Matters of the Heart: A fictionalized tale of a truly concerning romantic phenomenon.
By Cakey Hankerson
Chapter 1: Matt-riculation
As first kisses go, it was not at all what I expected. Not that I knew what to expect; it was the first time I’d kissed someone. Later, I spent a decent amount of time considering my, well, indecent amount of time spent with that first Matt. How did I wind up spending my older brother’s 20th birthday not watching I am Legend at the rinky-dink local movie theater while Matt, who I’d known for a grand total of 12 hours, whispered scandalous propositions before backing me into the faded red plush movie theater seat for some seriously tongue-tangling?
Maybe to some 17-year-old girls, this is typical behavior. In fact, most people wouldn’t bat an eye-lash at making out in a movie theater on your brother’s birthday . . . with your brother’s best friend . . . twelve hours after meeting him for the first time. “Most people” of course refers to the immensely over-sexualized teenagers of today. Oh, don’t tell me I am stereotyping. Whatever crazy sexual shenanigans you used to hear about in high school are still around, only now it’s worse. They have smart phones. Anyhow, to some, my breach of good sense is just your average Tuesday. “Hey, let’s go see bad movies and make out with strangers” they might say, and everyone would roll their eyes because that’s what they all did last Tuesday, right? But for me, this was definitely out of character.
Backtrack. It’s the year 2000 and I am a freshman in small town high school, USA. As a soft-spoken (aka socially awkward) 13-year-old entering a new school after 8 years homeschooled in a highly traditional home, I had progressed beyond the sew-your-own-clothing stage, but I was far from comfortable in my own skin. I was quickly cast in the role of “Smart Kid Who (as one teacher so thoughtfully put it) ‘Was Brainwashed Into Conservative Values By Her Parents.’” (Side note: that teacher was later fired for having sex with one of her students. Suffice it to say, I feel okay about rejecting her judgment of my values, just in case you were wondering if I’m still holding onto that as an adult!)
Just to put this into perspective a little more, I began my public schooling testing into all honors courses, and was immediately immersed in a group of highly competitive teenagers who had been fast friends, frenemies, or even arch nemeses, since they were all in diapers together. As if all of this weren’t enough to lodge me solidly in the smattering of stereotypical fringe-girls on the social scene, the teachers of Small Town America High School (STA High, for short) would occasionally provide their own unique (and public) commentary on student social lives, a soap opera they all followed avidly, some more conspicuously than others. Unfortunately, a few teachers chose the wrong audience with which to share their perspective, and the Freshmen Honors English Teacher was Exhibit A.
Mr. B was a strange little man, taller than most of his freshmen students, but only because they had yet to reach puberty. He stayed in his classroom most of the time, probably because walking out into the hallway was like watching a weird episode of “Honey, I Shrunk the Teacher”, as upperclassmen, teachers, and staff all towered over him. Mr. B’s thin gray hair lay permanently flaccid above his rounded face, and the resulting effect, combined with his diminutive height and just a touch of true social awkwardness, completed the look of a slightly-pervy old hobbit, perpetually trying to disguise himself in pastel polos and the ever-present khaki pants. Mr. B was nothing if not a creature of habit.
In fact, his habits were so ingrained that we got to hear every strange joke he told in Freshman English twice, once when the second-period students spilled out of his classroom to gossip their way through our fifteen-minutes of midmorning break, and then, for a second time, during our own class. It never failed; like clockwork the jokes were recycled. Soon we found that sophomores and upperclassmen were also familiar with the repertoire, and we deduced that he must have a calendar of jokes and comments planned ahead; perfected throughout his 20 years as a teacher at STA High.
As you might expect from so scheduled a teacher, every Monday, during Mr. B’s 8th period class, we received 10 new vocabulary words for the week, which he would test us on every Friday. Usually this meant that, after diligently writing down the succinct definitions provided, we all wound up studying them during 7th period lunch on Fridays, usually with great success (Hooray for short-term memory!). Every once in a while, though, we would remember the words without studying, because Mr. B had an appallingly unique way of introducing certain words. Every week, he chose a student (read: victim) who he believed best represented a given vocabulary word, and used them as an example. For example, the week we learned “utilitarian” and “aesthetic”, Mr. B’s vocabulary example was, “My, Nikki, that backpack of yours is so aesthetically pleasing, but it doesn’t look very utilitarian since it cannot hold all of your books.” Or that week we had “effervescent” and “taciturn” on our list, and he said, “Tamara is an excellent example of an effervescent personality, since she is always talking with others, but poor Ty is so taciturn that we barely know what he sounds like.” You get the picture. Usually the examples were at least attempted complements, but his poor social skills usually rendered them, at best, backhanded. Some weeks were better than others, but mine, well; I think mine took the cake. What word did Mr. Stage-1-Hobbit-Sex-Offender associate with me?
Part of Speech? Adjective.
Mr. B’s Definition? Exceedingly proper; modest in speech, conduct, dress, etc.
“We might say Annie is a great example of a prudish person, don’t you all think?” Now, this was an honors class; we may not all have been genius material, but we were far from vocab virgins. Anyone worth their salt knows that calling someone a prude usually means that they’re of the stuck up and holier-than-thou ilk, particularly with regards to sex. It might have been true, but it was never a truly nice thing to say about a person.
To their credit, my classmates did not laugh. Instead, they unanimously shot extremely shocked looks in Mr. B’s direction. Even Collette and Tammy, who I overheard one day gleefully bashing both my wardrobe and my character in the girls’ locker room, looked respectably taken aback. Our facial expressions, along with the stunned silence following his bizarre question, must have clued Mr. B in to the awkward-factor of calling a freshman girl a prude, because he immediately followed up with “ . . . which is a positive thing! Right? I mean, it just means that she is, you know, really proper . . . and . . . modest?” He floundered to the dubious end of his statement, coughed, and quickly changed the subject.
Needless to say, my reputation was pretty clear to me from the get-go. Not that I did a whole lot to change it for the next few years. Now, don’t get me wrong; high school was not a miserable time for me, at least, not after the first adjustment year. This is not the sassy new memoir version of Stephen King’s Carrie. I may not have dated, but my level of accepted-ness, thankfully, did grow over the course of my four years at STA high. This surge in popularity was partially because I was friendly, partially thanks to my increasingly popular older brother Neil, and partially because I was relatively smart, which made me a great candidate for homework help (read: attempts to copy). Thanks to this trifecta of marketable qualities, I wound up on Prom Court junior year, and I happen to know that I got beat out for “Nicest To Know” by one vote in our Senior Yearbook, but my dating scene never improved. Between my shyness around the opposite sex and the fact that my older brother took umbrage to the slightest hint that someone found me attractive, it is not surprising that I remained completely sans relationship experience through my graduation from good old Small Town America High School at the ripe old age of 17. And so it might have remained, if it wasn’t for my best-friend-of-all-time-at-the-time, Katelyn.
I met Katelyn while she was dating my brother’s friend Rob. It was a quintessential high school summer, and those were the years when the whole football team would pile into the junk cars belonging to whoever had a license at the time and race out to “Jason’s Pond” for bonfires, swimming, and whatever dangerous games they could think of. Since my older brother Neil and I have always been close, I got to know a few of his friends, and after a while I became part of the crew invited to these pond shindigs. Ever nervous around the attractive jocks (*cough* Jason *cough*), and a little resentful of being a little sister tag-along, I usually declined. The summer before my senior year, however, I finally accepted an invitation. It was perhaps my second trip to Jason’s pond when Rob decided to bring his girlfriend. As the associated younger sister and girlfriend, neither of whom quite fit in with the rest of the crowd, Katelyn and I bonded quickly. Or, as we later would say, we ponded. Before you knew it, we were inseparable.
Aside from teenaged-girl slumber parties, which would not be complete without lots of Screw-Marry-Kill, Would You Rather, and the occasional viewing of Cruel Intentions, Katelyn fast became my best source for all relationship advice. This should probably have been concerning since she was from a highly broken home, moving from one boyfriend to the next as she slowly dealt with a truly heartbreaking family situation and a history of paternal abuse. The poor girl couldn’t have recognized a functional relationship in a line-up if it had mugged her in broad daylight, but teenagers just don’t think about functionality when it comes to relationships. She had a boyfriend, so she was qualified.
Although I have many flaws, I am nothing if not loyal. So I threw all of my loyalty into our friendship, doing my best to help mitigate some of Katelyn’s sad circumstances through a metaphoric attachment at the hip. Our friendship outlasted the He’s-Going-To-College-Breakup with Rob, flourishing as I went into full supportive mode through her emotional roller-coasters. Since her family was such a disaster, I made her part of my family that year. Deserved or not, Katelyn had my trust and, as someone who had been in several relationships (however dysfunctional), she became my love guru. What I didn’t foresee was that, soon after arriving home from his Freshman Year at College, she also became Neil’s friend with benefits.
You probably have realized that ours was not a healthy friendship, which I was on my way to discovering, not to worry. Loyalty, however, comes fully equipped with excellent blinders, and mine were still firmly in place when the month of July rolled around. There I was, a high school graduate, my best friend and my brother hooking up on the sly, and I had never even been kissed. Katelyn was concerned, as any good Love Guru would be. So, she took matters into her own hands and decided it was time to be my matchmaker.
The scene was set with care . . . literally. It was the day before my brother’s birthday and there were streamers, balloons, and even a snazzy cookout setup. His closest college friends were driving up the following day as a surprise and then he, with his posse 19-year-old boys, was off to adventures unknown, road-tripping to Canada. With the skillful prep work almost complete (unbeknownst to me), Katelyn played her gold card. With all the skill of a 17-year-old Yenta playing the game of Telephone in some bastardized version of Fiddler on the Roof I hope they never make, she told me that she had heard that my brother had been talking with his college-best-friend Matt, and that Matt had said to my brother, who then relayed this information to Katelyn, that I was really attractive. (Did you follow that?) She proceeded to tell me that she thought it might be a good idea for me to know this highly privileged information so that I might kiss Matt, you know, if the opportunity arose. Nervous, but spurred on by un-kissed curiosity and my Love Guru, I kept an open mind.
Onto this intricate scene entered First Matt. He was not the teenage-heartthrob chiseled chunk of man-meat that every girl hopes for, but he had something that I would soon realize was far more potent: a heady combination of sexual experience and confidence. Two things I lacked entirely, and this kid had them in spades. Wink upon glance, he laid it on thick all day long, giving me what all teen girls really want; attention. When the party wound down and all other guests had dwindled, Neil (with some urging from my love guru) decided that he, Katelyn, Matt, and I should all go to the movies. I had already seen I am Legend twice that summer (What can I say? My hometown wasn’t exactly a hub of metropolitan delights!), but it sounded like a good plan. Once we sat, Matt and I flirted; he kept up an endless stream of outrageous lines, while I shyly tested the waters. As if planned (imagine that!) Neil and Katelyn fell into one of the frequent spats to which they were prone. Deciding they needed to “work it out”, the two co-conspirators left, and Matt knew that his time had come.
It started with tickling. Juvenile really, but I guess what they say about the shoe fitting really does apply. I am extremely ticklish, and grabbed Matt’s hand as he went for the one place I cannot handle being tickled; my knees. Grabbing someone’s hand might seem relatively innocent. Do not underestimate the power of handholding, young people. Handholding is the path to slutty behavior. I feel a little like Yoda, here, but trust me when I say that handholding leads to hand-caressing, hand caressing-leads to general caressing, and before you know it you’re acting like a little trollop while Will Smith tries desperately to keep zombies from destroying the world.
Looking back, I sometimes still try to figure out how on earth First Matt got me to go along with some of the forward shenanigans he pulled that night. It all comes back to that double whammy of confidence and sexual experience. My untried principles never knew what hit them, and as a chronic people-pleaser newly infused with a whole lot of sexual awakening, my befuddled little mind could only think “Well, if he’s doing it, too, then it must be okay.” Hey, they don’t call kids young and foolish for no reason. When First-Matt started to propose we go a whole lot further than just kissing, I nervously felt like a little compromise was in order, and, not wanting to infuse the rest of the evening with awkwardness, I met him partway (read: appeasement). By the end of the movie, we were beyond my comfort zone, and both decidedly hot and bothered – which was a first, for me.
That night was the first night I was kissed. I don’t really know what I expected, but the reality was quite a bit racier then I had anticipated. Movies do a great job depicting the sweet innocence of a first kiss; quite the far cry from my experience. While still highly innocent compared to the typical middle schooler or your average Reality Show star, my horizons were much broader by the end of the evening, and I was quite disappointed in myself, actually. If any truly good thing came from my evening of uncharacteristically scandalous behavior, it was the realization that (A) Being scandalous was easy, and I could be just as slutty as the next girl, and (B) my single status was not because nobody was interested, but because a girl had to have her standards. As I got ready to go to college over the next month, I decided that the next boy I kissed would be one with whom I actually wanted a relationship.
Suffice it to say, I didn’t just graduate from high school that summer.