We could have done something. Made out, had sex, something. We were teenagers, sure, so it would have been a fumbling and deeply unimpressive something — a something that, as these things went for me, would have been the embarrassing end to potential future somethings. But she was inviting me into it anyway. Came right out and said it, in fact: “I have a crush on you.” Those were Rosa’s words. And she was, and remains, the kind of girl guys have crushes on, not the other way around. Wavy hair, devastating cleavage, Latina allure. At the time, though, she had just broken up with my best friend, he was pretty upset about the whole thing, and so a wave of righteousness came over me. I would turn her down. I’d honor my friend and turn her down.
These days, a decade after the fact, he’s still apologizing for this.
But it turned out fine because, although he lost touch with Rosa, I haven’t. We’re still friends. That’s what happens when you have an adolescent, boy-girl friendship that never converges in a bed: It lives on past its expected lifespan, like a Mars rover that roves long after scientists run out of experiments for it. We don’t flirt anymore. It’d be pointless. We’ve already processed that data.
For years, we lived in different cities — she in New York, and I in Boston. And whenever I’d swing through New York, I’d stay at her place. She had a great one-bedroom in a high-rise building, with a view that stretched to the Hudson. We’d catch up while I stared out from it, lusting after this city. Then she’d retire to the bedroom and I’d curl up on the couch, and the next morning we’d have breakfast.
So that’s why I called her two years ago, when I scored a job interview in New York. I needed to travel down the night before, sleep on her couch and head out early the next morning to beg for a job. She was out of town, though, and offered me another option: “I’ll have my doorman let you in,” she said. “And seriously, don’t sleep on the couch. My bed’s way more comfortable, and it’s not in use, so just sleep there.”
That was a great offer. Her couch really wasn’t that comfortable.
I showed up at her building and the doorman gave me a key, as instructed.
I settled in, checked e-mail, stared outside that beautiful window of hers, and then brushed my teeth, stripped down to my boxers and went feet-first into her bed. It was softer than I’m used to, with a pillow-top pad and one of those fluffy down comforters that make whooshing noises as you tug them. But as I sunk in further — mostly naked and under her blanket — my arm brushed up against something unusual, something rubbery. I reached down to grasp the thing from the darkness, and pulled out a vibrator. A Rabbit, actually, with those little prongs, the whole thing a girly shade of purple. I turned it on for a minute, for my own amusement. It hummed.
She’d left town before I’d asked to use the apartment, so I’d found her bedroom in its unfiltered state, the way she must leave it for herself. Which is an interesting insight into an old friend. But now I had a problem: What do I do with this thing — this thing which, given that it was abandoned in the same place it’s likely employed, was probably recently used and probably remained unclean? If I moved it, she’d see it when she came home and discover that I’d touched her vibrator — and what else? What else!? I’d already turned it on! But if I left it be, if I left the Rabbit in its cushiony Rabbit-hole, she’d find it when she got into bed the next night, and then she’d think something terrible. She’d think, “He slept with my vibrator.”
Like most guys, my buddies and I joke about porn — what we watch, when, the craziest shit we’ve seen. (Topping my list: live-action Smurfs, naked and painted blue, smurfing each other in a field until the paint is rubbed off their smurfiest parts.) And so it shouldn’t have been a surprise when I used a friend’s computer one day and, as I was typing in a web address, Internet Explorer finished the job by suggesting a blatantly pornographic site. And not just a domain name, but one that was followed by a long string of letters and numbers — the address to a specific video, the exact one he’d once watched, a minutes-long romp that ran as I sat in in the same chair he must’ve.
And I felt like I had invaded something private and discreet. Like the chair was somehow not something I should be sitting on. Like I’d discovered something I shouldn’t have. Which makes little sense, I realized, because the experience revealed nothing new. I know what the guy does in his spare time. He outright tells me. He’d probably show me the damn video himself.
But then, I also knew about the active sex life of a couple I’m friendly with. They’re open about it; they brag of late nights and tortured neighbors. But after another friend stumbled upon their anal beads hiding in a desk, it’s all I can think about when I’m with them. I run through the logistics of it — the way you’d have to position yourself to get those beads in. They way they must come out, a fleshy thup-thup. I think I’d shit. I think the beads would make me shit right there in bed, at the moment of impact. It’s a horrifying vision. And it would have been different if they’d told me about the anal beads, I’m sure. But they didn’t. It was never a part of their story. And now, without their knowledge, it is.
I reflected on this stuff as I held Rosa’s purple vibrator, because I was trying to figure out just how much of a violation the discovery really was. In reality, it wasn’t that bad: I didn’t ruffle through her drawers, I didn’t break into anything, and anyway, she’d have likely told me she sleeps with a vibrating Rabbit, had only I asked. And yet here was the real thing — an object that both of us have now touched — and that felt somehow more private. It was no longer simply my knowledge of her sex life; it was evidence of it. Cold, hard evidence. Literally.
When sex isn’t flesh-on-flesh, it’s a massive shared experience. Who doesn’t want it? Who hasn’t had it? That’s why we talk about it so much, or at least that’s why I do. But we do a great job of compartmentalizing.
We don’t shake a hand and think of what it’s been coated in. We don’t sit on a couch and think of how many times it’s cradled bare skin. We don’t leave our condoms lying around. Mine are kept in a small cardboard box in the top shelf of my nightstand. You’d have to really dig around my apartment to find them, and quite frankly, I’d be uncomfortable if someone did.
But isn’t that odd? I’m open about sex, about when and with whom I have it, but the physical manifestation of the unused condoms somehow seems like a violation. You could look at the condom, and then, at some later time, I could pick up and use that exact same one. It isn’t imagination anymore; it’s a specific, visible detail, like the difference between describing great sex and showing someone a video of you doing it. We don’t guard knowledge of our sex lives, because that knowledge is abstract. We don’t use it in bed. It isn’t physical. It isn’t what’s really intimate.
After a few minutes, I realize I have a few more options: I can kick the vibrator down to the bottom of the bed, or perhaps tuck it slightly underneath the frame. Both are places she’d eventually find it, and yet both create plausible deniability: It’d be conceivable that I never noticed it in either spot, as if it hid in plain sight. She could come home, realize her error and then be relieved that no harm was caused. It’d be like fearing all day that you left your toaster on, only to come home and find it unplugged. And it’d spare me a burden, too. I could erase this moment.
But if I tucked it under her bed, she could have trouble finding it — and the only thing worse than discovering someone’s sex toy, I suppose, is hindering its use. What if her trip was stressful?
I’m not sure how I finally decided to get up and put it on top of her dresser, but that’s what I did. It made for a good assortment up there: a notebook, a digital camera, a fleshy purple vibrator. She’d find it immediately, and realize exactly what happened.
Or so I thought. Or so I still assume. I left her a little note the next morning, thanking her for letting me stay there. I bought her some toilet paper, because she was almost out. And then I waited for her to bring up the discovery, to laugh about it or confess her horror. But she didn’t. She said nothing. And soon years passed, and our conversations never quite led to a moment in which I could say, “Hey, remember that time I found your vibrator?” So I haven’t.
Sometimes I think she never mentioned it because it just wasn’t a big deal. Or maybe it was.
This article originally appeared in Nerve’s Personal Essays.