First things first.
Or rather, first things after some preamble.
First things soon, to keep you waiting.
Before that: the almosts and the virtuals, to put what was actually first into perspective.
Because I do, in here somewhere, lose my virginity.
But not first.
First . . . boarding school.
It was an all-boys school. The Hill School, outside of Philly—where at fourteen, I cloistered myself while, back on the free range, girls were changing into women.
Already during our first winter break I’d made my incompetence clear to myself. Sexually, I knew nothing. And if I admitted these bumblings to no one back at school, it wasn’t that I saw myself as backwards or behind—but that I understood now why my classmates spent so much time with porn magazines.
These were my first real literary firsts. Before I could quote from poetry—“Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table”—literary magazines like Penthouse gave me “The night was as dark as the devil’s dingleberries” and the even more astonishing “Her anus tasted like a wheat cracker.”
In high school, boys think they know a great deal about women, or about what to do to pleasure them. We got our book learning from Penthouse Letters.
But on that winter break, the flaw of my first foray was stopping at the flats of a particular girl’s pubic hair, which grew that way—flat against her belly like vines on a house wall. We had hung back sick in strange permanent tents at a Virgin Islands resort, while our families went on a boating excursion. She was freckled and full of cheer, with hair the color of wet sand. I failed then for lack of going down far enough, and in my confusion I certainly didn’t want to come off as a rube by seeming to hunt. So I let the kissing, and the scratching of her hair the way a mother might riffle her fingers through a child’s, stand in for real discovery. It was thrilling—almost as thrilling as the forbidden thick in the air, the terror of the clock, and the dozens of mosquitoes, which had their way with us.
My next sexual advance happened in senior year. And this, too, was a literary first. It took place not in reality, but in the first of my now-four-unpublished novels. There, a thinly disguised I slept with his visiting girlfriend. She was a dimpled cutie from Rye, just north of Manhattan, who, if I’m not making this up, suffered the indignities of a Greyhound bus to be there with him, a sure sign of willingness. The real I, that is me, went to a boys school, and by strange coincidence so did “I.” Even the girlfriend in the novel might have been recognizable as my actual girlfriend for a brief happy time in junior year, the one who visited campus once, just like the girl in the novel. Girls who visited campus stayed with faculty members, who were then often kind enough, if you chose the right one, to let you visit the girlfriend’s bedroom for a few minutes, a goodnight kiss, as long as the door stayed open. And need I say that my literary “I” was braver and more forward, though just as much a virgin at the start, as I was? At least he did not fail to take advantage of a good situation.
This will have to be counted as the truest, most truly literary first.
How I lost my virginity on the page, only.
It was what investors might call a paper loss.
The Torrent of Spring was the manuscript’s title. And at least one person was convinced that it recorded my true deflowering—because of course none of my teachers or classmates were duped. The one sucker was the person I’d been most preciously careful to define the word novel for. There are not fictional and nonfictional novels, Mom. Novels are fiction. I didn’t mention romans à clef.
At the end of senior year, I’d given the novel to my parents with naive pride. My mother tore into me with a seven-or ten-page missive—a real letter back then, handwritten on stationery . . . and she’d forced Dad to sign too. “Your father and I made the mistake of believing that you were saving yourself, that you were the kind of upstanding”—or some such word—“the kind of respectable young man who understands that sex means nothing except as an expression of love. Now you’ve wasted the chance to have your first time mean anything.”
What mortified me, of course, was having to endure such a thrashing when, in fact, I was not getting laid. When in fact I hadn’t so much as touched that girl’s breasts, or even the breasts of the girl I’d just weeks before taken to the senior dance.
But the message I took from Mom’s letter was the one she intended. You want to get a real bang out of your first time. Because the next will only be the first fuck of the rest of your life. The first is the locomotive. It blows the whistle and starts you up the mountain. The mountain presumably being life-long love with the person you just fucked.
Little could my parents have guessed how I’d lose my virginity.
Now my friend and I—this was sophomore year of college—he and I have had, let’s just say, radically different sexual histories. By now, he has traveled with prostitutes, five or six at once, to the fantasy dens of Amsterdam—amped up on Viagra, because how else to accomplish such a feat? I have not done that. And in sophomore year, when I was finally learning how to sink down low enough with my fingers, my friend was choosing among several reliably gorgeous women for the weekend. So when we pulled up in front of the dorm at Bryn Mawr College, we were of course there to visit one of his many: an RA on a freshman hall.
We went to university after the days when women’s halls were locked and monitored to keep men out, and before the days when halls were locked and videotaped to keep out gunmen. So, when no one was around, we strode up and down the hall until we found a resident, who informed us about some sort of campus event ending in twenty or thirty minutes. We went back to my friend’s car, which was parked in front of the dorm.
The one given of the night was that my friend would get laid. I didn’t hold it against him. I was already writer enough to be good at living vicariously. We planned to spend the night at the college—we even had blankets with us, not knowing what the sleeping arrangements would be. But where would I go, so as not to hear him scoring?
A security guard ambled up to the car after a time and asked what we were up to. Now what I’m about to report did happen, and until the twenty-first century, I swear I never questioned the guard’s sincerity, as impossible as that will seem. My friend and I—of course—had between us, there on the console, a bottle of warm vodka. A gallon jug of it. Which we’d made quite a hit on. When we noticed the guard coming up the slope, we swaddled it in a blanket.
The guard leaned on the window frame, and we answered that we were waiting, etc., etc.—she was an RA on that hall right in front of us.
And what do you boys have there?
What we had there was a gallon jug of warm vodka. But we were both touching it, holding it. Because by instinct we knew what had to come next. My friend and I loved to spin stories together, still do: back then we did it at party after party when girls would ask where my friend was from, or what my major was. So we very naturally said what came to mind, that we lived in the RA’s hometown, not far away—in King of Prussia, we might have said, or Norristown. We were close friends of her family’s—and this, between us, was her baby, asleep. Her parents were raising him while she finished her degree.
The guard reached in with every marker of a touched man—his chubby face slack, his thick hands slow and slightly cupped as if afraid to wake or injure, and he twitched his fingertips against the blanket and gave a quiet grandfatherly goo-chi-goo-chi-goo! And off he went.
The RA had dark hair, shoulder length. She seemed to me at the time wonderfully older—older as in more put together. She had a life, if no child. And she had something else. Freshmen. Fresh-women-an entire hall of them. Where was our imagination? I’d pictured closed doors, no way to get from here to there. But this fine young woman had arranged it all. So the chosen freshman and the RA and my friend and I sat for hours in the RA’s room, bullshitting, drinking that warm vodka—was there no ice or Coke or orange juice by then¾and me increasingly having to prop up my friend.
The chosen freshman was fun loving and full of humor, also serious in her way—but I didn’t seem to register much for her. She was all conspiracy and inside jokes with her RA, more focused on pleasing her and making everything part of a conversation with her, than on us guys. But that was fine—I wouldn’t have followed through anyway. And their cryptic exchange let us focus on our own, and on our beloved infant Smirnoff.
My friend rarely overdrank. I should say—he drank tremendous amounts, but never had I seen him stagger or heard him slur. That night, though, he passed out which was very embarrassing for the RA who clearly wanted to get laid. But now there were three. Inside jokes aside, or maybe inside jokes very much to the point, the RA had indentured this freshman to get me out of the way. I got the blankets from the car. The RA covered up her Casanova. And then there were two—because, asking if I’d be comfortable there, the RA led me to the freshman’s room (she was off brushing her teeth) and we set up a little floor pallet for me and I changed into sweatpants and a T-shirt, and the RA said goodnight.
The freshman’s bookshelf was low. I remember it as the kind with wooden slats at the sides, running from top to bottom—not typical dorm-issue, but a piece of furniture more likely to have been brought from home. She’d hung posters—maybe an exhibition of Japanese bowls, a cat hanging perilously from a branch.
Did I mention that the freshman had a broken leg? Actually, yes, a broken femur—crutches and a full leg cast that went to the very top of her thigh—we’d marveled in the RA’s room that anyone could have a cast half as tall as herself. When the freshman came back, I’d already brushed my teeth—there was a solo bathroom at the end of the hall—and I was under the covers. She turned out the light, hobbled over to bed, set her crutches on the ground, and slid them under. There was plenty of light from the moon. Then she swung, dipped, and rolled into her bed. I picture her wearing a robe with small red roses dotted around a field of white¾very simple and innocent. She had honey-colored hair. It was short, cut in a wedge so that it angled in back like a chevron. And her cheeks and chin were small, an old-fashioned look, like something shaped in porcelain. My mother would have trusted her.
She pulled up the covers. Or maybe she didn’t, I have no idea. In any case, she lay there. And I lay there.
I wouldn’t have budged; I’m convinced of that.
But not many minutes passed. A little small talk, then as we slowed down, I—knowing nothing of the world—said a nice gentlemanly goodnight. She didn’t answer. Her silence got my heart beating a little harder. But still, I was settling in for sleep, laughing to myself, maybe even to her, that my friend had passed out, laughing harder to myself than to her because, well, if I never got any, at least he wasn’t getting any either—and it was all because of the guzzles of warm vodka in the car, the jokes at the guard’s expense, while we enjoyed what remains—for both of us, a quarter of a century later—right up there with our favorite company on earth, each other’s.
And I lay there. Laughing at him for passing out.
The freshman interrupted the silence with a question.
Can I ask you to do me a big favor?
I can see her face now, in my mind, but not with the hindsight of any remembered affection.
Was the evening really moonlit, or were those security lamps out behind the dorm?
I turned toward her, the slight glow of her up there on the bed, thinking her question gave me license, at least, to glance her way. And she was in full gaze, as if we’d been staring into each other’s eyes all along.
The way I remember it, there was a warble of emotion in her voice—coy or innocent or practiced, I didn’t stop to think—as she asked,
Could you come up here and make love to me?
I was there all too quickly, no condom, no nothing—all fumbles and eagerness. Her right leg I lifted up and set down again, to make room for me. The cast. It was like edging forward the minute hand on a clock. And I spent not an instant touching the soft skin of her neck or drawing the robe down off her shoulder. I neglected to trace my fingers along her breasts or kiss them, and wouldn’t have thought then to gently bite her nipples. She’d left off her underwear. So I simply, unceremoniously, pushed myself in, watching the valley between her thighs to be sure I got it right.
And within seconds I was saying one of those many things that make me grind my teeth in embarrassment years later, when I remember them.
I looked into her eyes.
And I said to her:
You mean, like this?