When I was eighteen I began to carry a condom in my wallet. I can’t recall where I got it, because I had a paralyzing fear of buying them. This anxiety extended to bringing it around with me. I imagined someone going through my wallet, pulling it out and giving me a skeptical look. “What’s this?” they’d ask.
“Optimism,” I’d cleverly reply. They would chuckle and give me a you old rogue look and we’d both go about our day. If only I were as witty in real life as I am in my head.
Maybe a week after I started carrying it, I met my step brother and step father for lunch at the Boston College cafeteria. I’d just come from the gym, where I pretended to lift weights while staring at girls on treadmills. I was wearing athletic shorts without any pockets, and I absentmindedly put my wallet on the table. During our meal my step brother, Hale, began to casually rifle through it. Inevitably, he came across that little blue plastic wrapper, pulled it out, and snickered. I shook my head subtly. He then burst out into a quiet fit of laughter and put it back. My stepfather pretended not to notice. When I got back to my room, I took it out and slammed it in a drawer. That was the last time I kept a condom in my wallet, and I soon forgot about it. It wasn’t until several years later, at the tender age of twenty-one, that I would have to reopen that metaphorical drawer.
I’ve never hyperventilated before, so I can only assume that’s what I’m doing now. I’m sitting in the intern corner at work, trying to go through my usual morning routine of reading all the articles on ESPNsoccernet. Razan, my Middle Eastern co-intern from Boston University looks across the table, concerned. I am a little nervous around her, because I am from New Hampshire, where everyone is white. We have never talked about our lives outside of work. I’m not sure whether to confide in her or start sobbing hysterically. I can’t even look at Steven Gerrard celebrate his goal on the screen in front of me. I’m pretty sure my life is over.
“Umm… is everything okay?” she asks. I think she’s noticed that I’ve sweat through my button-down shirt. I really admire those strong stoic types that can suffer in silence, but it’s not a skill I have.
“Yes. No. Actually, I may have gotten someone pregnant.”
Razan is shocked. I think mostly at the idea of me having sex.
“Okay. Calm down. I’m sure you didn’t. What happened?”
I go to great lengths to avoid sharing sexual details with any girl, never mind one I barely speak to, so I try valiantly to leave out anything that would garner a PG-13 rating.
I just got back from Birthright. This is the free trip to Israel even secular Jews like me are invited to go on, with the hopes that we will mate like bunnies. The guest speaker on the second day joked, “It’s not Birthright, its birth rate.” At least we thought he was joking until we saw that the trip leader had an entire backpack full of condoms.
On the second night we heard the youngest member of our forty person group having very loud sex in her room with one of the soldiers who accompanied us. We laughed, but I think we were all a little traumatized. It was a bonding moment.
This is where I met Janie, the twenty-six-year-old divorced mother of one, who would be attached to my hip for twelve days. Janie is from Dallas. I didn’t know there were Jews in Dallas. She teaches elementary school there, loves her daughter and hates her ex-husband. I play Grand Theft Auto IV in the middle of the day, usually while drunk, and still call “fives” whenever I get up from a seat. One of my roommates once stole my seat after I did this, and I almost threw him down a staircase. I take it very seriously. Also, they don’t have “that’s what she said” in Dallas, which is my go-to response to just about everything. This limited our ability to communicate.
I was sitting next to her on the tour bus while she explained in frustration why every other guy was too short, fat, skinny, taken, or alcoholic to be her fling for the trip.
“Hmm… ” I said.
“Geoff’s really cute,” she told me, “too bad he has a girlfriend.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, staring at the desert outside the window. I turned up the air conditioner.
“Too bad you’re not a little older,” she said, giving me a sisterly pat.
“Geoff is like four months older than I am.” Janie pretended not to hear. I turned on my iPod. Eventually, reluctantly, I invited her to join in watching Arrested Development. She laughed at all the wrong parts.
Janie warmed up to me soon after that. Maybe it was my witty references to fantastic video games like Call of Duty and Bioshock. Maybe it was the 35 to 5 girl to guy ratio. Either way, it was clear by the third day that we were an item, though we hadn’t hooked up. We spent almost every moment together, except when I intentionally hiked faster to get away. By the fifth day of the trip I was beginning to question the value of a relationship with someone who complained about shopping and teaching and divorce and alcoholism and all those adult things I didn’t care about, when I could be talking about myself with Geoff and Dave.
On the sixth day Janie and I were napping in a hammock by the Dead Sea. I was tired out from a twenty minute water-treading competition I’d had with a freakishly athletic girl that ended in a draw, called on account of boredom. I had just enough energy left to hook up. I shared this thought with her. We agreed to go back to the room.
Dave walked up to us, carrying beer. “Hey guys, wanna play cards and get drunk?”
“Definitely,” I said, forgetting about sex.
A few days later, we got to a kibbutz on the Israel-Lebanon border just before sundown on the Sabbath. Aware that we had just minutes to buy alcohol before the stores closed for thirty-six hours, but unaware of where they were, we ran around the kibbutz like blind, flaming rabbits. I experienced the unique pain that comes from sprinting uphill in flip-flops. We got to the only store with minutes to spare and bought a four-dollar Alaskan vodka that I have never seen in the U.S. and hope never to see again. Geoff, Dave and I polished this off in short order, and complemented it with liver-shriveling amounts of barely-drinkable Israeli beer.
Afterwards, we gathered outside one of the rooms in plastic chairs, where every guy besides me demonstrated an impressive ability to play the guitar. I debated trying to play the first three chords of “Seven Nation Army,” which had taken me weeks to learn, but I still couldn’t get them quite right. I opted instead to subtly hint to Janie that we should go back to my room: “HEY! LET”S HOOK UP!”
She told me she didn’t hook up with guys when they were drunk. I had trouble processing this, possibly because of the Alaskan vodka. I tried to explain that I didn’t hook up when sober, but she was unmoved. It didn’t help my case that I was having trouble forming sentences. She started to hint at something depressing involving her ex-husband. I squirmed uncomfortably in my green plastic chair.
It wasn’t until after we returned from Israel that Janie gave in to my suggestions of sex. Her flight to Dallas from Boston was delayed until the next morning, so we went back to my apartment. After introducing her to my roommates, we went to my bedroom. I decided not to mention I was a virgin. The last time I’d done that, the girl I was making out with had laughed at me and called me creepy. Instead, I made a series of educated guesses, based on a combination of the internet and late-night HBO specials.
I unwrapped a condom for the first time in my life and stared at it in confusion. I wrestled with it for around a minute before tentatively deciding I’d put it on correctly. Holding it was unsettling enough, so I didn’t want to look too closely. Meanwhile, I tried vainly to look nonchalant, like I struggled with condoms all the time. I rolled my eyes and said something about the inferior design of this particular brand. I hadn’t yet had it, but I’d already decided that sex was the most awkward, terrible thing in the world.
Some people might want their first times to be magical-candlelit-romances. They are girls. At twenty-one I just wanted there to be a first time. I found soccer posters to be a more-than-adequate substitute for candles, though I could feel Steven Gerrard’s eyes on me the entire time. After seven minutes of awkward exertion, I mentally gave myself a B + overall and an A for effort. I added a few points for managing to keep my shirt on the entire time. Not a bad result, considering I only knew one sexual position, and was afraid to try any others. I sheepishly told her not to look while I wrapped a towel around my waist and sprinted for the shower.
When I got out, for reasons that are now unclear to me, I wandered upstairs to the common room. My roommate Mara was sitting watching TV.
“Did you guys just have sex?” she asked, disgusted. Mara had a very low opinion of anyone who found me attractive.
“Nope,” I lied. She looked at me suspiciously.
“Biddy was loud,” she told me. She shuddered to accentuate her revulsion. Mara was very dramatic.
“I want to watch Scrubs.”
Disgruntled, I returned downstairs to find the evidence of my inexperience and poor condom selection.
“Maybe you should take the morning-after pill,” I suggested, suddenly learning I was pro-choice. I was pretty sure the morning after pill was something I had heard of before.
“Oh,” Janie replied, “I don’t believe in that. If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.” I could and maybe should have mentioned the obvious ideological conflicts that mentality has with the use of condoms and birth control.
“Hmm. . . ” I said instead.
“You know,” said Janie, looking around, “your room is actually kind of gross.” I followed her gaze to the wall, where large swaths of black mold were growing next to the headboard of my bed.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said. I thought about returning to the birth control debate, but I hated arguing and I was tired. I turned off the light and fell asleep.
The next morning she woke me up to say goodbye. “Nnnnghhh” I said, and went back to sleep. It was a storybook parting.
My cell phone alarm woke me up three hours later, playing the James Bond theme song. For one precious moment I had no idea where or who I was. I took a deep breath, then threw on a pair of tattered jeans and a button-down shirt and biked to work.
A couple years earlier I walked into my step brother’s room when I got up for school and saw that the ceiling had collapsed onto his bed. After checking to make sure he wasn’t in it, I went to inform my step father that there was massive flooding in our house and went to school, thinking “this is not my problem.” He was impressed, confusing indifference with composure.
I would like to have retained even a sliver of that composure now. This is very much my problem. Janie has to stay in Texas because she has joint custody of her daughter. I will have to move to Dallas, abandon all my friends, and go somewhere where the most popular sport was, until very recently, lynching. Everything is shittier in Texas. I finish relating my tragic tale to Razan, having unsuccessfully tried to avoid using the word “sex” at any point.
“Well, she was on the pill, right?” asks Razan. I have a vague idea of what the pill is.
“Yeah,” I say, Googling ‘birth control.’
“Then you’re fine.” Birth control, Google tells me, is 92-99.7% effective, depending on how regular the girl is taking it. But I consider even a one-in-a-thousand chance a reasonable one in a poker tournament. I fervently hope my little soldiers are worse at swimming than I am at cards.
I look pleadingly at Razan. She can see I’m not comforted by our Google forays.
“Look,” she says, “why don’t you write her a message asking her to let you know when she finds out?”
This strikes me as entirely inappropriate to do over Facebook. I navigate to her profile and send her a message. With Razan’s help I get through the day without stress-puking. Back home, I am watching Scrubs when my roommate Josh walks in.
“Did you have sex last night?”
“Dude I saw a condom in the trash can.”
“Gross.” I get up and turn the TV off as I head downstairs. This is a habit that infuriates Josh, as I do it regardless of whether someone else is watching TV at the time.
I make my way to my bedroom and look into the trash. The condom is sitting there, half covered by a bag of Nacho Bugels. Judging me. Broken, because I put it on the wrong way.
“Fuck you,” I whisper. I sit down and wonder what will happen to me.