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“We’re almost out of time, and I have to get you home,” he’d muttered, as he zipped up his jeans in the back of his 1992 Saturn.

Nearly twenty years later, I still remember the venues.

We’d park between tattered garbage trucks. I’d pray that the vehicles would stay dark and still for the night. He’d turn off the Saturn’s headlights and I’d hope to remain just as dark and inconspicuous. I lived about a ten minute drive away. We’d stretch our time together as long as we could, usually until about eight minutes before curfew.

“We need to be out in the living room before your mom gets home,” he’d say, zipping up his jeans as he stood at the edge of my twin-sized bed in the bedroom I shared with my sister.

When not hiding in the shadows of our city’s sanitation facilities, we’d retreat to my family’s apartment, stealing those rare moments when I had the house to myself in the summer between high school and college.

“Doesn’t Jane get back soon?” he’d ask, zipping up his jeans as he stood over the bed on “my” side of the dorm room.

After college I rented an apartment. A little older, a little more mature and ready for an “adult” life, there was an odd, perhaps even predictable association between the moment I signed the lease and my plummeting inhibitions. No parents, no roommates, no little sisters to worry about. Surely there’d be plenty of time for reciprocation, yes? Plenty of time to “get mine.”

This particular venue is where the excuses stopped and my partner’s snoring began. My pleasure was consistently delayed. My orgasm was the protagonist in an unfinished suspense novel. There are—as there should be—myriad differences between 18- and 25-year-old-women. And yet, whether 18 or 25, all events, all people, all situations had precisely one thing in common: I performed oral sex long before I ever received it.

I never questioned why I was giving more than I was receiving. It never occurred to me to ask. It never occurred to me to consider the possibility that something was off, here. That there were profound imbalances that begged, that demanded a restructuring of emotional and physical capital.

My women friends never complained or made mention of anything similar, although the juicy gossip about dating usually centered on how far the guy was able to go; on how much he was able to “receive.” The details never, not once revealed that the young woman telling the story derived much physical pleasure at all. Peculiarly, the stories were always structured around “timing,” as a theme: e.g., “We’ve been dating exclusively for a month, so it seemed okay to take it to the next level,” one would say.

“The next level” was always synonymous with permitting a man to receive pleasure that he, in more ways than not, felt entitled to, particularly if enough time had passed. “The next level” never seemed to have much to do with reciprocation and if it did, she never said so. Oral sex was simply the enemy weakened by the weapon of time. A “gift” a man received for his “patience.”

She received no such gift, and if she did, she never did say so.

Conversely, I’ve heard many a young man boast about the pleasure he had received, but never about the pleasure he had given in return. And of course these topics were not discussed at home—at least not in any useful way. The extent of my own sex and relationship education occurred when I was 16, after my mom returned home from the supermarket one winter evening.

“See this?” she asked me, rushing into the living room, clutching a tin of extra virgin olive oil. She still wore her gloves, coat, and slush-soaked boots, her hair and shoulders covered in a thin layer of flurries.

“Huh?” I responded, confused. It was not immediately clear as to why she interrupted my television-watching to divert my attention toward a container of olive oil. It were not as though I knew how to cook.

“This,” she said, pointing to the word virgin on the bottle, “is you.” Her tone was urgent. The fact that she did not remove her sodden boots before making this pronouncement suggested that she were on a mission. That she devised her sex education curriculum in the baking aisle at the local Key Food and felt compelled to execute it quickly, perhaps before she lost her gumption.

At that point in my homeschooling in matters of sex education, any obvious relationship between my status as a virgin and that green tin of extra virgin olive oil would barely last another two years. But in my mind, as long as I were not figuring out—or eventually making demands about—my own wants and needs, physical and otherwise, I could maintain some sense of loyalty to that dark green tin. Some level of beholden-ness to my mom and the education I had received and what olive oil would come to symbolize in my young mind. If I declined to investigate my own human needs, I rationalized, I’d receive a pass. I’d remain that obedient, “good” 16 year old girl, sprawled out on the couch in her family’s Brooklyn living room, forever unrefined. Harvested in the summer of 1980 and with no foreseeable expiration date.

And for the next ten or so years—in honor of my mother, olive oil, and those old lessons—I never learned to give to, or invest in, myself. I distanced myself from most people, and even moved a handful of states away from everything I knew to achieve a physical distance that would make my desired engagement with emotional detachment more fluid. Surely, I remained “active” with the opposite sex, but activity was about all they could reasonably hope to achieve. Any sign that I had an actual need, physical or otherwise, was a form of weakness. An act of betrayal.

More than a decade would pass before I noticed the link between my earliest lessons about sex and olive oil and the emotional and physical imbalances I experienced in many of my adult relationships—sexual and otherwise. While I was divested from my own wants and needs, I remained the glue that bonded unstable relationships. I initiated the phone calls that needed initiating.

I gave (to others) what needed giving, explored (for others) what needed exploring, emotionally and physically. Despite the physical distance from my childhood home and upbringing, from experiences in 1992 Saturns, from roommates and dorm rooms, history had developed the stunning habit of finding every conceivable opportunity to repeat itself in my new life. The giving—whatever the kind—remained plentiful, and often (if not always) against my own human interests and needs.

With each act of labor, I withdrew that much more from my personal bank of emotional and physical capital.

Oddly, I never lost what needed losing, or learned what needed learning. These particular outcomes—i.e., what later became obvious to me as an extreme imbalance in emotional labor—were perhaps the most problematic byproducts of those earliest lessons learned about olive oil, sex, and relationships.

Recent medical research suggests that we are at our best adult-selves when we form—and keep—solid relationships from a young age. In this regard, I am amply screwed.

Or am I?

“We have all the time in the world,” she’d said, as she curled up even closer to where I lay in her bed, in her world, for the first time three summers ago.

“Hmmm?” I thought I knew what she had said, I thought I had heard correctly, but I wanted to hear it again.

“I hope this doesn’t annoy you, but I just want to please you, and I don’t really give a damn about me.”

I knew what she meant, damn I knew what she meant, and I didn’t argue. Is this what it meant to be on the brink of an adult relationship? Is this what it sounded like, to be entering a stable union? Was this event going to reveal itself as my first example of what it might mean to experience balanced emotional and physical labor?

Later that evening, after I came that much closer to a response to my own questions, we mulled over what to eat for dinner.

“How about a grilled chicken salad?” she proposed. “I just picked up some arugula from Meijer’s yesterday.”

“Perfect,” I said. “What do you have for dressing?”

“I make my own. With garlic, lemon, balsamic, and spices,” she said. “Perfect,” I said again.

“Is olive oil ok?” she asked.

I smiled to myself. “Olive oil is just fine.” 

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