I went into college with virtually no experience, so virginal I believed myself to smell of baby powder. Touching a boy daringly was grazing his shoulder. That was till I met him, a studio art student from England (a would-be dream for high school me). He pursued me in the somehow typical NYU way of asking me to act in a video art project. From there, a messy weird first date, a better second date, then “hooking up.”
What stands out to me the most about my first time wasn’t so much the actual act, but how right after it was done I wanted to try again, as if already I was searching for some way for him to give me more than he could. And what a metaphor it was. The second time around I had closed up completely. He plied futilely with a drying condom that smelled like sickening cherry candy. He’d bought the fruity lube specifically for me (I had read it as a tip for “first time penetration with minimal pain”) and we had joked before about how uncomfortable it was that he had to ask a CVS employee to get it from behind the counter for him. I’d laughed again when he had climbed on top of me and ripped open the ridiculous country western shirt he was wearing by its snap buttons, revealing a burly chest and stomach, a body much older than his age. I told him only he could’ve pulled off a shirt and maneuver like that and still gotten in my pants.
Sex made me obnoxiously brash. I had slept with one person and suddenly felt like the most elusive, in control creature. Boundaries were pushed quickly. We had sex in strange muscle-stretching positions we only knew from porn, we sent each other videos of us masturbating; we even had sex once in the public bathroom of my dorm’s rec center (Sorry NYU Housing). It was exciting in the ways TV shows made sex, and just as vacuous. Sometimes I showered with water too hot and delicate red welts around my vagina would reveal themselves as if they were hidden under tissue paper. I realized why some things stayed fantasies, why sometimes people just relaxed and were soft with each other, though I felt it too late in the game to do that with him.
I stressed to my friends, other boys I thought to be romantic prospects that I was hooking up, not in a relationship. I simply couldn’t bring myself to care enough, as if some emotional mechanism was connected haphazardly with a frayed copper wire and I was close to short-circuiting. This inability made me think I really didn’t want to be with him, I was simply content knowing I could have him. Sometimes I’d go over with the sole purpose of having sex with him. I’d leave quickly after, the cotton crotch of my underwear still wet as I walked to a party or friend’s dorm. He never questioned the leaving and going. I’d think, Get angry with me! Come on, fucking scream at me and tell me how shitty of a person I am! But that day never came. Instead, he continued touching every part of my body as if searching under my skin for the button that would turn the switch on and make me care about him as deeply. Once, after covert and quiet sex in my home in West Philly, where he was visiting me over the summer, he had said, “I really think I’m falling for you. I just wanted you to know that.” And I had whispered, voice strained, “Oh, I’m glad.” He had swallowed my ambivalence like a stiff drink. At that point, I was waiting for a moment where I could get angry with him; I could end things without it being my fault. That fall semester, he gave me that reason but I couldn’t take it.
To say I know what events led up to this are meaningless. The details remain as such: We were both drunk. We often came back to my room or his after a party with other friends, depending on whose roommates were home, depending whether or not I wanted to leave quickly or linger, a position of too great power he’d given me. We were on my claustrophobic double bed. He had turned me around to penetrate me from the back, which I enjoyed because it felt good and I could contort my face in whatever gruesome display of pleasure I wanted. All routine, then suddenly not. Without warning he spit on my back, a deliberate thick mucous that slunk through stale air. I turned around though I wish I hadn’t, so it could always be a vague feeling and not a memory. It’s impossible to forget his face pursed in concentration, a sloppy attempt at contained excitement as he rubbed the saliva into the goose-pimpled flesh of my lower back. I whispered, “Ok, please don’t ever do that again.” I still don’t know if he just didn’t hear, or if he was too ashamed to respond.
And from the wetness burgeoned a forgotten memory: I am in second grade, an awkwardly thin and crooked-tooth mouse of a person, sitting alone on a bus home from school, fixated on a sun flare hiding and emerging from between tree branches and row houses. There are two boys, fifth grade, behind me joking loudly. Then one of the boys is walking off the bus, they are still talking and laughing, and the boy behind me spits, aiming for the friend, hitting me instead in the middle of my scalp, a cold meteor crashing against the terrain of my hair. There is an attempt at suppressed amusement, then an outburst of laughter. The boy walks off the bus. No apology. I sit still, not touching anything but the faux-leather seat crackling underneath me, feeling the full moat of my hairline undulate back and forth. That day, I still don’t shower before bed.
After he left that night I didn’t shower, stunted again by the same fear that if I did I’d be acknowledging how soiled I really felt. Instead, I watched the emptied-out building across 14th St, it’s lights always on despite the fact that it was almost always uninhabited, like ghosts inside were throwing an office party. Behind the huge glass windows a cleaning woman with a slicked down bun and bright yellow gloves cleaned desks with a procedural grace. As she turned to wipe down the windows facing me I felt a great sense of connection, as if I could touch her waxy cheek and smell the Clorox behind her ears. I wondered if she had been hurt in the same way, if she had felt the coldness of another man’s insecurities on her back; if she would go home to a husband and tell him of the sad, naked girl she saw staring at her. The possibility that she did not see me was even more depressing to consider.
When my roommate came back I didn’t tell her. I didn’t tell anyone. Many weeks later, I told my therapist the experience only as a passing statement. But she wanted me to “Wait, stop. Can we talk about that for a little longer? It seems important.” And it was, not because it’s a story about sexual abuse, no, I never think of it like that. It’s just an example of what happens when two people had different ideas about what it means to please, when I let myself hate a perpetrator without him ever knowing that I was the victim. My silence was what disappointed me most, the fact that I let him stay, that after it happened I pressed the small of my back into my comforter like concealing a piece of chewed food in a napkin. What mattered was the horrible shriveling in my chest in the morning, the feeling like flies on rotting fruit swarming slow and deviously around my heart. What mattered was even after that night I kept having sex with him, though I was done trying to care.
By that time he revealed depression that somehow only I could remedy. He was cutting himself and not seeing a psychiatrist, and though he wanted me to help, I knew that I was one of the factors hurting him. The signs of palpable anxiety started to show on my body. Acne like hardened mountaintops sprouted on my forehead. I went to a dermatologist for the first time since high school, but no amount of benzoyl peroxide could burn the connection between my skin and my screwy stomach. I ignored every ache in my limbs and nausea that made me skip meals and drink more, the timpani bellowing in my temples that told me I wanted this hook-up, this relationship, this in between, to end.
Halloween night of sophomore year it finally did. It was around 4 AM when he walked me back to my dorm room after a night of party hopping across the East Village. I was doing my best that night to avoid him, clinging to other friends, other boys, hating myself for doing it, being stubbornly and wrongly angry that he ignored the signs that I didn’t want him there.
The break up, the subsequent hour of sobbing from both of us, I now see from faraway, like I’m a fly watching from the ceiling of my common room. We are drowning in a pool of muddy indigo light, and he is holding me telling me how fondly he’ll always think of me, and I am finally saying the same to him, that I will always think of him too. It’s devastating, yes, but so final, so freeing, our failure finally out of our grasp. And I realized some of my tears were of relief.
In, “Prep,” the protagonist Lee Fiora talks about a sweet cafeteria worker she cancels a date with as a “practice round.” She says we are used and use others so we know the right ways to treat the people that come into our lives that really matter. I am still waiting for the appropriate day that I can thank him for making me realize how cruel I could be to someone who loved me (so I don’t ever do it again), that having someone find me pretty doesn’t mean I owe them my gratitude. And I wish I could tell dear selfish Lee, like dear selfish me, that you can still acknowledge the beauty in someone even if they were just for practice. And I hope one day he sees me the same way: as some naïve pretty girl who prepared him for much better.