by Kerry Neville
The first time I had sex was with my laconic summer-before-college boyfriend on his gurgly waterbed in his dank basement bedroom that smelled like Roquefort. My mother had warned me that having sex meant having sex with everyone my partner had sex with, a forbidding chain of penises-in-vaginas stretching back to the Neolithic Age. I didn't care: I was ready, but to make it happen, needed to chug Budweisers, make things blurry, and banish inhibitions. So the boy and I sat on the waterbed which sloshed beneath us as if in gastrointestinal distress and shotgunned beers.
There was pleasure, sort of. It wasn't his first time, so he didn't misfire into my armpit. The problem was when we rolled away from each other: I wiped my eyeliner smudges with the back of my hand; he shimmied back into his jeans.
"I love you," I said, with a desperate kind of beer-fuddled hope.
He was quiet.
My heart whoosh-thumped in my ears.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I don't love you."
My 18-year-old heart dissolved in shame. I'd assumed mutual feeling inside that mutualish pleasure. Meaning-making where there was no meaning. An "and," not a "period."
That seemingly forgettable exchange in the basement led to 25 years of complicated, shamed-filled, snarled up sex. Shame at wanting sex, shame at wanting more than I should want — that is, sex with significance. To be sentimental, how do you join bodies but not hearts? I kept saying "yes" to men (not many, but who counts in matters of pretend love?), in hopes that when I exposed my terrified, longing-filled heart, my partner would respond in kind. It wasn't about love leading to sex, but sex leading to love.
My first one-night stand in college was a clichéd catastrophe. He was in my Anthropology class, a lackluster but handsome student, and at the bar, we got drunk and drunker on tepid draft Genesee, then stumbled back to his dorm room, exchanging insincerities.
Him: "What's your major? Beautiful?"
Me: "Hahaha, you're sooo funny."
I remember him squirming on top of me, the room spinning, and trying to respond in a way that would encourage longer attachment: do what he asked, which was leave when he'd finished. That dawn trudge across campus, smudged eyeliner and throbbing head, is referred to as The Walk of Shame. For the rest of the semester, he ignored me even when I offered my most forgiving smile.
My first long-term boyfriend did want me, but also wanted to humiliate me, his proclivity already at 19. I said "yes" to most anything (maybe I would finally be enough to love?), and he said, "Yes, you are lovable but only if": on my hands and knees facing the wall so he didn't have to look at me, so that it was easier to hurt me and say, "You are a slut, you are crazy, nobody will ever love you except me." "Yes," I said, over and over, playing passive possum to earn his love. He demanded and I consented.
I convinced myself it was unsignificant sex: empty and meaningless, payment for fleeting tenderness. But that earlier shared six-pack of beer became my own six-pack, topped with shots of cheap vodka. I drank to get to the "yes" that he wanted, and by morning was bewildered by bruises on my body. The things he had me do (a degrading list) seemed less awful, less replete with long-term damage if I was drunk, and then in the morning-after blackout, couldn't remember.
I try not to give into the flood of shame that threatens when I remember the years I spent facing the scuffed up plasterboard wall, eyes closed, transformed into an automaton despite my "A" in Women's Studies, or marching on Washington for abortion rights, or theoretically being smarter than subservient supplicant. What do you really know about consent at that age? I never said "yes," but I never said "no" either. Certainly, not a shared vocabulary in 1991. How could I know that his hands around my neck, the back of my head smacking the floor wasn't excusable because he was drunk or because I had provoked his anger? Once, he led me into the communal shower room and we had sex against the grimy tile walls, my panties on the damp ground, my skirt hitched to my hips. In another life, with another lover? Maybe spontaneous passion. But this was about me proving what I would do keep him. "Brothers" sauntered by, but I was too drunk, too absent to notice or care. Another time, he tied me up, blindfolding me, and even though my stomach went queasy, I agreed. Hands tied to the bedpost, necktie cinched around my eyes, and then, a strange, cold sensation. Not him, but a beer bottle. I didn't protest, just vacated my premises. Was this love's requirement?
When I met my now ex-husband, I needed to be saved from that annihilating sinkhole. He was older, a poet, just back from years in Greece, and slick with bohemian allure. He wore a funky Turkish vest and a voluminous white blouse, and his love notes used slant rhyme. From a poem he once wrote for me: "At your word/ I let down my nets: my myrrh and my spice,// my honeycomb and my dark honey." A seductive counterpoint to whore, slut, bitch. Our initial encounters were heady, swimming in wine which tamped down my holdover shame. I reinvented myself with bad merlot: the drunk muse expanding under the artist's appraising, desiring gaze.
I was a lush lush. Temporarily.
We drank and made love in places far and near, ritualizing our mutual intoxication: in a white-washed room in Santorini tipsy on ouzo, on the dusty ground in Big Bend State Park swigging beer, in a vineyard in Tuscany with empty, uncorked bottles in the grass, or, on his lumpy futon after smoking a joint, his jealous cat watching from the foot of the bed. Drink after drink helped me to feel loose, helped me to shake off my inhibitions, and helped me to feel, finally, like enough.
But then, gradually, coitus interruptus: flashbacks to you are disposable, who would ever love you? My legs tensed and I turned away. My husband was confused and resented my inexplicable and sudden resistance, and so to compensate for feeling less and wanting less, or having to heave-ho myself through sex? Drink before contemplating sex, drink before having sex, drink to make sex feel sexy. An alcoholic, willed compunction.
I was exhausted: shame competing with desire. Who could revel in the body, inside ecstasy if it was about expediency and efficiency? (Lights out, under covers, no, I won't do that, just get it over with.) Every now and then, booze worked and I presto-chango-ed: during a holiday party, with enough vodka cranberries, I lured my husband to the back stairs while guests milled in the other rooms. But really, for most of my marriage, I consented to the trade: sex for love, sex for his forgiveness for the many ways I was failing.
There's only so much drinking and concealing (mine) and adultery and concealing (his) that a marriage can withstand before collapse. An easy solve for x: the last three years of our marriage I stopped drinking and we stopped having sex. He dismissed, with casual indifference, my austere offerings, but as he had told me over and over, he was a sensualist and sex a necessity, even proposing an open marriage. X = an other woman to slant rhyme.
It wasn't just my husband who wanted out. All of that knotted shame wasn't mine to hide inside anymore. Years wasted earning love through my body's repeated consent. But consent, and drunken misconsent, meant that I couldn't want, couldn't desire, couldn't see and be seen. At 41, I wanted more than just the well-trod, automatic orgasm. (You go there, and I’ll go here, and the buttons get pushed.) I wanted the hair on my arms to stand on end again, my heart to throb in my ears, to want and be wanted without shame, to give myself over to lust (could I? time to find out), which couldn't happen if I was drunk or married to a man who had disappeared into a compensatory affair. No more sex for the platitudes of love.
When I divorced? At 43, after two decades of mostly unhelpful therapy, it was a simple, profound shift: one morning, while gulping coffee and rushing my kids to school, I decided that I'd been alone inside my body for too long. By my second cup? Time to see if I could give and receive and have wise, unbridled fun not obliterated by shame nor carrying the expectation of love. No drunken stumblings into the beds of wrong guys doing wrong things and saying wrong things and waking up feeling wrong about myself. A concrete decision: enjoy this body without the false positives of vodka shots or my coerced I love yous. Because I was culpable, too: I'll do this if you say that.
So what do I like and who do I like it with? Not an exponential chain of penises-in-my-vagina. But recently with the most improbable, generous, creative man who is entirely unavailable for love. The waters are clear instead of muddy. I can't earn his love. Affection, maybe. A revelation: love my body and what it can do and feel with another person without an exacting exchange. For the first time, I am walloped by desire that comes from wanting, and not by desire that is merely in response to being wanted or to hoping for linked, throbbing hearts. Active responsibility versus passive default. My desire is an electric current running down to my toes and adrenaline fills my mouth with the taste of sharp, bright blood. Instead of waking up ashamed because we had sex in the back of his car like messy, drunk teenagers in overdrive (pants on the floor, windows steamy, his hand on my back) or spent three hours one night intercoursing on every piece of furniture in the apartment as if circulating a cocktail party, I replay the reel over and over like the best, dirtiest, most exuberant scenes from a movie I'd never been invited to before.
Do I still have that 18-year-old's hope that he might roll over some day and say that he loves me? Truthfully, maybe just a little, but it feels just as good to be seen and known and to see and know without the murky cloud of drink or the decimation of shame or that bottomless need to be told I am enough. "Yes" to pleasure mutually given and received. Not love, but true intoxication.
Kerry Neville is the author of the award-winning story collection, Necessary Lies, and the forthcoming collection, Remember To Forget Me. She is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post, where she writes about mental health advocacy, recovery, sexuality, and feminism. She is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Creative Writing at Georgia College and State University.