This article originally appeared in the Just for Teens Issue
I am fifteen and my father is teaching me how to drive. His lap is uncomfortable, but our car unfortunately does not have built-in seat warmers. It is these small sacrifices that remind me of the way in which my father loves, the blood pulsing through his hot thighs like a beating heart.
“We don’t have built-in seat warmers,” he explains to the officer that has pulled us over. I look to the cop for understanding but see only my own fish-eyed reflection in the glossy black pools of his aviators. Only I can answer for my crimes.
“I have to warm my son’s ass myself,” my father repeats louder, tears welling in his eyes. My impressionable conception of masculinity hangs in the balance of these two men in uniform, the officer in his starched navy shirt and slacks, my father in his periwinkle sailor’s costume. I wonder how so much authority in the world came to be vested in blue.
“I don’t care. You still have to wear a seatbelt.” The officer leans through the window and buckles us in, kissing us both on the forehead. My father sighs in relief. For a second, I’m not sure why he’s let us off so easy, until I look in the rearview mirror to see him re-entering the squad car underneath his own teenage son. Together, they grip the wheel and throttle the engine before racing off, strobing the night red and blue. The moon is like a disco ball.
I am sixteen at my junior prom. The theme is chastity and everyone is dressed to impress. I look across the dance floor at my date. She is stunning in a floor-length gown that perfectly conceals her ankles. Meanwhile, I am swallowed up in the broad shoulders of my father’s hand-me-down sailor’s costume. I hang back at our table, dwarfed by the cafeteria atrium standing in for some outsized coming of age moment I’m convinced I can’t yet fit into, until my date takes me by the hand and leads me onto the dance floor. All over, girls are reluctantly shepherding boys into young adulthood, a sea of bodies awkwardly gyrating into themselves.
The music suddenly stops and the principal’s voice comes over the loudspeaker. He informs us that the music has stopped because he has an important announcement to make, namely, that the DJ is dead. He informs us that he loved the DJ but now he is dead and there is nothing any of us can do about it. He then informs us that he will now announce the Prom King and Queen. Per executive decision, the Prom King is the fallen DJ, and per a vote of the students, the Prom Queen is my date. Everyone goes silent and looks at us. Though we are at the fringe of the crowd, for a second, it feels like the whole room is slowly turning around us, creaking the way I’d imagined all these bodies would as they twisted for what seemed like the first time. Then, the room breaks loose, everyone screaming and shepherding her to the stage to accept her crown. With the principal’s blessing, my date slow dances with the DJ’s corpse, her King, and I feel a stabbing pain in my stomach as if I’ve lost something.
I am seventeen and going through my first break up. It feels like a divorce, but not as bad. I am in my therapist’s office. His lap is uncomfortable but he insists it is part of the process. He tells me that I have my entire life to find love and mourn its loss, but only so much time left to be a teenager. It’s a platitude that I don’t mind because it gives me something to hold on to. I think about how both teenagehood and first relationships are probably more about cherishing something fleeting than the thing itself. My therapist breaks the silence to ask if he can give me a vaccine and I again remind him that he is not my pediatrician. He is upset but understanding. He tells me everything will be fine and to take a few deep breaths before I leave to decompress. As I inhale and exhale, I feel tears well unexpectedly in my eyes and the cool metal of a stethoscope against my back.
I am eighteen when I am diagnosed with scoliosis. The military doctor informs me that this means I cannot join the military and I break down in tears, thinking about all the brave men in uniform that have raised me.
I am nineteen and my father and I are on a road trip. He is sitting on my lap and I am thinking about how things change so gradually sometimes you hardly realize when they’ve come full circle. This is likely the last extended period of time I’ll spend with him and he’s taking advantage of it to impart some final lessons about being a man. “Don’t take my example. Dress for the job you want, not the one you have,” he says gesturing to his periwinkle sailor’s costume. Driving stick, I feel nostalgic for the tangible lessons my father once offered and the feeling of having more to learn from him than to unlearn. I think about how all this gyrating can spin you out of people’s orbits, leaving only the tenuous moorings of memory to keep you from drifting away entirely alone.
I am twenty standing naked in my high school cafeteria. It is empty except for me and the DJ. He is stunning in my father’s periwinkle sailor’s costume, though his ankles are completely exposed. He rests his hand in the small of my crooked back and I buckle into his broad shoulders. Each flash of the strobe light is like someone taking a picture that will never be developed. In the distance, I hear sirens whir and realize our time is up.
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