an erasure essay from Ch. 16 of The seventeen Book of Etiquette and Entertaining, 1963
He meant to train you. Dinner at his house, family present; how to be appropriate + curb edges on display. You are the kind of girl his mother expects her son to like (simple, good, church-on-Sunday) but awkward with parents. You don’t want to talk to them, nervous, “No thank you” the only answer you give. You don’t care for anything but their son. They can tell. You bow your head and you murmur, quiet, biding time, his teen-dark eyes much more appealing than anything on the plate. You wait till he’s portioned out. You go through the motions. You’re wise. You wait till you’re asked. That’s what he wants. Your conflict? Principles. You excuse yourself to the bathroom, mother-watching. He’s apprehensive about mistaking your signal as agency. You’re playing the long game, a hurdle you’ll evade through absenting your sexual arrival. You pose a problem to his canny kissing; you alarm him by pulling him against you—you needn’t, but you must. The right girl wouldn’t need physical evidence he wanted her after days of emailed pleasantries. Her beau would make plans to visit her. She’d like to meet the friends he kept in the life outside her. She’d check with him before saying she’s a possession he owns. She would strip her fear fresh and neat, thank the mother, mind her modesty, and he would envelope her as he said he would. Later. You are not the right girl. No teen can pair a marred promise with all those other tricks that bring on trouble. Is it proper for a girl to visit a boy overnight? You know his parents will go to an early-evening party and leave the two of you to your own devices, that old opportunity to visit his Victorian cross-examination of your values. You are left at the house a long, long time, just the two of you. It’s after dark. It isn’t a question of what you want, it’s a matter of conventions. He is guarded, he won’t admit it; you save the embarrassment of a good interruption. You can cash in later, should your beau offer. So you ask him to visit you. It’s your prom, your theater. You act as if you’re exactly what he steered. He’s goaded into activity, amusement on the seat of your Taurus. You, definite about plans, guess his. He has other provisions for comfort, wants to go back paper-fresh. There are enough gutters, enough ash trays. This is a readable alarm clock. He’ll meet you one more time, a scrounge-up, sorry for you. You miss that you’re unwanted, unbidden. You try to press against his neck but he leaves untouched. You sense nothing. He phones it in and you stay till he’s left. Then you’re left, a call at a distance, clean closure. Sure it’s the key lime pie you didn’t try, mother-weary, unavoidable, your urge to get his head in your legs costly. Sure you wouldn’t have wanted to wait. If he’d tried. Sure.
Kristine Langley Mahler lives on the suburban prairie of Nebraska, where she is completing an erasure book on Seventeen‘s advice to teenage girls, a grant-funded project about immigration/inhabitation on native land through the lens of her French-Canadian ancestors, and a graduate degree in creative nonfiction. Her work received the Rafael Torch Award for Literary Nonfiction from Crab Orchard Review and has appeared/is forthcoming in New Delta Review, The Rumpus, Quarter After Eight, Barrelhouse, Chautauqua, and elsewhere.A Requirement Unrequited