My First Boy

When I can’t sleep at night, I sometimes count up the men I’ve slept with. If I forget one, because I’m half-asleep, or because the man never meant that much to me in the first place, I start over from the beginning. I have to name them in order. I don’t have to remember every name; I knew their names when I slept with them. I don’t count the men I spent the night with but didn’t, in the end, have sex with; when “nothing happened,” as people said then, although in those cases probably neither of us got any sleep. And in the morning I would pick up my things, get dressed, and walk out.

Much of that sex was in the 1960s. Before going to college, I’d had little sexual experience. I made up for it my freshman year—in a car, in the woods, in a boy’s bedroom in Wilmington, Delaware, when his parents were away. I hopped from boy to boy, unable to resist the attention of someone new, although each time I felt slightly guilty about the boy I’d dropped. I logged a fair amount of bodily contact, of boys’ fingers and hands, mouths, legs. I went a little further with each one. I didn’t—yet—go all the way, although I wanted to, out of desire, because I liked sex, and also out of curiosity, and also out of the wish to put childhood—innocence and ignorance—behind me. I loved the feeling of power I got from sex, from being looked at in that way. I loved the feeling of the boy’s power over me too, in that moment when we looked at each other and knew what was going to happen. And I loved being swept up by touch, by smell, by the varieties of intense and unaccustomed sensation. I loved the feeling of losing myself in sex. But at the same time, I didn’t like it. I missed my separateness, my sense of myself as a separate and autonomous human being. I missed being aware of my conscious and calculating mind. All of which was impossible at those swept-up times of sex, although there were times when my mind hovered, watched, ticking over. I wasn’t scared of the physical act (or so I believed, but maybe I was, more than I would have admitted even to myself); I was fearful of something more central. Afraid of being possessed by feeling, of being lost to myself. So I stayed at the edge and messed around with one boy after another. Pulled forward, pulling back.

Of course sex won. The act took place in my dorm room, in the fall of my sophomore year of college, when the slate college walks had become spotted with brown and red leaves. That first boy was a friend, someone I liked as a friend, whom I never considered, even for a second, as more than a friend. His name was Paul. I had never thought about kissing him; I assumed he felt the same way, didn’t see me as girlfriend material. He never made advances, but he teased me, saying, “You know you want it,” teasing himself more than me. He would say this with a self-mocking smile, a sideways look, then he’d pat me on the head. He had a roster of good-looking, long-haired girlfriends. He was not particularly faithful to any of them. He was tall, with a careless charm, good-looking, with fuzzy eyebrows, pale eyelashes, and bright-blue eyes. Perhaps he was too aware that he was good-looking? Yet he had a perpetual quizzical, rumpled air, an air of melancholy. I don’t know why I wasn’t attracted to him, didn’t have a secret crush on him, didn’t secretly hope for something more. Perhaps we liked being the only person in each other’s lives who didn’t want anything. We were in some of the same classes and often sat next to each other in the small study hall off the library’s main reading room, with our piles of reserve books. He took notes in a neat script, using a Rapidograph pen. My notebook pages were messy with doodles and drawings of people studying, their legs crossed, hands holding a book. The actual notes were illegible. Unlike me, Paul was a conscientious student, but we shared a cynical attitude, and neither of us belonged to any campus group. I felt safe with him, safe enough to ask, eventually, putting it as a favor. I didn’t want to jeopardize the friendship. And it wouldn’t, I told him. He raised one fuzzy eyebrow. He probably asked if I was serious about wanting to “do it.”

I don’t remember anything about it, what we said or didn’t say before or after. I do remember that his white socks remained on his feet; they swam at the bottom of my field of vision. A few days later I asked if we could do it again. He was happy to comply. For a few weeks, it remained a thing between us, as if we ran away periodically, not just off campus but to some foreign country where we didn’t speak a word of the language. He would sneak into my room, we would have sex, he would sneak out.

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