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A Memoir of Promiscuity
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While there can be clean beginnings, true endings are so much more elusive. Redemption isn’t in endings, anyway. It comes from authentic consciousness, from living more fully and honestly inside our story, and making it a story worth having lived.
–from the Introduction
For everyone who was that girl.
Loose Girl is Kerry Cohen's captivating memoir about her descent into promiscuity and how she gradually found her way toward real intimacy. The story of addiction—not just to sex, but to male attention—Loose Girl is also the story of a young woman who came to believe that boys and men could give her life meaning.
For everyone who knew that girl.
In rich and immediate detail, Loose Girl re-creates what it feels like to be in that desperate moment, when a you try to control someone by handing over your body, when the touch of that person seems to offer proof of something, but ultimately delivers little more than emptiness. Kerry Cohen's journey from that hopeless place to her current confident and fulfilled existence is an unforgettable memoir of one young woman who desperately wanted to matter, and speaks to countless others with its compassion, understanding, and love.
For the thousands of people who have found their voice in this book, and the thousands more who will.
In the darkness, he touches me, his long, strong fingers moving across the surface of my skin, his breath hot and real near my ear. He kisses tenderly, my ear, my neck, my mouth. Slides my shirt over my head, the movement choreographed with his breath. Then his fingers on the button of my jeans, the hesitation. Will she let me do this? he must be wondering. And my wordless answer, a movement of the hips. Yes, yes, always yes. He slips off the jeans, the underwear, and then on top of me, his solid body, the weight of him, his movement, all so real, all so there. It doesn’t matter who he is. There are so many of them. Him. Me. Our movement together. Proof, I think again and again, of being worthwhile. Proof of being loved.
I SLEPT WITH close to forty boys and men before I figured out doing so was not serving me well. There were many more with whom I did other sexual acts, like oral sex and petting. To some this may seem like a lot. Others will think it not very many at all. There are girls with lists much longer than mine. In truth, I don’t really know the length of my list. After twenty-five I lost count. Sometime in my late twenties I tried to name them all, starting with my first, but I found out quickly I had forgotten a host of names. A few I may not have ever known, and for the larger percentage I didn’t know their last names. Still, I sat there, chewing at the end of my pen, the pad of paper before me—Tom? Tim? Oh, wait, then there was that guy with the dog. And the one who kept talking to me during sex, as though we were just hanging out, what was his name? For a man this might be a pleasant trip down memory lane, counting up his conquests. But for a girl, it’s a whole other story. I had let these men inside me, wanting that to make me matter to them. Wanting it to make me matter. Now they were just cross-outs and question marks. At some point, I gave up, disgusted with myself. I crumpled the paper and threw it away.
This is not a list of which I am proud.
Still, it is a telling of my story.
It is the story of any girl who finds herself hurt in some way, who finds herself with pain and then makes a choice to do something about it. Some girls turn to anorexia. Others to alcohol, drugs, cutting, sports, ambition. I chose promiscuity. I am not the only one by far. One of every three girls has had sex by age sixteen, and two out of three by age eighteen. Statistics for 2003 show slightly more girls than boys have had sex before the age of twenty, and casual sex in high school is near equal for boys and girls. A third of teen girls get pregnant before they turn twenty, and 79 percent of these pregnancies are both unintended and to unmarried teens. The younger a girl is when she has her first intercourse, the more likely it is to have been unwanted or not voluntary. Every year about one in four sexually active teens gets an STD. “Friends with benefits” and “hookups” are terms in most contemporary teens’ vocabularies. A study released by the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation revealed that of fifty-five girls between the ages of eleven and seventeen, only the eleven-year-olds did not mention pressure to have sex as an issue. But if you eavesdrop on girls in middle school, girls as young as ten and eleven, I guarantee you will hear plenty of talk about blow jobs and sex.
What statistics can’t get at are the feelings of uncertainty and confusion that surround a young girl’s sexual behavior. They don’t get at how easy it is for a girl to use sex for attention. A boy once said to me, “Boys have to put forth real effort to get laid, while all you have to do is stand braless in the wind.” It’s true. What’s easier for a girl than to get noticed for her body? Using my sex appeal was default behavior. To not do so would have required more effort. Add to this the fact that I was desperate for attention—any attention—and men’s interest in my body was the easiest avenue to being noticed. Of course, I confused their base interest with love. I needed to believe it meant something.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t see myself as entirely innocent. My story is also about addiction. Addiction to power, to the attempt to control others through my body. It is about how desperate I was to feel loved, less alone, and how, misguided by all those cultural mixed messages, I tried to fill my need with male attention and sex. How, as with most addictions, I managed to push most everyone away, foiling my greatest intentions. And finally, how I learned to stop.
So I pull that paper full of scratch marks and questions out of the wastebasket, I smooth it out on my desk, and I begin.
A HOUSE WITH NO MEN
I am eleven the day I begin to understand what it means to be a girl, walking into the next town as I often do, on my way to browse at the pet store or the hobby store, to do something with the endless, hot summer days that seem to stretch on and on. A semi truck, slowing at an intersection, honks. I look up and see a middle-aged man, thirty-five, maybe forty. He is smiling at me, his eyes on my body, dark stubble on his cheeks and chin. “Hello, there,” he says, and winks. For the first time, I am aware of my green gym shorts, which stop at the top of my thighs. My white T-shirt feels tight against my training bra. I am just a girl, but I could also be a woman. The man’s eyes linger on me, friendly, suggestive. And then he releases the brakes, the truck sighing, and is gone. I stand and watch him go, alert, changed, understanding but not quite understanding.
I think to myself, That was easy.
My father moved out recently, another statistic of the 1980s divorce trend, leaving us in a house with no men, just my mother, older sister Tyler, and me. My mother, grief-stricken and frantic, is busy with need. Her need takes up space—so much space there is non room for my own. Sometimes she does physical things with this need, like laying three tons of bluestone to make a patio or ripping out the carpet on the stairs. But more often, her desire weaves through the house like cobwebs. It takes over the house, inch by dirty inch, until there is no air left to breathe that isn’t filled with her longing. Some days I come home to find her crouched in a fetal position in the kitchen, her cries loud and terrible, while I stand, my hands open at my sides. Her need is ugly and messy, mixed up with mascara tears and groaning, overflowing and seemingly endless. It pushes me outside, away from her, left to wrestle with my loneliness, and with my own desire that has just started its stirrings.
It is around this time, when I am twelve, that Ashley and Liz, my two closest friends from private school, and I make a plan to meet three boys in New York City. Liz knows one of them, Milo, because he is her mother’s friend’s son. She knows Milo’s mother, a single mom, will be out of town on business Saturday night, leaving him in their apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Milo is allowed to have a couple of friends stay the night, as long as they promise not to leave the apartment and as long as their parents know they will be there without adult supervision. Liz is a year older than Ashley and me. She has already been to third base with a boy, letting him touch her down there, and because of her expertise with boys we let her take over. According to Liz, we will each tell our parents we are staying at one another’s houses for the night. Then we will make our way into the city to Milo’s house, where he will wait with two of his friends, Geoff and Dylan.
On Saturday, the three of us get ready at my house.
“Your hair looks good like that,” Ashley says after I use the curling iron.
“Those boys aren’t going to know what hit them.” Liz leans into the mirror, her mouth open as she applies eyeliner. My mother is out with friends, so we are in her bathroom cabinet with her mascara and lipstick and eye shadow.
“We’re smokin’,” I say, laughing, following Liz’s lead. Ashley laughs too.
“Move over, Christie Brinkley,” she says.
“Here.” Liz bends past me to wipe Ashley’s eye. “Your eye shadow’s a little smudgy.”
My mother owns tons of makeup: Chanel mascara and eye pencils, Yves Saint Laurent and Estée Lauder lipstick, the tubes lined up in rows like little soldiers. No Bonne Bell or Maybelline here. Liz and Ashley are excited that they get to try such expensive brands. There are other things too—tools for tweezing and bleaching and cleansing. So much I don’t know about yet when it comes to being a woman. Plenty of mornings I sat on the closed toilet seat and watched my mother stand at this mirror, cleaning, removing, and applying. It struck me as a lot of work to become presentable, but I liked the busyness of it. I liked the idea that I could use these items and become something better than I was. Now it is me at the mirror, applying blush, sucking in my cheeks like I saw her do so many times. We are giggly as we curl our hair and spray it so it feathers. All three of us wear miniskirts and jean jackets. My skirt is denim, and Liz’s and Ashley’s are black jersey. Liz ties her shirt into a knot so it shows off her stomach. She shows me how to make mine do the same. She does Ashley’s, too, but Ashley undoes hers, uncomfortable showing so much skin.
We catch the 7:25 bus, which takes us onto Route 9. At the George Washington Bridge we take another bus to the Port Authority at 175th. From there we walk down the long, graffiti-filled corridor to the C train, which we take to West 86th Street. By the time we get to Milo’s, it is ten o’clock. The streets are busy with Manhattan nightlife. Girls like us, but much older, walk along Columbus Avenue with lit cigarettes and duck into bars. Men laugh loudly. A couple kisses passionately against a building wall, the man’s hand tucked up under the woman’s shirt. My friends and I are excited. We are a part of this night, this passion, this potential for deep feeling. Anything can happen, anything at all. We ride the elevator to Milo’s floor, our hearts fluttering in our chests.
Milo answers the door, and my heart sinks. I imagined him as much cuter, a boy from the movies. Instead he is short and freckled, like me. In the living room, the boys are watching Eraserhead, that bizarre David Lynch film about a man who discovers he has fathered a mutant infant. We sit awkwardly on the couch, clutching our purses on our laps. I can’t follow the storyline at all. Instead, the strange images horrify me: the grotesque baby, the woman with swollen cheeks. Eventually, we begin to couple up. Ashley goes off with Geoff, Liz with Dylan, and Milo is left with me. I am used to this, being the one not chosen. It’s not that I’m not pretty in my own way. I’m just not notable. A year earlier the boys in my classroom divided us girls into three categories: love, like, and hate. They spent their free reading time huddled around a table and decided which category each of us belonged to. We girls sat at our desks, trying our hardest to read, but really we were all listening hard for our names to come up. Liz, who has blond hair and unfreckled, pale skin was put in the “love” column. When the boys agreed she should be listed there, we all nodded to ourselves. It was no surprise. One sad, awkward girl, a girl who was so tall all the crotches of her tights peeked out below jumpers that were too short, was sequestered to “hate,” which again was no surprise. Silently, I hoped they would shock everyone and put me under “love,” like Liz. But they didn’t. I was clumped with everyone else under “like.” Unexceptional and invisible. Not meant to be loved.
Milo takes my hand and we climb the stairs to his small, cluttered bedroom. He presses Play on his tape player, and the Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden” fills the room. We sit on his bed and, though I have no attraction for him at all, I allow him to kiss me. His tongue is clumsy and unpleasant in my mouth. It is my first kiss, and it isn’t at all what I expected. But I stay with it, eager for the experience. He pushes up my shirt and touches my tiny, sensitive nipple with two fingers. Just as he pushes me down on the bed, just as I feel the strange pressure against my leg of his erection through his jeans, there’s a knock at the door. I feel a vague relief at being stopped. Milo, though, frustrated at the interruption, opens the door in a huff.
Liz and Ashley stand there, jean jackets on.
“What the fuck?” Milo says.
“We’re going.” Liz looks at me, ignoring him. Then, to him, “Your friend’s an asshole.”
“What happened?” I ask.
“Ashley told Geoff no, but he kept pushing.”
I look at Ashley who stands beside Liz, her jaw tight. She is clearly upset.
“He wanted to do more than kiss,” she says.
I frown, hoping Milo won’t say anything about the fact that I just allowed him to put his hands on my breasts. Instead he says, “Why don’t you stay and they can go?”
I smile at him appreciatively, but when I look back at my friends, Liz is scowling. “I can’t,” I say. “But thanks.”
“Fine,” Milo says. I find my jacket and we go to the door. I wait for him to say something as we leave, like he wants to see me again or wants my number. But he just slams the door after us.
“Fuck you,” Liz says as we make our way down the hall. “He was always an asshole. I don’t know what I was thinking.” Ashley and I look at each other and laugh, relieved that it’s just the three of us again.
By the time we are outside, it is one thirty a.m. The streets are still lively, but the subway is deserted. Back at the Port Authority, we are conspicuously out of place at this time of night. The buses that travel across the bridge back into New Jersey only come every two hours, so we hang out in the dirty, fluorescent-lit terminal, waiting amid the drug-hungry beggars and the homeless who had found shelter for the night.
Eventually the bus does come, and we ride over the bridge and back toward my house, trying to stay awake. At the top of Closter Dock Road, though, when there is nobody left on the bus but us, the bus stops and the doors exhale open. “Everyone out,” the driver says. We sit up, confused. We’re going to Harrington Park. But when I ask, the driver informs us that after midnight this is as far as he goes. We try pleading with him to take us anyway, just this once, but he refuses, probably thinking we shouldn’t be out there in the first place, three young girls all alone.
So we step down off the bus, and the doors sigh closed. We stand by the side of the road. The air is cool, the night silent. No laughing, no made-up women, no couples and passionate kisses. Just the soft rustling of the leaves as a breeze lifts them. We’re ten miles from my house. Ashley starts crying. Liz and I look at each other, trying to determine what to do. Liz sees it first: a few hundred feet down the way is a gas station with the sign OPEN 24 HOURS. We whoop and run toward it, purses banging against our hips. We walk into the office where there are two young men smoking and playing cards. Their eyes light up as we walk in—one, two, three girls, all dressed up in miniskirts. The desk where they sit is metal with a fake wood top. A small, grainy, black-and-white television murmurs on the desk. They clearly weren’t expecting anything like this tonight.
“Well, well,” the larger one says. He is blond, his face young. “What do we have here?” He glances over at the other one who is dark-haired, skinny, and wearing glasses. That one raises his eyebrows. Liz tells them our story, how we went to the city to meet guys, how they treated us badly, and how now we are stuck here, ten miles from my house. We need a ride home. The clock on the wall reads 4:00 a.m. The two men exchange a smile.
“We can’t just leave the station,” the blond one says. “Right?”
“That’s right.” The other one nods, his eyes moving from girl to girl.
“You’ll have to wait until five,” the blond one continues. “That’s when we get off.”
His face breaks into a smile, and he starts laughing. I can see his teeth are stained yellow. “Get it?” he says to his friend. “That’s when we get off.” The other one laughs, nodding his head.
The three of us huddle.
“I don’t know,” Ashley says. She’s uncomfortable.
“What else can we do?” Liz frowns.
“They’re strange men.” Ashley has been warned as we all have: Don’t get into cars with strange men.
“C’mere,” the blond one says to me when I look back at them. Liz and Ashley widen their eyes at me. Liz giggles.
“What?” I say. Usually Liz is the one getting the attention.
“C’mere,” he says again, more insistent.
I bite my lip and sidle up to the desk, unsure what to think.
“How old are you?” he asks, his eyes holding mine.
“Why?” I say.
“Just answer me,” he says. “How old?”
This close I can see the age in his face, a weathered darkness that makes him look older than he probably is.
“Sixteen,” I lie. I hear Liz giggle again behind me.
“Is that right,” he says. He presses his lips together. Clearly he doesn’t believe me.
“We all are,” Liz says, but he doesn’t take his eyes off me.
“You’re still jailbait,” the other one says. “Right, Tim?”
“That she is.” Tim winks at me.
I look down at the desk. Someone has carved into it with a razor: D loves G.
“That’s gross,” Ashley says. She grabs my arm and shoots Tim a look. “We’ll be sitting over here until you can take us home.” Ashley pulls Liz and me to the other side of the room, and the three of us sit on the ground against the wall. Eventually a car pulls into the station. Loud music streams out the windows, and the boys and girls inside yell to one another. Tim goes out to get them gas. The other one, named Gary, ignores us, keeping his eyes on the grainy television.
“We’re not really sixteen,” Ashley says suddenly, and Liz smacks her arm.
“No duh,” Gary says and snorts.
We look at each other. “How did you know?” I ask.
Gary shrugs. “Sixteen-year-old girls wouldn’t be stuck at a gas station in the middle of the night. They’d know somebody who could drive them home.”
I feel defensive. “Not every girl.”
Gary snorts again. “Oh, yes they do. You girls get whatever you want.”
I look down at my legs, which are tucked up under me. It sure doesn’t feel like I can have what I want. But I like the idea, stash it away in my mind to come back to later. It is an idea I might need.
Later, Liz and Ashley go around back to the gas station bathroom. I’m alone with Tim. He watches me. I look out the window, pretending I’m not aware of his gaze. I cross my legs and smooth my hair, then fold my arms in front of me.
“You sure are a pretty girl,” he says.
I shrug. Nobody’s ever called me pretty before.
“You’ll be an even prettier woman.”
I shift my weight to my left foot and stare at the window. Outside, it is dead quiet, still dark. I watch the shadowy figure of Gary locking one of the tanks.
“Why are you standing all the way over there?” Tim asks.
“Because I want to,” I say. I look straight into his eyes. My heart is pounding inside my chest.
“Come over here.”
I move toward him, my arms wrapped around my waist.
“Come sit on my lap,” he says softly.
“No,” I mumble, my throat tightening.
He raises his eyebrows, starting to turn away, looking, perhaps, for one of my friends.
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” I blurt.
He laughs, a deep, grown-up laugh. “Oh, yes. I would indeed.”
That’s when Liz and Ashley come back in. I let out my breath, unaware I’ve been holding it. I look down at my suede boots. I can still feel something like sparks beneath my skin, as though I’m made of electricity. That power again, coursing through me. I’m not attracted to him. In fact, I’m repulsed for the most part. But I like how he saved this talk for me. Not Liz, my pretty friend, not Ashley, who already hates him. Just plain, unremarkable me.
Finally, five o’clock comes. They take their time, locking drawers, sweeping the floor. At five fifteen, the next shift arrives and Tim unlocks the doors of his tan-colored Chevy. We three girls pile into the back. Tim looks back at me from the driver’s seat.
“Sit up here with me.”
I shake my head. Ashley sets her mouth and looks out the window. She’s getting tired of this, of the games and flirtations. We all are. It’s been a long night. There’s another feeling too: a growing nervousness, the knowledge we’re at Tim’s will. He can take us anywhere he wants.
“Gary, get in back,” Tim says, ignoring me. “Kerry’s sitting there.”
Gary opens my door, annoyed. “Well?”
I look at Liz.
“Just go, or we’ll never get out of here,” she says.
Tim smiles when I sit next to him, and I smile back, afraid to upset him. Then he sets a hand on my leg. I look down. His hand is dirty from oil changes, and the skin looks cracked and raw. My muscles go taut. In my head, I start praying: Just get us home soon.
“Tell me where to turn,” he says, but when I tell him, he drives right past the street. He laughs, looking back at Gary, and he takes his hand back from my leg to pound it on the wheel. I hold my breath as he stops short, does a three-point turn, and goes back to the turn. “Just kidding!” he yells.
I close my eyes, thinking of Liz and Ashley in the backseat. They don’t know I flirted, enticing him. If something happens, it will be my fault. Three girls in a strange man’s car. Three girls killed.
“It’ll be OK,” I hear Liz whisper, always the older sister.
At the next turn he does it again. We’re only a few miles from my house now, yet it seems a hundred miles away.
Finally, at the end of my street, he stops the car. “Hmm,” he says to Gary. “Maybe I won’t take them home after all.” Gary laughs nervously.
“Come on,” I say. “That’s not funny.”
That’s when Tim notices me again, and he puts his hand back on my thigh. I can hear Ashley crying softly behind me. His hand inches beneath my skirt, toward my crotch.
“OK, OK,” he says. “I guess I’ll take you all the way.” He grins. “Get it, Gary? I’ll take them all the way.”
I squirm, but it’s no use. His coarse fingers worm up to my underwear, scratching and grabbing as I try to pull away. They’re my best underwear, lavender in color, and he traces the edges with his fingertips. I put them on that evening with the thought that just maybe I would get to third base with one of the boys from the city. It seems a long time ago that we were in my house, full of expectation, getting ready for the night. Now he holds his fingers against my crotch—not inside, just against—letting me know he is there. I clench my body, my eyes turned to the window. I want to scream, to push his hand away, but I’m too afraid. Too afraid if I don’t give in, he won’t let me go at all. But there’s something else, too, something growing inside me, something I don’t really want to admit: There’s another part that’s not afraid at all. I almost like it. I know what’s happening isn’t right. But his touch is an inevitable result of the evening. It is my greatest hope—to be wanted. And here, with this repulsive older man, I am getting that. He holds his hand there like he owns me, but really, silently, I’m the one who owns him.
Tim drives slowly, his hand up my skirt, along my street. Where before I gave directions, I don’t now. I don’t want him knowing which house is mine. When he is within a few hundred feet, I say hoarsely, “This is fine.”
“Yeah?” He turns to me, an intimate, almost friendly look on his face, a look that suggests we are sharing something special. I keep my own face even.
- "Cohen's brutal honesty about her relentless request for companionship is refreshingly relatable."—Entertainment Weekly
- "Cohen recounts her harrowing litany of hookups through clear, poignant, spare-no-details prose."—Marie Claire
- Praise for Lush
- On Sale
- Sep 21, 2021
- Page Count
- 240 pages
- Hachette Books