the first time

The Girl With the Plan

This is the piece I read at CHIRP's benefit event The First Time. If you don't know what I'm talking about, cool. Go read this first. Otherwise, read on.)

One day, in sixth grade, the girls and boys filed into separate classrooms for sex ed. We watched videos about our bodies and how they worked, how they were going to change in the next few years. The girls were sent home with sealed, pink and white plastic packages full of…supplies. What those supplies were, I have no idea.
Because when I got home, I stuffed that package deep into a drawer. And I never opened it. I shoved it so far beneath my stack of T-shirts and pajamas that I forgot it even existed, until we moved many years later. I half wondered when my mother might sit me down to have "the talk" and explain the mysteries of life and what might happen as I got older, started to develop, met boys and fell in love.
But she didn't. There was never any talk of birds or bees at all in my house. It wasn't a Jesus thing, or a scarred-by-teen-pregnancy thing. And my mother and I were close by all other accounts. We just. Didn't. Talk. About sex.

But for all the womanly wisdom my mother failed to share with me, she made up for it with unspoken lessons on planning. My early years were full of beautifully set holiday tables and parties with perfectly packaged goodie bags. She planned every moment, from delivery of her custom-designed invitations to locking the door behind the last guest.
When I hit puberty, I was still clueless about sex. But I did know a thing or two about planning. So I made one for my love life. I'd have the man, and the ring, and a pile of black and white Crate & Barrel boxes in the foyer, by the time I hit 26 and a half. I could see my dress in my head. There would be a string quartet. And after I was married, I'd have babies by the time I was 30. Never mind how the babies would actually…be…made.

Sex was a void in my consciousness. My life went on without thinking about it, without caring about it. I dated in high school, but I dated nerds who never had the guts to attempt second base, let alone bring up sex. I didn't read Cosmo. A tattered issue came out once at a sleepover, and my girlfriends started quizzing me to find out my "moan zone." (If you're wondering, it was my scalp.) I blushed and changed the subject.
Where sex was concerned, all I had to go on was the abstract, hazily romantic notion I'd gathered from movies. In movies, sex was magic. It was a moment between two people when souls came together and bodies collided. But the bodies were never the important part. What happened during those swelling musical interludes didn't matter. As for my life, I assumed I'd just understand it all when I was ready, and I knew it would be perfect and charmed, just like in a movie.

The story of my first time begins in high school, during my freshman year.
I was a little rough around the edges at 14. Bushy eyebrows with hair to match. Size 10 feet I still hadn’t quite grown into and B cups barely worth growing into. I'd learned a lot about the ways of the suburban power woman from my mother, but my social graces still needed a bit of polish.
Chris was a year older; we met in French class, where we were seated together, alphabetically, near the back of the room. He was bookish and charming, a member of the academic decathlon team. He had downy brown hair and wire-rim glasses. We swapped papers in class and exchanged bits of broken French dialog, and I fell hard. And somehow, by October, we were piled into the backseat of his dad's Mercedes, on our way to the Homecoming dance together. In photos of that night, the bushy eyebrows were as tamed as they could be, and beneath them, I beamed openly.
But once we were at the dance, I learned we were there as friends. The night ended with little more than a platonic squeeze, and I felt as if my plan for a quiet, white-picket-fence life had been stabbed through like a pin through the stem of his boutonniere.

After that, I moved on to more manageable boyfriends: less clever, less charming, less refined. He moved on too, but to National Merit Scholarships, near-perfect SAT scores and, eventually, college.
I graduated a year after he did, went off to college and did more of that sexless nerdboy dating. Then I moved to New York to do the Midwestern girl in the big city thing — like Sex & the City without the sex — and after a year there, I heard from Chris again. It had been eight years.

Since I'd last seen him, I'd discovered eyebrow threading, bought a flatiron and outgrown the B cups. Even better? I lived in New York. I didn't need him — I was hot shit. Hot… Virginal… Undateable shit. No guy would see me past a first date. It seemed, in New York, if you wouldn't put out, the next girl would.
I was 24 years old —I wanted to have sex. I did. But at that point, I wasn't going to give it up for just anyone. I'd been jerked around and felt cheap enough getting dumped for being a virgin. The idea of having sex just to make myself marketable, then learning I still wasn't good enough? No, thank you.

It was a lonely life.

But then there he was again, bookish, charming Chris. He was living in Chicago. We reconnected over MySpace. Our eight years apart might as well have been eight seconds. My latent feelings came raging back to the surface, and it seemed he was smitten with me, too: One moment, we were joking about getting together for Friday night happy hour; the next, he was cashing in thousands of frequent flier miles to visit me in New York.
And as soon as I picked him up from Penn Station, I knew. Chris was the one. With a capital O. Our story was straight out of the movies: childhood friends meet again and fall for each other.
At the end of a weekend of wine, fancy dinners, long walks and hot-and-heavy makeout sessions, we were working on the kind of ooey-gooey romance I'd been looking for. But my plan to be married by 26 and a half was still looking pretty unlikely, so I made a new plan. During his family's annual trip to a beach house in the Outer Banks, I would lose my virginity. Smack in the middle of our week there. Time enough to settle into the environment and, if it was a disaster, time enough to get over it and find our bearings again before we went our separate ways. Sex on a Wednesday.
Very practical, very doable.

The end of July came, and we arrived in North Carolina. For the first few days, we lounged in the sand, read books and chatted with just about every member of his extended family. Everyone loved me, even Chris's grandmother, who demanded I call her Nana. All the while, I smiled the secret smile of a girl about to get some. Wednesday morning, I let him in on the plan. Told him with a gleam in my eye that I thought I was finally ready. And he was on board.
Surprisingly, after waiting so long, I wasn't psyched out. I wasn't nervous. All my fear of the unknown had been erased because I was in control. There was a plan in place.

That night, we went to the grocery store to pick up spinach, pasta, ice cream and my first box of condoms. We made dinner, played a round of Apples to Apples with his family then retreated to our room, just a flight of stairs down from the living room where the festivities continued without us. We sat on the edge of the bed and watched part of a French movie we'd seen in class the year we met. Then we went for it. My carefully chosen bra and underwear came off with no snags or stuck hooks. All the parts fit. There was no pain, no awkwardness… and none of the movie magic I'd expected.
Somewhere between unrolling one of the condoms we'd just bought and exclaiming, "Wait…that's it? But it was so…easy!", I realized you can't actually plan a Wednesday evening of movie-magic sex. It was less soul-meets-body and more…Everybody Loves Raymond.
As a joke, he presented me with a purple "Participation Award" Dime Store ribbon as we got dressed. That was cute…at the time. The following day, he took me out for the congratulatory two-person pizza party I'd half-kiddingly demanded for losing my virginity. I happily gobbled up my victory pie, even allowed myself an extra trip to the buffet. But in the midst of all our ironic revelry, I was so…disappointed.
I'd planned the whole thing so well that I'd ruled out spontaneity and passion and magic entirely. Even worse, I was still the same old me with sex as I had been without. No character development. All I had was the satisfaction of a successfully executed plan, and that wasn't as satisfying as I'd hoped.

But in the movies, sex is never a simple thing. There's always at least another hour of plot twists and complications before the final resolution. There was still hope for my happily ever after. So I attempted to advance the plot again that night. Still full from our afterglow pizza, we sat on a porch swing together, swinging our sandy legs in unison. I stared out onto the water and thanked him for the night before and everything that had come before it. I grabbed his hand, took a deep breath and laid it all out there. I told him I loved him.
In the pink-grey light of the early evening, I saw a hint of a grimace on his face, then it was gone. His hand went limp for a moment, then he gave mine a squeeze. God, I recognized that squeeze. He took his own deep breath and said, "I don't think I'm quite ready for the Big L yet." I half expected it, considering it took him eight years just to realize he should date me. But even understanding that he could care about me without that four-letter word behind it, I felt betrayed. I thought this time was different. But I was already hurtling back to freshman year, bushy eyebrows and all, realizing the boy I loved had taken me to Homecoming as a friend. Another boutonniere pin, straight through the heart.
My plan to lose my virginity to someone I could trust, one who wouldn't toy with my heart, had been foiled. It took moving to Chicago to be closer to him and waiting another six months for me to realize he probably never would be ready for "the big L." Not with me.

As the credits rolled on our not-so-movie-magical relationship, I made a new plan:
No more planning.
Maybe soul and body didn't necessarily have to go together.
But I'll save that for the sequel.

Finding common ground.

Last night…
Wow.

OK.
So, last month, one of my Twitter friends, @smussyolay, friended me on Facebook and subsequently invited me to participate in a reading that would benefit CHIRP: the Chicago Independent Radio Project.
It was an honor to be asked, and I loved the idea of writing a piece all about (well, kind of) the first time I had sex. Because I've never really allowed myself to dig into that experience and think about it too hard. So it would be a good exercise, regardless.
But no big deal, really. Right?
Yeah, wrong.

Here's the thing: I didn't realize, honestly, what a big deal it was until I arrived last night at Uncommon Ground on Devon. I'd left work early so I could get my eyebrows done and primp beforehand, carefully chose my outfit and headed to the venue super early so I wouldn't be late. But those are all things I do because I like to have things just. so.
Well, I finally met "Smussy" — known to me as Jocelyn because I don't know her well enough and have to know the story behind her nickname before I start calling her by it — and heard words like "green room" and "performers" being thrown around, and I suddenly thought, "Shit. I'm going to be on stage. In front of people. An audience. Like a choir concert, only spoken and about sex instead of sung Latin that no one understands."
We sat and had a drink at the bar while we waited for the other performers to arrive; I sipped a lemon ginger martini to soothe my nerves, while she amped up on a Coke — not that she needed a caffeine boost. I've never seen so much nervous energy put to good use in my life. If it's possible to be in a controlled frenzy, that was Jocelyn.
One by one, the readers arrived: Margaret Hicks, Steve Frisbie, Leah Jones, Scott Smith (who also has a sort of…Chuck Norris–esque tribute blog set up in his honor, called "Fuck Yeah, Scott Smith!" — but I can't Google that from work and risk setting off the IT alarms) and Rebecca Langguth. We met Karen Louis, our eighth, downstairs in the green room, where we were treated to chilled bottles of Goose Island 312 and a free, delicious dinner. Sure, I could get used to that.

I felt like the odd woman out in the group. It was my first reading ever; I'm at least five years younger than the next-youngest person there; I'm nowhere near as cool as the rest of them. (Though I'm happy to say that I left the cardigan sweater at home, at the risk of seeming even more Pollyanna than usual.)
But, as it turns out, the others were actually cool in the way that they make less-cool people feel moreso. We all got along swimmingly. My completely baseless fears that this group of readers would be like a high school clique were immediately quashed.
Then we were late and it was time to get started. When Jocelyn got up on stage to introduce the first reader, the room was filled to capacity: a little more than 60 people. Siiiiixty. Only a few of which I actually knew — though I love the friends who could make it so dearly that I can't even contain myself.
At that point, I was equal parts petrified and enthralled. The evening hurtled forward.

The talent in the room was absolutely shocking. So much thought and heart and humor went into crafting the pieces. Which were hilarious, heartbreaking, sweet, triumphant. Not just one of those things, either; most were a jumbled combination of all of them, and more. Which is pretty much what you'd expect from written accounts of a first sexual experience, no?
Following each piece, a three-piece band played a song of the writer's choosing. Marvin Gaye, The Smiths, Death Cab for Cutie, Modern English, Extreme, Van Morrison. Amazing.
About halfway through the event, the audience had loosened up enough to join in an impromptu singalong to "More Than Words." As if putting ourselves out there had made them comfortable enough to put themselves out there, off key and at the tops of their lungs. Or maybe it was the drinks. Either way.

I was fourth in the lineup, and I don't remember much.
I was blind with fear — and picturing the audience in their underwear just isn't effective when you're reading about being in less than that yourself — and couldn't hear myself speaking into the microphone. I just focused on the page, focused on the story and tried to put myself back in the situation.
I hear I did well.
There were moments when I had to stop reading because people were laughing. Howling. Applauding. Before I was even finished.
OK, I did well. I know I did.
Last night, I was a badass.
After nearly 10 minutes of talking, I stumbled off the stage and the band led into Death Cab's "Soul Meets Body."

I guess the only thing left to do now is post the piece, yeah?