Twenty years ago, on my 14th birthday, I felt a breast for the first time on a bus heading home from a junior high wrestling meet.
One of the managers sat with me and said, “Let me see your hand.”
She put it in her shirt and I sat there wondering what to do. Was I supposed to rub it like a magic lamp? Or was I supposed to squeeze it? I squeezed, but I learned that when squeezing a breast, I wasn’t supposed to squeeze it like I was wringing water out of a wash cloth.
The trip took almost an hour, and in that hour, while the other members of the team huddled over the seats and watched, the girl taught me how to play with boobs while she rubbed the inside of my mouth with her tongue. I’d won my match that night, but the spectacle that I underwent in front of my teammates seemed far more victorious.
When we finally got back to the school, she said, “There’s something I have to tell you.”
In school, we had recently been learning sex-education in health class. Immediately, I thought she was going to confess to having an STD that I was sure to have on my hands that would somehow spread to my genitals. Sex-ed operated mostly on scare tactics.
“What?” I asked.
The excitement that I had felt, the whirlwind of pubescent emotions, rattled to a halt and I was devastated by just a few words. By the time I got home to my family and younger siblings who were impatient for cake and ice cream, I had little interest in my birthday.
I told my father I needed to talk to him, in private.
“What’s up?” he asked me.
“There’s a girl I started going out with tonight.” I paused to predict what his response would be. “She’s pregnant.”
My father smiled. “It’s not yours is it?”
And he laughed.
Whatever he said after that, I don’t remember, and I did my best to enjoy cake. My father gave me my first fly rod that night. I still fish with it to this day.
A couple weeks after my 14th birthday, my father and I returned to an empty house. My mother had left us and taken my younger siblings.
At the end of the school year, my father and I moved out of town to a place in the country. We had hardly anything, barely even heat in the winter. The things I did have, I pulled from junk piles. I took clothes from the lost and found. I spent my class time writing in journals, shedding my anger in the form of poetry and angry rants. I was forced to go see a counselor who I exchanged a series of dialogues with that led her to the conclusion that I had a pretty good idea of what was happening, and if I didn’t want to talk anymore, I didn’t have to, so I didn’t.
My father and I do not share DNA. My original birth certificate does not bear his name. In the years that my father and I spent together until I left for the military, we shared what we did have: conversations and words. With his words, my father taught me how to survive. He taught me how powerful words can be, how they can bring pleasure or pain in just a whisper, how they can change our lives.
He taught me that in anything I wanted to do, I had to give all of me, and even then what comes to fruition may not be what I expected. I left my marriage when I finally realized that her words were lies or nothing more than placebos, and I had neglected my own. In the things that I had experienced in my life, I put into words and fed to the pages of a novel that will be published next year at this time.
Last night, I celebrated my birthday by getting another tattoo—a short poem that my father wrote, the mantra of my life. Because of him, because a stranger decided that he’d give a piece of his life to me, I’m here. Without him, without his words, I wouldn’t be.