When you are 16 your bones, like a cage, house the bare heart that has not yet grown its shell.
You are, 16, a paradox, an enigma, a question asking — Yes?
Perfect invincibility in one hand, absolute vulnerability in the other.
You stand quaking with your naked heart, draped in soft plaid and thrumming confusion and feel the stunned and stunning power rumbling deep, waiting to roar.
But you can’t find your voice, or it sounds foreign. It sounds wrong. So you just shine, mute in blind and beautiful confusion, 16.
When, at 16, that boy, that more-than-16 boy, that sun-browned sailing boy dripping of promise and money and danger and something like love or sex, though you know nothing of those because you’ve only played the fringes — when that boy locks his eyes with yours, when you see him through 16 and he takes your hand — Come sailing — then you die and are born again a thousand times like a bloom, like a star, all at once, over and over.
Even with your kind, blind, romantic mother standing there, chatting about what, even with your fresh bare heart, you feel like sinew rooted to the earth, like a pearl polished by the sea. You are enlivened, gorgeous, grown.
Cast off the mother, glow like a firelight illuminating the whole world around you. Your world, your oyster.
Because you are 16.
When you are 16, he wraps himself around you for how many summer weeks, you bake in his swagger, his rugged blond cigarette ash, drown in his salty sea and you die a little more each time he touches you.
And he touches you everywhere and everywhere, unfolds you and awakens you and you say yes yes yes and then no.
Yes and always no. Because you are a good girl. A smart girl. And the drowning is almost complete, but not quite.
Because you are 16.
When you are 16, the warnings wave in the distance in an unfamiliar language — they disturb something deep in the pit of your brain, your gut, but you don’t listen well to those yet. You watch them wave and hope them away.
You wince at the flare of casual cruelty, the wandering flirtations, the muscle that he is as he clears a path for himself and his pain. You hear distant bells when someone says junkie.
But you are 16 and you are a good girl and he is a small golden god who has called you his girl. My girl, he says.
You are 16 and you are his girl.
And he tells you, 16, I love you. Through the phone lines, in the sleeping silent house, on Christmas Eve. He loves you and you are 16. And you drown and you die.
He — small, arrogant, consumptive muscle — tells your kind, concerned, and patient father that you are safe, he will take care. Yes, you are 16.
They wring their hands and defer to you, good girl, smart girl, and they put you on the train. You win.
You are 16 and you win.
You place your bare heart, your not-yet-finished heart, in his careless selfish hands and the drowning is done.
And he breaks you and he breaks you and he breaks you in all the timeworn, uninspired, trite and operatic ways. Wicked potions and other girls, yes girls, bitter roaming in a squall.
The strange cold house, strange couch, strangers — a strange New Year, Neil Young on about how a man needs a maid and stories whispered of your small stale drama.
And he sends you back, early on the train, in your carefully chosen, perfectly ridiculous, positively ineffectual armor and watch the frames of the train view pass while the bare heart seeps from your eyes and your pores and you melt, there on the train. And you know that you know nothing but your new strange and permanent wound.
You are a different 16, a shaken and weakened and dull 16, and why. Still a good girl, less a smart girl, a quiet broken girl, a new and tempered girl. A wary girl.
You find lessons in your pockets about the limits of your tolerance and the language of warnings. About small gold gods and slick quick substances.
Later, when the flame is low, sour and mean, you gather your power and you spill cold hard metal mad 16 all over pages and pages and you wish him the worst and you begin to forge your heart’s shell, finally. You launch the barbed envelope through the mail, pointed straight for his bare junkie’s heart.
It helps, because you are 16 and he is far and you have roared a bit and the world is big and your heart has started its shell — a slight polish hardening in the furnace of your yearning and your rage and your pain.
Much later, in the content center of life, you find the scar, worry it, wonder. Why, this distant silly thing, that small silly person, those brief strange moments? Why are they still here, wedged uncomfortably, sharply, under the shell, never to be extracted?
Because you were 16 and your tender heart was bare in its cage and the world is voracious and ferocious and consumptive and you did not know.
You never know until you know.
And you never know when you are 16.