You were very, very lucky.
It didn’t seem like that at the time. It seemed like everybody was out to make your life miserable, and that’s ok; when you’re fifteen going on sixteen that’s the way the world tends to look.
You had an accelerated sex education — starting from that first kiss in the back seat of Mickey’s car, you and Tracy wanting so badly not to look uncool in front of him and Amy, upperclassmen giving you a ride home from the Swing Choir Concert. So when they said “Wanna park for a while?” you did right pretending you understood what that meant, and when you you laid your head down in Tracy’s lap and she bent down to kiss you, you didn’t do too bad. Even if both of you would have rather been in the front seat kissing Amy…such things build amazing camaraderie.
But you were lucky, even through that first awkward tongueplay, because when you told your homework friend Michelle about it, she must have realized that she needed to stop teasing and pounce. She was a year older, and had dated a college boy before…so yes, you had the benefit of her experience.
You really owe the debt to her mother, though. Her mother who lived in the little two-bedroom apartment with Michelle and who was absolutely determined that her daughter should have a safe space to explore sexuality. So there was no furtive sneaking around, no getting drunk as an excuse, no awkward fondling in the dark. Instead there were dinners with the two of them, followed by you and Michelle saying “We’re going to have dessert!” and traipsing off, hand in hand to the bedroom to explore and learn about sex together.
Remember when you asked her, once, what her mom thought when you were pounding the headboard against the wall? “It makes her kind of horny.”
You didn’t realize how lucky you were, but you got glimmers. There was the time the bully at the restaurant was teasing you about your girlfriend, and he, like the rest of the high schoolers in the small midwest town, looked at sex as a dirty secret. “How many times did you do her?” he would demand. “You actually did it with her, didn’t you? How many times?”
“Who counts?” was your desperate, honest, and inadvertently crushing reply. At the time you didn’t really understand the confused look of desperate envy on his face. But trust me, you haven’t had a better mic-drop moment in thirty years.
More than that, though, you owe Michelle’s Mom because your own parents were woefully ill-equipped to talk to you about sex. Dad tried, but the first mumbled conversation left you convinced you had a “peanuts” between your legs, and the second (years later) confirmed that yes, you knew that babies were made by the sperm uniting with the egg…but failed to explain exactly how it got there.
Remember your best friend Hughie? During the split-gender assembly in sixth grade, after they explained the changes that came with puberty and the miracle of embryos, he asked the one question that had been conspicuously left out of the slide show. “How does the sperm get to the egg?”
“Any way it can!” had been the teacher’s explanation, which made the rest of the teachers laugh, and the cooler kids all laughed too, and so you and your best friend Hughie laughed, even though you really wanted to know the answer. You did finally find out, in a surreptitious paperback called Love and Sex and Growing Up that you checked out from the public library and hid from your parents. This was before computerized records of the books you checked out were easily accessible, so they never really knew; at the time you thought if they found out you’d be grounded. For life.
Like I said, you were lucky. But in hindsight, I think they might have been relieved, because as I said, they were so unprepared to talk to you. Months after you’d happily surrendered your virginity to Michelle (on that oh so lucky snow day), months of joyous mutual exploration and fantasies and lazy afternoons doing “homework” (sure, you went from an A to an F in Algebra 2, but this homework was far more valuable), months of having a place where sex was celebrated with a joyous respect…you and Mom pulled into the driveway of the house.
She turned off the car, but instead of getting out, she turned to you. “I want you to know the truth about sex.” This was uncomfortable territory; we didn’t talk about sex in our family, certainly not across genders, and the word sounded strange coming out of her mouth. You masked the shock with a tentative “O…K…?”, honestly curious to see how this would play out.
“It’s nothing like what you see in the movies,” she said. “Nothing like James Bond or any of those. The guy can only do it once a night, it only lasts about five minutes, and it’s no fun at all for the woman.” Having delivered this homily, she waited to see if there were any questions.
There weren’t, really. Because you already knew, thanks to that welcome and shame-free space created by Michelle’s Mom, that everything your Mom was telling you was wrong. Or a lie.
So you nodded, and said “OK. Got it.” And that was probably the beginning of adulthood, right there — when you realized that you were going to be responsible for your own knowledge. I know, you blamed her for lying, back then, and for years afterwards — but I can tell you now, having been a parent myself, that likely she was simply doing the best she could, or the best she thought she should. Remember what Grandpa told her when she was growing up? “Hold hands with a boy and you’ll get pregnant!”
That first relationship with Michelle — it was just the beginning. You learned a lot more, some the hard way, some through wiser heads than (either of) yours. But now, when I in my own classes and writings on relationships and sex I have to work past the decades of shame and we-don’t-talk-about-that which permeates our culture — I can’t help but think how goddamn fortunate you are that you had that space to learn about sex without the stigma, without the blame, without the sin.
Everyone should be so lucky.