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Cris Mazza is the author of more than 17 books, including Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls, Waterbaby, Trickle-Down Timeline, and Is It Sexual Harassment Yet? Her first novel, How to Leave a Country, won the PEN/Nelson Algren Award for book-length fiction. Mazza has co-edited three anthologies, including Men Undressed: Women Writers on the Male Sexual Experience. In addition to fiction, Mazza has authored a collection of personal essays, Indigenous: Growing Up Californian. Currently living 50 miles west of Chicago, she is a professor in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Her recent memoir, Something Wrong With Her, told in real time, is about Mazza’s experience with sexual dysfunction and her evolution in coming to understand it. Mazza recently reached out to Los Angeles writer Ashley Perez after Perez wrote an essay regarding sexual pain and bondage. The two women discovered they had a lot in common, sat down, and talked very candidly about what they thought they were supposed to feel in terms of sexuality, masturbation, sexual expectations in life and in literature, and the feeling deep down that something is wrong.

Prior to our firsts, we call ourselves virgins. Afterwards, we call ourselves people. This transition serves as one of the basic story arcs in western literature, the crux of our mythologies and our odes, the drama of our novels and climaxes of our plays. It has formed the backbone of our libraries from the time of parchment to the age of the printing press, and it remains a viable tale even in the age of the e-book.

“Chris Turner,” Candace admitted. “He was the most popular dude in school. He was a jock. All the girls wanted him. So, one night I got drunk and let him have it.”

“Just because he was popular?” Jennifer asked.

“Yeah. Of course. Why not? I fucked guys with a lot less than popularity and looks!”

“Oh, god.”

We went back to our food and our drinks. Images of Mandy’s naked body flashed before me.

“My first time was the worst,” Jennifer said, taking a sip of her martini. “All that romantic business went out the door as soon as it went in. God, I can still smell his cologne to this day. It was that peppery musky crap. How did we get on this topic anyhow?”

“The song,” I said. “The stroke me tune. I heard it on my way down here.”

The song I was referring to was Billy Squier’s “The Stroke”—a rocking tune that’s loaded with sexual imagery. It also served as the background music when I lost my virginity.

Stroke me, stroke me/Could be a winner boy you move quite well

Over the years I’ve found that stories of people losing their virginity came in two varieties. The difference usually depends on gender. For women it was usually a so-so encounter and for men—even if it wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be (like in my case)—there was a sense of achievement. Or, at the very least, knowing that you finally did it.

“I crossed over,” a friend told me after he fell into bed with some stranger after a night full of wine coolers and cheap Mexican weed.

I’ve also heard stories of skies breaking, the sun shining sweet sex light on what was up until then an ugly dull life of household chores, high school, and sharing a bedroom with a sister that not only talked too much but farted like a man.

“I hated my life until I got laid,” one of my girlfriends told me. “I hated my parents and my sister. Especially, my sister. She couldn’t keep her mouth shut. And that bitch had rot ass! And she was totally popular, too. The cheerleader. You know that bitch I’m talking about? That bitch. If only people knew how much of a stinky twat she was. I hated her. I still do. Then I got laid! All of a sudden they were of no concern to me. My folks were suddenly invisible. When Kim talked all I saw was her stupid mouth moving. I did my chores in a daze. School was a breeze. My grades even improved. On the weekends me and Danny would hop in his dad’s car and screw. It was cool. He’s dead now. Hunting accident.”

My first time was with a girl named Mandy.

Mandy Quick.

We were in 7th grade.

I told Candace and Jennifer that it happened like a business transaction. It all happened after I accidentally bumped into Mandy at school. We looked at each other, liked what we saw, and made plans to meet at the park. At the time Dolphin shorts were popular. All the girls in the desert were squeezing their bodies into them. I remember looking at the way they hugged Mandy’s girl bits. Tight. Snug. A small mound slowly dipping down.

It was a wonderful sight.

I wanted her.

I wanted in.

But Mandy wasn’t a virgin. She lost her virginity two weeks before to some dude in high school. She was hooked and wanted some more. I was to provide her more. After a few sloppy kisses where she darted her komodo-dragon-like tongue into my mouth we decided to walk to her friend’s house for beer, pot, and a bed. I walked into a roomful of stoners. They were all high school kids wearing black rock band T-shirts. I took a couple of hits from a bong and cracked open a beer. Billy Squier was blasting through the speakers. The pot and beer hit me immediately. I was spinning like a top.

“Let’s go to the room, Reno,” she said.

I followed her down the hall, my stomach fluttering with the knowledge that I was going to get laid.

Put your left foot out, keep it all in place/Work your way right into my face/First you try to bed me you make my backbone slide

We made out some more and then Mandy pulled off her shorts revealing a full-grown pitch-black bush. This posed a small problem. See, by nature I’m not a hairy man. Just not in the follicle cards I guess. I can’t grow a full beard or a thick Pancho Villa moustache and have seen women that have hairier arms than me. So you could imagine how hairless I was in 7th grade. No need for man-scaping here. I don’t even understand that whole dude shaving shit and don’t care to.

So there’s Mandy with her giant muff and there I am with a dash of hair resembling some balding heads I’ve seen through the years. But I wanted to get laid so I mounted her and started moving my hips the way I figured it worked. The problem was that I didn’t know what it was to orgasm. It hadn’t happened by that time. No wet dreams yet. And I didn’t jack off like my friends did. Or like my cousin Johnnie who claimed to beat his dick on a daily basis.

“It’s great, Reno,” he told me once, his ugly scarred face smiling from ear to ear. “You need to try it.”

His face didn’t make it appetizing. Not at all. I don’t know why I didn’t jack off. I think it was because of Jesus. In those years I was still a Christian and was told that dude was always watching my every move and I didn’t want him to see me turning Japanese. I didn’t want to take the chance. It wouldn’t have looked good on my resume.

So I ended up banging poor Mandy for what seemed like three tragic hours. While I pumped away she provided me with a hickey the size of a Red Delicious apple. After we were done I went into the bathroom. That’s when I saw the hickey. My stomach dropped. It was sex-maroon and looked like someone slammed an end of a baseball bat in my neck. It was bad. I was fucked. Literally.

I walked home and went straight to the bathroom and covered the hickey with some of my little sister’s Flintstones Band-Aids. It was a bust. It was over. My mom called me into the kitchen.

“What’s on your neck? She asked, giving me the look that said: You pulled some shit and we’re going to get to the bottom of it now.

“Nothing.”

“Okay, well, you’re lying,” she said looking at the stain on my neck. “So we’ll make this easy. If you ever show up with that bullshit on your neck ever again you’re going to hate your life. I’ll make sure of that. You’re lucky your father is out of town. So go to your room and stay there. And whoever this dirty vampire is you tell her to suck on someone else’s damn neck. Understand? Do you? Good. Bye.”

“That story is hilarious,” Candace said laughing. “A giant 80’s muff! A Red Delicious apple!”

“When was the next time you got some?” Jennifer asked.

“Around two months later. My next door neighbor. Classic butterface. A face maybe a mother could love. Maybe. But her body was built for speed.”

“So you didn’t learn your lesson!”

“No, I did. I just told what’s-her-face no hickeys. I came that time. After that I had it bad.”

Don’t you take no chances, keep your eye on top/Do your fancy dances you can’t stop you just stroke me, stroke me

I spent my teenage years getting thrown out of a few different schools. Authority stuck in my craw. By sixteen, I’d made it to public school, but I skipped as much as I showed up.

That was the year I ditched finals and rode around with another delinquent visiting a couple of private girl schools during lunch breaks. One school had blue skirts, the other, green. I liked the green skirts best, but Doug told me not to over specify.

You don’t want to miss anything, he explained. Blue is just as good as green.

He had a point.

Doug also had this German car, and drove so fast our hair blew back like that old Maxell ad with a guy in a leather jacket and sunglasses sits in a chair, the music blows hurricane force down upon him. We’d crank up Cure songs, too stoned to remember our names. One time driving out to the country, where yet another girls school was located, Doug lost control and we ran off into a field of immature corn. The engine mounts broke on the one side. On our way back into town, every bump sent the engine slamming into the hood. It didn’t matter much to me. I was happy to regally lose myself in juvenilia, blowing smoke to the brit pop beat as Doug screamed through red lights and did donuts in half empty grocery store parking lots.

Johnny Unitas had a restaurant in Towson, and we’d sometimes sit in the lot across from it drinking beer. Other times we’d land down the hill from the Country Club, where the last of the town’s grass tennis courts sat. I’d watch girls with perfectly brushed hair chew gum and memorialize summers spent in Nag’s Head, or Gibson island. They smoked Marlboro lights, and drank diet Coke, and that was the smell of victory.

What I hadn’t recognized was a need for discretion. My parents had split, and I had managed to manipulate them when bad news came. If only life hadn’t been so tumultuous. If only I wasn’t the product of a broken home. But, I got in a LOT of trouble. Car crashing kind of trouble. You won’t manipulate a grown up out of pains in their wallets as easy as you do the ones in their chest, or their mind.

So I rode bitch, and rarely had money of my own. I skipped back and forth between my old man’s apartment and my mom’s house. Not by choice.

Somewhere in there, I started dating a nice girl. She’d been a debutante, or could have been. Anyway, her dad was my step-dad’s business attorney, and that meant she was a good girl. No one thought I was a good kid. More than one expulsion, and you lose that sobriquet.

Things headed further south the day I came home to see my mom waving my report card like a cleaver.

They say you’ve stopped showing up to school.

I turned around and walked out. The old man wasn’t any happier to see me.

Since the divorce, they had  devised a simple plan of communication.

Tell you father you need new clothes, mom would direct me.

In response, my father would grimace.

You tell your mother I work hard for my money.

But this time, they’d each actually gotten the nerve to phone each other. And they hatched the plan of plans: send me to Texas for the summer. Not to lounge on the Gulf of Mexico, but to work on the ranch of a family friend.

I was oblivious to the idea. Doug and I hung out at his house most of the time. I’d ride my bike over, and lock it to a bus stop sign, walk the last few blocks. Coming by bike seemed uncool. Wandering over nonchalantly, my mode of passage unexplained was much cooler. Of course, every night I’d have to wobble that bike back home, up one vicious hill and down another, which lead to feverish acts of cowardice in the face of near death collisions, sometimes with cars, but usually with shrubs, and street signs. I was drunk all the time, and not yet seventeen. Life was one giant dare I sometimes took, and other times crumbled in the face of.

Just as summer started to gear up, mom broke the bad news. But not until after she’d broiled a steak and made the red roasted potatoes she knew I loved, a Caesar salad on the side. This was the meal I’d have asked for if I was ever convicted for a heinous crime. I didn’t even see the bad news coming. To me, a meal like that, well it seemed like she was finally back to her senses. We were going to get along just fine. She said it as calm as you’d tell someone their horoscope.

Your father and I have decided to send you to work on a ranch in Texas this summer.

I remember desperately trying to handle the information like an adult. But I couldn’t finish eating. I couldn’t look her in the face. I mean, didn’t she understand, this was a popular girl I was seeing. She even said so herself. The girl wasn’t going to wait around while I worked on some fucking ranch in Texas. That kind of thing dazzles only adults, not teenaged bathing beauties. But I managed to scramble out of the house before I said anything terrible.

The upside of it all was that my parents immediately relented on the string of curfews and punishments that had been issued in the past few months. To spite them, I ran as wild as I could, rifled every purse and pocketbook and wallet attached to either of them. I interacted with them as little as possible, eating microwave dinners, skipping out before they came home from work. I spent as much time at Doug’s as I could.

There was a convenience store in between their houses, where Lake avenue met Falls road. A grassy area behind it. I’d hang out there, waiting for friends to arrive, buy their cigarettes and mixers, and plot the night. Laying in the grass watching the clouds blow across the sky as night descended, I hoped to have the same chance to do this again, with her, or someone like her, after school was over, and college finished, before any children came. Just lollygag in the green grass, our imaginary fingers clutched each other the way only a teenager can envision his future self doing.

And in those last moments of summer and freedom, drunk on cheap beer on the outskirts of the city my parents grew up in, I could scrounge up a bit of respect and grudging admiration for the two of them stranded permanently from their monumental love by disagreements that took the form of untruths and rabid tempers. I couldn’t acknowledge any pride in being their offspring, but I did drunkenly embrace the memories of trips to the Chesapeake where they would sail my brother and me out with them into places I’ve come to remember and cherish just the way you memorialize a beautiful youth. That is, just the way they intended me to remember them.

But the next morning, devoid of that drunken emotion, I’d see them as the broken people they appeared to me to be, with no future to bank on whatsoever. And as Texas loomed in the forefront of my horizon, as each second wound down to an unknowable summer of endless hard work, I raided every medicine chest south of Ruxton hoping to blot out the revolting future in store for me. Because I wanted to lay in the grass, I wanted to smoke cigarettes, I wanted to read French symbolist poetry -Life is the farce which everyone has to perform!- I wanted to go to the independent movie theater and drink and snicker at witty subtitled films from around the globe. What I did not want to do was ride around on horses till my ass chapped, hang barbed wire fence line till my fingers and my palms blistered and bled.

Had I behaved with some modicum of restraint, and humility, had I exhibited even a bare minimum of respect, it’s clear my parent might well have relented, and cancelled that trip to Texas. My older brother was patching up his transcript in summer school. The focus that usually lay directly on my misbehavior had been eased. But I knew no restraint, or humility, and certainly didn’t operate on a level of trust. So I blew through those last few days the way an unrepentant sinner scours the earth in the time leading up to Judgment Day. But what was Judgment Day anyway? Nothing but a flimsy set of punishments fancified by power mad religious zealots.

Suddenly, it was two weeks till my departure. Then a week. Then three days.

I was a virgin, too. Yeah. I’d planned on doing something about that this summer of summers, along with the stolen radar detector ring Doug was masterminding, throw in some druggy self exploration for good measure. The radar detectors would keep us in money, the money would get us drugs. And the drugs would provide the kind of entertainment aimless youth is prone to seek. I had never committed an actual felony up to that point. When I told Doug, he skipped past the philosophical leap, and went right into the actualities.

It’s easy, he, said, snugging the barrel of a BB pistol into the lower left hand corner of the windshield of a new Saab.

One, two, three, he counted, and pulled the trigger.

The window splintered into spidery veins.

Hit it with your shoe, Doug said.

I took off my sneaker and slugged the windshield with it, and like that, it came away and Doug reached right in, and grabbed the radar detector.

That was my introduction to anonymous crime.

Some days we’d follow five or six cars home, note their address, their parking spot, and return around midnight grab every last one of their radar detectors. Doug would sell them back to a Jeep dealership in Timonium. He didn’t mind sharing that secret with me. He knew I was headed out of town. Hell, he wouldn’t have minded either way. I didn’t have a car, I didn’t have a BB gun.

At least I’d gotten some criminal action, in lieu of all the kissing what’s her name and I’d gotten into, we’d been separated from anything more by my beer drinking. There had been one session in the basement of her parent’s house, but she stopped me, not because anyone was home, but because they were going to be home, any minute now, or so she said. Who cares? She did.

So with three days left, after a day of reckless driving with Doug, I sipped on a can of Natty Boh a couple of blocks away from my old man’s apartment. Within an hour fifteen of us were frolicking in the endless pool at Darcy’s parents house. An hour after that me and my virginity parted ways while I stared at what’s her name’s ass bobbing up and down in the mirror on the ceiling. I thought that kind of thing was make believe, fodder of over stimulated minds of the writers for Penthouse forum, but no, there was a mirror up on the ceiling, and I couldn’t hold back. Two minutes in, and that was all she wrote. I love you, I love you, I love you, I said, but whatever she said in response is lost.

Then, I was in Texas.

Texas differed so totally from back east I wilted. Not just from the heat. I wilted in the face of all the expectation, of the loss of my sure thing. Had I been able to focus clearly, maybe I would have known this wasn’t anything but lust, amped up teenage lust rioting through my system. But I knew nothing of nuance, and when a strong emotion hit me, it had two places to go, love or hate. Having not yet learned the delicacy of the grudge fuck, lust was still filed under love.

Then, everything started happening in Spanish, and I charged back into the interior of my head to resurrect my high school Spanish classes. So for the first few days I can’t tell you much of what happened.

But once memory returned, I spent my days furiously trying to fight off blisters on hand and foot. I wore gloves, a hat and button fly jeans because I knew it was important to look the part. Every couple of days another rig arrived, and they’d pull me off of whatever cleaning job to help load the cattle. To do this, they utilized axe handles, baseball bats, tire thumpers, and cattle prods- real electronic prods that zapped a current into the steer when you touched it to the animal and pulled a trigger. ZAP! The cattle were so scared, so full of strange antibiotics, pain and electricity they shat all over you. They’d rip your leg out from under you if you weren’t sanding in the chute right, so I learned right quick how to position myself. The other hands were all Mexicans. And those Mexicans laughed a lot. The work was hard, too hard sometimes, but they kept smiling. I fucked up a lot, and they would laugh at me, even while they fixed whatever mess I’d made. They were constantly moving, laterally, up and down, however you moved, they did it, too, only faster, and with a better economy of flow.

At night I ate with the family in charge of the operation. Ranching Baptists. The prayer before the meal, something I’d long given up, took a while. We thanked God for his son, Jesus, the bounty of the world, for Mexico, our neighbor of the south, for the ice in the iced tea, fuck we thanked him for the leather in the boots on all of our feet.

They gave me a car for my own use. The man of the house pressed the keys into my hand in such a way, staring down the great beak of his nose, he wanted me to know he trusted me more than I did myself. I knew that was bullshit. I didn’t trust anyone more than me. But I took that Ford LTD out for a ride soon as the meal was cleared. Don’t stay out late, he said, but I couldn’t have if I wanted. After eight p.m., my eyes were half slits, by nine, my brain shut off, whether I wanted it to or not.

I found a dirt road beer store that would sell to me. Then I found the spot on the ranch where I could sit and watch the mute indian train the horses occluded from sight of the main house, so I could suck down beer after beer. I’d buy a six pack each night and drink every last one of them, whether I wanted to or not. Some nights the only other American cowhand would come and watch with me.

Right when it got good, right when my personality began to leak out between jobs, after hibernating behind the blisters and the sore ass, and the absolute exhaustion, they told me they were sending me south to Zapata, a border town. Each night I had written a letter to the girl. She had one of those Presbyterian whitewashed names, and I’d say it in my head over and over as I scribbled off another mash note to her. She even wrote back once or twice. I hung on the idea of her letters. Moving south just about crushed me. The real stinger of it all came when I asked the Baptist Rancher to forward my mail. Oh, you ain’t got to worry about mail there, he laughed. There’s no post office. The border runs right through the place. But we will send any of your mail back to your folks.

If I’d tried to argue with him it would have been useless. Who cares about teenage self indulgence? Only self indulgent teenagers.

The ranch was filled with tumbleweeds. A few shacks with weathered wooden slats stuck in place with rusted nails. My bed was a mattress roll on sagging springs. It creaked when you looked at it.

A cowhand named Les was in charge. He pointed to a scoprion nest under the porch of where we’d be staying.

Check your boots in the morning.

Ok.

Got a couple of ponies over that way, he said, by way of explanation. My heart sank even further, until I realized he was kidding. The two horses were full grown, adult sized animals.

Those aren’t ponies.

It’s a euphemism, he said. I shook my head.

No it isn’t.

His head tilted at my challenge.

You God damn right it is.

Nope, I said, and smiled when I pushed the hat back to let him see me grinning at him.

Ok, college boy, what is it, if it ain’t a euphemism?

It’s just plain wrong, I said.

That won Les over. That and the admittance that I’d only recently lost my virginity.

We’re gonna have to do sumpin’ about that.

About what, I told you I already lost it.

That’s true, you can’t unring a bell. But listen, there ain’t nothing sadder than a kid who knows what it’s like and ain’t got the chance to perfect it. See what I mean?

Ten days later we had fenced and posted and blasted the scrub out of that place so it resembled and honest to God workable cattle ranch.

We’re gonna paint the town, Les said.

It was a Friday. He drove his truck and I followed in the LTD. Outside a run down dance hall, a friend of Les’s appeared. He had curly hair and the hinky personality I’d later come to associate with coke heads.

Les tells me you ain’t got much ex-purr-ience.

I slugged Les the same spot where my brother used to ding me with dead arms. He didn’t even flinch. I pulled back to punch him again. He grabbed my fist in mid air. Then dropped it with a laugh.

Now hold on, kid. I’m doing you a solid.

He held out his other palm to reveal a handful of different colored pills. Take these. He handed me a beer. I scooped ‘em into my hand, and started to take them.

Wait. What the fuck is this?

The hinky guy spoke up.

We ain’t aiming to do nothing to you. They just make it so you get your money’s worth.

I didn’t know what he was talking about but I swallowed the pills and downed the beer. I was old hat at taking drugs I didn’t know the effects of. For years I’d spent the better part of houseparties going from bathroom to bathroom in search of that particular pill bottle bliss known as rubber legs. I remember holding up a bottle to my friend Chip. What’s tetracycline do? What the hell is Estrogen? He always answered the same way.

I don’t know, take a handful, see what happens.

My whole life up to that point could be described as such. Take a handful, see what happens.

I headed for the LTD. If the pills came on too strong, I wanted to at least be near a bed I was familiar with.

Where you going, Les said grabbing my collar.

We got someone we want you to meet.

His friend giggled like a little boy. Out of nowhere came this leather skinned woman all of five feet tall. Shaped like a beer keg.

We got you a hooker.

My heart plummeted.

No, I told you guys I already lost my virginity. There’s a girl back home. I got a girl.

Mr. Hinky spoke up once again.

She ain’t got to know word one.

I walked away got in the car and tried to get away, but the keg shaped hooker hopped in before I could lock the doors.

Listen honey, she said, her voice thickly accented, they already pay, it’s cool.

All I could think of was that this was as far away from cool as you could get. Before I had the chance to say anything she went to work on my pants. I tried to push her away, but she was a real pro. Hands, then lips, suction and all.

I don’t know if it was shame or her skill, but I got carried away and arrived at the destination she charted before you could say my whole name. She sat upright in her seat, and smiled at me.

Out you go, I said ever the gentleman, opening the door, and she looked at me bewilderedly, that same God damned head tilt. She got out, though, and I hit the gas and let the force of acceleration shut the door.

She smelled like stale sweat, menthol cigarettes and vinegary tequila. The whole car smelled like that. And it wouldn’t go away.

A few days later, Les and I had finished up on the ranch. The damn car smelled the same but I was ready to go.

You’re gonna go home a real man, I tell you what.

Yeah, why?

Because you got yourself some ex-purr-ience.

I tossed my bag in the back of the LTD’s trunk, next to the full sized spare, a jack, and a miniature fire extinguisher. Les wished me well and raised a can of Pearl. About a mile out of town I pulled over. I had a deodorant stick of Mennen and started rubbing it all over everything, the roof, the passenger door, the floor mat, but mostly, on the seat where the hooker had nested. Over and over and over again till the bar of Mennen was a nub.

I lit a cigarette, and accidentally dropped the match on the seat. The deodorant on the seat caught fire in an instant and flamed up into my face.

I leapt out of the car, instantly remembering the extinguisher in the trunk. I grabbed it, and sprayed the fire which, luckily, went out. The windows were down the whole time. Most of the smoke had blown free of the car. A family drove by in a station wagon. A little tow headed kid watched me put the fire out. Burnt a whole clear through the seat the size of two basketballs.

The car was drivable. Hell it was salvageable. Only the passenger seat was ruined. I drove most of the way back to Lytle clutching the extinguisher, one eye watching the seat to make sure it didn’t catch fire again.

Once I got to town, I dawdled at the dirt road beer storedowning a tall boy for courage, then hit the ranch where I dropped the keys off with the maid. While I packed my bags, the Ranching Baptist appeared in the doorway.

Got a good report from Les, he said, pleased this little experiment the adults had cooked up worked out well. I looked up, and realized I shared nothing in common with him. Any fear I’d had about the hole in the LTD’s seat evaporated then and there.

I had a little trouble with the car.

Happens to the best of us, son.

 

My girlfriend Sienna told me she was thinking about “restoring her virginity.” We’d just fucked, unreasonably. Now we were in a glazed after-trance, laying in the half light and trying to figure where we were again, whose apartment and all.

“If we did decide to get serious,” she said softly.

“Wait –- what?” I said.

We were going to have sex.

Not right then and there, I mean. But it was in the cards. We’d been together a month, taking it slow, but things were steadily becoming more aggressive physically, with hours spent mapping the terrain of each other’s bodies with hand and kiss. We would have done it already, except for that particular monthly quirk of her biology. It was inconvenient but not earth-shattering. I’d already waited twenty years, so it wouldn’t kill me to wait a little longer. Especially when the sex was quite literally a promise.

My lack of experience wasn’t for a lack of trying. But when you spend your adolescence as the only “out” atheist in class after class of conservative Christian kids, conjugal invitations are not exactly forthcoming. College was a much better environment for that sort of thing, even if it did take me a while to wind up with a girl who was interested in more than just some marathon make-out sessions and heavy petting.

She had been sexually active for a couple of years, which was a huge relief; at least one of us would have some idea of what she was doing. For myself, I was confident my immense enthusiasm would compensate for any lack of skill (note: this is my go-to policy for most situations in life). It helped that she was sweet about my virginity, and seemed to relish the prospect of deflowering me.

But my masculine pride would not go completely unappeased, and I still felt obligated to bring something other than a can-do! attitude to the table–er, bedroom. After a little time pondering the issue, it hit me: birth control. There was no reason I should leave the onus for protection on her. If I was going to engage in sexual intercourse, it was my job—no, duty—as an enlightened male of the new 21st century to actively pursue and engage in responsible birth control.

A rare non-square high school pal had given me a three-pack of basic Trojan condoms as an off-to-college present but they were past their expiration date, so I threw them out. It would be a simple matter, I thought, to procure some more. So I shrugged into the full-length black trench coat I wore at every opportunity back in those days, and set out to walk the mile or so distance to the nearest Walgreens. It was a serendipitous wardrobe choice, as I’d left my umbrella at home and halfway there the winter clouds unleashed a torrent of rain, huge frigid drops lashing against my face. I kept walking, head down into the wind, coat wrapped around me, refusing to retreat in the face of the unforgiving elements. I was a man on a mission.

My bravado collapsed the moment I reached the store. For starters, I had no real idea where the desired item might be located, as I’d never had cause to purchase them before. Searching for the aisle marked “Birth Control” proved futile, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to ask. I finally found a section euphemistically labeled “Family Planning” at the far end of the same aisle as the feminine hygiene products. An inordinate amount of female shoppers seemed to be in the area, so I circled the store a few times, collecting a basket of household items I didn’t need as camouflage for my real goal. When the coast finally seemed clear I made my move.

As usual, I was unprepared for what I was getting myself into. The selection was more than I’d bargained for, column after column of brightly colored boxes, each advertising some different flavor, texture, or scent. Trojan Magnum. Durex Xtra Pleasure. Lifestyles Tropical Scents. Condoms that advertised raised ridges, bumps, reservoir tips, vibrating rings, additives like spermicide or benzocaine. Natural condoms claiming to be made out of lambskin (lambskin?! Eww!).

Like every other California public school kid I’d had my mandatory Sex Ed classes and witnessed the ritual with the condom and the banana, but I was woefully unprepared for phrases like “zesty mint” and “ecstasy twist.” Did these things matter? Was the female reproductive orifice actually endowed with such a discriminatory sense of touch (and apparently, one of taste as well)?

And the lubricants! All those little bottles, lined up like soldiers on the shelves below, ready to be sent into the sexual battlefield. What in the hell were they for?! Did some people really need a ¼ gallon of personal lubricant at a time?

And most importantly, should I buy some?

I stood there, frozen in a state of priapic doubt in the middle of the drugstore aisle, befuddled by the sheer volume of available options for my sexual needs.

Other shoppers tossed wary glances at me as they passed by, and they were right to do so. I was damp, disheveled, wearing a black trench coat, and staring ardently at a wall of prophylactics. The basket at my feet already contained ballpoint pens, shoe polish, razor blades, rubber dishwashing gloves, and a jar of peanut butter, so who knows what kind of deviant evening they thought I had planned. Even I thought I was some brand of pervert, and it was certainly only a matter of time before the employees showed me the door. Or just called the police.

I finally settled on a 12-count variety pack, trusting to my girlfriend’s greater experience in the matter to make the final selection when the time came.

As soon as the choice was made and the box was in my hand, something came unlocked inside me. In one instant I went from being the poster boy for anxiety, self-conscious on cosmic levels at being seen with my purchase, and in the next I completely quit caring what any asshole thought about it. Because it was in that moment, box in hand, that the reality of the situation finally crystallized:

We were going to have sex.

I had condoms, and a girlfriend, and would soon be enjoying both in tandem. Let the world envy my fortune!

I abandoned my basket of unwanted items there in the aisle and strutted up to the register, “Stayin’ Alive” spinning on my mental jukebox. The cashier was a bored-looking girl about my age, who only made the bare minimum eye contact with me when she saw what I put in front of her. Her eyes flicked up to my face once, and then away, but long enough for me to see the light of curiosity in them. Oh, yeah, I thought. She knows.

“Is this is all for you today?” she asked.

“Damn straight,” I said. I paid cash and told her I didn’t need a bag, and she blushed as she handed them back to me. I didn’t. I held up my hand for a high-five. “C’mon!” I said, “Give it up for safe sex!” With another blush and an embarrassed smile she did, lightly slapping her palm against mine.

“Have a nice evening,” she said.

I didn’t answer. Slipping the box into my coat pocket, I ambled out the door, strutting all the way home. I didn’t give a damn that it was still raining.


For several years in the early ’90s, Lifetime aired reruns of “thirtysomething.”A relic of this happy time can be found on the Entertainment Weekly website.The article dates from March of 1992 and is titled, “Hope (and Co.) Springs Eternal.”

“It was Monday night,” writer Kelli Pryor began, “and ‘Murphy Brown’ was a rerun. But I was happy anyway. We had ‘thirtysomething.'”

I was seven in 1992. Too young for such sentiments.

But by the time 1995 rolled around, I too had become a “thirtysomething” devotee. At the tender age of nine, I found myself totally engrossed in lives of Hope and Michael and their crew of good-hearted-but-hapless yuppie friends and relations. I also caught “Sisters” in syndication and consequently began a lifelong love affair with Swoosie Kurtz.

I watched “Hope and Gloria” and “Murphy Brown” and “Designing Women” while my friends tuned into “Double Dare” and “Guts.”*

Though I hadn’t yet completed the fourth grade, I identified with these older women. Their problems felt familiar somehow. Sure, I didn’t have kids or lovers, but I had the angst thing down pat. And, in my own mind, I was Melanie Mayron with a dash of Sela Ward and a sprinkling of Annie Potts.

Which is to say that I was an odd sort of kid.

For a while, I was precocious.

When I was in fifth grade, I tried to take Waiting to Exhale out of the library. If it was good enough for Whitney Houston, it was good enough for me.

The librarian, Mrs. Cooley, had other ideas.

“If you want to check this book out,” she said, “you’ll need permission from your mother.”

Parental permission, my ass! This was censorship, plain and simple. A civil rights issue. This so-called librarian was threatening my intellectual autonomy and she had to be punished.

So I left the library, vowing never to return.

* * *

Like I said: for a while, I was precocious.

I quickly outgrew the YA section and took to stealing my mother’s paperbacks.I read The Joy Luck Club at 11 and I kept a well-worn copy of The Client in my night table drawer. I stayed inside during recess, illustrating my own literary works. I kept my legs crossed neatly at the ankle and completed assignments with a maniacal efficiency. I was given to attacks of anxiety and periods of dreamy melancholy. I was 12 going on 42.

For a while I was precocious and then one day, I wasn’t. While I’d been reading Joyce Carol Oates and The Bell Jar and writing overwrought poetry, everyone else seemed to have been, you know, living. And, without my noticing, they’d surpassed me.

I was, it seems, the proverbial hare.

* * *

And so, the big reveal.

At 23, I remain stubbornly, regretfully, embarrassingly virginal. Pure as freshly fallen snow. Chaste as a home-schooled trekkie.

* * *

Things started to slow down in seventh grade.

All the other girls were shaving their legs and buying bras and kissing boys. I, on the other hand, was dutifully preparing for my bat mitzvah. I was writing bad poetry for the Lit Page.

At the time, the situation wasn’t dire. Sure, I hadn’t been kissed or gotten my period, but at least my braces had finally come off. And my friend Roger had been hinting that someone liked me. I just needed to wait it out.

So I did.

But nothing ever happened with the boy. I finally got a name out of Roger and we slow-danced at my bat mitzvah party, him all sweaty and nervous, me flush with the success of the day. But he never revealed the secret himself and it seemed rude to mention it.

I just needed to wait it out.

* * *

The summer before high school, my sister was a counselor at a Jewish sleep-away camp. At 13, her campers were a full year younger than I. But their lives were on the fast track. A couple had been caught giving blow-jobs. Kissing at Make-Out Rock.

I was unspeakably jealous.

That was the summer that a boy kissed me behind the dorms of Haverford College.

We were playing truth or dare. Or maybe just truth.

“I’ve never been kissed,” I said.

He looked at me appraisingly and said, after a minute, “You wanna?”

I shrugged and we got on with it.

It was the fourth of July.

* * *

When I was sixteen, I decided that I was fat and I was ugly and that something had to be done. Soon I had little time to think of boys. I had little time to think of anything, in fact, other than the day’s figures. Calories and pounds.Mathematics had never meant much to me, but in those days, it became fraught with significance. Subtraction was sacred, holy.  Addition was profane.The devil’s arithmetic.

Men were irrelevant in those days.

 

I just needed to wait it out.

* * *

A gangly redhead kissed me in a dirty hostel room when I was seventeen. He was tall and pasty and more than a little nerdy. He was sweet, though. He had a passion for music: the trombone. Apparently he had a passion for me, too.

“I really like you, Marni,” he said. And then, as the song says, he kissed me.

It was…awkward.

“Do you maybe want to try again?” he asked.

I demurred. Maybe later.

* * *

Then I was eighteen. College-bound. No longer starving myself, I was heavier.Heavily scarred, too. But my breasts had come on fast and full. I was a D-cup and a senior and I was finally getting out of Dodge. Going to Vassar. Moving on and moving up.

That summer, the boy who gave me my first kiss was the first boy to see me naked.

We’d gotten back in touch and, for months, we’d been spending hours on the phone with one another. At their best, our conversations were like vaudeville routines. They were screwball comedies. We were like Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant but Jewish. He gave good phone. There were jokes and songs and maybe a bit of soft-shoe.

It was dizzying.

And then he came to visit and he saw me naked and he put his fingers inside of me and I sucked his dick.

He came and then he went.

We both did. To college. To new lives.

He stopped calling.

He’d seen me naked and he’d been repulsed. It was, I thought, the only explanation. He’d seen my thick thighs and my drooping breasts and he’d run for the hills. He saw the patch of stubble on my thigh I’d missed when I’d shaved in the shower. He saw the bulge of my stomach and the hook of my nose. He saw that I was imperfect. That I wasn’t beautiful or thin or desirable.He saw all these things and he stopped calling and I just needed to wait it out.Right?

* * *

But the waiting never stopped.

At Vassar, there were two girls to every guy and of that small pool of guys, half were gay.

“I’m not going to lie,” my friend Lindsay told me, “your self-esteem will plummet.”

I just needed to wait it out.

* * *

“You could have sex,” my friends say. “No guy is going to turn down free sex.”All of them say this exact thing. You could have sex. If you wanted to.

Technically, I suppose, that’s true.

As far as I know, I am physically capable of sex. My nipples retain the ability to become erect. My vagina seems to be in working condition. And, as they put it in those Viagra commercials, my heart is healthy enough for sex.

But here I am staring down 24 and still a virgin. A virgin who hasn’t kissed a boy in five years. I used to be precocious but somewhere, somehow, I became a late-bloomer.

They say Tina Fey didn’t lose her virginity until she was 24. I cling to this fact like a talisman.

* * *

In the Bible Belt and on the Senate floor, old white men shed crocodile tears for sexually active teens. They tell us that girls who put out are sluts, destined for a life of unhappiness and amorality. The kids put on purity rings and listen to the Jonas Brothers and wear “true love waits” tees. Abstinence is the watchword and condoms are mentioned only in hushed tones.

In the other America, the America of those raunchy teen comedies and craigslist casual encounters and Cosmo- in the other America, virginity is death. Virginity is the province of D&D disciples and nuns. Even priests seem to get it on. Virginity is the dirty little secret, the skeleton in your closet.

But regardless of which America you live in, sex happens. Pledges are broken and Tolkien-lovers get lucky.

Sex happens.

 

For everyone else, that is.

 

 

 

 

*I should note that, though I wasn’t allowed to watch television on the weekdays throughout my childhood and adolescence, I still managed to see pretty much everything that aired in the ’90s. I should also note that I wasn’t all the discriminatory in my tastes. I too watched “Double Dare” on occasion.

I lost my virginity thanks to a Youth Group outing and a group of impossibly large men.

OK, OK – not my real virginity. Being the good little Evangelical girl I was, I was saving that for my wedding night. But my spiritual virginity was as good as gone. Vamoose. Sold down the river to some guy named Jed. Or, more accurately, Scott.

We hadn’t exactly planned it. There was no flag raised in the days leading up to the earth-shattering event that read: THE END IS NEAR! How it managed to sneak up like that when we were trying to be so spiritual is beyond my comprehension. Sure, we’d snuck off to the back stairway a few times to make out. We were 14. We could hardly be blamed for a little hormonal playtime. But we had always had our boundaries. In the final analysis, I simply refuse to acknowledge that this tear in my spiritual hymen was entirely our fault.

That fateful weekend, we boarded the Youth Group bus along with 30 or so other hormonal teens for a field trip. The bus, whose name was “Gus” for God’s Ultimate Servant, had been our project the previous year. We’d had a pancake supper to raise enough funds to buy it secondhand, with the intention of being able to bus kids to church on Sunday who didn’t have rides. We even spent one whole Saturday throwing day-glo paint at it in an attempt to make it the coolest vehicle for Christ in all of Colorado Springs. Unfortunately, there were only one or two kids who actually needed a ride and there seemed to be a bit of a debate as to whether they were coming with their parents’ permission or not. When the church board expressed concern about a potential lawsuit, its Sunday morning glory ride was retired soon after. But when it was field trip time, it was Gus’s time to shine.

This wasn’t just any field trip, mind you. We, along with half the city it seemed, were headed to the city arena where we would watch gape-jawed as muscle-encased men bent rebar with their teeth and broke blocks of fiery ice with their foreheads.

That’s right, John Jacobs and the Power Team had come to our town. Boy, was our Youth Pastor jazzed. He had even worn his muscle shirt which read “Jesus!” across the front, where the middle “s” was in the shape of a lightning bolt. Beaming Scott and I herded in with the crowd to take our seats in one of the balconies.

Over the course of the next two hours, we were awed by these modern-day Sampsons. There must have been at least seven of them. Huge, hulking men with a clear message for Christ in between acts of wonder – changing the world, one head-bashed brick at a time. One of them would stand before us as John Jacobs narrated for us something along these lines.

“See this man? His name is Bo.”

A giant of a male specimen would stand before us, his muscles quivering in the spotlights like a Clydesdale’s.

“He gave his heart to the Lord Jesus Christ eight years ago. Bo is no pansy, folks, he stands 6’5” and weighs in at 322 pounds. Don’t be fooled by his massive exterior ladies, he’s a got a teddy bear heart.”

The women in the audience raised up a collective giggle. I felt on top of the world and even allowed myself to wonder whether he would find me attractive if we were stuck in an elevator together.

“Now you’ve already seen him crush through a wall of ice 8 feet thick tonight. But that ain’t nothin’.The thing about Bo is – the crazy thing about Bo is – he’s got a set of lungs like you wouldn’t believe.Now he’s gonna take this water bottle…” We all watch in rapt attention as he dangles an ordinary hot water bottle before us, “…he’s gonna take this hot water bottle and he’s gonna blow it up until it pops like a toy balloon.”

Shocked that a mere mortal can accomplish such an act, we burst into applause. I am feeling faint. I looked over at Scott, who is glowing at me.

“Now this ain’t no toy. Heh heh. Just so you know that we’re not playing any tricks on you tonight, I’ve invited an expert in the field to determine whether this is, in fact, a genuine hot water bottle.Grandma, can you come up here for a moment?”

We cheer as a frail looking woman approaches the stage. We are reverently amused at the contrast between grandmother and grandson. She speaks something crackly into the mike and we raise a mighty cheer. Bo stands before us now and puts his lips to the bottle. Guitars scream over the speaker system and a beat thumps through our skeletons.

“Now ladies and gentlemen,” John tells us over the music as Bo begins to blow. “This is something Bo has done over 1,000 times. If he fails, a rush of air so strong will force its way back into his lungs, causing them to burst. Just because he’s done it before, does not ensure his success. Do not attempt this at home. Just one mistake, ladies and gentlemen. Just one mistake…”

The suspense builds as Bo blows into the hot water bottle. He hesitates a little and I hear our Youth Pastor James behind us begging, “Please Jesus.” Bo seems to get over his hump and deposits another lungful of air into the hot water bottle, now as big as a soccer ball. He’s on a roll now. It’s as big as a five gallon cooler. He huff huff huffs into the bottle until – POW! It explodes like a flimsy balloon! Oh!If only my grandma could see what they had done to her beloved hot water bottle, it would blow her mind! How great the strength of Jesus is! Scott grabs me around the shoulder and pulls me in for a victory squeeze. Oh yes! How great He is indeed!

Bo who can blow diminishes during the applause to the back of the line-up just as another hulk of a man jogs up to the front. He has a phone book in his hands. Effortlessly, he R-R-RIPS it in two! The crowd goes crazy. But they are just warming up. We have yet to witness John Jacobs, himself, snap the chains between not one, but TWO sets of handcuffs from his wrists. The music is cut off so that we can hear the sound of the chains as they tear. People around me cry out, “Jesus!” just before he does it. We hear the mighty snap. HE DOES IT! It’s a MIRACLE! How we praise Jesus for breaking the chains that bound us after that! The crowd goes NUTS! I’m crying. Scott is screaming. People have their hands in the air to thank the Father above for these men who remind us of only a fraction of His power.

An altar call is initiated. The Power Team boasts that 2-3 out of every 10 people who show up to their performances give their lives to Christ – and I can see from my place in the balcony that it’s at least that many. People are pouring down the aisles to give their lives to Christ – and perhaps to also touch the members of the Power Team. John Jacobs is there to lay his hands on foreheads and slap high fives. And it really is that amazing. People are changed. Some people are healed. Many are saved.

In the years since my attendance at the city arena that night in Colorado Springs, I have lived in several different places. Currently, I live in Boulder, Colorado – which everybody knows is 25 square miles surrounded by reality – and I’m not so sure that the Power Team would go over so well with this crowd. The people here are entirely too, I don’t know – metero, or something. The idea of testosterone-dripping, red meat-eating men (and now one woman) might be seen as an affront to our patchouli-scented little utopia here. Well, they might dig the chick – but that’s not the point. I imagine that if a group like John Jacobs and the Power Team wanted to come to Boulder, it would have to switch up its gig. Perform amazing feats of yoga, or something like that. Francis Lee Mao-Mao and the Amazing Bendable Team. Their tag-line could be something like, “Changing the world one asana at a time,” or “Bending over to win you to Christ.” Whatever the case, if it wanted any success at all, it would have to adapt.

But we had seen just what we needed to see that night. Jesus truly wasn’t for sissies. He was strong.Indisputable. In control. Virile…

Back on the bus after a two-hour long adrenaline rush, we were exhausted. My friend Gina and her boyfriend Todd sat opposite us in the back seat of the bus, laughing privately about some inside joke.Some of the kids, still jazzed by the evening’s performance, were loud at first, but quickly settled in to a pattern of silence. Some even fell asleep. I fell into Scott’s arms.

It was just a lot of kissing at first, I swear. We had been through a lot together that evening and we just felt so…close. So ooey-gooey, ishy-squishy close. At first, when he began touching me under my shirt, I was alarmed. But he just said, “Shhh, I think God has given us to each other.” Well, that just about made my heart go crazy with desire. To think that God had preordained us to be together!

I did peek over at Gina and Todd once or twice, but they were too distracted to notice what was going down in the seat next to them. Finally, I just settled in to the ecstasy of it all.

Don’t get me wrong. I said earlier in this chapter that nothing happened, and in Clinton-speak, nothing did. I absolutely, verifiably, most emphatically did not lose my “technical virginity” that night.But I’d read enough in the days leading up to that to know that there is a thing called “spiritual virginity” in the Evangelical world that sounded just as ominous if not more so. When a girl loses her “technical virginity,” for example, it is impossible to get it back. It is possible, however, through the grace of Jesus to regain one’s “spiritual virginity” – even if one’s “technical virginity” has been lost.

Well, my friends, I stand before you today to tell you that I did not lose my “technical virginity” that fateful night on Gus the Bus. But what I did lose was perhaps something far more valuable, because it involved the way I thought about the world and the way I fit into it. Because I learned something about myself that night. And that one thing is this: Bo’s not the only one who can blow.

*Excerpt taken from “In Handbasket: Confessions of a Recovering Evangelical.”