I’m not quite sure who created the breakup routine, but the post-relationship dance inevitably includes a number called “Show Your Ex How Much Better You Are without Him or Her.” Often, there are no choreographers, flashy lights, or even costumes, but a careful audience will spy both parties concentrating intently on their next steps. Even before the dust settles, we feel the urge to go out of our way to show the one we once loved how we’ve moved on, how he or she meant nothing to us, and how hot we (and our current fling) are. We tell ourselves that we are fortunate for having gotten out of the relationship when we did.
But what happens when you’re not better off after all is said and done?
Recently, I had the chance to visit an ex and I went into the situation not expecting much—this would be the first time that we would have seen each other in three years—but a little part of me couldn’t help but be curious to see how my ex’s life had turned out.
So I sat there, in a place that was at once familiar and distant, thinking about how far we both had come. In the dim light of the room, I could close my eyes and feel things that were once mine; now, I couldn’t even bring myself to reach out to touch them. As a sigh escaped from my lips, punctuating the silence and filling the void, I suddenly realized that if we were competing I would have lost.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly satisfied where my life is right now, but I can admit when I’ve been bested. Looking around, I felt something that I never expected to; I felt incredibly proud. Later, as I drove away from the house and back toward my life, I struggled to define my emotions but I couldn’t describe what I was feeling in any other way. In many senses, the things that I had seen demonstrated that my ex was happy, successful, and achieving what I had always secretly hoped for.
Cracks in the pavement created a steady hum beneath my car and I found clarity in the cold night air. I began to realize that, for us, the dust had indeed settled for we were both going about our own lives and all that was left was all that there ever was—not anger, jealousy, or unease—but simply love.
This past weekend made me realize that a large portion of my knowledge in the area of sexual health comes from my experiences. For many, information is helpful, but isn’t enough on its own—at some point you have to try things for yourself. Learning to negotiate situations, to feel empowered, to ask for what I want, and to plan ahead are all things that have been forged in heated and pressured situations. How do you react to a partner who wants you to have unsafe sex? What if you’re really into him or her? What if drugs get thrown into the mix? How do you learn to identify the indicators of rape so that you don’t become trapped? These are tests that you study for, hoping you’ll never have to find out if you pass or fail.
And, for the record, faltering every now and then isn’t the end of the world; making mistakes is also a valuable part of the learning process. The trick is to minimize the consequences and make sure that you learn from what you did wrong the first time.
So I guess it turns out that I am better off now, but not for the reasons that I originally thought. I wasn’t fortunate to have the relationship end, but to have been in the relationship in the first place. The relationship provided a safe space for me to grow into my own and I really couldn’t have asked for more.
I look forward to this time of year for a very specific reason: I get presents to catch up on my reading. Sure, it’s all well and good to see family if you’re into that sort of thing, but I also thoroughly enjoy the opportunity to delve into stuff that I’ve been meaning to read. Accordingly, the other day when I was curled up in some blankets I came across an excerpt from a book by Chuck Klosterman that contained a wonderfully interesting question[i].
I’m confident that everybody who reads the problem has a response, but would your answer change if you thought about this scenario in the context of pornography? Imagine that Jack was a passive participant in a scenario designed to get him sexually aroused in contrast to this case (where he was not excited). Which is worse? In essence, he would have initiated both, except one assent would have been explicit and one would have been implicit. Does it even matter? What if Jack was completely removed from the situation: he just happened to look out his window to see the same scene but didn’t look away?
Chuck talked about how people are generally divided by gender when it comes to this question and so I thought that I’d go ahead and try a very (unscientific) survey. I e-mailed a section of my friends asking them to answer this question and to explain their rationale. To my surprise, I found that all of my friends were, well, reasonable. Despite representing different demographics (relationship status, sexual orientation, religion, political leanings, gender, and, to a lesser extent, age) every answer that came back said essentially the same thing: they would take Jack’s side but not really feel good about it. My associates said that they couldn’t stand with Jane because they viewed her response as an overreaction. The replies of my friends were also similar to how I would have approached that situation, so maybe it’s not so much that they are reasonable as it is the case that I think that they are sensible because they agree with me.
When I spread out the various e-mails, I discovered that there seemed to be a common theme: Both Jack and Jane were wrong—and they were both right. Maybe Jack should have considered how Jane would feel and maybe Jane was a bit reactionary. It could very well have been that the reason each individual was wrong was the reason why the other was right. I’ll give you a moment to collect your brain off the floor. Yet, when forced to choose one of two options, everybody sided with the person who they felt was less wrong and not necessarily with the person who was more right. My friends continued to discuss their thought processes via e-mail but interestingly, nobody (directly) mentioned the problem behind this whole mess.
Regardless of whether Jack was at fault for what occurred, did he cheat?
The sense that I got from my friends was that they overwhelmingly felt that Jack had not in fact cheated. Nevertheless, Jane surely felt betrayed. Could Jack have cheated and not cheated at the same time?
For the next few hours I wandered around my apartment thinking about this topic. “What was the litmus test to determine if someone had, in fact, cheated?” I asked myself as I scrubbed my sink (post-college life is not as glamorous as you think, kids). We have individuals who get jealous simply when their mate looks at another person. At the same time, we have people who don’t consider oral (or non-vaginal) sex as sexual intercourse. It turns out that the easiest way is also the hardest: sit down and talk about what does and does not make you nervous. You might find out that your partner would be mad if you didn’t call her/him when you saw someone else masturbating.
[i] Let’s say you have two friends named Jack and Jane. They have been romantically involved for two years, and the relationship has always been good. Suddenly, Jack calls you on the phone and mutters, “Jane just broke up with me.” You ask why this happened. Jack says, “She thinks I cheated on her.” You ask, “Well, did you?” Jack says, “I’m not sure. Something strange happened.”
This is what Jack proceeds to tell you.
“There is this woman in my apartment building who I barely know,” he begins. “I’ve seen her in the hallways a few times, and we’d just sort of nodded our hellos. She is very normal looking, neither attractive nor unattractive. Last week, I came home from the bar very drunk, and—while I was getting my mail—I ran into her at the mailboxes. She was also intoxicated. Just to be neighborly, we decided to go to her apartment and have one more beer. But because we were drunk, the conversation was very loose and slightly flirtatious. And then this woman suddenly tells me that she has a bizarre sexual quirk: she can only have an orgasm if a man watchers her masturbate. This struck me as fascinating, so I started asking questions about why this was. And then—somehow—it just sort of happened. I never touched her and I never kissed her, but I ended up watching this woman masturbate. And then I went home and went to bed. And I told Jane about this a few days later, mostly because it was all so weird. But Jane went insane when I told her this, and she angrily said our relationship was over. Now she won’t even return my calls.
Whose side do you take: Jack’s or Jane’s?
Klosterman, Chuck. Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade or Curious People and Dangerous Ideas. © 2006 ScribnerNew York,NY
“That’s so messed up!” I screamed into the phone.
A scene unfolded on the television screen in front of me as I quickly shelved the urge to throw my cell into the wall. Although ostensibly an adult with a general tendency to avoid teen drama, I enjoy watching—and discussing—Gossip Girl with my coworkers. For me, the show causes a certain amount of amusement, as its main characters represent a population that I could very well work with in my real life, but also interest because, as with the people it portrays, beneath the glamour and the manufactured façade lies a glimpse of truth that, for all its sophistication, its owner can never fully acknowledge.
As mad as I was, I could not escape the thought that a perfect encapsulation of a quintessential teen experience lay before me. Granted, not everybody’s trials involved scheming, scarves, laced stockings, or a former attempted date rapist (how did everybody on the show manage to forget that?), but the underlying dilemma represented something that I suspect much of the audience identified with.
How do you say “I Love You” for the first time?
As teens, and quite possibly even as adults, we continually fret: “When’s the right time to say it? Who should say it first? What if I hear it before I’m ready? What if I don’t hear it back?” Oh, and let’s not forget, “What if I hear it for the first time during my partner’s orgasm?”
One of the things I marvel at is our tendency to convince ourselves that we can’t say the words until we feel as though everything is just right, when in fact we’re buying time and building up the confidence to simply come out and declare it. We waiver in our conviction, content to let the sentiment fall half-formed from our lips: “I…never mind,” we say. And although we are able to control our mouths, we can’t seem to be able to control our bodies: our actions, our touch, scream out the words that we cannot bring ourselves to utter.
Saying “I love you” (and meaning it) seems terrifying as, in that one moment, you give another human being the key to destroying you. All of a sudden, the walls that protected you are down and although you are vulnerable, you are finally free. And that, at its core, is the fundamental reason why Chuck and Blair’s relationship, one built on a struggle for power, control, and dominance, will never experience those words no matter how much its participants long to hear them.
The whole thing is paradoxical as the very act of revealing your vulnerabilities demonstrates in a very real way that you are stronger than you could have ever thought possible; you are no longer defined by your fear. And the funny thing is, at the end of the day, after all of the anguish and anxiety, you get to that place where the words no longer have to be said because the emotion is simply felt.
“The reason we can’t say those three words to each other isn’t because they aren’t true.”
I quickly apologize to the show for ever doubting it. Here, at last, in an instance that both parties will deny, lies the culmination of many things for these two individuals: the acknowledgement of tacit feelings, the abandonment of the game for an exquisite moment, and a realization that, in contrast to Chuck and Blair’s previous schemes, sex is not love and love is not sex—although the two are often bedfellows, they, like most couples, do not always come together.
Earlier, I wrote about the first time that I had sex and how I didn’t really remember much of what happened. While I could probably make something up (who would really know the difference?), and try to make the process of losing my virginity exciting, I think that I should instead tell the story about the first time that I had good sex.
Now, for me, the best sex isn’t just about a mind-blowing orgasm. Sure, I’m not going to pass if one happens to come my way, but there were times that sex just felt right. I don’t think that everyone wants the same things that I do, but I hope that people don’t settle when it comes to sex. Figure out what you want, figure out what’s important to you, and don’t lower your standards when you lower your pants.
The following recounts the first time that I realized that I had not only the sex that I wanted, but that I was in the type of relationship that I always wanted. Regardless of the type of sex that you have, or who you have sex with, I hope that you feel the same way about it that I did: safe, secure, and comfortable.
“Well, not really. I say I am…”
“…But you aren’t.”
“No, no, wait. Really…”
“It’s okay, really, I know.”
“You don’t have to explain.”
The floor creaked as we made our way through the hall—you always forget the spot on the floor even though I’ve told you so many times over the years—and annoyance colored your words, but I knew that you were smiling.
“Why do we have these arguments? You know I always win.”
“I’m just saying…”
I slid my finger into your waistband and pulled close. The smell of you made me pause. Through the fabric I felt you stiffen for just a second and then let go; your breath came hard as I began to exhale on the back of your neck. I ran my chin along the curve of your shoulder and bit down.
The words came out and lingered for a second before they were swept away by the hum of the fan. I had intended to say them louder, but I could not speak above a whisper.
“I thought that you always win?”
“Maybe not this time.”
In that space, I gave you everything—I gave you me. The arguments that I had prepared caught on my lips and faded away into the empty air. I knew that although I never failed to prove my point, you would always triumph in the things that mattered.
You sat at the foot of the bed staring off into your thoughts. You stood up slowly and began to undress—you knew I liked to watch. We fell down together and I saw alarm cross your face.
A finger across your lips and a smile told you that everything was fine. We began to move to the sound of the wind outside, to the rustling of the leaves on the lawn. Swollen lips. Finger tips. Flushed cheeks. A flash of light. Don’t stop. Your face buried in the pillowcase. Your waistline dancing with mine. Don’t stop. Don’t stop until our backs arch and our toes cross. Don’t stop.
Fingers cradled your head and felt the smooth coolness of your hair; I loved the way your scent lingered long after we’re done. I smelled the sweat and I felt the heat. There was a time when I needed to hear you say that you loved me—that was before I knew. My hand wound around you ear and down your body, settling on your stomach. We talked for a while, about what I can never remember. Tomorrow seemed so far away and yet morning came all too soon.
How else to start a series about sexual health than to talk about my introduction to the act itself? With any luck, my parents will never read this and will forever assume that I am a wholesome youngster who has no idea what the word “sex” even means.
Back to my junior year of high school and my first real relationship…
I had been going out with a girl for about six months and eventually things developed to the point where I felt like I was ready to have sex for the first time. I predictably stressed out over the matter and wondered if this girl was the right one to lose my virginity to but I was also dismayed to discover that the video of “Where Did I Come From?” that I had seen in third grade had been completely wrong! There was going to be a whole lot more to this thing than two bodies just rubbing up against each other (although, to be honest, at that point it would have probably been enough for me).
I hadn’t seen much porn at that point in my life and certainly wasn’t shown by anybody else how to go about my business, so how was I supposed to know what to do? Sex wasn’t something that I talked about with my family, my friends had known each other since kindergarten and we certainly did not want to hear about each other’s sexual exploit, and I was also much too embarrassed to ask for help in this situation.
Luckily, at this point, two ideas kicked in: the confidence that my parents had instilled in me to do what I felt was right and the ability to think for myself. As much as I might have periodically hated my parents while I was growing up, I do have to say that they did teach me how to stand up against things that I didn’t believe in. Sure, I caved into peer pressure on occasion, but I also learned that doing something that I wasn’t comfortable with was never a good idea. I discovered that if I just took a second and blocked out the outside voices telling me to do, I usually ended up making the right call. These principles guided me to make what I thought were smart choices about my relationship and about sex.
A few minutes and a failed attempt or two later, it was over.
Looking back, I am fully confident that my first time did not represent my best work. Not even close. As big a deal as I made it out to be, I honestly can’t even recall what happened, when it happened, or where it happened. Well, that’s not entirely true; I do know that there was cheesy music and candles. Give me a break; I was in high school! Anyway, does that mean that the experience wasn’t great and special? Hardly. Maybe it just means that in the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t as monumental as I thought it was going to be.
It has been years since I’ve lost my virginity and I’ve learned a lot of things along the way. Talking to friends, experiencing media, and even making a mistake or two has shown me that while I still don’t know everything there is to know about sex, I know a whole lot. As I’ve matured, the notion of sex has gotten increasingly complicated. Now, instead of just worrying about having an unplanned pregnancy, I have to also consider dating potential, infections, performance, and even what lurking bundle of crazy I’ll release by sleeping with someone.
Although navigating through the often-perilous terrain of sex and relationships has gotten more difficult, it’s also become a lot more fun. Armed with a bit of self-confidence, a pen, some perspective, and of course a condom or two, I will share my experiences, rants, thoughts, and stories. What I might to say might be funny, poignant, or heart breaking, but it will always be genuine.