I say a man, not a boy, because that’s what he was. In his early 20s, I met him hanging around at my high school’s battle of the bands. He smoked but was trying to quit, and he had a bad tattoo his aspiring-artist friend had given him as “practice”, and he told me a slightly sad tale about his no-more-than-normally sad childhood. If you want to just replace his face with a neon sign reading “Cliché” for the rest of this story, I won’t hold it against you – that’s about how much of him I remember too.
If you ask me now how I lost my virginity, I will pause, and I will scrunch up my eyes, and then I will finally remember. Not because I was drunk, or high – I was a Very Good Girl, the subsequent Fucking by the Cliché notwithstanding - but because it was such a non-event.
On our second date, I asked him if he’d ever had sex before and he said yes, of course, what did I think of him, he and his old high school girlfriend, they totally did it. More than once, even. He showed me her picture and I was instinctively ashamed; she had perfect red lipstick and didn’t smile in photos; I had just gotten my braces off and my hands shook whenever I tried to line my eyes with dark eyeliner like the skinny goth girls who hung out under the stairs at school. I asked if we had to have sex to keep dating and he said yes, and that was that conversation.
When it came time to do the deed, on our third date, I asked if we could pause the TV, or at least turn off Jackass (I wish that were a joke). He put on American Beauty instead and took my clothes off clumsily while in the background Kevin Spacey fumbled his way through the ennui of middle class suburbia by trying to seduce his teenage daughter’s cheerleader best friend. He probably kissed me – I’m assuming he kissed me because my god, wouldn’t he have kissed me? – and then I laid down on my back and closed my eyes. I knew that the girl needed to lay still so the boy could thrust, and it would all be over soon and he’d be able to keep being my boyfriend. I’d touched and been touched before, at the back of the bus with the boys who’d heard I wouldn’t move my hand if they put it in their lap, and in the basement with the older brother of one of my best friends where I acted my way through my first faked orgasm to stop him from jamming his guitar-calloused fingers full force inside me.
I wasn’t the kind of girl who had friends who would tell her what to expect, or parents who would have talked about my right to my own body. I’d had some animated videos in third grade when my mom took me to a class with a public health nurse where I embarrassed myself by asking if boys had to wear pads to bed in case of wet dreams, since the takeaway I got from the available literature was that puberty brought pain and blood for girls and spontaneous nightly pleasure for boys.
I don’t carry that first time with me, not really. Not the act itself. It hurt a little, and then it didn’t, and then it was over. I cried, and he told me to get dressed because his mother would be home soon. We did it twice more before he told me that I was a cold fish, that there was something wrong with me, and that he was going back to his more age-appropriate girlfriend with the red lips and the angry glare.
I didn’t understand. I had tried so hard; the third time I’d even climbed on top of him like the girls in porn, although we were interrupted mid-way through when the library called me about an overdue book and I had to start over. I tried to seduce him back to me the only way I knew how; with logic and numbers. I told him if I loved him with all my heart and he loved me with half of his then didn’t we already have three quarters of what we needed? He laughed, and he left, and that was that.
I don’t carry the act with me, but I carry its implications. He’s a non-entity; I could barely conjure up his name as I wrote this. He’s never come up in therapy. But that dissociation I felt, apart from my body, and the knowledge that he knew, he knew I was no good at this, just as I had already suspected. I was no good, and he could feel it all the way down to his dick. That’s what embedded itself through my body like shrapnel.
I talk pretty openly about trauma. I don’t see why I shouldn’t. I carry with me no noticeable shame from events that occurred without my permission. I was raped, and then raped again, and then raped a third time for good measure. They pile on each other in my head, sometimes blurring until I don’t remember who did what. They pop up when I least expect them; when a friend touches me spontaneously, when I’m alone in a room with a man. But they’re not always there.
I’m thirty years old, and I’ve had sex with men where I wasn’t thinking about my trauma at all. I’ve had sex where I genuinely, 100% trusted my partner, and where he genuinely lived up to, at the very least, my expectations for a consensual experience.
But I have never, not once, across dozens of partners and almost fifteen years, had sex where I didn’t somehow, at the back of my mind, remember that I was no good at this, that I was a “cold fish”. Nobody with whom I could hold back from second-guessing myself at every touch, no one with whom I could refrain from asking over and over again, “am I doing this right?”, until they tired of my questions and moved on from me.
I’m not sure why I decided to write this all down. A friend asked me the other day to stop berating the parts of me that I think are broken, and to try loving them instead. It’s a hard ask. But if there’s one thing about me that my whole adult life I’ve been absolutely positive is a failure, it’s that inability to connect, that inability to let go and trust myself in the moment. And it’s made me so bitter, because I look around and see everyone else doing nothing but connecting, so easily it seems. I’m not ashamed of things that have been done to me, but I’m ashamed of things I haven’t been able to let my body do or feel.
I don’t know if I can love those bits of me yet. But I can be a little kinder to them, I suppose. A little gentler. There’s a whole part of me I’ve never bothered to nurture because I just didn’t see the point; I thought I already knew that nothing would grow there no matter how hard I tried. But it’s an empty space, not a dead or even necessarily damaged one. Maybe I’ll just be a little kinder.
Just as a start.
With great love,