You’re only eighteen once, like you’re only a virgin once and then it’s over
They say there’s a heaven for those who will wait
We’ve only one virginity to lose, / And where we lost it there our hearts will be!
I was slouched in a rickety deck chair, reading The Journals of John Cheever, my slack body slung like a saggy hammock. I’m a married man with five kids who run an ensemble of video screens at Megadeth volume and hurl mixed martial arts at furniture, so I often steal solitude on the concrete porch in front of the home I bled for years to have built. October had arrived with its rich orange skies, its alchemies of purple, the warm echoes and leafy shadows and movements of pleasant air that sway through poplars with a cool hypnosis that skims your skin and draws a fine liberation from your pores. I was roaming Cheever’s sumptuous portrait miniatures of American heartbreak when my eyes snagged on a sentence.
“Beautiful, beautiful D.,” Cheever coos with worshipful relish, safely immortalizing some grand dame behind her initial. “Now sixty years old and proud of the fact that she has been screwed by at least a thousand men.”
I blinked at the book: Proud? A thousand?
A black cat was slinking into a bony gray hedge across the road. A scattering of burgundy leaves clung to the hedge like petals of supple blood. The cat lifted its trembling paws and lowered them with measured softness, stepping over the litter of ruddy leaves, testing the ground for hidden traps. It kept glancing back, its fierce eyes as luminous as yellow autumn, its body snaking through thorny branches until it disappeared like a dark memory. Heaps of birch and aspen leaves, speckled orange and scorched gold, rolled in the gutters, unclaimed tickets to some dry paradise let loose in the wind. I thought: Okay, maybe you would feel some triumph snuggling down with the end of your life, your lovers arrayed on the shelves of your history like bowling trophies or Pokemon figures stepping out of their boxer shorts, leering at you and misquoting the Cavalier Poets and Barry White in a catarrhal cigar-scented brogue. But even as a glossy-eyed platinum member of The Cassanova Club—the Wilt Chamberlains, Elvises, and Emma Goldmans of the world—wouldn’t you feel a tad cheap, knowing your genitals had serviced as much traffic as the Dubai International Airport? No one doubts the power of the prodigious lover, the Romeo whose blood throbs with volcanic ardor, the flushed vixen whose bonfire of desire makes Dante’s Inferno look like a soggy matchbook, the quarterback who could suck up a sorority house of eros like a strawberry milkshake and make even Lady Chatterley’s teeth chatter. But what bragging rights go to the virgin?
None, usually. And why? In most circles, trumpeting your temperance is as good as waving your skag flag. No matter the angle—health, religious orthodoxy, or if you’re a teenage girl in Tallahassee with Tim Tebow posters wallpapering your room—you put yourself in the position of having to admit you’re a haggish homebody who isn’t worth the conquest. The tendency in American culture is for non-virgins to view virgins in the same way that patrons slow down and gape at hairless Chihuahuas or baby proboscis monkeys in zoos, as if confounded and repulsed but unable to look away. But do virgins—forty years old or otherwise—offer this steamy globe of serial sex pots anything bigger than an easy target? In whose journal do we read ringing accolades for the monkish prude? Where is the tribute emblazoned in marble for the scandalous asceticism of celibate and spinster, the cold shower cowboys who like David Robinson and A. C. Green have made legendary their failure, or unwillingness, to score? A brisk review of my life told me I should have known the answer, but I asked myself: Are there advantages—real advantages—to virginity?
Inside the house, a plate clattered to the kitchen floor. Our nasty little pug started yapping, and a chorus of young shouts and shrill recriminations sailed through the open windows behind me, troubling the tranquil night. A meteorite cut the deepening heavens then burned out.
Maybe a few, I thought.
* * *
Just before he died, actor Gary Coleman revealed that he had remained a virgin even two months into his marriage. “It’s my business,” Coleman said frankly. “It’s my issue, and I really don’t think it’s a problem. It’ll happen when it’ll happen, and it’ll happen for the right reasons.”
Speculations abound (we know what you’re talkin’ about, Willis), but he could have been traumatized from the different strokes he almost learned after nearly getting Gordon Jumped on that child molester episode.
* * *
She was jogging around the outdoor track on the campus of the college where I had slammed the book on my studies for the year. The track was an unpolluted blue, the color of remembered skies, and late April was driving its warm roots into the willing soil of early May. I was jogging in a clockwise direction, the wrong way, and taking secret delight in the congress of mixed looks that passed me, some irked, others amused, all witnesses to my nonconformist workout. My brother was three blocks away, up the hill outside our basement apartment, packing his Volkswagen van. My grades had tagged me a transfer scholarship to a university out of state, and we were leaving in an hour, a short trip, but at that young time in my life I believed we were strapping ourselves in for some primal launch, gearing up for the grand journey outward into the sagebrush-covered frontier of our futures. I had sweated and sacrificed and played the good wife to education, so my reversed run was my way of shriving on the deathbed of belated rebellion, a modest squandering of loose change in the house of social sin.
After one lap around, she veered into my lane. I started to loop around her, stupidly, intending to jog past, but like a grinning Hokey Pokey dancer she hitched her body sideways into my path, thwarting my escape, hands propped on her hips.
“Hi!” she said. She swept her curly blond hair from her face with a hand. “Going to school?”
“Finished,” I said. “We’re leaving—I am—in an hour.”
“Aww,” she said, shoulders slumping. “I’m taking summer classes.”
Her reaction flummoxed me. But we kept talking, and my inner dimwit deputy waved a lantern beam across the back wall of my skull. She was crestfallen because fate had nudged us into the same lane, and I was leaving before we could burn some calories together. A thrill wriggled through my chest. Who was this bold stranger? She didn’t strike me as a beauty, but a tractor beam of energy had joined our emotional cores and lit us up like Mouseketeers on methamphetamine. My mouth and brain parted company, and I gabbed like a town gossip at the butcher counter. She spouted a résumé of rigmarole, giggling like a geisha. We flung our arms around with embarrassing force as if our bones had turned to rubber, sparring partners in a whirlwind of nerves. We shifted our feet and blushed and folded our arms and exploded in honks of laughter. I pretended—badly—that I wasn’t checking her out. Her lashes were curvaceous and black. Stray freckles powdered her perky cheekbones. Her grain-colored curls looked natural, wound in waves around the playful fingers of the wind. As she looked me over, she fidgeted with her gym clothes in a curious way, as if they didn’t fit, shifting her flimsy gray shirt, tugging the elastic waistband on her silky navy blue shorts and showcasing the ample curves of her body, a pantomime that struck me as coded but deliberate.
She asked my name and I told her. When I asked for hers, she said, “Sunshine Boy.” Her answer bounced back so quickly, and with such a sly purr, I thought she had called me “Sunshine Boy.” I parried with goofy nonchalance, dropping slack between my shoulders, cocking my hip in a casual stance. But I was baffled. We had just met, and she was already assigning pet names? I swallowed audibly. I wondered if she was floating me some lover’s litmus test, a risky RSVP to a kinky role play. Her smile revealed nothing. Her calm stare kept me in the crosshairs of the moment, as if we held keys to the same storehouse of secrets, but I wasn’t sure mine fit the lock. My mind snapped through options: 1) “Sunshine Boy,” an obscure sibling of “Little Boy Blue”; 2) “Sunshine Boy,” the groovy karma king goosing the rainbow throttle on his Quaalude-fueled dune buggy of love; 3) “Sunshine Boy,” the superhero, able to stop women in a single lap. For a flash, I saw myself as “Sunshine Boy,” a muscled figure in shiny yellow boots and yellow cape, snug yellow body suit and yellow flying helmet and goggles, equipped with Vitamin D vision and spring-loaded gauntlets that squirted sunscreen, my radioactive brain buzzing with the power to pinpoint picnic spots and free spaces on the beach, the blazing face of Ra on my chest, my hydrogen-powered horse and chariot gleaming in a hangar beneath the boggy Trundholm Moor in Denmark. My jaw muscle twitched as I thought of my telepathic marine iguana, Spot; my quirky lab assistant, Dr. Daytona Beech; my Wayfarer-wearing sidekick, Kid Cabana; and our slinky but voluptuous albino arch-nemesis, the glow-in-the-dark razor parasol-wielding Ultra Violet, and her cyborg ninja bats, Eclipse and Aurora. Inside, I was saving the universe, but my face showed confusion.
“B, O, Y, E,” she said. “That’s me, Sunshine Boye. My parents were hippies.”
“Ah,” I said.
“Too bad you’re leaving,” she said. She wrinkled her eye and half her mouth, mulling the risk in her next statement. “We could have gone out.”
“Yeah, we can’t really,” I said. My chest kept swelling, my breath ragged and racing. Tremors of wiggly heat shot from my knees to my voice, making my words wobble. “I’m leaving, and you’re starting class, right?”
“I could change quick,” she said, pointing to a triple-decker block of apartments behind us. “Meet me over there. Second floor, number 214. My roommates aren’t here yet. Got the place to myself.”
* * *
In an old episode of Saturday Night Live, Phil Hartman, as Donahue, grills a panel of virgins. Nora Dunn portrays a lesbian elbowed out of the closet, and Jon Lovitz plays a brown-clad nudnik named Paul Navotne, who, when quizzed about his decision to keep the balance on his V-card, says, “Well, Phil, it wasn’t a conscious choice, it was something that just . . . happened.”
So the virgin is the fool, the geek, the dweeb, the choner, the pasty-faced pantywaist who, as one of my football buddies was fond of saying, couldn’t get laid in a hen house. No matter the country or climate, virgins are vilified, traduced, jeered at, pilloried, and if they are awarded any awe for their purity, their payment is to get ushered at pitchfork point to the feudal lord’s manor or dumped like unopened pimento loaf into the Nile.
But what if virginity is a tram to a loftier summit, a swap for a kiss from the celestial? What if those Malvolios who cross-garter big red X’s across their no fly zones are just seduced by some grander enlightenment, some supernal partner with insatiable star power? What valentines Mother Theresa must have mailed to God. What marginalia Mary might have left in her unwritten diaries. To the Hindu, tapas, or “inner fire,” is the supernatural source of kama, or sexual passion, its source but also its opposite. Kamadeva, the Indian Cupid, a mustachioed guy with skin the color of pea soup, wears spangly jammies, resembles a taxi driver or pizza parlor owner, wields a bow and arrow of sugarcane and honeybees, and rides a green parrot like a rodeo queen on a bucking bronco. In one account, Kamadeva takes a pot shot at Shiva, who is in deep meditation. Enraged, Shiva fries Kamadeva to a curried fritter with a white hot ray from his third eye. The lesson: to marry transcendence, fire must burn fire, soul must subdue skin. In Nepal and other eastern enclaves, sadhus still chain monster stone weights to their more meddlesome members as a badge of holy bachelorhood.
Modern science outweighed modern love in Sir Issac Newton (whose apples surely dropped), a noteworthy and even puritanical virgin who, the story goes, once sent a friend packing for telling a bawdy story about a nun. Some lower laws of motion foregone for those of an elevated order. Gravity, indeed.
Queen Elizabeth famously kept her borders secure, raised a world power, and ravished the Spanish fleet.
Thoreau cozied up to woodchucks. Dickinson courted common meter. Both retreated from reproduction but fathered and mothered a lusty tribe of unforgettable words. Not much of a Haight-Ashbury flophouse was The Homestead. Not much of a Jacuzzi was Walden Pond.
Then there are the philosophers and artists, often as raunchy and reckless and jackrabbits, but not Andy Warhol, coolly composing his flamboyant Marilyn Monroe prints no matter who liked it hot. Add Nietzsche (no über- or untermensch), Descartes (the single inventor of dualism), Emerson (perfectly self-reliant), and Immanuel Kant (or should we say Can’t), and the quorum of ice-blooded nonpareils grows. Surely, some must knit their eyebrows and let their bottom lips protrude when mulling over Lewis Carroll and his photos of nude and semi-nude girls (which he later asked to be incinerated), a kind of Freudian burned offering for all the whiffling and burbling and jabberwockying in his tulgey wood. But the stretched limo of literary loners also includes Hans Christian Andersen, J. M. Barrie, Jane Austen, The Brontë sisters, and Henry James (who kept the beast out of the jungle). Beethoven had nothing but melodies “für Elise,” and Nikola Tesla’s abstention drove him to construct a giant vibrating phallus of futuristic electromagnetic fun.
So where would we be as a global people without those who didn’t populate a single playroom? True, the heartthrob jumpstarts our glands, but the virgin burns a candle in the spent shrine of the imagination, roosts in the roomy attics of our plain wonder. What else can we do but lapse into open-mouthed reverie at the thought of Joan of Arc, the military maid who conversed with shimmering saints and beat back the randy English? Who wouldn’t bawl like a betrayed bride-to-be after waking up and learning on the news that Lolo had been Jonesing the Jonas Brothers?
The question returns us to our origins. The hunters, the gatherers, the rogue tribes and fire starters and nomadic packs of commuters and cave dwellers whose offspring still evolve through time to join the movers or The Shakers. Nature echoes, Will you, or won’t you? Will you trek the unmapped basins and mountain ridges of your days with that mystical white flame cupped in your hands or throw gasoline on someone’s campfire and scald your s’mores in the show-stopping roar of the flame? Why some do and why some don’t remains a puzzle. But it must be a truism for all people that those who wait often do so with as much loneliness and mystification as those who fling themselves like ticker tape from the balconies of Rome. This is the paradox of passion: the cost for staying where you are, or cannonballing into the next swimming pool. Astride our Buridan’s mule, we straddle sterility and starve. As humans, we’re pulled in two directions on this rack of biology and will. We spend our lives on this planet trying to outfox our pleasure centers, confounded by the creation myth of ourselves, lost in a wandering trance broken only when two souls strike sparks from one another in the desert of desire. On one side, our Dorian Gray portraits in the funhouse mirrors of our changeable fates, the yardstick-wagging single mother, the minister with jiggly jowls and the black thunder of Ecclesiastes in his baritone, God’s castrating bolt of lightning. On the other, the simmering stew of our cells, the fizzing fuses of our nerve endings, the hormonal cocktails sloshing in our blood, telling us we should bellow with the wildebeest, fling away our robes of convention and frolic like hash-smoking revelers in the holy waters of the Ganges.
People like Rilke certainly don’t help those tight-roping their resolve. “How shall I hold my soul so that / it does not touch yours?” he pines in “Song of Love.” With tumid vowels, he croons, “How gladly I would stow it away with some lost thing / of the dark in a strange quiet place / which does not vibrate when your depths vibrate! / But everything that touches us, you and me, / takes us together like one stroke of the bow / which draws one voice out of two strings. / On what instrument are we stretched? / And what fiddler has us in his hands? / O sweet melody!”
* * *
We scampered to our bare apartments, showered and changed and trysted, breathless and dewy-eyed, at her place. She had jumped into smooth gray jeans, dainty white sneakers with pale blue laces, and a light sweater with pinches of pastel yarn knotted into its chaff-colored fabric, an outfit that projected the freewheeling Dionystic flair of a medieval festival. We walked a block downtown for a sandwich or yogurt or something and then found ourselves hurriedly face-to-face outside her second-floor apartment. A long battered rug of artificial turf ran the length of the walkway, and the twisted railing of black steel gave the ordinary moment a classical touch. Ten feet above the street across from the post office, I felt elevated, as if my heart were about to escort my lungs off some lover’s leap.
“I had a nice time,” she said.
“Probably the quickest date I’ve been on,” I said.
Then with a freedom that amazed me, we pulled each other into an embrace and pressed our lips together in a kiss. She pressed her body to mine without reservation, a welcome match, with easy gravity and an absence of fear, like the union of sun and landscape. Our mouths worked a gentle miracle, a gift of pent-up yearning for those who wander the streets of private loneliness and carry within them, like an offering, the starvation of many souls. Then her body spoke to my bones, deep and reverberating, like whale song: I will go no further. My answer, a reflex, echoed at the speed of surprise. I know, I thought-messaged her, neither will I. We had found one another as fellow travelers, priest and priestess carrying secret shards of the rood in the folds of our robes. In this surge of shared relief, we gave everything we could because we would not give all we had. We would later unsheathe the breathtaking flash of kama with someone whose weighty promises we would agree to bear, but now it was tapas, like a stern father clearing his throat and tapping us on the shoulder. Startled, we plucked our lips apart and stepped back, a palpable sadness swirling in the space where he had untangled ourselves. We looked at each other and burst into raucous laughter.
“Well,” I said, heaving air into my lungs, hands rammed in my pockets. “Bye, Sunshine Boye.”
“Yes,” she said. “Bye, bye.”
And with a flirtatious flip of her hair and a blue flash from her wet eyes, she did a sideways dance step into her apartment and was gone from my life.
* * *
The Bynoe’s gecko is a parthogenetic species that clones itself sans coitus. At Lewis and Clark College in Oregon, a Bynoe’s gecko outran sexually produced geckos on a lizard-sized treadmill, a kind of supergirl of the reptile world. In the animal realm, where few creatures are monogamous—mostly beavers, otters, bats, foxes, and a few shagged-out wolves—virginity and reproduction are not such strange bedfellows. As if bettering the best of the prairie vole, who stays ravenously loyal to the volette that delivers his first night of manhood, whole menageries of single beasts have been found to breed by themselves, including the South American electric ant, the Louisiana red swamp crayfish, Brahminy blindsnake, New Mexico whiptail, and a bonnethead shark in a zoo in Nebraska that in a tank of three females somehow produced a pup. This motley mega-nunnery has existed for ages and boasted many names on its roster. The New Zealand mud snail, komodo dragons, the microscopic bdelloid rotifera, who summarily booted the boys out eons ago and founded a thriving all women’s club, rivalled only by the short-bodied stick insects of the genus Timema, also famous for jamming the sex drive in park but still multiplying by the millions.
The earth’s colossal green machine is literally one seething, sluttish bawdy house of asexual reproduction, a lush orgy of plants and other organisms shooting younger versions of themselves around the sticky mess of the ecosphere, chips and spores and pollen off the old block, all without the mucking about of mating. The homely liverwort, cursed with one of the least sexy names in creation, takes to its eternal hermitage and stays busy fighting stream bank erosion, keeping the tropics slippery and wet, and knitting cozy love nests in aquariums for small invertebrates and fish fry.
Apart from some chilled stem cells in California, a growing intercontinental bank of frozen eggs, and a host of ghostly embryos waiting to be born in South Korean labs, no race of humans has seriously preferred making babies without sex, for what a dry disconsolate science that would be! But with unflagging ache of conscience and ardent genius, men and women of every age and culture, from the days of their own conceptions, have clasped fascicles of hope in sweaty hands and turned their throbbing homo erectus brains to finding every possible way of having sex without having babies.
We must wonder how long we will survive.
* * *
I was young, and she was younger—neither of us college graduates, too young to make the promises we were making, I’m sure some people thought. But we had gone and done it, unpacked ourselves from tux and gown, and were ascending a switchback staircase on our way to the wedding brunch. The place was called The Blue Bird, its main restaurant set in a low-ceilinged loft of love over an indoor mall of plain-faced offices and potpourri-scented boutiques that on the lower level vended greeting cards and T-shirts and life insurance. She was wearing a blazer of blinding red tartan, a black skirt, heels that clicked on the tile floor, and a gold band in her hair that in my wild imagination gave her the appearance of a firmly packed flamenco dancer. Halfway up the staircase, two friends stopped us—her accident prone roommate who once scalded her cornea with a missile of hot oil from a bag of microwave popcorn, and another female friend who kept quacking at us and whose spiky mascara rimmed her eyes like fence railings. As quickly as the friends intervened, they disappeared, and we were alone on the stairs.
“It’s okay,” she said. “It’s so weird. You can touch me, and it doesn’t matter.”
I knew what she meant, but I thought, Oh, it certainly does matter as we wrapped ourselves in a tight spiral like tree and vine and kissed with abundant energy, letting our hands roam freely, each touch a tender step on a fresh continent. After a charged minute of making out and getting handsy, we plied ourselves apart, looked to the lower floor then turned and sprang up the stairs, hooting with embarrassed laughter.
A portly Marine officer with a steely-white crew cut was sitting at a bare wooden desk in a recruiting office with glass doors and walls. He had watched the whole thing.
We must have made a bizarre spectacle, like something escaped from the top of a wedding cake, now wandering the neighborhood, tripping and laughing, drunk on joy, helping each other make our stumbling way up that rickety set of stairs to our first apartment. We didn’t think of ourselves this way, but we were clueless overdressed kids crossing the threshold to our lover’s rat’s nest. Years of sun and rain and snow had bleached every grain of color from the canvas awning over the wooden stairs that creaked and shed flakes of whitewash under our feet as we ascended. Inside, our stiff clothing came away of its own accord, unwanted husks and bulky armor and rags of past lives, a carefree unwrapping that drew us out to the revolutions of the earth, the layers as insubstantial as the skin on sunlight, the delicate cast-off wings of air currents, prompting us, gathering us to the aboriginal warmth of the fire, entranced at the epicenter of experience.
There is much I could say. There is much that was said, I’m sure, recorded only in the vaults of the vigilant and invisible scribes who take down the history of the extraordinary and mundane. The cracks in the plaster walls ran like spilled smiles to the floor. Broken ladders of spider silk, soft and gray, trailed from the light fixture that resembled a cheap salad bowl, billowing in the commotion of our dance in the new world. I was amazed at how much relief attended us, transformed, as we were, chrysalis-like, freed from the ballast of mortal shame, the myths and ministers of misinformation whose cultural clutter we swept out the door like a scrap heap of unwanted gifts. The ancient carpet, brown and grooved, mapped the foot traffic of generations of strangers over the bumpy floor. The bedroom door remained open—at such an angle, it reminded me of a funhouse exit—allowing a view of the kitchen window and the swell of pale November sunlight casting the gnarled candelabra shapes of hawthorn branches against unwashed glass. I kept looking out, as if someone might interrupt us, when the only uninvited guest I felt withdraw was the boy I would no longer be.
It is Aristophanes in The Symposium who speaks of an original human form, a “rounded whole” or “complete circle” of bodies—half male, half female, an eight-limbed hoop of conjoined love—that predated the separation of the sexes. It was to this ancient form we returned, bare, unburdened, figures of raw marble in a lone Athenian courtyard, finding our way into the grand wheel of completion that is still happening for me after twenty years. I hustle kids out the door for school in a blizzard, I wrestle a mess of bills, I fulminate and grump like a parliamentary dinosaur for my tribe to quiet down and stop fighting and behave, and I return daily to that downtrodden apartment to live through the ritual of that naked sacrament, a respite and reminder, as if body and spirit, the two lovers that make memory, will never leave that still unfolding passage known only to God, my beloved, and me—and the woman in the adjacent apartment who kept banging on the wall for us to keep it down.
* * *
I remember sitting in church and listening to the man addressing the congregation. He said, “I don’t know if you know this, but if you wait until you’re married to have sex, you’re still technically a virgin.”
I remember thinking, Lord, I hope not.
If I do feel the creep of regret because I never had the juice to jazz some filly, or the nerve to lure some farmer’s daughter into yonder hayloft to help her shatter her vows, it fades as quickly as the ceremony of memory woos the present moment.
I will live and die having taken one lover. Any notches I could have carved in my gun belt have become our five robust children. I will trouble no one’s dreams or journals or reunions. I am the untouchable skies of October, the power to save myself, the guy on the porch trying desperately to find some quiet time. I am Sunshine Boy.
Photo by Bernice Sheppard