When you're fourteen, it's easy to mistake creepy for mysterious.
It was at a 4th of July barbecue when I decided to give our middle-aged family friend, Joe, my virginity. One moment I was painting the night sky with sparklers; the next, I was serving Joe potato salad, thinking to myself, "I choose you to devirginize me."
I was 14, he was in his fifties. If my parents had known of my plans, they would have been horrified. But since we never talked about anything that would make them feel uncomfortable, I didn't share my plan with them.
The one time I asked my mother what sex was, she said, "Women are women, and men are men, and that's sex." We both knew that wasn't exactly what I meant, but I didn't bring up the subject again. I now understood that she had a strict "don't ask so I won't have to tell" policy.
Although Joe was my intended deflowerer, he wasn't exactly hot. He stood about six feet tall and was bald with a fleshy, pear-shaped body but it wasn't his looks that I was attracted to — it was his blandness and his quiet smile. I gravitated to his sea of calm in our dysfunctional household.
Since Joe was divorced (with his ex-wife and children living in another city) and lived right across the street from us, it made sense for him to come to our house for all holiday celebrations. He didn't add much as he wasn't ever the life of the party; usually, he'd just sit staring off into space while eating special occasion food.
I thought he was deep and thoughtful. When you're young, it's easy to mistake creepy for mysterious.
I could tell he liked me best because he would often break his silence by talking to me. He'd tell me about how frustrating it was for him to be a part-time sculptor and still have to work at a regular 9-to-5 job. He was a tortured artist, and there's nothing sexier to a 14-year-old girl.
I believed that sleeping with a much older man would make me feel better about myself. He'd be too grateful to care about the five extra pounds I carried on my hips or the fact that my hair was wavy, not fashionably straight.
I was confident that I would be forever special to him as his last hurrah before he tottered off to the grave. Sex would be a gift to us both.
I'd go across the street to his house and flirt with him, which usually just meant helping him with his yard work. One day I said, "We should have sex," as if I was suggesting we have lunch or go to the movies. Although we'd never kissed, or even touched in a non-familial way, he didn't seem at all surprised at my proposal.
"Great idea! Come over tomorrow so we can discuss the details," he said with more enthusiasm and energy than he'd ever demonstrated at any of our holiday gatherings.
The next day I had barely reached his front steps when he opened his front door wide. I had never been inside his house before and was curious but something made me hesitate to cross his threshold.
"Would you like a tour?" he asked, grabbing my hand and pulling me inside. His fingers felt like swollen sausages. I wanted to extract my hand from his but was worried that he might think I had changed my mind. The uneasy feeling I had in the pit of my stomach made me think I was already starting to have second thoughts about my plan.
He led me around his tiny house, with his large Russian wolfhound dogs running underfoot. The house was so small; it felt more like a clubhouse for kids than an actual grown-up's home. The living room was half the size of a normal home, and the kitchen was more like a ship's galley. Everything except for Joe and his dogs appeared smaller than average.
When we got to his bedroom, one of the dogs ran into me and I lost my balance. Joe grabbed me and pulled me in close. He took that opportunity to squeeze my ass and tongue-kiss me. I felt queasy. When he was done mauling me, he led me back to the living room. I threw up a little in my mouth, which didn't help to rinse away the unpleasant taste of old man.
"Oh, this is going to be so good," he said to me once we were back in the living room. He walked the four steps over to the kitchen and got me a glass of apple juice.
"Apple juice is for babies," I thought to myself.
Although I hadn't enjoyed his touch or his wet lips, I tried to make myself feel excited about the prospect of sleeping with him.
I was lost in the fantasy of how beautiful our sex would be when Joe said, "I want to show you my collection" and began pulling some pictures out of a drawer in his desk. They were all pictures of naked young girls — some of them even younger than me.
It was blindingly clear that the man I had chosen to be my first was a sex offender. I wouldn't ever be special to him. I was a momentary acquisition.
I tried to look away, but Joe made sure I took a good look at each photograph. One picture showed Joe sitting with a naked girl on his lap, laughing. Next, there was a one of a blonde girl with her breasts on top of Joe's hairless head, while another photo revealed two nude girls laying on a bed curled up against Joe.
I didn't want to be a witness or co-conspirator to Joe's secret sleazy life but he continued to thrust picture after picture upon me. His face was getting redder and more flushed. I could see droplets of sweat starting to drip down from his hairline. He smelled unclean, metallic. When he placed my hand on his crotch, I knew his wanting wasn't for me, but for the girls in his collection.
As he became more excited, I became equally as revolted but tried not to show it. I casually took my hand away pretending to take a sip of my juice.
"After we have sex, I'll take your picture," Joe said with a smirk.
I had already decided that we were never going to have sex but nodded as if my plans hadn't changed.
Joe held on to each picture longer and longer as if he couldn't stand to part with them. I was worried that any minute he was going to take his penis out and start masturbating. I knew I needed to get out of that claustrophobic house right away.
I stood up abruptly and said goodbye. Joe seemed disappointed but after carefully putting his photos back down on the couch, he got up and gave me another awkward hug.
"Tomorrow night. I can't wait," he whispered in my ear.
"Tomorrow night," I said, but meant never.
Later, when I was home in my own bedroom, I thought about what I should have done. If I had asked for more apple juice, I could have slipped a few pictures into the pockets of my shorts. I would have had evidence and could report him to a responsible adult.
Since I had nothing to prove that what I said was true, I kept the story of Joe and his collection quiet and never told my parents. The thought that it had been my idea in the first place made me silent.
I never spoke to Joe again, and ignored him when he came to Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner. Sometimes when I knew he was working in his yard, I would play music loudly in our living room as if it was the only way to express my rage.
Over the years, I tried to convince myself that what had happened shouldn't have affected me. He had only shown me some pictures and hadn't forced me into having sex with him.
I had been strong and hadn't let him turn me into a victim but still, our aborted encounter damaged me in so many small ways that I'm still trying to recover from it. For one thing, a man who was like an uncle to me was shown to be a pedophile who took advantage of young girls.
Eventually, Joe got another wolfhound and moved away; the teeny tiny house was unable to hold three large dogs and one deeply troubled man. When I heard a few years later that he had died, I didn't mourn him. Joe taught me that while everyone ages, some people are too broken to grow up.