Greg and I were Going Out. In high school, that was a big deal. Anyone could date, but Going Out was serious. It meant passing cryptic and affectionate notes to each other in class. It meant slowly and unconsciously beginning to dress like each other. It meant sharing friends, having comfortable dinners with each other’s families, and loyal monogamy. And it meant making out. Constantly. In our two years of Going Out, we made out in Greg’s bedroom approximately nine hundred eighty-eight times. We kissed so long, lying on top of his bed, fully clothed and breathless, that afterwards my mouth grew sores in the places where our lips had ground together.
And yet, we had not had sex, with each other or with anyone else. It seemed like a big, scary thing that would change us in unknown ways and wasn’t to be trifled with. We talked about having sex in the abstract way that people talk about becoming rich.
“We should have sex some day,” I said once.
“Yes, we must,” Greg replied. “In a hot air balloon, you think?”
“A hot air balloon would be perfect. Someday, when we have a house together, we should have sex in the shower, too,” I added.
He mused on that. “I think the shower should be tiled with river rocks. It’d be a great place for sex.”
“Yes! And the house will have a creek running right through the inside of it, with a little waterfall where the living room steps down into the den….” We had imagined a big, beautiful life for ourselves as adults, filled with minute details like this.
Greg seemed comfortable with himself in a way that was rare for a sixteen-year-old boy. Maybe it was the way he did everything deliberately. He drew without hurry, and the figures he sketched looked both expertly and effortlessly done in a way that awed our art teacher. When he picked up his guitar to teach himself a song, he circled the problem quietly in his mind before starting to play, producing the tune perfectly on the first try. Even when he smiled, it was a slow smile, starting in his eyes and growing down into his nose, mouth, and up to his ears.
While he attended a camp for student artists our last summer together, we didn’t write or phone each other. It just wasn’t necessary. In my mind I saw Greg at camp, the most brilliant in a crowd of brilliant artists, with me as his muse, creating beautiful things and choosing the most revered to give to me upon his return. I was content.
When he came back in September, we lounged on a bench by a quiet lake near his parents’ house in south Jersey, late in the evening. He lay with his head in my lap and I sat, unworried, lazy, pulling my fingers through his soft hair. I asked him about his summer, what the camp was like, what kinds of things he created, what sort of people he met.
“Oh, lots of people.”
“Yeah? There must have been a lot of talented people there. None as good as you, though, I bet. Who was your favorite artist there?”
“Tara. She was a great sculptor. Is. Is a great sculptor.”
“Oh. Tara. Did you guys go to classes together?”
“Did you guys study together?”
“Did you guys make out together?” I was fond of asking absurd and unexpected questions. I thought it made me seem plucky and daring and confident in our relationship. Of course he hadn’t made out with her.
I snorted. Liar. Of course he hadn’t made out with her. “Did you guys have sex together?” This one was even better. Of course he hadn’t had sex with her.
“Yeah. We did.”
I stopped pulling my fingers through his soft hair. “Very funny,” I said. Then came too long a pause.
“I’m not being funny. I’m sorry. We did have sex. A few times.” He sat up. He wasn’t looking at me.
“But,” I said. “But. But we were supposed to have sex. We were supposed to be each other’s firsts…” Everything that had been so correct and easy was suddenly tilted and wrong. I scowled a moment, my stomach burning, my eyes filling, determined not to get hysterical. I failed. “But what about the river rocks?”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you. It just seemed like the right thing for me to do.”
I charged back to my dad’s slumping Buick and unsuccessfully attempted to peel out with embarrassing, underpowered slowness. In my frenzied dash to the car I had already begun to understand why Greg wasn’t following me. He was sorry he had upset me, yes, but he did not regret his time with Tara. I wasn’t surprised, then, when he didn’t ask me to forgive him and didn’t ask me to take him back.
We avoided each other for the rest of the school year, graduated, and then started college in different states. Disappointed that Greg had ruined my perfect plan to give my virginity to my perfect love, I sought out sex angrily and aimlessly. I slept with people as a way to collect acceptance and approval without revealing too much of my uncertain self. For me, sex with a guy was like taking him out to eat at an overpriced and underperforming restaurant: I’d immediately present him with the molten chocolate soufflé so that he forgot to wonder about the quality of the Caesar salad or the beef bourguignon.
Predictably, none of these angry, aimless relationships were fulfilling, and I was miserable. Misery encouraged contemplation, and I slowly began to understand that sex was not a pathway to enlightenment or a reliable means of making someone think highly of me—at least, not for very long. I started to explore my own talents and develop my own interests away from the shadows of others. I depended less on the opinions and direction of my parents and friends and lovers. I was discovering, to my surprise, that the quality of my Caesar salad was really quite excellent, and I made a mean beef bourguignon.
Throughout college, I would receive letters from Greg, five states away at a school for artists. They were closer to gallery pieces than correspondence, crafted carefully with a talent I had always envied, drawn on heavy fibrous paper in thick waxes and exotic inks. His words were gentle and jaunty in the easy way that old friends use in their conversations: “Things here are fine,” and “Hugs!” But his cheer seemed affected, as if he felt a deep need to keep in touch with me but couldn’t articulate why. I felt that need, too, and struggled with what to say in response. I missed him and the comfortable space we used to share. But I was also beginning to construct my own life, and it was thrilling. I didn’t know if the person I was becoming would be comfortable with the person Greg was becoming, and I was reluctant to sacrifice my plans to find out.
As I looked forward to applying to graduate schools and moving to a new city, I received a few more letters from Greg. He had begun to scratch tiny laments into the heavy layers of wax, little messages in the decorated margins hidden but meant to be found: “Were you the one?” and “You are my ghost.” And then, near the end of my third year at school, “Meet me?” I was planning to move to Boston. I decided it was time to discover if I should let the wound he had made, stinging a little less each day, close itself for good.
I picked Greg up outside his parents’ old house just before sundown on a summer evening. We exchanged personal histories while I drove without a destination. Animated, I described my Latin classes and my campus job publishing a geology newsletter. I was learning to knit, draw, and appreciate scratchy recordings of Woody Guthrie. He was seeing a girl who underwhelmed him and told me he didn’t know where his life was leading him. Finally:
“We could have sex tonight,” I said.
“Yes,” Greg replied. “At the baseball field, you think?”
“Perfect. There’s a blanket in the trunk.”
I pulled over at a convenience store to buy a condom from a smirking clerk. Unashamed, I smirked back. (After all, who of us was peddling prophylactics and who was getting laid?) On the deserted ball field, I considered the clichéd irony of finally getting to home base with Greg next to, well, home base. We each took off our own clothes.
Seeing Greg naked felt oddly like seeing my fourth-grade teacher buying cigarettes at the grocery store: I was dimly aware in fourth grade that my teacher had a life outside the classroom, just as I had always been dimly aware that Greg had a penis. But being confronted with the bald truth of either one was unsettling and, I discovered, not something I needed to repeat.
He came. I didn’t. I had no complaint because I hadn’t come here for that. We lay on our backs, looking up at the evening.
“We should have done this years ago,” he said, smiling. He was seeing this night as a beginning. I blinked in the dark. I was seeing it as an end.
I sat up. I realized Greg had been irreplaceable because I had made him that way, amplifying his talents because I wanted them for myself while ignoring the reality of him as a growing, striving, changing, screwing up, stumbling-in-the-dark-just-like-me sort of person. The wound Greg’s betrayal had made wasn’t stinging. It had become a different sort of hurt, duller and more vague: disappointment.
“Nah,” I said, quietly. “It would have changed everything.”
Before we got up to leave I paused a moment, remembering him at sixteen. Maybe he was doing the same to me. It was the last time I saw him. His next letter was long and asked for things I couldn’t give. I have not written him back because I would rather seem to be missing than cruel.
I am married now to a man who took years of work to discover and many months to win. I did not earn his approval with sex. He is a vegetarian, and so while he loves the salads I make, I have put away my recipe for beef burgundy and developed an incomparable kale soup. We both love molten chocolate soufflé.