The first time I had sex was on a sleeping bag in the wooded strip behind the park near my school. I was fifteen. The sleeping bag was dark blue or a rough, insistent green. It was rumpled, because someone had been sleeping there, living there—although this person was not there now. It was California winter in a drought year, fifty-five degrees, brittle parchment-colored leaves scattered on the pillow that lay on the sleeping bag. The pillow lacked a pillowcase, and its exposed tag stuck straight out. Through bare branches I could see the wire fence that surrounded a concrete canal, now dry.
First, I crouched on all fours on the sleeping bag. I was still wearing my clothes. I could feel sticks under my knees. I craned my head back to look at my boyfriend Ek, who was waiting behind me. “I think people can see us,” I said.
“What people? Don’t be stupid.”
I rubbed at a spot on the sleeping bag with my finger. “I feel like they can see us if they come by.”
“You don’t want me, do you?” said Ek.
By the time I was nineteen, I had started telling everyone this story: “I was abused.” I told this to whoever was willing to listen, whoever would watch my face with hushed eyes. I told this, strangely, to people I wanted to seduce, and it worked. I told this with a bubbling, laughing exterior because that was the only way I could tell it then—cut off from gravity, as a firework display in the air of story. I found that alluding to a dusky past, submerged in a suffering I could not quite speak, made people treat me tenderly, made them want to come near. But sometimes I went too far. I remember telling a friend in college that I believed the best definition of intimacy was the sharing of intense pain. When I said it, she stared at me in fear.
I don’t even know—to be honest, I never knew—whether or not “I was abused” is true. I once heard a rhetoric professor say that any story of the self is always a lie, one we go around trying to sell to others in order to buy it ourselves.
Ek is a name I invented for him during my many preliminary attempts at telling this story. Ek is pronounced ache and means “one” in Hindi—but I don’t speak Hindi, and Ek is not really a name any Indian person would have, and Ek, the real one, was not Indian, though in my stories he often was. My mother moved from India to the U.S. at twenty, marrying someone white and thus burying, arguably, her Indianness inside me, behind my skin’s vaguely burnt peach. So I felt, I think, that if I made him Indian I could gain more ownership over my story—that somehow this would all make more sense if I made him part of my own race, the race I was trying to make my own.
Ek was Taiwanese-American. He spoke Taiwanese at home with his parents, but no one at school believed he was Taiwanese, as his skin was too dark. He was short and muscular. He wore his hair shorn close to his skull. Two inches above his right ear was a tiny circle that held no hair at all. It was almost imperceptible, the size of a fingertip, the rough black fuzz rubbed down to the rich skin.
“I’m Mexican,” Ek would say sometimes, whether or not he was asked. “I’m Samoan.” “Mongolian.” “Filipino.” “Black.” Other times Ek would want to be known. “I’m Taiwanese,” he told a Taiwanese girl in AP U.S. History.
She peered at him. “Yeah, aboriginal Taiwanese, right?”
“No. Regular Taiwanese.”
“No way,” she said. “What do you mean?”
“I mean my mom is from Taiwan, and my dad is from Taiwan,” Ek said, and then he said something in barbed Taiwanese.
“Okay, geez,” the girl said, turning away.
I was sitting behind Ek then and didn’t know him yet. I saw he had the kind of anger that sculpted his face, that rendered it strangely beautiful. I saw that Ek and I together formed a perfect duo of racial unhappiness—one too white, the other too dark. We were each a foil for the other’s anguish. I loved nothing more than anguish: that teenager’s elixir, that longing, that home.
Ek and I went to the kind of high school in which teenagers did not have sex. Instead, we competed for perfect test scores, for impressive extracurriculars, for admission into the best colleges. On the weekends, we went to debate tournaments, strange gatherings of hundreds of high school students from various schools, all of us crowding onto a college campus at 7 AM on a Saturday, wearing suits and tights, carrying legal pads, wearing jackets over the odd, slippery fabrics of our fancy clothes. Some parent would bring breakfast and set it out on a table: bagels, a container of cloying strawberry spread, sugar donuts—and we would let crumbs fall onto our dark suits, our stomachs hot with nervousness, sugar, bad sleep. We would wait for a parent or debate coach to post the first rounds, everyone’s ID number matched with someone else’s. Then we would go, glowing with anxiety and purpose, two by two into some room where we would each meet another teenager in a suit. We would go into our debate rounds certain that we were worthless, that we would fail. If we did well anyway—if we found out that we had won our rounds, that we had made it to finals—a good, deep radiance would glow inside us, and we would remember that we had been worthwhile all along.
In a high school like this, Ek shone. He wrestled, played football and water polo. As a sophomore, he was already taking calculus and a chemistry class meant only for the highest-achieving seniors. During speech and debate practice, Ek would slouch up to the front of a room, wearing his wrestling team sweatpants and a t-shirt with a hole in it. Once he stood before the room, Ek transformed. He took on a careless, animal poise. His voice was clear, analytical, moving; it exposed the world as it was. Ek gave every speech off the cuff, because he did not believe in preparing ahead of time for anything. He preferred the present moment, that stage off of which he would step carelessly into brilliance.
Ek had the kind of magic charisma that comes from having suffered. It was a freak adaptation and a remnant of a rare survival. This is true, of course, only if we believe the stories that Ek told me about his childhood. Once, when he was seven years old and riding in the car with his mother, she declared that neither of them should ever have been born and threatened to drive off the road. She then pulled up at a gas station, locked him in the car, and walked away. That same week, Ek was standing at the top of the stairs when his father appeared behind him. Ek’s father, like Ek, had the kind of face whose anger burns behind a screen of calm. Ek’s father pushed him down the stairs. When Ek told me these stories on AOL Instant Messenger, they were told in all lowercase, in the style of a teenager’s text. “u dont understand,” Ek would write with a sad face beside it.
Ek told me often that I didn’t understand. But when Ek told me about the time he was seven, I typed that I wanted to kiss away the tears of little seven-year-old Ek. He responded with a smiley face featuring an apostrophe after the colon that served as the eyes—a smiley-face crying in joy. That was early in our relationship, and it was one of the last times things went well.
Ek first came into my life because my best friend Agatha had a crush on him. Agatha’s crush on Ek was the public, unrequited type often practiced in my school by unpopular girls. Such a crush was a pathetic performance, a joke made out of the self. Because of Agatha’s crush, Ek knew who I was. Thus, I thought, by comparison, I rose in Ek’s estimation: Ek and I could talk knowingly about poor, sad Agatha. Sometimes we ran into each other—in class, in the quad—and did, and I felt a glow of excitement. And then we began talking online.
At fourteen, at fifteen, I could tell I was only half real. My personality was a screen stretched over a hollow frame, inside which lived feelings—pure, substantial, torrential, glowing, unnamable. It amazed me that others had feelings too. At this age, I possessed many experimental selfhoods in succession, a parade of papery facades. In the month when I first talked to Ek online, I often wore a gossamer-thin long-sleeved yellow shirt with a scoop neck. It was made from some kind of imitation cotton and came from a cheap clothing store in the mall in West San Jose. The store also sold glitter butterflies of cheap metal, which would perch on your hair; their wings, attached to bright silver springs, would flap when you walked. My favorite one was a pale, shimmering yellow the exact shade of the shirt. That month, I decided that I, like Agatha, had a crush on Ek. I told Ek about it online, expecting him to reject me, which at first he did. I told Ek about my crush with the same delight in confession, the same excitement and embarrassment with which I am writing now.
When I was having sex with Ek my house grew to be a terrible place, because I was in it. I worried that my mother would catch me: that she would leave work to go on an errand and find me wandering there, no people outside. My mother moved through her life with a carefully orchestrated coldness that masked a violent emotion I could not identify. I did not want to learn what it was.
In those days I had frequent yeast infections, or imaginary ones—but I think they were real. The yeast infections were caches of anxiety that built in the pit of a part of my body that had become recently relevant. But one month I did come downstairs to my mother—when she was sitting in the lamplight, reading—to tell her about the yeast infection, in hopes that it was something benign and ordinary that could belong to the world of light—in hopes that it was not because I was having sex. She, too, had a body, and perhaps she could tell me that it was ordinary and safe.
My mom took me to the doctor for the yeast infection. “Are you sexually active,” the doctor asked me once in front of my mom. I shook my head quickly. When my mom left the room, she asked me again, and I shook my head again. The doctor told me it was okay—to take a cream, and take a bath. But the yeast infection came back, and I padded downstairs to ask my mother about it again.
“I’m starting to dread it whenever you come downstairs, Shamala,” my mother said. “I’m afraid of what you will tell me.”
“Of course I want you,” I told Ek. I rubbed a spot on the sleeping bag with my finger. My body was hard and rigid inside itself.
“You don’t want me,” he said, and then he spit out darker words. After that he said, “I can’t believe you’ve been with those other guys and you don’t want me.”
Ek was a Christian and had never been kissed, but I had kissed two people before—gangly, sad boys after dances whom I cared nothing about. But Ek had wanted his first kiss to be with someone pure—a sweet, virginal encounter. Because I had ruined that dream, Ek said, I needed to give him this.
“I do want you. I’m sorry. I promise.”
Ek was on the sleeping bag behind me. He reached around my stomach with both hands and fumbled with the button of my jeans. I wriggled forward to help him pull them off. I put my bare knees back on the sleeping bag.
Something I have learned in my life is that there are certain rules you do not have to follow. You can step over to the other side of each rule. There, you see that the rule was always transparent, insubstantial; you can put your hand through it like it was never there. In this way, middle-class teenagers who have their own homes lie down on a sleeping bag that belongs to someone homeless. This act is against the will of one of them, insofar as she, rattling and inaccessible inside of her fear, has a will at all. But she does not say so.
“Being interesting” is the code Ek and I used for performing sexual acts. “Do you want to be interesting today?” Ek would ask me at school. It meant that later in the day, I would lie to my mother and tell her I was at debate practice. Instead, I would walk the two miles to his house. I remember most of all walking there in the near summer, when the heat stank on the sidewalks, when the sidewalks seemed to smell of my body. I remember that the first time I ate a persimmon—in college—it tasted so strongly of Ek’s cum that I spat it out into a plastic bag. It reminded me of that walk through the suburbs in the heat with Ek’s cum thick on my throat.
Once I got to Ek’s house, it was time to go up to his bedroom, which was just a queen bed with mussed covers in the center of a white walled room. I remember this room as having literally no furniture and no decoration—now and then maybe his pants thrown on the ground, a backpack thrown in a corner. Maybe there was a plain bedside table with a lamp on it—maybe of particle board made to resemble wood. Maybe in a corner, a pile of trophies from sports and debate. Trophies knocked over, tangled, with dirty plastic on top.
“Being interesting” had a lesser-used counterpart in our language: “being useful,” which meant taking dirty pictures of myself on the phone or computer and sending them to Ek. I don’t remember whether Ek came up with this term or I did.
Ek and I rarely had vaginal sex. As much as Ek raged about it, my muscles would tighten; my body wouldn’t let him in. I would move to other acts to appease him so that he would not use force. The first time I gave Ek a blow job I didn’t know how to do it; I thought you were literally supposed to blow. “You can’t just kiss it,” he said impatiently. It did not take long before I learned how to give a blow job. I could detach myself from every part of myself other than my mouth and crammed throat and become pure function, pure form.
I was with Ek for two years, and I thought I would be with him forever. I would turn down an Ivy League acceptance if I got one and he didn’t. I would feel ashamed to tell my mother I had done it, but I would do it. I would let him keep hurting me because it was just me.
Then, one day early in my last year of high school, I left. I dropped the one class Ek and I had together. He told me he would kill himself if I left him or that he would kill me. But I left him anyway and we didn’t die. I got into Stanford and he didn’t, and I went.
Perhaps suspiciously, I’ve now forgiven Ek altogether. Though I would not like to see him again. I would like him to stay an idea; I would like to possess my version of his story, my wild speculations without his interference. I don’t want him to read this. I don’t wish him ill. I would like to remember his body, which is strangely echoed in the body of the gentle husband I have now. I did not feel desire for Ek’s body when we were together, because I did not know how to feel desire. My desire blunted and locked itself away. I didn’t really know how to feel desire for perhaps eight years afterward. I can feel desire now in full, glorious, intricate, unruly manifestation. But where is my anger at Ek? Lodged in the wrong places, igniting now and then, seemingly at random. I almost don’t care. I am healed enough that it is no longer interesting to me to trace my healing.
Ek always said that he thought of himself as ugly, which, to be honest, sometimes he was: forty percent of the time ordinary, forty percent of the time unbelievably beautiful, and maybe fifteen percent of the time actually ugly. Five percent of the time he looked a way I could not place and could not understand. Though he thought of himself as ugly, Ek understood the effect that he had on others; at the same time, he held the knowledge away from himself, at a distance of not-quite-belief. This was a manifestation of a trait endemic to all of our friends at our high school. Whenever we thought anything good about ourselves—that we were pretty, that we’d done well on a math test, that we were good at speech and debate—we needed to accompany it, in our minds, with a surge of unbelief. We used the unbelief as a talisman. We could not dare to believe in our glory. We could not dare to believe we were good enough. If we believed, we felt, the coveted versions of ourselves might shatter.
The moment when it occurred to me that Ek might be abusive—it was a few months before I left him—felt small, like a seed I could place in the groove between two fingers and hold there close to my palm. I was sitting at the computer staring out into the suburban yard, where a single bottlebrush tree flared. Like always, it was night. The screen shone. In a flash of inspiration, I typed into the browser: “abusive relationship.” I tried: “emotional abuse.” “Sexual abuse.” “Is it abuse if he doesn’t hit you.” Once, Ek had pushed me into a wall outside a classroom, but was it hard enough to count? There were days when I wished fervently that he might hit me so that it would show. Against another outside wall, at a debate tournament after we’d snuck into an unused classroom to have sex, he threw an empty glass bottle so that it broke.
I did not—that night near the bottlebrush—type many specifics into the computer. I did not write out the details of what Ek had done. But I traced and traced them in my head until they felt almost like they had happened, until my life felt almost true.
Shamala Gallagher is an essayist and poet with recent work in or forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, The Missouri Review, West Branch, and The Offing. Her chapbook I Learned the Language of Barbs and Sparks No One Spoke is available on dancing girl press. She holds an MFA from the Michener Center for Writers and has received fellowships from Kundiman, VCCA, and Vermont Studio Center. She lives in Athens, GA, where she teaches as a PhD student at the University of Georgia and works as an advocate for domestic violence survivors at Project Safe.