Blood and Phlegm
I lost my virginity when I was 12. I still haven’t decided if this was a mistake or not.
A few years later, when I was a freshman in high school, I read about Bob Flanagan in a magazine I stole from the convenient store down the street from my house. At first I pretended to read it just to avoid my mother’s prodding to dress up more, which she always did right before serving dinner.
It actually was Bob's penis that caught my attention, which was weird for me since everything sexual disgusted me then. The black and white photo showed a flaccid penis with two nails driven into a ball sac. It looked like a dead slug on an autopsy board. I would have kept turning the pages if I hadn’t noticed the words “Cystic Fibrosis.” Bob Flanagan had this disease. Scott Berring, who took my virginity, had it too. In the interview, Bob talked about how hurting himself made him feel in control of his body. I liked the idea that no matter what, we have control over our own bodies. My mother saw me smiling and laughed at me. “Why are you smiling? What are you thinking about?”
“None of your business,” I yelled, without looking up at her. She was always trying to get into my head.
After dinner I sliced my thigh. I did it in the bathtub that my mother and I shared. I thought about Bob Flanagan and Scott as I did it. I don’t know why I chose the thigh. I just knew that other girls back in middle school did so because short skirts could still hide the thigh scars.
I used the pair of scissors that I would later steal from home when I moved out because I was too lazy to buy my own, the kind of scissors you use to cut construction paper, blunt scissors. I sat there for what felt like hours, digging into my skin in the same line, stopping as soon as blood oozed out. Just a few drops. My mother banged on the door every ten minutes until she eventually gave up and peed in the sink. I stared at the blood, noting the way the bathroom light made a slight glare on the droplets. Then I smeared the blood on my thigh and wiped it on the bathtub, rubbing it against the porcelain until it turned from brown to white again. That somehow felt like the best way to dispose of the evidence, as if it never happened.
Scott Berring was older, 14, and worked a lot. I met him while he was working, when he bagged my mom’s groceries. He was less scrawny than the other boys his age, and already getting over his acne. He had brown hair, which he kept short, and tiny green eyes that made him seem like he was always thinking deeply about things. I especially loved his hands. They were so big that he could grab three apples at once, fitting them all between his fingers.
My mother was too caught up in how her makeup looked to notice Scott and I flirting. I bet she even thought all of his coy comments were meant for her. My mother had been obsessed with male attention ever since my father left when I was five. I think this is why I always dressed like a tomboy. I didn’t want to be her.
Scott didn’t mind that I didn’t wear makeup. He smiled at me and I whispered my number as my mother counted her change.
We dated in secret. I would sneak out at night through my window and we’d meet and hold hands in the woods. We first kissed in the fall. He pulled away in the middle to puke up phlegm. He tried to lean back in and kiss me again, like nothing ever happened, but I made him chew a piece of gum first.
At the time I felt like we talked about everything, but looking back I realize that we only ever talked about his mother, Tricia. “She just won’t give me any room to breathe,” he regularly complained. At that time all I knew of Tricia was her piercing voice that yelled at Scott for not finishing his treatment in the background when Scott talked to me on the phone. Scott’s father had died in a car accident when Scott was six. So it was just Scott and Tricia.
“I understand,” I replied, thinking about the time my mother felt sad about my father leaving and came into my room with a glass of red wine and tried to lay with me, but just ended up spilling the wine on my hair.
Tricia didn’t like me. She also didn’t know me, seeing as she never allowed me over, but she knew about me after listening in on one of our phone conversations. This was a normal thing in Scott’s house. Tricia would write up hard drafts of every one of Scott’s phone calls with his friends and then give them to their parents.
Scott and I bonded over our fathers. I felt like my situation was worse; my father could see me but didn’t want to. Scott disagreed but I think that’s because his father had loved him.
One night when we both snuck out, Scott told me that he hated himself. He was picking at a pimple just above his left eyebrow as he spoke. It seemed like he was scratching his forehead the way that philosophers do in sculptures upon grasping some sort of universal truth. “Why?” I asked. He didn’t answer me. He never said it again.
I decided to let Scott take my virginity after he told me about his circumcision. I think it was because I felt bad for him. He said, “They didn’t even ask for my permission.” He was four when they did it. “I think that’s why I have such a terrible temper,” he told me, calmly reflecting.
“I understand,” I said, thinking about a time when my mom covered my eyes during a sex scene in a movie we were watching.
“But you don’t understand!” He yelled and looked at me in disgust. “You’re just a dumb little girl.”
I didn’t say anything back, just patted his back as he leaned over to cough up phlegm. I thought about my father and how he hated me, how his eyes looked at me in disgust when I was four. Scott had the same look in his eyes. I just wanted that look to go away. I hated when he lost his temper.
I didn’t quite understand sexuality then. I had never even masturbated. I just craved something private, something of my own. Sex seemed a way to assert my independence. And so the act of losing my virginity didn’t seem like anything more than a way to free myself from my mother.
We did it the weekend that my mom and her boyfriend had left to go to a wedding in Florida. She still didn’t trust me to be on my own so my grandma came to stay.
Now grandma is completely deaf, but back then she was just mostly deaf. She didn’t even hear the loud thud my window made when I let it drop after Scott had crept through it. She also didn’t hear him cough in agony, breathing through his phlegm, or me yell out in pain when he thrust inside me. I didn’t know enough to know that it would be painful.
During the entirety of the 4 minutes I held him hard even though it hurt so much, hoping this would mean he would never again look at me the way my dad had. But all of that went away when he finished.
Up until that point I hadn’t any reason to hate Scott, but I did truly hate him the moment after he was done and he whispered in my ear, “You’re not a virgin anymore.” He said it like he owned me, like he was suddenly the one in control of my body. Maybe being a woman means never being in control of your body to begin with. I know my mom felt that way when she brought home men that couldn’t be fathers to me. Men that looked nice but acted wrong.
I remember lying beneath Scott and feeling claustrophobic. I told him to leave.
“I can’t,” he replied, the words catching in the phlegm of his throat.
“What?” I began to feel panic.
“I have no where else to go.” That’s when he told me that he ran away. “I hate her.”
“You can’t stay here. You need meds, you need things for your condition.”
He looked uncomfortable when I said that, like he had deluded himself that I didn’t know about his cystic fibrosis. After a pause, he repeated himself. “I have no where else to go.”
My bedroom door flew open. I knew it was Tricia without knowing what she actually looked like. They both had the same look about them, with small green eyes. She was a beauty even at her age and full of the same rage that I saw in Scott in those moments when he spoke of her. Scott was still inside me when she came in.
She screamed and threw my porcelain unicorn, the one that my mom had gotten me for my tenth birthday even though I thought unicorns were childish. The unicorn’s horn broke off as soon as it hit the corner of my desk. My eyes followed it, the way they do when you have to let things just happen and there’s nothing you can do about it. She then grabbed Scott by the ear and pulled him out of me. His condom still dangled on his penis as he fought her grip. He was mostly screaming about how much he hated her.
I remember laying as still as possible, convinced that she was a bear waiting to devour me. Those tiny green eyes watched me as she held down her angry, 14-year-old boy. I could tell that she was thinking over the possibilities of terrible things to say to me, searching for the most appropriate one. I unconsciously tightened my muscles in expectation.
“You are a disgusting whore, and you will always be a disgusting whore.” She didn’t yell when she said this, she stated it, which felt more powerful and terrible. Scott was coughing as he squirmed. He didn’t defend me.
The last thing I saw was his large right hand as it clung to my door frame, in vain, but I could hear him coughing and them yelling all the way down the hall and out the door. I had forgotten to lock the front door.
When they left, I lay in my bed with my tank top still on but scooted up just above my navel, my bottom half naked and still, the sweat drying off by the fan. If my grandma had woken up at any point and walked in she would have thought I was just hot. I tried to convince myself that it never happened, and would’ve succeeded if it wasn’t for the pain. It still throbbed rhythmically with the sound of my heart. There was also some blood. I reached down with my index and middle finger to confirm. It wasn’t much, only a few drops. It clung to my fingers, catching light from the moon in my window. Instead of washing it off I gripped my hand into a fist and let it soak into my skin, my own way of making it go away.
My mom came home the next morning and that is precisely how she found me. She laughed and pulled the covers over me and asked if I had trouble sleeping because she wasn’t home.
“I didn’t have trouble sleeping. What are you talking about?” I said incredulously.
“Really? But your eyes look so blood shot. You look like a zombie. My little zombie.” She hugged me and kissed my forehead. For a moment the warmth of her touch felt nice, but then I remembered who she was and the comfort went away.
“I had a bad dream,” I replied coldly. My mom pursed her lips in a kissy face, which she meant to look comforting, but it just felt condescending. “Well, it’s all right now, mama is here.”
I smiled weakly and rolled over, ignoring the sad look in my mom’s eyes. Later that day I would overhear her crying to my grandma about how her boyfriend had secretly been married. I listened as she screamed in order for grandma to hear, the sound of her panicked voice carrying through the dusty insulation of our dividing walls. I hated her so much for being weak. I never cried, and if I did for some reason, it wouldn’t be about a man, ever.
I never saw Scott again. His mother had forbid it. I said then that I wasn’t sad about it, but I still think about him. The memory makes me feel empty but I’m not sure why.
Three years later, a year after I learned about Bob Flanagan, I read in the newspaper that Scott had died. The paper wasn’t very clear but I knew enough to fill in the blanks. Scott had had it with his mother and took the car to run away and got hit by another car. He died instantly. In a strange way I felt happy that it wasn’t the cystic fibrosis that got him, like he beat it somehow.
I saw his mother just one more time before I left that town for good. It was at the grocery store. My mother wanted me to go with her to buy supplies for my high school graduation dinner. She was forcing quality time on me before I left.
We passed Scott’s mother in the exotic/ethnic food aisle, where the buy-one-get-one discounted white rice sat in stacks on the shelf. She walked past with vacant eyes and week-old makeup. Her hands pushed at a cart that I’m sure would’ve kept marching forward on its own if she had suddenly stopped. The only thing in her basket was a watermelon, shivering over the shaking cage in a rhythmic motion. The six years had definitely aged her. She even had a limp that caused her tan, orthopedic shoe to flirt with the tile floor, the sound of rubber or latex, catching at the waxed tile in sync with her slow gait. She didn’t even see me as she passed.
In the checkout line my mother grabbed my hand and whispered in my ear, “Was that Scott’s mother?”
I looked back in shock. “Yes.”
“It really is a shame about her son.” Then she smiled sadly at me and squeezed my hand. That’s the moment when I realized that my mother knew about me all along, Scott’s mom had probably told her everything.
It felt strange to look back at her the way I did, like I hadn’t really seen her before. She looked so old, but so strong, her eyes probing but without malevolence. Her years of makeup had taken a toll on the skin beneath her eyes and lips, and yet she looked more beautiful than she ever had before. My eyes began to water as I struggled to speak. “You never said anythi – “ I started. She silenced me with a hug, her heels making it so that she was still tall enough to lean down and kiss my cheek, her lips finding my tears as they flowed without control and her arms tight against my back. She held me tight as I had held Scott that night, and I fell deeper into her chest, her strength keeping me on my feet.
Alexandra Gilwit is a media studies grad student at The New School. She has an avid interest in comedy, science fiction, and loves to explore the darker sides of the human condition. Please visit agilwit.com to see what she is currently working on!