When I think back to my younger years, growing up in Chicago with a strict Latino father, I always picture myself as a girl who lived a very sheltered life. I swear, I barely even left the house as a teenager, except to go to school or the gym. I think most people would have described me as a sweet girl, very studious, and quite shy. So it came as a surprise to my parents when, somewhere around my third year in college, they discovered I was actually pretty rebellious. But, to be completely honest, the signs were always there.
I’d like to believe that I was an angel in almost every respect, but I was advanced for my years and in a hurry to grow up. Because of this, boys my own age never really appealed to me. The feeling was mutual—the boys in my grammar school often teased me and to be honest, could be quite mean at times. Two boys from my class, whom I mistakenly thought were friends, followed me home from school one day and spit all over my hair. However, when I turned about twelve, I started to get a great deal of attention from grown men who would stop me on the street to tell me I was beautiful, even sometimes asking for my phone number. I believe this is why I always had a thing for older men. They seemed to see something in me that the boys my own age hadn’t and treated me exponentially better.
Technically, I wasn’t allowed to date until I was sixteen, but of course, being quite precocious, I found a way around that rule. Since I went to an all-girls Catholic high school, I really didn’t know many boys my own age. What I was meeting were men who, I realize now, were far too old for me.
For instance, I remember being about fourteen and going to Medieval Times with my family, where I not only fell for, but exchanged numbers with a handsome knight. I was completely devastated when my mother told me I was not allowed to date the thirty-five-year old knight in shining armor. I did, however, sneak in a few phone calls to him here and there when I could.
Around that time, there was another man in his thirties who befriended me at the gym. We would meet a couple times a week to lift weights together. He even took me on a few motorcycle rides in the woods—I know, scary, right? To be honest, I wasn’t interested in this guy romantically—always the matchmaker, I actually wanted to set him up with my big sister, who is seven years older than me. Nevertheless, it was really fun for a teenage girl to be around all that testosterone and an implicit sense of danger.
My sophomore year in high school, I had an important school project to work on, and the neighborhood library simply wasn’t going to cut it. So a few of my girlfriends from my suburban Catholic high school and I took the train to the Harold Washington Library in downtown Chicago. What we didn’t realize was that it was Columbus Day, and the library was closed for the holiday. As my girlfriends and I stood outside the doors disappointed, we were approached by a group of sailors who had thought the library looked like the building from the movie Ghostbusters. Realizing the building was closed, the sailors invited us to the nearby Sears Tower, which was the tallest skyscraper in the world at that time. With the library closed and nothing else to do that afternoon, the girls and I decided to go on an adventure.
I paired off with a twenty-year-old blonde sailor who was born in Sweden but raised in California. When he asked me how old I was, I told him seventeen, two years older than my actual age. We hit it off, and his friend was interested in one of my friends. So my girlfriend and I began taking the train to the city every weekend to hang with the sailors, telling our parents that we were going to the “library.”
We met up with the sailors on several occasions, going to movies, museums, and walking around and making out in the freezing Chicago cold until our sailors had to leave the city to go on tour. So, at fifteen and not allowed to date yet, here I was with a twenty-year old sailor boyfriend. I realize this could have been really dangerous for a young girl, but things fortunately turned out better than you would expect.
With my sailor out on tour, I was able to completely focus on school. We exchanged letters, and I received gifts from all over the world. My parents obviously noticed these letters and packages coming to the house, so I casually explained that I had a friend who was in the Navy, easing them into the situation. I’m sure my dad didn’t like that his baby girl had a sailor for a pen pal, but my mom probably convinced dad it was harmless because the sailor wasn’t actually around.
However, when the sailor was done with his tour, and I was now sixteen and old enough to date, I invited him to a school dance. Knowing mom and dad wouldn’t approve of his age, I told them my sailor friend was only eighteen. To my surprise, my parents liked the guy!
About a year into the relationship, the sailor asked me where I was going to college. Not comfortable with the lie I had told, I came clean, telling him that I was really only sixteen. He told me that if he had known how old I truly was, he would never have dated me—I was far too young—but it was too late because he already loved me.
I know it sounds kind of scandalous to be dating someone that much older in high school, but I actually think this was a blessing in disguise. I believe having this long-distance boyfriend throughout high school kept me on the straight and narrow and prevented me from dating high school boys who probably wouldn’t have appreciated me nor, quite frankly, been able to handle me.
The sailor and I stayed together for five whole years, with him moving out to Malibu my second year of college at Pepperdine. However, he simply did not get the same girl in Malibu that he had fallen for in Chicago. When we met, I had been a sweet and innocent high school student with her nose in a book. By the time he joined me in California, I had gotten a taste of freedom and was no longer that sheltered girl anymore. My first year in college, I’d been sneaking into nightclubs hang out with rockers and soap stars. When my boyfriend moved to L.A. my second year, I missed hanging out with friends I had made and longed for the more wild nights of freshman year.
The irony is that when I felt I had outgrown the relationship, my parents tried to encourage me to stay with my then boyfriend. Dating a former sailor, five years older, simply isn’t as exciting when your parents are trying to push him on you. In fact, I think when my parents got in the mix, it made me want to rebel even more: I had to find something more forbidden, more intriguing, and more dangerous…and, boy, did I find it!
**A preface to my upcoming book Love, Miracles & Mayhem in the City of Angels**