Edited by Andrea Spofford | Barry Kitterman | Amy Wright
Tara Mae Mulroy
My family and I moved from North Carolina to Tennessee and into a world of confusing adolescent needs and expectation. The prepubescent eleven-year-old girls I left were still trying to decide whether it was time to wear deodorant. Here, in a suburb of Memphis, the girls were already shaving their legs and priming and concealing, risking the tender parts of their necks to create corkscrews that framed their faces. They were wearing clothing from Gap and Limited and Express, and they sometimes asked me in the locker room what the brand of my shirt was, and even went so far as to grab my collar and pop the tag to check, and if it wasn’t the “right” or a known brand, break into laughter.
Boys were worse. They scoffed at me and made comments about my growing body, my clothes, my glasses. I was on the outer rim of the herd and could be picked off easily. One even groped my breasts in the hallway a couple of times and frightened me so terribly that even after I didn’t see him anymore, I’d clutch my binders and books in front of my chest as I went between classes.
For a short time, I went to the school guidance counselor. She requested I get a top locker instead of a bottom one and that fixed something—I don’t know what.
My dad brought home a computer, and we got AOL. It was 1995: before parents received pamphlets in the mail about the importance of internet safety, nine years before To Catch a Predator first aired. My parents let me roam unchecked through the world of chat rooms. The boys or men who sent me private messages and asked for a picture received one I found somewhere of a girl in the middle of dressing. Wearing a white bra, she was bending forward, keeping her pants up with her right hand while extending her left to pick up a shirt. Her hair in a ponytail, her bangs slopped over her left eye. A large window on her right splashed light over the pale skin of her belly and the exposed parts of her chest. I don’t know why I picked it, but it must have been the sex, the casual way she held her body and how she was both vulnerable in her half state of dress and perfect. I ached to be that lovely, that sure. Whenever I sent that photo, I’d say something like, “This is just one I have. I don’t have any others right now,” and if they complimented it, I’d say things like, “Don’t talk to me just because you think I’m pretty. I want you to know me.”
I met some boys off the internet. One lived outside Orlando, FL, and my mother drove me out to meet him while we were there for a family trip. He had an iguana we fed amaryllis flowers, and after dinner and a movie, my mom stopped the car as we were leaving so I could run back to kiss him. I don’t remember why we stopped talking or even how his lips felt against mine, just his name: J.J. We were both 13. At school, I told the other girls about J.J. and wrote his name with mine all over my binders, taped a printout of his picture on the inside of my locker. He was “from another school” and that was cool.
There was another, when I was probably 14, who said he loved me the first time we chatted. When we met, he led me back to his bedroom to show off his posters. While my mother and his made small talk in the living room, just a wall away, he pushed me onto my knees, said “Do this because you love me,” and shoved his penis, which resembled a slug in a nest of red hair, into my mouth and thrusted until I gagged violently enough that my teeth clipped his shaft. He pushed me away from him and laughed when he found my gum stuck in his pubic hair. That was the first time I’d ever seen a penis. I followed him back out to the living room, and later in the car while I stared out the window, my mother said, “He seemed like a nice young man.”
In 1998, my parents finally caught onto the fact that I was spending too much time on the computer and started monitoring my access. My mother got on my account, read my e-mails, and talked to whoever IMed me. By that time, I had met a man online who said his name was Paolo Luccardi and that he lived in London. He sent me a picture, maybe of himself, of a man in his late twenties, shirtless, angularly thin, leaning over a railing with a body of water to his right. He had light brown hair, if I remember it right, and was tan. He told me he was Italian, and I could see it in his dark skin, his frame.
He, like all of the others before him, received that picture of the girl dressing that I said was me and the lie that I was in my early twenties. When my mother found out, she sent him one of me as I really was. In it I was wearing a rainbow heart sweater vest over a white blouse. My face looked wide and oily. My bangs sticking to my forehead, my eyes like pinpricks behind my thick glasses. He told me, “Your mom sent me your picture. You’re pretty.” I thought he might be lying, but he was adamant. I was pretty. I was pretty. I was pretty.
Some amount of time later, he told me he had leukemia. I didn’t love him, but after he told me, I did and I told him.
He quoted the chorus of Savage Garden’s “Truly Madly Deeply” back:
I want to stand with you on
I want to bathe with you in the sea
I want to lay like this forever
Until the sky falls down on me
Released in 1997, I heard that song everywhere: on the radio, in the doctor’s office, at school dances where the girls orbited their hips and pretended sex in the gymnasium where we could barely make out the faces of our partners and our school principal strolled by us with a swim noodle and knocked us if our bodies got too close. I had no idea what it meant for someone to want to “bathe with me in the sea,” but I knew bathing meant nakedness and nakedness meant sex and sex must mean love. More than anything, I wanted to hold his body in my arms, his chest glistening with sweat thick as blood, and to lay with him until the sky closed his eyes.
That same year, my mother trapped me in a corner of our apartment and beat me with a metal mop. It looked like she was being filled with something that would run over. Her lips stretched tight, and whenever the mop struck, she laughed. I could do nothing until she was done, and it felt like it would never end. It may still be going on. I still may be trapped in a corner being beaten in those soft spots that never heal. I learned how the muscles in my arms ran to my hands. It hurt to hold a pencil, to touch my fingertips to my palms. I wore long sleeves for a month in late spring, and when I found myself crying or wincing, I thought of him, always of him.
Paolo begged my mother to let me call him, so she did. We talked for an hour. “Hideously expensive,” she said.
“How are you feeling?” I remember asking.
“Okay today. Was worse yesterday.” He had a British accent, and it was higher-pitched than I expected, nasally. Every time he stopped talking, his breath hummed across the receiver, and I remember thinking of those spaces of breath later while touching myself.
“Do you love me?” I might have asked.
“Yes.” He might have responded.
“Are you scared?”
“Yes. In the night when I’m alone and the screen lights up my face, I know you’re here. I know you’re close to me, but if I’m gone, you’ll never be close.”
“But you’ll watch me, won’t you? After death? You’ll be with me?” I asked, maybe only to the dead air.
“Yes, I will, yes. Remember the song? Always the song. The wind on your face, a dandelion seed that brushes your wrist. Me in all of that, me. I’m there. I’ll be there.”
Someone who said he was Paolo’s brother got on his AOL account and told my mother Paolo had passed. After she told me, I probably walked into the bedroom I shared with my eight-year-old sister and felt something something sharp scavenging my gut. The one picture I had of him was taped next to my bed, in journals, in school books. Wherever I might look, wherever I could also write “Tara Luccardi.” A day or two later, I heard “Truly Madly Deeply” on the radio and I stopped what I was doing to hear it all the way through. It was him telling me he was okay, that he was there: in the light at my bedroom window, in the three stars of Orion’s belt. He was there. I decided, then, to name my first son after him.
When my husband and I were discussing potential baby names, I suggested Paolo, and he said something like, “I don’t like it.”
I persisted, “What about as a middle name?”
He said, “No. I’m not giving our son a name of some guy you never even met.”
By the time I was 15, boys were starting to like me at school, to pass me letters, to tell my friends to tell me, to ask me onto the floor at school dances. I went on a couple of dates, the first with a boy who went by the name Bucky. He attended a local Catholic all-boys school and asked to meet me at the movie theater because we were both too young to drive. I wanted to wear something nice, but my mother refused to let me go out in anything I chose, so I went in running pants, a white tank top, and an oversized Lands’ End jacket which I was too afraid to take off because I didn’t like how my arms looked.
When we met outside the theater, everything was sold out except for The Other Sister, which IMDb describes as, “A mentally retarded girl proves herself to be every bit as capable as her ‘perfect’ sister when she moves into an apartment and begins going to college.” We watched half of the movie while I sweated inside my jacket and wondered whether his hand creeping toward mine on the armrest was intentional. After the lead and her boyfriend decided to have sex for the first time on Thanksgiving Day, Bucky asked if he could kiss me, and I let him. His tongue slipped between my lips, and I was startled by the feel of it, how I had to open my mouth wider to take it in, how clumsy my own tongue felt brushing against his, and how I nearly laughed when I felt his rub the back of my teeth.
I finally got my first boyfriend, a tall and thin redhead who was new to my school. He gave me his AOL username and I started messaging him, and then it developed into dates—monitored and unmonitored—and into trips with his family and mine. When we weren’t chatting online, we were standing hard on third base or hovering towards home in the five months we lasted. When it was over, it was over.
I dated other boys and men. Some I met online. Others from school. None of them lasted long.
My mom said of online relationships, of which she has had many, “You can have nice experiences and unsavory ones.”
She was right.
In 2007, I stopped meeting men online. I deleted dating profiles, deactivated Facebook and MySpace accounts, got rid of old e-mail accounts and got new, clean ones.
When the night lengthened before me, or I went to a party and watched the other couples hovering around each other, I put myself to bed. Every night, to bed.
I met my now husband in 2008 through mutual friends, and we married two and a half years later. We never knew each other online.
When I was thinking about writing this essay, a friend of mine asked if I had ever looked Paolo up to see if he had really died, to explore whether I’d been “catfished.”
Mostly out of curiosity, I searched for Paolo using his old screenname and found someone who might be him. The name, location, and age were right, and he looked like what sixteen years could do to the picture of the man I was sent years ago: fleshed out, his tanned skin wadded at the corners of his eyes and mouth. Some details didn’t work: it said he was from Chile, instead of Italy. I have doubts.
I returned to his profile over a span of weeks. Each time lingering and exploring what was available to me, trying to piece together if this was the guy who helped make my childhood a little more bearable, who filled a need. I couldn’t get any answers. I shied away from contacting him, though at least a couple of times, I went to compose a message and closed it without typing a word. I couldn’t name the fear that stopped me, but I knew I wanted him to remain an uncertain memory. I still imagine him sometimes, lovely in the way all the gone are, my young heart in his mouth.