My mother had faith in the basement. When I invited coed groups of friends over my freshman and sophomore years of high school, she left us alone at the bottom of the stairs, unsurveilled, as she drank wine with my father, worked late at the kitchen table, or went to bed early. She trusted the ping-pong table, TV, and video games to absorb whatever raucous energy our teenage hormones created, to block or distract us from our dangerous urges. She believed that if we had healthy outlets, wholesome ways to have fun, we wouldn’t need to rebel.
Then I brought home my first boyfriend.
Marshall was polite, and he dressed neatly. He wasn’t what my mother would have called a “bad influence.” We were both good kids, good Lutherans who wanted to save ourselves for marriage. It’s what was expected of us, but we had our private reasons. Marshall’s had to do with faithfulness, how he hated his dad for cheating on his mom. My own had to do with the idea of finding my soulmate.
I was attracted to Marshall — the clenched muscles of his forearms; the lush, almost feminine curve of his mouth — but I didn’t think we were soulmates. When I tried to imagine a life together, I could only manage a series of vacations: a trip to the beach, a hike in the Alps, pizza in New York City. Still, Marshall was the one person I could complain to without being rebuked, and we would criticize our school and the people in it, present our feelings without editing them first. Soulmate or not, it drove me crazy the way he touched just the ends of my long hair, as if he were afraid to wake a delicate animal.
At one point my mother walked in on us while I was lying supine on the basement couch and Marshall was on top of me, our middles touching. We hadn’t heard her coming down the stairs, only the sound of her throat clearing. Marshall scrambled over to the next couch cushion as I sat up. I cringed as he wiped the saliva from his mouth.
“I would feel more comfortable,” my mother said, looking somewhere to the right of where we were sitting, “if you wouldn’t lie down like that.”
“Of course,” I told her, and we both apologized.
After that my mother began to throw in a load of laundry whenever Marshall came over so she’d have an excuse to check on us. Our washer and dryer had timers, though, and would buzz when they needed to be emptied. This usually gave Marshall and me enough time to sit up from our reclined positions, unlock our lips.
Marshall’s house had main-floor laundry, and his mother did not make excuses to go down to the basement. Marshall’s mother (or Amy, as she preferred to be called) seemed to like the normalcy of Marshall having a girlfriend. She would occasionally give him money to take me out to dinner or buy me flowers. According to Marshall, the divorce had been rough — he couldn’t count the times he’d steered his younger brothers away from rooms where she was crying — and she likely felt guilty about the childhood she wasn’t able to give him, wanted to make sure he treated women right.
Most weekends Marshall and I would snuggle on his basement couch and watch movies. Marshall liked 1970s Hollywood — Scorsese, Coppola, Kubrick — and comedies with actors from Saturday Night Live. I had been blown away by Adaptation and Me and You and Everyone We Know and wanted to deep-dive into the oeuvres of Charlie Kaufman, Wes Anderson, and the Coen Brothers, rent all of Blockbuster’s Sundance winners and mumblecore.
We never made out during the movies we watched. We would pause them or wait for the end. How much of my blooming sexuality was informed by the repetitious loop of DVD-menu music? In retrospect it was a fitting soundtrack for the endless kissing. As the song was kept from its coda, dutifully returning to the beginning, we, too, were denied meaningful completion.
Kissing was enough at first. We trusted each other and never felt pressured, which made us feel even more comfortable — so much so that kissing turned to heavy petting, and heavy petting to painful aching, and painful aching to whatever could be accomplished by reaching underneath each other’s clothes. We felt hungry and ashamed, toeing, then crossing, this line. We looked for but couldn’t find an answer in the Bible about the morality of hand jobs, fingering, and oral sex. We guessed it was wrong but thought it was also the best we could manage.
I felt guilty every time Marshall flushed the tissues we had used to catch his semen down the toilet. At summer camp the bathrooms were plastered with signs saying anything other than toilet paper would clog the plumbing. I think knowing tissues weren’t supposed to be disposed of in this way but never actually seeing the harm in it compounded my moral confusion. Because in spite of what we had been told — that we would regret not waiting — what we were doing felt nice, and I felt nice, like a nice person. I felt affectionate, which was new for me. I could hug Marshall or hold his hand between both of mine, rest my head on his shoulder.
Though I was considered “good,” I didn’t feel especially liked or admired. I had an eye-rolling problem that I never could control. “Don’t you roll your eyes at me,” I’d hear regularly from my father when we argued, from anyone, adult or otherwise, who said, “I don’t see race,” “The earth heats and cools on its own,” or, “Socialism looks good on paper,” and from the creepy dad of a girl on my middle-school softball team when he told me to wear a cup while catching because “it still hurts down there.” I earned straight As, though, and willingly attended youth group on Wednesday nights (even if it was just for the pickup basketball), which superseded this flaw, a flaw that was attributed to my age and gender, a flaw most hoped I would outgrow. I was considered “good,” considered a “good influence.” It amazed me — like the cool feeling of Marshall’s tongue on my labia had amazed me — that I could possess all of these qualities; that I could be both warm and cold, virtuous and defiant; and that someone could love me for all of it.
We were upstairs in Marshall’s room when he pulled his fingers, slick with blood, from the leg of my shorts. I was not on my period.
We were in Marshall’s room instead of the basement because no one else was home. Our Lutheran high school’s once-a-semester National Honor Society meeting had finished early (there had been even less to discuss than usual), and we had plans that night to meet his mother and brothers at a restaurant for dinner.
I had seen Marshall’s room before, but I had never been in his bed, and I was surprised by how strongly it smelled of him, how soft his mattress was, how easily we sank into the center. Knowing that no one could possibly walk in on us, I pulled my shirt over my head and unhooked my bra, displayed myself in the warm daylight.
Seeing blood on his fingers felt shameful aboveground, and I felt absurd, lying half naked next to the remnants of his childhood: the featureless gold bodies of soccer trophies; a framed, hand-drawn DARE poster; the fishing-themed wallpaper border and matching ceramic salmon that hung from the ceiling-fan pull chain, its eyes wide and mouth gaping.
“Are you OK?” Marshall asked.
I had cried out from the shock of the pain more than the magnitude of it.
“I’m fine,” I said, but something was wrong. Bleeding meant that some part of me, my hymen — where had I even learned that word? — was ripped, broken, damaged.
I grabbed my shirt and bra, went into his Jack-and-Jill bathroom, and shut both doors. I wiped myself with damp toilet paper until it came away clean, but my underwear was soaked with blood.
My mother still purchased my underwear for me, even though I picked it out. She had disliked this pair, with its thin strip of lace on the waistband and the tiny ribbon bow on the front. At the store she had told me she thought the bow was vulgar and made the panties (her word) look like gift wrap.
“I don’t care what they look like,” I said as I rifled through the discount bin with increasing speed. “I could cut the bow off.”
“You’re right,” she said after a moment. “It’s not like anyone will see them.”
I don’t know if she meant this as a threat, an I-know-what-you’re-doing warning, or if it was innocent, earnest. Both possibilities turned my stomach.
In the bathroom I put my shorts back on and wadded my underwear into my fist. I couldn’t throw them away in the bathroom Marshall shared with his siblings. I didn’t want to throw them away anywhere anyone could see them. Marshall knocked on the door and offered to make up an excuse for his mom and take me home instead of going out to dinner. Somehow this sounded worse than going commando while sharing a meal with his family. I asked him for a plastic bag, and he brought back a grocery bag and a sandwich-size ziplock. I took both.
“It doesn’t mean anything,” he said. He touched me lightly on the waist and tried to meet my gaze. I willed my eyeballs to remain steady, but they snapped up like window shades.
I knew, though I still wasn’t sure where I’d learned it, that hymens could rip from inserting tampons or riding horses, that the tearing didn’t mean I wasn’t a virgin. But what Marshall should have said, what would have been more accurate, was “It doesn’t mean anything to me,” or, “It won’t mean anything to us,” because, even though a sheet with my blood on it would never be hung from the window of my bridal suite to prove I was worth my dowry, I would be treated differently, almost imperceptibly, by my parents and other members of their generation the older I got and the longer I stayed unmarried yet eligible: attractive to men, fashionable, thin, confident. Even though I would build a life in which I was loved, they would wonder what had gone wrong and what took place behind closed doors, would treat my independence like a persistent hangnail, an infuriating nuisance that never could quite be put to bed. I would be told by my mother when I hadn’t settled down with anyone by my twenty-seventh birthday, “I don’t know how to be happy for you,” and I would reply with an astonished “Why not?” and roll my eyes unwittingly as I remembered for the first time in years that once-familiar phrase: “If you do that too much, they’ll get stuck that way.”
Fall of my senior year my mother announced that I would attend Changes and Choices, my church’s first abstinence retreat. The idea of it embarrassed me. Sex and sexuality weren’t discussed in my house — my mother had never even bothered to explain them — and I no longer wanted answers to my questions. They seemed safer stowed away, however burning they once were, safer protected and unexamined, safer because they were mine. My mother worked at the church, though, and had an alliance with the youth pastor on conservative-versus-contemporary splits: when a member of the congregation complained that my mother, a woman, had helped serve Communion, he defended her in their staff meeting and backed her plan to have a Christmas Eve service without the blast of the organ. The abstinence retreat was the youth pastor’s idea and was considered “contemporary.” I was the first signed up. Then my mother called Marshall’s mother and encouraged her to do the same. Being good-natured, but not particularly worried about Marshall’s purity, she agreed.
The retreat began, like a lot of youth-group events at the church, with an icebreaker: Would you rather eat only your favorite meal for the rest of your life or never be able to eat your favorite meal again?
We sat in a circle on the couches in the youth room as we shared our answers. Marshall entered midway through, his sleeping bag tucked under his arm. He smiled at me as he took a seat on the nearest open armrest.
I thought about the lunch special at China Garden, the tang of the hot-and-sour soup, the snap of snow peas, the sweetness of their orange chicken. I thought of spanakopita, steak, my mother’s banana bread. I thought of how much I enjoyed Taco Bell, even though it wasn’t real food.
“I don’t have a favorite meal,” I told the room when it was my turn. I hated Would You Rather, its binaries.
“That’s a cop-out!” yelled the loudmouth of youth group, a boy whose entire personality was built around imitating Chris Farley and Will Ferrell. He thrived in this environment, with its built-in audience.
“Fine,” I said, rolling my eyes, no doubt, at the game’s thinly veiled premise. “Never again, because I like trying new things.”
The person to my left answered, “My favorite meal is a sandwich, and a sandwich can be anything, so I’d rather eat a sandwich for the rest of my life.”
A few comments were made, then the eyes of the circle turned to Marshall.
“Sure, yeah, I like sandwiches,” he said. People stared and laughed, then the youth pastor explained the game.
“Oh, I get it,” he said. “It’s a metaphor.”
I could have kissed him.
The evening oscillated between broomball and Sardines, karaoke and Mario Kart, those wholesome ways to have fun, and biology lessons, journaling, skits, and videos. So many videos. We watched a sex-ed tape from the early nineties in which middle-aged white people wearing Flavor Flav clocks and parachute pants rapped about hormones. We laughed at how dumb they looked and sounded before anonymously jotting down sex questions on slips of paper. “Can a woman get pregnant if she’s already pregnant?” someone had written. “Can it happen again?”
We learned how STDs are transmitted (not by handshakes or kissing) and how many confirmed cases of HIV were in the county, our own suburbs. We were told that pregnancy wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to us if we had sex, because unlike AIDS, babies wouldn’t kill us. Then we played tournament foosball. On the whiteboard, next to the growing pro-and-con list about having sex before marriage — pro: it feels good, everybody’s doing it; con: teen pregnancy, lasting unhappiness, death — I recorded the scores.
After the tournament we sat in small groups on the floor of the multipurpose room, which had been my middle-school cafeteria. I still thought of it that way, remembering the rectangles of nearly edible pizza and the plastic cups of still-frozen peaches, the table where one boy put pubic hair on another boy’s PB and J. The youth pastor stood at the front and held up a box of Thin Mints. He opened one plastic sleeve, pinched a single cookie between two fingers, and rotated his hand in front of each group as if he were showing us a card or a coin or an empty top hat. “Who wants to eat this cookie?” he said to a few obliging hands.
He picked Dan, a boy in Marshall’s group, who was positioned on one end of our small arc. “OK, Dan. You can have this cookie.” Then he walked to the other end of the room and handed the cookie to another boy, Gabriel. Unlike Dan, Gabriel wasn’t athletic, and he’d been homeschooled until high school. He was kind and had a nice face, but I usually distanced myself from him because he seemed to like me too much.
“Can you pass this to Dan?” the youth pastor asked. Gabriel began to stand up. “No,” the youth pastor said. “Stay in your seat and pass it.” Gabriel paused, a look of confusion on his face (had he not sat through similar pointless exercises in his schooling?), then handed the cookie to the next person, who in turn handed it to the next. It passed from the hands of Heidi, who in eighth grade had gone to Ronnie’s Plaza on Friday nights and blown boys from different schools in dark movie theaters, and into the hands of Jessica, a friend of mine, who was dating Dan and could often be seen cuddling with him on a youth-room couch.
These actions hardly defined them. (Heidi, after transferring to public school, had turned studious, prude even, and Jessica sang lead in the youth pastor’s praise band and had an angelic voice.) Yet as the cookie passed between us under the gaze of adult chaperones and guys our own age — guys who were our boyfriends or crushes or just friends; guys who secured more votes than us in class elections, who repeated our good ideas and jokes and were given credit; guys who explained things to us as if we didn’t already understand; guys who pulled Nintendo controllers out of our hands, who drove doughnuts in snowy parking lots while we froze, our white-knuckled fists passive in our laps — these actions are what I thought about.
The mood in the room wasn’t exactly serious. The loudmouth pretended to lick the cookie before passing it, but the gleeful revulsion this produced receded into an obedient quiet, as if we’d been instructed to stand for the national anthem. I had never sung that song sincerely, but my sincerity hardly mattered. I was to put my right hand over my heart and endure it until it finished.
By the time the cookie got to Marshall, the chocolate was melting, streaking his fingers. He passed it along then let his hand dangle off his knee, rather than interrupt to go wash the chocolate off. He looked vaguely annoyed by this. Marshall was a clean person, kept hand sanitizer in his car. I remembered the blood. Those same fingers. The scared look on his face. I felt a familiar disgust.
I was the cookie, wasn’t I? That was the lesson? I was an object handled, smeared, and crumbled, not the fingers attached to the hand, the arm, the head?
“Do you want to eat the cookie still?” the youth pastor asked Dan. The Thin Mint was covered in palm sweat and fingerprints, a lone blonde hair, and dirt from when someone dropped it. Dan chuckled as he said no, the answer the youth pastor wanted.
Did Dan ever feel shame? I wondered. He had a distinctly male confidence, seemed too handsome, too amiable, the human equivalent of a golden retriever.
“We are like that cookie,” the youth pastor explained, though the point he was trying to make was already obvious: With each person a woman slept with she became dirtier, less desirable. She would never find her soulmate. Or, if she did, her soulmate wouldn’t want her, because who wants someone that can’t be wholeheartedly consumed?
Coming out of the bathroom afterward, Marshall saw me and smiled. “This is the weirdest date we’ve ever been on,” he joked, but I could tell by the way his eyes shifted that the game had affected him, too. As I said, we were both good kids. Good mostly because we were good in school. We copied notes off the board. We followed instructions and showed our work. Why? Because we liked to? Or because our ambition came out of fear? A gnawing feeling that we were the source of our unhappiness and we needed to achieve in order to be loved? Simple self-hatred?
Did I hate myself? I don’t think I did, in spite of everything.
I grabbed Marshall’s butt.
“Hey!” he said. “God’s watching!”
I narrowed my eyes, and he kissed me on the nose, then my mouth. My heart fluttered. We’d been dating eight months, and he still gave me butterflies.
After a short break, the group reconvened, though some of the retreat’s participants were excused from the next activity because their parents found it objectionable. An adult volunteer, a nurse with kids too young to be sitting on the floor surrounding her, was slated to demonstrate the condom-banana exercise. I was surprised to be included in this group. I couldn’t even watch a rom-com with my mother without her pausing after love scenes to reiterate, “You know you shouldn’t do that, right?”
I didn’t know the volunteer, but I recognized her from services. She looked clean-cut in a way that reminded me of Dial soap.
“It’s best to wait until you’re married to have sex,” she said, looking to the youth pastor as she pulled a condom out of the box on the table in front of her. “But it’s important to know these things for when you do get married, or in case you have a friend who is sexually active and irresponsible, you can help.”
I couldn’t imagine who would possibly want my help with this or how describing the demonstration would be useful. The volunteer’s voice was confident, but her face looked nervous, as if, instead of being invited, she had insisted on being here. She fumbled with the condom, dropping it once, then knocked the box with her elbow, sending some of its contents sliding behind the radiator. When she finally opened the wrapper, she froze for a second, uncertain, it seemed, of how to hold the banana while unrolling the condom or uncertain of the banana itself.
I had never seen a condom, but I had seen a penis. I had also seen videos of two vaginal births and one cesarean in my freshman-year health class. How backward is that? Everything in the wrong order. I looked at the nurse and the purple condom, the greenish-yellow banana curving like — I tried to remain expressionless, to not let my face betray me. If only there had been giggling. But I think everyone was too embarrassed: embarrassed by this woman, this woman who had produced two children, embarrassed by her fumbling, embarrassed by ourselves and our own fumbling, which had happened in secret or not at all.
I don’t know if anyone else in youth group was fooling around. They may have been just like me, but it didn’t feel like it. I felt alone and singled out and dissolving, which was what a lot of high school felt like. I noticed several girls averting their eyes as the nurse rolled down the condom.
Mostly, what is left to describe is the prickle I felt on my arms sitting next to Marshall on the cold tile floor. I could feel the heat of him next to me and tried not to let my leg touch his leg, my arm his arm, though it seemed they wanted to all on their own. I crossed my arms in front of my chest in the way I knew looked unfriendly, uncooperative — I had been reprimanded for it before.
Late in the evening we returned to the youth room and its sinking, hand-me-down couches. I found myself laughing unexpectedly at a joke I didn’t find funny, made by a person I didn’t particularly like. I was a little loopy from the lack of sleep, a little buzzed on caffeine, which I’m sure was the point. The retreat was a sleepover, after all, and in the sleepovers of my youth, this was when inside jokes were made, secrets told, and gossip shared.
At the front of the room, waiting for the group to quiet down, the youth pastor stood in silence as he rubbed his hand against the back of his head. Though he was still young, he had been balding for a long time and no longer appeared self-conscious about it. He was confident and dorky in the way most youth pastors seem to be. He dropped his hand, and his voice turned intimate, confessional. After asking us not to repeat it, he told a story intended to illustrate that losing your virginity is a terrifying, horrible experience, so it’s best to go through it with someone you love and are committed to forever.
The story was about how he and his wife had saved themselves for their wedding night. They had a wonderful ceremony in her hometown in Indiana and were very happy. Then they consummated the marriage in a hotel room three stories above the reception hall. She cried the whole time and afterward dressed and took the elevator to the lobby to call her mother. She told her that she wanted to come home and asked for a ride. Her mother talked her down from this plan. She went back upstairs, and they went to sleep. Now, the youth pastor said, he’s quite good at sex, and his wife enjoys herself.
I fixed my eyes on my feet during this story, aware that sharing it was inappropriate. I knew his wife — first as the picture above his desk when he had started his job at the church, a pink-cheeked senior in college and not yet his fiancée, and then as a living, breathing person. The woman in this story was the same woman whose photo hung adjacent to this early picture, her hair done up in curls, posed in front of a red barn in a white gown, holding a bouquet of yellow daisies.
This was the same woman my family had helped move into her studio apartment when she and the youth pastor were just engaged. The apartment had mud-brown carpet and a little two-burner stove and a window that peered into an alleyway with a dumpster people were always rooting through, pulling out rusted skillets and clothes hangers and lampshades, the detritus of moving out in a hurry, left-behind items that are harder to carry than replace.
She was the same woman who, once she and the youth pastor were married, accompanied the youth group on a service trip to Cleveland, and who had wanted desperately, though she knew they couldn’t afford it, a T-shirt from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The woman whose face shone when the youth pastor surprised her with it, a loving, reckless action.
I had stood next to her at the gift shop, had watched her trace her index finger under the collar of the shirt, lay the fabric against her chest as she might an infant, then gently fold it before turning away, saying, “I can’t justify the price.” And this, I thought, was what had transpired between them: that ordinary shirt, a great capacity for hope, and an intimate knowledge of disappointment. I wanted to weep for her remembering this, picturing her alone by the alleyway window, looking forward to moving out, to moving in with her husband, to permission to desire and have exactly what she wanted.
I caught Marshall’s eye.
Soon it was time to sleep, and the youth room was split down the center: girls on one side, boys on the other. A movie played quietly on the TV at the front of the room, the only illumination. I say movie, but of course I remember what it was: The Princess Bride, a fairy tale about waiting for “true love.” I waited until the man in black reached the Cliffs of Insanity, then stuffed my pillow and backpack inside my sleeping bag and crept out to the hall.
The church’s basement was unfinished and used primarily as a storage closet. I knew the key was on top of the doorframe because all the choir music and handbells were kept down there. I had noted the key’s placement once when helping my mother put these items away, as if I had known, deep down, that one day I would use it, as I had noted the condoms abandoned behind the radiator.
I turned the key and descended the stairs. The basement smelled like old paper, like an earlier, outdated era. I pulled the cord for the bare bulb that hung from the ceiling, the light barely reaching the room’s corners. I didn’t know how much longer I’d have to wait or if all my waiting would be in vain. In the quiet I could hear my heart beating, marking the seconds between that moment and the moment that lay beyond it. I raised my hand in front of my face to see if it was shaking, but it was a steady, sure hand.
Finally Marshall appeared at the top of the stairs, a smile spreading across his face, which I watched as I felt my own smile spread across mine. On the bottom step he leaned in and kissed me. I stood on my toes to reach him.
Together we pulled the thick mats that were used to dampen the reverberating ring of bells into the center of the room. On top we spread Marshall’s sleeping bag. Then we fell against each other and removed our layers of clothing, searching blindly with our mouths and hands, as if we thought we might find something that had been lost or buried, an unknown, ephemeral substance we had neglected so far in our lives.