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The first time I heard the song, “I Will Always Love You,” I was in second grade and watching The Bodyguard with my dad. It was a weekend night, and I had stayed awake until he got home from work so we could spend time together. Sugar danced at the bottom of our syrupy-sweet glasses of orange Kool-Aid. The popcorn was a little overcooked, but it was warm and fresh and the extra salt and butter covered the burnt taste. The television cast a silver light into the room, giving the evening a dreamy feel. I laughed whenever my dad broke away from the movie-watching to snatch up and eat the pieces that fell on the floor. I held the remote control and lowered the sound during the loud parts so we wouldn’t wake up my mom or the baby. The movie was both sad and exciting. Whitney was beautiful and brave, saying goodbye to her lover, wishing him joy, happiness, and above all that, love.
The second time I heard that song I was fifteen and standing naked in front of a full-length bathroom mirror, staring into my own eyes as my boyfriend put on a condom. The words and music pumped out of the speakers in Ronny’s bedroom, too loud. He had probably stolen the CD from his older sister, thinking it was good music for me to lose my virginity to. It was a single, though, and the same three tracks—the song, the instrumental, and the dance remix—kept playing over and over again. He didn’t seem to notice.
He had turned the volume up so his mom wouldn’t hear us, he said. I thought it was a good idea not to mention that I could always hear my parents over the music. As I watched him clumsily roll the condom on, I started to wonder if he had stolen the condom from his sister as well. I was worried by how putting on a condom seemed so new to him. Then I thought about how that might actually be a good thing.
Looking down at me and breathing hard, Ronny asked if I was ready. His breath smelled sharply of Altoids, and there was the slightest hint of bacon. My stomach turned.
I nodded that I was ready. Ronny awkwardly flicked off the overhead lights and turned on a lamp on his desk. A soft blue light from a colored bulb filled the room. Ronny smiled at me, proud of himself. I wondered how I had never noticed that two of his teeth caved in to each other. We lay on his bed. He had done his best to make it, I guess, but all he had really done was carefully smooth out and place the comforter over the dingy, ruffled sheets. He began to kiss me, and I tried not to taste his medicated chapstick or think about him fumbling around between my legs. Instead, I thought about how serious and lonely he always looked while stretching before his swim meets, how his eyebrows furrowed and his jaw muscles quivered seconds before the referee blew the whistle. Staring at the ceiling, I thought about how on Fridays we skipped our last classes and went out for an afternoon movie before my parents got home.
I tried not to make any noise. He was heavy and his pushing was painful. He hadn’t shaved in a few days; his legs were prickly and dry. I could smell his sweat—or was it mine? A high-pitched whimper escaped.
Ronny asked if I was okay, pumping faster rather than stopping. His bed was creaking rhythmically. I wondered if the music was covering that sound.
I hesitated and said that it hurt—a lot. My voice was so soft I wasn’t even sure he heard me. I said it again, a little louder this time.
“But I already started,” he said, pulling back to look at me. As if sex was an irreversible process.
I didn’t know how to respond to that, so I didn’t say anything, and he kept going.
That night, when I called my best friend, Kendra Daniels, to tell her about what happened, she insisted Ronny had raped me. That if a girl expressed a desire to stop and the boy didn’t, it was considered rape. I knew Kendra had never liked Ronny—she hated him in fact—but she wasn’t a liar either, or a bad friend. I argued halfheartedly with her that it hadn’t been rape; that I had never actually said I didn’t want to do it, that even now I wasn’t sure that I hadn’t wanted to. Kendra told me I should break up with him and tell the police so that he couldn’t rape any more unsuspecting freshmen. I promised I would break up with him as soon as swim season was over. I told her I refused to tell my parents or the police about it. In fact, I never told anyone else about what happened with me and Ronny.
The last time I heard the song, I was thirty-one and sitting in my parents’ living room. My mom had left my dad for a man she’d met one night at Capital Bingo; apparently she’d been seeing him secretly for two years. My dad was lonely and severely depressed, so I agreed to leave the kids at home with my husband and come spend a few weeks with him. The two-and-a-half weeks I was there, we played cards, read in the library, cooked for each other, and took long walks through the neighborhood. We talked about the weather, what had become of various people in the neighborhood, where we wanted to travel, and what books we wanted to read. We spent evenings sitting on the porch, drinking Kool-Aid and silently watching the sky change from blue to orange. The whole time I was home, we never mentioned my mom or anything about marriage or love at all.
One night after a dinner of leftover spaghetti, my dad and I sat in the living room flipping through the channels. I stopped when I saw a young Whitney Houston being carried in the rain by a younger-than-old Kevin Costner. I recognized it as a movie I’d seen a really long time ago. My dad watched it with me for about ten minutes but was asleep by the first commercial break. At that point, the TV announcer urged viewers to stay tuned for the rest of The Bodyguard. Turning up the volume over my dad’s guttural snoring, I watched the last forty-five minutes of the movie. Pieces of it were very familiar, but I remembered very little overall.
When it was over, I turned off the television, and the light was sucked from the room. I sat in the dark, listening to my father’s breathing, the music from the movie still playing in my mind. I thought back sixteen years to the last time I could remember hearing that song, the day I lost my virginity. I remembered how I had gone home that night and thrown away my blood-spotted panties, how I had cried in the shower for an hour, not knowing why I was crying and angry with myself for it. How over the next month, Kendra had begun to ask about the identical cuts on my arms and thighs, and how I eventually stopped doing it when she walked in on me one day and threatened to tell my parents. I never actually saw Ronny again after that year; I could only imagine how he turned out.
After high school, he had probably gotten a scholarship to swim for some big public D-II school. Ronny had been a pretty good swimmer, and he’d had the grades and the required test scores to make it there. We went to different high schools—thank God—but I’d heard from a friend over at Saint Jonathan’s that he was being heavily recruited. I could see him joining a fraternity freshman year and dating a redheaded volleyball player named Tammy. Late at night, while drinking Naked Juice and eating tortilla chips, she’d do his Calc homework; he’d help her with Spanish. Six months into the relationship, Tammy would unexpectedly break up with him for the quarterback named Tex. It would mess up Ronny’s season, and he’d lose his top ranking and the respect of his teammates. Soon, he would begin to stay up late playing Halo with his frat brothers and drinking too much.
He’d drop out mid-way through the first semester of his sophomore year and move back into his parents’ house. They would put him through a short but effective rehab program, and he would find God there. Ronny would get a job as a night stocker at Sam’s Groceries, sharing the Good News in Spanish with his coworkers. Or maybe he would end up working at the Greyhound bus station, slipping salvation guides into people’s ticket envelopes and saying “God bless you” after each transaction.
On nights when his work friends went out drinking and the house was too quiet, Ronny would go through boxes of his old stuff—things his mom had neatly packed away years ago when he’d left for college. In a box labeled “Ronald—Notes, Cards, and Photos,” he would find a pink envelope with no return address on it. Inside would be a single sheet of floral stationary, the same shade of pink as the envelope. The note would be written in blue ink and bubbly writing. It would say: “Dear Ronny, I’m sorry but I can’t be your girlfriend anymore. I just don’t think it’s a good idea. You were really awesome this season, though, and I hope you go far with swimming. I’ll never forget you.” It would be signed, “Love, me,” with a heart drawn in for the word “love.” Ronny would read the short note several times. He would run his fingers over the back of the paper, feeling the raised letters, studying the childish handwriting, trying to remember who had written him this letter, and why.