The year was 1996 and we were driving into downtown, three boys and a girl, all aged sixteen. Rattling around in the trunk was a case of beer, something cheap and watery sold to us by the cashier behind the counter at Kwick Stop, a man either lonesome or dim-witted enough to believe that I, with my acne-spattered cheeks and pitiful wallet chain, was (as my ID indicated) a twenty-three-year-old from rural New Hampshire who (as I told him during the transaction) decided to shave his beard that morning. At stoplights we’d pop the trunk and one of us would scurry around back and grab a fresh round, caps clinking as they piled on the floorboards. When the light turned green, we’d check for cops, say cheers and bring the bottles to our lips, singing along to songs we’d later chastise ourselves for loving. At sixteen your age is both a badge and a hex: something to flaunt, something to forget, which was the subtext of tonight’s journey. Too young to get stupid in bars, here was the next thing: drinking inside a car while driving past people drinking inside bars.
All this I tell you as a sort of backhanded apology. The night was slurred from the start, and in trying to chart how I went from (a) riding shotgun with a beer in my hand to (b) sitting in my bedroom doorway watching two of my friends have sex, my mind fissures, loses the thread. This much I know: we drove around for a few hours. With each beer we felt more joyously autonomous, like ageless monarchs ruling over undiscovered kingdoms. Then curfew kicked in, which meant heading back to my house in the suburbs. While my mother slept upstairs — she was always exhausted from work, from me, from yet another personal ad met in person — we smoked a joint and continued drinking in my room downstairs.
At which point things get blurry.
The four of us came from families that had instilled in us the sort of insecurities that, during moments like this, tended to surface in the form of G-rated promiscuity. We had all, us boys, rolled around with this girl in the past. Tepid, loveless, semi-regrettable fumbling that, weirdly, had made us closer over time, a foursome bound by an unspoken, collective shame. We courted and dreaded these collisions, torn between the appeal of corruption and the naïve belief that there was such a thing as purity. This painfully sincere perspective was maintainable because sex — actual sex — was not yet part of our lives. It remained elusive, a rumor, a myth, something done only by seniors and movie stars and unfaithful fathers. As much as we prided ourselves on having a sophisticated outlook when it came to sexuality, this had nothing to do with an actual understanding of sex so much as an ability to casually reference Anais Nin and say words like masturbation and clitoris without giggling. Driving around downtown, and now laying intertwined in the same bed, we all knew there was a high chance that someone might kiss someone, that someone’s pants may come off, that someone might even come, but actually having sex? No, not a chance, not tonight, not for a second.
So what happened?
It began with some version of the following conversation:
“Yeah, me too.”
— which, of course, wasn’t really about boredom, but you needed an excuse for the next phase in the dialogue —
“What should we do?”
“I don’t know.”
“Truth or Dare?”
“Yeah, whatever . . . ”
We all play Truth or Dare a handful of times during adolescence, and for the same reason: a means of saying “let’s fuck around” without having to say “let’s fuck around.” But while other kids used the game to initiate some earnest French kissing and, maybe, to catch a brief flash of bare ass or nipple, we elevated it, I’d like to think, into the realm of high art. The Truth component was eliminated. This was key. Ours was a game of undiluted Dare, forcing the Truth behind our intentions that much closer to the surface. We recognized, at least subconsciously, that all teenagers are amateur submissives, eager to have their vulnerability exposed and exploited. As a result, our dares were both creative and explicit. Some highlights from past sessions: mutual masturbation, boys kissing boys, girls handcuffing boys to trees, and, like a scene straight from one of those Primetime Live pseudo-exposés, one girl going down on two boys at the same time.
I don’t know how this compares to your youth — if we seem like prudes or sluts or freaks — but that’s beside the point. Those dare-fueled tanglings weren’t a loss of innocence so much as a way of prolonging it. Sex, we still believed, had something to do with love, another human activity that had eluded us. We were not shy or embarrassed when it came to discussing how we wanted the first time to “matter,” to “mean something.” We were patient. Willing to wait. Someday we would find love and marriage, and, until then, we’d just have to settle for handcuffing each other to trees and bringing each other to orgasm. I realize this may not be exactly what our president means when he advocates abstinence-only education, but, well, for a while there, it served its purpose.
Anyway, we played the game. But there was something different about it tonight: we were barely interested in keeping up the façade. Soon enough, we weren’t even playing anymore. We were just sitting there, three boys in boxer shorts surrounding a naked girl. We moved slowly, nervously, experimentally. We made constant eye contact. These were silent looks that let each other know that everything was okay, that we should relax, be amazed, enjoy ourselves.
I remember watching my friend’s hands slide down her leg, and I remember the ease with which his fingers disappeared. I remember the way her eyelids flickered. And I remember the way my hands shook, and how dry my throat was, and how after a few minutes of this I stood up and, along with another friend, walked out of the room.
I don’t remember why. A million reasons are applicable. Maybe to raid the liquor cabinet, or to piss off the back deck, or to see what munchies the cupboard had to offer. Or maybe because it hit both of us that we weren’t quite ready for where this was going, that this didn’t match up to whatever sequence dominated our fantasies. It could have been two minutes that we were gone, it could have been an hour. What I do remember is the rest: how when we came back into the room she was on top of him, his legs and feet poking out stiffly from her parted thighs and ass. Everything was visible. We stopped in the doorway, looking at each other, then back toward the bed. We ended up sitting down, quietly, stealthily, and watching. It wasn’t voyeuristic so much as anthropological: here was the very act we’d talked about so much without ever quite buying its existence. Notes needed to be taken, filed away for future perusal. Her back was a collage of shadows. His hands gripped her hips, tightly, with purpose, as if he were holding on, trying not to fall. Her movements were graceful, aquatic. His were jerky. I remember being shocked at how the whole endeavor was so clumsy, how she kept having to elevate her hips and reach between his legs, adjusting, making sure everything was as it should be. And then, of course, very suddenly, it was over.
Was it sexy? No, not in the cliched, obvious ways. The sight was too new, too overwhelming for that. My thought process was almost autistic, hardly a thought process at all. This is it, I thought. There it is. That is what sex looks like. That is sex happening, for real. Until you’ve had sex, the frustrating thing about it is the way it hovers about, teasing, taunting, without ever making any sense. You know what it is, what is technically required to make it happen, but really, you don’t know anything. Close your eyes and try to imagine sex and what do you get? A white flash, a scene from a movie, a mirage. Up to this point my understanding of sex was Shannon Tweed straddling the sternum of some live-action Ken doll, her head tilted back in ecstasy. Sex was Sharon Stone’s parted thighs and flaxen smudge of pubic hair, paused on the television screen. Sex was Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson, Demi Moore and Michael Douglas, Demi Moore stripping on stage. Sex was me superimposing myself into these scenes while pretending — somewhat pathetically, I know — that these were the phantom women whom I loved, and who loved me back.
But this, I now knew, was not sex. And it never would be again. Sex was the thing happening in front of me: just flesh and motion, flushed foreheads, fingers in hair. Until this moment sex was like those bars we drove past, a world we craved membership to, but at the same time enjoyed putting off, reinventing according to our own needs. I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it then, but I’m certain some comfort came in being able to deny sex, to put it off, to suspend disbelief.
A few weeks later, drunk, I slept with a girl who later became a junkie, then a stripper, and is now a mother living somewhere in Texas. We were in my bedroom. We didn’t look each other in the eye. It was years before I told anyone about it. The whole time I stared at our bodies as if they belonged to someone else, as if I were actually sitting in the doorway, watching, observing, promising myself I wouldn’t make that mistake. This is not it, I thought. This is not sex. This is not me. But, of course, I wasn’t kidding anyone.
This article originally appeared in Nerve’s True Stories.