The basement door opened and Jeff flew to the other end of the couch, throwing his T-shirt on backward. “Betsy,” my mother yelled downstairs, “your pizza’s here!”
It was 1995. I was 15 years old and having a streak of good luck. I was kissing my longtime crush in the basement, and that spring, Pizza Hut had released stuffed-crust pizza.
Like most right-thinking people, I’ve always believed there’s no such thing as too much cheese. So I was thrilled when Pizza Hut debuted an entire pizza in which the crust wrapped around a molten core of mozzarella like a blanket to keep it cozy. Instead of tossing my abandoned crusts to the dog, I could eat my pizza crust-first, biting into the outer edge and having gooey cheese squirt out the sides.
It was like a mozzarella stick attached to the edge of the slice. When this innovation was first announced, the New York Times called stuffed-crust pizza a meal “at the razor edge of pizza-dough technology and mozzarella management.”
More importantly, Jeff liked the pizza, too. We ate every cheese-stuffed slice, until all that was left was a halo of grease at the bottom of the box. “Next time, let’s order extra cheese,” Jeff said.
There was going to be a next time.
“How about tomorrow?” I replied, licking sweet tomato sauce off my fingers.
It’s sad that Pizza Hut seems so irrelevant now. Just last week, the company announced that it would close 500 stores. But for kids like me who grew up in Middle America in the ’80s and ’90s, the Hut was an integral part of one’s pizza identity: Being able to have those pillowy crusts delivered to my front door when I couldn’t legally drive a car was a rite of passage.
During my stuffed-crust summer, I dove for the kitchen phone every time it rang, hoping Jeff was on the other end of the line. “Wanna order a pizza?” he would ask, which I knew was code for “Let’s make out.”
I had kissed only one boy before Jeff, and I didn’t know what I was doing. I had spent all my life in Catholic school, and the judgment that came with the heavy petting felt unbearable. I shouldn’t be doing this! played on a loop in my head like the Hootie and the Blowfish song that was always on the radio.
What I needed was someone to tell me it was okay to have tangled hair and smudged cherry lip balm across my face, but my only sources of information were the nuns and priests who told us not to rush into anything, to “wait until marriage.” None of my friends were kissing boys that summer, or if they were, they were keeping it a secret, too.
So much was happening in the silence. In the basement, I would hold my breath as Jeff inched his hands north of the equator, a strictly forbidden zone. “STOP—” I said, then glanced at the pizza box to make sure we were still matched slice for slice.
At the end of the night, Jeff flipped the lights on, then pushed his floppy blond hair out of his eyes. I tightened the bottom of my French braid with a scrunchie. Just before midnight, my mom would always open the door. “Time to go!” she’d yell, but she never came downstairs. She wasn’t asking about my nights in the basement, and I wasn’t telling.
Of all people, I thought she would offer words of wisdom. We had plenty of opportunities to have a mother-daughter sex talk in her red minivan every Saturday evening on the way to Mass, but neither one of us brought it up. I was so used to being told what to do — by her, by the church, by my teachers — that the freedom she gave me felt overwhelming.
Was I a bad person for wanting to be touched? For rewinding the sex scenes in Dirty Dancing so many times that I ruined the VHS tape? I wanted someone to give me the answers. But even then, down in the basement with stuffed-crust pizza as my wingman, my mother’s midnight alarm bell always arrived far too early.
It was that way all summer, until Labor Day. With the new school year a breath away, my mother washed and ironed my itchy plaid skirt and white oxford button-up and hung them on the clothesline. Watching them flap in the wind, I told myself: You are getting naked before you are imprisoned in that uniform for another year.
Finally, the day came — Jeff and I peeled off our clothes, one slice at a time. Brushing against each other felt like walking barefoot through the grass; it was unpredictable but natural. Who knew that I would be so ticklish? Or that I’d be able to provide detailed instructions on how to remove a bra? My unshaved legs intertwined with his felt so liberating that we let the pizza go cold.
But thank God for that pizza, my gateway to indulging in life’s earthly pleasures. At midnight, the basement door opened. I grabbed the blanket and pulled it over us, just in case. “I think it’s time for Jeff to go home,” my mother said, before shutting the door. When Jeff left, I was still hungry. Fortunately, there was plenty of pizza left over.