by Claire Sasko
Claire Sasko is an essayist, journalist, and occasional short story writer. She lives in Maine, comes from Philadelphia, and is finishing up her MFA at the University of New Hampshire, where she edits Barnstorm journal. She previously worked as a staff writer for Philadelphia magazine. You can find her on Twitter @ClaireSasko.
The first was a movie about dogs. Steve and I had been going steady for a little more than three weeks. Liam told me during photography class that Steve was thinking of ending things because I was a prude.
“You’re a prude,” Liam said Steve said.
I remember how the word prude rolled off his tongue, so round and buoyant and obtrusive, like a beach ball that had been pumped full of too much air and was about to burst. "He shouldn't have to wait a whole month to get his dick wet," Liam said.
I pictured white-water rapids flowing from the head of Steve's penis. Then I pictured streams of lava cascading down the shaft like it were Mount Vesuvius. In this second image I stood over him, triumphant, as he cried out in agony.
Liam grimaced, and through his acne-dappled face I detected something like glee, or thrill, or maybe just eager anticipation over my reaction to this news. I stood straight-faced, giving him nothing. I didn't get why Steve couldn't just get his own dick wet. Surely he managed just fine. I wondered how often he did—get it wet, I mean—and figured it must have happened more than once over the course of the last month, which would render his statement categorically untrue. Honestly, Steve’s dick could probably use some drying off. I was sure he figured out the waterworks for himself by now and probably did a much better job with that whole thing than I could, considering I had little to no experience with dicks, neither dry nor sodden ones, and on top of that, I had terrible handwriting, which Allie said was a sign that I probably couldn't deliver half as decent of a hand job as Chelsea or Andrea, because they wrote with perfectly looped cursive L's and swirly dots and loopy hearts.
Liam told me what Steve said when the two of us were standing alone in the darkroom developing film for the week’s assignment, and I was chewing Hubba Bubba I’d bought from the snack shop. When he said the word prude I exhaled so fast that the bubble I was blowing expanded like a big balloon. Liam reached his finger out and popped it, and its pink skin burst and stuck to my cheeks. He lifted his hand to wipe it off me, laughing, as the light in the darkroom bathed his round face in a red, shadowy glow. Because I'd heard a story about Jessie and Aiden making out in the darkroom last year, I thought about licking my lips and putting them on his, bubblegum and all. I wasn’t prude. Or at least I didn’t think so. I was saving my makeouts for the right moment, and anyway Steve was my boyfriend, not Liam, and now I wanted to make a point, so I wiped the gum off my face and told Liam that Steve was sort of a jerk, and hadn't he told him that we went to second base last night anyway?
Later I found out the movie theater in town was playing a film called Old Yeller. The theater was called “The Colonial,” and it was the only decently cool place around. This month it was holding its annual “oldies” program, which I’d gone to last year. I was in junior high school in a sad town where there was little else to do, so a lot of times, I went to the movies. I'd never read Old Yeller, but my Dad said it was his favorite book, and Allie said she cried every time she read it. It was the weekend, and Steve had asked me if I wanted to come over because his parents were gone. The idea of sitting on an L-shaped leather couch in his living room waiting for him to put his hand on my hand and/or other places was disconcerting, so I asked him if we could go to the movies instead. When he shrugged, I told him that Old Yeller was my favorite book and that I'd never seen the movie and that if we went early enough, we could walk from the theater back to his house before his parents got home from their once-a-month “Date Night.” He agreed.
In actuality, I'd planned on departing the movie theater just as the film ended and, as usual, offering Steve a quick, painless peck near the bushes by the parking lot. I figured the kiss could last one or maybe two seconds, possibly half a minute if I was feeling ambitious. I didn’t usually smudge my lips on his lips for long, not the way they do in movies, nor the way I’d imagined my first kiss and subsequent kisses would go. When it came time for that whole thing, I was usually too nervous and couldn’t relax enough to feel warmly toward him; I figured all that mattered was that contact be made. Everything else could come later, when it felt right. I hadn’t thought until my talk with Liam that this made me prude; It’s just that I learned, after that first kiss, that these things don’t usually go how you expect them to go. Like, you know, how they go in movies. In movies everything is so beautiful. The people, the places, even the mashing of lips and body parts.
We were some of the only people at The Colonial that Friday. I guess Old Yeller wasn’t a hit in town, but evidently the film curator loved it. He offered a nice little speech about it beforehand and then the classical score filled the room and a big yellow dog walked onto the screen as a chorus of men sang “Here Yeller, Come Back Yeller, Best Doggone Dog in the West.” To distract myself from Steve's arm, which was wrapped around me like a tentacle, I pretended I was absorbed in the movie. But, as I usually do with movies, I really did start to love it. Something shifted when Travis, teary-eyed, raised his father's shotgun to kill Old Yeller (his partner, his best friend, his savior), as white foam grew and gurgled the rabid dog's mouth. For just a moment, the world became all at once so tragic and precious that I turned to Steve and put one hand on his knee. He was startled but ready: he pulled me toward him. Our lips met in a sloppy tangle and also immediately he reached for my boob and rubbed it tentatively, squeezing it the way you might examine fruit for ripeness. Only my boobs are not so ripe, so he thought better of it and withdrew his hand and settled it on my jeans. He slid his tongue inside my mouth. It was hot and full and probing, like a labrador retriever’s, and I licked it a little with my own tongue because I didn't know what else to do. He tasted like M&Ms and salt—from the popcorn, I think, but also because I was crying a little. We continued like this for a few more minutes, and then he pulled away first, evidently still stunned. This left me feeling victorious. I finished the popcorn as the credits rolled.
Steve and I did walk home, but his parents came back early, sick with food poisoning or something. He gave me a ride back to my place. As we kissed a little more in the driveway, I pictured myself sliding my mouth all over the mouth of Travis from Old Yeller, after Old Yeller died, instead of kissing Steve’s flushed, meaty face. Then I got out of the car.
That night, I started reading Old Yeller. The next day I broke up with Steve. He was nothing like Travis: loyal, stubborn, hardworking, even emotional. Travis was more like Liam from my photography class. A few days later I asked Liam to go to The Colonial with me. They were playing It’s a Wonderful Life!, with James Stewart and Donna Reed. I had seen this one before—my stepmom played it every Christmas—and I knew I liked it. Before the movie started, the theater’s film curator gave a speech once again. This time he spoke about how in 1946 the film had had a disappointing initial release, but later, after years passed and more people discovered it, it became a classic. I could be like that, I figured.
There are two lines I really love in It’s a Wonderful Life!: When George says to Mary “I’m shaking the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world!” and then “You want the moon? Just say the word, and I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down.” At the first line I felt all carbonated inside, and I put my hand on Liam’s. To my surprise, he looked at me like he knew what was coming next. I wondered: Did Steve tell Liam what had happened between us, that we kissed at the climax of Old Yeller? Was he expecting something similar to happen between us now? I thought about this for a moment. I didn’t care. There was something kind of poetic in it; it made me feel like a character in a story, like someone who did interesting things that people could anticipate or at least hope for. I didn’t need to wait for the climax this time. I slobbered all over Liam while I thought of Mary Hatch from It’s a Wonderful Life; I could be like her, feel like her, for a perfect moment. When the moon line came on Liam slid his hand over my butt, and suddenly I could see how Chelsea and Andrea did this kind of thing—only I wondered how they didn’t need the movies to do it.
Not even a week passed and I had another date, this time with a guy named Mike from gym, and the week after that, Joe from math. I agreed to go to the movies with Mike and Joe and subsequent boys on one condition: they bought me a movie ticket, a large popcorn, a large Coke, and at least one box of candy. This way the date had really good value. Mike took me to Casablanca and the following weekend I saw Ordinary People with a guy named Josh. The following month the theater followed a new theme: films by some guy named Ingmar Bergman, who I came to quite like.
It’s been a few months now, and sometimes all I need for a good makeout is a song I really like. See, movies, songs—they move me more than boys do. Sometimes even the way small things look on the perfect occasion, like moss on a riverbank at sunset—I can find feeling in that, real feeling. When the credits roll or the track ends or I walk away, I’m already ready for the next big moment. And that’s how it’s been going. I get my popcorn and my candy, and if the movie is good or if the song speaks to me, I kiss. For a second, it’s almost like I’m on the screen myself—I’m the star. Or even better: I’m the guy up high in the box, behind the projector, watching everyone.