Somehow, I made it through the summer, though I was dreading going back to school. I’d never felt so low about myself. I wasn’t motivated to cheer that year, but I felt it was the only thing redeeming me at this point. I was listening fervently to The Doors, Pink Floyd, The Moody Blues, and The psychedelic Beatles, which I recognized my peers had no interest in. I put my headphones on every chance I could—at lunch, on the away-game bus, while I was biking, and any time I was home alone. On nights I wasn’t working, it wasn’t uncommon for me to lie on my bed for two to four hours, staring at the ceiling and escaping into the melodic sounds and voices of Jim Morrison, Justin Hayward, David Gilmore, and John Lennon. Sometimes I’d lose touch with my body and swear I was floating around inside the music somewhere.
Lying there, I often reflected on Ryan, people at school, recent interactions I’d had, events I’d attended, and messages in the music and books I was reading. I needed the alone-time to think through all this information so I could pinpoint my personal feelings on matters. Did this particular thing give me joy? Did that concept really make sense or have any real value? What was the meaning behind Floyd’s The Wall? Could I turn out like Eleanor Rigby? Then I’d step outside myself and imagine how I must look to others. I would replay the day and observe myself from various vantage points—of teachers’, peers’, drivers’ I’d passed. How should I have acted in that situation? What should I have said? I couldn’t help wondering why I felt so different than I had a year ago. What was I supposed to be feeling?
The only thing that consistently brought me back to earth was Dad. When we were hanging out, all felt right. I felt right. It was so easy with him. We could talk for hours. I’d interview him about what he was like as a kid and adolescent. What music had he listened to and why? Had he drank alcohol? What were these other drugs I’d been hearing about? Who is Timothy Leary? Was Dad happy? Did he ever wish he lived somewhere else? What were his regrets from the past? What did he still want from the future? What else did he know about politics, psychology, philosophy, human nature? And, of course, we beat the topics of evolution, religion, and morality to death. We read and discussed the Humanist Manifesto I and II, which I believed contained some of the most beautiful ideas I’d ever heard. We watched movies together and took long bike rides. As we got closer, I felt more grounded in myself…and more disconnected from my peers.
One Saturday night, while I was working at the root beer stand, one of Ryan’s old best friends, Andy, pulled in to flirt and order some hotdogs. He had recently moved back to town after dropping out of college. Guzzling the last of his root beer, he waved me over to his car. “Hey, you’re looking really good. [Long pause as he ogled me.] Wanna hang out after work?” The invitation made the giddy, butterfly-feeling return slightly after being gone so long. Suddenly, I felt close to Ryan again. Andy picked me up and we went back to his house since his parents were out. He slid Ted Nugent into his parents’ stereo and we slammed some shots of rum. Before long, the shared memories had all been discussed and we’d run out of things to say to each other, so we went into his bedroom and started making out.
Shortly thereafter, I realized I was letting him stick his penis inside me. His presence and our shared history had made me so nostalgic for Ryan; it felt comfortable and comforting at the same time to be connecting on our own like this. I was hoping he’d come see me again another night. He didn’t. However, the following Saturday night, one of his other friends did. And when he took me back to his place, I found myself letting him take me, too. Although I knew from the start how the night would end—awkward and disappointing—I enjoyed the buildup. Neither guy could even compare to Ryan, but I was flattered these “cool” guys were interested in me. Giving them what they wanted seemed like a fair way to thank them for desiring me.
There was a guy that summer, Joel, whom I had a bit of genuine interest in. We’d been in several circus acts together over the years and he was a big reader. He’d recently broken up with Missy, a cheerleader I knew well. Joel began calling, saying that he appreciated our conversations and that Missy was superficial, shallow, and jealous all the time. “It’s impossible to please her. I can never do anything right. She nags me constantly.” Poor Joel. He appreciated how “cool” I was and liked that I had my own interests and opinions—along with no expectations for him, I’m sure. Things were easy between us. Oh, and my “ass” just happened to be “amazing,” too, although he assured me that had nothing to do with his interest in me. “Michelle, you know I’ve always had a thing for you. Want to come over on Saturday? My mom’s going out of town.” He’d pick me up after work. Sounded good.
It was hot on Saturday and I made root beers for us to drink on the way to his house. He didn’t have air conditioning or a radio in his old, primered car. Joel lived alone with his mom in an apartment in a rundown area of town. The windows were wide open when we arrived, and without a breeze that day, it was sticky inside. He closed the screen door behind us and turned to me. He was a gentle guy, but I knew that look. I could tell he wanted to touch me, but even after his straight talk on the phone, I sensed he was probably too nervous to do anything. I liked him. He was a good person and not presumptuous. For that, I slipped off my shirt and motioned subtly for him to come to me.
He could take a hint, and soon we were practically naked and lying on his living room floor. It all happened fast. I think he got his penis inside, but it was incredibly small and didn’t last long, so I wasn’t entirely sure. That was okay; it was the gesture, which proved he’d wanted me, that counted. That’s what I wanted—all I needed—to know. I was beginning to understand how the sex part was just tangential for me. For the guy, it was primary, but for me, it was my way of returning the interest shown, which I greatly craved and appreciated. He took me home, and I had no idea what, if anything, would happen between us next.
Unfortunately, my phone rang a few hours later. Dad answered. It was Joel’s ex, Missy. She had called to tell my father what an absolute “whore” I was and that I’d “screwed her boyfriend.” Then she asked my dad to give the phone to me.
His response was a polite, “Go screw yourself… And don’t call back.” Go Dad!
He asked me what that was all about.
I said, “Apparently, Joel and Missy were not quite over yet.”
He nodded, said he was sorry that happened, and then told me he hoped I knew what I was doing and was being careful. I shrugged and went to my room. Part of me knew how weird things must be between Missy and Joel if he’d called her right away and confessed what he’d done. One can speculate about the reason. No matter. I knew this wasn’t going to go away. I steeled myself for the aftermath, which began the very next day at school.
By 8:30 a.m., three of Missy’s ambassadors had approached me to say that Missy wanted to kill me. By 10 a.m. Missy had approached personally to say she wanted to kill me. Missy’s entire extended circle of friends coordinated efforts—they glared, they stared, they whispered, they mouthed “whore” and “bitch” when I accidentally made eye contact. They handed me notes explaining in elaborate detail how hideously slutty I was for what I’d done to Missy.
In writing, they threatened to beat me up if I ever went near Joel again. “Keep your fucking hands off him!” the letters said. Joel wouldn’t look me in the face, of course; it was hopeless to seek help from him. Missy’s fan club sat together at the football and basketball games, perpetually shooting me the bird and throwing candy at me while I was cheering. On weekends, they drove by my work and screamed “Bitch!” and “Slut!” out their open windows while I was waiting on customers. This was one motivated fan club!
In record time, the “I hate Michelle Dean Club” exploded in membership. When a guy named Don in my history class called me on the phone one night about an assignment, the very next day a girl named LaQuita came up to me at my locker and told me, “You’d better stay the FUCK away from MY man!” When I sat next to a cute spirit booster on the bus on the way to an away game, the next day his girlfriend Patricia called me a “fat tomato” when she passed me in the hall. I never wore that all-red dress again. When a guy named Todd gave me a ride home after school another day, the next morning someone approached me on behalf of a girl named Sherrie to tell me to not even think about Todd. And so it went.
Believe me. I’d gotten the message. “Don’t speak to any guy. Ever.” I was surprised to learn that some girl out there had her eye on almost every one of them, even if the guys themselves weren’t aware of it. As hard as I tried to abstain from interacting with, well, just about everyone, one night something unlucky happened. LaQuita’s Don stopped by my house unannounced with two other guys. I knew better than to let them in, so we stood talking on the porch for about thirty minutes. Well, apparently an informant of LaQuita’s happened to drive by and take note of us. My phone was soon ringing off the hook—until I took it off the hook for the night. The next morning, “Die white bitch!” had been written on my locker in black Sharpie. I left school after first period and hid out at home.
That night, at 10 p.m., I stopped by a grocery store on the way home from having dinner at Mom’s house. As soon as I walked in, I groaned. LaQuita’s best friend, Iesha, was working as a cashier up front. I looked down, hoping she wouldn’t notice me, and walked quickly to the back of the store where the refrigerators were. All I needed was a gallon of milk. I grabbed one, and when I turned to walk back up front, Iesha was standing directly behind me, blocking my way. She reached around me and grabbed another gallon of milk, took a step back, and then swung it as hard as she could at my head. Somehow I ducked in time, got around her, and hustled to the front.
Another woman began checking me out until Iesha pushed her aside and said “I’ll take care of this BITCH!” She rang me up and I gave her my money. She made the change, throwing the coins at me as hard as she could. Coins bounced off in all directions. I grabbed my milk and walked out to my car. By this time, I was shaking like a leaf and broke down in tears a few blocks away. A long-distance runner named Will pulled up next to me at a stoplight and saw me crying. He followed me home and asked me if I was okay. I told him to “please leave me alone”—god forbid, some girl was interested in him.
I skipped school the next day. The day after that, the principal called my dad and told him I’d been out. I explained everything to Dad and he took me in to meet the principal. I gushed out everything that had been going on, naming all my recent enemies. The principal said he couldn’t address everyone, but he could deal with Iesha, the biggest threat, and he did. Turns out she was in trouble for some other things anyway. That night, my dad drove to the grocery store and found Iesha. He put a finger in her face, told her who he was, and harshly said, “If you EVER lay another finger on my daughter, I will personally file assault and battery charges against you. Do you understand me?!” She backed off.