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The Lesson

by Debra Warlick

Mask, by Yoju
"Pele" by Michelle Waters

I walk the three blocks home, arms folded tight against my chest, my fingers grasping my elbows. Chin tucked down, eyes focused on every step. All thoughts and energy go into this fragile walk, counting the number of movements it takes to reach my bedroom, shut the door and slide down its back until I am a doorstop.

Three months earlier:

I race up the street, school books under one arm, the other hand a shield to protect my newly-sprayed wings, locked into place so that not one hair moves independently. Fifteen minutes until the school bus comes, a half hour until high school starts - my freshman year, 1984.

My best friends, the Shrope girls, are still getting ready, spraying enough Aqua Net to preserve fifty hairstyles instead of the three it covers. Their house serves as the meeting place in our neighborhood and the bus stops at the edge of their driveway.

"How do I look?" "Are these jeans O.K.? " "Quick, give me your lip gloss, I'm out!" We frantically finish grooming and make it to the bus stop just as it pulls up.

The familiar exhaust fumes mingle with the smell of early morning dew, a sure sign that summer is done.

I'm pushed to the head of the line -- my friends think I have an extra dose of nerve -- and I make my way toward the back. Strange, older faces glance at me a touch disdainfully and others my age nod and smile nervously. I grab a row in the back for myself and two friends, Jackie and Karen. I look around, now comfortable with my armor of buddies in place.

"Hey," says a deep voice, so different from the ones I'm used to hearing -- boys whose words climb painfully up and down the scales of puberty. I turn, my face expressionless and therefore cool.

"Hi," I reply, bored on the outside and quaking inside.

"You girls know Kathy Neely? She mentioned some girls in this neighborhood," says the boy, looking about 16 as he runs his hand over the peach fuzz dotting his tanned face, proudly in need of a shave.

Jackie, the talker in our group, starts chattering about Kathy and how they went to the same summer camp. Does he live near her?

"We're next door neighbors, on Woodland Drive," he says, inclining his head in the direction toward the subdivision next to ours. He answers Jackie's questions, rarely taking his eyes off me. I subdue the blush that rises to engulf my too-fair skin.

Stacy's eyes are dark brown to my pale blue, his hair almost black to my blonde. Opposites, I think, as he talks.

Later, I find out his full name - Stacy James. He's a junior -- eons ahead of me in the caste system known as high school. Stacy is a wanna-be jock, on the fringes of the group of loud, daring boys who shine.

It becomes a ritual - every morning and afternoon, he saves me a seat on the bus. He flirts without witnesses. Most kids his age drive their own cars or have friends who do. The only ones who could take notice are nobodies.

In the halls between classes, I pass by him and the other jocks, as they are snickering and punching each other's shoulders. He looks through me and I realize this before I bring my hand up in a timid wave, I think gratefully. That afternoon on the bus, he smiles and chatters on, teasing me about my braces and how they would get in the way of kissing.

There is no acknowledgment of any other life off of the school bus. My mind turns this over, justifying to save my pride. I'm just too young, I think, his friends would tease him. I know how terrible kids can be to each other. I do not question this, the painful dig at my heart is pushed aside.

In my diaries he is, from the beginning, only SJ. I instinctively knew this was to be a secret, even in my private writings. Two months after our veiled courtship begins, another girl on the bus brings home a friend to spend the night. Christina is my age, with straight blonde hair falling down her back and a legacy -- her sister is a cheerleader.

Stacy and Christina are chatting when I get on the bus that afternoon. He sits in the row behind her, leaning up to take her in view. I see this and make my face a blank. I sit with Jackie and pull out a novel to read. I hear them talk, Stacy eagerly, Christina politely.

I actually cringe a bit for Stacy -- she is not interested in a wanna-be jock. She has her pick of the upper echelon and he does not rank.

I tell myself, tomorrow I will not sit with him. I'll ignore him as devastatingly as he does me. My pride will grow back.

To my relief, he eagerly waves me to his seat that next morning. I sit on the edge, anger apparent in this timid rebellion. By the time we get to school, I am his again, only to become invisible on school grounds.

Stacy asks me to come over to his house after school. His mother works and he has the place to himself. He wants to teach me how to kiss. Of course, I've kissed boys before -- I'm 13. But the open mouth, tongues darting kiss is unknown to me.

That afternoon, I tell my mom I'm going up to the Shropes. Then I sneak out the back door, go through the woods to end up near his house. This way, no nosy neighbors can report back to my mother. Subterfuge comes easily to me.

We awkwardly greet each other. I strike a nonchalant attitude, as if visiting older boys at their homes is nothing new to me. He plays host and offers me a soda. I barely sip the soda, knowing it will not ease my nervously dry mouth. We chat aimlessly about his sports accomplishments. Stacy tells me he likes my jeans, the way they fit. That blush I want to banish appears.

After a few minutes, he stands and holds out his hand. I grab hold in fear and anticipation. He leads me to his bedroom.

"It's much easier to learn the technique of kissing while on a bed," he teases as we both sit down. I suddenly wish I were home, watching reruns of Gilligan's Island or any other inane, safe activity.

But it's just a kiss, I tell myself. And what do I know about kissing?

Stacy leans over and his lips touch mine, urging my mouth to open. His tongue darts in quickly and mine lies as if paralyzed.

He pulls back and smiles, those warm brown eyes capturing me.

"When we kiss, we open our mouths enough so our tongues can explore. Both our tongues," he adds pointedly. We try again, and obviously, I do better. His hands wander over and under my top. I tell myself it's OK, it's time to experiment.

He then whispers how beautiful I am, how he wants to see all of me. I shrink back, then berate myself for being a wimp. Without any finesse, I pull my clothes off but quickly jump under the bed covers. Stacy is down to his briefs, a move I did not notice as I concentrated on my own bold actions.

Stacy slides under the covers with me. "Your skin is so soft," he says, his hands moving over my rigid body. "Relax, I just want to touch."

But when his hand roams down below, I push it away. "That's too much," I whisper.

He slides his briefs off in a smooth, practiced motion and asks if I would touch him. Touch it. Tentatively, I move my hand toward the spot he wants. He wraps his hand around mine, moving it up and down. I feel the hardness and know what it means.

Stacy moans and I think to myself, "If I keep doing this, it'll be over soon." That is my thought as he quickly positions himself on top of me.

"What are you doing?" I ask in a panicky, shaky voice.

"Don't worry, I'm just going to slide it between your legs. It'll feel better, you'll see." I partially slide my legs apart, remembering what I've heard about that teenaged practice of dry humping. It feels wrong, but I again tell myself, "Soon, soon it will be over."

And then it happens. His hand moves down to his penis, while one strong hand pulls my hands together and above my head. "What is this? Stop..." I whimper in a tone I despise. Where is my strength? Something bad is going on, I know.

His 6', 200 pound frame covers me and I cannot move. I feel a horrible, shooting pain as he rapes me. He's inside and it hurts and I scream. He now uses one of his hands to cover my mouth. It is over in a matter of minutes. I am numb.

He pulls out of me and I see blood. My blood. I ache and want to cry. Instead, I move quickly out from under him, his spent, inert form offers no protest. Stacy rolls on his back and does not say a word.

I dress, wiping one tear from my eye. I will not let him see me cry. He does not look at me as I hurry out of the bedroom, out of the house, and on my way home.

Debra Warlick,35, a long-time newspaper and magazine journalist whose writing positions include work as a police reporter and celebrity profiler, lives in Atlanta with her son Alex, who is 8.

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