She’d always heard that Catholic girls go wild when they enter college, but she didn’t believe it. That didn’t mean that Jessie wouldn’t wonder what would happen once her classes began. Would she adhere to the morals and values she’d had drilled into her head? Or would she date recklessly, use drugs and drink until sloppy drunk?
On her first day at Chabot College, her local community college, Jessie stepped on campus with her nerves a tingle. Everywhere she looked were couples. Some walked hand-in-hand with serene looks on their faces. Some sat on benches, walls and lawns, often with arms and legs entwined. Still there were others leaning against trees with lips locked and bodies pressed firmly against one another.
Which would she be? A wanton hussy? A tender lover? A lonely spinster?
Jessie didn’t know which description fit her best. All she knew and hoped was that someone, some nice young man would find her interesting. But she set her sights low as she was not pretty, not even comely, but a frumpy, old-lady-like ultra conservative spinster at the ripe old age of eighteen.
As days passed she got to know the names of people in her classes. There were the outspoken types who knew everything and wanted their voices to be the only ones heard. There were the silent, but giggly cheerleader-types with skinny bodies, lanky legs and long hair well past shoulders. There were some like Jessie, not many, with limp hair, blotchy complexions and puffy bodies, and they were the ones who always sat alone. Jessie thought about joining them, but realized that even at her age you were defined by your friends. She knew she was socially awkward, but didn’t want to hang out with her kind. She wanted to establish a new identity: that of a smart, datable woman.
Months passed. Despite using her mother-taught skills to sew more fashionable clothes, nothing changed. Day after day Jessie ate alone, walked alone, spent study hours alone in the library or in some alcove tucked into a recess. The only change that she noticed was what was happening to some of her classmates. Pregnancies blossomed as winter neared. Were those the wanton hussies she’d heard about? Catholic girls gone wild?
Jessie wanted to feel what it was like to be held in a tight embrace, to be kissed tenderly, passionately, until her body responded in the way she’d read about in books. Maybe not to the point of losing her virginity, but it would be nice to come close.
Second semester George Atwood sat next to her in Advanced Calculus. He was a good-looking guy, but not what you’d call handsome. Not built like a football player with broad shoulders, but more like a golfer. He smiled at her and said hi every class period.
One day he slipped her a note, like she saw kids do in high school. When Jessie opened it later, she discovered an interest quiz which George must have copied from a magazine. He had listed a variety of activities and placed a box in front of each. She was supposed to check all those she liked and then return the note during the next class.
This was exciting! A man was interested in her!
Jessie checked off bowling, walking, reading, movies. She didn’t know what spelunking was and didn’t like going underwater, so diving and snorkeling were out. She didn’t want to swim because she was ashamed of her lumpy body. She did mark sports because she enjoyed playing soccer, baseball and had bowled for many years, and she loved watching almost any sport on television.
When George sat down next to her at class, Jessie slid the note to him, then waited to see his reaction. His face remained blank, his focus on the professor.
Jessie’s heart was broken before it ever had the chance to fall in love. She sat with downcast eyes throughout class, struggling to contain tears that filled her eyes. Sadness sat on her shoulders like a huge weight.
But after class, instead of rushing out like he usually did, George lingered. He smiled shyly as he rubbed one toe on the carpet. “Want to go on a date?”
Jessie smiled demurely. “Yes.”
Without saying a word, George placed his hand on her back and led her outside the building. “Are you free Saturday?”
“What would you like to do? See a movie? Go bowling? Go for a ride? We could go to Garin Park and hike.”
“Garin Park would be nice,” she said. “I’ve never been there.”
“Great. Do you want me to pick you up or would you prefer to meet there?”
“I don’t have a car, so how about you pick me up? If you tell me what you like to eat, I’ll pack a picnic lunch.”
They exchanged information, then said goodbye. Jessie smiled all through the rest of the day. She smiled on the way home on the bus. But when she walked through the front door, her mother gave her a funny look and then the cross examination began.
“Why’s that smile on your face? What have you done?” her mother demanded.
“Nothing wrong,” Jessie said. “A nice guy asked me on a date. We’re going to Garin Park.” She wasn’t prepared for the snicker that erupted from her mother’s lips.
“You’ve got to be kidding. Any guy who dates you is only looking for one thing and you’d better not give it to him.”
Jessie’s cheeks burned red. She knew what her mom was implying and there was no way she was doing that. She’d never been kissed, but she wasn’t so naïve as to not understand the implications of going further. “Nothing’s going to happen. We’re going to picnic and hike. That’s it.”
“I’d better meet him first,” her mother said.
“Don’t worry. He’s picking me up.”
The next two days Jessie worried about what to wear, what to fix for lunch, and what would happen when her parents met George. She’d seen movies where the parents were rude, embarrassing both the daughter and the date. She was sure her parents would behave poorly.
When Saturday arrived, Jessie put on her best jeans, and a royal blue Warriors sweatshirt. She brushed her shoulder-length hair a thousand times, positive that when she was finished, that it was smoother and shinier. Jessie fixed ham sandwiches with mayo, tomatoes and pickles, plus a slice of Swiss cheese. She put two cans of soda in a bag along with two chocolate chip cookies she’d made that morning.
George arrived driving a recently washed gray Hyundai Sonata. When he got out of the car, he smoothed back his hair, tugged the hem of his college sweatshirt and headed to the door. Before he could ring the bell, Jessie opened it with a smile on her face.
She escorted him to the front room where her parent lay in wait. Neither responded to his polite greeting, instead glowered at him as if he was evil incarnate.
“So,” her dad said, “why are you interested in her?”
George stammered a bit before responding, “Jessie’s nice and smart.”
“But she’s ugly,” her dad said as he shrugged his shoulders. “There’s only one thing a guy would want, and if you know what’s good for you, you’ll walk out and never come back.”
George grabbed Jessie’s hand tightly in his own. “I don’t think of Jessie that way. She’s a friend, someone I’d like to get to know better.” With that, he led Jessie out of the house and into the car. “Wow, that was intense.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know he’d be like that. Well, I feared he would, but I had hoped not.”
“Listen,” George said as he drove down Mission Boulevard, “if you’re uncomfortable being with me, I can bring you back home.”
“No,” she said as she brushed her hand against his arm. “I want to be with you. Really, I do.” She folded her hands primly in her lap. She stared at her fingers as she said, “I mean, I should tell you that I’ve never dated before. You’re my first.”
All went well. They found an empty picnic table right away. George ate everything, even praising the cookies when Jessie said she’d made them. They talked, shared stories, even discussed Calculus problems, which was a bit weird for Jessie as she’d never talked about schoolwork before.
“Let’s go for a walk,” George said after they’d stowed the bag in the trunk. “There’s a nice trail that encircles the park. If we’re lucky, we’ll see some deer.”
As they walked, they talked about the blue sky dotted with cumulus clouds and the possibility of rain. About the flowers that were still in bloom, typical for California. The dragonflies that zipped about, the giant moths and even a herd of cows grazing near an apple orchard.
When no more people were about, when there were no sounds of laughter, kids playing or conversation, George led Jessie into a copse of trees. He leaned against a trunk as he pulled her to his chest. “I really like you,” he said as he brushed his hand over her hair. “You’re smart and kind and thoughtful.”
“Thanks,” she said as she felt her cheeks turn crimson. “I like you too.”
His breath tickled her neck as he gently kissed her, over and over.
Jessie had never felt loved, not even from her parents who had ridiculed her for her whole life. Called her ugly, dumb, stupid, idiot, and many other terms that she preferred not to think about. George’s kind words filled her insides, making her feel light as air.
When his lips met hers, she kissed him back. It was wonderful. His lips weren’t squishy, but firm. Not too firm. She responded in kind, not sure if she was doing it right, but when George intensified the pressure of his lips, Jessie began to question the safety of her situation.
She pushed back, trying to put some distance between them, but George resisted, pulling her tighter against him. He ran his right hand up under her shirt, rubbing her back in circles that at first were soft and enticing, but soon became firm and painful.
“Stop,” she said as she took a step backward. “Remove your hand.”
George’s grip around her waist increased until she was smashed against him, barely able to breathe. His hand undid her bra, then moved to her chest.
“No. I don’t want this.”
“Yes, you do,” he said. “You said you’d never dated. You must have dreamt about this. I’m going to be your first. You’ll love it.” He bent over and kissed her breasts. His hands went under the waistband of her jeans, rubbing back and forth, back and forth.
“No!” she yelled as she grabbed his hands and pushed them away. Jessie pulled her sweatshirt down and ran back down the trail toward the parking lot. Tears coursed down her cheeks as she cursed herself for being so stupid as to think he liked her, really liked her for who she was, not what he could take from her.
George followed, whistling a merry tune. No matter how fast Jessie ran, she could hear him. She knew he was there, probably even smirking at her stupidity. Her foolishness.
When Jessie reached the parking lot, she realized her mistake. She had no way home. She had no money, so couldn’t call her parents to come get her. She wouldn’t do that anyway as it would reinforce their belief in how undesirable she was. How they had told her over and over that no many would marry her, that men would only want was her body, not her love.
The walk home was too far. Granted, she was in good enough shape to do it, but the park was at the top of a huge hill, on a street with no sidewalks that, on a Saturday, was filled with fast-moving vehicles. Jessie thought about flagging down a friendly-looking driver, but realized that was as dangerous, if not more so, than riding with George.
“I knew you liked me,” he said as he walked up to the car. He pressed her against the hood, forcing her to bend backwards. He resumed kissing her, fondling her, ignoring her mumbled cries to stop.
“Is there a problem?” a deep voice asked.
“No,” George said as he hastily pulled away.
“Yes,” Jessie cried when she saw the uniform of a park ranger. “Please, help me.”
“Sir, let the lady go.” The ranger glowered at George as he pulled Jessie aside. “Get in your car and drive away.”
“She’s got no way to get home. I’m her ride, so let her go.”
The ranger looked at Jessie. “Do you want to go with him?”
Jessie shook her head no. “But I’ll need help getting home.”
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll take care of that.”
Once George left, the ranger led her to an information booth. He had her sit on a folding metal chair next to his desk. “Now,” he said, “did he hurt you?”
“No. I’m okay. A little shaken up, though.”
“Do you have money for a cab?”
She shook her head.
“Can someone pick you up?”
“No. My parents, but I don’t want them to know about this. Please, don’t call them.”
The ranger nodded as he picked up the phone and made a call. He walked her to the parking lot and stayed with her until the cab came. He handed the driver money, then wished Jessie a good rest of the day.
Jessie dreaded what was waiting for her at home. Her parents would laugh uproariously, making fun of her with an intensity she’d felt over and over as she grew up.
“Well, what happened?” her mom asked when she came through the front door. “Why didn’t that guy bring you home? Who paid for the cab?”
“Nothing happened,” Jessie said as she headed down the hall to her bedroom, her mother trailing behind.
Jessie turned on her mother, her face contorted with anger. “You always think the worst. You never see anything good about me. You don’t trust me to know right from wrong. In fact, I’ve never heard you say you love me.” She closed the door to block out her mother’s shouts.
Jessie knew she’d have to see George again since he was her table partner, so she dreaded returning to class on Monday. But when the professor began his lecture, no George had appeared. She sighed. It was over. No love, no boyfriend, nothing except her parents.
Saddened, but relieved, Jessie wrote down copious notes.