When you’re a teenager, everything is life or death. Hormones pulse through your body on a one way trip to your crotch with a pit stop at your oil glands and beat against your underdeveloped brain like an EDM drum machine. Your life is one long attempt at playing it cool, punctuated by bursts of the most earnest feeling you’ve experienced until this point and, most likely, ever will again. For me, a brace-faced, curly-haired stringbean, nothing could top the ecstasy of a late night punk show at my favorite underage hole-in-the-wall, smoking a cigarette without inhaling while I made eyes at boys in bullet belts and eyeliner.
My best friend Kelly and I were practiced in the art of skipping school, another one of my favorite things and therapy between our life-or-death moments. We drove around for hours, scream-singing to the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s, The Buzzcocks, The Sounds. At night we would spread out on her plush bedroom carpet surrounded by candles and cry to Jeff Buckley’s “Grace.” We wept for no real reason except that we could no longer contain all the feelings that burst from our chests. We were sixteen and goddamn it, that was something to cry about.
Until that point boys never paid me any mind no matter how awkwardly I flirted or pointed out their boners, so my experience with them was pretty limited. I was cursed with a brain that was maturing much faster than my body, and I was frequently compared to an ironing board. In fact, the boy I had the biggest crush on once told me that as soon as my braces were off I would be “almost fuckable,” but reminded me that I would need to straighten my hair too. That actually made my sorry-ass day.
That all changed when I met Brandon. He was Kelly’s cousin, four years our senior. I was immediately nervous around him, but in a good way. It was hard to make direct eye contact with him. He was stocky, with ruddy cheeks and the most heart-breakingly adorable smile. Brandon had a sharp tongue, a sense of humor that matched mine and excellent taste in music. The most revolutionary thing about him, though, was that he was nice to me. No guy had ever asked my opinion on things or looked at me with interest, much less affection. Despite my reservations at being pursued—I was convinced it was some kind of cruel joke that would end in a Carrie/Prom situation—and despite our age difference, he was persistent. The four of us: Kelly, Brandon, his best friend David and I, began hanging out as a group almost immediately, first as a safety net and then just because we had a fucking blast together. It wasn’t long before we paired off and I found myself with a strong case of puppy love.
I need to preface this next part, as it gets a little murky. Writing this piece as a feminist and a woman who has very clear ideas on the language of consent forced me to peer through the rose-colored haze of my first sexual experience in a way I never had before. Our memories of adolescence often bear strongly in one of two directions: traumatic and horrifying or warm and nostalgic. Digging into this particular memory has pushed it somewhere in the middle. So please keep in mind that though I believe things would have unfolded much differently today than they did eleven years ago, I have no bad feelings about what comes next.
The details of my time with Brandon are a little fuzzy. Scientists say the more often you revisit a memory, the further it drifts from the truth of what happened. I can recall carving pumpkins by a lake, or the two of us laughing hysterically as David and Kelly rode by in my car that they’d hijacked, or looking at the stars while lying on our backs in a deserted parking lot, trying not to break the silence with our nervous swallowing lest we betray our calm exterior. Most of all, I remember the night I asked Brandon to have sex with me. A group of us were partying at their apartment and, in typical high school style, we all had a little too much to drink. I threw up in the bathroom, on the floor, and on myself. Brandon, bless him, had to help me bathe and put on clean clothes. He scooped me up and cuddled with me on a palette of blankets on the floor while I sobered up. In that moment, I knew. “Let’s have sex,” I whispered.
His eyes widened, blurry from booze and premo-grade pot. “Are you sure?” he asked, slurring ever so slightly. I nodded emphatically yes. He asked again and again, terrified to make a wrong move, but I didn’t waiver. I was ready.
Without going into all the gory details, the first few moments were not pleasant. When neither of you are sober or experienced enough to deal with trivial details like oral sex or lubricant, the romantic notion of sex devolves into a bad scene from American Pie. I very quickly realized that although I wanted to be as close to Brandon as possible, I wasn’t mentally prepared for the physical discomfort involved in losing my virginity. When I said stop, he stopped and we went to sleep instead.
I’ve never regretted how things happened. I think the two of us did the best we could with the limited language and knowledge of consent that we had. It did, however, change our relationship. We continued to see each other in the restricted way that a 16-year-old girl and a 20-year-old guy can, but we never tried to have sex again. Subconsciously, I think we knew it wasn’t the right time for us and that was okay.
A few months later, a week before my 17th birthday, I got into a huge fight with my mom, not unusual for us then. I stormed up to my room and followed my natural inclination to vent to Brandon. We had one those magical conversations where you talk for hours, baring your soul, hitting every important philosophical touchstone we could think of, like a scene from Before Sunrise over a shitty Nokia phone. Five hours later, when my head hit the pillow, I felt calm. I drifted off to sleep wrapped up in love and at peace with the idea of our future together, whatever it may be.
The next morning, Brandon died. He was killed in a car accident on Veterans Memorial Highway on the way to work. It was a Thursday. They released doves to a Lynyrd Skynyrd song before lowering him into the ground.
In the weeks that followed Brandon’s death, I found my comfort in Jeff Buckley. The piercing cry of his soprano reached into my guts and gripped, like a tourniquet around a bleeding limb. It hurt me, but it saved me. I played “Last Goodbye” on repeat in my car and didn’t give a fuck whether the commuters on Barrett Parkway noticed my chest-racking sobs. I howled the words to “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over” like a wounded animal, feverish and desperate. I applied that album like a balm every single day until the wound gradually started to close. Though the hurt is long since healed, I know that forever, when I hear the opening chords, I will shed my adult skin and suddenly be sixteen again. To this day, I find myself listening to it on the anniversary of his death, on grey days or starry nights.
That day a switch flipped inside of me and never went back. Kelly responded by curling into herself for a few months. I did the exact opposite. No longer shy or nervous, I jumped into mosh pits with earnest, treasuring the bruises and bloody lips like badges of honor. I smoked out of my bedroom window and fucked anyone who caught my eye. Any vestige of parental control was gone and neither my mother nor I had the energy to pretend otherwise. Without any substantial discussion on the matter, we quietly went our separate ways until I graduated high school.
As an adult, Brandon’s death made me afraid of falling in love. He was taken before his flaws were revealed, preserving him in my memory. Perfect and untouched. No living, breathing person could ever compare. Even if they did I worried that, like some dark curse, falling for them would ensure their death. Flaky boyfriends with poor texting habits sent me into a fit of anxiety, visions of bloody body parts strewn across a highway dancing through my head. I still find myself waking from nightmares, drenched in sweat, relaxing only when I see the rise and fall of my fiancé’s breath. I live in fear that he will be ripped from my arms and it will be all my fault.
Despite the dread, there is some peace in knowing that my own death is ultimately out of my hands. It’s always coming for me and the ones I love, closer and closer everyday, the only thing I can truly count on. It is always in the chorus of my thoughts, blurred but not forgotten. When life’s little tragedies get me down, it steps out of the background, into the spotlight and reminds me to take things with a grain of salt. In these moments, I see Brandon’s cheeky grin and, trite though it may be, can’t help but feel thankful for all the extra time I’ve had. So when the urge to flip the bird to a shitty driver or strangle someone over an internet argument arises, I take a deep breath and, every once in awhile, let it go.
After all, it isn’t life or death.