I marked the day I was scheduled to lose my virginity on the calendar—October 28, 2002. The square was annotated with a caricature of a mustachioed penis flexing his veiny biceps. I drew the doodle in June when I first used the date to defer Kim’s advances. I promised her that she could take my virginity on her birthday, if we stayed together that long.
When the day arrived I did not feel much like that cartoonish he-man raising his bulging penis-arms in victory. I sat waiting on my twin mattress, my back to the wall and my knees folded into my arms—the classic duck-and-cover pose of grammar school disaster drills. The scene was romantically lit by a few candles I kept in case of a power outage. My bump-and-grind soundtrack played on repeat loud enough to muffle any stray sex sounds that might escape the room. The playlist was built around John Mayer’s, “Your Body is a Wonderland.” The song was quite possibly more annoying to my neighbors than the prospect of novice sex noises. Originally Kim had asked if this song could be our song. I couldn’t understand why we needed a song, or why she had chosen one that seemed so self-aggrandizing. Her body was too cushiony and comfortable to be a wonderland. As usual I agreed, making the private consolation that each time it played, I’d silently mutter my amended version of the lyrics:
“If you want love, then fake it.”
The mood music, the candles, the butterfly stretches—I felt as prepared as I could be to lose my virginity. I also had some pink, drug-store champagne chilling in a wastepaper basket filled with ice, and a gift-wrapped picture frame. The frame contained a photo of Kim and me from her high school homecoming dance weeks before. It was accompanied by a poem I penned for the occasion. Something about the world ending as we made love into oblivion. I felt like a small town mayor preparing to bestow the key to the city on some foreign dignitary who was passing through. I knew Kim would not care about this poem. She couldn’t even be bothered to read the online summaries of books she was assigned in her remedial, high school courses. I knew too that she’d quickly brush the poem aside in favor of popping the champagne in a few messy streams of foam. Still, I felt compelled to mark the occasion somehow and I knew I couldn’t count on her to present me with anything: an engraved watch, a handkerchief embroidered with the date, or even a sentimental pair of underwear.
I’d never seriously considered the particulars of how I would lose my virginity. If you asked me as a boy I might have described something akin to a wedding or a civic celebration: streamers, cheering, an orgy of fireworks bombarding the heavens. As I grew up, the more these background details faded from my fantasies. The prerequisites of marriage and love lost their importance as well. Even the particulars of my first sex partner seemed trivial. The role was perpetually filled by whomever happened through my erotic imagination during rigorous moments of self exploration.
My virginity itself had long lost its romantic appeal as a precious commodity to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. More and more it just felt like a clumsy marker of my youth, something to be traded away to the first reasonable offer that came along. Kim presented just such a proposition.
My landline rang over the music.
“Let me in,” Kim said. “You locked the door.”
* * *
We did not bother locking the door to Kim’s parents’ room as we cuddled in our swimsuits in their California King bed. They had left for the weekend, giving Kim the run of their mini mansion to throw a graduation pool party for her senior friends. The party had emptied out with the ice chest, leaving the two of us bobbing in her hot tub like beer bottles. Taking my hand, she led me to her parents’ room to watch a horror movie on their big screen television. In the film, the killer seemed to target the most promiscuous teens. The mark of death transferred between the characters like a fast-acting STD. I complained that the film was inaccurate, that in reality the naïve virgins would be the first to die, while the most accomplished sluts would outwit the killer with their feminine charms. My contempt for virginity confused Kim.
“According to your theory,” she said, “you should really fuck me so you have a better chance of surviving the zombie apocalypse.”
“Maybe,” I said, “But that might also increase my chances of being murdered by your axe-wielding father.”
Kim persisted. I delivered a catalogue of reasons why we couldn’t have sex, the first of which being that we didn’t really know each other. The second was that we worked together. We had met months before when she started working at P.F. Chang’s. But, she had only entered the number of my landline in her cellphone hours before, saving my last name as Chang when I refused to remind her what it was. In truth, I had not paid her much attention before her party either. I hadn’t even planned on drinking until Kim said that I could sleep over if I got too drunk, that a bunch of her girlfriends were staying the night.
In the end, all of my arguments for having sex with Kim distilled to a single excuse.
“You’re too young.”
“I’m hell-a old for my age,” she said. “I’ve had to grow up a lot in the last year.”
She told me the story of how her father had lost the family’s fortune when the stock market crashed along with the World Trade Center. The bank took everything, including Kim’s horse, which had wandered like a dog around their estate on some California hillside. To keep the government from taking the last of their savings, her father sunk their remaining money into this mini-mansion in the Texas hill country.
This tale was somehow meant to show how grounded she was, how tragedy had forced her to grow old before her time. It was also meant to explain why she had snorted rails of cocaine on a school trip to Disneyland and had slept with seven, or so, guys, all of whom she had nicknamed things like Studly and Stubby. The whole thing struck me as a perverse version of Snow White and the seven dwarves.
To demonstrate her equestrian prowess, Kim straddled me and grinded against my resolve. She spoke dirty to me, telling me how she had been repeatedly tested for STDs while searching for a birth control that would help her lose weight and clear the alleged blemishes lurking beneath her waterproof makeup. She told me how, when she got a prescription for Accutane, she had signed an agreement to terminate any pregnancy that occurred while on the drug, as the acne medicine mutated fetuses in monstrous ways.
In the end I convinced her that we should just cuddle. Kim was baffled. So many guys had used blue balls as an excuse to have sex with her that she thought the term referred to a genuine medical condition. She couldn’t understand what sick thrills I got from holding out, or cuddling. She kept pointing to my boner as evidence against my argument. I just held her to me and chuckled as my erection nested against her pillowy ass.
* * *
Kim and I lay naked on my bed, twisted in sheets damp with sweet and champagne. I held her close, clutching at the last pulses of ecstasy pumping out of me with each down stroke of my slowing heart.
My reflections on the moment already overshadowed the details of the physical act. In truth, I doubt now I could even pick her body out of a naked lineup. I do, however, clearly remember thinking how the experience felt exactly as I expected—anticlimactic.
I gripped my fallen soldier, trying in vain to keep the blood from draining out. Desire was replaced by the same sense of shame that filled me after marathon masturbation sessions when I realized I had wasted an hour surfing the web for the perfect, twenty-second clip of free porn to end with. I did not feel like I had lost my innocence. I felt I had lost years of my life believing sex was some spiritual event–an endpoint. Not only did I feel like I was wasting my time with Kim, but that I was wasting my time with women in general when sex felt little better than assisted masturbation.
Kim wanted to go again, but I was too depressed to feel sexy. I pulled her close with my left hand as my right settled between her legs. The gesture was as familiar and sedating as masturbating myself. As my fingers worked, I considered the problem of how to make sex more memorable. There was only a finite combination of ways in which the puzzle pieces of human sexuality could fit together. The only potential for variety, it seemed, was to introduce a parade of novel partners. As Kim’s moans began to stack atop each other, I wondered how much more notable the experience would have been with a random partner whose every chasm and peak I had yet to explore and name.
“Well,” Kim said after catching her breath and wiggling out of my arms to get dressed. “What do you want to do now?”
* * *
Kim broke up with me before she went on a cruise to Jamaica. I broke up with her before I vacationed with my brother in Puerto Vallarta. She broke up with me before camping at Lake Travis with a bunch of really nice guys from her school. I broke up with her the day before my apartment complex threw a back-to-school kegger. She broke up with me when she initiated a three-way kiss with her best friend, Nicky, then pulled out before either Nicky or I were finished kissing. I broke up with her when she confessed that she almost had a threesome with Nicky and a fireman before they realized he was equipped like a fire hose. Kim broke up with me when she switched to an injectable birth control that made her drop a few pounds, cleared her invisible pimples, and which didn’t require me to nag her about taking the pill each night.
I broke up with Kim on the flight to San Diego for spring break, when she wouldn’t stop telling me about how much fun she and Nicky had going out with their fake IDs, about all the really nice bartenders from P.F. Chang’s who worked weekend nights downtown at The Copper Tank. I took her back when all the rental car agents rejected her fake ID, and we were left spending the bulk of our vacation in her brother’s apartment, fucking our way through his porn collection.
After one such viewing we lay on his couch, our naked limbs tangled. We discussed how bored the porn actors must be hitting the same positions over and over. Her phone’s screen lit up with a call from “John Chang.” She ignored the call and silenced her phone.
“Are you going to break up with me when we get home?” I asked.
Kim’s hesitation was answer enough. In a calm, rational, even mature voice, she explained how we had grown apart, how we wanted different things. She liked going out to bars with her older friends from work while I liked, well she didn’t really know what I liked to do.
On the flight home we slept with our heads stacked atop each other, our hands and fingers interlaced as though braced for a crash. The runway jolted us awake. Kim broke from me to fish her cellphone out of her purse and turn it on. We stared down at it together, waiting to see what names emerged from the glowing green screen.
* * *
Kim called my landline at two in the morning, her voice lost in the crowd lingering outside The Copper Tank. My apartment was far closer than her parents’ house, and dealing with me easier than deferring the advances from all the nice guys who offered to take her home. I despised myself for agreeing to pick her up, but I also preferred that shame to the agony of lying home alone, imagining all of the other beds she might visit that night like a slutty tooth fairy.
In the previous month my relationship withdrawal had worsened into a chronic condition. A cold nausea perpetually filled my stomach. The only higher level thinking my mind could manage was in imagining detailed orgies of Kim’s limbs mixed up with several naked coworkers like a plate of chow mein.
If a broken heart wasn’t so common, it would be listed as a mental disorder on par with paranoid schizophrenia. Rationally I could see myself acting like a crazy person, but I was powerless to stop it. I felt like I was trapped in a horror movie, like I’d been invaded by microscopic body snatchers. I could almost see my millions of selfish genes conspiring to push me into situations that had terrible personal consequences, but which would yielded the highest chance of producing an offspring, some innocent new body for my genes to inhabit. It was these little demons that lead us into temptation, that make us confess our undying devotion to someone we just met, that convince us to return to broken relationships when new prospects fall through, that shackle us to partners, relationships, children, and lives we would never, soberly choose. It was these parasites that were to blame for a billion offenses, both great and small. Our genitals were weapons of mass destruction, creating unsustainable populations, leading men to feud, groups to battle, nations to war. Our selfish genes were our single-minded dictators, rallying support for their cause with baseless appeals to passion.
And yet, what other choice was there but to consent to the demands of these personal demons, to throw oneself with abandon into relationships, to search for self-realization in others, to believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that this time, the pursuit of lust and love would yield a happiness more permanent than the fleeting ecstasy of an orgasm.
Barefoot, Nicky used her heels like pickaxes to climb into the backseat of my idling car.
“What happened to your knuckles Shawn?” she asked, not even glancing at my fists balled at ten and two around the steering wheel.
“You said you wouldn’t say anything,” Kim said, chasing Nicky into the backseat.
My scabbed knuckles had not gone over as well as I had hoped. The only sober people who commented on them were my mangers, and they were none too happy about me serving food with open wounds. I couldn’t even blame the showy scabs on a heat-of-the-moment rage. I’d driven to my parents’ house one Sunday morning while they were at church to watch porn on their VCR and to rhythmically punch the wooden walls of my childhood fort. I pretended I was deadening the nerves for an impending showdown with Kim’s endless parade of P.F. Chang’s fuck boys. In truth I just wanted some visible, public marker of my pain.
My delusions of having a makeup threesome with Nicky and Kim drowned beneath their drunken bickering. They debated how many drinks the bartenders had bought for them, and argued over directions to a Taco Cabana that was open all night. They pointed me down unfamiliar streets, unlit alleys, through construction zones, and the wrong way down one-way streets. About the time Kim reached around the seat to hold my hand, I drove over the curb of a median at thirty-five miles an hour. All four tires and rims blew out with an earth-rattling bang. I braced for an impact that never came, then banked the hobbled car to a stop along the shoulder.
The minor wreck escalated the tenor of the argument between my passengers.
“Fuck him!” Nicky screamed to Kim, as though I had died in the wreck. “That psychopath just tried to kill us and you still want to go home with him.”
Nicky continued her tirade on her cellphone as she walked away, screaming directions to some really nice bartender who offered to pick her up and take her to Taco Cabana, then drive her back to his place for the night.
Kim held me in the taxi home, then stripped naked and coddled me in bed, pulling the comforter over us. Eventually my anxieties began to melt under the influence of her touch. Concerns of how I would get to work, how I would pay for repairs, how much my insurance would increase, drifted away, at least until her phone rang like an air raid siren. I popped up and reached for her phone to see a new name blinking on the green screen: “Sean Chang 2.”
* * *
A buzzer went off on my new cellphone at midnight. My brother Mike and I raced to slam my first legal shots at a rooftop bar on Sixth Street. No sooner did I set down the tumbler than Mike hustled me out the door and rushed me down the street. He feared there would not be enough time to get me drunk in the two hours that remained before last call.
After my wreck, Mike insisted on putting me on his cellphone family plan for my birthday. His argument was this. If I had had a cellphone the night of the wreck, I would not have answered Kim’s call because I would have blocked her number. More over, I wouldn’t have even been home, wasting a perfectly good weekend night waiting at home for people to call me back on my landline. I’d have been out, filling my phone with new names. This was his mission in taking me out that night, to play the odds, to invite strange new women to the birthday party my apartment complex was throwing me the following night. Eventually I agreed. My one stipulation was that he would not get me too drunk, and that he would not take me to The Copper Tank.
Mike confiscated my ID. He presented it to bouncers and bartenders, demanding free cover and shots. He showed it to every woman we met, propositioning them to give me birthday kisses and spankings and phone numbers. He used it to convince a top-heavy woman to volunteer her rack as a holder for a Washington Apples shot, most of which I lost down the depths of her cleavage. With each drink, my toast was always the same:
“No more after this one. I can’t handle anymore.”
“You’ve repeatedly proven that you’re incapable of making reasonable decisions,” Mike told me. “Tonight I am your executor. I’m going to get you so drunk you can’t even remember her name.”
He lined up kamikazes and Irish car bombs. He rushed me to other bars filled with cheaper drinks and drunker women, bars always just one block away.
“You okay with going to The Copper Tank?” Mike asked, ushering me through the current of bodies spilling off the sidewalks and onto Sixth Street.
I watched my feet, amazed by how easily they continued on under someone else’s influence.
Mike pushed me through the doors of The Copper Tank with a slap on the back. The rabble of hundreds of voices shouted in my ears. The DJ interwove dance songs into a fast, electronic thud that served as my pacemaker. Spinning stage lights and strobes turned counter to my wheeling vision. Tides of people constantly pushed by, threatening to take me with them.
Waves of sensory information passed through me, unexamined. Everything made sense when I stopped trying to make sense of it. I accepted all that came my way with a nod. Mike sat me at a table where empty plastic cups collected like guests at my surprise party. I nodded to them. Mike presented me with glasses of water and co-workers from P.F. Chang’s who he claimed were there to wish me well. I nodded. Mike sat two attractive women on either side of us. I nodded. Kim’s body assembled from the drunken masses and approached. She leaned over to hug me then bent to kiss my cheek then leaned in to ask if I was alright. I nodded. She stood behind me with her hands on my shoulders, telling Mike how special I was. I couldn’t follow much of the conversation. It felt like I was listening to parents argue over the best way to raise a damaged child so that he might lead a fulfilling life.
Kim rubbed my head, stirring my nausea. I ejected from my seat and swept a trashcan off its feet. Vomit shot out of my mouth like champagne, filling the plastic cups piled in the bin.
Despite the obvious bond I had formed with the trashcan, and despite Mike’s pleas that it was my 21st birthday, the bouncer refused to let me take the trash can home.
I burned the remainder of the night on the title floor of my bathroom. Mike slept on the carpet just outside. My retching woke him throughout the night. He forced me to chug water with the same persistence he had handed me shots. In the morning he woke me with gifts of Pepto-Bismol, neon colored Gatorade, and a smoothie, all of which I regurgitated in turn. He dropped me off at my parents’ house on his way to work the lunch shift at P.F. Chang’s, as he had requested the night off to attend my party. He returned after work to pick me up only to find me sprawled on the kitchen’s linoleum floor, a hand clinging the mop bucket that doubled as our family’s mobile, vomit receptacle.
The few friends who had my new cellphone number called, wondering why I wasn’t at my own party. I put the phone on vibrate and left it on the floor next to the mop bucket while I crawled atop my parents’ bed. Finding me there, my mother lay next to me, an arm draped over my shoulder.
As a toddler I fled from nightmares to that bed most every night. And every night she would wake with the same shock, grabbing my wrists as if expecting me to be her killer. Then she would hold open those same, floral sheets for me to crawl into her warmth. Two decades later, little had changed. I was still searching for security and comfort in a woman’s arms.
My cellphone vibrated, drumming against the mop bucket. I slid off the bed to silence it, but the movement turned my stomach and brought me to my knees. My mother patted my back and grabbed my phone to turn it off.
“Who is, ‘Don’t Answer’?” she asked.
* * *
Kim called me from the desert as the twinkling monuments of Los Vegas sunk into puddled mirages in her rearview, when nothing lay before her but a thousand miles of cactus land. This road trip had been one of the first things we had planned together nearly a year before. This was when we met, weeks after I returned from a similar trip to the west coast—a trip that ended with me in a Clark County hospital for alcohol poisoning.
“I’m hell-a hungover,” she said.
“Must have been a good trip,” I said.
She told me how she and Nicky met some really nice guys at the casino who bought them shots and lap-dances at The Crazy Horse. That was as much of the story as I got, and really as much as I needed. The signal went dead when they drove through a missile-testing site.
Kim called back the next afternoon, crying. She begged me to come over. I found her in her dark room, hiding beneath a dirty white comforter. I climbed into bed in my clothes and tried to mute her sobs in my arms.
“It just kept getting worse when I got home and then I had these really bad cramps,” she started.
As Kim spoke, nausea grew in my gut. She described a bloody membrane that had slid out of her and into the toilet. I gently reminded her of her gynecologist’s warning, that her new birth control would either eliminate her period completely, or give her an excessively heavy flow ever few months. I suggested that this was just her uterine lining shedding, like snake’s skin, that it was completely normal and harmless.
“It had these two black dots,” she said. “Little eyes.”
I held her tighter, my arms straining at once to comfort and crush her, and to steady my trembling against her. My mind cranked through obsolete calculations: the odds that Kim had actually been pregnant, that the child would have survived to term, that I was the father.
I rocked her in my arms and hummed a made-up lullaby until she started to gently snore. My sleep had not been so troubled since childhood. The division between thoughts and dreams was permeable. My mind perpetually turned to the bathroom door. The plumbing hissed and rattled. I imagined a formless leviathan rising from the abyss of fast food shit and neon piss, from broken rubbers and enough toilet paper to fill the worlds’ libraries. I could see it’s bloody, tentacle arm wrapping around the lip of the toilet. I could feel this un-immaculate conception squirming to life in my arms, cradling me.
I woke in a puddle of soaked sheets, in what I hoped was sweat. The harsh light of dawn broke through the blinds. Any comfort I had once found in Kim or her bed was gone. Her body felt as heavy and lifeless in my arms as a headstone.
My arm slithered carefully out from under Kim’s neck. I peeled the blanket back with the same cautiousness with which one might open the hatch of a bomb shelter. In spite of the utter ruin I felt, part of me stood defiant. My morning glory of an erection towered over me like an exclamation point at the end of a sentence.