I was twelve when my first snake appeared.
It was the morning after my first middle school dance. I woke up and there it was, a tiny thing, jutting out right behind my left ear. I ran to the mirror to look. It was so small you almost couldn’t see it, its brown body lost in the tangles of my hair. I moved to touch it and it lashed at my finger, tugging on my scalp. I quickly withdrew my hand and went downstairs to tell my parents.
“Mom,” I said, “I have my first snake.”
My mom was in the kitchen making pancakes. My dad sat at the kitchen table, drinking a cup of coffee and reading a newspaper. They both stopped to look at me. My mother put down her spatula and walked over. She leaned down to face me, gently tucking a lock of hair behind my ear. My new snake hissed softly, but didn’t try to attack.
“I’m not surprised,” my mom said. “I was a little younger than you when my first snake appeared.”
My dad rustled the pages of his paper noisily, as though to drown us out. Men, I would learn, hate hearing or talking about the snakes.
My mother gave me a kiss on the forehead.
“Go get changed,” she said. “Breakfast is almost ready.”
I went back upstairs and wiggled out of my pajamas, reaching for a t-shirt. But then I stopped, wondering if I should wear a dress instead. I was a woman now, practically. I had my first snake, and last night I was kissed for the first time.
At the end of the dance, I stood at the edge of the parking lot, waiting for my dad to come pick me up. My friends’ parents had already come to collect them, but my dad was running late. Bobby McNulty, a boy from my science class, was standing with a group of his friends a few feet away. They were giggling and whispering to each other, and then one said, “Go on, Bobby, do it!”
Bobby turned away from his friends and marched up to me. And then, before I could say anything, he kissed me square on the lips. Bobby McNulty, who never said a word to me in class, stole my first ever kiss. Before I could say or do anything (yell at him? Push him? Kiss him back?), my dad finally pulled up. I didn’t even look at Bobby, just jumped in the car.
In the car, I stared at my lap. My dad had a small smile on his face. He looked over at me and, very gently, asked, “Was that your boyfriend back there?”
I didn’t answer, just stared out the window for the rest of the ride home.
I decided to wear the t-shirt. I gently lifted it over my head, taking care not to disrupt the snake. It curled around my ear, and gave me a playful nip.
My next snake wouldn’t appear until I was sixteen. Sara Ling’s parents were out of town, and she invited what seemed to be our entire high school class over. She even had a keg; some older and irresponsibly cool cousin had gotten one for her.
It was my first time ever drinking alcohol, and two lukewarm, foamy beers had my head spinning. My best friend at the time, Alice Nowak, pulled me aside.
“Josh Rossi is here,” she giggled. Josh was one of the most popular guys in our class. I’d had a crush on him for the past two years.
“A bunch of people are playing Seven Minutes in Heaven,” Alice continued. “We should play. Maybe you’ll get lucky.”
At sixteen, I rarely got lucky, in any sense of the word. My feet seemed too big for my body, my hair was frizzy, and my chest was flat. My mom swore I’d be a beauty one day, but mothers always say things like that. Honestly, the only way I had a shot at kissing Josh was if the game forced us together. I decided to take my chances.
There were about ten people, including Josh, gathered outside of Sara’s parents’ bedroom. All ten were significantly cooler than us, and I almost turned back. But Alice, flush with the kind of confidence two beers can give a first-time drinker, tapped Josh on the shoulder.
“We’ll play,” she said. She started to giggle, but hiccupped instead. Josh looked at both of us, and then shrugged.
“Jeremy and Erin will be out in a minute,” he said. “It’s my turn to spin next.”
He turned back to his friends, and Alice poked me excitedly.
“This is your chance!” she whisper-shouted. I prayed Josh didn’t hear her.
A minute later, Jeremy and Erin stumbled out of the bedroom, red-faced and giggling. Jeremy’s hair was all mussed up, and Erin was struggling to readjust her shirt. They looked shyly at each other, and the quickly looked away, smiling.
“Looks like I’m up,” Josh said. He winked at Tricia Reynolds, a pretty girl who played on my high school’s soccer team. I pretended not to notice.
We all gathered in a circle, and Josh placed an empty wine bottle on the ground. He gave it a good, hard spin and it circled the group once, twice, before finally settling right on…me.
Everyone laughed, and Josh didn’t even bother to hide his disappointment. He didn’t even look at me as he walked into the bedroom.
You might think I would be embarrassed by Josh’s obvious lack of interest. Any self-respecting woman would refuse to play, wouldn’t demean herself by kissing a boy who clearly did not want to kiss her. But I was not a self-respecting woman. I was sixteen, and any self-respect I would learn was still a long way away. So, I followed Josh into the bedroom.
Someone must have shut the door behind me; I don’t remember closing it. Josh turned to face me and he just looked so angry. As though I had rigged the game, forced him into this room. I opened my mouth to say it was okay, that we didn’t have to do anything if he didn’t want to. But before I could get a word out, he pushed my back into the door and shoved his tongue in my mouth.
I had kissed a few boys before, mostly innocent pecks on the lips. I had let James Turner, my first and only boyfriend, kiss me with tongue twice, and touch my boobs once. That had felt nothing like this. Josh’s tongue felt like an invasion, a weird, alien thing that had forced itself into my body. I tasted copper and realized he had bit my lip, or rather his teeth had gnashed against it while trying to force his tongue in deeper and deeper. I tried, just for a moment, to kiss him back. I thought I could still salvage something of the situation. But he just kissed me harder, unwilling to give me any ground.
I was so preoccupied with his teeth and his tongue that I almost didn’t pay attention to his hands. But then one closed around my breast with a vice-like grip that made me yelp into his mouth. He ignored me, and shoved another hand up under my skirt, rubbing his fingers frantically against the underside of my panties. They were an old pair, and I remember thinking that if he wasn’t careful he would rub a hole right through them.
And then there was a knock at the door, and it was over. Josh pushed away from me immediately, rubbing his mouth with the back of his hand. I could see his erection through his jeans and he glared at me, like he blamed me for it. I opened the door and pushed through the laughing crowd waiting just outside, ignoring their cheers. Alice tried to follow me but I shook her off. I walked right out the front door and all the way home, even though my house was close to two miles away and it was already late.
I woke up the next morning with my pillowcase stained with mascara and a new snake in my hair.
Most of my snakes are very small. You can hardly notice them, if you don’t know where to look. I can barely remember where many of them came from. Every once in a while I’ll catch my reflection at a strange angle and think, ah yes, that’s from getting groped on the Paris metro, or, oh right, that was the flasher on Market Street.
I’m lucky. My friend Lauren Reilly, she went on what she called a “bad date” when we were seniors in college. She never told us what happened, but the next day she woke up with a ball python in her hair. Now it likes to slink down and settle around her throat like a necklace. I can never tell if it’s comforting or choking her.
Before she died, I asked my mom about her snakes.
My mom outlived my dad by fifteen years. She grew old, but never feeble, and died in the same home I grew up in. At the end, her hair and her snakes were all cotton ball white. They rubbed against her wrinkled cheeks with affection, like a cat brushing against its owner’s legs. My mom was always on better terms with her snakes than I was with mine.
We were sitting in the kitchen, drinking cups of tea out of mismatched mugs. I drank my tea like my mother now, with lemon and honey. She teased me about it.
“When you were little,” she said, “your tea was so milky it was almost pure white.”
I looked down at my mug, peering into the dark liquid. “I’ve always heard that we turn into our mothers when we grow up,” I said.
She smiled. Through her thinning hair I could see her snakes winding around her head.
“Where did they all come from?” I asked.
My mom kept smiling and just shook her head. “It was considered impolite to ask women that when I was growing up,” she said. “I know it’s fashionable to talk about that kind of thing now, but I just can’t get used to it. It’s too personal.”
“Were any from Dad?” I asked.
My mom looked at me. “I have lived a very long life, and it’s been a good one. For the most part. I’ve made peace with my past. I don’t think about those things anymore.” She reached a hand into her hair, and a snake curled around her fingertips. “It’s strange, how they almost become friends. I didn’t expect to feel that way when I was younger.”
“I hate them,” I said. One of my snakes hissed. “I hate seeing them. I would tear them out at the root if I could.” I had tried just that once, in college. It hurt so badly that I blacked out. When I woke up, the snake was still there. It glared at me in the mirror for a month afterwards.
My mom nodded. “You might always feel that way,” she said. “My mother did. She hated her snakes until the day she died. She said the only good thing about death was that the snakes died, too.”
“Maybe it’s better to make peace with them,” I said, “like you did.”
My mom didn’t answer for a moment. She took a sip of tea and looked out the window, frowning.
“I wonder sometimes,” she finally said, “whether my mother or I was right. I’ve lived a happier life that her, I think. But sometimes I look at them and I wish I could feel her anger. Sometimes it feels like I just gave up. Maybe happiness was worth that. I don’t know. It’s not worth thinking about it now, though. Not for me, anyway.”
We sat and drank our tea and did not talk about our snakes again, even though they stayed there with us, curling around our ears so we could not forget them.