Skinhead Joe wanted to be the first to take my virginity. It had meant something to him. After we first saw one another, he called me and read a letter to the editor from a Playboy magazine. A woman wrote to the advice columnist to say that she didn’t know why her boyfriend never wanted to perform oral sex on her. The magazine advised her to clean it properly. The magazine went on to say that the act was called cunnilingus and that there are some women in the world who keep it so clean in expectation of said cunnilingus. Skinhead Joe wanted to know if anyone had ever performed oral sex on me. No one had. He wanted to know if I had ever performed oral sex on anybody. I hadn’t. It meant something to him.
Skinhead Joe lived far away, on the other side of the southside of town, on another southside that was far and hard to get to. He advised me on what bus to take, when to make the transfer, where he would be waiting. At the end of the bus rides, he was there, right where he said he would be. I had never seen him before but there he was and he looked just like my friend Esme had told me he would look. I had never been so close to such a white boy before. Not like this. His blue eyes stared intently at me.
I recognized the strip mall where he said we should meet. It had a stamp and coin shop that my father had taken me to a few times when I was younger, before my punk-girl appearance made him embarrassed to be in public with me. I remember the coins in the little black velvet slots, the excitement I felt when thinking that what were once mere spending things, abundant and ordinary, were now so rare and valuable they could no longer be used. I remember being especially drawn to the Buffalo nickels because they had once been so commonplace and were now relics that I had only read about but had never seen outside of this one store. There they were, and I wanted one. But because I was never one to ask for anything, my way of letting my father know I was interested was by asking if it were still possible to find a Buffalo nickel. Maybe, he had said, but it would be hard. What about an Indian Head penny? Just as hard, he said.
Joe and I wandered around the strip mall. He offered me a clove cigarette, which made me dizzy. I hated the taste of it but loved that it was black. I was nervous that maybe Joe wouldn’t like me. He was tall and manly and told me to walk away from the street. He held my hand as if there weren’t anything to work towards, as if my hand just belonged there in his hand without days or weeks of wondering whether or not he would hold my hand. He just took it and held it as we walked down a busy street. He said he would walk on the side by the cars to keep me safe, that it was a thing that a real man did for a lady. Already, it seemed as if he were treating me like a special thing.
I was betraying Esme, who had wanted Joe to treat her like a special thing. She had been to this particular strip mall and had seen Joe on his skateboard smoking a black cigarette. She had asked him for his phone number. He gave it to her. They had been talking on the phone. She asked me to call him and see if he liked her. So I called him and said I was a friend of Esme’s and asked if he liked her. He said he did not like her but that he knew all about me through talking with Esme and that he was very much interested in meeting me. I had already been intrigued by Joe through Esme. I had very much wanted to meet this legendary boy who skateboarded and smoked black cigarettes and was, according to Esme, extremely good looking.
Joe was tall and white. He had deep blue eyes, and his hair, if he had not shaved it, would have shown blond. He had prominent features. He was muscled and strong. He wore black Doc Martens with white laces. I understood that to mean that he was a white power skinhead. I had not known that he was a white power skinhead. I was nervous for my Asianness. I knew my Asianness showed. I did not know how to ask him if he should be holding the hand of an Asian.
At his home, his white father slumbered on a couch. The home was just like the little bungalow homes of my southside, small and compact, barely one thousand square feet with a hallway that crooked away from the family room and kitchenette area and gave the children some privacy in the back bedrooms. His father didn’t even acknowledge that I had come in. I had just come in, I suppose, just like so many other girls had just come in.
Joe went straight to kissing me. His bedroom was a mess of unmade bedsheets. It smelled of his man smell. Like me, he had no mother to clean his room or launder his sheets. I didn’t like how he kissed. He stuck his tongue in my mouth and twirled it around and around in circles like he was some kind of egg beater or something. He just went straight to kissing me as if kissing for the first time wasn’t even a thing. He took a break from the kissing when his older brother walked in to say he had just returned from grocery shopping. Joe whisked himself away and returned with a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos. Doritos had very recently come out with the Cool Ranch version of their chips, and I did not find them appealing. So when Joe offered me some, I declined. I didn’t want to eat them. But Joe ate them. Then he proceeded to kiss me again, this time with Cool Ranch Dorito mouth, so I doubly hated kissing him. He asked if I had ever had sex. I hadn’t. He said it was okay, that he would take it slow, that we could stop and wait, that his brother was home now anyway. He said we could wait as if waiting were a natural thing, as if it were a thing that he knew he could do and would eventually not have to do.
During the wait, he showed me special pictures and pins and objects that proved that he was directly descended from Nazis. He showed me items that proved that he was directly descended from members of the Ku Klux Klan. I didn’t know just how to look at these. These items were, in my mind, neither valuable nor ordinary. They were, on the contrary, things that I did not know existed, things that I did not know could exist. He brought out these items the way a person might show their love interest their family photo albums as an offering of the self to gauge interest, to see if the love interest might be more than interested, to convey that this is me and to accept me is to accept this.
I once knew a boy in college who broke up with a girl. The boy had gone to the girl’s home during break. There, the girl, ensconced in her world and family and culture, carefully, on the night before they would return to school, showed the boy the Bible. She told the boy that she didn’t question anything in this book. The boy took that to mean that if he should desire to remain intimate with her, then he, too, should not question anything in that book. The problem was that the boy was a questioner. He decided to leave her.
Skinhead Joe seemed proud to have these items, to be directly descended from stock who believed in protecting the purity of their stock. I did not know how I fit in. I asked how I fit in. I’m not sure I understand, I said.
He knew I was part Thai. I didn’t understand why he had brought me here to his home. Did he bring me here to kill me? I was often in service to servitude; that is, I always played along rather than show my fear. It was a way of being in the world that I had learned through watching my mother, my mother who, before she left us, walked in fear. I found it easier to go along with awfulness rather than stick up for myself or my beliefs or even my safety. It was easier to go along with any suffering or hurt or shame and leave later. It was just the way life worked for me. It was always the easy way out.
He assured me it was okay. He said, Your father is white, right? Right. It’s okay. And he continued to kiss me.
He walked me to the bus stop. He said he’d get on the bus with me to make sure I made it to the transfer point. He guided me to the back, holding my hand. He held my hand as if he cherished me. Since my mother left me, I had so rarely felt cherished. It was strange to have my hand held as if someone cherished me.
An old lady got on the bus with a mess of groceries. A few stops later, she dinged the pull-dinger for her stop. She got out with a few bags, and the driver began to drive off before she had a chance to collect everything. She knocked on the glass door with her cane. He let her back in, and she claimed the rest of her things. We saw her walk away, leaving behind some bags on the sidewalk, which she just didn’t see when she walked away in anger. She bitches about two bags of groceries and then she forgets more than that, Joe said. The people on the bus seemed pleased with this outcome, that this lady who had made a stink about the bus driver taking off before she could gather up all of her things had inadvertently screwed herself out of even more groceries. But not me. I felt for her. For her toil of having to take the bus to get food, for the lack of respect everyone showed her, for her having to fight, for her now losing out on what must have been hard-earned food, for her having to endure all of this in her elderliness. I felt for her. It was easier to nod than disagree. It was easier to just wait until I could flee from any uncomfortable scene.
When I reached my transfer point, Joe walked me off the bus. He walked me off the bus as if he cherished me. He kissed me and made me promise to call him when I got home so he would know that I was safe.
I got home and called Phillip instead. I told Phillip that I had gone to see this Joe, a Joe who was like a god, revered in social circles, rarely encountered, hidden and cloaked. Phillip listened as I described our day together. I had just broken up with Phillip’s best friend Louis, who had been my first boyfriend, my first kiss. Phillip had a falling-out with Louis, however, and, when he found out that Louis had desperately wanted me back, he wanted to get back at Louis by getting with me, whatever that seemed to mean. Phillip viewed my repulsion with Joe’s kisses as his way in. He said I should come over next weekend.
Louis had also wanted to take my virginity. It meant something to him. He had already been having lots of sex with Shannon, who was years older than us and who had a little sister who reported everything to Shannon. Shannon vowed that she would kill me when she got out of jail. She would never get out of jail. She had robbed someone at an ATM and shot him. ATMs had just come into use, and she wanted new Doc Marten boots. She got the boots and then she got sent away right before Christmas, around the time when Louis and I had seen each other at a night club and realized that we had very briefly been in fifth grade together. When I met him, I didn’t know how to smoke or kiss. He tenderly held me in the phone booth and worked with me until it clicked. He was a boy who made me swoon and melt. He made everything feel good, and he treated me like preciousness. He held my virginity as if it were his and all he had to do was wait for it.
Where I came from, there weren’t very many girls who were still virgins at thirteen. All the older boys had already untied them. If you wanted one, you had to act quickly. The younger boys had always already slept with the older girls. And the younger girls had always already slept with the older boys. But the younger boys wanted to be like the older boys and claim a new body for their own.
My body would not go to Louis nor Phillip nor Joe. Like other young girls, my body would also go to one of those older boys. A boy who saw the act of conquest as his own.
My father was never able to buy the stamps that remained missing from his collection. When eBay debuted, allowing collectors to search and bid and buy and own each and every lost and missing thing, my father also tried to bid on the stamps that he did not yet own. But he kept getting outbid and didn’t see the point, did not see how, like how I learned it was done, to go in at the last minute and sweep away the highest bid right when the seconds were running out. That is how you won. You won by going in when no one can see you, when no one is any the wiser, at the last second. You won by stealing, by stealth, by strangling the hopes of whoever thought they were the highest bidder.
Another Joe and another Jenny—the proclamation of Jenny’s love for this Joe was written in purple Sharpie on a wall in the girl’s locker room. Esme fretted. She accused me. It wasn’t me, I said, and it was true. I knew it was Jenny Board; Jenny Board recently began to date a boy named Joe who went to another school and who would make a baby in her that summer. It wasn’t me, I said. Still, Esme fretted, claimed it was my handwriting. Joe had stopped calling her. She knew I must have swooped in and taken him. She thought she was the highest bidder. And although she did not have proof, she could read it on me—she knew that I had won.
My father enjoyed collecting stamps from our US Postal Service, stamps that were intended to document our nation’s history. It is an art that his adoptive father had taught him. No one, however, could tell him with any certainty about his own history. Forever, he believed only what he had to go on, that his mother and father were both half Native American, that his mother kept fighting for him until her heart gave out. I was eleven when my mother left me, but my father was orphaned at eight, when his father died and his alcoholic mother left him in charge of his two younger brothers. When he was thirteen, he was separated from his brothers, finally adopted, and no longer had to live in orphanages or foster care.
Uncanceled stamps are worth more, of course, than those with a postmark. Among the various stamps that my father is missing from his collection are Parcel Post Postage Due in the 2c, 10c, and 25c issues, Certified Mail Stamp from 1955 in a 15c issue, a Special Handling 20c issue stamp from the 1920s, and Air Post Special Delivery Flat Plate Printing Perforated 11 Red and Blue 16c issue from 1936. On a visit once, I went into his collection and took photographs of pages in his albums where stamps had yet to be inserted, stamps that he had never been able to find or afford, stamps that he had surely been hoping to come across in one of the big brown paper bags of canceled stamps. These stamps can be worth cents or thousands depending on the condition. I think that one day, I will go to the auction website and steal a bid from right under someone’s unsuspecting nose. I would love for my father to complete his collection, to have culled all of his missing pieces.
Orphaned at eight, without his biological family, my father had to piece together his history. When DNA testing became available, he decided that he wanted to know for sure how the stories and reality meshed. As it turns out, my father is perhaps the whitest white man I’ve ever closely known. His results were overwhelmingly Nordic, explaining his ice blue eyes, blond hair, and 6’5” frame, a frame that has since shrunk to 6’4” in his older age. In other words, visually, my father is just the kind of man that Joe and his ilk would accept as deserving of life and humanity. My father wanted to take the test to verify that he was part Native American; he wanted to prove to his youngest brother, whom he found through the world of Facebook, that he was right about their heritage; his younger brother, who had spent a great deal of time researching their brokenness and erasures, maintained that anything my father might have learned or was told in youth was merely a story or a misremembering or lost through generational unknowing. When his results came back without any mention of Native American, my father was devastated; however, the test revealed an aspect of our history that we did not expect to find. There, in both of our results, was Ashkenazi Jew. Although the percentage was small, it was undeniable that someone in our ancestry was Jewish. The test was supposed to help us confirm a missing piece, but it removed that piece completely and instead offered up another hole of unknowing.
At the stamp store, my father could not afford to buy the missing stamps he needed to complete his collection. Instead, he would only buy those brown paper grocery bags full of mystery—stamps from companies that received an overwhelming amount of mail, such as credit card payment processing centers. Stamp companies bought canceled stamps in bulk and resold them to collectors. My father would spend evenings going through the bags because, he said, you never knew what you would find. I loved the feathers of those stamps, amazed at just how many could fit in one bag. I loved all the colors and pictures and the people and events and objects commemorated.
I loved the undoing, the licking, the sticking, the canceling, the marking of where and when a stamp was used.
This is the essay of my undoing, the way in which I was marked and canceled and used.
It wasn’t Joe, but it was a Joseph. I was thirteen and in eighth grade; he was eighteen and a senior in a high school on the rich northside of San Antonio. He was the leader of a group of kids who purported to be Satanists. I suppose I wanted the awful to mark me. Joseph called himself Nympho and took a razor blade and marked an upside-down cross on the web of my left hand, a scar that still shames today. He did this in the public library, downtown, as we looked at books on the occult together. I felt special and loved. He wanted me to be his. He had waited until the last minute, when no one was looking. With stealth and calculation, he cancelled me.
I did eventually call Skinhead Joe the night I got home from his place, and he read to me about cunnilingus. I would never see him again. But once I saw a girl on the bus who had previously dated him. She was talking about him as if he were a god. She was a skinhead, but a Hispanic skinhead, and she divided her time between San Antonio and California. No one really knew where she went when she went away. Her name was Obby, and none of us knew if that was her real name or just made up. She had bangs and sideburns but everything else was shaved. She talked about Joe. I said I knew him, that I was his girlfriend very briefly. Did you fuck him? she asked, sternly. I knew better than to say yes, even though the real answer was no. I said, No, but she didn’t seem to believe me. Everyone fucks Joe, she said. Why didn’t you?
I said I didn’t know. I didn’t tell her how, on Saturday, when I had told Joe that I would go and see him, I went instead to Phillip’s house, where he and his cousin Norman were putting on makeup and dresses. I told them about how I got too scared to go and see Joe, that I was certain that if I went over that he would very much be expecting sex and that I didn’t think I wanted to do that. So Phillip called him up and pretended to be a girl named Cindy and said that Cindy was a friend of Jenny’s and Jenny is just a terrible bitch, isn’t she? To just leave you like this? And then Cindy said she would call Joe right back.
Eruptions of horror and laughter. If Joe found out, we’d all be dead.
I have a gun in my drawer, Phillip said. If you don’t suck my dick, I’ll shoot you in the head. He had Norman confirm that the gun was indeed in the drawer. Surely, they had to be joking, right? But then Phillip got another idea.
Should we tell Joe to meet Cindy at the mall and them stand him up? Phillip asked, dialing Joe back.
And although I didn’t yet know that what was in my blood was enough to make someone want to hurt me, and although I wasn’t one to resort to cruelty for the sake of cruelty, I smiled at Phillip and said, Yes, let’s.
JENNY BOULLY is the author most recently of Betwixt-and-Between: Essays on the Writing Life (Coffee House). “Skinhead Joe” is a chapter from an upcoming collection.