he brings me coffee and rifles through the pockets of his smock and gives me an opened pack of cigarettes—at least eight smokes left. He leaves and eventually comes back with a heaping pile of syrupy pancakes that I try but fail to eat.
A fraternity boy with a crew cut and a Camaro says I can go with him as the lanky busboy keeps wiping down an empty table beside me; then he watches us go out into the crisp bright day, where the sky is clear and soft with rhythmic angles and I am less dizzy than the day before.
The fraternity boy takes me to his off-campus apartment and says, sit on my lap, and I look at piles of books in the corner and feel like maybe this is good, maybe something amazing will happen.
I know something is happening when his hand travels up my thigh and spots of sun color the grainy wood floor and the only thing I can feel is his tongue jamming my ear.
But it’s hard to tell because I’m tired from hunger and lack of sleep and the scotch we drink straight from the bottle and all I want is something like love.
The trouble with sitting on a strange fraternity boy is that it shrivels your soul, like how eating only pretzels for weeks shrivels your stomach, and when you are actually offered something real, there’s nowhere to put it.