At 1 a.m. on a Friday night, I stood in the personal care aisle of Wal-Mart.
Obviously, I was drunk.
Beside me, my friend Bob rummaged through a shelf of personal massagers undulating nylon mats and giant, thumping devices that could clock someone in search of an item he’d dubbed “the Cadillac of vibrators.”
“They’re out,” said Bob, his body half-buried in scattered boxes. “But this might work.”
“This?” I turned the white box over in my hand. “It looks like a hand mixer.”
He sighed. “This is more like the Grand Am of vibrators. The Ford Escort of vibrators.”
“How does it even work?” I asked.
Bob gave me a look. He’d taken me this far. From here, I was on my own.
Earlier that night, Bob and I had been in a smoky dive, drinking pitchers of lager and admitting things we shouldn’t have. Like the number of people we’d slept with, and when, and how, and why. We weren’t lovers; we were beer buddies who reveled in this kind of conversational striptease. Inevitably, though, it went a smidge too far, like the time Bob told me his testicles were unusually large. Or the time, that night, when I made the more-than-slightly-embarrassing revelation that I’d never had an orgasm.
Bob was incredulous. “Never, ever?”
I shook my head and lit a cigarette.
“Don’t you have a vibrator?”
“Keep it down!” I said, squirming in my seat.
“Why are you freaking out?” asked Bob. “There’s nothing wrong with having a vibrator.”
“Stop saying that so loud,” I whispered.
“What, vibrator? What’s wrong with you?” asked Bob.
I wasn’t sure. But I was beginning to suspect that — despite a lifetime of pretending otherwise — I was a bit of a prude.
How did it happen? In kindergarten, I was the kid who told unbelieving listeners on the playground where babies come from. In sixth grade, I passed around The Color Purple in French class. It was dog-eared to the page where one woman tells another to hold a mirror up to her “you-know-what” and admire it. In high school, I had sex earlier and more often than my girlfriends, who came to me for advice: like what lingerie to wear, how to lay across the bed so your thighs look thinner, which angle was most flattering.
And therein lay the problem. By age seventeen, I had swallowed so many movie fantasies about what sex was supposed to look like — torso arched in ecstasy, toes curled comically — that I didn’t bother to ask how it was supposed to feel. And it felt . . . okay. But there was no white-hot ecstasy, no explosion of bliss. My boyfriend was incredibly attentive, valiant when it came to my pleasure, and so, not wanting to disappoint him, I did exactly what they do in the movies.
I faked it.
By the time I got to college, girls had changed. They were no longer shy about sex; they talked openly about their orgasm, about masturbating, about always being on top. They made me uneasy, like fluent speakers in a language I was still stumbling through. I had a friend, a gorgeous woman who slung around her sexuality like a bright-blue feather boa, and one night, I admitted my own little problem.
“Oh, honey, lots of women can’t come during sex,” she told me, holding up two fingers like bunny ears. “That’s why you have to treat yourself.”
She gave me a book from her shelf. Inside was a sketch of a woman with her legs spread, her labia diagrammed like a topographical map. That night, and several nights after, I took a warm bath and got into bed early. I turned the light off and pulled my pajamas around my ankles.
And I felt so stupid.
Stupid, like someone was watching me and cracking jokes. After all, this was the scene in the movie where someone walks in, someone catches you in the breathless sneer of pleasure and you’re left to clamber for composure, utterly exposed. Eventually, I turned the light back on, defeated, and read myself to sleep.
And that’s how I got to be twenty-five without having an orgasm.
“I know a really good vibrator,” Bob continued. (Bob, I suspect, had the polar opposite relationship with masturbation.) “It’s the Cadillac of vibrators.”
No way. No way was I slinking into some neon-lit smut shop at midnight with Bob, slapping down $65 for a hot pink wind-up cock, or a “rabbit,” or whatever desperate single girls bought these days.
“They sell it at Wal-Mart,” he said.
Wal-Mart? The store that only sells edited versions of rap songs?
“It’s a personal massager,” Bob explained.
“I already have a massager,” I said. “It’s for your back.” Every year for Christmas, my mom gave me some widget for relieving back pain, stressed feet or cold hands.
Bob looked at me as if I’d just sent a letter to Santa Claus.
“Really?” I whispered.
“The Cad-il-lac of vibrators,” Bob said, savoring each syllable.
Bob dropped me off at home that night with the zeal of a parent leaving his daughter at prom. “Have fun!” he waved enthusiastically. “Tell me how it goes!”
I went inside. I made a drink. I watched a little late-night television, flipped through a glossy magazine. Eventually I could not avoid it any longer: I had to use that thing.
I have told this story many times. Always during one of those wonderfully cozy, drunk confessional exchanges, like the conversation with Bob that started the whole thing in the first place. The you-show-me-yours, I’ll-show-you-mine of our adulthood. The story works because it is honest, and a little painful, and because for so many of us, first times are less steamy romance, more comedy caper. It’s not that I wanted to feel sexy, exactly. I was alone. I was unwatched. I held a machine that made the approximate noise of an electric shaver. But damn those movies. Damn those women and their perfect silhouettes. No matter what sexual adventure I attempted, a thousand soft-focus films had made it tough — even in the privacy of my bedroom, in the hush and hum of 3 a.m. — to overcome the sense, the creeping and hideous suggestion, that I was doing it wrong.
Trust me, I was. I sat at the edge of my bed, because the cord wouldn’t reach all the way. When I touched the plastic knob to my flesh, the electric surge was so strong that it sent me clattering to the floor, cross-eyed and frightened.
I was humiliated. Was everyone this inept, or was it just me? Was the orgasm just another one of those golden gifts — like long, shapely legs or straight hair or discretion — bestowed on people at birth, but that somehow passed me by?
I lay in bed that night, feeling sorry for myself. I would never return to Wal-Mart. I would never buy the Cadillac of vibrators. In fact, it took two weeks to get the nerve to call Bob again, and almost a year to tell him the whole story. I did, however, remember one thing. On my bedside table — right under my nose, almost literally — sat a tiny, pocket-sized back massager, a gift from my mother that sat beside my table lamp and alarm clock, collecting dust. I reached over in the dark to see if the battery still worked.
This article originally appeared in Nerve’s Personal Essays in 2004.