Hellbent on Redemption

What they want is so big, it's hard to get your eye around at first. Their struggle is with the world--will it let them lose their loneliness? they want something bigger than themselves to live for, something steadier and stronger than one-on-one love.

My first thought on being asked to write about teenage sexuality was "oh, leave the kids alone!" Not very enlightened, maybe. But that phrase --"teenage sexuality"--makes me think of committee meetings, recommendations, editorials on condom distribution or parental notification.

I don't have any theories about this "problem" of teenage sexuality. I only have my stories, stories collected from teens on street corners, in abandoned buildings and speeding cars, and these stories . . . well, I suppose they're a little grim, over the top. I've always had trouble believing in proms and double dates and sweet first love, responsible kids making thoughtful choices, growing slowly together. My mind bends in another direction.

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I manage not to feel too guilty about that, but I do feel bad that every time I start thinking about teenagers and sex I end up with love and loneliness, violence and religion. Maybe it's just another kind of prudishness? I go skating away from nakedness into the memory of a fierce-looking kid (dirt-packed clothes, pierced face) telling me he didn't think he had much of a shot for happiness in this life, but in the next one. . .

Heaven? This grimy, studded kid was talking about heaven? In my mind, the picture of two kids, half-undressed and dry humping on the couch dissolves; how eagerly I follow that boy's gaze upward. "What does it look like?" I asked him. He told me: All of his friends would be sitting around a big dinner table, laughing, partying. Forever, I guess.

Now, is it the kids who keep jumping from the subject of sexuality? Or is it me? It's not a trick question. I just don't know. I used to think of all the kids I interviewed--skinheads, black Muslim girls, bullies, sluts, squatters--as flying away from something. Mom and dad, perhaps, or violence, lonely suburbs, rednecks. Shadows flitting on the lawn; gone. But then, I used to think of sex-at-14 as the step into the bad beautiful world, away from childhood, parents, home. The future was an "I," stamped big and bold, lit glamorously by the lover's gaze or fame. Friends didn't count, family didn't count. It was the world, or a man.

I have put my faith in sexual love, even though I have no faith that it lasts or sustains. I've put a great deal more faith in self-reliance, or what I would call the jungle in my head. I can keep myself company, see? Certainly, I've known the feeling of belonging to someone--the loyalty, the peace. But the fact is: I'm afraid of love's oblivion and afraid of the years ahead. Afraid of waking up one morning and finding myself as repulsive as Kafka's Gregor, scuttling in the dust under the bed, dodging apples--that is to say, all alone. I comfort myself: I'll have my memories of being loved, skin to skin. I'll have the carnival inside . . . but that's just where it will be someday, all locked up inside, whirling, weeping.

But look--there's that grimy, tattooed kid (he calls himself "Slug"), lonely already and thinking about heaven. When Slug looks ahead, he sees a table of friends, an afterlifetime of companionship. At one time, I thought I could examine the particulars of his past, of all their pasts--this bad-tempered daddy, that exploded family--and explain them. Their childhood, their elders--I--was the explanation for them. Well, what if they explained me? What if they were way up ahead, bearing our future back to us?

Two young lovers. This is how I first saw them, that night at the bowling alley: battered and bruised and grinning. His neck, mottled black and blue, went real well with his slouch and the cigarette clamped between his lips, the Kentucky drawl. They kissed, they wrestled with each other; they wore their hickeys like school colors. They belonged to each other. She/he is mine, mine, all mine.

But despite the brand, the vampire's kiss, R.J. and his girl broke up a few weeks later. R.J. says that she just wanted sex and he wanted love, permanence, a chance for redemption. When R.J. was just a toddler, his daddy left home. When he was a boy, his mom's boyfriend raped him more than once. He believes in love. He believes sex will lead him to it.

R.J. calls me from Kentucky. It's always the same--the lazy laugh, the "hey, girl! What's up," the hip, casual slur in his voice. Always like he's just called to shoot the shit when there's always something on his mind. He mentions that he's bringing his mom's ex-boyfriend to court for raping him. "Now it's my turn to fuck him up the ass." R.J. is joking, high as a kite at 4:30 in the afternoon--whiskey, reefer--partying with his mom. R.J. doesn't know why he's as high as a kite at 4:30 in the afternoon. R.J. has no one to talk to.

The saddest thing I've ever heard from a boy or girl was from a 17-year-old in a Planned Parenthood clinic. She'd had one kid, two abortions, and now she was pregnant again for the fourth time and she couldn't get any kind of advice from her boyfriend. Damn, she couldn't even get a reaction. In a voice thick with despair, she muttered, "At least say something."

Another girl I know called up a clinic to schedule an abortion, and when she was put on hold, "Greatest Love of All" played into the phone. Her boyfriend was long gone. Tears rolled down the girl's cheek. She hung up. Had baby.

At one time I might've told her: Don't throw everything away for a man who's not even there for you, for a stupid mistake. Don't throw away your youth, girl! But she threw it away--and not for a man but for a tie to someone, something.

"No blood, no love," the homicide cop's brusque shorthand for a certain mentality he stumbles across every workday. A friend who teaches teen-agers says: "These girls are all in such violent relationships!" She thinks she understands their desire to be loved, connected--so strong, they'll put up with anything. What is violence compared to love? Or as the kids might put it--less hopefully--what is violence compared to the fear of loneliness? We already know their answer. We see it on the news, hooded and handcuffed, every night. But we only know it in part. The unsentimental cop is closer to their truth--violence itself is intimate, entangling; the very opposite of the quick fuck, I'll see you later, baby. Blood is love.

"It's not about love." That's what the black Muslim girls say, the ones I met in Newark, N.J. They tell me that they did the teenage bit, boyfriends and movies and shopping and the quick slide into sex and wham! love. "I wanted to see what the world had to offer me. Not much. A lot of heartache, a lot of mischief," says one girl. She'd had an abortion. But she meant more than pregnancy and fear of disease; she meant abandonment and grief. A boy's there "loving you," and then he's gone. She told one cheating boyfriend, "You know, you cannot save my soul."

These girls just up and left the dangerous rush of the world, the battle of the sexes. They pulled in all the scattered pieces of themselves, sat like stones at prayer. Desolation all around them, cries of rage and hurt turn tinny, unreal as they crouch there, hunched beneath their veils, eyes glittering. They can see what no one else can--"Life without a soul is sad," they say.

"We born, we live, we die--that's it? I wanted to know why . . . I had a desire to submit and to better myself internally." So says Cheri, one of the Muslim girls. Before she found Islam, Cheri decided to join the army. She told her mom, "I think this is my calling." Cheri filled out her contract but felt no peace. "It was a total battlefield inside. I was scared. I was messed up." She decided, "This ain't it." And left the recruiting office.

She began to think about breaking up with her boyfriend, a boy she loved. Her girlfriends thought she was crazy. Then, Cheri stopped sleeping.

That girl walked the streets of Newark, fevered, sick as a homeless dog, wondering if she was indeed mad. The bookstore sign appeared like a mirage and Cheri stepped inside. Searched the aisles, but saw nothing, nothing. All seemed lost. But then, a voice, yes, a Voice said, "Turn around." And she did and saw the Koran on top of a bookshelf. She climbed the shelves, hand outstretched. "Hold it, sister, you'll kill yourself trying to get that book." She took that book and devoured it on the bus ride home and that night and the next day at work. . . .

She broke up with her boyfriend; she veiled. "This man can't save me from what I need to be saved from which is myself."

R.J. hooks up with a girl named Sarah and they call to tell me they've decided to make a baby. Sarah has three little brothers, and R.J. tucks them in at night like they were his own. He and Sarah play sex games at her parents' house. They tell me about last night's experiment--Vicks VapoRub rubbed on his dick. They read about it somewhere and decided to try it. It stung like hell. Which made them break out laughing and run for the bathroom and pour cold water on it which made it burn more. Two 17-year-olds cracking up in bed, playing sex games, trying like hell to get pregnant. . . .

R.J. and Sarah hope for the familiarity found only in 20-year marriages. "All I ever wanted all my life is to please my man," Sarah says. Who is this girl who believes love can be the answer, the meaning, more than enough to go on in this life? I know I should be worried that she'll lose her independence, her mobility, her SELF, become a patsy for a man. But her self, all alone, is what worries her. She wants to submit, to lose that strutting, fretful self in service to something. What's astonishing is that she thinks she can lose it in something as specific and nonabstract as one (lucky) guy.

The teenagers I know are both cynical and harshly passionate. What they want is so big, it's hard to get your eye around it at first. Who would've thought that teenagers talking about sex would end up talking about their souls? For that's what they're talking about, isn't it? Not body heat but life everlasting. Not the adventure of skin on skin, but a dinner table in the sky. It's not about love, Cheri proclaims, as she covers her gorgeous face with a veil and stops the day to kneel and pray to a will bigger than her own (and bigger than any damn boy's). She's a Muslim woman, and has disappeared into God's time. R.J. and Sarah still believe in the power of love, but even they want something bigger than just the two of them. They tell me they plan to get married on Sarah's daddy's birthday. R.J. will take on the names of Husband and Father--the faces change, the roles remain the same--and enter anonymity and eternity at the same time.

They have none of our ambivalence--independence vs. love, distinction vs. belonging. Their struggle is with the world--will it let them lose their loneliness? And how? They want something bigger than themselves to live for, something steadier and stronger than one-on-one love, something I long for and loathe, something eradicating--a "we" in their lives; a family feast that never ends, a tribe of friends, God's will. The only difference between that black girl in Newark and that white boy in Kentucky is that for one, sexual love is a dangerous temptation and for the other it is salvation itself. Both, by different routes, are hellbent on redemption.

And we can't help but look a little silly, standing here with all our concern, our talk of condoms and commitment, virginity and responsibility. We believe "self-esteem" will save them from disaster. We want them to have a good time, but we want them to be careful--OK, honey? We think we're giving instruction, but we're really more like the people left standing at the dock, waving, crying out, "Take care!" "Safe journey!" "Love you!" as the wind rises and they set off God knows where.

Kathy Dobie is an associate editor at Pacific News Service and a staff writer for Vibe magazine. She has also written regularly for The Village Voice. She specializes in writing about teens on the edge.

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