It was mid 1996 when the smell of a stranger’s sheets stimulated my senses enough to wake me from inebriated oblivion. My school friends gathered round me, some with fingers over lips, others with open jaws, a few with dipped heads, muttering, whispering, laughing.
Tim was there. But Nelly hadn’t made it to Joe’s party. She asked me, the next week at school, if I was okay. I said yes. I can’t say if that was a lie.
“Jess!” Fae called, ran to my side and shook me, her long blonde hair tickling my cheek.
I was still semi-passed out, but flashes of smashing my bottle of port in a bath tub, vomiting, muttering illogical ridiculousness, and then flirting with a guy nicknamed Buzz, reminded me how I got there. My breath quickened, my head pounded, and my stomach gurgled. I looked down at my body in this strange bed. Nausea enveloping me like damp and mould. I was stark naked and in desperate need to puke.
“Buzz. What did you do?” Tim whispered.
The disgust in his voice travelled to the forefront of my earshot. I couldn’t see him, but I heard Buzz scoff. I was so wasted that the room and my friends resembled a blurred and pixelated dreary-coloured mess.
“She wanted it,” Buzz said.
I heard a shoulder-shrug in his tone. Fae sat me up and another girl with a lisp gathered my clothes. They helped me dress. One was laughing a bit, sarcastically, saying I was an idiot for letting this happen.
I was only fifteen. Fifteen and no longer a virgin. You’ve done it now. So f*cking what? Severe nausea overpowered the looming embarrassment I was sure to feel the next week at school. Because of this day, twenty years ago at the time of writing this, I have never considered sex to be something special. Even now I struggle to give it meaning. I have to meditate. Prepare myself. Remind myself that it’s good—that it’s not just an act of human nature that happens at random for no particular reason, that it can mean … love. I know this.
But sometimes, I just don’t care. I could happily live the rest of my life without sex again. And I’m only thirty-five. This is a sad fact. But I have accepted it. Somehow, once the girls had dressed me, I ended up in the bathroom again. I threw up some more and checked, on instinct, if I was bleeding. I’d heard a million times that you bled the first time, but there was nothing there.
I wondered if I’d actually had sex before this night and couldn’t remember. A couple of hours later I was functional enough to call my mum, feign a convincing joyous tone of voice, and make her believe I’d only ingested one alcoholic drink and was having a great time. Because I had a huge problem. There was no way I was going home in that state. I looked like I’d been dipped in a bath of sugar syrup and pasted to the concrete.
Joe, with his funky freckles, pale skin, and ginger dreadlocks, hovered in front of me as I used his wireless house phone standing in the middle of his misty suburban street.
“I’d really like to stay late, the party is really fun, can I stay the night?” I gave Joe a silent thumbs up when he whispered if I was all right.
“I’d really prefer it if Demetri picked you up,” Mum said.
“But it could go for ages still and I don’t want you to have to stay up that late. Please can I just stay? It’s all pretty easygoing. We’re just dancing and having fun.”
“All right. But please be careful. Don’t drink too much.”
“I won’t, thanks!”
And then ... I knew I could get away with anything.
“You want me to beat him up for ya?” Joe asked with a laugh as I handed him the phone.
He looked at the ground with a smirk and kicked a couple of pebbles. I shook my head, trying to tame the dizziness enough to get inside and horizontal. I don’t remember where I actually slept that night. I don’t even remember hating Buzz for what he’d done. To be fair, Buzz was one year younger than me. I’d flirted with him. I’d led him to the bedroom myself.
Well ... I don’t really remember that. It could have been him that led me. But that’s what I tell myself. I tell myself I was a teenage idiot and I drove into the dark woods of my own free will. It wouldn’t be the last time I drove into the dark woods either.
Every weekend, I’d total myself, not only to avoid dealing with the feelings my home life dredged up, but to be the person I wanted others to see. The person I wanted others to see was mysterious and intriguing. A girl every guy wanted to get their hands on. I wanted to be the life of every party, just like mum was. I wanted to do the crazy shit my friends did so I would feel a part of the ‘gang.’
Above all, I wanted to be liked. I needed to be seen as being the cool girl, and I needed to be seen not caring what people thought of me (though I did, very much.) That was the key. Being perceived as.
Whatever was left of me, beneath my skin, was no longer of any importance. It was my reflection that mattered the most.
But even though my peers eventually ‘liked’ the weird and mysterious and kinda crazy-fun chick I’d eventually become, sacrificing the real me meant disliking myself.
And that gave me even more reason to run.
This is an extract from Dear Reflection: I Never Meant to Be a Rebel by Jessica Bell by Vine Leaves Press. It's on sale now.