Somewhere on the Journey Between the First Time and the Last

I'm not sad for the young woman I was at 20, slowly gaining confidence about her body, but I am sad for the girl who believed those years didn't count

The first time involved a university-issue bed fitted with gingham sheets I'd owned since childhood, a room with Gothic windows five floors above Elm Street, and a sheepskin condom with a musky, barnyard funk. His beard tickled me. My hips ached pleasantly the next day.

Actually, the first time was in a studio apartment in Washington, D.C., following a cousin's bat mitzvah, a Metro ride across town and a few glasses of merlot. We'd been flirting by phone for months. Her hair tickled me. The next morning, we met her boyfriend for brunch and pretended nothing had happened.

A few months before that, I kissed a woman for the first time—a woman I wasn't supposed to kiss, because she was in a long-term relationship and because she was my supervisor. But none of that stopped us from making out, like hormone-addled teens, in the front passenger seat of my Sentra.

Or maybe the first time was ages before any of those encounters, back in high school, half-secluded between the hedge and the administration building on a Tuesday afternoon, when his tongue found my earlobe and nerve endings rippled all over my body. No, it was later that year, when my high-school sweetheart and I switched rooms at the Jewish youth conference and spent three attenuated nights, pajama-clad, kissing in a motel bed until we finally slept, nestled together like puppies.

Even in this explicit age, we cloak sex in euphemism. We "lose" our virginity, we "get some" or "do it" for the "first time." But what is it we're losing? What is it we acquire or enact? And what exactly gets counted as the inaugural experience?

Was it the first time you opened your mouth while playing Spin the Bottle and tongued the lacy grooves of someone's braces, lips that tasted of Bazooka and strawberry jam? The time you lay, hip to hip, on the leather couch in the upstairs study and told his mother, when she asked, that you'd been playing Monopoly?

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Or was it only the "first time" if both of you were naked, if it hurt a little bit but not too much, if you dropped the condom and then managed to laugh about it, if your roommates knew but never said a word?

I can tell you the day sexual desire arrived, like someone flicking a switch: I was 13, waiting for my cue in a children's theater production, curled on a darkened stage in a gingham pinafore that had grown too tight across the chest, when I felt suffused with wanting—for what, I wasn't yet sure.

That yearning ribboned through me for years, spooling out in unrequited crushes—the gay senior who wrote sardonic one-acts; the girl who sang "You're So Vain" in the talent show—until, one day in the autumn of 11th grade, a boy let his pinky finger sidle accidently on purpose against my own. I remember that first touch—who knew pinkies were so buzzingly connected to everything else?—as much as I recall those stealthy nights in the motel, later on.

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By today's measure, when 48 percent of kids have had intercourse by the time they're 17, I was chaste. I "lost" my virginity (dang, now where did I put it?) in my final year of college. I'd already had a paying summer job, found my own apartment (an illegal sublet, but still), driven a company car around Boston and read "Our Bodies, Ourselves" (with particular attention to the chapters on masturbation and lesbianism) backward and forward.

I'd endured girl talk about "first times" while visiting my roommates during their study-abroad term junior year. Over cheap beaujolais in the Quartier Latin, they'd swapped stories of sex in a back seat, in a prep school bed after parietal hours, in somebody's basement the night of the senior prom. Then it was my turn. "Uh—well," I stalled. Maxine rescued me: "Oh, she hasn't done it yet," she said. I took a gulp of wine, wincing away from the looks of surprise and—did I imagine this?—pity. Oh, poor girl. Still a virgin. So sorry.

But I wish I'd found my voice that night to challenge the notion that "it" was intercourse involving a penis and a vagina, and that "doing it" was an event, not a continuum.

I was "doing it" when I told a 6th-grade boy that I didn't want to kiss him, then, three months later, wished I could take my refusal back. I was "doing it" when the high school sweetheart and I made out in a tangle of sheets all night long. I was "doing it"—quietly, purposefully—when I figured out where the lesbians sat in the university library and made sure my study carrel was nearby.

When we think about sex with conventional terminology, when we tell our stories with heterosexual intercourse as the climax (double entendre intended), we're shrinking a boundless, nuanced arena to something straight and narrow as a bowling lane.

That's the pity. I'm not sad for the young woman I was at 20, slowly gaining confidence about her body and how she wanted to share it—but I'm sad for the girl who believed those years of gradual unfolding didn't count.

A few months after that café conversation, I met a red-bearded MIT senior. There was a date that involved live lobsters, and another with wine in a fish-shaped bottle, and nights of sweaty foreplay on the futon in my illegal sublet.

When he asked how I felt about pre-marital sex, it was the "pre-marital" part that scared me. I was ready for intercourse; I wasn't prepared to sign away the rest of my life. We actually made a plan: an October weekend when he could visit New Haven. Did I change my sheets? Did I urge my roommates to go out that Saturday night? Did I close the Gothic windows?

What I remember most is the awkwardness, a few false starts as we tried to find a comfortable position ("You're a little tense," he'd murmured, truthfully and not unkindly), the oily scent of the condom, my pink comforter sliding to the floor. It was fumbly, it was sweet, it was a little anti-climactic.

And then, years later, came the last first time, the one I thought might never happen. That night, the fall equinox of 1990, there were bowls of mushroom fettuccine I was too giddy to eat, a game of Scrabble that led to foot massages that led to her basement bedroom that led, head-spinningly, to the next quarter-century and landed us here, somewhere on the journey between the first time and the last—still having and losing, wanting and getting, holding on for dear life.

Tags: sex

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