color key — purple: spirituality; yellow: relationships. the contrast of light and dark correlates with bright and somber tones of voice.

A Story About Subtlety

A Story About Subtlety

A Story About Subtlety

A Story About Subtlety

This is a story about subtlety, about settling in. This is not a story about rage or about force or trauma. This is story about a deep-seededness that becomes impossible to identify until you’re on the other side of it, way over across the way so that you can look at it. Put it in its place. This is my story.

I got a real boyfriend my senior year of high school. While I felt that a boyfriend was long overdue for me, I didn't particularly want to date him. He was well-known among my peers for crying when his grades weren’t above a ninety-five, and he always seemed to have a runny nose. You know, things that don’t immediately draw one in. Nevertheless, his mom was my favorite English teacher, and she always talked about how cute her grandchildren would look if I married her son. I should have realized that coercion from my English teacher was not a stable foundation on which to base my first relationship.

I was uncertain about him for the first few dates, but I slowly began to find him attractive in small ways. He was tall and smart, and he laughed at my jokes. He picked me up at my house for dates and wouldn't move his truck until I had slid over into the middle seat. He was like that, getting offended if I preferred to hover against the window, making me change my Facebook relationship status from Single to In A Relationship while he watched, keeping his arm around my shoulders every time we went out to eat with friends, no matter how complicated that made the act of eating. So I always slid over into that middle seat, even when I wouldn't have minded the distance.

He paid for my meals and introduced me to new music. I went to his basketball games and sat with his family. It was all new to me, dating. My only relationships prior to him were the silly middle school type where an odd match would text 24/7 and become mute as soon as they were in each others' presence. My relationship felt exciting because it felt real and, despite my previous inhibitions, I began to like him.

He came over to my house one night to have dinner with my family. My dad made alfredo and joked about putting in extra garlic to prevent any after-dinner activities between us. Perhaps I was unlike other teenagers in that I wasn't mortified. I had longed for this sort of banter. I had longed for a guy to find me interesting enough to kiss. After dinner, my boyfriend and I hung out in our dining room working on some sort of online math homework that only he knew how to do It was a perfect night, in my estimation. Simple. Sweet.

I walked him out when we were finished, and we stood on the porch for a few minutes. It was awkward because we hadn't kissed yet, and I knew by the way he postured himself toward me that he wanted to. We were quiet for a second.

"You're going to have to do it eventually," he announced into the quiet.

I felt my cheeks catch fire. I wanted to kiss, to be kissed, but a more prevalent part of me was peeking through. I felt uncomfortable, itchy.

"I know," I said, feeling stupid for not being able to do it. "I'm just not ready."

We stood for a few more minutes, him on a lower step. Then, with no further conversation, he stepped up and pushed his too-wet mouth onto mine, baptizing me into a religion I hadn’t committed to. I was stunned. He said goodbye, and walked out of the light from the porch to his truck.

I called my best friend immediately to tell her how awful it had been, to ask her if he was even doing it right. She advised me to hang in there, to try again with him.

"It'll get better," she told me.

I heeded her advice. I dated him for a little over a year after that, and we got comfortable in the way that people do. Neither of us were all good or bad. I was jealous and moody, and he never waited for me to finish putting on my clothes before speeding away to get me home by curfew. We parked a lot in the summer in random fields all over the small town we lived in. We laughed so hard one night when a police officer shone his lights into my passenger window and made me step out of the truck, asking if I wanted to be there, if we had condoms on us.

“It’s not like that,” I told the police officer. And it wasn’t. We skirted around intercourse like all good Christian teenagers do. We left that for marriage and embraced oral sex and hand jobs like they were our Christian rite. Sex was the most confusing part of our relationship, as one might assume. I was filled with all sort of presupposed guilt due to years of not being able to talk about it, and I know I took some of that guilt out on him. We were always setting lines and crossing them and setting them again only to go a little bit further the next time.

We went to separate colleges, and our visits to see each other were marked by these encounters. I always felt guilty doing things with him, and then I felt guilty for making him feel bad about it. But in between, we were happy. He was so clean and kind. He never yelled at me.

We broke up after the first semester of our freshman year because I realized one night that I probably wasn’t a virgin anymore, and I couldn’t think of anything worse at the time than that. He told me his family was going to hate me. I believed him. I hated me. I thought God hated me, too.

I didn’t kiss another guy for a year after that, and — when I finally did — I sobbed in my dorm room after. The new guy and I would make out occasionally, but I called it off soon; I’m not a casual girl. He called me upset after we decided on friendship, but when he put his hand on my inner thigh I knew that even friendship wouldn’t work.

I’m married now, but that story isn’t one of clarity and ease, either. My husband and I spent a lot of time dealing with some of the same issues: guilt, confusion, preferring to interpret physical cues as opposed to just listening to the words that we were saying to one another.

Relationships, even the good ones, aren’t easy. I’m thinking a lot about them these days. I’m thinking about the subtleties in sex, the way that I always felt like I had to do things when I didn’t want to or had to feel bad about them when I did want to. Perhaps this is unpopular, but I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault in particular, not my first boyfriend for kissing me when I said no or my best friend for telling me that it was right, not the youth pastor who told a congregation of youth campers that masturbation was evil. I think of all these things that compounded in my life and made me feel wrong. I think of the nights I spent sitting in front of my mirror as a young girl, repeating the words “disgusting” or “pervert” any time I thought of sex. I remember how big it all felt to me then and how much simpler it feels to me now. How could something so beautiful — lying nude in an empty apartment with my husband before we were married, letting the sunrise shining through the window guide our hands — ever feel wrong to me?

I’m not sure if sex will ever be uncomplicated, but I do know that virginity didn’t make me more or less lovely in the eyes of God. I know that it’s okay to not want things, to give life to your wishes by saying them out loud. And I know that it’s okay to want things, to crave a touch, a kiss. These are things I know now, and I hope you know them too, reader.

© Midnight Woman 2021