As part of our ongoing discussion about Sexual Violence in YA Lit for The #SVYALit Project, we also want to make sure that we talk about healthy sexual experiences in YA literature as well. Today, we are excited to have author Heather Demetrios join us to discuss her upcoming YA book I’ll Meet You There.
Skylar and Josh, the two main characters in I’ll Meet You There, have very different sexual histories. Skylar is a straight-edge girl whose most formative sexual experience was during spring break of her senior year of high school, where she acknowledges: “we didn’t go very far or anything. It just felt far to me.” She and her best friend, Chris, have made a pact in which they keep one another accountable in order to ensure they can escape their small town after high school and go to college. Part of the pact is an inferred commitment to celibacy, their logic being that sex and romantic relationships are part of what anchor their peers to Creek View. In the opening chapter, Sky describes the older teens in the town as people whose routine was, “Drink. Smoke. Screw. Repeat.” The last thing she wants is to be like them. Despite her commitment to remaining a virgin, Skylar isn’t a prude. This is, in part, because her choice not to have sex is rooted in her desire to eliminate anything in her life that could potentially hold her back, rather than a conservative mindset. Sky isn’t afraid of sex or being seen as a girl who has sex, she’s afraid of winding up like her other best friend, Dylan, a teen mom who gave birth to her son during their senior year of high school. But Dylan is no Skylar. She doesn’t hate Creek View and she’s in a loving, sexually active relationship with her son’s father. She clearly enjoys her sex life, keeping condoms in her pockets because she and her boyfriend “learned [their] lesson” after their unexpected pregnancy. Dylan is sexually liberated, unafraid to make her desires known. As the summer goes on, Skylar, whose heart has been cracked wide open by an unexpected crush on Josh Mitchell, finally begins to see the magic between Dylan and her boyfriend. Where once she’d made fun of how in love they were, she now envies them their comfortable affection and fearless lovemaking. Because the negativity of sexual activity in Sky’s town is balanced by Dylan’s approach to her sex life, Sky is able to begin to see sex not as a roadblock, but as a road all its own, a journey outside the strict borders of herself.
The boy she falls for, Josh Mitchell, seems to have slept with nearly everyone in town. His conquests range far and wide. Skylar calls his experiences “sexcapades” and observes that “you don’t take off your clothes in front of Josh Mitchell and expect to be a virgin by the end of the night” when they go swimming together. But Josh’s relationship to sex has become far more complicated since he’s returned from the war in Afghanistan after having lost a leg to an IED blast. Through segments that act as brief glimpses into Josh’s PTSD-riddled headspace, we see that he hasn’t had sex for over a year and that his experiences with girls in town since he’s returned have been aborted attempts to forget his growing feelings for Skylar. As he matures and begins to understand what it’s like to really care for someone, Josh can no longer rove freely as he once did. His attempts to be intimate with Skylar are sabotaged by fear, whether it’s a PTSD-related episode that takes him out of the moment or his fear that his disability will disgust her.
When Skylar and Josh do eventually have sex, it’s after a summer of drawing closer together and having conversations about respecting one another, especially in light of poor decisions Josh has made. Skylar, having been hurt before by Josh after he rejects her because of his fear of intimacy, makes it clear that if they are to be together, she wants a monogamous relationship. Her terms are simple: cheat on her again and she walks. It’s important for her that Josh not use his PTSD as an excuse for treating her disrespectfully. Josh, for his part, has to work through his grief and shame and fear in order to be in a place where he can trust Sky at his most vulnerable. It is only after they’re fully honest with each other and have spent months building a foundation of trust and love, that they’re able to sleep together.
Writing this scene was an incredibly powerful and satisfying experience, in large part because it was about so much more than their desire for one another. Though this is Sky’s first time, it’s Josh who is more apprehensive and she eases his fears, supporting him through words and eye contact and patience as he finally shares his physical war wounds. There are different times during the scene where one or the other of them experiences momentary fear, and these create opportunities for them to support one another. I like to think the scene is sexy, but it’s also tender and warm, with laughter and gentleness. While the act becomes a joyful consummation of their relationship, it’s also a marker on each of their paths toward healing and self-discovery. Skylar realizes that the pact with Chris was rooted in her fear of falling in love. After witnessing her mother’s grief over the loss of Sky’s father, Sky has to come to terms with the possibility of losing Josh. Ultimately, she makes the courageous choice to love him anyway and to know that having sex does not necessarily result in failing to live out her dreams. For Josh, making love to Skylar is a kind of baptism. He is no longer the careless party boy who sees sex as little more than entertainment, a selfish pursuit of his own pleasure. He is no longer the broken young man, incapable of real intimacy after a tour that cost him his leg and the lives of many of his friends. By allowing himself to have sex with Skylar and by the respect and awe he has for being her first partner, Josh transitions into his best self: a loving, respectful man who isn’t afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve.
The takeaway for teen readers is this: sex is a big deal and the choice to have it, and who to have it with, should be taken very seriously. Sex can result in pregnancy, yes, as is Dylan’s case, but it can also draw two intimate people even closer together. It’s no mistake that the first time Josh and Sky try to sleep with one another, it’s a bust. The prelude to the attempt was a heady, unexpected encounter. There is no real consideration of what is about to happen, simply that they want it to happen and that they love each other. But that isn’t enough for Josh and Sky because neither of them are emotionally ready—there is more internal work they have to do before they can be in a place of mutual trust. My hope is that teens will see how open communication is key.
On reflecting about the experience, Sky says, I didn’t know there were so many ways to say I love you. For the first time in her life, Creek View feels like home. Josh gives her roots and helps her see that, no matter how far she goes, Creek View will always be a part of her—and that’s okay. For Josh, the act does three major things. For one, it lets him move past a huge barrier in the healing process of both his amputation and PTSD. By taking a risk and being intimate, he takes away his PTSD’s power to keep him from moving forward. It also helps him to see how sex can be more than just a physical act, thereby extending his emotional boundaries. In his reflections he thinks, I just didn’t know it could be like that. Finally, he comes to the realization that his internal one-sided conversations with his dead best friend can no longer continue if he wants to have a real life in the present. Josh now knows that holding on so tightly to the memory of his war buddy makes it impossible for him to put the war behind him. He tells Nick, “I need to figure out why I got to live…if I’m really gonna do this, really live my live, I’ve gotta leave you behind.”
While some of the circumstances surrounding Josh and Sky’s lovemaking are extraordinary, I do hope that readers will see the benefits of positive sexual experiences and how rewarding having sex with someone you love can be. I also hope that it will give them an opportunity to question the ways in which sex can be deeply empowering.
Meet the Author and Guest Blogger:
When she’s not traipsing around the world or spending time in imaginary places, Heather Demetrios lives with her husband in New York City. Originally from Los Angeles, she now calls the East Coast home. Heather is a recipient of the PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award for her debut novel, Something Real, which Publisher’s Weekly calls “[An] addictive yet thoughtful debut” about reality TV stardom. She is the author of EXQUISITE CAPTIVE, a smoldering fantasy about jinn in Los Angeles and what Kirkus called in its starred review “an intoxicating, richly realized realm of magic, politics, spirituality and history” (#1 in the DARK CARAVAN CYCLE). She is also the author of the upcoming I’ll Meet You There (Winter 2015). I’ll Meet You There is a love story about a young combat veteran and a girl trapped in their small town, both struggling to escape the war at home. Heather is the founder of Live Your What, an organization dedicated to fostering passion in people of all ages and creating writing opportunities for underserved youth. She is proud to have an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. You can always find her on Twitter (@HDemetrios), ogling the military dogs she wants to adopt (but can’t because her NYC apartment is way too small). Find out more about Heather and her other books at wwww.heatherdemetrios.com and www.darkcaravancycle.com. – Goodreads profile
Publisher’s Book Description:
If seventeen-year-old Skylar Evans were a typical Creek View girl, her future would involve a double-wide trailer, a baby on her hip, and the graveyard shift at Taco Bell. But after graduation, the only thing standing between straightedge Skylar and art school are three minimum-wage months of summer. Skylar can taste the freedom—that is, until her mother loses her job and everything starts coming apart. Torn between her dreams and the people she loves, Skylar realizes everything she’s ever worked for is on the line.
Nineteen-year-old Josh Mitchell had a different ticket out of Creek View: the Marines. But after his leg is blown off in Afghanistan, he returns home, a shell of the cocksure boy he used to be. What brings Skylar and Josh together is working at the Paradise—a quirky motel off California’s dusty Highway 99. Despite their differences, their shared isolation turns into an unexpected friendship and soon, something deeper.
I’ll Meet You There by Heather Demetrios will be released February 3, 2015 by Henry Holt and Co. ISBN: 9780805097955
In addition to the topics mentioned above, I appreciated the depiction of small town life, poverty and low income living, and Josh’s PTSD in I’ll Meet You There. Demtrios also really captures the moments of what comes next after graduation. Older teens who may feel they are outgrowing YA will appreciate and identify with this title as they ponder life after high school. This was a moving depiction of life after having served in the armed services, pair it with Perfectly Good White Boy by Carrie Mesrobian, The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson and Something Like Normal by Trish Doller.