My sophomore year in college, I attended a study-abroad program in a tiny cobblestone city in Tuscany that was so beautiful I thought it was pretend. The streets were narrow and lined with churches and cathedrals and museums; every ceiling was painted with stories; every wall molded into gargoyles and cherubs. At its center was a football field-sized square called Piazza del Campo where everyone met up, drank in the culture, and in my case at nineteen, sat alone with a bottle of cheap wine—ohmygod I could buy wine!—and cried over the boy I left back in America, the stupid boy whom I very well may have forgotten a few weeks later after meeting a Carlo or a Paulo, but it had only been two days and I was heartbroken, drunk as only an underage American in Europe can be. Ten feet from me, professional opera singers rehearsed The Barber of Seville in the open air, soaring alto and contralto. It was so beautiful. The sky was all stars, a singular still shot or picture postcard, and I looked across the piazza and saw him.
You’re drunk, I told myself, but even so, it was him, the American boy I loved so first-love desperate, showing up as if he’d heard me from the other side of the ocean.
I watched him cross the square, rubbing my eyes in case there was some smudge-sickness I’d picked in customs. It was him, it was, heavy backpack and dirty clothes and so decidedly foreign, so not this picture. He looked up and—yes, the cliché—our eyes met across the piazza. Can you hear violins? I was on my feet, running, pushing past the Italians walking hand-in-hand under the stars. I didn’t slow down as I neared him, speed up faster even, and we reached each other in a frantic mess of limbs on limbs on lips and hugging, tight, bodies locked together.
That’s when he said it, whispering in my ear as he spun me around and now, after everything that happened between us—a year of living together in Italy, five more of on-and-off, the sex, the scare, the different cities and other lovers—this is the moment I choose to remember: spinning in circles in that pretend city, my feet off the ground and trailing behind me.
“I crossed the ocean for you,” he said.
That’s love, right?
Dave was almost thirty, I’d just turned twenty, and therein lay the problem: how would I get in to the places he wanted to go? Later, he’d buy me a fake ID from a girl named Tiffany who was five-foot-two with black hair. From then on, I slouched a lot and said “dye job” as the bouncer looked from me to the card; me, the card. I always got in. Dave said it was because I looked older, but I knew it was because of him. He was a musician and, so I thought, knew everyone sitting at every door at every indie club in Chicago circa ’95—Empty Bottle, Double Door, Beat Kitchen, Bottom Lounge—and when we got to the Metro that night, he took my hand in his and held them both out to the bouncer. “Hey, Mark,” he said, and Mark said, “Hey, Dave,” and Dave nodded in my direction and said, “Could you get my girlfriend a wristband?” wink wink. I got a plastic bracelet proving I was twenty-one, and then a rum and Coke, and when Dave and I were alone in the crowd I said, “Girlfriend?” I yelled it, actually. We were in front of the speakers.
Dave grinned. A grinner, that one. “What do you think?” he said.
Here’s what I thought: run.
I liked Dave; the places he took me, the music he turned me on to, his bed and his body so free of mess and history and capital F Feelings, but the last thing I wanted was to be somebody’s girlfriend. Girlfriends were for lettermen’s jackets in high school. Girlfriends were left in Europe, waking up alone in an empty flat. Girlfriends were the phone call my roommate got in the middle of the night from a recent ex, all coked out, saying if he ever saw her talking to another man, he would find her when she least expected it, he knew where she lived and where she worked and all the dark alleys in between, and my roommate slid down the wall with the receiver at her ear.
His name was Cal Buckley. I loved that name. It made me think of cowboys, which Cal decidedly was not. He was a psychologist dealing with violent schizophrenics and was always taking somebody down.
“How was work?” I’d ask every night on the phone.
“Fine,” he’d say. “Had to take somebody down.”
He lived in Boston, and I’d just started grad school in Chicago. We’d met through a mutual friend when he came for a visit and from there, it happened fast: BANG POW DO YOU SMOKE WEED BANG POW SEX ON A FUTON BANG POW LONG DISTANCE RELATIONSHIP.
I liked our arrangement. We were together without being together. No navigating time commitments, no social compromise, no When To Leave Your Toothbrush In His Bathroom. Phone sex was great; I bought a fancy vibrator. I got a ton of writing done—stories, essays, chapters, thesis. Think of how much time you spend trying to find your next love and/or lay. What could you do with that time? What could you make?
“How was work?” I asked one night, several months in.
“Fine,” he said. “I asked if I could transfer to Chicago.”
It was over pretty quick after that, but I still have the vibrator. It’s really, really fancy.
When Jeff told me he was gay, I cried.
I had so much to learn.
There are so many different kinds of love.
Middle of winter, middle of the night, middle of the park. It was beautiful, lit up like a stage show from the street lamps, the snow seamless and clean like just-laid carpet. I stood behind Brad, his back pressed into my front, my arms around his waist with his penis in my hands, writing my name in the snow.
First, the M.
Then, some dripping.
“What!” I said. “There are three letters left!” Brad didn’t say anything, just drooped in my palm. “Come on,” I said to his back. “You had like six beers!”
We were friends, both of us seeing other people but even if we weren’t, there’d be no chance. We didn’t want each other like that, no invisible gravitational pull. It made honesty come easy. We could talk. Earlier, at dinner, I’d gone into a whole big thing about Christmas at my grandparents’ house in Michigan. I was the youngest, the only girl; in my little-kid memory, my boy cousins numbered in the hundreds, but in truth there were nine. Nine boys, one bathroom, so they’d go to the porch. They’d stand in a line at its edge. They’d say, readysetgo! and undo their belts, lift the fronts of their puffy winter coats, and pee in the snow. There was a lot of stream-crossing accompanied by dire warnings not to cross streams, and pictures and messages and names in wide wet script. This was something they did together, a sort of family bonding that excluded me by anatomical default. I’d watch from the sliding door, nose pressed to the glass. Typically, those boys took me everywhere: fishing, hunting, sledding, target practice. I wasn’t used to being left out.
“Come on,” Brad had said, putting money down on the table, and we crossed Milwaukee Avenue to the park and its perfect snow. “Don’t say I never did anything for you,” he said, unzipping.
It was the first time I’d touched a penis in a context that wasn’t sexual. The M, the E, and, soon after, the G and the A before he ran out of juice.
I was visiting my dad on an island in the Gulf of Alaska. He had a job there at an elementary school on the Coast Guard base. One of his student’s dads worked on a huge military vessel called a cutter and offered to give us a tour. It had living accommodations for the entire crew, out on the ocean bringing relief supplies to Indonesia and rescuing commercial fishing boats stuck in storms. The day they’d returned to port was the same day we boarded, so, in a nutshell: I was on a big-ass boat with a hundred-some guys, none of whom had seen a woman in months.
Back home in Chicago, I’d recently discovered one-night stands. I’d walk into Inner Town Pub or Tuman’s and scan my options: too old, too drunk, not enough tattoos and then, inevitably, hello, Danger. He’d be skinny, already sloppy on PBR, bent over the pool table with his cue lined up on the eight ball and just before he’d let ’er rip he’d be compelled by some higher force—you might say the Lord but science calls it pheromones—to look up at me, and I’d look back at him, our eyes tying us together in the electric space between our bodies.
Take that look and multiply it times the Coast Guard.
The lower deck was a maze of tight, narrow hallways with low ceilings and low lights. Sometimes, as crew members passed in the opposite direction, you’d have to scooch up against the wall to let them pass, and sometimes, pressed up against that wall, you couldn’t help bumping shoulders, or thighs, feeling wrinkles from waterlogged fingers, eyes like lasers, the rubbery vinyl of their zip-up waterproof jumpsuits, I MEAN COME ON! JUMPSUITS! You can’t get easier access: reach up, pull down and whoop, there it is.
I was twenty-two years old, near stupid with want and fantasy. I’d been such a good girl. Please, thanks, you’re welcome. So appropriate. So passive. Lie on your back, gasp, accept, and wash the sheets afterwards but man, that cutter. Those bodies. Each one I passed was more delicious than the last and my imagination went batshit, him and him and him and heat heavy in the icy air, vinyl wet and slick on muscle, every corner a new hiding place to unzip, unbutton and bend over: engine room, storage room, pilothouse, stern ramp. I wanted all of them. Any of them. I wanted, for once and goddamn all, to be honest about my own desire.
I was with Josh, we were in a bar, fuck if I remember which, and he’d had a lot to drink ’cause work was like—fuck—and his roommates—fuckers—and apparently I’d fucked up, too? I’d said/worn/done/thought/felt the wrong thing and whatever it was, it must’ve been awful, like, I must’ve gone toothefuckfar because three seconds later count ’em, one two three he flipped over his barstool, threw his glass on the floor, and reached for me, hands outstretched. I remember the veins in his forearms, purple rivers on a map, his biceps like baseballs and people were on their feet, kicking aside their chairs, backing away from us, and I was backing away from him coming at me and he was yelling and I was still confused because what? because why? but I didn’t have time to put it together, the long line of cause and effect that started with a drink and ended with his hands, knuckles locked and tense and close and closer and just before they connected with my face, the bouncer caught him from behind, his meatball arms locking around Josh’s neck and I —
I was lucky.
A few days later, after sex, he would gently pet my forehead and say, “I never would’ve hurt you.” At twenty-four, I believed him.
At twenty-five, I wanted to set him on fire.
At twenty-eight, I learned how past relationships can effect current relationships.
At thirty-three, I began raising a boy to be Not That Man.
At thirty-nine, I’m ready to forgive myself.
He was sitting in one of those spinning office chairs. I was on my knees between his legs, nose to cock. I was supposed to be giving him a blow job, which can be amazing and sexy and hot-as-hell when things like consent and trust are involved but in this particular scenario, I was pretty sure that he was filming me.
We were in his studio, a garage sort of set-up where he made experimental videos. That’s what he wanted to do, anyway. What he did do was record weddings and children’s dance performances and then sell the tapes. This was the early 2000s, everything everywhere was going digital. He didn’t have money to upgrade his equipment, so he made quote art endquote. I was not there for the art. I was there for the sex, but man, I had a bad feeling about all of it: the way he’d positioned his chair just so. The care in how he arranged his body, like when you’re getting your picture taken you suck in your stomach. How he kept looking behind me, over my head.
For years, I’ve wondered why I stayed, but recently, instead, I’ve decided to wonder why was he such a douchebag.
Todd’s apartment was on the top floor of a fifth-floor walk-up. The stairs gave me plenty of time to think. “Can we talk?” I asked, and we sat on the step in front of his door. A lot of words came out of my mouth then. I don’t remember exactly: something about trust. About how, in the past, I’d been careless with my body and my feelings and my safety. About how I like seeing you, Todd, but I need to know that if I walk through that door—I pointed at his door—I can still see you tomorrow.
He smiled and said, “I thought we could build a fort.”
When was the last time you built a fort? The last time you had that kind of fun? The sheets and chairs and pillows; the impossible, puffy architecture? We turned his living room into a low-ceiling teepee, lying underneath with blankets and a flashlight. We laughed a lot. It was joyful. Easy. Safe.
The next day, still giddy and high off the possibility, I turned on my phone and listened to a voicemail he’d left about how we shouldn’t see each other anymore.
I was too pissed to ask why.
It’s been well over a decade and I’m still pissed.
He is the only one I was ever honest with at the beginning.
I was late. The band had already started by the time I got ID checked, hand stamped, and in through the side door. The bar ran the length of the wall to my left, stage at the far end, and everything in between was bodies; dancing, pulsing, banging into each other. I scanned the crowd, wondering how do I find—and Selly appeared at my elbow. She was tiny, her body delicate but double the attitude, tough-girl chic, tattoos and army bag and dyed red hair. We hey’d each other, hugged, and she made the you want a drink gesture. I’d had too much wine at dinner beforehand, but I am very good, then and still, at convincing myself that more is okay, more is healthy, I’d been working so hard lately, the meetings, the deadlines, that grant, and I needed this night, I’d nap tomorrow after finishing everything that needed finishing. I nodded to Selly and looked at the band. They were loud. Head full of noise and that was good. No room for bullshit if you’re already full.
Selly came back with something on the rocks. As she handed it to me, her shirt rode up with the lift of her arm, exposing a smooth line of skin just above her belt loops. Her tummy was flat, hipbones curving out and up like sculpture. I couldn’t stop staring. I gulped at my drink, ice on the heat between us. I wanted to throw the glass against the wall. I wanted to touch Selly’s hip. I wanted to squat down on the floor, wrap both arms around her waist, lip to that smooth line. I wanted to stay there for the next hundred years.
All my life, I’ve looked at other women’s bodies in envy. I don’t like admitting that. I should be stronger, smarter, more confident, but fuck, here we are. Look at her ass, it’s higher than mine. The skin under her arms doesn’t flop. Her thighs are tight. But this thing with Selly—it was different. It was the first time I’d ever looked at another woman’s body not in comparison, but in want. To touch it, lick it, blend it in some way, no matter how insignificant, with my own.
“Hey.” Selly leaned in to get close to my ear. “What’s going on?” she said, but she knew, we both knew, we’d been living in this moment for months, had talked about it a thousand times and it came down to this: I wanted sex, she wanted love and neither could give the other what she wanted.
“I have to go,” I said, which is what I always said: time to move, too much to do, that grant, those meetings, and sleep sometime, right? No time to think, or process, or handle, the drama, the desire, the buildup, building, higher, and then I was out the Double Door’s front door, hand in the air, in the cab, off to the boyfriend’s house.
It was so much easier with him. He didn’t need me to love him.
Love to watch you go
He had the best ass I’d ever seen, very high and round. I’d ask him to get things—water, grapes, condoms—just to watch him climb naked out of bed and walk across the room. I’d think, I hate to see you leave but I love to watch you go. Then I’d laugh at myself for being so ridiculous. It’s good to laugh at ourselves, I think.
One night, after sex, we were lying on the couch. Spooning. Me in the front and him in the back. “I’m in love with you,” he said to my hair.
Then: “Did you hear me?”
And I said, “Can’t we just watch a movie?”
Neither of us moved; no breathing, even. Then he sat up, untangled his body from mine, and walked across the room to his clothes. I watched him disappear into his jeans, shirt, and shoes; then out the door; then gone for good. I could have said something. I could have explained myself, apologized, talked about fear and distrust, but in the moment?—being awful was easier than being honest.
As a birthday gift—or maybe a gag?—some friends broke into Christopher’s apartment and covered everything with aluminum foil. It was a studio, not much space to cover but still: foil-wrapped clothes in foil-wrapped drawers. Foil-wrapped books on foil-wrapped shelves. Foil-wrapped individual aspirin inside the foil-wrapped aspirin bottle inside the foil-wrapped medicine cabinet over the foil-wrapped sink. When we fell back on his bed, it crunched and cracked beneath our bodies, papered us in silver and shredded as we flipped: me on top, him on top, me, him. Later, he peeled foil off the windows so we could watch lightning split the sky, the best show in springtime Chicago. We pulled the screens off, too, and stuck our feet in the rain. We fell asleep like that, two pairs of bare legs sticking out of a ninth floor window over Pratt Boulevard, half on the bed and half in the sky. It was perfect; magic, even.
It was my last first time.
When I look back at my sexual history—those singular still shots and picture postcards—so little of it involves the actual physical act. Rather the before and after; the build up to and the takeaway from. It’s me figuring out what I want and what I’m worth, a long line of cause and effect that started with spinning in the Piazza del Campo and ended in a foil-wrapped studio on the Northside of Chicago.
By morning, the room was a microwave, sun baking the foiled walls and cooking us from the outside-in but hey! Who gives a shit? We were in love. We drank cold coffee and unwrapped his apartment, book by book, dish by dish. It took days. We’d stop to sleep, to fuck, only putting on clothes to go to the 7-Eleven for ice and cereal and Gatorade. Every night, it stormed. So humid. So much sweat. So much sex. Even now, after everything that happened between us—moving to Prague, eloping on the beach, near-foreclosure, living off an art website and writing books and our perfect little boy who blink and you’ll miss it just lost his first tooth—I can still remember how those first nights felt. I don’t mean the scene-building stuff of here is his shoulder, here is my knee, the walls were painted red, it was nighttime—no, I mean the gutpunch and thrum of muscle memory: electric shock on skin, wet and sticky and sliding, teeth in my neck, thighs taut, tighter, squeezing, holding, wait—and waves, unfolding, unlocked, wide open, no thinking, only trusting, only us.
Excerpted with permission from Soul Mate 101 and Other Essays on Love and Sex, edited by Jennifer Niesslein, to be published by Full Grown People on September 21, 2015.