Did you imagine your past selves were safely dug away underground, remaindered as clickety white bones? They’re not. They have not been cast from you into the shoreline wind, a handful of lumpy ash. No. They’re still here with you, all your incarnations, nested inside your skin. Or maybe not nested as much as lined up in size order, like pantry crocks holding ingredients of escalating significance: tea, cornmeal, sugar, flicker, flame. Lift the lid and breathe in. Remember that? Now your hair is on fire.
When I first liked boys, I was not a person who maneuvered a Subaru station wagon through the Target parking lot in pursuit of wrapping paper and SPF 50. I did not have gray nipple hairs and a falling-out vagina and forehead wrinkles like a map of my irritation about the crusting blobs of toothpaste in the sink. I did not drink too much beer and then pee a little into my flannel pajamas from laughing so hard about the cat falling off the bed. No. I was just a regular young person. Regularish, at least. Maybe irregular, but still. It was sixth grade, and I had a flat chest, red-white-and-blue Pro-Keds sneakers, and shiny hair clipped back with whale barrettes because I was not allowed to cut it into a Farrah Fawcett flip. I read a lot of Joan Aiken books and finger-knitted a rug for my dollhouse while watching Little House on the Prairie. But I also thought some about Mark Jupiter. I wanted to hold his hand when “Rock with You” came over the PA system at the roller rink, my skate wheels as glittering as electricity itself. On the last day of school, I sent a roll of film to the lab and waited two weeks to see his dimples again, blurrier than I remembered.
Afterwards it was seventh grade, and I dated short, shaggy Jono Gallin for exactly the length of time it took us to sit together at a bar mitzvah disco party, his braces so thick and close that I could practically taste the glinty metallic thrill of them. In eighth grade, I liked the boy in my math class who had peeling eczema on his knuckles and who brushed his curly hair into a giant straw-bale afro. I liked the smart boy in my science class who wore wire-rim glasses, who passed me a note that said, “I like you too,” blushed a deep purple, and much later, went to Yale. Boys, boys, boys.
Crush blueprinting. You don’t think of it until your own kid is suddenly in middle school. When his pimply metal-mouthed friends cluster in your house, you are reminded of—filled anew with—puppy love. At a sleepover party when they were 13, these raggedy boys laughed all night about crotches. I listened to their deep-and-cracking ho-ho-hos reverberate up the stairwell, and smiled. This was the Beavis and Butthead age. This was the age of faces that looked like inexpertly glued collages of salvaged parts, faces that looked like patchwork quilts of ears, eyes, cheeks. These were the faces of Frankenstein’s monster, and you could practically see the clumsy line of sutures where the giant nose had been recently attached, the jutting eyebrows tacked on as a scaffolding afterthought. My son brought home one friend whose mouth looked as if someone had yelled, “Open up!” before tossing in a motley assortment of teeth that took root willy-nilly. They were so perfectly, wonderfully homely, these boys, that I started to wonder if this might be an adaptive evolutionary stage: Sure, lots of the girls could technically get pregnant at 13, but they look into these spotty, mish-mash faces, garnished with wired-together incisors and pubic little caterpillar mustaches, and decide that maybe they can wait a few years. These were the same boys I had first liked! And I liked them all over again.
But crush blueprinting turns out to be different from erotic blueprinting, which happened later. Now these were the muscled, slim-hipped distance runners of my earliest sexual wrangling. The brown-skinned boys who pressed me up against the padded wall in the gym behind high school track meets, our nylon shorts damp and straining, who pressed me up against the carpeted wall in the music room, their hard-ons like caged, denim-clad animals. We lay together in single beds, in snatches of time, in pools of our own making. Their faces had clicked into place, their plummy lips wiped clean with razors, their skin as creamy-smooth as something you would plunge a straw into and gulp down. Their chests had been carved from marble, cast from bronze. Blooming trees all smelled like sex, and I was wet and delirious and distracted, studying my vocabulary words like a person in a dream about fucking and the SATs.
This was the age; these were the boys. I learned lust from them, and their teenaged shapes imprinted themselves in the memory bank of my flesh. And I did not get stuck there forever. I was not a person flung from the train of sexuality, stranded in the depot of the past while the rest rattled along into the normal future. I did not become the 50-year-old man in a red Porsche, driving with one hand and holding the ripe nectarine of my youth in the other. No. I hummed along with everyone else, sleeping with 20-year-olds when I was 20; procreating with an agemate in my 30s. But always there has been a kind of blurry sexual double-negative: this age now, but superimposed over 15.
“Nostalgia is different from pedophilia,” I clarify to a friend in my kitchen, and my etymology-minded daughter, who turns out to be listening from the next room, yells in, “Is pedophilia the love of feet?”
It is not love, not of feet or of boys. It is nostalgia. I drive up to my son’s high school, and some of those teenagers with their loose gaits, their swagger and faintly stubbled jaws, their T-shirts hanging off them like their shoulders are coat hangers made out of testosterone—they remind me of someone I used to know. Used to be. Someone who is camouflaged now, costumed as a flat-bottomed clog-wearing bringer of gluten-free bake-sale brownies. In the subtitled movie of the teenagers’ life, I am The Mother. They see the platter of bacon I am holding, yes, but not tawny, humming flesh in an eagle-emblazoned track uniform—which is right and good, whether or not it provokes in me an existential crisis of longing. I will live and die without ever again knowing a hard and fragrant teenaged boy—which is right and good, whether or not I have ever felt more mortal.
And there is, after all, The Father. This person in the baseball uniform of his own mind, or maybe at the Dead show, clad in tie-dye and teenaged longing. This man here, who is still the boy with dark hair falling into his face, whose rangy leanness is right there, barely beneath the surface. Oh, The Father! He doesn’t just snake the drain and park the station wagon at Whole Foods. Not just. He pushes past the gone-to-seed milkweed fluff of this late season, pushes this hidden juicy girl up against the fiberglass wall of their suburban shower. Too gently, maybe, and not all the time. But sometimes. And now.
This piece is excerpted with permission from Soul Mate 101 and Other Essays on Love and Sex, edited by Jennifer Niesslein, to be published by Full Grown People on September 21, 2015.