Who Are You
The past gives you an identity and the future holds the promise of salvation, of fulfillment in whatever form. Both are illusions.
Imagine that you’re a 20-year-old girl who has never had sex before. You’ve never had a boyfriend. You’ve never been kissed. You’ve never had a drink smoked or cussed. You’ve gone to church three times a week since you were born. And you like church. You like Jesus and believe the Bible is the word of God. You come from a small Christian family that tried so hard to make you into this beautiful, loving woman that you are trying to be. Your parents are simple, true people. And they love you no matter what. But at 20 you start to feel like something is wrong with you. You don’t want to have sex. But you want someone to want to have sex with you. You want someone to want you, yet you still think that sex is only appropriate in the confines of marriage. You believe that no other sexual act besides intercourse is forbidden in the Bible, you looked. So you can do everything but. You can toe the line but no one wants to toe the line with you. Until you move away from home.
And when you move to a new city everyone wants to toe the line. And toeing the line seems fine. And you’re having fun. And maybe nothing matters after all. You thought kissing would mean something so you kept a list of everyone you kissed but you’re 20 and it doesn’t mean anything. And you don’t know most of their last names. Then, hold on. Now imagine that you’re back home visiting and your friend from church gets tired of hearing you talk about being a virgin and decides that he should help you out. He thinks it’s time for you to do it and you say you’re not sure and he says yes and that its not that big of a deal. And he takes what you were saving for someone special from you. But you can’t accept that it’s sex. And it’s definitely not rape either. It has to be something in the middle. Right. You can’t accept it otherwise. You won’t. Sex is sacred. Or you thought it was. But now that it has happened, you decide it’s not sacred. It can’t be. It must not be that big of a deal, like he said.
So you go back to the other city. You stop going to church and you have sex with the guy you’re seeing and he’s relieved because he didn’t want to be your first but he very much wanted to have sex with you. So he’s happy. You tell him, it’s okay now, it was someone else, and meanwhile you tell yourself that it was someone entirely different than it really was. You want it to maybe have been a guy from the library or from class. Maybe someone that loved you. You want it to have been someone entirely different that you shared something sacred with.
Now you’re 22 and you start keeping a list of everyone you have sex with because you feel an odd sense of guilt, probably. Also because you’re sure that it won’t be a long list. And then you start writing dates next to the guys because you’re sure that you’ll have sex with them multiple times and there won’t be that many people on the list. And then you start having more sex on purpose. And then you abandon the idea that there is any meaning in touching. And now you’re just fucking sucking kissing controlling falling touching fucking licking sucking falling fucking choking touching sucking giving fucking. You keep updating your list. You remember details even if you don’t remember names—slip and slide guy drunk cat guy construction guy piano guy MapQuest guy. You remember. There are things you remember.
Then you move back to your hometown. Time to pull it together. You allow yourself graduation sex with someone named Na Na but other than that, you pull it together. You even go back to church a few times. But again, you feel like something’s wrong with you. Even though you’re doing the right things and you’re at church and you’re making these people happy, you sense that you’re irredeemable, that you are corrupt. You were taught that God forgives but you feel judgment more than forgiveness. But eventually you quit worrying about these things. You keep doing the right things. Saying the right things. Moving forward. Trying to feel right. Your parents are very happy and proud of you. You graduate.
Make good choices.
At 23 you get a good job. You still have sex occasionally but with people you know. You work with most of them. You start with the Editor. You really like him but you find out he’s married. You only have sex with him three times after that.
You have sex with an 18-year-old that shows up at your apartment for a Halloween party. He says he needs to lose his virginity. You feel really bad and don’t tell anyone about this for a really, really, really long time. Even today only four of your friends know and you would still probably deny it under oath. That same night before you take the kid’s virginity, you meet the person you will love. He is in advertising. He comes to your party and you won’t know it for awhile, but he becomes the person that makes sex sacred again. In December he gets you off for the first time. He is your thirteenth and he is the first to good and truly get you off. He knows it too. He is just as excited as you are. It is the best Christmas present you have ever received. You text your best friend because she knows that you have never. But good goddamn. The most sacred of sacred fucks. And you had it in a beautiful leather red chair in a public place. You have sacred sex in all the public places after that.
While developing that list of other partners, you have grown way too scared of contracting something or getting pregnant. So during this new sacred sex, you go to the doctor incessantly. You had insurance then, so it was great. But you had caught nothing. Disease free. After that, it is just the two of you. You are both making a choice not to have sex with anyone else. So you are having sex with this man who is getting you off and you are disease free and it is great. Sometimes your ex comes in town from out of town and you have sex with him, too. But it is only sometimes. You practically live together at this point. He stays at your apartment almost every night. And the sex is great and the conversations are great and you go out to nice dinners and happy hours together. You are happy.
And now, imagine that one day the man who gets you off starts picking fights with you and saying strange things, things that hurt your feelings. Things about who you are and who he is and how you’ll never be a good enough couple and how he likes you but he says you can’t be together anymore. And he yells and you say you love him and you get each other off afterwards. It’s so confusing you don’t know what to do. It hurts but you ignore it.
It’s his birthday. So you buy him a Kenneth Cole briefcase and tell him to enjoy his birthday and you’ll discuss everything later. It’s ok you say. He says thanks and buys two bottles of champagne and says he likes the briefcase.
And then later when you’re done working you go to the bar. You always go to the bar. It’s on the way home. And he’s there. And your roommate is there. And isn’t this great, you can all hang out for his birthday! And you get a beer and she won’t look at you and you look at him and he says we need to tell you something. And you look at her because this can’t be happening there’s no way this is happening because this is not a movie. But he’s still staring at you and you say, ok what. And he says that he’s going to start dating her. And you start laughing, cackling. You cackle for a long time. Long enough that your favorite bartender comes over to check on you because you didn’t realize that you could cackle and cry at the same time.
He tries to say something to you but you don’t listen. You tip the bartender too much and get into your car. But you realize you have nowhere to drive to. So you drive to the library, which is strange but you turn off the car. Your grandmother was a librarian but this is not the time to think about your grandmother. You are in shock. You call a friend. You don’t sound like yourself. You sound drunk. But you’ve only had half a beer. You were working you thought. Together you thought. You can’t figure out how to make the car work again. How to make yourself work. But you do.
You drive to her house. And she gives you a onesie and you sleep in her bed. And she sleeps in the same bed with you and she tells you that everyday it will suck just a little bit less and you cry so hard that your heaves eventually make you feel like you have abs. And you pray to God again for the first time in a long time for the day that it will feel better. But you don’t believe it will actually come.
You hate your roommate. You move your stuff out. You throw away her bottle of champagne—probably his bottle—fuck your roommate and move into a studio apartment with a single room. It’s been two weeks and you’re trying to move on. You still do your job and do it well. You get a fish. Because you’re young and life is supposedly good. You don’t have sex with randoms because you know they won’t get you off and you’re no longer interested. So you just do the things you’re supposed to do. And then one day you go to the doctor and she tells you that you have HPV.
And also that you are pregnant.
You can’t be pregnant.
You were waiting for marriage. You were a good Christian girl, who understood that sex was sacred. Your parents love you too much for you to be pregnant and single. This ruins you. You are mired. Forever. You thought marriage was forever but actually no, this is forever. You can’t accept it but the doctor explains that you have to. She asks you if you know the father. Yes. The one who got you off. But you say you don’t because you’ve already decided that you don’t want to know him anymore. She says you have a finite amount of time to decide what you want to do. You go to the pharmacy and buy all the dips that the pharmacy has on the rack and intend to eat them all. But you forget to buy chips. You have to call your friend to bring chips so that the dips are edible. She lays on the couch while you eat all the dips and tells you it’s not the end of the world.
You want to believe it gets easier every day. You are mad but you are also numb. And you need to get off again. You need to feel good. And you know this doesn’t make sense because the one who got you off is getting someone else off. So you have sex with a random.
That old list is long gone. There is no guilt left. But you wish you could go back to being that 20-year-old girl. Maybe if you felt bad about having sex then you wouldn’t be growing a human. Maybe if you’d listened to what you’d been taught you wouldn’t have a finite amount of time to decide. Maybe if you’d never gotten off before marriage then you wouldn’t hurt inside. You wish you could believe in the sanctity of sex and marriage, again. You want to be that loving, idealistic young woman now. But instead, you’re twenty-four and you feel old because you’re growing a human.
So abortion? Even as far as you’ve come from those Wednesday night Bible Studies, abortion is too much. You cannot. Your parents raised you better. But also, you cannot get out of bed most days. You do not feel like life is good or even that it’s getting better everyday. You make yourself sick thinking about your roommate and the one who got you off living in your old apartment. The finite time keeps getting smaller. You lose your job from making yourself sick. You make yourself sicker. Now you have to make a decision. There is no more time. You wallow for almost all of that time and only then do you pull it together.
You decide you need to move again. You convince your mom and dad that there are better newspapers there. That there are better jobs for you. You lie. They believe you because they believe you are kind and smart. You want to be kind and smart. So you make sure to move quickly so that they can help you move before you start showing. And then you start showing. And then you’re too busy to Skype mom, sorry. But you can talk on the phone instead, unless you’re walking because you get out of breath way too suddenly as the fetus pushes on your diaphragm. Your friend moves to the new city with you for a while. She works from home so she can stay with you and help. Your parents feel better that she comes to stay. That way you’re not alone, they say. But you’re never alone. They don’t know that the fetus you’re growing means that you’re never alone. At least not for the next five months.
You don’t know if they could accept the irredeemable parts of you. Maybe they could accept the daughter more than you can accept yourself. You don’t know what it’s like, being a mother. Maybe that’s what being a mother is. Unconditional. But you don’t give them a chance. You are conditional.
You keep on moving forward. You get a job. Your best friend helps you get out of bed most days. She helps you put on your shoes when you can’t see your feet anymore. She tells you to quit crying when you’re in public. She tells you that everyday it will hurt a little bit less. But everything feels blurry. You find an adoption lawyer and she finds a family. You meet with all the people in the agency that you need to. This fetus will have a family. They will be better people than you.
And then your daughter is born and you believe her life will be better.
So finally you are alone.
You are not a mother. You are a daughter again. A young, idealistic woman that your parents are proud of. Someone that they know. Someone that you don’t know anymore.
But now imagine that your mom has Alzheimer’s and you move home to help. You owe her that and your dad needs you. And some days she reverts to the past. Your dad tries to tell her that things are different, that you are different, older now. Almost 30 he tells her. She just swats at him and smiles at you blankly. She still thinks you are smart and kind and 20. That you are young and you believe in good things and good people. She thinks you are still excited about going to college in the fall. That you are excited about life. Your smile is just like mine, she says. She asks when you are going to get married. You don’t know. You just need to find a nice doctor boy. Or what about that boy from down the street? You really should start planning for your future. It’s almost time you give me grandchildren, you know.
And in that moment you want to tell her. You want to give her what she wants. You owe her so much. You wonder if she could accept you more than your accept yourself.
But as long as you’re happy, I’m happy, she always says with the same smile you see in the mirror.
Time passes too quickly in this phase. This phase of her knowing you. This phase of her knowing the past you. She wants you to be who you were. You want the same thing.
Now she only wants you to sing hymns and to take her to church. Most days she forgets and asks who you are.
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