Fragile by Amy Dupcak

I hadn’t made any promises, the way some Catholic girls do. I wasn’t saving myself for any person, place, or phase in life, nor did I want to get it over and done with as soon as possible. By tenth grade, all I’d decided were two important factors: the relationship had to last longer than two months, and The Fragile by Nine Inch Nails had to be playing.

Nine Inch Nails happened to be my boyfriend Dane’s favorite band too, along with Slipknot. Creepy masked men in red jumpsuits stared down from Dane’s walls; I wasn’t sure how they could see their instruments through the contraptions that covered their faces.

“Cool, right?” Dane asked, pointing to his newest poster.

“Uh, very.”

Dane had muscular forearms, close-cropped hair, and dark stubble. He wore silver hoop earrings, wire-rimmed glasses, and occasionally black nail polish. We sat down on the bottom bunk of his bed; his younger brother, Kevin, who occupied the top bunk, was somewhere else in their small ranch-style house, along with their parents and three other brothers. A classic middle child, Dane took out his aggression not only on his brothers, but also on his scuffed-up drum kit, duct-taped dashboard, and, for the past three months, on me.

“It may hurt now, but it’ll hurt less when we have sex,” he’d say whenever he pushed his fingers inside of me. Those fingers felt like tiny knives, cutting me in places I could barely even reach. Then he would demand a hand job, usually while we were half-watching a movie on the big-screen TV in my basement. I would go upstairs to tuck toilet paper and lotion into my pockets and return to the basement to cheerfully rub my lubricated hand up and down his penis while he stared blankly at the TV, grabbing my ass. Then I’d help him dispose of the mess. Luckily, my mother never caught us during her many attempts to “check on the laundry.”

Our relationship troubles lay in the most basic facts: I was a sophomore and Dane was a senior; I was a virgin and Dane was not. He had done it a few times with a previous girlfriend, and they’d even had anal. I’d only had two boyfriends for about two months each, one of whom had fingered me once and the other of whom I’d clumsily jerked off, also once. Even with my limited sexual experience, the pain of Dane’s touch seemed unwarranted, but telling him “it hurts” only reinforced his theory that he was thoroughly preparing my body for his dick. For some reason, I surrendered to his touch. I trusted that he was only doing what had to be done.

We were making out fully clothed atop his blanket, careful not to hit our heads on the top bunk, when he asked the question that had been on both our minds: “Do you want to have sex?” His bedroom lights were off, the door was locked, and the sound of his brothers shouting in the living room created a surreal party atmosphere.

 “I don’t know,” I mumbled. It was the first time he had posed the question in a we-can-do-it-right-now! context rather than a hypothetical conversation. He turned me over and pressed his pelvis against my lower back.

“No,” I said.

Part of me wanted to push him off, ask his mom to call mine, and run away from his chaotic household, but another part of me loved being trapped in Dane’s grip. I called him, affectionately, my monster. He’d stare into my eyes as he whacked the snare drum, making me blink. One time, he frightened my friends by driving erratically while belting Slipknot in a guttural voice. Later that day, he said he wanted to go down on me before my stepfather got home; he kept trying to persuade me until I pulled down my pants on the faded pink carpet of my bedroom floor. Five seconds later, he sat up, washed his mouth in the sink, and told me I needed to shave or he was never doing that again.

On his bed in the dark, Dane unbuttoned my pants and started caressing my butt.

“Come on, stop.” If I was going to do anything in his room, it certainly wouldn’t be that.

“Okay, okay,” he relented, turning me back over. He fondled my small breasts, first over the shirt then under, until a knock on his door made us flinch.

“Dane!” his mother shouted, twisting the knob.

I fixed my clothes and sat prim and proper, resting my feet on the floor. He flattened his erection and opened the door.

“Why is the door locked, Dane?” she asked accusingly, shooting me a sympathetic glance.

“I didn’t know it was,” he lied.

“This door needs to stay open and the lights need to stay on. No excuses.”

She looked at me again, probably hoping I had enough resolve to refuse her son’s advances. A mother of five boys between the ages of ten and twenty-one knew well enough what could happen behind a locked bedroom door, and she must have felt responsible—I looked younger than sixteen and my mother had dropped me off at her house.

For a while, nothing else happened. Dane played a skateboarding game on his PlayStation and we watched a few music videos. We talked with another brother, the one who did gymnastics and loved to show off his skills. The grim April sun slipped down beyond the windows, and perhaps we ate some food. I don’t remember leaving Dane’s bedroom that day, but we probably did. It’s as if time stopped there, as if I really was trapped, even though the door remained unlocked.

When he pressed his lips to mine again, I remembered our first kiss in the parking lot during my “funky” Sweet Sixteen. Dane had insisted I come out in the cold to his car, where he opened the glove compartment and proudly presented his band’s demo on cassette, along with a broken drumstick from a show. Something about this made me swoon, or maybe it was the fact that he’d called me an “enigma” during one of his daily phone calls. After a year of pining over boys who would flirt with me but offer nothing more, I was thrilled to be on the receiving end of an older boy’s crush. His intensity intrigued me, and like many Catholic schoolgirls, I’d always wanted a “bad boy” boyfriend, especially one who understood my dark side. It wasn’t long before I convinced myself that I loved him, and told him so in a handmade Valentine’s card after we’d been dating for a whopping three weeks. Such a thing, at sixteen, didn’t strike me as absurd.

Kissing on his mattress ushered another round of the million-dollar question, hot on the lips of every teenage boy: “Do you…want to…have…”

One might assume “No” becomes easier the second time, but for me it’s always harder. Still, I managed to choke it out, feeling exasperated. Why did telling the truth feel like a betrayal?

I knew I was stronger than this—I willingly voiced my opinions in class, even when the teacher was a nun. I wrote poetry nonstop and told stories in my head, but my words wouldn’t come. Not even a lie about having my period, which I’d tried to use once before. So why couldn’t I tell Dane how conflicted I felt?

A moment later, I realized whose voice was singing to me from the stereo. Dripping with angst and agony, Trent Reznor’s vocals scraped my skin. Dane had chosen The Fragile, completely unaware of its role in my confused fantasy. Well, that’s it, I thought—the dark double album decided my fate. At least Trent made self-destruction sexy.

“Fine,” I said.

 Dane never asked, “Are you absolutely sure?” He never said, “Only if you feel it’s right.” He wasted no time.

A condom came out of a drawer—something I hadn’t even considered—and we tossed our pants to the floor. I was still wearing my T-shirt and cardigan, and Dane still wore his button-down shirt. The lights were on; our eyes were open. The masked men of Slipknot—a clown, a pinhead, a demon—laughed from the walls when I asked, “Are you sure that’s the right spot?” I was afraid Dane had misunderstood. 

“You’d know if it wasn’t,” he said plainly.

 The pain of his penis surprised me, but somehow it wasn’t as bad as all the times he’d used his fingers. Once he was fully inside, he began moving his hips up and down the way men did in movies, still careful not to bump his head against the top bunk. My body started to feel impossibly warm and my breathing sped up. Suddenly, his mother’s voice swooped in like a hawk.

“Kevin?” she screamed from somewhere outside the door. Kevin? The brother who shared this room!?

“Fuck!” Dane said, flying off of me. We grabbed the blanket and threw it over our lower halves, awaiting the inevitable, but his mother didn’t open the door. Perhaps she’d found Kevin, or perhaps paranoia had fooled us and she hadn’t been calling his name at all. Dane and I breathed a collective sigh, and he gleefully rolled on top of me again.

“No,” I said, finding my voice. “I’m not going to keep doing this with your entire family in the house! It’s too risky.”

Dane persisted, but then finally gave up. Tearing off the limp condom, he asked me to give him a blowjob, or hand job, or something.

Fifteen minutes later, I went to the bathroom to wash my hands and look myself eye-to-eye. Trent’s voice still echoed above waves of noise and landscapes of distortion: Now you know, this is what it feels like. I wondered if every girl stared at herself in the mirror to see if she looked any different. Only Dane hadn’t come and I hadn’t either—in fact I never really had—and I wasn’t bleeding. Our half-naked sex had only lasted a few minutes. Did it still count? Should I tell my friends? What would they say? Did I feel good about this? Would there be another time? Could his mother tell? Would mine?

On the drive home, I sat next to my mother for forty long minutes, my cheeks aflame. She knows, I thought, feeling ashamed of my decision—or lack thereof—yet strangely empowered. The moment could never be forgotten or undone. I had joined the experienced women of the world, and from this side of the looking glass, I could see Dane more clearly than I ever had before. A week later, I broke up with him on the phone, The Fragile spinning behind my own locked door.  


© Amy Dupcak, 2016

Amy Dupcak is the author of the short story collection, Dust, published this year on Lucid River Press. She has also published fiction and creative nonfiction in Sonora Review, Phoebe, Litro, Fringe, Runaway Parade, Chicago Literati, and other publications. She earned her MFA in Fiction from the New School and teaches writing workshops for kids and teens at Writopia Lab in Manhattan. She often shares her writing at Lyrics, Lit & Liquor events, for which she also creates original trivia. 

Fragile was read by Hannah Seusy on 7th December 2016 for Dreams & Aspirations