The first time I met a man, I was twelve years old.
It was a Friday night in 1993 and I had just finished bowling with my friend, “Angela,” who lived just two houses down from me on Pepper Drive, a street firmly planted in the working class side of town. On our street, you could tell which houses were owned and which were rented simply by looking at the lawns. Gleaming green? Owned. Patchy and brown? Rented. (Our lawns were… meh.)
Angela slid a quarter into the pay phone and called her house. She exchanged a few mumbled words over the phone before she dropped the phone into its cradle. Then, she rolled her eyes.
“Tim’s coming,” she huffed as she sunk her hands into the pockets of her windbreaker.
“Oh,” I said.
Angela always complained about her stepdad. He was always telling her no and “being mean.” He even called her names like stupid and cow. But I knew it was more than that.
I saw behind her mother’s makeup, so thick it cracked at the corners of her eyes and lips when she managed to smile. I listened through Angela’s flimsy explanation for why the glass coffee table was cracked from end to end. But it was also terribly easy to tell when Angela was lying. Her eyes would dart upward and fixate on the center of your forehead.
And Angela lied a lot.
But they weren’t the kind of lies that would erode a friendship. Her lies never made me question whether or not she liked me. No, Angela gave pathetic, pitiful lies with the intention of covering her own shame. According to Angela, her shirts always came from The Limited and her Nikes were always from The Finish Line. She only earned bad grades in her classes because her teachers were terrible and unfair. She wasn’t really overweight…she was just so bloated because of her period.
But I knew better–because I had lies of my own.
When Tim pulled up in his brand new 1992 black Camaro, I could hear the music booming through the windows.
“Come on,” Angela said as she grabbed my arm and pulled me to the passenger side of the car.
I had never been in a two-door car before (courtesy of growing up in a family of seven), so I pretty much awkwardly fell into the back seat of the car since I had no idea of where to put my feet in order to slide in. I had just pulled myself upright and was searching for a seat belt when Tim took off.
He didn’t ask us about how bowling was. He didn’t even say hi. We were in his space now. And his space was dark, save the soft lights of the dashboard, and it reeked of a sickly sweet mixture of new car scent and Marlboros. He slouched into his reclined seat, his head lifted just enough to see over the steering wheel. From his fingers dangled his glowing cigarette.
But what defined Tim’s space the most was the booming bass notes of Soul Asylum’s Runaway Train.
It seems no one can help me now
I’m in too deep, there’s no way out
This time I have really led myself astray
I had known the protective, authoritative side of masculinity. The side with advice, answers, and optimism. Ambition and plans. Smiles, hugs, and encouragement.
But I knew that I was now seeing an entirely different side of masculinity, something that had been hidden beneath all the other roles that men had occupied for me: father, uncle, pastor, teacher. This new masculinity was divorced of anything paternal. It was… dark.
Runaway train, never going back
Wrong way on a one-way track
Seems like I should be getting somewhere
Somehow neither here nor there
The notes of this song screamed hopelessness and despair. I could almost see Tim in his endless line of dead-end jobs that barely paid enough to cover the rent. I could see that this car–however he managed to afford it–was an escape from the reality of his life. I could see his life playing out before him, a thousand different ways, but all of them ending in the same, lonely, frustrated death.
It felt like the first time that a man was ever being real with me. Like he was leveling with me and say, “Fuck it. I don’t have any advice for you. I’m just living for now.”
Suddenly, I could see all the walls that men had built around themselves. They were held up by these walls, brick by brick, assurance by assurance, plan by plan. But they were also trapped behind them. And if they lost their footing, it was a long way to fall.
But sitting in that car, I started to see through the bricks in these walls. I started to see that the only thing holding the walls together was pride.
No man had ever let me see his unguarded side.
And though I didn’t have the words for it when I was twelve years old, I realize now that I found this whole situation… incredibly sexy.
Now, none of this changed the fact that Tim was an alcoholic with a violent temper.
But somehow, all of that was forgotten in this moment when I was able to see through these walls. I was so dazzled by the existence of this softer, more vulnerable side that I forgot all those horrible insults he had said to my good friend. Maybe, deep down, he really is sweet, I might have thought.
And because of that, I can understand the initial attraction that women often feel to the bad boys. And why many of them stay.
Admittedly, some of the boys that I had the biggest crushes on during middle school and high school were those quiet, introverted loners that listened to Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots, Live, and Soundgarden. I didn’t have the vocabulary and the self-awareness at the time to understand why I could picture myself with one of them rather than a popular, well-liked, or even a really smart guy.
But I realize now that the attraction came from my ability to see why a quiet, introverted loner would want to date me.
And the biggest reason that I thought one of those guys would want to date me?
Because he would need me.
What could I offer a popular or smart guy? I wondered.
I thought I was ugly, so why would a popular guy be seen with an ugly girl? And I wasn’t so sure that I was that smart (Algebra I was a real nightmare), so why would a smart guy want to talk to an average girl?
I just couldn’t imagine a scenario in which a guy wanted to be with me just because I was me.
I was not enough. Not thin enough. Not pretty enough. Not cool enough. Not smart enough. Not interesting enough.
So if I wasn’t enough by myself, I needed to be able to offer something. By being able to see why someone would want me, I could finally re-imagine myself as desirable.
So in all of my daydreams, I had clearly defined what I had to offer a guy:
1) I could see him for who he really was when everyone else couldn’t
2) I could be the only one who wouldn’t leave.
Maybe I couldn’t be thin and pretty. Maybe I couldn’t be smart.
But, by God, I could be loyal.
For the life of me, I cannot remember what Tim looked like. I have no memory of this. But for me, the attraction to the bad boy isn’t about appearances. It’s about emotions and singularity. It’s about the allure of being the only person that the bad boy trusts, the only one to whom he reveals his vulnerability.
Being the only one makes you feel special, chosen, anointed.
It makes you feel desirable–and that is one hell of an aphrodisiac. It’s a strong cocktail of sex and power.
After all, isn’t that what attraction really is? A dance of power?
Wanting someone who is just out of reach. Or being just out of reach to someone else. Overpowering someone with your desirability. Or being overpowered by someone else’s desirability.
Personally, I’ve always found physical attraction much more fleeting than emotional attraction.
Allow me to digress for a moment.
I used to work with a rather attractive guy at the main library at Miami University while I was going to school there. He was super tall, a real broad guy, which I loved because I’m also pretty tall. He had a shy air about him, but he had such a great smile. I would tell him jokes just so I could see him smile.
We had a Friday night shift from 7:00 p.m. to midnight together one semester, so we ended up spending Friday after Friday sitting next to each other at the circulation desk. Most of our conversations were just friendly banter for the first six weeks. Then around the middle of the semester, we turned away from our books and started talking to each other late one night, probably around 10:30. We talked about where we grew up and what our childhoods were like.
It was great. It had all the components of a date while in the safe context of “Well, we’re just talking at work.” If things got too uncomfortable, I could magically find something that I needed to do.
Then, we started talking about the future—what our plans were after college. By this point, our books were pushed to the side of the counter and we were leaning forward in our chairs, laughing. Then, he said this: “Yeah, I think your twenties are all about making the money. Then, your thirties are about doubling it.”
Never had I been so quickly and completely turned off.
We need attraction. In the beginning, it’s what holds our attention.
But attraction isn’t love.
Too often, we slap the word love onto the feeling of attraction. We confuse the dance of attraction and desirability with the holiness of love.
Love is a different animal. Love remains when attraction drops its arms. It lingers when the other person has become broken and messy. Love draws us wholeheartedly into the mess. Love compels us to give and give beyond what we thought possible. In the presence of love, fear and mistrust die. You cannot fully love someone whom you don’t trust.
And I think that this is where a lot of relationships with the bad boys fall apart. Inability to trust is almost always one of the main reasons that he became a bad boy in the first place.
Someone abandoned him or disappointed him. He loved someone–a parent, a sibling, a friend, a lover–and that person betrayed him. And instead of moving through the pain, he built the walls higher. He climbed inside and toughened up. It made him feel safer, sure, but more importantly, it made him feel powerful.
And if he is powerful, he can’t be hurt.
When our middle school years were over, Angela and I drifted apart. We were on two entirely different academic tracks in our high school of 1,600 students. In my junior year of high school, I saw her in the cafeteria when we were all gathered together for some kind of assembly. I sat across from her at a lunch table while she propped her chin on her hand, looking so incredibly bored. She rolled her eyes lazily, only keeping them half-open as she asked me what kinds of classes I was taking.
It was incredibly awkward for me, but I’m certain that Angela was too stoned to remember anything that I had said. As I was talking, I could see her eyes looking through me, as if I had completely disappeared.
“You probably have, like… Lots of good, smart friends, huh?” she asked.
“Yeah, I know a lot of people in my classes,” I admitted.
“Good for you…” her eyes landed on my forehead. “I do too, really. You know Misty? Misty… what’s-her-name… You know who’m talkin’ bout?”
I shook my head.
“Anyway, we real tight. Yeah, we hang out a lot. Her and her dude. Oh and I got a man, too.”
“Yeah,” she rolled her eyes. “He’s like real crazy for me and shit. Like, we have sex, like all the time,” she bragged. “He’s got a job already and we’re gonna get a place together as soon as I get out of this shithole,” she waved her free hand at the room.
“That’s great,” I lied. For a moment, I thought I should feel jealous. But I knew that what I was feeling for her was pity. It was awful. I swallowed hard and tried to climb out of this confusing mess of a conversation. “What’s his name?” I asked.
“Tommy,” she said, playing with the zipper on her backpack. She tossed her hair as she looked around the room. She had gained about forty pounds since I last saw her. Her eyes were slightly bloodshot and she had patches of acne on her forehead and chin.
“He’s like fuckin’ all over me, I can’t even stop him,” she added.
I nodded, too stunned to find any words.
“Totally loves me and shit.” She yawned deeply.
I imagined Angela in this new relationship. I knew that she kept everyone at arm’s length, even her close friends. I knew how she acted when she was confronted with her lies. I knew her shame and how she coped with it. I knew the example of love that had been lived out before her through the tumultuous relationship of her mother and stepfather.
At that moment, I couldn’t articulate why I knew her new relationship was already doomed. All I knew was that she was used to staring at the walls that men built around themselves, her eyes looking up, always up, landing on the center of their foreheads. I knew that what she classified as love was unstable and dramatic. It played out in an exhausting script of pleading, ultimatums, and second chances.
I knew that all the pieces of herself that she had to offer were jagged and uneven and they would cut anyone who touched her. Deeply.
But I know Angela couldn’t have seen this. Not yet.
As she sat at that table across from me, her eyes lit up. “Hey, maybe we should hang out some time,” she said.
“Yeah, maybe…” I smiled, my heart growing tight in my chest.
“Pshh…” she rolled her eyes. “Nah, you’re too good for me now, aren’t you?” she joked. “You’re all hanging with the smart kids and stuff.”
“No, really, we’ll hang out,” I lied.
“Yeah,” she smiled. “Okay.”
That was the last time I ever saw Angela.
Art by Oleksandr Balbyshev
This story originally appeared on Sharon’s blog Becoming Mother