We had to kiss. I saw it heading toward me like a comet, an inevitable atmospheric rupture. Something big was coming. All I could do was wait.
Tarek started out as a friend. He was a senior, but he was endearingly boyish, short, round-cheeked, and a little chubby, with a head of close-cropped black curls. In the movie version of our high school, Tarek would have been the goofball sidekick, the one who never gets the girl. His best friend was the heartthrob. Tall and rakish, Travis worked a louche smile beneath dark brows that seemed permanently knit; his muscles moved beneath his T-shirt like creatures of their own.
I fell for Travis, but Tarek and I became friends. One was unattainable and the other was safe. I loved stoking the fire of my impossible crush; I slyly placed myself in Travis’ path and analyzed our interactions with my friends for hours. Something about suffering in the name of love felt right. But with Tarek everything was easy. When it came to boys I pretended a level of experience I didn’t have. I was coy and flirtatious, but the reality was that I’d never even kissed someone. I was 14. Secretly the thought of a tongue in my mouth was weird and the idea of a penis in my hand was terrifying.
We were all in the fall musical together, and the late-night rehearsals and weekend-long marathons fueled an unbounded intimacy among the cast. Our bodies were our instruments and we tuned them all over each other—head rubs, massages, swift karate chops up and down each others spines when the nights dragged long. We preferred each other’s laps to chairs. I hadn’t read Mary Oliver yet, but the soft animals of our bodies loved what they loved. Touching and being touched.
Tarek and I were no different. I sat on his lap and he played with my hair; it was nothing. A few seats away, closer to the stage, Travis was surrounded by an electric field I couldn’t imagine penetrating. To sit on his lap or brush my hand against his would have changed my entire chemical makeup, solid to liquid in an instant.
Tarek and I talked on the phone at night. Easy hours passed by with no pauses or false starts. His mother learned my voice. She was polite but not particularly warm. Sometimes when I called she told me that Tarek was busy. He was praying, and he would have to call me back. His family was Muslim. I went to church. We talked about it.
The play ended. Our friendship persisted. We talked jokingly about our crushes on other people. I teased him about hooking up with a girl at the cast party who I knew he thought was a little annoying; he hinted that his friends were jealous of how much time we were spending together. They thought I was hot. I laughed, uncomfortable and pleased.
Secretly the thought of a tongue in my mouth was weird and the idea of a penis in my hand was terrifying.
After months of a prolonged, teasing flirtation, I wondered if Tarek and I were destined for something greater, a true compatibility, a soulful intimacy. If this were a movie, was he actually the unsung hero, the overlooked love interest who was the real Mr. Right? I looked at him like a Rubik’s cube, twisting him into different shapes to see if the colors lined up. Do I like Tarek? I wrote in my diary. I had no idea. He wore Cool Water cologne that added complexity to his natural, heady musk. I could smell him on me after we were together.
While I was still twisting him into place, another Tarek emerged, one who was not so sweet. I was too young to have my license, so he drove us everywhere. Once, on our way to the mall, we entered the Beltway only to find four lanes of bumper to bumper traffic. He jerked the steering wheel hard to the right and accelerated onto the narrow, bumpy shoulder. We were sandwiched between cars and a high, concrete retaining wall. He pressed the gas so hard I flew back against my seat, my body suddenly going 60 miles per hour.
“Tarek!” I cried as he careened off the road, laughing at first, thinking it was a joke. He sped up and I grabbed his arm impulsively, the same way my mom would fling her arm across my chest if she had to make a sudden stop. “Tarek,” I said again, applying pressure as he accelerated in his made-up lane. “Stop it!” My dad and his stern warnings about only getting in cars with people I trusted flashed by like a prophecy. If Tarek didn’t die when we crashed, I thought, my dad would probably kill him. “You can’t drive like that,” I told him when we were safe again, back in moving traffic. My heart beat fast in my throat but I punctuated my rebuke with a nervous giggle; it came out like a teasing reprimand.
It happened on Valentine’s Day. Tarek’s friends were out with their girlfriends and my girl group was having a giant sleepover. That’s where my parents thought I was, and I’d promised my friends I’d come over later. I played it cool even with them. We’re just hanging out, I told them with a shrug. No big deal.
It was a Friday night, crisp but not too cold. We went to Starbucks. I ordered a mocha; the chocolate syrup always went chalky at the end and coated the walls of the cup like a thin film, but I liked the way it stuck to my tongue. It made me thirsty but full, the milk a warm weight in my stomach. Tarek had a key to the school newspaper office, a windowless basement room that smelled like photo processing chemicals. I’d been there before, but never at night. The campus was empty and dark. He parked with a squeal in a spot that wasn’t a spot and we let ourselves in. The office was tiny and cramped. One entire wall was taken up by a stained oatmeal colored couch with scratchy cushions that slid forward, exposing years of crumbs, shiny wrappers, and dull pennies.
He put a Dave Matthews Band CD in the boombox. I sat on the edge of the couch and wondered if people had really had sex on it. The lights were fluorescent bright. Tarek, in a desk chair on wheels, rolled over to me and leaned in. Just like that. The comet was here. I closed my eyes right after seeing a sharp, dark hair on his cheek in close-up.
His tongue was deep in my mouth before I had a chance to feel his lips on mine. I jerked my head back and put my hand to my mouth, saliva everywhere.
He leaned in again.
“No,” I said loudly.
“What?” He smiled at first, put his hand on my knee.
I could only shake my head. He sat back hard on the chair and scooted.
“No?” he exploded. “Are you kidding me?”
“Tarek,” I pleaded.
“What is your problem?”
I looked at the ground. He kicked his heels against the floor and rolled in jerks across the room. I contemplated my knees.
“Please take me home,” I said.
He shook his head at me in disgust.
“Please take me home,” I said again.
We drove in silence. I reached to turn on the CD player and he twisted the dial off with a snap. Minutes passed. Trying for levity I placed my hand gently atop his on the gearshift. He jerked it away. He sped through stop signs and I kept my mouth shut.
He took me to my friend’s house and left me in the driveway without a word.
I was indignant, sure that I’d been wronged. But beneath my anger swirled a riptide of guilt. Had I led him on? Was he right to be angry? Was I a tease?
The next day, back at home, I took a long shower. I left the clothes I’d been wearing balled up in a corner of my bathroom. They stayed there for days, as long as it took me to stomach his unmistakable smell.
He didn’t call, and I didn’t want him to. I didn’t owe him anything, I told myself.
How was I supposed to know if I liked being kissed by someone if I’d never been kissed by him before?
I was 14. The soft animal of my body wanted what it wanted. And so did his.