The Edge of Seventeen (2016)
I am no looker.
I’m not a dog either. But I am no looker.
Aylin used to say I was precocious. “Precocious when it comes to boys,” she’d say.
By the time I was done dating Conor, I said I was nothing but a fool.
I started dating too early. Antoni was the first guy I ever saw. I was fourteen, close to fifteen, sporting braces on my teeth. We shared a kiss, nothing passionate, innocent.
Until he touched my breasts and I went cold.
Fourteen. Was he a freaking idiot?
Dawson happened after that. It lasted three months. I was more grown up, more developed. My breasts, especially, were more developed.
I hate my breasts.
But it was Conor who would thrust me into the black world of adulthood with an indignant slap I am certain I will never forget.
Adulthood. What a word. I’m two months away from seventeen and yet I feel so terribly old.
So much has changed in the last few weeks. So many illusions shattered.
I am no longer “innocent,” to use a dated word.
I had no regret at the time of giving myself to Conor, a boy I thought I had come to love deeply.
He conned me under the pretenses of romance, wooed me with rose petals and smooth-talked me into believing I had found my One True Love.
It did not take long for him to tire of me. Two days, to be precise.
Two days to dump me after he had slept with me.
Two days to start dating a girl more in keeping with his superior level of society. Mr. Rich Boy from the big city. What would he want with a Brooklyn girl like me?
I am my mother’s daughter, after all.
Tell me, Kez? he said. Tell me—did you really think I’d date someone like you over someone like Genevieve? You’ve got great tits, babe. Don’t let it get to your head.
I felt sick.
And then I found out he had been seeing others all along.
I still feel sick about it.
Because I loved him. I loved him within the frame of a sixteen-year-old girl who has not experienced love before. I loved him within the frame of that blind trust I had for life at the time; within the frame of my pathetic naïveté.
What I felt for him, felt like love.
Six months, we dated. Six freaking months. He was clearly desperate enough to see those “tits” if he kept seeing me and schmoozing me for six goddamn months. My “tits” must be a freaking masterpiece for him to chase them for so long.
I have never known my father. When I was younger, I would ask my mother about him, and she said that it was a story she would only tell me when I was older.
I accepted that. Then.
As the years went by, I forgot about him. He is no prince, my mother had said.
Something in my psyche changed after Conor. Something fundamental, the very essence of who I am. I went from a shy, timid person, to one filled with rage.
The rage quickly transmuted into full-blown, stomach-churning depression.
I demanded, petulantly, unreasonably, that my mother tell me about the man who had brought me to life. There was no logic to this, but the mind is not logical when it is pressed down by shadows.
I begged her.
And now I know.
She warned me, did she not?
I will tell you, she said. But it is no fairy tale, Kezra.
I want to know, damn it!
She did warn me.
My time for boys will come again. Or maybe it won’t. I’ve had enough for now.
There was a time when I feared I was not pretty enough, that boys might not like me the way they like Maddison Russell or Adrianna Waters from school. Now I want nothing to do with boys who like girls in that way.
I never dressed up very much, but now I dress decidedly down. I hide my “tits” under baggy sweaters, and I leave my hair messy. I don’t make my face up because I want nothing to do with demented teenage boys’ ideas of love.
Tell me, is the pain of a sixteen-year-old laughable to those who are older? Is it negligible? Do our tears not bleed as heavily as those of a divorced woman of forty? Is our sorrow laughed at, merely because it is the sorrow of “naïve youth”?
I can speak only for myself: I feel pain. I feel it as a constant pressure against my heart.
My greatest fear is not that I will love again and be hurt. It is that Love itself does not exist, that Love is nothing but a commercial idea manufactured from nothing, by some secret cadre of Hollywood men or Madison Avenue boys, or some wily editor at HarperCollins just so he can pump more of his product out, at a higher price, to a gullible populace.
Is the concept of True Love just another fabrication? The love I felt was clearly not the love I was taught from years of watching movies like Titanic or The Notebook or How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. It certainly wasn’t the love in Pride and Prejudice or The Fault in Our Stars.
Were Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler nothing but a lie? Rick Blaine and Ilsa Lund in Casablanca—lies?
What if I reach the end of my life and discover that all the wonder and hope and joy I had believed in as a girl was nothing but a smokescreen; that the world has never been more than a bleak and hopeless cesspool of struggle and pain and tooth and claw, and that all the dreams I thought existed were only mirages in a wasteland?
These are the words of a broken heart, perhaps.
But they are my words. They are an expression of what I believe.
I write because I am lonely.
I write because I hurt.
I write while tears drip from my eyes, turning the screen of my tablet into splotches of pixelated rainbows.
The way I was brought into this world has nothing to do with how I feel about love.
It has everything to do with how I feel about myself.
P.S. I Love You (2007)
Just before the sun rises, when the world is silent and the River Tejo laps gently at the stone steps leading to the giant Praça do Comércio square, leaves of golden sunlight shimmer above the surface of Lisbon’s great river. This is my favorite time to sit on these steps, flicking stones into the water, letting my gaze drift west toward the ocean.
And I think of her.
I do not weep anymore. My eyes are dry. I have wept this entire river twice over and still that will not bring her back.
The seagulls taunt me, cawing in accusation. I should have moved faster, they say. I should not have been so complacent with my joy.
I never deserved that joy. I know it.
National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)
Or is it . . .
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006)?
“It’s a nice place,” Aylin says.
It’s ten thousand miles away from Conor, I think. Not to mention the sperm-donor who doesn’t even bother to call himself my father. That’s good enough for me.
“Sorry,” I say. “I’m just tired.”
It’s the truth. A ten-hour flight from NYC to Lisbon, Portugal, then two more hours while we hunted for a piece of lost luggage. Aylin slept like a rock on the flight. I was up all night. I was thinking about things I shouldn’t be thinking about, about what Conor said to me at Washington Square Park, about my step-sisters who don’t even know I exist, about the monster who is their—our—father, about the retching panic fit in the bathroom which was the final trigger that caused my mother to arrange this trip for me to Portugal, as recommended to her by our doctor. A trip to get away. A trip she and I were supposed to take together. A trip we had to ask Ayles, at the last minute, to join me on.
Ayles came to the rescue. She always does.
So much for de-stressing.
Back in New York it’s now—I check the time on my twenty-buck Geneva wristwatch—7:13 a.m.
Okay, 7:13 a.m., but it feels like one in the morning. My eyes are burning, and this two-month vacation my mother went out of her way to arrange, at great personal sacrifice, is off to a catastrophic start.
After her boss basically screwed her over, my mom dug through her father’s old records and found one of my long-lost cousins, a girl named Nádia who is studying at the University of Lisbon and, from what we could see, appeared responsible enough to occasionally watch over me and Ayles.
Appearances can be deceiving. When my mom called this Nádia up, the girl raged on and on about taking care of me and Aylin during our trip, showing us the sights, showing us the colleges, making sure our fridge is full of cheese or ham or whatever the freak it is they eat up here. My dear cousin Nádia who was supposed to pick us up from the airport . . . Well, therein lies problem number one. When I turned on my phone after landing, there was a text from her. An apology. Instructions on how to catch the subway, how to buy a ticket, how to—
We didn’t even have euros on us. Nádia was going to give them to us and help us exchange more at a local bank where the rate would be better.
An old French dude eventually came to our rescue, loaned us the dough to buy a “Viva Card” and helped us load it up with subway rides. He helped us figure out how the blue line meets the red line meets the yellow line . . .
We screwed up twice. A forty-minute ride to the north of Lisbon ended up taking two hours.
My mom freaked out when I called her, but I couldn’t lie to her. She won’t lie to me, and I won’t lie to her. That’s our deal. If I wasn’t such a mess, she’d make me come back home. If this trip wasn’t essentially therapy, she’d put Ayles on the phone and get her to bring me back Stateside within seconds. Hopefully nothing else will go wrong.
The apartment is small, but neat. It’s on the ninth floor of a building which sits in a graffiti-laden area, but at least the elevator works, which is better than most apartment buildings in Brooklyn.
From outside, this building looks like a dump, but most of Lisbon seems to look like that, from what we could see from the train, teeming with crumbling edifices. The newer-style graffiti, the street art as they call it back home, reminded me too much of Brooklyn, and what I’m trying to leave behind.
I dump my luggage on the floor, almost stumble over it as I make my way onto the tweed couch. I land on it with a thunk. It feels like I’ve just fallen on a plank of wood.
Maybe Nádia will come through. Maybe . . .
Ayles makes her way toward the balcony, opens up the gauzy curtains. There isn’t much of a view. Apparently this is the “newer” part of Lisbon, which only means the buildings were built in the last two hundred years, but clearly not touched up at all since then.
I glance at an upside-down Aylin, now leaning against the balcony’s railing, rising up on her toes, the faint caramel of her tiny legs contrasting with the speckle of trees and underbrush down below, rising above the train tracks that brought us here. There isn’t a single cloud in the sky. Heck, at least maybe we can go to the beach.
If we can get some European cash.
It seems my prodigal cousin is not a total whackjob. She does arrange to somehow get us some dough. She sends a dude with dreads over, and who I think might have fleas. When I look through the peephole, he reminds me a little of Jesse Pinkman in the first episode of Breaking Bad. “I here for give money to, eh, Kez—Kezria?”
“Kezra,” I say through the door.
“Eh, yes, yes. Nádia, she is be sending me.”
He looks up at the peephole, and even through the dark of the corridor I can see the red veins in his eyes. The dude is high, no doubt about it.
I panic, but that’s not unusual. The panic attacks were happening twice a day just before we left.
Aylin tells me to call Nádia and verify the dude’s identity. Why didn’t I think of that? Nádia picks up on the third attempt. “Hello,” a female voice says languidly. I explain the situation. “Hmmm?” she says. And then I hear male laughter in the background.
I want to scream at her, to explode and tell her she is a freaking liar and—
I bite my lip, take a deep breath, calm down.
“Nádia,” I say again.
Damn it. “Nádia!”
From outside the door, also sounding half-asleep: “Yes, yes, is Nádia who send me.”
“Great. My responsible twenty-two-year-old cousin is probably a stoner,” I mumble to myself. I put my hand on my head. “Nádia, listen to me, I need you to help verify this guy at—”
I don’t get to finish. Aylin swings the door wide open without even asking me. My heart drops about an inch.
Aylin, who is half my size and who would not be able to stand up to a mouse, stands there looking like she’s Vin Diesel, or Lara Croft.
Or Velma Dinkley.
It’s the smell which hits me first: a stale, faded, almost fouled whoosh of dead air. The dude—grimy-faced and having too-pale skin—reaches deep into his pocket and hauls out a wad of cash. “Here,” he says. “Is from Nádia.”
I stare at it, not sure if the dough has crabs or lice attached to it.
Aylin snatches it. “Thanks, dude,” she says, closing the door. He looks at her as if wanting a tip, then eyes me with the wide-open eyes of a puppy.
Aylin slams the door shut in his face.
“You’re nuts,” I tell Aylin.
“No, I’m broke, and hungry, and I needed cash.”
I don’t try and argue.
I get back on the phone with Nádia, but she’s dropped the call. I fling my budget Moto E phone onto the sofa, raise my hands and growl in frustration.
“Hey, what’s this?” Ayles says.
I turn to her. She’s holding a white piece of scraggled paper.
“It was in the cash,” she says.
I snatch it from her. It’s scrawled with a shaky hand, and it takes me a while to decipher it, but I eventually figure out that it’s the name of two banks (Santander and Millennium BCP) with instructions on how to exchange cash. It also has the names of some grocery stores (Minipreço, Pingo Doce, and another name I can’t figure out), some rough sketches and notes for train schedules. At the end of it, scrawled in big, is written, “I am very sorry. Fiancé break up with me and I must fix urgent. Back in few days. We start tour then,” followed by three hearts and two Xs.
“If her fiancé looks anything like this dude who brought us the cash, I don’t think I want to hang out with her,” I tell Ayles.
Ayles sits back on the couch, super-relaxed, arms stretched out on the backrest, one tiny leg crossed over the other. She’s wearing an LBD, which makes her look a little like Neil Gaiman’s Coraline (if Coraline ever went shopping at Macy’s).
“Chill, Kez. Look at the weather, it’s awesome. We’ll have a great time on our own. Hell, maybe I’ll even meet a guy.”
Yeah, right, Ayles is about as interested in guys as I am in gaming.
“Maybe you’ll meet a guy,” she says lightly, feeling the water. At least the statement doesn’t make my throat close up, which is an improvement.
I respond merely by rolling my eyes.
“How much did she give us?” Aylin asks.
I count it. “Three hundred bucks. Do they say bucks here?”
“And she gave us the dope on how to exchange money ourselves at the bank. Look, Kez, I think we need to dump the idea of being gallivanted around town by Nádia. If she’s anything like tweaker Reggae Dude out there, well . . . I’d rather not hang out with her. I am, after all, responsible for you.”
“Har, har, funny.” But it’s not. I look at the door. My chest tightens when I see the lack of a chain or even an extra bolt—
Aylin’s voice jolts me. “Uhm, yeah.”
“Breathe, babe. Breathe.”
“Yeah,” I whisper, putting my hand to my chest. “Yeah.”
When I was twelve, I wrote a letter into the History Channel thanking them for their Legendary Lovers episode, the story of Marc Antony and Cleopatra, telling them how moved I was with it. They actually forwarded my letter to the show’s presenter, and he wrote me back personally, thanking me in return. My mother knew three things about me after that: I was a nerd. I was in love with history. And I knew how to string a sentence together.
She actually wept. I didn’t understand it at the time, but I think I do now. It’s that moment when a parent realizes her kid is not a total loser, that she actually might make something of herself.
I can’t let her down after all she did to get me here. I can’t let this turn into a National Lampoon’s Vacation or Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
So Ayles and I do what any self-respecting lone-tourist does in this modern age.
We download an app.
The app works great.
We climb and descend about seven gajillion cobblestoned hills the following day (I don’t think there’s a single flat street in this town), eyes following the map on our phones, me boring the crap out of her with random historical facts while she runs and hides in every gadget and electronics store she can find.
It looks like things might actually turn around.
And then my phone gets stolen.
The Cabin in the Woods (2011)
“Urgh, I can’t freaking believe it!”
Gone, my cheap Moto E phone (not so cheap, fifty bucks is fifty bucks). Gone!
We had been walking along a main road, lit up by sodium lamps, when the sidewalk suddenly narrowed because of ongoing construction. Ayles had to get behind me, while cranes beeped and squeaked on our right. We walked past a mini-market and two local-style restaurants, a rough-looking dude smoking a cigarette. I was staring at my phone’s screen, following the path laid out on the map. We shouldn’t have been out after dark, I guess. But we were in a well-lit area.
Someone squeezed my ass real hard. When I turned, Aylin was nowhere to be found, and neither was anyone else, at least not close enough to have touched me. I craned my neck, looking for her, starting to feel threatened by a guy and a lady who were standing a few paces away at an outside table, smoking cigarettes, beers in their hands.
I finally saw Aylin, being waylaid by three gigantic guys in baggy clothes. “Some dude pinched my butt,” I said loudly to her, indignant.
Aylin ran to catch up with me. “Those three assholes got in my way.”
The “three assholes” were now speeding around a corner.
And I realized my hand was empty. At first I thought I had dropped my phone.
I looked around for it.
“They took mine too,” Ayles said, feeling her pockets.
“My phone. They got it as well.”
During all that confusion, someone must have slipped my phone out of my hand. “Damn it. Damn it. Damn it! Urgh, this is like freaking Cabin in the Woods or The Ruins!”
Ayles didn’t even bother asking, although I think we watched The Ruins together.
We saw one of those Tourism Cops and flagged him down. From the look on his face as we told him the story, it appeared that trying to get my phone back would be a lost cause. He asked us if we knew how to get home, and if the pickpockets didn’t perhaps get my wallet as well?
My heart sank to my knees. I patted my jeans-shorts—
“Oh, thank God,” I blurted out. I pulled out my Velcro glow-in-the-dark nylon wallet, suddenly glad I never got into the clutch-purse fad. I opened it up and saw the cash we still had left, and my mother’s credit card, which I’m authorized to use in emergencies. “Keep it in your pocket,” said the cop. “And keep your hand on it. Where are you staying?”
“About thirty minutes from here by train.”
“What is the place called?”
My eyes drifted away from him. Suddenly the cop lights felt threatening, his dark blue uniform felt threatening, and his wide shoulders felt threatening. My chest began to tighten—
Aylin snatched my wrist, and I began to breathe again.
“Odivelas,” Aylin said.
The cop reached into his car and pulled out a radio, started speaking Portuguese into it. He offered us a ride home. I was about to protest when Aylin was already in the backseat, dragging me in with her.
There’s only one thing that calms me down when crap like this happens.
Back at the apartment, Aylin preempts my inevitable suggestion by saying, “Just don’t make me watch anything from the eighties.”
I don’t. I make her watch something from the nineties.
Assault of the Killer Bimbos (1988)
The girl is a slut, clearly; she and her Asian friend. Where did they say they’re from? I remember the country was America, but I can’t remember the city.
They’ve been undressing me almost constantly since the beginning of the tour two hours ago, not even pretending to pay attention to the sites I’ve been pointing out to them. And I know I give a damn good tour. Lara “The Cougar” Tavares might have hired me because she figured I’d be easy to seduce and get into bed (I’ve disappointed her daily for the last six months), but the number of people who specifically ask for me by name when they book with PorTours is evidence that she got more than she bargained for.
There are certain sites in Lisbon which even the most hardened souls stop and take a breath at, such as the Santa Justa Elevator which rises forty meters above the city and offers such a spectacular view of the open squares and terracotta roofs that nobody I have ever taken there has spent anything less than fifteen minutes just sucking in the sites.
And what did these two airheads do? They rubbed up close to me and spoke with hushed breaths and high-pitched giggles.
I feel violated.
It’s not the first time I’ve been hit on when doing a tour. It happens at least twice a week. But usually the flirtation is done casually, gently, feeling the water. A few times I’ve even accepted an invitation to go out for drinks, knowing too well that my heart is not in the position to take anything further. The girls (and, on one occasion, a guy) are usually disappointed once they realize the acceptance of the invitation on my part is platonic, and that the night will not lead into something more carnal.
I never leave them my number.
Any redblooded guy would be interested in the two bimbos on my tour today. They fit the profile. Have I “matured” so much since I was forced to leave school that their own immaturity turns me off? It sounds so conceited to say it. No doubt each of these two has a rich daddy or mommy who sent them over to Portugal for the summer to get them out of their hair.
Now we’re at the Miradouro da Senhora do Monte (the Viewpoint of the Lady of the Hilltop). It’s located at the top of a western hill with a commanding view, and one of its most popular features is a chain-link fence which holds decades’ worth of love-locks.
“Oh, Tiago!” Christ, even the chick’s voice feels like she’s taking my clothes off.
I turn toward her.
“Uhm, hi, hi,” says the taller of the two. “Uhm, yeah, so, we were just thinking, uhm, yeah”—they’re from Los Angeles, now I remember—“uhm, if you would like to . . .” She licks her lip, long and slow, while her Asian friend looks at me in a way that reminds me too much of the last time I went out for drinks with my boss Lara and the team, thinking it to be some innocent get-together for the purposes of building teamwork or some crap. Now that had been a mistake.
“So?” She looks at me expectantly, her blond hair streaming down her tanned shoulders.
I realize she’s been talking and I haven’t caught most of what she’s said.
The Asian girl is holding on to her friend’s arm as if it’s a lifeline.
“Uhm, excuse me, I lost you there for a second.” Remembering her name would help here.
“Dahlia,” she says with a smile, as if reading my mind. She points to her friend. “And Angela.”
The Asian girl smiles.
“From Los Angeles?” she reminds me, raising the pitch of the statement so it sounds like a question. “Remember?”
“Yes, yes.” I press two fingers to my eyes and feel them burn. “I’m sorry. It’s been a long day.” I look behind the girls at the rest of the group. They’re milling around the out-of-proportion azulejo map of the city, trying to see if they can spot the buildings represented in it, always a favorite amongst tourists. I usually get some alone-time up here because of it.
One black-haired lady in a straw hat—her name was Mary, from Texas—probably late fifties, alone, has taken a seat on a bench, her eyes closed, a Nikon camera strapped around her neck, her face tilted up to Lisbon’s almost ever-present sun.
“Well, you just go ahead and think about it.” Dahlia places perfectly manicured fingernails on my chest, lets them linger there for a second. “No pressure. You can let us know at the end of the tour what you want to do, ’kay?”
I still have no idea what she’s talking about. I really missed most of it, I was so disinterested.
She twirls around as if she were Marilyn Monroe, flounces off with a bounce which hikes her micro-skirt up high enough so that I can see the bottoms of her butt-cheeks. I look away.
Angela lingers a second longer, looks at me with doe eyes.
Being hit on by these two feels like being attacked by a kamikaze plane.
Before I know it, Angela’s fingers are pressed inside my own. She has thrust something into my hand. I look down and see it’s a napkin. She turns and swaggers away. Her own gluteus maximus begins to show as she bounces down toward the rest of the tour group.
The lady with the camera (Mary, Mary, I remind myself) grabs it from her neck, lifts her hat, a cocky smile on her face. She eyes the two floozies as they walk past, rolls her eyes, and I can’t help but laugh at the gesture of moral support.
I look down at the napkin in my hand. There’s a telephone number on it, and a quick blue-pen sketch which might be obscene or cute, depending on the angle you look at it from.
“You must get that a lot.”
I turn with a jolt from the railing, and find Mary standing next to me in her straw hat. “Excuse me?”
“Aw, hon, the eye-fuck.” She gestures a thumb behind her. “Hell,” Mary says, “them two girls are practically sliding down these cobblestones. Oh, don’t you mind me. It’s the old crass Texan comin’ out in me. I blame my Charlie for it, God rest his soul.”
She looks out at the city sprawl, inhales deeply. “Helluva view. Ain’t nothin’ like this in the States. Oh, me and my Charlie been all over the US of A back in the day. But we never came to Europe, oh no.” She laughs, puts a hand on my shoulder. “Hell, he would-a hated it!” She laughs again, and I find myself joining in with her. “Well, Tiago, if them girls corner you, do you want me to jump ’em?”
“Was it that obvious they were scaring me?”
“Hell, hon, they were scaring me. And I ain’t one to be scared. I’ve taken cool aim with my Ruger at a rabid bobcat headin’ straight for me when there was nothin’ ta light the world except the haze of a full moon.”
“Did you hit it?”
“Hell, yes, I did. I am my daddy’s daughter, now ain’t I?”
She pats my shoulder, looks over at the tour group, catches Dahlia and Angela ogling in our direction. Dahlia looks suddenly livid. “Why, I do believe she’s jealous of an old lady, son.” Mary looks up at me. “Do I stand a chance with ya, Tiago? An old hag like me?”
There isn’t even the hint of flirtation in her eyes. I like her already.
“A far better chance than Catherine Tramell and her sidekick there.”
“Sharon Stone,” I say. “Basic Instinct?”
“Oh, you naughty boy. You even remember her name.”
I don’t tell her that I remember most character names. It’s a little bit obsessive.
We stand there for a while, neither of us saying anything. Lisbon has that effect on people.
“Well,” she says, “if you can’t think of anything else to get rid of them girls, tell them you and me got a date in some fancy restaurant tonight. My treat.” She walks off, confidently, then turns and faces me. “Maybe you can tell me then who the girl is that you tied a lock for on this fence—the one you ain’t with no more.”
My throat tightens. Am I that obvious?
I grip the green railing, trying to steady myself, fighting the vision which is front and center in my mind right now: Me and Mariza kneeling on this concrete floor in the black of night, laughing, adding our eternal love-lock to the countless others as a symbol of our unending adoration for each other.
How many of these locks here have ended in misery?