Left to Her Own Devices
You’d think his reaction to the first pregnancy scare would have taught me something. We were seventeen and after a year of on-again/off-again dating, we slept together for the first time after a party at his grandparents’ house. The crowd had thinned out until we were the only two people left sitting together in the basement. The setting for this watershed moment in our history was as charmingly picturesque as one might expect for two slightly-drunk teenagers: the low ceilings strewn with Christmas lights in June, a mini-fridge filled with off-brand beer, an old pool table in the corner, a black leather couch and my ugly strapless beige bra tucked underneath its cushions. He kept the TV on but lowered the volume when our knees touched. The channel was MTV and in his latest video, Justin Timberlake promised to have me naked by the end of this song.
My guy said he wasn’t looking for anything serious because he needed to concentrate on his DJing. And by “DJing,” he meant playing with his used stereo equipment in-between his part-time shifts working at the laser tag and video arcade. But he needed me to take him seriously and I was young enough to believe in the idea of him mixing and spinning at DC clubs. I said I understood and quoted an Eve 6 song.
“I’m cool with just tonight,” I said. Then I took off my brown suede butterfly tank top and burgundy raver pants. I was “willing to be had,” particularly by him. Convinced by my knowledge of a graduation song, he climbed on top of me. His commencement speech turned into a kiss.
Of course I didn’t really mean that I was fine with never sleeping together again. The entire year prior, we’d seen each other sporadically: we met up whenever he drove to my house or my friends drove to his job or I took the train to Shady Grove. We made out in stock rooms and in the front seat of an Oldsmobile and at ice skating rinks and on sidewalks with cups of coffee in our hands. He touched me with gentleness and his skin smelled like sandalwood and cigarettes. Once, long before this night, he’d told me he loved me while we watched American Pie. I said I loved him, too. I didn’t need him to be my boyfriend, but surely, this wasn’t going to be the last time we shared a bed (err, couch).
Of course we didn’t use protection. Of course we stopped after less than a minute, filled with panic and nowhere near the breaking point of pleasure. Embarrassed, I asked if this “counted” as a first time.
“It does if you want it to,” he said. His virginity was long gone, shed with the ease of top-shelf tequila and a pretty girl at another party.
He declined my suggestion of going out to buy condoms and decided it was time to take me home. We were mostly silent on the drive back to my house, the radio promising eternal angst-ridden romance in the form of Evanescence’s “Bring Me to Life” and The Ataris “Boys of Summer.” I felt sore and tired and desperate for some reassurance that he cared about what we’d done. For his part, he chain-smoked and avoided eye contact.
The next day, I signed onto AOL Instant Messenger and scanned my buddy list for his screenname. Nothing. Then I signed onto my family’s shared account and added him to that list. There he was. Currently available. Online.
I was blocked.
I cried with unabashed hiccuping sobs in the living room desk chair. Then I sent him a message to ask why he blocked me from his AIM account. “I can’t have any distractions right now,” he wrote. “But I’m not trying to avoid you. I’m not mad.”
Why would he be mad at me? With all the rationality of a rejected, hormone-driven teenager, I decided I must have done something to turn him off the night before. No wonder he didn’t want to go for more condoms and stopped almost as soon as we’d started.
I went to my OB-GYN for an STD screening later that week. I thought the results would be available right away; as it turned out, I needed to wait at least a week until the lab could examine my blood and the scraped cells from my exam. I distracted myself with online quizzes like “Which Nirvana song are you?” I got “The Man Who Sold the World.” I wasn’t even an original song.
When I sent him another message (again, from my family account), I asked if he’d ever been tested for sexually transmitted diseases. He told me that no one in his family had ever contracted any STDs. He wrote this like it was supposed to reassure me, as if this claim made any biological sense. Then I remembered that he’d dropped out of high school during his junior year. It occurred to me that he might have never taken a sex-ed class, that he might have been with more girls than the one he’d told me about, and that girl at the party might have also slept with other people. The chain of potential infections seemed enormous and unknowable.
I was lucky, everything turned out fine. But my period — I’d never tracked it all that carefully, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that I should have seen something by now. I asked all of my sexually active friends if they knew anyone who got pregnant from sex without the guy climaxing. Each of them swore it had happened to another friend, to a relative, to a celebrity, to an acquaintance on a message board, to a girl in YM or Seventeen.
But I was leaving for a ten-day trip to Paris, Barcelona and Madrid. This journey marked another first: my first time going abroad, receiving stamps in my new passport, going away without family. I brought a Discman and a lined journal to pass the time. In Paris, I climbed seven flights of stairs and shared a hotel room with three girls, a broken cot, and an iron clawfoot bathtub. The bathroom window opened with no screens and overlooked a series of hotels lining the street. While everyone else went out shopping for postcards, I ran the tub and filled it with lavender-scented bubbles. The summer breeze blew in the soft early evening air through the open window. And then it came. My period. I wished for a clove cigarette and an internet café where I could write my guy an email to tell him not to worry, my period had arrived in Paris.
If he felt any reaction to the news once I’d returned stateside, he never shared it with me.
Six months later, on a snowy evening in January, he suggested that I pop over for a visit. I left behind my Blockbuster rental of Thirteen and begged my mom to drive me to see him. She relented and said she’d be back to get me before midnight. This time I brought condoms. We finished what we’d started on that same couch in the basement, with the TV on, for ten minutes in the dark. It felt less like intimacy and more like an accomplishment, something I could finally cross off an imaginary list.
After that summer, I went to college and he joined the Marines. He worked hours away from my campus, but he liked to send me text messages throughout the day. He missed me. We flirted and spoke about our feelings and an actual relationship with him seemed possible. As our talks progressed, I got used to being a light sleeper, waking up throughout the night to the bright lights of my phone and texts from him. My roommate was less enthusiastic about his late-night declarations. Even if the phone was set to vibrate, she woke up from the lights of an incoming message.
I didn’t have a car, but I found ways to see him. I shared cabs to the train station and spent hours navigating the public transit systems of Baltimore and D.C. so that I could spend the night with him. I woke up with his face pressed into my spine and the white silk of my nightgown. One night over spring break, I asked a friend to give me a ride forty-five minutes out of the way so I could see him. It didn’t matter that I had a sinus infection or that my throat felt raw and my cough was a rasping howl of pain. He wanted me and I said yes, of course, I’m on my way.
Our combined alcohol inventory included green apple vodka, peach schnapps and tequila. I put a pillow between us as a wall and he called it the Wall of Fornicating. I pretended not to understand him and he said, “You heard me.” As we talked, the pillow subsided until it was completely removed and I propped it behind my head as he turned his body into mine, wrapped his arm around my waist and gripped my middle softly, his fingertips tender on my bare skin.
In bed, he clung tightly to me, lingering inside me after he finished — he wouldn’t stir for minutes and then those minutes evolved into a stretch. I massaged the closely-cropped hairs of his scalp. His breaths become labored and heavy; he fell asleep in my arms. He hadn’t taken off the condom. I wanted to say something, but I felt like I couldn’t wake him up without breaking the spell. Another cough was coming on, but I wouldn’t get up or even turn my head. We stayed like this for over an hour. Then his eyes opened with the light of morning and he stared at me. I am the first one to look away.
I felt like we’d reached a new level of intimacy. He felt like it was time to reach back out to his girlfriend, the one I didn’t know about until later that summer.
He stopped texting. He stopped IMing. He stopped emailing. Calls were sent to voicemail. As far as I was concerned, he was gone.
And my period vanished along with him.
Maybe it was the stress of our sudden split. Maybe I’ve always been a little irregular in that respect. But that didn’t ease the very real fear that I was pregnant. I couldn’t remember what happened to the condom — had he taken it off? Did it break?
I couldn’t tell my parents. My mom vacillated between approval and horror when it came to him; she knew how much this guy could hurt me and yet she also knew from experience how appealing a certain kind of noncommittal man could be. My dad kept in sporadic contact with me after his divorce from my mom. But we weren’t close. Most of the time, he would answer if I called him. I asked for help to buy a car and he promised the money would come. I told him I was working three part-time jobs and going to school full-time and I still didn’t have enough to buy groceries or get a haircut. My dad said he would try to help me and then sent a check to my younger brother when he asked if he could take a limo to prom. I learned not to ask for his support.
Six weeks passed and the silence became conspicuous. I came up with reasons he might have stopped speaking to me. There was the short story I wrote about him for my fiction workshop, the one I sent him without ever receiving feedback. I’d interrupted a phone call with his father so that I could meet him to get back my nightgown — I thought he would him call him back, but I wasn’t sure if he had. I felt like a different woman would have known how to handle this guy, yet I couldn’t bring myself to reach out for him if he wasn’t going to talk to me first.
I went to an Andy Stochansky show at a coffeehouse on-campus and turned out to be the only person who already owned his album and asked him to sign it. He sang “Here Nor There” and my tears were building with no release. I went back to my dorm and wrote a poem, “A Moment of Inadvertent Exposure.”
Not all of the music I listened to during that time was weepy. One Friday after work, I came home to see an away message on his AIM profile that talked about going out to meet people and finding someone to love. In response, I shut off my desktop and put on Marilyn Manson’s “Para-Noir” and threw things at the closet and the wall because I wanted to hear someone else scream the word fuck and fucking and I fucked you because I loved you, fuck you for loving it too.
I took a pregnancy test at the campus health center. I knocked over the urine cup and it spilled all over the bathroom floor. From this perspective, my life looked like nothing so much as a bad sitcom. I waited twenty minutes, gulped down more water, peed again. The test came out negative. No one could explain why almost two months had gone by without any trace of a cycle.
The nurse practitioner shrugged. “These things happen.”
I don’t remember when my period finally came, but eventually it did. There’s no relief in my memory, only the pain from his absence and the fear that I really was on my own in this. There wasn’t the drama of a bathtub in Paris or the consolation of sex with him months later to smooth it over. He left me to figure it out and I learned not to ask for help.