The following excerpt from I’m From Nowhere by Lindsay Lerman is reprinted here with permission from Clash Books.
I’m From Nowhere
It’s the afternoon now and a friend from high school, Rebecca, is picking her up. Rebecca has come into town for the funeral. She’s going to offer practical help; this is what Rebecca does.
She picks Claire up, and together they drive to the store to get ingredients for meals they’ll make and freeze, to keep Claire going. The sort of thing one does for friends with newborn babies. It’s almost old-world now. Rebecca lives in the Bay Area, and like someone who’s lived in New York, she won’t let you forget this fact. It’s now a defining feature of her adult personality. The One Who Made it in a Big, Overpriced City and Now Has the Authority to Scoff at the Place She Came From.
On the way to the store, looking out the window, Rebecca says, “This place is fucking depressing.”
“I guess,” Claire responds, not turning to look at Rebecca as she speaks.
“It’s just a string of meth labs. Was it always like this?” Rebecca asks half-rhetorically. She says, “All these trailer parks and shithole houses” as though this were her first time visiting.
“I think the poor areas are pretty concentrated,” Claire says with a note of defensiveness. “There are just as many rich people here as poor people. What should the city do? Move the poor people out? Evict them and raze their shitty houses? Find a way to just give them all jobs? Tell capitalism to move back in?”
The mostly comfortable silence of friends bickering like siblings sets in. Rain starts to fall slowly. They pass a group of boys on their skateboards. A little pack of wolves edging into the street from the sidewalk, warning that the street is sometimes their territory too.
Rebecca’s eyes linger on the boys as she turns to Claire and asks, “Were you in high school when you lost your virginity? Is that something an old friend should know?” with a little laugh. “When was it?”
“You mean like when was the exact moment?” Claire asks, with her own little laugh. The boys are in the rearview mirror now, shouting happily at each other, pushing their hair out of their eyes. They look so small.
“Yes,” Rebecca says. “The moment when you lost your virginity. Had sex. C’mon.”
Feeling strangely puzzled by the question, Claire responds, “But it wasn’t just one moment. It was, well, continuous. For most of high school and the beginning of college.”
“You know what I mean, Claire. When did you first have sex?”
“Do you mean like penis-in-vagina sex? Oral sex? The first time I made out with a guy and let him take off my bra?”
“Jesus, you know exactly what I mean. I can tell you I was seventeen and it was with David and it was not great.”
Claire can feel some of her mental acuity returning, as though she were slowly waking up. Dinner with Luke last night sobered her up.
But she’s not sure she can answer Rebecca. Not clearly. Because by the time she had Sex sex, it wasn’t very significant. Or maybe it was. But it was just another sexual thing to happen in a long, steady process of becoming sexual. Figuring out how to be a sexual being. The first moment of Sex sex was not a big deal compared to the first kiss, the first time a guy went down on her. Those were virginity-losing moments. There were many of them. She’s surprised by her clarity on the matter. It takes years of shitty Sex sex to finally have good sex. Holding hands and making out on a park bench was better than all those first times combined.
Watching Claire think, Rebecca asks, “Okay, fine, but who did you lose your virginity to?”
“Three or four different guys, I guess.”
Quickly seizing the opportunity to make Claire laugh, Rebecca says, “Oooh alright! All at once? Standard college-orientation orgy?”
Laughing at herself, god it felt good; she had forgotten that she had a sense of humor, at how she’d opened this door, Claire says, “Actually that sounds like no fun at all. But no, not an orgy. Three or four different guys who introduced me to sex, I guess.”
“So no one forced himself on you and just, like, made it happen?”
What had happened at the dawn of her sexuality? In truth, she knows, it wasn’t as smooth or linear or painless as she makes it sound.
She had mostly lost her virginity—all kinds of physical virginity and her conceptual virginity—to one person. The slightly older guy. Impossibly sexy. A wannabe poet. Oh god, am I still as pathetic, as clueless now as I was then?
They had met through mutual friends. He was the townie who was too beautiful to be called a townie. His commitment to the work of appearing to be the half-stoned vagabond for beauty, day in and day out, was astonishing. Women more or less lined up to fuck him. Claire was terrified of him.
As a high-schooler, Claire was not one of the pretty girls, not really even one of the popular girls, so she had no idea what to do with herself when He seemed to notice her, to take her in with a long gaze and offer a devilish half-smile. She was not accustomed to such attention. One tiny flicker of attraction, of acknowledgement, from him and she was struck dumb. She would be sunk by him, she knew it. She couldn’t have cared less.
When she looks at photos of herself from high school, she understands why he noticed her. She was not cute or adorable in the way of the pretty and popular girls, but you could see that she would eventually—maybe even shortly—be beautiful. Not cute, not adorable, but beautiful, in time. A beautiful woman.
She wonders sometimes how different her life might be if she hadn’t skipped cute or adorable and gone awkwardly into beautiful after some time being neither here nor there. Would I have stayed in this town forever? Settled down with one of the stupid boys I hated myself for finding attractive in high school?
He. She still doesn’t like to say his name, doesn’t want to particularize him. Thank god she has no photos of him, that he exists nowhere on social media. Let him remain universal—the cloud of walking sex and barely instantiated splendor—that he was to her back then.
She watched him. Studied him. Drank in his posture, his gestures, his turns of phrase every time she saw him—at parties, at the coffee shop, wandering aimlessly downtown.
She had never seen someone so confident spending so much time in public alone. He sat at the café with a book and a pen and some loose pieces of paper—just before the days of laptop ubiquity—composing his little lines, the center of this tiny world, an ocean in lithe, dark-eyed human form.
He sat down across from her at the coffee shop one day, one hot afternoon at the end of her junior year, as she waited for her drink and her friend waited for the bathroom.
“Hey,” he said casually. And she, drawing on a reserve of nonchalance she didn’t know existed, responded with an equally casual “Hey.”
Within a week, she was in his car, listening to Purple Rain and making out with a promising ferocity. His skilled hands and fingers. Good god his hands. His mouth that tasted of tobacco and beer. His lips against her ear: Her first drug. All of it her first serious high.
There is one night that stands out.
He was going, was leaving town—finally leaving this shithole—and he wanted to spend a night with her. Despite, or maybe because of his comprehensive sexual experience, he hadn’t pressured her for anything she wasn’t ready for.
He had always watched her carefully, not wanting to push her too far and to push her away. Later she realized this was likely because he was getting it elsewhere, anywhere really, all the time, anytime. He was mostly tender with her, but it was incidental tenderness. It wasn’t for her, he wasn’t loving; he could afford to be patient with her.
But this night he is stoned. Stoned enough that he can’t watch her, or himself, closely, or at all. It’s one of his last nights in town, he reminds her.
Maybe he has plans with different girls and women for each of his last nights in town, but she doesn’t care. On this night they’ve drunk their beers in her parents’ car, smoked some weed in the shed behind his dad’s house, wandered with clasped hands to the few open places in town. A grimy pool hall, the kind of rural bar she’ll eventually come to love and fear in equal measure, the convenience store attached to a gas station where he bums cigarettes from the girls who work behind the counter.
She knows there’s nowhere else for them to go. They could do it in the car she borrowed from her parents, or they could do it in his dad’s house—if his dad’s not home—or they could do it out in the desert next to some scrub oaks and boulders. It wasn’t so hot then. They could wander outside for hours without fear of heat stroke.
The paradoxical and paralyzing fact of being in a rural town so small: The land stretches forever outside this town, but the town is small enough that privacy is unachievable.
But none of this is on her mind then. This is the night of her first real sexual encounter and she can feel it coming. It’s like sensing the presence of another breathing creature in a darkened room. She knows it’s there, but she doesn’t know what it is. The fear and exhilaration intensify each other.
He must have known that the shrine was the only place likely to be empty in the middle of the night. St. Joseph is at the foot of the hill. The shrine winds up through the hill. She can see the cross at the top, the white ceramic Jesus glowing a little in the moonlight. He lights the candles at the shrine, slowly, carefully, taking his time like a seasoned pothead, and he takes her hand to lead her to a bench at the foot of the scene.
There’s some sloppy, rushed kissing before he hurriedly pulls her shorts off, and her heart is pounding and she can’t believe this is happening but she knows for a fact that she is not ready. Not ready for this. He leans her back and stretches her out on the bench. She’s flat on her back and he’s climbing on top of her. She wants him to look at her face but she can’t—doesn’t know how to—tell him to look. At her. Can you see I don’t think I want this? She watches his face as his eyes roll around haphazardly in his skull, the whole side of him glowing red from the candles in their votives, as if he were being burned alive from a distance.
He’s gone. He’s elsewhere. Take me away, take me with you, she had wanted to say earlier. But now she sees that he was never here to begin with. There was no him to take me along.
She turns her eyes to the sky, the stars hanging up there, the moon yawning down at her.
This can’t be pleasure, she thinks.
Lindsay Lerman is a writer and translator. She has a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. Her debut novel, I’m From Nowhere, is now available from Clash Books. Her translation of François Laruelle’s first book, Phenomenon and Difference, is also forthcoming.