Monthly column from author/activist
Comes Naturally #120
It's Spring Break of my freshman year in college. I am 17. Joy and I are in my room at my parents' new apartment in New York -- eleven stories up, with a glorious view past Gracie Mansion, Carl Shurz Park, and the East River -- out over the vast expanse of Queens. The morning sun is streaming in the window, turning the entire room warm and golden. I'm feeling pretty warm and golden myself.
Joy has arranged to visit me in New York for a few days before she goes home to Minnesota. She has dealt with New York culture shock, met my parents for the first time. My parents have been unhesitatingly delighted with her, despite the fact that she's not Jewish; that she's blond, Scandinavian and from Minneapolis; that she's concrete evidence that I have left the nest of New York and gone to find my way in a Midwestern world that my parents know precious little about.
Now my parents have left for vacation, giving Joy and me full use of the apartment for a day, after which Joy will fly home and I will join them on their Caribbean cruise. To their great credit, my parents are completely comfortable with this arrangement, even though they know full well that they are being complicit in arranging a sexual possibility that Joy's parents are presumably trusting them to prevent.
Joy and I stand at the window, taking in the sun, the view, the moment. After almost a full academic year of manic erotic obsession in the privacy-challenged environment of Oberlin College circa 1962, we are about to cross the culturally-hallowed threshold that separates couples who have had sexual intercourse from those who have not. Joy has been across that threshold several times before, but I have not. According to my (possibly air-brushed) memory, I'm remarkably calm on the outside. Inside, I'm positively vibrating.
Decades later, I'm still not clear about why it took Joy and me so long to take that step. In the time before there was easy access to birth control pills, contraception was certainly a more complicated issue it was later -- during that glorious, post-pill, pre-AIDS era of unfettered sexual possibility that we treated as if it would last forever. But I don't think it was fear of pregnancy that, for nine long months, kept Joy and me limited to the realm of hands and mouths when it came to genital sex play.
Undoubtedly I was the person primarily responsible for our restraint, if restraint is what we were doing. For one thing, it was back in the days when the guys did just about all of the sexual initiation. And, aside from the issue of gender roles, Joy was much more sexually experienced than me, and not one to pull back from sexual possibilities that presented themselves. I don't remember her ever turning away from a sexual suggestion from me. So it wasn't a case of strict female intercourse gatekeeping by any means.
Maybe it was my own fundamental shyness about sex -- a kind of awe-struck wonder regarding all things sexual that coexisted, somewhat uneasily, with my equally strong complete infatuation with anything related to sex. Maybe I was so completely blown away by the world of intercourse-free sexual pleasure that I had inhabited with Joy since about the first day we met that the very thought of something even more powerful was more than my circuits could handle. Maybe I was unconsciously listening to some zen commandment about not proceeding to a new level of sexual activity until you have fully explored the sexual experiences more immediately at hand.
Whatever it was, it was not that Joy and I lacked sexual energy. We were so obsessed with sex, and so constantly all over each other physically, that classmates later told me our sexual mania was a well-known campus phenomenon. Nevertheless, from the first day of Freshman Orientation in August until April of the following year, I don't think the matter of sexual intercourse ever came up for us in any serious way. Call it waiting until the time was truly ripe.
Now, in the streaming hot morning sun, with cars, trucks, and ships passing back and forth far below us, the time feels very ripe indeed. I'm excited inside but not in a hurry -- preferring, however unconsciously, to savor the ritual significance of this fleeting rite of passage. Joy and I kiss and run our hands over each other, much as we have so many times before at Oberlin. We unbutton each other's clothes and they fall completely away, as is never been possible in our college situation of restricted privacy.
I look at her, naked in the sunlight, naked in my own room, and there is no question that we are in territory we have never explored before. It is the first time I get to stand back and take in the line of Joy's naked body, the shape of her, the form of her -- first standing in front of me at the window, then lying down on the bed. My bed. Her body is small like mine, pale unlike mine. There is a general sense of roominess, of extended space, of open expanse, both physical and emotional. We have at our disposal an entire apartment, and all the time in the world. At that moment, there is nothing in the world but us, nothing that matters but what we are entering with unbounded delight and anticipation.
As dizzy as I am with the luxurious possibility of it all, years of indoctrination on the subject of sexual responsibility -- that is to say, birth control -- have not been in vain. Interrupting our mutually growing desire, I get up and go into the bathroom to get a condom. Not a latex condom, mind you, but a more expensive natural lamb condom that "A Doctor's Guide to Marital Fulfillment," the sex advice book thoughtfully given me years before by my parents, says are best at transmitting sensation. I take it, folded not rolled, from its wrapper. Because my sex guide has said that it's wise to check condoms for defects by seeing if they hold water without leaking, I dutifully fill the condom at the sink, examine it, and empty it again before carrying it, still wet, back into the bedroom, where Joy is lying in bed just as she was when I left her, seemingly ages before. If she has been wondering what in the world was taking me so long, she doesn't show it. I show her the condom and she looks it over curiously. Despite her sexual experience, it turns out that she's never seen one before.
Just as we begin to roll the condom up so I can put it on, something impossible happens. We hear the front door of the apartment open and close, and the sounds of someone moving around the living room. We both startle in embarrassed confusion and then I realize that it must be my mother's housecleaner. Now, my mother has specifically reassured me that she has told Helga, the housecleaner, that she and my dad are going to be away, that Helga should not come to clean while they're gone. Despite that she is undeniably here.
Struggling to be clear-headed and functional, I jump up naked from the bed and stick my head out the bedroom door into the hallway. I call to Helga and try to explain to her that I'm home visiting from school, that my parents are away, that she doesn't need to clean the house, not even a little bit since she's already there. Helga's English isn't too good, but eventually I manage to convince her that she should just go home, the quicker the better. As I'm doing this I remember that Joy's purse and suitcases are right in the middle of the living room. Surely Helga must know why I'm extending just my head out the bedroom door. How does Helga feel about walking in on me, naked in my room with my girlfriend? Do I really care? Finally, she agrees to leave and, a moment later, the front door reassuringly slams shut behind her.
I turn back to Joy, who has a wide-eyed look on her face, a mixture of shock and amusement. I drop the tension from my shoulders and we both laugh. I lie down next to her, let the smell and feel and taste of her lead me back to where we were before being so rendingly interrupted.
Strangely, I don't remember any of the details of how we were sexual with each other that day. What I do remember is the feeling. Helga's brutal appearance notwithstanding, it was a delightful, happy, easy time, full of pleasure and excitement. By the time we decided to go out for something to eat, morning and afternoon had merged into evening. When we left the apartment it was already dark.
Later that day or the next, after taking Joy to the airport, I caught my own plane out of town and reconnecting with my parents in sunny Nassau, capital of the Bahamas. I remember the curious looks on both their faces, reading my body language as I come down out of the plane onto the tarmac. It isn't until later, when we're having lunch at some glaringly tropical restaurant overlooking the ocean, that they finally ask me, with judiciously restrained anticipation, what happened with Joy after they left.
I find what I think is a relatively dignified way of telling them that, yes, we did indeed do It.
"And...?" my mother asks pregnantly, followed by a long pause.
"And what?" I ask back -- not knowing, or pretending not to know, what more to say.
"And... how was it?" she clarifies.
"Oh. It was fun," I say rectangularly, looking down at my food until I relax and add, more loosely, "We had a wonderful time."
I look up to find both my parents beaming at me happily, even proudly. Their simple, open appreciation allows me to beam back -- self-conscious but also enjoying both their attention and their delight. My mother leans over to give me a big hug. My father shakes my hand warmly, as if to welcome me into the brotherhood of knowing adults. Something shifts forever among the three of us.
"Helga showed up in the middle," I say to my mother, breaking the mood somewhat.
"No!" she exclaims, holding a hand up to her mouth.
"Yes," I say, "but it was ok. I told her to go home and eventually she did."
"Oh, I'm so sorry," my mother gushes in embarrassment. "I made a point of telling her not to come."
"I know," I reassure her. "She got confused about when you were leaving. It's really ok. Joy says to thank you for your hospitality, for being so helpful and so understanding."
My mother looks vaguely alarmed. It is one thing to be complicit in arranging a sexual tryst between me and my girlfriend; it's another thing to cop to what she has done.
"I don't know what you mean, I had nothing to do with it," she says, gathering herself together a bit, annoyed to be put under a spotlight of truth.
"Whatever you say," I answer, throwing my dad a knowing smile.
My mother shoots us both what is supposed to be a disapproving look from out of the corner of her eye, but there's no way to ignore that she's really smiling instead.
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