At 17, you are like a wild horse—tall and undernourished, and quick to run. Primitive intelligence, excessively shy. Still too innocent for your age, but there is a reason for that. You keep your distance from boys. You are ashamed when they honk and whistle and holler at you, and you hide when you can. If your classmates ask you out, you start to avoid them. When you were younger, before this, you tried to act like everybody else. At fourteen, for example, the neighbor boy spends a week staring at you as you both wait for the school bus and finally musters the courage to ask you to the Homecoming dance. You tell him you’ll let him know because…did you want to go? Not really, but everybody else wants to go, and your friends are going. So finally you say yes, a day before the dance. You don’t mind dancing but you don’t know why the boy is smashing you up against him in the dark. He tries to talk to you, but you don’t want to go outside with him and you don’t want to hold his hand. You want to go home.
You spend all your time with your best friend, Kathy. The two of you lay around on couches in her basement rec room, talking incessantly, listening to music, speculating about life. Her brother Jack starts following the two of you around and you don’t get that either. He sits at your feet, touching his shoe to yours. He asks you questions, teases you. Kathy wants him to go away. You like him, but you don’t know why he is bothering you. After a couple of weeks, he gives up. He starts dating another girl, Debbie. Debbie is a fast-talking, short haired blond. Her eyes are black with mascara. She smokes. You develop a mild crush on her and it becomes another big question mark. Shouldn’t it be Jack you like?
You are on the cusp of discovering the why—why you don’t understand about dating, why you feel like a misfit at school, why you are afraid.
Then it is June, and Debbie says that you and Kathy should come down to the amusement park where she is the food service manager. So you do. She gives you a summer job. Debbie assigns you and Kathy to different areas of the park. You wear a candy-striper type uniform, a short jumper with a white blouse. You work at the grill, bussing tables, filling sodas, cooking hundreds of hamburgers a night until the grease rolls off your eyelashes. The music and flashing lights of the Calypso ride and the Tilt-a-Whirl are a constant backdrop. The grill sells beer, attracting young men and couples on weekend nights. The roughest area of the park. Late one night a drunk man chases you around the tables you are trying to clean. Those at the other tables watch, amused.
You work with a bunch of inner-city Catholic high school girls. Like Debbie, they wear black mascara and walk fast and smoke. They tell filthy jokes. For some reason—maybe it’s the Catholic thing—they take you in. You are one of them. They roll joints using orange taco papers, immense, awkward joints that they smoke behind the fence, under the clacking ebb and flow of the rickety wooden roller coaster. When you get off work at one or two in the morning, you go with them for pizza and illegal pitchers of beer. You don’t talk much, but you’re starting to have a good time.
As the weeks go by, they start playing a game. When they go on break, in pairs, they walk through the park hand in hand. They pretend to be lesbians. They laugh, loving the attention they attract.
A new girl starts about that time. Sandy is an “older” girl, 19. She’s already in college. She has a mop of shiny curls, a charming grin. She carries a paperback around with her, Nietzsche. She’s a psychology student She is instantly, wildly popular. The other girls develop crushes on her. They want her to go on break with them. She laughs, sits down and pulls them onto her lap. They giggle, loving it. Sometimes her boyfriend picks her up from work. She changes clothes, puts on lipstick in the bathroom. She runs to him, lays her head on his chest, smiles up at him. You watch everything, careful to stay invisible.
One evening all the girls go out after a day shift. You go to the city park, and you all pair off in rented paddle boats. You find yourself with the new girl, out on the lake, paddling in the dark, the park lights intermittently lighting up the ripples in the lake, the water softly lapping around you. The other girls are giggling and shrieking. They run their boats playfully into the one you are in, but after awhile they seem farther and farther away. You realize that Sandy has paddled your boat into the middle of the lake, where it is darkest, and there is no one else around.
“I think about you all the time,” she says suddenly, softly. You realize that you have been thinking about her too. You tell her that. Then there is nothing else to say, and no time to say it. You paddle back to shore.
Two days later, well before the park opens, you all go in early to scrub the grease off the walls and tables and floors. Sandy pulls you into her lap. She’s teasing and laughing, like always. You try to laugh too, but you jump up quickly. A couple of girls near you look funny at the two of you. Later in the day, one of them asks Sandy to spend the night, and she accepts. The inviter brags about it to you the next day. She doesn’t know that Sandy also invited you to spend the night at her house, and that you plan to go.
What I want to tell you is this: you are standing on the edge of knowledge, on the edge of the real world. Your mother has kept you in a cocoon, until now. There is a lot you don’t yet know. Practically everything, in fact. You’re good with books, but you are not a fast learner otherwise. Take it easy. Trust your instincts. In a few weeks, you’re going to learn the difference between love and attraction. Between Kathy and Sandy. It doesn’t matter who accepts you, and who doesn’t. You are about to get your heart broken, more than once, in the next few years. What you don’t know is that your first date with a girl is a small thing compared to everything else that will happen. You don’t know this yet, but 17 is the year when your whole life will change. You don’t know this yet, but you will be able to handle every single thing that comes your way.