I came of age in a time of no heroes. I was reminded of that depressing fact this morning when I noticed today’s date. When I was fourteen, Tonya Harding became the national Figure Skating Champion. She was stripped of her title for helping to plan an attack on her rival, Nancy Kerrigan. That same year, OJ Simpson, former football star, fled from police in his white Ford Bronco after his stunning wife was found murdered. President Bill Clinton was a few years away from impeachment, but rumors about his personal life were already causing a stench. And twenty-five years ago today my best friend Chip had his heart broken by the man who, for better or worse, was his idol. So much for heroes.
April 5, 1994 fell during our spring break or else I would have been in school. My mother was a bartender and worked nights, but for some reason had picked up a day shift. If Octavia had been home I would have escaped to the library to read or do homework. Anything was preferable to being with my mother, a woman I had been taught to call by her first name so her boyfriends wouldn’t think I was her kid, just someone she was babysitting.
When I answered the phone, Chip was distraught. He fuckin’ offed himself…unreal…it’s that bitch’s fault.
At first I thought Chip’s father had killed himself, but that didn’t make sense. Chip didn’t live with his dad and hadn’t seen him in forever. When he finally stopped for a breath I asked, “Who?”
“You didn’t hear? Kurt Cobain blew his fuckin’ brains out. I can’t be alone. I’m comin’ over.” He slammed the phone down before I could say anything.
I turned on the TV and flipped through the channels until I found MTV. Chip was right. This was unreal. They were already showing a tribute, a rehash of Cobain’s brief, tragic history as Nirvana’s frontman. Was his death so foreseeable that the program had been ready and waiting on a shelf?
Chip arrived like one of Miami’s storms: raging, loud, dramatic.
“I can’t believe he’d do this to us. To the fans. You know, it’s all Courtney Love’s fault.”
I listened to him rant for a while, then tried to distract him with a repeat of the X-Files, but he was inconsolable. If my go-to formula of X-Files, a joint, plus my homemade-from-a-box brownies didn’t cheer Chip up, I didn’t know what else to do. The mother lode of his bad moods was usually Chip’s actual mother who was a chaotic mess. He’d often go on about how he was sure he wouldn’t live to see the day he’d be old enough to escape from his mother. No wonder he became my best friend. Chip’s mother was way worse than Octavia which made me feel better about my own life.
“Are you really going to blame Courtney Love?” I asked him. “Don’t you think it had something to do with his addiction?”
“Don’t…I can’t.” Chip put his head in his hands. I was afraid he was going to cry.
“Do you think the band will stay together without him?” I asked. If he kept talking maybe he wouldn’t fall apart.
“Nirvana died with Kurt Cobain,” he said solemnly.
“Would it make you feel better or worse if I played Nevermind?” I asked.
“Worse. No. Better. I don’t know. I’ll never recover from this,” he said. His fourteen-year-old self sounded so broken it gutted me. “I knew it, you know.”
“Last year, when he painted ‘NONE OF YOU WILL EVER KNOW MY INTENTIONS’ in red on his wall, I knew exactly what he meant. I knew he’d do it.”
I didn’t dare betray the fact I hadn’t previously known about the wall and it’s ambiguous graffiti, so I nodded knowingly.
“I’m…I’m…” He searched for a word. “I’m bereft,” he said.
Under any other circumstance, I would have busted him for his use of bereft, since he always teased me about what he called my fancy words. But he was so shattered, I let it go.
We had shared a lot of bad times, but I’d never seen him this defeated. Not even the time his mother had gone missing for ten days. He acted as if he was furious, but I knew him well enough to know that anger was his cover-up for fear. His mother turned up, alive and more or less well, announcing she had signed herself into a detox program without bothering to tell her son. Once out, she started using again, but she didn’t need as much to get high. Getting clean was a strategy to save money, not her life.
We were side by side on the couch, heads bouncing to Nirvana, when Chip turned to me with his eyes wide. “What’s going to happen to poor Frances Bean?”
When I made the mistake of asking “Who?” Chip stared at me as though I’d shaved off one eyebrow and replaced it with a double-sided spiked piercing. I loved Nirvana and all, but was never a fanatic. Chip was obsessed. No Cobain-related detail was minutia to him. Chip didn’t merely identify with Cobain and his music, he wanted to be him. For whatever reason, Kurt Cobain was his hero at a time when the rest of us thought heroes only existed in comic books.
“You know. Frances Bean.” He repeated the name as though hearing it again would revive my memory. “Cobain’s two-year-old. His daughter with the bitch Courtney. The poor kid doesn’t stand a chance with a mother like her. You and I know what it’s like to grow up with no father and a mother who…” He left the thought unfinished, but I knew what he meant.
Chip clasped his hands together between his knees, rocked back and forth and moaned oh fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck. I couldn’t bear to see him like that, so I said the only thing that made sense.
He wrinkled his forehead. “What?”
“Let’s fuck.” Saying the word made me cringe.
The look on Chip’s face was enough to confirm I had succeeded in interrupting his grief. “What are you talking about?” he asked.
“If we lose our virginity,” I explained, “that is what you will always remember about April 5. It won’t be the wretched anniversary of a senseless death.”
Chip stayed silent for so long, it was uncomfortable. Talk about bad ideas that never should have been said out loud. The silence threatened to swallow us both, so I began to sing the words to Smells Like Teen Spirit.
“Hello, hello, hello…You in there?”
He smiled a grim smile.
“So? What about it?” I pressed on.
“I don’t know.”
“Well, never mind then. And I don’t mean the album. If you don’t want to…” His lack of enthusiasm wasn’t the reaction I’d expected.
He shook his head. “Of course I want to, but do I need to remind you that we have been best friends since the fourth grade and we’re not into each other. Are we?”
“No. Of course not.” The thought had never crossed my mind.
“It’s not like I don’t want you to be my first, I just don’t want to screw up our friendship. You are the only person in my life who keeps me sane. Besides, you’re only fourteen. What if years from now you fall madly in love and regret not saving yourself for that guy?”
“It touches me that you’re worried about my future love life. But I could never be with anyone who would think badly of me for not being a virgin.” I lifted my t-shirt over my head. “Are we doing this or not?” I hadn’t meant it to sound like I was asking him if we were going to catch a movie, it just came out that way.
The truth was, I had fantasized about my first time. I envisioned an unsettling romance, thanks mostly to my recent exploration of the Brontë sisters’ books. Although I didn’t find the love story between Jane Eyre and the mean-spirited Edward Rochester believable, I was haunted by Heathcliff and Catherine. I could picture them out there on those wuthering English moors, the perfect setting for a doomed relationship. Since I lived in Miami and had little chance of ever setting foot on a moor, I imagined my own first time would happen at the beach, preferably on a night when the reflection of a full moon bounced off the ocean. There would have to be a blanket, since the thought of sand in places it didn’t belong was unacceptable. My dark and broody guy wouldn’t be as outrageous as Heathcliff, just dramatic enough to be interesting. Like Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands. Since I did not want to consider the mechanics of the act itself—the Brontë girls never described anything of the sort—my nameless partner and I would…well, somehow our clothes would vanish and we would do it.
Then Chip said, “I just don’t want things to change…are you sure about this?”
Even though I had never planned to share my virginity with my best friend on the couch which doubled as my mother’s bed, I was sure. My mind jumped to my mother and I wondered if her first time had been with my Papi during the fateful spring break here in Miami when they met. I hoped it was.
Chip continued, “If you don’t think we’d ruin our Muldar and Scully thing, it would mean a lot if you were my first.” He punched my arm. “Besides, you have no one to compare me to, so you won’t know if I’m really bad at it.”
I rolled my eyes before I buried the top of my head in his chest.
“I don’t have protection,” he said. “We can’t be reckless.”
I lifted my head. Chip’s face wasn’t bereft anymore. I jumped up from the couch and went into the bathroom. When I returned, I held up a condom I’d liberated from Octavia’s not-so-secret stash.
He raised his eyebrows. “Are you scared?”
I shrugged. “Are you?”
He nodded his head. “A little. I never want to do anything to hurt you.”
He was the only person in the world who cared about my feelings. I had to look down to hide the tears in my eyes, so I began to undo the metal snap on my waistband. Once my jeans were undone, there was nothing to do except wriggle out of them. They made a small denim circle on the floor. When my eyes cleared of tears, I looked at Chip and thought I might have to picture someone else (Johnny Depp?) as we did it. “Come here,” he said, and I straddled his lap. Then he kissed me and there was no need to pretend he was anyone other than Chip, my own sweet Chip.
We kissed for a while, experimenting as we did. Tongue, no tongue, tongue in my ear (hated that) tongue on my neck (nice). At some point he reached behind my back and fumbled with my bra.
“It’s in the front,” I giggled. Now I was scared. What if this was a big mistake?
“You sure you want to? We can stop,” he said.
I shook my head, no. Kissing him was causing sensations I had never experienced before; they rested somewhere in my heart. We avoided eye contact as I rolled my panties down and Chip managed the condom. We held on to each other and maneuvered until he was on top. He found his way inside me, and I hid my surprise that it hurt. He jiggled back and forth for a few seconds, and then it was over. Breathing hard, Chip put his hands on each of my arms and squeezed. Leaning on one elbow, he pushed his long hair away from his face and said, “Thank you” which made me sad because I doubted any of the boyfriends my mother had probably had sex with on this couch ever thanked her.
Sex was nothing like music videos made it look. It wasn’t slick, hot, or glamorous. Not only did it hurt, now we needed to get rid of a messy condom, which was beyond embarrassing.
I stood up, hoped he wasn’t looking at my body, grabbed my clothes, and went into the bathroom. When I returned, I was relieved to see the condom had disappeared and Chip had pulled his jeans on. He cranked up the volume to Smells Like Teen Spirit, and we jumped around the apartment, screaming the lyrics at the top of out lungs.
My first time didn’t have a beach, moon, moors, or romance, but none of that mattered. I’d gotten one big thing right. I made my best friend feel better and that made me happy.
Before Chip left, he kissed me on the cheek. “I promise this won’t change anything between us.”
For me, everything changed. Maybe something shifted when we kissed. Or maybe I’d always had these feelings for him and had lied to myself. All I knew was, I fell for him in the stupid way girls fourteen fall for boys. My heart beat faster every time I saw him, I got jealous when he talked to other girls, and I couldn’t stop thinking about him. I hated myself for going dry-mouthed and tongue-tied every time he put his arm around my shoulder and pulled me in close to him. It made me remember how he’d tasted like my homemade-from-a-box brownies when we kissed.
As far as Chip knew, nothing was different. We never spoke about what happened between us on the day Cobain died. Chip acted as he always had: he hugged me when he saw me, met me at my locker every day, and he still called me every night, mostly to complain about what a mess his mother was. She often stayed in bed for days at a time until the drugs ran out and she needed to go out to find more.
If I told him how I felt about him, I feared it would ruin us. My imagination ran wild. He would say something like, I’ll always be your friend, but we could never be anything else. Things between us would get uncomfortable and we would drift apart. The thought of losing his friendship was more than I could bear, so I kept my secret.
A day came when Chip didn’t show up at my locker after 4th period. As I stood there watching for him, I felt his absence in such a palpable way I decided I had to tell him the truth. For all my fancy vocabulary words, I wasn’t sure what to say. I love you was too extreme. I’m into you was way too corny. When I saw him I figured the right words would come. But where was he? He never skipped school. I looked around for him one last time. I needed to hurry to my next class or I’d be late and get detention. The bell rang. I had waited too long.
Later, the girls behind me in art were loud whispering. Did you hear about that boy? Why would do anyone do that? My brother Joey the cop got the call. There was a note…
I couldn’t hear the rest of what they said. In my head I heard Chip say he wouldn’t live to see the day he’d be old enough to escape from his mother. I stumbled over to the girls’ table and sputtered, “What did it say?” They stared up at me.
“Are you high?” one of them said. They all laughed.
“What. Did. The. Note. Say?”
They stopped laughing.
“All it said was ‘None of you will ever know my intentions’.”
I don’t know why I gasped. I already knew what she was going to say.
“Do you…do you know what it means?” she asked in a soft voice.
“No,” I said. I walked up to the teacher’s desk, mumbled something about feeling sick, and left the room.
For a long time, I’d forget and pick up the phone to call him when something stupid, or funny, or bad happened. There was a devastating explosion in my brain when it hit me and I remembered he was gone. The pain was so intense, I created an impenetrable shield only I could see. My superpower surrounded my heart; it protected me from danger and enabled me to survive. I became even more of a loner, avoiding friendship, boys, and for a long time, sex.
It still hurts to think about Chip on this, the twenty-fifth anniversary of Cobain’s death. It turned out, he was right about Nirvana. After Cobain died, the group broke up. Would they still be together if he hadn’t killed himself? Poor Francis Bean grew up without a father, just like I did. From time to time, I wonder if Courtney Love ever imagines a world where she and Cobain grew old together. I know if Chip lived we would still be friends, no matter what. I never regretted sharing my virginity with him, but the one thing I’ll never forgive myself for was being afraid to tell him what he meant to me. If I told him, it might have made a difference.
Tina J. Gordon has published fiction, travel
articles, essays, and poetry. She lives at the shore in New Jersey where she is
writing a historical novel and tending to a frog pond.
This story was inspired by actual events.
Published fiction includes:
Short story “Romance” finalist Tuscan Writer’s Festival January 2017
Short story “Secrets” in anthology Of Burgers & Barrooms November 2017
Novel Hardscrabble Way, August, 2015
Screenplay entitled The Contessa’s Vineyard placed in the quarterfinals of a national screenwriting competition. 2015