Throughout all of my ages and all of my years, I remember being fourteen the most. Fourteen and dressed in clothes too small on purpose. Fourteen and sat at the family computer, feeling strange, reaching down into my knickers and losing my breath as my fingers were wet and stained red. I was fourteen as I rode the bus alone to a place I’d found on the Internet, walking myself into a room with fluorescent green walls and asking for the contraceptive pill. Fourteen was the age that I fell in love. I fell in love with a boy, but also a feeling - at fourteen, I was achieving good grades, and perpetually waiting for English period to come around again. My teacher would pick up where she had left off and read from To Kill a Mockingbird. My eyes would close as I listened to the words follow each other, creating sentences that took me from the classroom, to Alabama, to an unknown place where I was comfortable, I was a serious grown up and I was a writer.
Two shrill sounds: the lunchtime bell, and the rising chatter of impatient girls. I was fourteen again.
I was fourteen when I had sex with James. I lost my virginity very quickly, despite having nothing but time. In place of a mattress, we had a field of grass that had been left to grow as it pleased. There were no candles. There was no foreplay. No intimacy. A maximum of two kisses were had before the act. I was in a rush. I’d convinced myself that I could mark my territory on another human being. I wanted him to love me too – and this is how he would. I took off my underwear and climbed on top of him because I’d read in an online article that it would hurt less. It still hurt, and the grass felt uncomfortable on my knees. I had to resist the urge to scratch. Maybe that’s what my virginity was to me – an itch that begged to be scratched. Leading up to it, I’d never thought of it as a particularly monumental occasion. It was just means to an end. People all around me were doing it.
As we lay there, I found it difficult to be in the moment. He came, and so it ended. I’ve found this to be common among men, not just boys: many occasions have passed where I’ve had to make a case for my own orgasm – though there have been more where I quietly masturbated in the bathroom. Being fourteen, I’d only ever orgasmed in my bedroom, lay on my front with my hand between my thighs, rocking backwards and forwards until there was a short and sharp sensation that left me feeling warm and out of breath. Lay on the floor of the woods with James, I hadn’t even considered that this could have been pleasurable - but once it was over I felt like I’d been cheated out of something and I was confused. As we stood up and pulled our clothes back on in the dark, two simple sentences broke the silence. “I can’t believe I just lost my virginity.” “Sorry.” I surprised myself with my own sadness and feelings of loss. Judging by the films I’d seen and books I’d read, it wasn’t meant to be like that, quick and confusing and cold, but considering my cartoonish, relentless pursuit, it’s hard to imagine it could have happened differently.
I’d attempted to lose my virginity a week earlier. Same boy, different place. This time, in the bathroom of somebody I still don’t know the real name of, but went by the intriguing nickname of Slim. I didn’t meet him for the entire night and I didn’t try to. House parties were how we spent our weekends at fourteen, though they were unlike the out of control cesspits of total ruin that are so often publicised: groups of us, all underage, drank, smoked and had sex, yes – fine – but there seemed to be a mutual understanding between all guests not to disrespect the households we frequented. Nothing was broken, stolen or vandalised. There was never any reason for parents to threaten to disown their children. They would return to the same house they had left. We were responsible in that way at least.
Friday had come around again. My Dad had been informed via text that I would be staying out – meaning he would be the one to tell my Mum, and I wouldn’t technically have to lie to her. The perfect crime. The story was simple – I was sleeping at Tara's house. Tara's story mirrored my own. Our eyes glittered with opportunity as we walked, arm in arm, to the local Sainsbury’s, changing out of our school uniforms and into our dresses in the public bathrooms. Each time we pulled it off, we felt we’d gotten away with murder. Come Monday, the girls at school with stricter parents would listen to our lunchtime tales of debauchery at houses of strangers, their mouths dropping open slightly at the details. I have since come to understand that my Dad always knew when I was lying, even if it wasn’t to his face, but he had chosen to trust me anyway. I’m not sure that it was the right decision, but it is one I appreciate.
Tara and I promised to be best friends forever, mixing our spit into a glass of water and drinking half each, thus creating an unbreakable bond. It didn’t work. Last time I saw her, she looked right through me, but I had nothing to say to her anyway.
I had arrived at Slim’s party with a goal: to lose my virginity to James. I hadn’t mentioned it to anybody else (except the imaginary woman I pretended to write to in my diary.) My eyes began searching for him as soon as Tara and I had walked through the door, as they always did. I clutched onto my half-finished bottle of Lambrini, taking little sips and wondering if tonight I’d get drunk enough to throw up. I never did. I always knew when to stop. Tara was on the opposite side of the room now. People around me – people I knew – talked, laughed and danced. I didn’t participate, I couldn’t even hold a conversation. I was thinking of nothing but him, wondering which position we would try first, and hoping his Mum was doing okay. Eventually, we met on the stairs, and there was that feeling again. The feeling that I would spend years trying (and failing) to become larger than. He stopped and smiled, and as we talked of little nothings I thought of how lucky I was to be alive at the same time he was, and how it was possible that the world be so big yet I was stood on some stairs in a suburb of Manchester with my soulmate. It was my first flirtation with existentialism. I went on to take an A-Level in Philosophy and a part of me thinks I was still trying to understand this. I was consumed, entirely and I was experiencing all of it: butterflies, the ability to find his face in a crowd, waiting by the phone, tripping up over my words. I would listen to songs that reminded me of him, lying on my single bed, laptop on my stomach, waiting to see that he was online. I would sign in, sign out, sign in again, knowing he would get the notification in the corner of his screen. I would fantasise about his skinny hands, his big teeth, his silly hair, his smoky voice… and the truth is, he was never very nice to me, unless we were alone. Naturally, I became obsessed with getting him alone.
As the night continued, I tried to come to terms with him not acknowledging me all that often. I had exhausted every drop of alcohol available to me, and my friends were leaving for more. Izzy had recently gotten an older boyfriend with a car, and I thereby learned that sometimes, life was just that easy. I stayed behind and that surprised nobody. Eventually he approached me in the garden, smoking a cigarette, and once again I was experiencing the world pass me by in slow motion. I felt like I was watching it happen to me, trying to plan my moves in advance. He leaned in and kissed me and shortly after we were in the bathroom. I’d gotten him alone, or had he me? I didn’t care. My eyes remained transfixed on him as we sat on the cold tile floor, only closing whilst we kissed. It was gentle, I remember that. I reached for his trousers and undid his belt in a way that would have seemed experienced to anybody who didn’t know me – and he knew me. I owe it all to luck. All of a sudden we were standing and struggling with a condom he’d retrieved from his wallet. Earlier, I’d seen him drinking vodka straight from the bottle, and it turned out to have been more than he could handle. I blamed myself – not sexy enough, too boring, too nervous.
For years afterwards, I told myself it would have been better had we succeeded in that bathroom, me pressed up against the sink, head spinning, heart beating too fast as I watched him try to put the orange flavoured condom on his dick successfully. I told myself that it would have been the more enjoyable way rather than on the floor surrounded by trees and insects. Maybe I was right. I’d also told myself that it would have been the more romantic way, thus guaranteeing the requited love I desperately desired. Wrong. It was the most unromantic experience I’ve ever had. Realistically, being in the woods with the moonlight and his trembling hands all over me is much more romantic. I just have to pretend he was nervous rather than shivering.
“I can’t believe I just lost my virginity.” “Sorry.” Blood staining the top of my thighs and being without anything to clean myself except damp leaves, we walked back through the trees, using a phone light as a torch and exchanging small talk which stopped abruptly once we heard the voices of our friends. They stood proudly around the fire they’d made, staring at us with faces that said we know what you’ve been up to. I hadn’t been sure who I wanted to tell but I realised it wasn’t a secret to consider keeping. It wasn’t my experience, it was everyone’s. James and I walked in separate directions. His friends laughed and handed him a warm beer, whilst the group of girls I’d walked back into asked me if it hurt and looked me up and down simultaneously. “No.” I said. I was alone, and apparently, a liar. I stood as close to the fire as I could get, needing the warmth, and asked myself over and over again why I wasn’t happy.
It was dark as I walked home alone, and I had my keys pointing out between my fingers in case of an attack. Stories of rape had been in the local news and I hadn’t been able to stop thinking about it. Now that I’d experienced consensual sex, I couldn’t stop imagining how truly awful it must be, and I cried, wiping my face with my sleeve as I walked. Once I got home, I let myself in through the back door. My parents were sleeping and I was informed by a post-it note on the fridge that my Mum had plated me up a chicken dinner and left it in the oven. It was my favourite but I wasn’t hungry. Still drunk, I went to the bathroom, locked myself in and pressed my face up against the mirror. For a while, I watched the way my warm breath made shapes on the glass which quickly faded. Eventually, I brought my head back and tried to focus on my features. I looked the same as I did when I left the house that morning, and for that I felt relief.
Eventually, I began rifling through cabinets and drawers. I had a small space allocated to me, containing the simplest of things: a razor, a barely used tub of moisturiser, fake eyelashes and some tweezers. The arrangement of things felt insignificant and ridiculous. My hands travelled along the shelves until they met my Mum’s expensive face creams, the kind I felt convinced I’d use every day. I brought them down from her shelf and layered them onto my skin generously, knowing it was the wrong thing to do but doing it anyway. I felt prettier. James hadn’t left my mind once. I whispered over and over again to my reflection that I had done the right thing, and didn’t find myself to be totally convincing. I also told myself that it had to be worth something because it was love at first sight. I believe that then, and I believe it now. The way he made me feel with a single glance in my awkward direction - it was enough to make me believe that we were the only two people in the world that shared such a strange and valuable magic. I experienced the world in pastel hues fit for a film by Wes Anderson. I was fourteen when I read Jane Eyre, and then it all made perfect sense. We were connected, inextricably connected. It went past the limitations of human understanding. Simple. Well, we all make excuses, don’t we?
Six months after I’d had sex for the first time, my Mum told me that we were going out for a meal, just the two of us. I didn’t ask her why, instead spending the entirety of the journey imagining what it could all be about. I settled on the best possible outcome being that a distant relative had died and left us a lot of money. We sat in the restaurant and ordered pizza. Eventually she revealed why we were here – I was getting older and it was time to talk. She told me that my body is a temple and I should do all I can to make sure I keep my virginity for the right person. My parents are the least religious people I have ever met, but my Mum has always treated me like I should be in bubble wrap. Whilst she talked about self-worth, I realised for the first time how young I was. Before this day, I thought I knew it all. But I was only fourteen. The table fell silent. “I know” I told her. “You don’t need to worry. I’m not even thinking about it.” She was relieved. After dessert, I got a text from James asking if I’d like to come over and watch a film. I had to wear scarves for a week to cover up my lovebites.
Today, I’m twenty-one and I feel young. I’m not in a rush anymore. If I could travel back seven years and meet myself, I’d thank her for being so interested in Harper Lee – because it stuck, and today I’m a writer, who knows what it means to be loved. I’d suggest that perhaps she should stop looking for reciprocation in empty spaces. I know that she would ignore me and bleach her hair anyway, trying to figure out what she can do to make James like her.
I have been writing about James for years. My teenage diaries are full of emotional accounts of the days we spent together at the park or in his conservatory. My writing notebooks are less spurned lover, and more self-deprecating – one evening, I’d decided to write about it after drinking a lot of rum, and the only writing on the page is, “you were great at convincing yourself that text messages at 3am were evidence of romance.”
Despite all of the tears and the incessant Google searches that spiralled out of control, from “movies about heartbreak” to “am I suicidal?”, I look back with an overwhelming fondness. We were just kids, doing adult things, expecting more of each other than we were mentally equipped to provide. I loved hard. It was dramatic and unrequited and it was painful. Still, I am grateful to have gotten up close and personal with it – stared it in the face and tried my best to know it all, refusing to hide from the ugly parts, the parts that hurt. I loved his hands, his teeth, his hair and his smoky voice. I loved his quiet tenderness. I loved how different he was when his friends were around. I loved the way he looked at me like he knew what I was thinking.
I showed James my poems and he told me to keep writing. He laughed at the jokes I made, the ones when I stopped trying too hard. As we got older, the more caring he became, even though we spoke less and less. I loved the way his fingers held cigarettes and the way he kissed me. I was fourteen and in love. I was fifteen and in love, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen.
I was twenty when I read on Facebook that he had died. I would give anything to be fourteen again, if only for five minutes.