Strangers with Candy

When I told my dad that I was dating an older guy, 24 to my 18, and a divorcee to boot, he only said one thing, “You know what he wants, right?”

“Yeah, I do,” I answered. My dad knew my experience was nothing besides a quick cash in of the v-card. It was fair of him to ask. Of course, he’d been priming me on men and sex for years so I wouldn’t be so easily duped.

“Guys will say a lot of things to get what they want, Lulabell,” he said, using the pet name I’d had since I was a little girl. “Doesn’t mean some of it isn’t true. But they will say a lot. Just, well, keep that in mind.”

There were no other explicit warnings. He didn’t forbid me from dating the guy. He gave his advice and let it be. My father is often like that. No matter how many times I ask for his opinion or thoughts, he always ends with the same sort of phrase, “It’s your life, you’ve gotta make your own decisions.” What this really amounts to is that I’ve got to make my own mistakes.

And Shawn Stokes was a big ol’ mistake, emphasis on big, which of course had been the emphasis when I met him. At the first introduction, Zane had clapped a hand to his best friend’s back and, like he was talking about a truck or a collection of stamps, said, “This is Stokes. He has the largest dick you will ever see.”

We all lacked replies for a moment as we stood on the sidewalk in front of GameStop. Shawn was only there for a visit. He lived over in Greenville near campus and our town was out of the way for anything more than a stopover. Shawn was a tall guy, with shoulders that might have been broad if he stood up straight. To be honest, I thought he was sort of plain with short brown hair, brown eyes, and an awkward, crooked smile. He looked like every southern boy I’d known. As streamlined as I was with Zane, I might have never noticed the guy at all, except Zane went and said what he did.

“That’s a really odd thing to know…and say about another guy,” I finally said. “You’re not bothered by this?” Shawn shrugged.

“He tells everybody.”

It was a strange dynamic between the two of them. Shawn seemed reserved, a bit too old to be hanging out with fresh out of high school kids. Whereas Zane was Shawn’s most glorious wingman, relentlessly assuring us of the length and breadth of his friend’s penis. I believe he compared it to everything from assault weapons to German meats. Shawn didn’t seem embarrassed, but he didn’t encourage the conversation either. Mostly, he made fun of Zane for being obsessed with his penis, so did the rest of us.

Once Shawn went back to Greenville that night, I didn’t think about him again. The rest of the summer went by and he was only a passing reference in Zane’s stories during our long nights in his truck bed where my vagina might as well have been Fort Knox as far as Zane cared.

As explained, the Zane situation had its brief sparkle at the end of the summer. When my friends and I moved on to university, my interest had mostly fizzed out and I was ready bigger and better things. My eighteenth birthday came up in September. I had a history of unforgettable parties, in college I expected no less as we would also celebrate the transition to a new town and absent parental supervision. However, Nikki’s jealous streak ran long and deep. The petty nickname she had spread around wasn’t nearly enough to undermine my world after my perceived indiscretions with her crush. The weekend of my birthday, my roommate was gone and all of my friends, exception of myself, were invited back to Nikki’s house in Glasgow for several days of drunkenness and debauchery. Our college was a dry campus, so my friends couldn’t resist.

Come Saturday afternoon, instead of getting ready for a party, I was alone, watching re-runs of House M.D. in my tiny dorm room and dreading my own birthday. I debated picking up an extra shift at the sports bar I’d started working at just so I would have something to do. Then, somewhere between House calling his patient a liar and his employees idiots, my gray Nokia phone rang.

I had my first text message. Ever.

These days, the only people I actually speak to on the phone are my parents and professional contacts, everything else is usually text. But back in 2006, before Blackberrys and iPhones, texting was still 10 cents a pop and not part of my contract. So, I was immediately interested in who was wasting money trying talk to me.

Stokes introduced himself in the text, but it still took me a minute even then to remember him and that was only because I recalled the ‘big dick’ guy Zane talked about. The first thing I did was ask how he got my number.

Elijah gave it to me, he wrote.

Were out here at Nikkis. I hope its okay that he gave it to me.

So are you really going to be alone for your birthday?

18 right?

The texts came quicker than I could type back. Shawn got straight to the point. He explained that Elijah had been talking about how they were missing my birthday to be at Nikki’s. We agreed that I had shitty friends.

But if it was forward of him to get my number from a friend, he was even more blatant and shameless when he suggested I spent my birthday with him. He was coming back to Greenville and had nothing else to do.

No one should be alone on their birthday.

It wont be fancy but its better than nothing.

I wasn’t that easily sold, at least I didn’t want him to know I was. So I told Shawn I’d think about it and talk to him later. But the thing was, we didn’t stop talking. There were more texts and then he finally just called me when he was driving back to Greenville.

I had forgotten what his voice sounded like. It didn’t match what I imagined in the texts. What was worse, he was more convincing that I would have liked.

“Bring some movies. We’ll order some pizza. Just stay in and chill. Or do you want to be alone in your dorm all night?” he asked. I could hear the music turned down on the radio in his car. I was pretty sure it was Thirty Seconds to Mars, one of my favorite bands at the time.

“Why do you care?”

“Because you seem cool, or at least from the way Zane talked about you. And I don’t like how your friends are treating you. I’m trying to make up for other assholes.”

“I’m not going to sleep with you,” I told him. “I don’t care how big your dick is.” He laughed, hard and loud.

“I didn’t think I asked.” He added, “Yet.” I was glad he couldn’t see the creeping smile on my face from his stupid joke.

“Fine,” I said. “I’ll be there in half an hour.”

Knowing that I was going into a stranger’s apartment, I called my roommate who was back home for the weekend to work and let her know where I was headed. I made her promise to call the cops if she didn’t hear from me by midnight. Daddy didn’t raise no fool. Confident that I had a fail-safe in place, I grabbed a handful of DVDs and drove down Old Nashville Road.

Shawn lived at Western Greens, a series of tower-like apartment complexes behind Kroger. He was on the fourth floor in 10C with three other guys. I didn’t meet any of them the first night. I was escorted in and almost straight to Shawn’s room, which was basic. It had a full bed, a chest of drawers where the television set, and a desk built into the wall. Greenville was a college town and the apartments were basically dorms with higher bills in exchange for less rules and private bathrooms. Despite his age and history, Shawn was in school like the rest of us. He had trouble sticking to a major and to the whole semester thing.

While I practically tip-toed into the bedroom, debating on standing or sitting on the bed, the only option as Shawn took the desk chair, he seemed completely at ease to have a random girl in his space. He talked away and I murmured comments here and there as I scoped out his room, everything from the DVD titles to the large Indianapolis Colts flag tacked to the wall. He was a sports guy. Even though I worked at a sports bar, I watched the Superbowl for the commercials like a normal person.

“You can sit, you know,” he said.

“Yeah, okay.” I settled on the edge of the bed, by the corner closest to the door.

“So, Happy Birthday.”


“What did you bring?” I handed over my movies. “I haven’t heard of half of these,” he told me as he shuffled through. “We’ll watch whatever you want. It’s your night.”

I picked The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I expected him to stop me when the DVD had a pair of bright red lips and a guy in a corset and fishnets and to complain about watching some creepy musical. I half wanted to see Shawn flinch, to second guess me, this, all of it. Instead, he put the DVD in himself then jumped into the bed, relaxing back on the pillows. He fluffed one up for me against the wall and patted the spot next to him.

The fact was I had showed up of my own free will. I had made the choice to be there, to turn eighteen with a guy I’d barely had one conversation with. So when he offered me the spot, I realized that I was acting like a chicken shit. In my head, I said, ‘fuck it’ and I crawled deeper into the bed next to Shawn.

“Do you like to cuddle?” he asked. “I’m actually pretty big on cuddling.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve never cuddled.” There are few moments that have ever made me feel more ridiculous than having to admit that I had never done anything as intimate as be held by a guy.  Compared to most girls, I was acutely aware that I may have been doing things backwards.

Without asking, Shawn wrapped an arm around my shoulders and pulled me towards him until my head rested just under his collarbone. I thought it negated the entire point of having my own pillow and it wasn’t the most comfortable way to watch a movie. It put my neck at a weird angle. Nevertheless, I said nothing and I let him keep me there. I wasn’t sure it was something I would enjoy all the time, still I had to accept that there was something nice about having a body, not anxious or groping me, but at peace next to me. We stayed that way until the Time Warp when I made the mistake of telling him that it was my favorite song, that I knew all the words and the dance.

“Oh really? Show me.”

“What? I’m not going to show you.”

“C’mon. I want to see you dance.” Shawn started shoving me out of the bed. Both large hands were pushing at my back until I fell off the edge. I didn’t want to humiliate myself but he shoved me away each time I went for the bed. “Dance, and you can get back in.”

I huffed and frowned but it did nothing for my case. Finally, I looked to the television and Magenta was about to start her verse. I waited for the cue and as her mouth opened, so did mine. Shawn clapped and nodded his head along. I used his chair as a prop and then I jumped up when the door burst open and the main dance began. I put my hands on my hips and he laughed when I went ‘insane’. I even managed a fake tap dance along with Columbia. These were all things that I would do alone when I watched, but now I was doing them for someone else.

When I finished, true to his word, Shawn let me back into the bed, where we resumed cuddling and I relaxed at last. I didn’t leave when the movie when was over. I stayed and we talked. Shawn was open about his failed marriage, being divorced by the time he could legally drink. We discussed school and all manner of useless things the way people do to fill the hours, pretending that favorite foods say something about the soul of a person. He eventually asked me if I was still into Zane.

“I guess. But he’s not around, is he?” I heard a few weeks ago that he was dating several girls on campus as a sort of last hurrah before Afghanistan.

“No, he’s not,” Shawn said.

“I’m not going to chase some guy who’s not interested.”

“Zane was interested though,” he said. “You just weren’t eighteen.” Finally, an answer.

“Well, I’m eighteen now, aren’t I?”

“Yes, you are.”

The conversation continued on but it wasn’t much longer before it got cut off. I don’t remember how our first kiss happened. But I remember kissing him like it was the only way I could get oxygen to breath. Shawn was rough and I didn’t hate it. I was beginning to realize the variety between men, from the movements of their kisses to the feel of their hands on my skin. Shawn was new and fresh. His age stopped being just a number but a confidence to his controls, my body was malleable to his effortless, if coarse, guiding. He tangled my hair up into his fists, he bit at my lips and my earlobes. We flipped back and forth on his bed. I had no idea where any of it was going and I wasn’t exactly concerned about it when his hands reached up under my shirt. Eventually, I went for the buttons of his jeans.

“I want to see,” I told him. I couldn’t know what I did about him and not wonder if Zane was just blowing smoke. I undid the zipper and pushed his boxers down. Only the light from his lamp was on, which was plenty. I tilted my head.

“Oh my god.”

Shawn didn’t say anything, he let me absorb. I did the trick my dad taught me years ago. As a logger, he needed quick references to measure, some he showed me. I held my thumbs and pointer fingers end to end and spread my fingers wide. From pinkie to pinkie was about a foot. Again, “Oh my god.”

“I can’t have sex with you,” I said, looking up and away from his penis.

“You don’t have to. That really wasn’t why I invited you,” he assured me.

“No, I mean, I literally can’t have sex with you,” I clarified. “I’ve only done it once and the next time I have sex can’t be with that.” I pointed, circling my finger at his penis. “I’m intimidated as hell. I’m pretty sure you would kill me. Like I would bleed out.”

“Well, that’s a first.” Shawn smiled. “Most girls only want to sleep with me because they know how big it is. You are the first girl to turn it down.”

“Sorry, but you’re something to work up to, not something to get broken in on.”

“It’s okay. I get it.” He pulled his jeans back up. I took it as a sign to leave as well. But when I started to move, he asked me where I was going.

“Back to my dorm.”

“I’d like for you stay the night. I don’t like to sleep alone actually.”


“Yeah, seriously.”

“I didn’t bring anything to sleep in.”

“You can borrow my shorts.”

“I don’t have a toothbrush.”

“I have an extra.”

“I’ve got work tomorrow.”

“I’ll wake you up.”

He had an answer for every excuse. I hesitated but ultimately agreed to stay. I took the shorts and the toothbrush and then we got back into bed, the lamp went off. When I curled up towards the wall, Shawn followed and draped his arm over my waist. I could feel each breath in his ribcage against my back. For a while, it kept me up. Then the rhythm began to lull me to sleep. I understood quite quickly why someone could prefer this.

As far as birthdays go, it wasn’t the worst or the best. When it ended, I honestly thought it was great night. In that moment, I was happy. Shawn had made me happy. Even then, I could see the appeal of being attached to someone and that was the problem. He was the absolutely wrong fucking guy to get attached to. In two months, Shawn and I would crash and burn in epic fashion. I would find myself miserable and utterly used. But as I slept under the warmth of his muscled arm, I had no idea that he would be the first guy to ruin my heart. And from that night, I would have never guessed it.

That’s the thing about mistakes, we never know we’re making them.


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