Girl. Woman. Girl. Girl. Girl. Girl.

She was 14, maybe. Her mom or caregiver yanked her by the arm, hissed, “What is wrong with you?” The girl snatched her arm away, hard, and skulked over to a table. She turned and yelled, “Why can’t I just talk to him?”

The woman took two steps toward her, then turned around and sat at another bench, defeated. A few minutes later, clearly holding back tears, she yelled over to her, “Because your talking to him is why we’re here.”

We were outside the courthouse. I was on my way to a brand new job and happened to sit a moment to kill time. They had just come out of the building.

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His name was Pete. I’m pretty sure that was his name. I can’t remember where or how we met. I also can’t remember if his name was Pete. Peter. Still. I’m pretty sure that was his name, and he was everything I wanted in a man.

I was 16, a child. And he was, in fact, a man. He was 24. I didn’t tell him I was 16; I told him I was in my first year of college and I was 18. We talked on the phone for hours, well into the night, long after my mother had told me to get off the phone. He drove a black pickup. He was 6’2″, the color of toasted caramel, and had a smile I knew would make me say yes to things I should run from.

Girls who don’t feel love from the places they should expect it seek it elsewhere.

I told him my mother was strict, so he couldn’t come to my house. She wouldn’t even let me live in the dorms!

He came to my house, though, once. My mother was at work and I was playing hooky. I’d paged him in the middle of watching Steel Magnolias for the third time that day and asked him to bring me food. He brought McDonald’s. We sat on the porch and shared the fries and talked about things adults talk about like Courvoisier (which I had only recently learned, when I tried to buy it and was denied, was not pronounced Coor-voy-shir); my tastes and budget still only allowed for the occasional Private Stock beer.

And then he kissed me.

It wasn’t my first kiss, but it was my first proper kiss. It was the type of kiss that led somewhere. Sitting there on the porch stairs with the whole neighborhood to see us, I eventually backed away. For months we did this kiss and reassess dance. I knew that I’d eventually have to tell him how old I was, because sex wasn’t going to happen. But that was part of the problem: he made me want to make sex happen. Plus, I wanted him to have been so madly in love with me by the time he found out my age that it wouldn’t matter. We talked about the Exxon Valdez spill, Gorbachev, Rayful; it was all quite adult relationship-like, to me, because these were topics I heard the adults around me discuss. And then it happened.

I was walking home from school, not paying attention. I was at my gate before I realized he was parked on the corner. I vaguely remember he was some sort of home repairman. Electrician? That sounds right (which probably means he was not an electrician). Someone in my neighborhood had called the company he worked for for a repair and he jumped at it, knowing the address was close to mine. He looked at me, surrounded by other high schoolers, carrying a fucking backpack I AM SO LAME. He looked hurt, then angry, then hurt. He pulled up beside me. If I’d been in the twelfth grade, nearing graduation, I think he’d have stuck around. But as it stood, at 16, he couldn’t. He seemed so disappointed. And that made me gleeful. He cared.

He didn’t care enough to get arrested.

My friends were impressed. Not only did I have a real live man, one I had kissed and let hold me close and drive me around and feed my fry addiction, but I had broken his heart by being too young. We were ridiculously idealistic girls. I got into the truck and he pulled away, too fast, turning onto a secluded side street where he hit the brake hard. He turned to me and then away probably 15 times. I tried to speak but he said be quiet. I started to get out, but he asked me to stay, grabbing my hand. He looked at me so intently. Was he going to say he loved me? Please say you love me.

“WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU WHY WOULD YOU LIE LIKE THIS I HATE LIARS I WANT TO KNOCK YOU OUT OF THAT DOOR YOU ARE LUCKY I WON’T KNOCK YOU OUT OF THAT DOOR.”

I sat still. We sat for what seemed like a half hour, in silence. If he’d asked, right then, for me to have sex with him to make it all better, I would have. I wanted him to stay around. I was convinced that could/would do it.

And then, lower, not looking at me, “Don’t call me ever again. Don’t page me. Forget I existed. I’m serious.” I got out slowly, while looking at him, wishing he’d turn to  me one last time. He didn’t. I walked away. I didn’t overtly look back, but when I turned the corner, he was still sitting there. It’d been nine months of lies.

We ran into each other a year or so later downtown. I was graduating soon, but dating someone (and still in high school, so still off limits, he said, with just a hint of I wish things were different in his voice). We talked briefly about his new girlfriend (who I may or may not, 20+ years later, still refer to as that stank bitch). He seemed happy. I knew I’d never really known him, but still. He seemed happy. I never saw or spoke to him again.

But, don’t you see? It could have ended so badly. I was desperate to be loved, to have someone find me worthy, to think I was funny, to want me. To want me. I desperately wanted to be wanted. That, together with low self esteem, lack of parental involvement, and no one other than other 16-year-olds to talk to, led to me seeking love from the wrong places.

If Pete has a daughter, I hope he thinks about me when he tells her her worth.

When I talk to my daughters, I think of myself when I tell them their worth.

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