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Spring 2008 [Issue No. 13]

ESSAY

 

 

My V Card: A Love Story ▪► Lauren Linsalata

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It is an infantile superstition of the human spirit

that virginity would be thought a virtue and not

the barrier that separates ignorance from knowledge.

                                                                                – Voltaire

 

I have been sitting, naked, for an hour and thirty-nine minutes. The only thing that separates me from the chill air of the examination room is a thin dress made out of some kind of paper-fabric hybrid. It crinkles almost as much as the paper that I sit on. My toes have gone numb. I have bad circulation in my feet and hands, but even so, it is the middle of May, warm outside, and I should not be this cold.

The doctor finally arrives, a short, plump Indian woman with streaks of gray in her dark hair, and an accent so thick that it takes me several minutes to attune my inner ear to her questions. She asks me when I was last sexually active. I tell her that I have never been sexually active. She pierces me with such a glare that I quail and wonder if I've answered incorrectly. She asks the question again, and I give her the same response. She doesn't believe me, it seems, but I am spared further interrogation by the appearance of a nurse.

As a high school student, my peers and I have spoken little about what to expect from this adventure.  Any knowledge has been cunningly gleaned from Hollywood birthing scenes, which tells me only that I should expect exposure, cold instruments, and pithy remarks.  I know there will be stirrups, and nudity, and discomfort. I know how to give myself a breast exam, so that will probably be included as well at some point. But beyond that, my knowledge base extends only so far as my mother, who deems this necessary for a “young woman of my age,” regardless of my sexual experience. It's for my health. It's like getting your eyes examined, she's told me. I'm pretty sure that if my optometrist stripped me naked, put me in a freezing room, and then poked me in the eyes, I wouldn't be too keen on going back there, either.

The nurse pulls the pillow down from the top of the examination table, and urges me backward. It is the one item in this entire procedure that is made of real cloth, and the smell of fabric softener is so unexpectedly comforting that I want to shove it away – my body is tense, trying to anticipate what will come, and this lowering of my guard is unappreciated. The nurse bends over me, her golden nametag made invisible by the glare of the overhead lights, and the sudden metallic chunk of stirrups makes my teeth clench. My legs are lifted, and the muscles in my stomach protest, trying to drag me back up into a protected sitting position. Something gets plugged into the wall, and a zip of terror goes up my spine. The doctor's hands are cold. "Relax," she says.

I laugh, and the nurse gives me an odd look, like I might bolt. I'd really like to. The strange feeling of latex on my inner thighs is hardly a welcome one, and in some ways, it's the anticipation that makes this worse. I have a sudden fantasy of someone opening the door and seeing me like this. Why in the name of hell, I wonder, do they not have my open legs facing away from the door? I fantasize about sacrificing my clothes and running out into the waiting room where my mother sits, thumbing through an out-of-date Time magazine, in all her clothed glory. I hate her, for an instant, for the casual security of clothing.

"Relax," the doctor says again, and probes at me with something hard and plastic.

It's that awful combination of expected and unexpected: worst assumptions coming to bear. I scream, but it doesn't mask the sound of cracking plastic as something extends inside me. I try to jerk up, and the nurse has to hold my arms down so hard that I think she will leave bruises. I'm sobbing too hard to scream again, but the panic building inside my chest makes me want to.  It feels like she's crammed her entire hand inside me. It can't be that big.  I realize, in this moment, that my vow to never have children is an entirely valid one.

The nurse is wiping at my cheeks. The cheap, rough, medical-industry tissue makes my face feel raw, and just when I manage to relax, the cracking plastic goes deeper. My spine bends up, an arc so tight that I can feel my shoulders tremble, before I finally give up. The last kicks of a dying animal's hindquarters. This is my body surrendering.

The haze of pain fades enough for me to focus on the muttered conversation that is happening between my knees. Most of it is medical jargon, the doctor explaining something to the nurse, things being passed between hands. I hear the word "herpes." My head lifts off the pillow, my entire body goes tense. Do I have herpes? How can they tell? How did I not know? Why would they say it if I didn't have it? Are they testing me for it? Is that normal? There are other words being passed around – hymen, supracervical, yeast – as though these are issues for casual conversation. But it's herpes that sticks out.

How can I get an STD without ever having kissed anyone? These things are supposed to have a pattern to them: girl meets boy, girl is smart about sex with boy, girl does not contract sexual disease. It's like the immaculate conception gone wrong. This is all wildly unfair. The punishments of sex without the benefits.

Something that feels like the fuzz on pipecleaner scrapes around inside me. Step by step, it withdraws. The doctor remains to mould one of my breasts, the same way one might slap around raw ground meat. She's almost determined in her effort to find something wrong with it. As she bids me raise my other arm so she can feel that one as well, I find myself looking over her shoulder at the speculum on the wheeled cart. It's not that big. But it hurt that much. And even as I examine it, I can't figure out what made that cracking sound, the sound like industrial plastic breaking inside me.

She leaves me to get dressed, and my fingers are still so cold that it's hard to get my shoes laced. I look in the mirror, and wipe at my eyes again.

My mother stands when I come out, and as we get to the car, asks me how it went. What am I supposed to say to this? How is it not obvious from my expression how horrible it was? Why can't she see what she's just made me do?

"They said they'd call when they had the test results in," I tell her. She informs me that if they do not want me to call immediately, then the test was most likely routine. They probably ran tests for everything under the sun, and in my angry stupor, only some of it filtered through. Apparently it's okay to throw around words like “herpes.”

"Do you want to get some lunch?" she asks, and checks her watch.

I cringe behind the wheel, grateful to have something to distract me from having to look at her face. I can feel something leaking out of me, slippery, and hope it doesn't show through my pants. I know it's lubricant – I checked before I left the room – but I hurt enough that I feel like it could be blood. It occurs to me that if our teachers really want to scare us away from sex, all they need to do is enforce a visit to the gynecologist. "I need to take a shower," I say.

She looks at me, and I can see the moment she figures out why, even with my eyes on the road. I'm grateful to have a reason not to look at her. "They didn't give you a pad?" she demands, like it's my fault for not knowing I should've had one. I shrug, and we drive home.

It is the best shower I have ever taken in my life. 

▼▪▲

 My friends talk about the things they've tried, and I'm pretty sure that half of them are lying. I grill them on positions and technique; names that make some giggle and others pull me aside later to ask me how I know. Because, clearly, I don't know how to use the internet to look things up.

I do tell my friends how we spend ages wrapped up together in bed, talking and giggling and kissing. I don't tell them that he thinks Metallica is mood music, or how I always know he's about to kiss me because he pulls off his glasses, or how he never takes off his socks.  I don't tell them how he refuses to take his pants off. Because maybe they aren't supposed to come off. Maybe they're supposed to stay on. Except he doesn't seem to mind when mine come off, but does that mean that I'm some kind of nymphomaniac?  Or maybe I just don't measure up to his ex-girlfriend.

 Maybe he's just humoring me. Maybe he's just really shy. Maybe he's hiding some kind of disfigurement, like acid burns or -- or! -- maybe he's a girl! Except I sincerely hope not, because he would make a hideous girl.

Most of all, what I don't tell them is that he can't get it up. None of their boyfriends have this problem - none of their boyfriends have ever had this problem. 

If he can't get hard, then it's all my fault.

That is what it comes down to. I am just that hideous, that disgusting. I am such a turn-off, I might as well have tentacles growing out of my back, warts on my ass, and beauty marks in the shape of Jesus. How difficult is it to turn on a nineteen-year-old boy? All of my male friends have assured me over the years that, yes, even looking at linoleum is sometimes arousing, so what the hell is wrong with me? On the arousal scale, I rank below homeless men, his mother, and cardboard..

"I don't want to talk about it," he says, his voice muffled and ticklish against my bare stomach. It's winter, and my feet are freezing, and I keep trying to dig them under the blankets.

He brushes it off as “not an issue.” How the hell is that not an issue? Everything I've ever learned up until now, from the sex education videos that explained what wet dreams were, to late-night gossip sessions in my dorm bunk bed with my friends, is turned on its ear. The only thing that should be an issue is sex.

"Is it me?" I say, hating the insecurity in my voice. I've become that girl. The one who martyrs everything that happens and thereby makes the truth impossible. I always swore that, when I got a boyfriend, I would not be that girl. And now I have one, and I totally, absolutely, completely am.

"No." His voice is shutting down, closing up. I can feel him going tense where my hand lies on the back of his neck, so I slide my fingers up into his hair, curls clinging around my fingers, and try to calm him down without him noticing. It doesn't work very well.

But if it's not me -- and it has to be me, because how could it not be me, he's a nineteen-year-old boy for Christ's sake, he should be experiencing blood flow difficulty from the constant erections -- then it's got to be him. "Is there anything I can do?" I've said this to sobbing friends before, or to relatives at funerals. But I don't know how else to say it.

"No," he repeats.

A flare of frustration bursts in my chest. Why won't he let me help?! Why won't he talk about it? There is something instinctively out of joint in doing things you don't feel comfortable talking about. He tells me that he loves me; it's easier for that to come out of his mouth than this. The first time he said it, it was days after he survived a very nasty car accident. The crash, I had assumed, had given him a new lease on honesty. Telling me he loved me ranked above spinning out on black ice and smashing into a guard rail, he said. All the moment lacked was singing bluebirds and rabbits.

He knows I'm a virgin. He knows I'm a lapsed Catholic. I'm not sure which is more important to him. The first he holds up like a badge of honor; the second he wants to change. I feel the exact opposite.  I want him to feel good; I want the time we spend in bed not to be a waste for him; I want to be able to believe him when he tells me he enjoys it despite never, ever, ever having gotten off in the six months we've been together. But because he can't say the words, I can't say them either, because it feels too cruel, too abrasive. "Does it - when you're alone?"

"I don't enjoy masturbating," he says.

I stare at the ceiling. Oh God, I think, there is something very wrong with me. As an established twice-a-day-three-times-on-Sundays girl for as far back as I can remember, the only two categories of people I can imagine who would not enjoy touching themselves are those too young to have figured it out yet, and those too old to much care anymore. There is no in-between.

"Okay," I say. It comes out so calm and soothing, I almost twist around to see if there's someone else in bed with us. But it is okay. It has to be okay. I vow never to bring it up again. He'll either tell me when he's ready, or he won't. And we enjoy the time we spend together, so why should this matter? Just because I'm apparently a freak-of-nature sex addict who needs a twelve-step-plan doesn't mean I should be terrifying my poor boyfriend with notions of being inadequate. He's very adequate. He's perfectly adequate.

"I just don't enjoy it," he says, and shrugs.

Privately, I think: he's doing it wrong. 

▼▪▲

 She is crying as she tells me that she's in love with me. I already know. I already know because she gave me her diary last spring to type up some interview notes, and the book fell open when I'd put it in the valley my thighs made. There was a typed rectangle of paper taped inside, and I saw my name and read on. That was six months ago, but I'd put it out of my head. She was upset last spring, and I often write things in my diary I don’t mean.

She waits for her tear-stained confession to hit me. I'm sitting cross-legged at my desk, and my hands lie limp at the place where my ankles meet. I try to feel flattered, but I can't quite pull it off. Does she expect me to cry, too? Does she expect me to take her in my arms? I've imagined sleeping with women before – they seem infinitely less complicated than men – but the girl sitting across from me could be of either gender and I would still cringe at the notion of intimacy with her. All my fleeting curiosities about women shut themselves away, doors locking with rapid-fire clicks. Not her, not her, not her.

"Say something," she says.

"I'm sorry," I offer, and it comes out with a question mark at the end, like I'm trying to figure out if that's what she wants to hear from me. Of course it isn't. She launches into another wave of tears, and I wonder desperately how I’m going to live in this room with this girl for another two-and-a-half months. All the times she's touched me and the way she hugs a little too long, is a little too eager for physical contact. I've always blamed myself – I'm not a person who shows affection physically. I wonder if she has watched me as I dress. Or as I sleep. Or if, on the nights she comes in drunk, she has tried to kiss me. Though I’ve often imagined someone admiring me from afar, I wouldn't want anyone to watch me like that.

This is not how love is supposed to be. Love is supposed to be mutual, and enthusiastic, and welcoming.  When I write stories about men and women, or any combination thereof, falling in love, they do not include the pain of unrequited admiration. They don’t take into account the sick feeling that can build in your gut when you want someone so badly you think it will destroy you from the inside. And they certainly don’t tell you how to cope with your best friend telling you that she loves you.

I wonder how she can love me though, when I stopped even liking her several months ago. There is a bank, my father told me once, where friendships are deposited. For every emotional withdrawal, there must at some point be a deposit. She is in the red on every account she holds in my bank. I do not tell her this. Instead I make more noises of apology, and try my best to give her space. She stares at me, bleak, hands at her sides with palms out, as though she might throw them into the air in desperation. Instead, she gathers her robe and her shower kit and retreats to the community bathrooms, the only escape for two people who must live in the same room every moment of every day.

Heart thudding, I pick up her diary and sit with my back against the door. She leaves it out on her desk every night; I tell myself that she must have wanted to me to read it, to spare her the tearful confession. I try to find the most recent entries.

She has started cutting herself again. The insides of her thighs. She has very long legs, and very pale skin, and imagining her doing this to herself is terrifying. I close the book. I feel sick to my stomach. I have made another human being hurt herself. Love has made her hurt herself.  I open the book again, and find the last page with writing on it.

It is a fantasy about me; about crawling into bed with me. About how she uses all of her willpower not to, every night.

It would be much easier to say, "I'm sorry, I'm simply not attracted to women," give her a pat on the back, and go out for the night, bar crawling. It would be easier, for that matter, if I drank; I could go and forget all of this confusion and find myself a one night stand. This is a common fantasy I have; that if only I would give up my preference for sobriety, everything would magically fix itself.  I could blur my own mind and become one of the laughing, glee-filled women at the bars in the restaurants I go to, the ones that look like hyenas from the outside but are probably charming and carefree under the cloud of smoke and beer.  For the first time in my life, the notion of getting hammered sounds incredibly appealing.

I close the book, and place it back precisely as it was on her desk. We spend the rest of the night in silence. Every time she climbs down the ladder from the loft, I tense up, waiting for her body to slide into bed next to mine.

Why couldn't it have been someone else? Why did it have to be her?

I remember being fourteen, lying on my bed before dinner. I remember listening to my parents cook down the hall, and feeling incredibly alone. I remember writing: the meaning of life is companionship. I felt incredibly deep, in that moment. Not true love, not perfection. Just companionship. There is companionship in the girl in the bed next to mine, and I have turned my back on it. Because it isn't enough. For the first time in my life, I'm not the one quietly crushing and hoping to be noticed.  Someone is actually interested in me, and I just, plain and simple, don't like her back.

I don't sleep easily for the rest of the semester. 

▼▪▲

 I am holding the genitals of a dead man. That is what this alleged “cyber skin” feels like – permanent rigor in a corpse. My friend and I are standing inside a sex toy boutique in the heart of downtown Chicago, on a warm summer afternoon. Both of us have recently been terminated from long-term relationships, and, tired of the inadequacy of awkward fingers and temporary replacements like travel toothbrush holders and detachable shower heads, we have agreed to meet in Chicago for some serious hands-on shopping. The cyber skin vibrator in my hands has packaging that alleges that "nothing looks and feels quite as real as CyberSkin," but the display unit has been exposed for so long that it's begun to collect lint and other little specks on its veined surface.

"I have a cat," my friend tells the woman behind the counter, holding up the befuzzed, peach-colored appendage. She picks a ball of lint off, and it drifts peacefully onto the counter. "This isn't going to work."

We've been in the store for almost two hours now, and the women who work here know our names. We've spent ages squeezing, touching, fondling, sniffing, and mostly giggling. We've discovered the unique blown-glass plugs and dildos, for display and use. The shopkeepers are delighted to answer our questions, and the resident glass blower is on the premises, telling me about her furnaces.

On the way here, I passed a car accident that had stopped traffic on the other side of the highway. I fantasize about dying in a car crash, body twisted among the wreckage, hot pink dildo on the seat next to me. I haven't told my parents that I was coming to Chicago, and the idea of them having only the sex toy store receipt to identify my body with is a vivid one. True, I'd had misgivings about sneaking into a sex shop, but this shop isn't like the terrifying behemoth of the 24-hour sex megastore, The Lion's Den; nor does it have the tacky glitz of allegedly “female friendly” Priscilla's. The windows here are uncovered and sunlight streams in, setting all the colors to twinkling. Customer testimonials are taped to the wall near the door. Who could leave a place like this unhappy?

Since I've started to accept the fact that I am destined for spinsterhood (a joke that I make through a pained smile with my single friends) I have become increasingly interested in taking matters into my own hands, so to speak. I've always been a frequent masturbator, and though I prefer literary pornography, video porn and sex toys are starting to have an increased appeal. As soon as I start to explore in a shop like this, I can understand why: the sheer variety is mind-boggling.

We discover waterproof vibrators, rubber ducks in bondage gear, sex swings, anal plugs, G-spot and prostate stimulators. We spend hours fawning over vibrators in the shape of Hello Kitty and Winnie the Pooh, and ones that plug into your USB port. Lured by the popularity of the Rabbit, which promises dual vaginal and clitoral stimulation, I settle on a style of a bunny cheerfully named Bridget. It's purple. With glitter.

But even after selecting a vibrator – no easy choice, since this is my first and the sex toy industry is definitely one where you get what you pay for – there are lubricants and condoms and wipes and cleaners to choose from, and vegan alternatives for all of the above. What will dry too quickly, what are the benefits of silicone versus water-based materials; are flavored condoms actually true to the corresponding fruit cartoon on the wrapper, and why does the pineapple flavor leave a coppery aftertaste?

By the time we leave, we are in higher spirits and each a hundred dollars poorer.  We part on the street, her toward her train and me toward my car, a secret between us.

I can't drive home fast enough. My fantasies of car crashes are replaced by fears of being pulled over, a policeman shining his light in on me and Bridget, who would throw cheerfully refracted glitters back in his face. But I finally make it back to my apartment, abandoned for the weekend, and lock my bedroom door behind me – just in case. I spill out the contents of the bag, feeling prepared at last.

There is a pamphlet printed on fuchsia paper that tells me how to use, clean, and store my new boyfriend. Try it out on mundane parts of your body first, to get used to the sensation, it advises. To hell with that! I spend a few minutes wrestling with the industrial plastic casing around the toy, and manage to get it free without cutting my hands. To hell with boys who lie and cheat, to hell with this virginity bullshit, to hell with all of it! I am the master of my own destiny! Bridget and I are going to start the sexual revolution that will change my life!

Except it doesn't fit.

I sit up, and stare at the purple plastic. There's a smiley-face drawn on the head. This is not acceptable. How can it not fit? I'm supposed to be able to push a small cantaloupe with limbs out, and I can't fit in a vibrator?  The grinning head feels like it's grown to the side of a tennis ball, and even after a few prods and pokes, the sensation is far too uncomfortable to go on with.

The fuchsia paper tells me that I'm not relaxed. It tells me to add more lube. It tells me to try a different position. What it doesn't tell me is how, after years of tampons and visits to the doctor, it can still hurt this much. Disgusted, I bundle up the toy and all of its accoutrements in a towel and dump it in the bottom of my closet.

I'm furious.  I don't want, or need, another person to get me off. I don't need someone to love me right now. I need to be able to take matters into my own hands. But how did I not think this would be an issue? And the worst part is that it's a stupid virgin's assumption. I lack the gumption and the tolerance for the pain necessary to do the deed.

This requires ice cream. 

▼▪▲

 The woman advertises herself as "barely legal," and I would like to know to which law she is referring, since she is clearly over the age of consent. Her hair has been bleached blonde and teased out so far that it's starting to resemble some late night televangelists’, and her teeth are the too-white glare of digital enhancement. Her bellybutton gleams with a piercing of some kind, and I wonder how they found enough excess skin to even make the needle go through.

But it is her fingernails that disturb me the most. French-tipped, they are at least a half an inch, and square cut. As she displays her body for the camera freshly-shaven (perhaps this is to sell her as “barely legal”?) all I can think is how much those things must hurt on the inside. I feel bad for her partner in the inevitable lesbian love-fest to come (or “cum” as this site advertises, in flashing, animated letters).

This is my third assignment for my new employer. He runs a website that reviews pornography online. I found the job listing on my school's web-based classifieds, and found myself unable to turn away. In my years of single-sex, I have become well-versed in porn. I know what I like. More importantly, I can write. It's a dream job. My friends say that it's too good to be true – free access to sites and $15 per review? Total anonymity guaranteed? Surely this mysterious employer will find a way to empty my bank account via my PayPal address before the week is over.

And yet, there has been no funny business thus far. Just completely honest reviews, based on a satisfying integrity. Just because the topic happens to be slightly unusual doesn't mean the entire corporation is corrupt, I tell myself sternly.

The man on the other end of the internet asked me, as my single qualifying question, if I were squeamish. "No animals," I wrote back in an email. "No dead people or kids or fecophilia or bloodplay. Anything else goes."

I think he's trying to challenge me, because the first assignment I am sent is for e-stim – sexual acts that involve electricity and electrocution. Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation – the TENS unit, which is often used for physical therapy and pain relief – with a specific focus on the genitals. E-stim is legal in most places, but getting your hands on a TENS unit is not easy. The website tells me all this under its Frequently Asked Questions section. My job, however, is not to review the pornography itself. No, I'm supposed to talk about video and photography quality, ease of navigation, annoying pop-ups, and whether or not there's a wide enough variety of material to attract a large customer base.

The entire time I'm writing the review, I feel like a fake. A crook, almost. Like I shouldn’t pretend to be an authority on these subjects. Not that I don't know pornography – because I do, as well as anyone can who isn't standing behind the camera herself – but that these particular fetishes do not appeal to me.  As the voltage is cranked on the electrodes that are attached to a man's testicles; as he twitches and jerks; as he bursts into tears and his master lovingly wipes the snot away from his upper lip and coaxes him through the final stages of torture, I think: is this love? It could be. It could be very well-acted love, or it could be actual love, or it could merely be trust. Though the boundaries between those two notions have always been particularly fuzzy for me. Or, more specific to the market of pornography: is this arousing?

It's not, to me. It's more like a fascination: trying to understand the way the human mind works, the deeply-rooted trust between the participants in this ritual. To quite literally put one's life in another person's hands (though the website assures me that e-stim is very rarely fatal); and more than that, to be willing to put oneself on display.

This is a very different genre of pornography than college boys experimenting with each other for pocket cash, or the girls in Wild Lesbians Four: Jungle Adventure. There is no “setup” for the camera, there is no falsity of a pizza boy delivering the meat special to a sorority house. This is just people torturing the living daylights out of each other.

It is impossible, one submissive tells the viewers in a streaming video interview, to remember to say something like, "Ooh, baby, harder" when you have a five-pound weight suspended in free-fall from your genitals.

I find I admire this kind of honesty.

I watch plenty of the “normal” kind of pornography for this job too, of course. The blonde woman with the scary nails ends up using a double-headed dildo to seduce some woman she “found” on the beach. They are both free of tan lines, body hair, and any kind of reservations. There's a lot of action to cram into a twenty-minute segment, after all.

The camera man – the alleged boyfriend of the girl on camera, though I suspect he must be a very rich boyfriend, considering the production values of the video – asks the girl from the beach if she's enjoying herself. I wonder if there's a script for this, or if they're ad-libbing. Instead of paying attention to the porn, I find myself examining their technique. How does she keep her hair out of her face when it gets so long and she's on top? How often does she wax? Is that really a bedroom, or is it a studio with a bed in it? What are they filming on the other side of the room?

The job doesn't last very long – my mysterious editor tells me that he has run out of assignments. I'm tempted to tell him that he probably isn't looking very thoroughly – it's baffling to imagine an end to pornography on the web-- but it's not my business, so I take my money and leave.

I try to find someone to tell about these bizarre fetishes about which I’ve recently been endowed with a plethora of information, but people don't really want to talk about it. The only exposure they've had to bondage, dominance relationships, or sadomasochism is the rape scene from Pulp Fiction, and anything involving two men is just disgusting.

My father, surprisingly, is the most supportive. He tells his friends that his daughter is reviewing pornography. They all expect a funny story or two, but somehow, this puts them at my mercy. I am the girl who talks about sex. I expect everyone to be as comfortable with it as I am, and if someone is not, clearly they are in the wrong. I am the educated virgin – that category of sexual being that others tend to shy away from, because how can the two coexist in one body? Surely all virgins must be naïve and tremulous. I am the plot twist, and for once, I don't mind. 

▼▪▲

 It took me the better part of three months to work up the nerve to ask him out, and even then, it came out as something juvenile. We were sitting at a public reading, on one of the first warm days of spring. I was trying not to sweat, because he was pressed up against me, and I was convinced he would know. On the paper program that we were given upon entrance, I wrote in the margin: “Coffee?” I might as well have written, “Do you like me? Check Y or N.”

I couldn't look him in the eye until he nodded, and then I thought my smile might injure my face. I had never asked anyone out on a date before. Never.

We go for coffee at a place close to my house, on a Saturday afternoon in April. There is a moment of horrifying confusion when he asks if he should bring his creative writing homework for us to go over. Falteringly, I tell him that, yes, absolutely, if he wants. He brings his laptop, and with his head in my lap, reads me his wretched poetry. This is not like any kind of studying I have ever done before, but I am still left with the distinct taste of uncertainty in my mouth. Does it count as my first real date if I'm not actually sure it's a date?

He tells me about his tattoos, and I find out that he likes the same bands that my ex- boyfriend does and that he has recently found God, and that he keeps a clove cigarette behind one ear because he likes the way they smell. I can't decide which is worse, though I convince myself that his carrying the Bible around in his backpack is merely a sign of his being well-read. He drinks tea that he says helps his clarity of mind, and tells me about Washington, where he is moving in a month. I try not to sniffle too much, because I think I may be coming down with something, and sucking up snot is not attractive. But leaving for tissue means getting up, and somehow, he roots me there. I suspect, privately, I am terrified of coming back and finding that he's fled.

I have danced around this man for an entire semester, attempting to be beguiling and funny and supportive of his mediocre work. This is my last chance. I tell him his writing good. I hate myself a little for this, but justify it by reminding myself that I haven't been kissed in over a year. For some reason, this seems incredible to me. A year! With no kisses! How could that be? I will never see him again, and there is something comforting in that. It's what I've told myself will take the pressure off.

After the coffee shop atmosphere becomes too boring, we walk around the block. It's cold enough out that it's uncomfortable to hold his hand for too long. He tries to put his arm around me, but our heights are too similar, and it jostles us when we walk. We make small talk. This is a date, I tell myself. Congratulations.  He tells me more about God, and asks me how I feel about religion.

I lie.

When the sun crawls down to the horizon, he tells me he has to meet his friends for dinner. He does not extend an invitation, but I don't mind – I have to drive to my parents' tonight and I should leave soon anyway – and we get in my car again. It's a short trip back to his house, near campus.

"I'm just not interested in sex right now," he's saying, as I fiddle with the radio, trying to find music that will impress upon him my good taste. "I've had enough one-night stands. I want a relationship."

For some reason, part of my brain decides that the appropriate response to this is to tell him that I'm a virgin. Even as the words leave my mouth, the rest of my mind is immediately going on high alert, flashing red lights and locking down water-tight doors in preparation for mayhem. This is not what the blonde, straight-haired size-four teenager tells her first date on the hour-long dramas that air before the nighttime news.

He blinks. I can see him staring at me out of the corner of my eye as traffic clears enough for me to turn. "How?" he demands. I have shocked him. This makes me happy. I am worth having had sex with.

"It's not through lack of trying," I say and feel superior, not to him, but to my normal quailing self, for managing to stay wry. The sad part is, it's true. It's not through lack of trying. But it's taken me an entire semester to work up the nerve to ask for a date: it's not as if I could walk up to some random boy in a bar and say, “Excuse me, would you mind educating me in the multiple methods of giving you an orgasm?” And that, really, is only the tip of the iceberg of my lack of education. You can only watch so many adult films before you have to admit the wasteland of inadequacy between mere research and practical knowledge.

When I pull up outside the church that he shares a driveway with, he kisses me. He tastes bitter, like the cigarettes he says he doesn't smoke, and the acrid tea. I am flooded with relief when my recently installed braces don't catch on his lip ring. This is not the first prayer I have sent skyward regarding my dental hardware. Being a college student with braces has made my first few attempts to get back into dating a wreck. “How am I supposed to give head with metal teeth?” I ask my male friends. They shake their heads and cross their legs protectively.

The seat belt traps me against the seat, and it's too late to wrestle out of it. His eyes are incredibly blue, blindingly blue, but he's told me before that they're contact lenses.

"Don't ever let anyone tell you that you aren't beautiful," he tells me, and I blink at him, stunned by this bizarre comment. It's clear from his expression that he believes he has just been genuine and deeply meaningful, and that he has left an impact on me. He stays long enough to make sure I've heard him, and then he leaves.

"Thanks," I say through the open window.

His smooth exit is ruined when he has to call me back – he's left his laptop in my car – and I turn my car around to bring it to him, get a briefer kiss for my trouble, and never see him again. Somehow, I find this satisfying. I have taken what I wanted – kisses – without any of the messy emotional tangle usually involved. Somehow, this is a step in the right direction. Because I have somehow become immune to the ridiculousness that can pour from the mouths of men, and I no longer fear becoming that girl – the one who lingers on every half-compliment.  I can take what I want without being made a fool of.

A week later, telling the story to a friend, I wonder why he assumes people find me ugly.  

▼▪▲

A friend once told me that I'm a slut trapped in a virgin's body. A compliment, I guess, except I'm not so sure. I like to comfort myself with the hope that, yes, once I get this massive, horrifying, painful thing out of the way, I'll be able to enjoy sex the way most normal people do. Or at least, most normal people who act in movies and television.

My persistent virginity is just not something that's ever made any kind of sense to me. I'm not religious, I'm not particularly sentimental, and I'm definitely not saving myself for marriage. By this point though, I'm pretty sure I'm going to be the old lady in a wedding dress and combat boots who pushes her ”darlings” around in a baby carriage on the street. Where aforementioned darlings are cats wearing bonnets, or bags of soda cans, or old newspapers.

Forsaking the assumption that I'm going to die cold and alone, there comes the anxiety of a different kind of biological clock. Not one based on making babies or passing on the family genes. But the solid knowledge of a shadow over my shoulder. Assumptions that people make – assumptions that I make – about the lives and personalities of the sexually active.  That they are more popular, more successful, or somehow more normal.  On desperate, lonely nights, the options for removing the burden of my virginity can swing as wildly out to sea as undergoing surgery or hiring prostitutes.

The notion of the virgin being the most desirable thing on the market isn’t true – I'm the walking, living, breathing proof of it. The uncomfortable truth is that there are plenty of people in the world who simply never date, never have sex. Not because they're unattractive or socially crippled, but because they simply don't maintain the narrative arc.

My ball-and-chain remains sturdily in place. I should have a scarlet “V” sewn onto my clothes, or branded onto my forehead. Maybe then I can actually do something useful with this thing that's weighing me down; like auction it off to the highest interested bidder.  There is, after all, still a strong market for the virginal girl as some kind of ideal.  Or so I'm told.

Until that day, though, my virginity and I have come to a wary truce. I won't disturb it, if it doesn't disturb me. One of us will, eventually, let slip the dogs of war, and the tangle of conflict will shift from matters of having sex or not having sex to the increasingly complicated aspect of with whom, how often, and why.  But for now, I'm satisfied with my future as a spinster: with an external vibe, and a whole lot of porn.

 

◄▪►

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