My new novel, 17 & Gone, comes out this week on March 21, and to mark the release of this story about a 17-year-old girl haunted by the missing, I’ve asked some authors I know to join me in answering this question… What haunted YOU at 17? Here’s Libba Bray revealing her disturbing fears when she was 17 years old…
Guest post by Libba Bray
“We were just young and restless and bored.”
—“Night Moves” Bob Seger
We were seventeen, and sex was everywhere.
It was a constant, high-pitched whine to which our ears had just become attuned, and now we couldn’t stop hearing. On the back row of the midnight movie. In the parking lot of the Pizza Hut. Walking through lake-side parties with plastic cups of beer in one hand. Nestled into backseats in cars with fogged windows. Stretched out on the night-cool grass in the city park with a view of the silent steeple of the First Baptist Church. Navigating the high school hallways, every encounter at the lockers or water fountain or classroom an unspoken invitation to a possible kiss, a probable more.
Our town was small and dusty and unexciting, and the current of our collective yearning was as palpable as electricity crackling along power lines: You don’t see it, but you know it’s there. Sex. My older brother’s friends had gone from protesting my presence to offering me weed and rides to the Sonic in cars with killer sound systems. I watched their fingers strumming guitars and imagined those fingers entwined in my hair, stroking along my collarbone. The lanky, confident strides of long-haired boys loping into record stores, thumbs hooked through Levi’s belt loops was an aphrodisiac. Tanned, muscular arms swooping suds over the hoods of beat-up Impalas and Ford trucks parked in oil-stained driveways brought on fits of girl-klatch giggles. Sometimes, we’d sit on the curb in front of my friend Charlotte’s house baking in the Texas heat, just waiting for a glimpse of John Collins who lived two houses down. When we were lucky, the garage door would rise robotically, and he’d emerge with his amplifier in hand, those long, Robert Plant–worthy curls a gleaming advertisement for our girlish fantasies.
Sex. Romance. Desire. Fear.
It wasn’t always welcome. When my BFF, Eleanor, and I went to the county fair that summer, a toothless, tattooed carny leaned in to secure the metal bar on our Ferris wheel seat and flicked his tongue suggestively at us. “I like to eat pussy,” he said with a cackle and sent us skyward, around and around, pinned and helpless. There was the married businessman at the community theatre who made a habit of cornering teenaged girls at wrap parties. Once, as I perched on the edge of a chair, he surreptitiously stroked his palm up the inside my thigh, under my dress, venturing higher and higher while I said nothing. Truth: It was wrong of him. Other truth: I liked it. I took that wandering hand as proof of my desirability.
I was seventeen and haunted by the idea that I was inherently unlovable. Undesirable. Unwanted. Sometimes, I’d lie on the bed with a hand mirror, examining my nascent woman-face by degrees: freckled, full cheeks. Possibly promising pout. The natural arch of an eyebrow, the only hint of glamour. My face was a prairie—open, plain, colorless, solid and friendly, if not exciting or exotic. I’d lower my eyelids to half-mast, part my lips, fan my hair out on the pillow and try to imagine what I would look like in the throes of passion. Ridiculous? Amazing? Embarrassing? Sexy? Ordinary? Forgettable? I’d study pictures of Debbie Harry and Kate Bush, slapping on gobs of rainbow-palette makeup, then taking it all off again as if I already knew it was a hollow attempt at an enchantment I could never really own. Would I ever be enough as myself, or would I always be chasing an ideal that was not my birthright?
Jokes and sarcasm, these were my twin shields against attachment and a lust I felt deeply but also feared. “No need to look my way, kids, I’m just here for the laughs.” If I really was a joke, I wanted to laugh first.
Occasionally, I dressed up my needs in elaborate role-play fantasies, like the time I went to the Kimball Art Museum to see an Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibit with the object of my infatuation, Greg. I’d already spun out an entire fantasy dating life for Greg and me in which we attended theater festivals and drank gin-and-tonics like modern Salinger characters. My body hummed from the nearness of him. That afternoon, as we passed photograph after photograph, I peered into the eyes of the subjects in those black-and-white squares of stark realism placed evenly and carefully apart on the wall and wished that they could answer my questions: “Does he like me? Will he kiss me? Am I enough?” We stood with our hands hanging at our sides, dangerously free, daringly close, our heads cocked at the same angle, and he confessed his crush on my best friend and asked for my help in wooing her. I had not been enough, after all. On the ride home across the flatline of I-35W, The Cars “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” filling the front seat, I felt a mixture of regret and relief. There was nothing to tie me to this dead-end place, after all—for if there was anything more terrifying than sex, it was the idea of the ordinary.
At seventeen, my friends were all doing it. I was the last virgin standing. Giggling, eyes bright and hopeful, they talked incessantly and in detail of their sexual assignations. Names. Dates. Sounds. Smells. Frequency. Facial expressions. Idiosyncrasies. Annoyances. Shortcomings. All the things men secretly fear we talk about when they’re not around. I’d sit on the bed listening, taking mental notes but not truly comprehending. It was like rushing a sorority years before they’d actually consider my application.
My first—and only—high school boyfriend had broken up with me that December. John was a terrific guy, a philosophical, gentle giant of a drummer who’d taken my adolescent hormones to warp speed. After months of backseat fumbling and painfully protracted groping sessions, it was time. I went to the Planned Parenthood located, ironically, next to the town’s one Catholic church, and spent five hours watching sex ed films in order to gain access to the free birth control pills. “You have to start on the first day of your next period,” the nurse informed me. “Then it’ll take a full month before you’re safe.” By my calculations, we were looking at a six-week waiting period. Jesus. I’d explode before then. Some kind of spontaneous sexual combustion. But if there was anything that scared me more than sex and my mother, it was unwanted pregnancy. So wait I did. And when the calendar-circled day finally arrived, I dabbed some Love’s Baby Soft behind my ears and waved goodbye to Eleanor giving me a thumbs up at her bedroom window as I walked out to John’s car.
Except that it turns out I wasn’t ready after all. That night, as we parked in his car in sight of the town’s green-and-white water tower, I picked a fight and we parted ways, him feeling hurt and bewildered, me feeling scared and asinine, knowing I’d ruined everything. A month later, the inevitable break-up followed. I lay on the bed examining my tear-streaked prairie face in the mirror. “There’s something wrong with you,” I said and turned away to cry into my pillow.
June, 1981. My pal, Richard’s, parents were out of town. A few of us decided to gobble down Black Mollies, chase it with beer, and speed our way through his birthday pool party. That’s where I ran into Bob. I’d met him several times before at other parties where we traded banter and outrageously silly dance moves. Tall, dark-eyed, with a quick wit and a Dracula cape—yes, an actual cape—Bob was a perfect candidate for my romantic yearnings. He was aloof. Unattainable. If I could make him want me, then it had to prove how incredibly irresistible I was. How worthy. It was insurance for my gun-shy heart.
Men didn’t leave irresistible women. This is what I told myself at seventeen. When my father came out to us, packed his suitcase and left for Dallas, taking up later with a lover who would become a second dad to me, I blamed my mother. If only she’d been prettier. Sexier. If she’d done some impossible, unnamable thing differently, my father would still love her, I told myself. It was absurd, of course, childish and unsympathetic, and it carried within it the warped DNA of self-loathing. This was the thing I wanted to deny, the truth hiding behind the smile of every boy I longed to kiss: If she could be left, so could I. And why would you open your heart and your arms, take a boy inside you, only to watch him go?
In the living room of Richard’s house, the New Wave kids pogo-d to The Cure, The Clash, Gary Numan. “I need to talk to you,” I said to Richard and motioned him outside by the pool. The speed buzzed in my veins like New Year’s resolutions. Bold and hopeful, it muzzled my inhibitions.
“I really, really like Bob. Can you find out if he likes me?”
Richard glanced through the sliding glass doors at the dance party. The frenetic beats of Rock Lobster. Down, down, down…
“You don’t want to do that,” he said in a hedging way I interpreted as both kind and pitying. I felt mortified and strangely validated, as if this rejection offered proof of my fears: Ah, you see? No boy wants to slay a dragon for you. Back to the stable with you, wench! Remember your place.
Ordinarily, my pride would have required a joke at that point to cover my hurt. But the beer and drugs had worn down my defenses. I was raw need, no chaser.
“Why not?” was all I could ask, hating myself for even that much of a follow-up.
“It’s just not a good idea,” he said.
I nodded. “Okay.” Because there was nothing else to say.
Of course, I ignored his advice, following Bob from room to room, letting my shirt slump provocatively off one shoulder, Flashdance style, doing my best to seem alluring until he finally left abruptly, and I drowned my misery in more beer.
It had never dawned on me that Bob was gay; Richard, too. Or that my frequent attraction to gay men was both an Oedipal Circus and an unconscious need to “play house” sexually with boys who might require cover of their own. I was only seventeen and could not yet conceive of the ways in which our hearts, those faulty compasses, those magnificent frigates, conspire at times to keep us at sea, hopeful and searching.
Later that night, Eleanor and I were stopped by a cop on the way home from the party at 2:00 a.m. We’d crossed a median in front of the Denny’s, and after some furious eyelash batting and “Oh my gosh”-ing—sexual politics again—he let us off with just a warning. Terrified and jittery, we swore off drugs forever, a hollow promise as it turned out, and we sat on her bed by lamplight rehashing the night. Greg had finally made his move. They’d nearly done it in Richard’s darkened bedroom while on the other side of the door, the party raged on. I told her about Bob’s rejection and Richard’s discomfiting advice, and she assured me, in the way that sleepy best friends do, that it had nothing to do with me.
But I remained unconvinced.
Libba Bray is the New York Times bestselling author of The Gemma Doyle trilogy (A Great and Terrible Beauty, Rebel Angels, The Sweet Far Thing); the Michael L. Printz Award–winning Going Bovine; Beauty Queens, an LA Times Book Prize finalist; and The Diviners series. She is originally from Texas but makes her home in Brooklyn, NY, with her husband, son, and two sociopathic cats.
Find her online at libbabray.com.
Follow @libbabray on Twitter.
Want to win a signed hardcover of 17 & Gone, some swag, and a signed hardcover of Imaginary Girls to keep it company? Every commenter on this Haunted at 17 post will be entered to win. You can also enter by filling out this entry form.
The giveaway is international. Closes 11:59 p.m. EST on Thursday, March 28. Two winners will be chosen.
MORE 17 & GONE NEWS:
- If you’ll be in New York City for the NYC Teen Author Festival, come see me and get a signed copy of the book! Full schedule here—look out for me on Friday, March 22 at the Union Square Barnes & Noble or Saturday, March 23 at McNally Jackson or Sunday, March 24 at Books of Wonder!
- The YA blog WORD for Teens has interviewed me about 17 & Gone. Here’s what I think about blogging as an author, why boy characters are so tricky for me to name, and moving to Mars (random, but I really do think about it).
- I shared the places where I wrote 17 & Gone—with photos!—including a cluttered corner of my apartment, two artist colonies, my favorite café, and my beautiful writing space overlooking lower Broadway. Check out my In Search of the Write Space post on Meagan Spooner’s site, and be sure to enter the giveaway… I think you have just one day left to enter!
- I’m touched and honored to say that Courtney Summers is holding a giveaway for 17 & Gone right now—she’s been so kind and supportive, which means extra-much to me because I admire her like whoa! She’s giving away 17 & Gone (along with an ARC of the anthology Defy the Dark). Enter her Facebook giveaway.
- If you’ve pre-ordered 17 & Gone or plan to buy it this week (thank you so much for your support! it means the world to me!) and can’t be in New York City to get it signed, I have a way to sign your book from afar. Leave a comment on this photo on my Facebook author page and I may just mail you a signed and personalized bookplate.