Last night, I got together with an old college friend who was passing through Kansas City on business. Let’s call her Sarah. Though we hadn’t seen each other in-person for almost least a decade, it didn’t take long to dispense with the awkward preliminary chit-chat and start diving deeply into each other’s hopes, dreams, and darkest feelings in our quest to master this annoying thing called ‘adulting.’ Falling back into our “tell-all” patterns of adolescence past, we covered everything from drugs and rock & roll to, yes – despite my horror… sex!
To give a little context to the following conversation, I’d like to paint a brief picture of Sarah. To quote my wife, “If she ever switched sides, I might be inclined to follow her.” In short, Sarah is the “whole package,” so to speak. Her father is Italian, her mother from Laos, her glowing olive skin covers her athletic 5’11” frame – from her perfectly manicured toes to her long curly jet-flack hair that frames the most piercing green eyes you’ll ever see. When she’s not lecturing at a major university, she’s running adventure marathons or jumping out of airplanes. She drives a new luxury car and owns a beautiful home overlooking a private bank along San Francisco Bay. Even in her mid-40s, her teeth are naturally white, her body is insanely firm, and she always smells faintly of vanilla. Sitting across from her, I felt eyes on me wondering, “What’s that chubby pasty white guy doing with that foreign supermodel?” I don’t bring any of this up to minimize or objectify Sarah in any way, just to establish her as a “catch” according to most constructs of dating, the topic our conversation headed after we caught up on my “boring married life.”
“So…” I stammered awkwardly to reciprocate the subject in her direction. “Anything new on that front in your world?”
“You mean dating?” She laughed a little too loud, a little too long.
“What,” I asked, realizing it had been at least 3-4 years since I’d seen any last public mention of romance, “not swiping left and right to find your hearts delight?”
“I don’t know,” she trailed off. “I’ve tried a couple of dating apps but just…”
Sensing her unease, “Ugh, I can’t even imagine! I’m so glad I missed all of that. Every date being a blind date? I think I’d probably contract hives or something just from the stress.”
“Yeah, it’s not that,” she said, smiling off my light demeanor. I could tell she wanted to talk, but I wanted to give her time and space. We sat for quite awhile in silence before I began flipping through my internal rolodex of conversation-changers. Just as I was about to bring up an article I’d read earlier in the day, she sighed, “I think it’s too late for me – nobody wants a 45 year-old virgin.”
I’ll admit, I was just honestly confused. Though it always feels like we discuss everything, for some reason sexuality just wasn’t something we ever really talked about. When we first met in college, I was a newly born-again Christian, and she was that awkward girl, navigating between her father’s strict Roman Catholic traditions and her mother’s Pentecostal superstitions. Sex never came up, but I had always just assumed…
“First of all, you’re 44,” I tried to deflect a bit and get over my own hangups in order to honor my friend’s honest openness. “But, wait – do you mean literal virgin?”
She looked earnestly confused and maybe a little offended, like I was secretly accusing her of something torrid, “Of course, who do you think I would have ever been with?”
“Hell, I don’t know, I don’t care, I just figured all of those years living the California dream that you might have accidentally tripped on a dick or something. That said, I always wondered if maybe you were gay?”
She laughed out loud, shaking her head from side to side as if sucking on a sour lemon. “God no, man. I mean I get it, but, no – I’m still all about the boys. It’s just never, it’s just always…”
“Still saving yourself for marriage,” I asked?
“Well, that’s what I used to think in my twenties, but I don’t know – that just seems all backwards now. Like sex is the prize you win for taking a chance of spending your entire life with a stranger or something? What if the prize is really bad sex for the rest of your life?”
“Begs the question, how would you know if it was good or bad if you’d never had it? Quite the paradox!” We sat for awhile before I got up the nerve to ask, “But, I mean… I guess the question is, do you even want to have sex? It’s not a requirement or anything…”
“Oh my god, yes! For the last ten years I’ve understood what horny teenagers must feel like. I can’t tell you how many times a day I imagine what it must be like.”
“But?” Sometimes the best questions are the open-ended ones.
“What stops you? I mean, I guess it’s because you’re so ugly, unsuccessful, lacking of wit or intellect or personality, you obviously have no hopes of ever snaring a man.” My sarcasm was thick.
Her face turned, the joking was over. She was going to share a secret. “I panic,” she nearly-whispered. “Things will start to get hot and heavy and I just have panic attacks and stop everything. It’s horrible, embarrassing. Every relationship I’ve been in has ended the same way. I’m a grown woman for Christ’s sake. It’s ridiculous!”
“It’s not ridiculous,” I started, but I must admit that my heart had stopped and my instincts were assuming the worst. “I mean, we all have our hangups. But, have you… ever seen a counselor or therapist?”
“Yeah,” she sighed and rolled her eyes. “They blame my parents.”
“Did… something happen?” I was horrified to even be asking as delicately as possible, “Did someone…”
“Oh, no… no, no, no. God no! It’s not like that,” she left no question of sexual abuse. “They didn’t touch me or anything, but they just, well… maybe my therapist was right, maybe they set up unrealistic expectations or something.”
We both just nodded and poked at our desserts in a sort of melancholy silence that I knew had to be broken eventually, so I half-shouted, “How often do you masturbate?”
Sarah turned bright red, trying not to make eye contact with anyone at the nearby tables. “Oh my god,” she replied, embarrassed, but certainly broken out of the emotional plane we had become stuck in. If looks could kill…
“How ’bout orgasms? You like orgasms, right?” I’ll admit, in hindsight, I may have been pushing the boundaries afforded by my normally charming demeanor. But, to top it off, I went for the absurd, purposefully making a complete ass out of myself (to take the pressure off her) by asking friendly nearby patrons, “I mean everyone likes orgasms, right? Who doesn’t like a good orgasm? Well, besides ISIS and Mike Pence.”
After laughing off the forced awkwardness in a public space, it appeared the charade had worked and Sarah eventually took the opportunity to open up, whispering, “I’ve tried, but I can’t.”
“You can’t… bring yourself to orgasm?” I asked, awkwardly, wishing I was a gal pal rather than, well, me.
“No,” she whispered, leaning in, even more quietly, “I can’t even masturbate. I don’t know, I just…”
Suddenly it dawned on me – I’d been here before. With another friend, with a number of fan letters, and, to some extent with my own sexuality over the years. Maybe this wasn’t a sex problem…
I changed my tone and asked, “So, now that your parents are gone, is it safe to ask a personal question?”
She raised an eyebrow with a smirk, as to say, ‘As if this hasn’t been personal already?’
“Do you still believe in Jesus?” It’s such an awkward question to force into the world.
“I mean,” she replied, “I don’t go to church or anything if that’s what you…”
“No, I mean – do you believe in him the way that you were taught by your parents? Deep down, do you still believe that he’s always there – with each and every one of us each and every second of the day – watching, guiding, judging…”
“No, no…” she began to answer, but stopped, her eyes focused beyond a point in the far corner of the room. “I mean, no, I don’t think… Well…”
A lot of time passed, so I stepped in, “I don’t know about you, but I’d have a hard time rubbing one out if I truly believed there was a hairy Jew in the corner watching me. Let alone getting naked and having sex in front of anyone, let alone a dead savior covered in blood! If you don’t believe in the guy, why are you still inviting him into your bedroom? Isn’t it strange how Christian couples are able to get down and dirty thinking Jesus is in the corner holding a video camera?”
Sarah’s eyes narrowed at first, darting slightly from side to side as she made sense of things, re-connecting past life experiences in her mind with a new, different perspective. Her eyelashes stuttered and fluttered as her synapses fired and then, suddenly, the damn burst forth. For all of the compliments I’ve paid Sarah in this story, I must say – she is an ugly crier. This was not a “cute” cry of tears welling along the eyelids while smiling through the awkward moment. This was heavy – a cathartic, chest-heaving, nearly hyperventilating cry, interrupted by the random cackle of freeing laughter. I’ve seen it before, I’ve been there before. She eventually de-escalated and got herself together, not worried about the people staring at her.
“Whew,” she sighed, raising her eyebrows. “That was intense.”
“I’m sorry,” I replied. “I didn’t mean to…”
“Oh, shut up – you didn’t do anything,” she jokingly snapped back. She shook her head, as if still trying to wake up from a bad dream. “Jesus… the shit we do to ourselves.”
“Or have indoctrinated into us as children in the name of religion?”
She shook her head again and we finished our last drink before I gave her a ride to her hotel, at times giggling about the idea of Jesus being either turned on or disgusted by what he sees in bedrooms on a daily basis. I’ll admit, the whole thing was bittersweet – it was wonderful to spend time with Sarah, but found myself feeling sorry for her, for what she was still up against, for what she had passed up in life. Then, this morning I got a text from Sarah that simply said, “OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”
(P.S. Yes, I got Sarah’s permission to share this story, anonymously.)