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How Seeing Titanic 16 Times in the Theater Transformed My First Sexual Encounter

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Rose was not only on the upper decks of the ship, she was on a freakin’ pedestal. That seemed like a pretty sweet deal.

First Encounters is a series in which writers explore the media that inspired their first brush with their sexuality. Whether it was a book, a cartoon character, a film, or a painting, we all have one cultural artifact from our adolescence that informs how we think about our bodies and desires for the rest of our lives. Have a First Encounter you’d like to share? Send your story to submissions@nerve.com.

I was 14 when Titanic was released. Young enough to have never even gone up to bat with a boy, but old enough to be jamming two stuffed animals between my legs every night. (Pubescence is weird, okay?) Titanic affected me. I saw it 16 times in the theaters, a total of 56 hours of my life spent watching Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet tear down class barriers with their genitals on a super big ship. I saw it with friends. I saw it alone. I saw it most of the time with my little sister, who would do anything to hang out with me, including seeingTitanic ten times. I don’t know why I loved it so much. It is not a good movie. It has lines like, “I got everything I need right here with me. I got air in my lungs, a few blank sheets of paper,” and “A woman’s heart is a deep ocean of secrets.” (Metaphor alert!) We know the end before the movie starts: The ship, it sinks.

But Titanic hit my sweet spot, and what I mean by that is it caught me at that brief period of adolescence when anything remotely sexual—say, watching a bee pollinate a flower—is enough to spring a boner, or the girl equivalent of a boner. (A vagoner?)

I think part of Titanic’s appeal to me was the grand, lady-deserves-everything romance of it all. That is attractive when you’re a 14-year-old girl with no real life dealings whatsoever with the opposite sex. Rose was not only on the upper decks of the ship, she was on a freakin’ pedestal. That seemed like a pretty sweet deal. Dude beholds my breathtaking beauty. Falls in love with me. Draws me naked. Dies for me. All the ingredients of a healthy love relationship.

So I dyed my naturally tree-bark-colored hair red. I developed a crush on a “lower class” kid, who happened to just be a junior high weirdo who only wore Rancid T-shirts and bragged about torturing his cat. I bought a chunky blue-jeweled necklace from Chico’s, the store designed for middle-aged Jewish art teacher ladies.

Then I got over it. At some point during high school my Titanic obsession became embarrassing, as did my parents, my hair, and 97 percent of my body. So I dumped it.

Or so I thought. Fast forward to freshman year of college, on the night I am about to lose my lockbox—as my 5th grade health teacher once put it—in my dorm room, on an exceptionally wire-y twin bed. We start. Fumbly-like. I have no idea what I’m doing. I keep thinking to myself, “This is sex!” because that is what it was. (I didn’t get into a good college for nothing.) I was happy. Until about halfway through the boy above me stops Ariel-ing the rock that is my body and asks me not-so-nicely, “What are you doing?”

“Having sex with you!” … is the answer in my head to the question. But then I realize what he’s actually talking about: It’s the fact that I’ve been slamming my hand high against the cement dorm wall, then running my fingers down it slowly, over and over again. It only took me a moment to realize why. I was imitating Rose. My go-to sex move, as it turned out, was based on Jack jacking Rose in the back of a 1912 automobile in the ship’s cargo room, and then that shot of her hand pressing against the steamed up window and trailing down. Even after five years that movie still had vise-like grip on my subconscious. This, of course, was not something I was about to share.  “I don’t know,” I answered him, and – dayenu – that was enough, because he too was a virgin desperately wanting to get his first bedpost notch, and I probably could have insulted his Mom and not interrupted the indelicate activities. Afterwards, we stayed in bed for maybe two minutes, and then he asked if I wanted to go to the campus snack bar. We got dressed and walked over. He paid for my cheese fries. It wasn’t exactly giving me the one floating plank of wood in the Atlantic Ocean and thus saving my life, but what is, really?

Lauren Bans is a writer living in Los Angeles. She still owns a VHS copy of Titanic.

Photo via Paramount, Images via Dianna McDougall