>> Pagliarini will chat live about her story on Wednesday, October 28, at 11 AM. You can submit questions in advance here.
I’m in bed replaying the dream in my mind. I hadn’t thought about Juan in years, but there he was, apologizing to me and my father.
I reached for my laptop and typed his name into Facebook. I didn’t expect to find him—he has a common last name, and I had no idea where he lived. But because we have a mutual friend, he appeared at the top of my search.
My stomach flipped as I looked at his profile picture. I could see in his eyes the 14-year-old I remembered. I’d always wondered what had happened to him. Though I didn’t know him very long, he’d had a lasting impact on my life. And I still had questions for him.
Without pausing to think about what I was doing, I clicked on “Add as Friend” to submit a request to communicate through Facebook. Hours ticked by, then days. Maybe he was a sporadic Facebook user. Perhaps he was afraid to face me. Maybe he’d forgotten me.
We had met in eighth grade, during first-period science class at Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke. Juan was your typical bad boy—reckless, combative, dismissive of authority. He was good-looking, wore baggy jeans, and walked with a swagger—all of which made him irresistible to girls teetering on the edge of rebellion. Girls like me.
We began our courtship as most eighth-graders do, talking on the phone after school. Usually I wore his necklace, a symbol that I was his. But when we fought or weren’t speaking, other girls would flaunt his necklace and I would seethe with jealousy.
I found him in every song on the radio, saw the two of us in every love story in the movies. During the day, we talked about teenage things, but in whispered phone calls in the middle of the night he’d tell me how lost he felt in his chaotic home.
I had been adopted as an infant and handed a life of comfort and opportunity. I grew up in a nice house in a nice Burke neighborhood and had taken part in the standard suburban activities—dance, swim team, Girl Scouts.
I had always been told that I was full of potential. But as I entered my teenage years, that blessing began to feel like a burden. My parents, and occasionally my teachers, didn’t seem satisfied with me unless I was one of the best students, one of the best dancers. When I got a B on my report card, my father reacted as though I’d come home in the back of a police car.
Juan didn’t like to talk about his father, who had left the family when Juan was young. His mother was remarried to a man who drank and who silenced her with the back of his hand. He and Juan had a distant relationship, but you could feel Juan’s anger bubbling beneath the surface.
Each time I called his house, a different person seemed to answer, another person appeared to have moved in. Whether Juan went to school or not was of little concern to his family. When he did go, most teachers considered him unreachable.
He talked casually about drinking, smoking pot, and sneaking out in the middle of the night. I was intimidated at first, but I wanted to be part of his world.
My parents discouraged my relationship with Juan. When I defied them, our small battle grew into an all-out war.
My straight A’s became C’s and D’s. I complained about having to go to dance class. I snapped over what we were having for dinner. Irritated by my mother’s never-ending questions, I once grabbed a knife off the counter, demanding to be left alone. Looking back, it’s as if I had temporarily morphed into another person.
I lived with opposing thoughts: They want too much from me; they don’t want enough from me. I want them to be proud of me; I want them not to pay so much attention to me. “They” were my parents, teachers, dance instructors, sometimes my friends. Everyone except Juan.
My parents blocked his home phone number so he couldn’t call. Every time he called me from a pay phone, my parents had that number blocked—until the phone company told them they’d reached their limit of ten blocked numbers.
One day I decided I wasn’t going home after school. I called a cab from a friend’s house, and when it arrived I yelled out to my friends that my mom was there to pick me up.
Juan met me where the cab dropped me off. As we walked back to his house, he offered me a piece of gum. I remember feeling moved by the offer.
We played Nintendo, ate Fruity Pebbles, and cuddled under a blanket. While I delighted in playing house, my parents began a frantic search.
They knew I was with Juan but didn’t know where he lived. After some pleading phone calls to Juan from my father, my mother’s best friend called his house pretending to be someone from the gas company. Whoever answered gave her a street name but not the address. My father went door to door asking for Juan. When he finally reached the house, they looked at each other for the first and only time. Juan returned to the basement after denying he knew where I was. When the cops came and retrieved me an hour later, I was crushed.
I pulled up my sleeves, exposing bruises on my arms, and pointed to more on my legs. I told the police: “My dad did this to me, and that’s why I ran away from home.” In truth, those bruises were from Juan. He didn’t beat me—it was more like playful roughhousing. He treated me like one of the boys, and I laughed through things that made me uncomfortable and sometimes even scared me.
I wrapped my arms around myself, stroking the bruises as one of the two police officers backed my father up against the car. The cop told my dad he would be filing a report of suspected child abuse. I begged the other officer to let me stay at Juan’s house, but they put me in a car with my father and sent me home.
It was a warm night in late May 1996, near the end of eighth grade, when I tiptoed down the stairs, out the back door, and through a wooded area to the next street over, where Juan and two of his older friends were waiting for me in a beat-up red Honda. Juan opened the back door, and I jumped in.
I had met the driver at Juan’s house. He was about 19 and dated a girl who was a year ahead of me at school. The first time I met him, he took his girlfriend by the arm into the laundry room in the basement. He returned with her about 20 minutes later; she was quietly crying.
I drank from the oversize beer bottle handed to me as we drove around Burke, pausing to pick up my friend Brandy and then continuing on to the house of another girl from school. We all sat in her living room and got high, passing around two blunts of marijuana.
The girl’s mother yelled from her bedroom about the smoke, and we went back to the car. Brandy hugged me goodbye and walked home. As we continued driving around, I noticed it was quieter. An odd feeling washed over me, sending a prickly flush over my body.
“Is this where I get raped or something?” I joked.