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 in the fall. 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 Jessie stepped on campus with her nerves a tingle. Everywhere she looked were couples walking hand-in-hand with serene looks on their faces, while others sat on benches, walls and lawns, with arms and legs entwined. A few leaned 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? All she knew and hoped was that someone, some nice young man would find her interesting. Years ago she had reconciled herself that, because she wasn’t pretty, not even comely, but a frumpy, old-lady-like ultra conservative spinster, she would be single for the rest of her life.
Jessie learned the names of her classmates. The easiest to know were the outspoken types who knew everything and wanted their voices to be the only ones heard. The most challenging 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. She thought about joining them, but realized that even at her current age you were still defined by your friends. 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 sewing skills she created more fashionable clothes, nothing changed in her social status. Day after day Jessie ate alone, walked alone, spent study hours alone in the library or in some quiet alcove. While her life was unaltered, that of her classmates changed. 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 a 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 kids did in high school. When Jessie opened hers she discovered a 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.
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 arrived the next day 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, struggling to contain a fountain of tears. 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. “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. 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. It’s a picnic and a 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 be horrendous.
When Saturday arrived, she put on her best jeans and a royal blue Warriors sweatshirt. She brushed her shoulder-length hair a thousand times, convinced that when she was finished, it was smoother and shinier. Jessie fixed ham sandwiches with mayo, tomatoes, pickles, and 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.
Jessie stood by the window, hiding behind the sheer curtains that were supposed to keep prying eyes from spying inside. As the time grew nearer for George to arrive, beads of sweat popped out on her forehead. When ten o’clock arrived and he wasn’t there, Jessie sighed, believing she had been stood up. Just as she turned to go to her room and change into her sweats, a recently washed gray Hyundai Sonata parked in front of her house. George emerged with neatly combed hair, a Chabot College sweatshirt and clean black jeans.
He wasn’t handsome, but pleasant-looking. Jessie’s heart began beating rapidly and she found it hard to breath.
Just as George was reaching for the bell, Jessie opened the door with a smile on her face and then escorted him to the front room where her parent lay in wait. Neither responded to his polite greeting, instead they glowered as if he was evil incarnate.
“So,” her dad said, “why are you taking her on a date?”
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 that’s not going to happen. 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 her out of the house and into the car. “Wow, that was intense.”
“I’m sorry. I was afraid he would act like that, but I hoped not.”
“Listen,” George said as he drove down Mission Boulevard, “if you’re uncomfortable being with me, we can call this off. I’ll take 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 and stared at her fingers. “I mean, I should tell you that I’ve never dated before.”
His smile was so perfect, so beautiful that Jessie knew she had made the right choice. “It’s going to be alright,” he said as he paid the fee at the toll booth. “We’re going to have a great time. As friends. Right?’
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, and discussed Calculus problems, which was a bit weird as Jessie’d never talked about schoolwork with a guy 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 deer.”
The trail encircled a little pond where dragonflies hovered, their wings gossamer pastel colors. They wound their way into the hills, talking about the blue sky dotted with cumulus clouds and the possibility of rain. About the flowers that in bloom, typical for California. The giant moths and even a herd of cows grazing near an apple orchard.
The further away from the parking lot they got, the fewer people they saw. The branches of trees formed a canopy overhead, cooling the warming air and silencing sounds of insects. When no more people were about, when there were no sounds of laughter, kids playing or conversation, George led Jessie deep into a copse of trees. He leaned against a sturdy trunk and 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 from her parents who had ridiculed her for her whole life, calling her ugly, dumb, stupid, idiot, and many other terms that she preferred not to think about. There had never been a boyfriend who held her tight and whispered in her ear. Never even a pet cat or dog to cuddle with on long, lonely nights.
George was the first and his words filled her insides, making her feel light as air.
When his lips met hers, she kissed him back. His lips weren’t squishy, but firm. Not too firm. His breath hinted of chocolate chip cookies, a bit sweet but also bitter. His arms enfolded her waist, pulling her into his chest.
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, nestled in this hidden cove.
She pushed back, trying to put some distance between them, but George pulled her tight 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. “I don’t like this.”
George increased his grip around her waist until she was smashed against him, barely able to breathe. His hand undid her bra and then moved to her chest.
“Stop. I don’t want this.”
“Yes, you do,” he said. “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 tongue made her insides warm, but at the same time she was repulsed. When his hands went under the waistband of her jeans and began rubbing back and forth, back and forth, she tried again to disengage.
“Stop,” she yelled. Salty tears streamed down her cheeks and along the edges of their compressed lips. Her sobs escaped despite the increased pressure he applied as she planted her hands on his chest and pushed.
A sound from the trail caught his attention and his grip relaxed so that Jessie could step far enough away to pull down her sweatshirt and run 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 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. 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 her body, not her as a wife.
She ran past George’s car and toward the ranger booth, hoping someone would be inside to rescue her. But it was empty.
Her only choice was to walk down the long hill, but it was a street with no sidewalks, no way to get out of the way of passing cars. She headed that way, hoping that one of the fast-moving vehicles would sense her plight and stop. None did. In a way, Jessie was relieved because one of those drivers might be as dangerous, if not more so, than George.
His car pulled alongside her and through the open widow, he said, “Get in. I’ll take you home.”
Jessie stepped off the road, backing into a barbed-wire fence.
He got out of the car and wrapped his arms around her waist. “I knew you liked me,” he said He kissed her, fondled her, all while ignoring her mumbled cries to stop.
“Is there a problem?” a deep voice asked.
“No,” George said as he pulled away.
“Yes,” Jessie cried when she saw the park ranger. “Please, help me.”
“Sir, let the lady go.” The ranger glowered 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 was long gone, the ranger led her back up the hill to the 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?”
“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 had her stay inside the booth 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 as they’d done as she was growing up. This time would be worse, though, because George has proven them right, that no man would want her except for her body.
“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 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 as she fought to keep tears from flooding her eyes. George was yet another example of her failure to find the love that she so desperately yearned for.
When the professor stopped to turn on the projector, Jessie looked about the room, hoping that no one had noticed her distress. Everyone in front of her sat facing forward. For that she was grateful. No one behind her looked her way. To her left pairs of students were conversing quietly.. To her right an average-looking young man winked at her, shrugged his shoulders and then turned away.
Jessie’s eyes couldn’t pull away from him. His hair stuck out in crazy angles. His t-shirt was faded and a bit loose. When the man looked at her a second time, she smiled.
He wrote something on a piece of paper and passed it across the table that separated them. It simply said, “Meet me after class.”
Jessie’s heart soared. Maybe this rumpled, faded guy with a sweet, crooked smile was the guy she’d been waiting her whole life for.