My first boyfriend was a boy named Steven Eriksson. He had blond hair and wore glasses of the same colour. We were in fifth grade. Another boy passed me a note to say that Steven liked me and would I go out with him. I said yes. I thought that was my only option. Other girls had boyfriends. They giggled about it at recess. My best friend Natalie was going out with a boy in secret. She refused to tell us his name. The only reason I knew was because Michael Antar said he was going out with a girl from another school named Desiree. Desiree was Natalie’s favourite name. So I knew she was her and he was him. They were together for the winter and broke up in the spring. Steven and I made it only a month. He never did talk to me, except once to say hi. When we broke up, I didn’t care. Fifth grade was like that.
The first boy I kissed was in a closet in seventh grade. His name was Matt. It was in the basement of this girl’s house and we had to go in together because of a game. I don’t remember the game but I do remember his lips. They were soft and wet and I thought they felt nice against mine. After the party he got together with my friend Crystal. They kissed all the time. He acted as though he hated me. At first I thought it was because of the closet, but after a while I started to believe that maybe he had always hated me. We’re friends on Facebook now. Growing up is like that, I guess.
My first real boyfriend was a boy named Nick VandenBerg. He was a year older than me and could grow a full beard when he was in ninth grade. Once he came to pick me up from school and the office staff thought he looked like the picture of a guy who was wanted for raping a bunch of women in a town close by. They brought him in and questioned him and called his mom, and I thought he had stood me up because I didn’t know and he wasn’t there when I finished class. It took him a whole week to tell me what happened. He was so embarrassed. I thought it was hilarious. It turns out, that wanted man ended up a serial killer as well as a serial rapist. His name was Paul Bernardo. I don’t think it’s funny now.
Nick and I dated for two years but never had sex. I let him touch me and put his mouth just about anywhere he wanted but always stopped short. I wondered why we never did. I think maybe we should have. That Nick VandenBerg would have been the perfect person to lose my virginity to. Instead, we broke up and I lost it to a boy named Scott behind the bushes during a high school football game a month later. We were high. I had met him at Arts Camp. He had brown hair and brown eyes and played the guitar and smelled like cologne and shampoo and toothpaste. We dated for a few months. Our relationship consisted of him calling me so I could listen to him strum invented songs, and sneaking into public places to have sex. We never really talked. We’re also friends on Facebook. He has a kid and lives up north now where it’s cold most of the year. Sometimes he sends me messages filled with videos of himself snowmobiling. It feels familiar.
After Scott I went through a phase where I only dated virgins. I was in tenth grade. It had occurred to me somewhere between Scott’s guitar playing and incomprehensible phone chatter that no matter what happened for the rest of our lives, I would forever be his first. I remember feeling very pleased with that idea. So I started collecting the virginity of other boys. Jeremy, then another Jeremy. Ken. Andrew. But not Nick. Nick had sex with a girl named Amber who had crushed on him the entire two years we had been together. She was so proud she glowed. So I punched her in the face. I hated that face. Nick and I didn’t talk for a long time after that. She was the only girl I ever punched. I wonder if she remembers me.
In eleventh grade there was a boy named Nate who all the girls liked and all the boys wanted to be like. Nate would put together these lists of the girls he was into and everyone would read the names and compare each other’s rank, only we didn’t call it rank and it felt like a game. In September I was number one. I had never been anyone’s number one before but I had always liked Nate. I let him have sex with me at a party in someone’s parent’s bed. I thought it was great. I thought he was amazing. I thought that I really needed to stop having sex with virgins because they never knew what they were doing and start having sex with Nate all the time. After, while we were laying there, he asked if it was my first time. When I said no he asked if I was sure. As though I might have forgotten. As though I might have lied. I wished the bed had turned into a giant hole and swallowed me so I didn’t have to pretend not to care that he thought I wasn’t good. In eleventh grade you were supposed to know what you were doing.
In February of that year Nate invited me over to watch a movie. He put on a version of The Muppets where all the characters had giant breasts and exposed genitals and fucked each other in every skit. I was high on acid. He sat on one end of the couch laughing, and I sat on the other reliving my childhood but replacing wholesome family TV nights with traumatic rape scenes. Kermit the Frog was definitely not supposed to put his dick inside Ms Piggy’s mouth like that.
In March Nate drew me a picture of two people that were attached, but seemed to be pulling away. The girl person was holding a heart and looking at the boy, while the boy person looked in the other direction and tugged on his hands, only his hands were stuck to hers and he couldn’t move. I thought it was sweet of him to draw me a picture. I thought we might be in love.
In April he got this girl named Renee pregnant and I never saw him again. Neither did she. Renee and I are friends on Facebook. She sometimes posts photos of their kid. He looks just like Nate.
After high school I worked as a bartender in a restaurant just down the street from my parent’s house. Wes was from Australia. He had broad shoulders and freckles and sandy brown hair and big blue eyes. He came in every day for lunch by himself. He wore a suit. He was fifteen years older than me. I thought he was perfect. When he asked me out I thought I was dreaming. I didn’t understand how such a beautifully put together man could be interested in someone like me. We had drinks together and flirted and he kissed me and I thought I might melt into a puddle right there in the street. He lived in a motel a few miles away. He had recently caught his wife in bed with another man and was in the process of re-evaluating his life. We would fuck for hours in that room, and on the playground equipment outside at three a.m. When people talk about where they were when the planes crashed into the towers on September eleventh it’s his bed I think of. I wonder if he went back to Australia.
When I turned nineteen I fell in love with a man named Christian who drove a fast car and liked to practice rally racing on the dirt roads outside town and snorting coke in the bathrooms of the local bars. He was twenty-seven. He touched me the way Wes used to, but was more available. I could take Christian home to my parents. I could never do that with Wes. Christian worked at a bar close to mine and we would meet up after our shifts. He was a vegetarian. I had never known a guy to be a vegetarian before. It was nice. I had been one since sixth grade. We would stay up until four a.m. watching movies and making toaster oven pizzas on the floor of his living room. In the morning he would make me coffee that was rich and thick and fill it with cream and sugar and together we’d read the paper and pretend we were grown ups before putting on our white shirts and black pants. Before slinging drinks for drunk college kids and retired alcoholics. Before doing lines off the back of the toilets in our respective bathrooms. I told him I loved him first and he didn’t respond. I’m not sure he ever responded. I’m not sure I noticed.
Christian had been engaged to a girl from Brazil who died of cancer. I never knew her. His family were friends with her family and they would travel down to visit regularly. That’s how they met. When we were together he had a picture of her pinned up on his wall. I wanted to rip it down. I hated that he still worshiped at that photo but I couldn’t say anything because she was dead.
When I was twenty I decided I needed to travel. I settled on Southeast Asia because it was cheap and the guide books made it seem exotic enough but still easy. When I told Christian I was going I hoped he would want to come too, but he didn’t. When I had to drive five hours to the Vietnamese Consulate because they had messed up my entry visa, he joined me. We slept in the car because we misjudged traffic and arrived at five a.m. He bought us coffee and bagels and sat with me while I waited and drove the whole way home and didn’t complain once. But when it was finally time for me to leave he made up excuses not to see me. He told me he didn’t have time. That he had made plans. That it wasn’t a big deal. I spent the night crying about not leaving, and loving him, and making a mistake, while my mom stroked my hair. He never did call. Or write.
While I was away I told myself I wouldn’t be distracted by men. I would focus on travelling and experiencing the culture and being present in the moment. I landed in Kuala Lumpur and made it up the centre and through the Cameron Highlands and across to Penang before I met G in Langkawi. He was part Malaysian and part Thai and lived on a huge sail boat and hated tourists but liked me and played guitar on the beach in the evenings and sailed his boat on the ocean during the day and I was completely caught up in what it might be like to stay there and be that, with him. There was an English girl who ran a breakfast bar on the beach who had blond hair and was married to a Malaysian man. She was eight months pregnant when I met her. I imagined myself as her every morning. When it finally came time to leave I played Portisehead on repeat and looked longingly out the window of the bus and pretended I was in love.
A few years later the island was hit by a tsunami. Nothing on the beach survived. I wonder if she made it. Or her child. Or if their bodies were among the bloated things washed up later, on another beach. Black from sun and ocean and death.
In Bangkok I met a girl named Freya who I had known on my first night in Malaysia. We were so excited to run into each other again that we celebrated by drinking our weight in beer. At two a.m. she decided she wanted pancakes and while we waited for them to cook, three men came up and grabbed Freya’s breasts. She was so drunk she didn’t know what was happening, but I did. I yelled at them. I punched one in the face and in retaliation he reached his hand between my legs and grabbed my vulva. They were tall. Thick. They felt like nightmare monsters with horns and tails and talons for hands. My punch had no effect. But the pancake vendor’s screams did. We ran while he shouted for police. I was so scared I cried. Freya didn’t remember anything. I hoped the vendor was safe. I hoped he knew what he had done for us. I wish I had asked his name.
Then there was Tim in Cambodia who helped me trap a giant spider in my room. We stayed in all night and half of the next day before he caught his flight back to Thailand. Then an English guy in Saigon who’s name I don’t remember because I was drunk and got my period in the middle of the night and had to take the walk of shame back to my room in the morning with the additional humiliation of being covered in blood. As though I had just fought a battle and lost. The only memory I have is his disgusted face when he realised I had bled all over him. It was the first time I’d had period sex and I didn’t even know. I ran into him again a few days later at a café but he pretended not to know me.
At the Full Moon Party I tried to hook up with a French-Canadian named Guy, but he was into some other girl. I got so high I passed out on the hammock outside my guest house and didn’t wake up for almost two days. I had to ask my neighbour what time it was. And then what day. I think something may have happened to me during that in-between time but have never been able to remember.
I follow Guy on Facebook now. He’s made a fortune renovating an old building into condos, so now all he does is travel and practice cheerleading. His profile is filled with photos of him holding up tiny women with one hand while standing on exotic beaches or mountain tops. He’s grown his hair out but on top he’s bald. I’d never be interested in sleeping with him now.
In Vietnam I met an American who was shaped like an upside-down triangle. He had a buzz cut and wore glasses so that he looked like a nerdy bodybuilder. His arms were so thick that when he walked they didn’t touch his sides but instead swung outward like a gorilla. He and I jumped into the ocean naked while all my things were stolen from the beach. He lived in Hawaii and knew about Buddhism and hated Bush and laughed all the time. When I left he wrote me everyday. He told me he was in love with me. I thought he seemed sweet.
When I got home Christian was waiting for me with flowers. As though nothing had changed. As though a year apart with no letters, no goodbye, no plans or talks or proclamations of love or ‘I’ll wait for yous’ meant that I should run into his arms the moment I landed. But I did. Until one day I woke up beside him and saw that he was fat from alcohol and cocaine and still living in his parent’s basement and working as a bartender and at twenty-eight had no plans or ambition. I couldn’t be sure I remembered him ever saying sorry. Ever admitting he cared for me. Out loud. Where I could hear it.
So I told him I was pregnant with another man’s baby and moved to Hawaii a few weeks later. The American was thrilled. Like he had won the lottery. He had no problem telling me how he felt. Everyday. About everything that crossed his mind.
His house had cockroaches and dogs that were covered in fleas and too many men and mattresses on the floor and sheets that hadn’t been washed in months. The floors were covered in sand and dirt and the walls had layers of oil from constant hand prints which turned the white paint a shade of stomach bile that made me cringe. He liked to hang upside-down from these ankle braces and do sit-ups from the roof beams. He was really into Shaolin monks. He carved out a corner in our room where he could stand on his head. He told me that the monks practiced head stands for hours everyday and that it was the key to a long life. That somehow standing on one’s head prevented aging. I spent a lot of time pretending I was somewhere else.
I started trolling Craigslist and dating sites and reconnecting with old boyfriends on social media. I began meeting strangers in dark corners and parked cars and hotel rooms just to feel something. I slept with my best friend’s husband. I slept with her too. I once answered an ad from a guy with a foot fetish who wanted to give me a pedicure. I went to his house and sat in his chair and let him wash my feet and paint my toes and was still when he put them in his mouth. When he licked my heel and calf and rubbed his cheek against my skin, I was fascinated. So fascinated that when he told me he was into more than just my feet I let him have sex with me even though he was fifty and I was twenty-four. Even though he had a huge nose and small eyes and chose to buy a guitar amp instead of going to Japan, which I thought was such a waste. Even though he spoke with a lisp and talked only of bands and albums and how much he hated his job. He spent a lot of time talking. I don’t even remember the sex. Or his name.
It turned out the American wasn’t oblivious to my indiscretions. While I was busy with strangers he had fallen in love with a woman at work. Together they coated everything we owned with their fucking. I knew this because I found the emails they sent each other in which they relived all the details of their affair. She was married. I wasn’t even mad. But I told her husband anyway. I thought he deserved to know. That maybe he would be relieved the way I was. That he could finally move on with his life. Only he really loved her and she loved him and my American was her mistake. He was mine too, I wanted to say.
When he left on a long trip I signed a lease to a new apartment and sold all our furniture and bought a new bed and a new couch and a new kitchen table and chairs. I left him with the mattress and his dirty sheets and his ankle braces and yoga mats. He was so upset when he returned that he pinned me to the bed and demanded I come home and when I ran he chased me through the street and when I jumped into our car to drive away he tried to open the door and get inside. The car was moving. In that moment I was more scared of him than I had been of those men in Thailand. Fortunately someone saw, and called the police. He spent the next two days in jail where he wrote me pages of rambling letters apologising and begging me to stay, on the back of sex offender forms. I keep them in a box in my closet.
When he was released from jail I let him come over and have sex with me using every toy and strap and device we had collected throughout our relationship. I thought that might make him feel better. Like we had closure. I pretended my body belonged to someone else. That I was just watching. When he left I made him take all the stuff with him. I didn’t want to see it again. Or him.
My best friend found out about me sleeping with her husband. So did the American. It turns out that email is a shitty place to keep secrets. They both decided they didn’t want me in their lives and changed their phone numbers and blocked me on social media before moving away. I guess I knew that might happen. I guess I knew the risks. I guess I deserved what I got.
I wondered what had become of Christian and Nick. Whether they had turned into something bigger than they were. I thought how nice it would be to see them again. How nice it would feel to lay down with either of them and just be still together. I thought about how I’d like to hear about their lives and their accomplishments. And I wondered if they ever thought of me. If they ever regretted not holding on when they had the chance. As though I were something elusive or ethereal. As though they desired either, still. Or ever.
Christian got married a few years ago to a girl from Colombia. I think that was my problem; that maybe his heart had always belonged in South America and he had just become a little lost before finding his way home again. Nick, a year or so later, married a girl who looks like me. Even her smile is tilted the way mine can be. They have a dog and a house and take family portraits on gravel trails in the woods which they both post as their profile pictures on Facebook. It makes me uneasy to look at them. It makes me feel sad and happy in the same way but for different reasons.
I stopped having sex last year for awhile. It was like quitting smoking. It left me with nothing to do with my hands and mouth and made me anxious for movement. I painted the walls and rearranged furniture and paced the hallways and the street. I signed up to do things and then cancelled because the burden felt too big, the commitment too real. I still got emails from strangers I met on Craigslist. I still got photos. I tried to ignore them, but it was nice to feel wanted. Desired. It was nice to know I was distracting men from their otherwise peaceful lives. It made me feel powerful and in control. It made me want to send my own photos and emails. But it didn’t make me want to have sex.
Sometime during that break I met a man at work who kissed me after I drove him home. I hadn’t thought of him like that. I hadn’t picked up any want from him, either. It felt impulsive. Like he was just doing it because he thought that’s what was expected. I told him to get out. I told him that he wasn’t wanted. But when I went home I thought about him. I imagined desiring him, imagined knowing him in a way that was meaningful. And for a few minutes while I sat alone in the dark pretending he was someone for whom I could have feelings, I almost did.