Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Seventeen Should Look Both Ways Before Crossing That Street

Is it because my son just turned seventeen that I am remembering seventeen, that I am dreaming about seventeen, that I wake from these dreams so disoriented that I have to look around at my bedroom for signposts of familiarity: alarm clock, husband sleeping, cat staring at me with glittering eyes that seem to know exactly where I've been and why?

The fragments make sense only in view of what I feel must be the imperative of the seventeen-year-old: coming to terms with leaving childhood and entering a sort of liminal space that is almost, but not quite, adulthood. In other words, there are significant gaps in understanding, and these gaps make seventeen a most dangerous age.

What else can you take from memories like these?

I am seventeen, and my best friend and I have dressed up in what we believe to be sophisticated clothes. Really they are not sophisticated at all. We have made the erroneous assumption that what is most revealing of skin is also most sophisticated. We go to a fancy restaurant. We are inordinately proud of ourselves for remembering to place our linen napkins in our laps and for knowing which of our forks is for salad and which for the main course. At the next table over are six students in business school. All are male. What we miss is just how drunk they are. They keep staring at us (leering, really, but we don't yet know that word). We are flattered. We giggle coyly. They insist on paying for our dinners. Seventeen, so we let them. When they finish their meals, they tell us that they are going to a bar. They ask us to join them. We decline. They are not happy, not happy at all. We are unsure why.

I am seventeen, and babysitting for a six-month-old girl. I have pushed her stroller into Central Park. I stop at a park bench and sit down to rest. The baby is sleeping. A male cyclist wheels by, then stops and turns his bike around. He props his bike against the bench and sits down next to me. He is sticky from sweat and heat, and he does not smell good. I slide my body away from his. He slides his body back towards mine. He has got to be forty, and he is perhaps the hairiest man I have ever seen. He asks me if the baby is mine. I laugh. What a preposterous notion to seventeen! I shake my head no. He makes inconsequential conversation, and then: "You have such pretty blonde hair on your thighs," he murmurs. "I'll bet you don't even have to shave." Ewww, I think. I get up from the bench and make motions to leave. I am beginning to be uncomfortable. "Wait!," he says, and opens his backpack. He takes out a pad and pen and scribbles something on the pad. He tears off the top sheet and hands it to me. "Call me?!," he asks, or demands. On the paper is his name and number. I think, Why would I ever want to call you?, but I take the paper, because I've been taught to accept what is offered me, whether I like the gift or not. I push the stroller towards the park exit. He yells from behind me, "Call me!" When I return to the apartment where I am babysitting, I am clutching the bit of paper with his phone number on it. "What's that?," asks the baby's mother. I tell her the story, and she snatches the paper out of my hand, holding it by two fingers as if it's contaminated. She tosses it in the wastebasket. "That is disgusting!," she cries. "What a lech!" I vow to look up the word lech as soon as I get home. I am only slightly sorry that she has thrown the paper away. I wasn't going to call him. But it was my paper.

I am seventeen, and new at university. I am taking a walk with a senior, a boy who is the resident counselor in my dormitory. We are friends, only that. He has a six-pack of beer, and he offers me one. It is broad daylight, and we are nearing downtown Providence. To me it is novel, the idea of drinking a beer at noon, so I pop open my can and take a few tentative sips. I like the idea of beer much more than the taste of it. I hear the screeching of tires, and surprised, I watch as a police car nearly drives onto the sidewalk in its haste to reach us. A policeman, big and broad and ruddy, bounds from the car and snatches the can from my hand. Without a word, he pours the contents of the beer (largely undrunk) down my leg. He slams back into his car and tears off. I am seventeen, but I look fifteen. I am seventeen, and I have failed to consider the fact of my being underage. I think I must have believed that the rules restricting the use of alcohol do not apply in the daytime.


This was seventeen for me: a rather shocking degree of innocence mixed with curiosity and a growing sense that I had certain powers where I hadn't even thought to locate them.

I wonder how seventeen is for my son: whether his experiences are colored as much by gender as mine appear to have been, whether he has more sense than I did, whether he has already found himself in situations that are ambiguously perilous...

And I keep dreaming, with only the cat's unreadable eyes keeping watch over my memories of seventeen years old, adult in body but not so in mind.


V said...

My 17-year-old is so tuned in to the ways of the world. I was innocent at 17, for better or for worse.

Nicole said...

I just loved reading this. I had some similar experiences to you, when I was 17.

Mary Gilmour said...

I cannot tell you how dumb I was at that age. My kids were somewhat more worldly, but they still needed a walker with a leash.
I promise you, you will look back and laugh, especially when you get "But why didn't you TELL me?" From your twenty something.

slow panic said...

My oldest is 16 1/2. I know there is this whole life happening that I don't even know about and it fills me with terror and joy all at the same time.