You come to his house after practice having carefully showered and shaved in the girls’ locker room. You wear a green cotton dress he can pull over your head. Has, in fact. It is April. Daffodils are blooming in his front garden. His parents aren’t there when you arrive—they never are. Sometimes you pretend it’s your house together, assume the roles of enamored young couple as you cook dinner in the spotless kitchen. Knowing still that
your doppelgängers are the mother and father who work too late and don’t talk and have concerned their lives with their child, his achievements. You are too happy together to have endured what it took to purchase this house, the German steel knives, the landscaped pool where your laughter buoys up across the water, unheard.
He comes down the stairs. “Hi,” in a new shirt and his hair freshly combed. You wish he hadn’t. Why is it that when we want our clothes to be ripped off we take special care with them? Make something unnecessarily beautiful only for the purpose of remembering, so that the act is assigned significant meaning. For the same reason we raise elaborate memorials and fill kings’ graves with emeralds, this boy has put on a new shirt; you have worn expensive lingerie.
You meant for your hair to be dry but it is not and when he tries to put a hand through it he laughs. He’s shaking, like the first time he kissed you in the car after a party where your conversation was so intense that you forgot to drink. You knew and he knew and in that knowing was inevitability. You finally did what you had been dancing around for months.
In those early days you were unable to meet his eyes but now you stare straight into them, no longer afraid of how much he knows about you. You have worn yourselves into each other like grooves on a hinge. Your friends think you’ve been doing this for months. You both pretend not to be nervous because you presume to operate on a higher plane, thinking yourselves level-headed and intellectual. Sex is decidedly within the realm of the mainstream, the commonly-enjoyed. Your calculated delaying of the act is romantic in a sense, but also arrogant.
Teenage lust is beneath you, unacknowledged; you are adamant about the existence of some deeper connection. And still you sit and talk about books and films and art and sometimes you just want to say, Touch me. You don’t have to prove anything.
In the end when you are both too serious and silent he writes you songs, puts to music what he cannot tell you. They still exist, though you cannot bring yourself to listen to them. You think he burned your letters. Hope. When both of you are famous—or one of you, at least; it is inevitable, you decided together long ago—they will publish your correspondences, the foolish eleventh-grade earnestness, your immaculate script. You thought you could make him fall in love with your handwriting; he claimed to. You offered him small pieces of yourself to love, too scared to reveal the whole thing. Understanding—as your mother and grandmothers and their mothers knew—that to give yourself completely to a man is dangerous. Especially if he says he loves you.
In his childhood bedroom in your green cotton dress you can smell cut grass. The window is open. You imagine how you will describe his room to your friends at college, because you imagine that at college you will sit around and talk about your first time. The middle-aged decorator’s conception of a boy’s bedroom (taupe walls, rugged furniture) is interrupted by his band posters, historical photographs. And your drawings, which he found lying in the bottom of your desk and framed. Through the window there is a bird feeder, within your grasp. “Hummingbirds,” you say. He nods. The veins in his arms are raised. You are nervous. He is terrified. “I don’t want to hurt you,” he says.
You’re not scared about the act itself—having grown up in an age with access to unlimited information, the physical details are not mysterious to you. It’s not being naked with him, it’s being open—which you have done on late nights and lazy afternoons but never for this stretch of time. The way you work together is in code, in jesting, in cloaked adoration. Two cowards in love. In the months, weeks, days leading up to this you have made jokes about it but during the act itself are forced to be sincere. You cannot ironically make love, you cannot sarcastically bite his earlobes; your partner derives no pleasure from your pretending not to notice him. You are afraid of giving everything and being told that you are Not Enough.
And as he kisses you in the valley of your hipbones the flat plane of your clavicle you whisper into his hair I love you I love you I love you and he says you’re mine you’re mine you’re mine only you are not saying the words they are being traced across the ceiling which suddenly clouds dark. God.
“It’s normal,” you reassure each other afterwards, having recovered superficially. You trace each other’s bodies on the bed sheets, find all your limbs intact. And of course nothing is the same after that, the possibility of those late spring afternoons opened up to lust, love a weakness neither one of you can conquer. To need. To know that you are somehow less without the other.
One afternoon he explains to you how memories are created by the connection of certain synapses, a series of reactions whose specific order leads us back to the act itself. Each time that we remember, these connections are traced and written over again.
The first time is important because you have gone from not knowing to knowing and the words you use to describe it are the ones you’ll use your whole life. Each successive experience just like the first. Over and over, it is rewritten—different characters, details slightly changed. There will be better and there will be worse but they will never be the first.
So when he leaves, you tear yourself apart. Whittling away the body he once knew. As if by changing the form, you could forget him. As if the memories transcribed would leave a body made foreign. You shift shape, adjusting colors and limbs and hoping to land on the correct combination. Moving through strings of boys, lock finding key, notches on the headboard, seeking bodies as if there’s something you have lost in them.
They call it losing your virginity because a woman’s value rests upon her purity. We pretend it’s different, now. When he comes back to you he asks How many; you don’t answer, but still don’t ask the same of him.
How many was not the proper question. How quiet were you with them? he should have asked, your silence as a form of protest, words saved for the one you think deserves them. In this way, you have been chaste. He is the only one who can inspire from you sounds you are ashamed of. Sounds you share.
You cannot do anything to forget this, but both try. In the year between his leaving for college and your staying he calls you blackout drunk to say, “I want to fuck you.” As if it were a burden; as if he blames you for it. In response you want to say, I want to go back to only kissing you, or I want to forget what it feels like to make love while in love, or I want you to forget me. In response you want to say, Give it back. Give me back every memory, every noise, every piece of knowledge that allows you to recreate me when you are absent. You cannot have me having left me.
The next morning he sends a polite text, “I’m sorry I called you last night; I know it isn’t fair.” (He’s the only boy you know who would use a semicolon in a text message; he’s the only boy you could imagine loving your entire life). But he keeps coming back to you through the phone as you languish at your desk dark into senior winter, losing your mind with anxiety. His calls a reminder that you would not find what you wanted out there, that in some ivy-covered campus he too was miserable.
It didn’t mean anything, you try to tell yourself. Lots of people have their first time with someone they barely know and do not dwell on it; how are you different? You have been with others after him; assigning importance to the first one seems Puritanical and sexually regressive. It didn’t mean anything. Look how easily it’s done. Look how readily you give yourself no preparations no shared secrets no late afternoons the light coming in sideways through the window obscuring his broad smile. No words.
In the moments immediately afterwards he asked you, “Was it painful?”
“No,” you marvelled, thinking yourself freed. Reaffirming your belief that you were an exception. Because all those books and magazines you read—they said it was supposed to hurt, then, and it didn’t. It hurts now.
Because now you realize it was not the sex that meant something. The eager clumsy fumblings, the frantic kisses—these were not profound. The cultural hysteria over Your First Time still silly, but not for the same reasons your scornful teenage self believed. You knew how sex worked and thought that precluded preparations further than a playlist and an empty house. He wore a condom and to both of you this meant, No Consequences. You were not suddenly enlightened about orgasms; instead, you were made aware of what it was like, for the first time, to be loved. Sex did not change the space between you—it merely forced you to acknowledge an intimacy already shared. A marble monument cannot equal the grief of mourners left behind; an afternoon spent in his bedroom is not the summation of your love. It merely suggests it. Leaves it to the visitor to decide. To remember.