Chewing on the end of a ballpoint pen to draw eyes to my glossed mouth because it was advice I’d heard in a teen movie. Smiling when the boy sitting next to me in Spanish class turned to me and said, wow, your lips. Running to the bathroom without a pass when he delivered the punchline: They have ink all over them. Your pen exploded.
Throwing in five dollars for weed even though I’d no interest in getting high. Smoking the opium the Catholic school boys brought over instead without balking. Standing at the clouded center of a ring of them in a suburban backyard, feeling the bite of New Jersey February on my bare back.
Buying a black g string at Wet Seal and wearing it under low-cut jeans. Leaning forward at a calculated angle so the crew-cut boys sitting behind me in class could see the silver foil lip-shaped applique where the strings met, kissing the crack of my 13-year-old ass.
Crowding into a booth full of scene boys at the Ruby Tuesday in the mall. Holding a still pose to take up as little space as possible. Ordering only a Shirley Temple and feigning immunity to hunger. Telling them I could tie a cherry stem into a knot using only my tongue.
Pretending to like the Super Bowl. Pretending to like Bret Easton Ellis. Pretending to like the bands we bought tickets to see at a boxy little rock club in Sayreville. Pretending to like a now-dead musician who asked to sign my 15-year-old breast after a show.
Making out with girls in basements at house parties. Blasting “Toxic” by Britney Spears off a karaoke machine in the background, her televised kiss with Madonna and the world’s reaction still a fresh memory for us. Nursing the rugburns in the downstairs bathroom when I came home.
Asking my parents for an electric guitar for Christmas. Cradling an unplugged black Epiphone in a camo print miniskirt against the pink butterfly wallpaper of my childhood bedroom. Setting the self-timer on my father’s brick of a digital Nikon to capture a crooked self-portrait. Posting the photo to Myspace and deleting it a day later when a comment appeared beneath it: what chord is that? lol.
Dressing as Alice in Wonderland in a costume two sizes too small and wearing it to school on Halloween. Rolling fishnet stockings up my legs and gluing spiky false lashes to my eyelids. Feigning the character’s curiosity—I’m down for anything—despite my lack of desire for EAT ME or DRINK ME or anything psychedelic that followed.
Cutting the foam inserts out of bikini tops and layering them into the cups of my miniscule bra. Wearing the over-padded bra underneath a tight pink shirt that had J’ADORE NEW YORK printed across the chest on a field trip to the wax museum in Times Square. Posing for photographs next to the wan celebrity statues, a fake among fakes.
Taking my top off after four beers at a Fourth of July barbecue at 16. Taking my top off in my dorm room where my newly minted friends were gathered for a movie night at 18. Taking my top off on the beach after a friend’s wedding at 24. Taking my top off poolside at a rented house after a different friend’s wedding at 27.
Attention is the most valuable form of currency. I don’t understand it yet, but I will later. The boys who look on don’t know the weight of the transaction or much about me. They don’t know hunger cannot be stifled forever. They don’t know we hate wearing low-cut jeans. They don’t know when I kiss the girls in the basement, it’s not just for their attention but because I like it.
They don’t know that before I offer to do the cherry stem trick I’ve already plucked the stem off a different cherry, tied it in a knot beneath the table by hand, and slid it into my mouth. A decoy stem. Discreet as a bill exchanged between palms.
Courtney Preiss’s stories and essays have appeared in places like Hobart, American Short Fiction, and Cosmonauts Avenue. By day, she is a creative director and a founding member of the TimesUp organization. She lives with her husband in Asbury Park, New Jersey. You can find her on social media @cocogolightly.