When I was thirteen years old, I had all of the answers. If you wanted to have a good life, all you needed to do was pray every night and stay away from peer pressure. All of the other kids, experimenting with alcohol and each other were just fools. I was smarter and I knew which way was up. Alcohol was for Sunday morning masses and sex was for marriage. That was what I had learned in Catholic school, anyway. I didn’t understand what all the confusion was about, because the way the world worked was really pretty simple.
I was fourteen years old when I first started lying about my sex life. I was sleeping over with two new friends who were swapping stories about kissing the neighborhood boys and it dawned on me that I was inexperienced in a way that was out of the ordinary, as well as certifiably uncool. They looked at me expectantly, silently daring me to contribute. And what about you? Who have you kissed? I made up an unconvincing story on the spot about Jacob from art camp. Before then, I hadn’t realized how behind I was. My lies followed me around school, with different girls asking to hear about my previously unknown tryst from the gallery. I told them he was from out of town, that we hadn’t stayed in touch. They pretended to believe me, and I was grateful.
I was seventeen and drunk by the time someone finally got around to kissing me. By this time, I knew I was strange and prudish, but didn’t know what to do about it. It was my party, but I wasn’t in control. Pushed into a darkened room, I tried to lie down on the bed before I realized someone else was there waiting for me. Some anonymous lips found mine, and I was too wasted or too disoriented to remember how to respond. It barely lasted a minute, but the next day, girls were mad at me and the boys at school taunted me when I walked past. I had become tainted in a matter of moments, with just one unasked for kiss.
That year, my best friend lost her virginity and delayed telling me for fear of judgment. Surely I would condemn her for having premarital sex just because I hadn’t had any. I knew she was hiding something and overheard her dishing to someone else: it happened last weekend and it hadn’t been too special.
When she finally told me, I simply responded, “I know.”
She said, “How?” but I didn’t tell her the truth. I didn’t say, I overheard you telling someone else and that really hurt me.
“I could just tell,” I said mysteriously. In some way, this made me feel better about the whole situation. She would think she could never hide anything from me, even if I wanted to.
“But how?” She prodded.
“When you know someone as well as I know you, you can just tell something is different.”
This was, of course, entirely false, but posing as a mystic made me feel like I solidified our friendship. See, I thought, I know you better than anyone else and I’m not judging you. I wished I had been the friend she’d come to first, when she was bursting with the new information, but my inexperience somehow disqualified me from that honor. I didn’t understand why my friends believed me to be too innocent to confide in; I could be ruthless, arrogant and, of course, dishonest, but somehow because I remained untouched past the age of fifteen, I was a bonafide saint.
I was eighteen and heartbroken, and habitually drinking too much for my size. Mostly because I was bored with my sleepy beach town on the Gulf Coast and partly because I was sad, sad, sad. After a boy I loved dumped me without a hint of compassion, my life seemed hollow and incomprehensible. There I was, feeling utterly lost, yet even my closest friends only ever saw the side of me that was as bitter as over-steeped tea. I couldn’t find the words or the strength to tell anyone the truth about how empty I felt, so I hid behind a mask of resentment and coped by downing cheap vodka. I was miserable and irresponsible, but I felt like a Cool Girl because I could take shots with the boys. The boys weren’t too kind to me in return, but at least I wasn’t sitting at home and journaling about a breakup that happened five months before. That would require being honest with myself. Instead, I’d drink to numb the pain and, you know, if some boy from physics class decided to kiss me, without skill or passion, I’d take it in stride and think, so be it.
I rarely had a friend say to me, hey, you’re one hundred pounds and you’ve just taken three shots of vodka in rapid succession—maybe we should go home. I was reckless, but I never felt unsafe. I would be fine, I was fine, because I’d always come out of those blurry nights feeling a little exhilarated and a little hungover, but it was never anything I couldn’t fix with a good Southern breakfast, the sacrament of Reconciliation, and a few flimsy lies to my parents about where I’d been come Sunday morning. They had the vague idea that I was up to some sort of illicit teenage mischief, but we were Catholic and everyone I knew was Catholic, and, hey, Catholicism does permit drinking. I was running wild, and nobody could stop me or talk sense into me, not that anyone really tried. I was too idle and too quick to be content with what I’d always had, so I went looking for disaster.
And so the night I was sexually assaulted started out pretty standard: too much to drink, random house party, falling down, stranger in the woods, and then something else: struggle, protest, and finding myself helpless. People expect you to remember it all with the sharpest clarity, but I can only recall the weight of his body over mine and thinking, Jesus Christ how did his hands get there so quickly? Trying to push him off, to get away, but not being able to feel my legs, only dimly aware of his nimble, unwanted fingers working at the buttons of my clothes. And then the aftermath, finally finding my friends, twigs in my hair, and not knowing what to tell them. Getting them to take me home and crashing on the floor, wanting to forget. Waking up and remembering the nightmare of what I thought had happened, but not being certain because everything was so disordered and confused through the filter of the liquor I had consumed and oh God, did that really happen? I told myself that it wasn’t a big deal, because it happened all the time. I knew there was probably something I could do, some hotline I could call, but why draw attention to myself when I was fine? And sure, by recent definitions, it might have been considered rape, but in the grand scheme of things, it wouldn’t have been. Where did that leave me?
I was still a smart girl. I knew it wasn’t my fault. But I still felt the wash of guilt, an unshakable filth in my bones. The next morning I drew a scalding hot bath to try to purify myself. Sylvia Plath wrote that there was almost nothing a hot bath couldn’t cure. I plunged my head below the surface of water like I hadn’t done since I was a small child. Maybe this was my baptism.
It was my nineteenth birthday when I met Drew. I was bored at some party, and even though I had come with the same shallow girls I’d known in high school, I may as well have been alone. He rescued me from the mindlessness of the party and took me to his room. I understood the implications of it all, but I thought, what the hell, I’m in college. He played guitar and gave me a little bit of whisky and we talked for an hour or so. I remember feeling so warm—maybe it was the alcohol, but I felt so comfortable with this guitar-playing stranger. I threw my head back and danced by myself like I used to in high school. He laughed and told me he’d never met anyone like me before. I left before I got carried away, though, no matter how much he wanted me to stay. I have class tomorrow, I lied. I met him a few more times after that, but it was too confusing. You’re beautiful, he said. You’re clever and smart, he said. Come over, he’d text me, but never before midnight. As I quietly moved on, mourning a relationship that hadn’t really happened, I wondered if I shouldn’t have just slept with him to get it all over with. For the first time, I thought: maybe you don’t have to be in love to have sex.
A half a year later, I ended up in another relationship and I stopped drinking as much, because I was actually happy for once. Finally, I had found someone who liked to read as much as me, and who would sit in the coffee shop until close, and that was really all it took. I thought, maybe I’ll have sex with him. Pace was kind and respectful and, most importantly, crazy about me.
I would wait until I was ready. He would wait until I was ready. We were waiting. And waiting.
One day he got sick of it. He had tried to kiss me, but I was feeling closed off and stressed, so I flinched away. He was frustrated, hurt, and he’d finally had enough.
“I don’t understand why we haven’t moved forward physically since the second month of our relationship,” he said. “Sometimes I wonder if you’re even into me.”
I felt the air rush out of my chest hearing that. Not into him? We’d spent the better part of a year together. It was so untrue I felt offended, as though everything I’d tried to do, all of the love I had so carefully given, amounted to nothing.
Nothing. I said nothing.
“I mean, look at us. Look at our relationship. We’re just best friends who kiss on a semi-regular basis.”
“That’s not how I feel,” I said, my voice strained, my body tight.
“Then how do you feel?” he demanded.
As I still struggled to respond, his voice softened and he said, “Open up to me. What’s holding you back?” His eyes searched my face for some clue, some secret that would unlock everything I was hiding beneath the surface.
I felt my jaw lock out of frustration. I didn’t know how to explain myself, and I didn’t know why I couldn’t trust him with this. He was, after all, perfect for the task of helping me toss away my innocence. He would go down on me without being asked to and promise to be gentle. I could tell by the kindness in his red-rimmed eyes and because of the one time he’d asked me, “Hey, do you wanna get married sometime?” Laughing, but I knew he wasn’t joking.
I could see I wasn’t getting out of this one easily as he stared at me patiently, unflinchingly. He wasn’t backing down and he needed answers: why couldn’t I give myself over to something deeper? Why couldn’t I relinquish control? Why couldn’t I just fuck him?
Why couldn’t I?
I could never give a satisfying answer, because I didn’t really know. It had something to do with fifteen years of Catholic school, where without my noticing, my educators had actually instilled the fear of God in me, out of everyone else. I had learned from teachers who were encouraged to incorporate lessons on Catholic morality into their science, history, and even economic lessons; I had one in particular disinterestedly explain supply and demand to a class and, in the same breath, move seamlessly into a lecture on the importance of female purity and how crucial it was for women to submit to their husbands. It was all I had ever known, even growing up in a state where Catholics were scarce. Our parents insulated us from the Anglo-Saxon majority by building entire communities around Cathedrals.
It had something to do with parents who never wanted to talk about anything uncomfortable, good decent people, who allowed me to Google search “what is the vulva?” They lovingly sheltered me for as long as they could, but I wonder if they left me somewhat unequipped when reality could no longer be kept at bay.
It had something to do with that night in the woods, with never telling anyone and telling myself that it hadn’t affected me. It had something to do with knowing deep down that it wasn’t my fault, but still thinking What if I hadn’t gotten so drunk that night? Maybe things would have turned out differently.
Maybe I hadn’t healed right. Maybe I’d never have sex and never get married. By the time I was thirty-five, no one would question me. I could live out a fearful, lonely celibate existence. At the very least I wouldn’t get hurt.
But I couldn’t say any of this, not even to Pace who had loved me so patiently and so well. He didn’t deserve this, because after all, no one expects to enter a sexless relationship as an adult these days. Instead, I gave a stilted, unsatisfying explanation that was far from the truth and I cried, big ugly sobs, right in front of him. No one wants to try and have a constructive conversation with someone inconsolable, so I evaded the truth for another day.
These days, I lie by omission more often than not. I know that if I were upfront about the barrenness that continually characterizes my sex life, people would make assumptions and they wouldn’t be kind. They would assume I’m not a feminist, or that I keep a journal bursting with letters addressed “Dear Future Husband…” tucked neatly beneath my mattress. They’d assume, like my best friend before them, that I’d be in the position to cast stones. But that isn’t true.
I’m not good enough to get into heaven.
I’m not pure enough to feel comfortable in church.
I think all of this saying no, all of this resistance to outside pressure, may have made me more unhappy in the long run. Like I’ve been flexing some muscle for two decades straight, for so long, that I now have no idea how to relax.
I wish I had a high horse to sit on, where I could look at the mindless fornicators around me and laugh, laugh, laugh. Look at them. Fools, looking for happiness in all the wrong places. Picture me: judging people, smiling, promise ring glinting in the sunlight.
Caroline Abide is a writer living and working in Oxford, MS. She recently graduated from the University of Mississippi with a Bachelor’s in English. This is her first published work. You can find her on twitter at @ksocaroline.