When I was four years old my grandma told me that if I wore my pants below my belly button it would fall off and I would die. She told me this until the day she kicked me out thirteen years later. To say purity culture is a fundamental part of who I am is an understatement and probably has a lot to do with why I don’t let nice men love me.

I share clips of my life with people indiscriminately, like doling out raffle tickets but never giving out the whole roll: “Limit one per person, two if you’re cute, three if you tell me you can fix me.” And one night I sat up late with a boy I was falling in love with. I’d mentioned something offhand and he said “I’m fascinated by the lore around you.” I liked the idea of being a fable on the tongues of people around a campfire, so I told him a little more and before I knew it had been an hour and I was laughing hysterically. I think this might be the reason he never loved me in return, because who tells you the deepest trauma of their childhood and laughs like a maniac?

There are a handful of boys who I loved obsessively—like knitting to keep my hands busy, I loved them because they kept me from looking at myself long enough in the mirror to see my pupils shrink at the sight of me.

I’ll lump that handful of boys together and call them all Charles, because I always wanted to date a boy named Charles and the closest I ever got was a boy I loved in the midwest who had a brother named Charlie. So Charles and I have this obsessive kind of tug of war relationship where we never want each other at the exact same time but when I want him I go without eating because there’s no want left in me. All-consuming like a 16-year-old girl, but my therapist says that I’m emotionally stunted so I definitely still love boys like this today at twenty-eight. This is the kind of love that forces you into a routine to pass the time. I start tallying up the minutes each act will take me, proud of myself that I can go that long without checking my phone. Brushing my teeth: two minutes, three if I brush my tongue until I choke. Washing my face: five minutes if I’m meticulous. I learn to be meticulous. A shower, maybe twice a day, in which I shave every inch of me. I wash my hair upside down the way they do at the salon. I sit on the floor of the tub and let the water run over my body until I can’t breathe anymore and I imagine this is what it will feel like when they kiss me in the rain. Spoiler alert: Texas falls into a terrible drought every time I get within six feet of his lips. At best, I find ways to waste about an hour of my day and the rest of the time I lay in bed waiting for him to text back. He rarely texts me back.

I imagine this must have been the way my mother felt when she met my father. That’s the only way I can tell this story, is to put myself in her shoes. I’m half her and half my father so there has to be a universe in which I can get at least fifty percent of their story right. I imagine that when he saw her for the first time he thought she was stunning and full of life, things that he hadn’t felt within himself in a long time. And I imagine that when she saw him she felt initially superior to him, maybe even slightly revolted. But my father needed a lot of fixing, and he also had a way with words. I think he wrote her letters and I think after that she was hooked. My mother and I have a thing for writers and to the demise of all of those Charles’, I’m a writer like my father. Did I mention that my parents first saw each other sitting across the room in a circle in group therapy while they were both doing time in a juvenile psychiatric hospital?

After being released, my grandmother let my mom go to a barbeque at his house and if I put myself in my grandmother’s shoes, this seems like more than I would have done as a mother. When your daughter comes home from the psych ward with a crush on one of her fellow detainees, what are you thinking letting her receive letters from him? And what are you doing allowing her to go to a barbeque with his family?

When my grandmother finally came to her senses and told my mom to call the whole thing off, my mom, grief-stricken and desperate (I imagine her this way because fifteen-year-old-me would have done the same thing), walked forty miles to my father’s house where he made her sleep on the lawn for three days before stashing her in the shed. It’s here that I was conceived and it wasn’t much later that my mom got a phone call that would change her life (and incidentally begin mine). She got a call from a friend who was in jail. I like to imagine he said something to the effect of “Hey, you know that pee you sold me to pass this drug test? Yeah, well, it’s pregnant.” I think she should be honored that he chose her as his one phone call. It was courteous if nothing else.

This is where the story gets dicey, and I really have to use my imagination. According to one party, my mom was given every opportunity to spend her pregnancy in the comfort of her home. However, hormone ridden and kept under near house arrest, she caused a lot of unrest in my grandmother’s home. She was promptly moved to the garage in Texas in the early summer. After giving birth, my mother was offered every opportunity to return home and raise her new baby girl (me) but only lasted two weeks before deciding I wasn’t worth her freedom.

Another party insists that my grandmother went into the hospital, slipped the admission bracelet from my mother’s wrist onto her own, and left the hospital with me. Before my sixteen-year-old, postpartum mother knew what hit her, my grandmother had papers drawn up granting her custody and mom never stood a chance. Heartbroken and childless, she was emancipated, started working at a local Mexican restaurant, and got an apartment with my father. My sister was born a year later, nearly identical to me and with a much better temperament, and my mom quickly forgot about me. Or she was still totally devoted to me and bought nearly everything I ever needed as an infant. But it depends on who you ask.

I was raised as an only child and an incredibly happy baby and eventual toddler. Homeschooled, secluded, watched intently, I was spoiled and also carefully disciplined. I imagine for my grandmother, it was a careful balance. There were strange incidents that didn’t register until I would mention them sloppy drunk to a blind date, faced only with blank stares and sometimes horrified cannibalistic pupils swallowing their irises. Incidents where I would mention the way my grandmother would say, “Bring me my heart monitor, I can’t believe you’re stressing me out this much,” and “You see that? You see how high that is? That means that you’ve gone too far,” or something to that effect. I was young, I could very well be exaggerating. All I know is that I learned very early on how bpms worked and learned very early that I had a literal effect on my grandmother’s pulse.

All of this happiness and peaceful coexisting ended promptly during my twelfth summer. I fell in love with a sixteen year old pastor’s son online and we made a lot of plans to lose our virginity and said that all of this was okay because we’d be married soon anyway. My grandmother realized here the propensity I had for mortifying her and also for turning into my mother. We struggled over internet privileges after this. She started slapping me square across the face for asking questions, and started saying things like “I can’t stand to look at your face right now.” There was still a careful balance in place though, because for every “I’m sorry,” I earned some sort of physically affectionate prize. A forehead kiss, or a snuggle, or mug of chai tea. I would slowly earn my privileges back and then promptly abuse them, weaseling my way back into her good graces and repeating the cycle over and over again. I imagine this must have been very stressful for her, raising such a manipulative child. She must have known she was being played, but what do you do about it when you’re the one who invented the game?

I’ve fallen in love with a lot of boys, Charles’, online or at exceedingly far distances from me. Some might even call it my brand. I don’t know what it is—maybe the excitement? Or maybe knowing that they can’t get close enough to see my imperfections? Maybe deep down I’m a masochist and I love suffering. I imagine it's a combination of the three and I’m probably not making myself sound as manipulative as the whole thing really is. I have imposter syndrome that way. Or maybe I don’t and I’m using that as a cop out for some more sinister plot. You never know, and honestly neither do I. Secretly I worry that I meet boys far away so that I can make them fall in love with me before they have to meet me, so that by the time they meet me they’re too in love to notice how fat I am.

I can’t say that’s working out very well. Charles always knows how to play the game even better than I do, and I’m tired of falling for boys who taste like candy. How my teeth ache. What a strange thing to take when you leave, the thing that let me take a bite out of life.

My friend says I fall in love with words before I fall in love with people, maybe that’s why I fall for writers. Then again, I think that’s unfair. I think we fall in love together. You see, I’m a writer too. I think writers have a weakness for boys and girls with words that fall off of their tongues like honey. No, not honey. What a cliche. Words that slip through our fingers like water—that’s better. Words that flow through our hands and sink into the dirt before we’ve had time to plant the seed.

I speak in metaphors because it’s easier than saying: goddammit, I fell so hard for you and all I have to show for it are the scars on my knees.

Cotton Candy Tongued Boys

Bleah Patterson

Bleah Patterson (she/her) was born and raised in Texas. Former evangelical, former homeschooler, former journalist, she believes in honoring every iteration of herself. She is a poet who sometimes writes prose, she explores generational and religious trauma, and is a current MFA candidate at Sam Houston State University. For what it’s worth, her mother says she’s a bad daughter but a good writer. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in The Brazos River Review; The Texas Review; the tide rises, the tide falls; The Hyacinth Review; and The Bayou Review among others.