Isa Rhein is a third-year Photography major and Creative Writing minor from Washington DC. She hopes to create work that highlights subjects that are usually overlooked, such as mental illness and mixed cultures.
This is Love
My mama told me that when a person is at the age where they grow several inches taller at night, they fall in love like this. Young affection is like a drug that keeps dragging you back. It’s eternal. It’s freedom. It’s the cells in your goose-bumped skin. Young love consumes you, clouding your mind. Mason is that for me. I love him as much as my body will allow. When he smiles, I feel drunk on his gaze. As far as I know, this is different from any others I have claimed to love. But teenagers like me feel too much not to call every crush: true love. Mason is my true love today, and that’s real.
Today, I get to see Mason. I spend hours trying on things that will end up abandoned on my floor. No matter how many outfits I try on, I don’t feel good enough for him. I decide on a pair of fabric shorts that accentuate my hips. My mama shouts from the front door, telling me to hurry up. I frantically replace a tight-fitting tank top with an oversized shirt from my trip to San Francisco. Mason lives a painful fifty-seven minutes away from me, an hour and thirty-eight minutes with traffic. Most Saturdays, my mama is willing to drive me to his house. But if I’m honest, I feel special when he goes out of his way to drive his pickup truck to my house. I consider his effort to be love. I tell myself that he cares so much. He drives all the way here just to see me.
I turn the radio knob to my favorite station. Diana, the host, is a soothing woman that only talks about relationships. I sink into the passenger seat of my mama’s car. Butterflies bubble below my ribs even though Mason and I have been dating for two months. Diana says being together for a while and still getting butterflies is a good sign. I smile at the nauseous flutter and tell myself this is love. My eyes feel heavy, and I start to drift to sleep. The radio host is chatting to a woman about her cheating ex in the background. Cars were always my safe place. Rest comes quickly with my head heavy on the leather headrest.
My mama taps me on the shoulder, indicating that we have arrived. Sleep consumed me, becoming a ritual on every trip here. I look in the makeup mirror to adjust a few wild baby hairs. The aggressive butterflies awake within me. When Mason opens the door he is wearing the clothes he slept in. His mom comes up behind him and gives a small wave to my mama. That is her queue to leave; the house is supervised. It doesn’t matter how many times Mason’s mother tells me to, I never feel at home in his house.
We all walk to the living room, greeted by a show I lied about liking. I sit on the couch beside Mason, refusing his mother’s drink and food offers. She leaves muttering something about a work call. He slides his hand under my waistband the moment she walks out of the room.
Over time I have convinced myself that I am as pleased with this as he is. His fingers move like flint, but no fire comes with their friction. He says he likes the shorts. I kiss him to thank him. I breathe heavier and grip his shoulder, as I’ve seen in movies. He leans back in triumph. He goes back to watching his show, moving my hand into his pants. His breath accelerates, and it doesn’t sound rehearsed. I look over to the television because I’m starting to feel nauseating flutters. Mason breathes heavily and pushes my head down to his crotch. I repeat in my head, Butterflies mean love.
I have butterflies when Mason asks me to his Winter Formal. I spend way too much time gushing about it to my friends. There is a chill in the air on the night of the dance. My mama bought me a beautiful blue dress and strappy black high heels. She tells me to make good choices as she drives me the fifty-seven minutes to Mason’s house. I don’t sleep on this drive. When I arrive, his mom is fidgeting with a blue tie around his neck. We please the parents and smile for pictures. My mama leaves a few minutes before we do. I feel so small in his massive pickup truck. I smile the whole way to the dance, like a delirious child.
The dance is littered with strangers from his school. I follow him like a lost puppy. I’m out of place but at least I have the one I love. We shuffle around the sticky gym floor for a few minutes. I feel so tense I could crumble. Mason leans into me and suggests we leave. Leaving will make this feeling go away, I think. We leave the dance, not even fifteen minutes after we got there. I ask where we are going and he says to wait and see.
It’s 11:37 pm when Mason parks in an empty parking lot behind a church. He leans over the center console to kiss me. Is it okay to be here? I don’t want to get arrested. Nerves bubble inside me as thoughts fill my head. Mason doesn’t seem to be nervous. I must be overreacting. He tells me to go sit in the backseat and I cooperate. I slide into the back seat and he follows behind me. The door closes, and he kisses me. My head swirls around; my stomach is a mess of butterflies. This is love, I tell myself. His smile is a devious announcement. It is love that he wants me. His hands wander up my leg. Why wouldn’t I want him to touch me? I try and reassure the voice telling me to run away. This is butterflies. This is love. His hands on my thigh is his way of loving me. This is what I wanted. His touch is what love is.
All time stops when he reaches up under my dress. I got my beautiful blue dress for $265. My mama let me get it because “it’s not every day you’re asked to a winter formal.” I curled my hair in perfect ringlets. My nails are perfectly polished with shimmering blue jelly. When my mama took the picture earlier, I smiled with my hand on my hip. His hands on my hips give me a nauseous infestation.
My thoughts space farther apart. I feel my dress hiked up to my waist, but I have no will to adjust it. Mason is mist, dissipating from my view. I feel safe in this far away place. My face tingles, numb to everything. My body is in the back seat of his pickup truck, but I am not there anymore. I can hear him call my name from the other side of thick glass. I’m not worried when he takes off my dress; I don’t feel anything at all.
Naked, I lie still. My body is dormant; Mason is the only one moving my shell. When he speaks to the body on his leather seats, I don’t understand and make no effort to. My new dress is in a forgotten pile on the floor. I see his hands blur into my skin. I’m frozen, staring at the back of the passenger seat. The seat’s zig-zag stitching interferes with the smooth leather. My eyes feel empty, a porcelain doll left to rot. The butterflies all quiet down, they sit satisfied in my vacant body. I don’t know how long I am staring at the passenger’s seat. It feels like years.
He slams the door yelling things my ears can’t comprehend. The only thing that brings me back to the cold upholstery is itchy tears and shame for my exposed body. It’s painful to sit up after being stone. I don’t let myself think as I untangle my bra and underwear from the blue dress. Once dressed, I let myself sink back into the seat and cry. Mason’s mother is like a ghost when she opens the door and closes it again. Maybe hours or days pass. The prickles on the arm pinned below my body go numb when my mom arrives. With no words exchanged, I sit in silence for the fifty-seven minutes it takes to get home.
This can’t be love, I tell myself.