Writing fiction is fun for lots of reasons. You get to create characters and explore dark corners of your psyche through their interactions. You get to imagine scenarios and then move people around in them like human Barbies in a Dreamhouse. You get to pretend to be someone else.
Fiction also helps me sort through my own shit—I often don’t know exactly how I feel about a real-life situation until I watch a similar one play out on the page. And then, of course, there’s wish fulfillment. Did you always want a twin? Write a book about twins! Have you always been obsessed with the 1930s? Set a story in that era! Or did you have a less-than-glorious first experience with sex and want a do-over? I did.
When I started writing my new novel, The Vacationers, I knew I wanted my character Sylvia to have sex for the first time during the course of the story. Though the book isn’t autobiographical and Sylvia’s family has very little in common with mine on a molecular level, there’s a lot of me in this scene, and in Sylvia.
At this point in the book, Sylvia is 18 and has just graduated from high school. She’s really, really looking forward to leaving home, but more than that, she’s excited to get away from her parents and her brother, and for the opportunity to reinvent herself. She also wants to have sex before she gets to college.
The first time I had sex, I was 19, already in college, and salty about it. I’ve written about having sex for the first time before, so I won’t go into the whole shebang (ahem) again, but here are the bullet points:
• The guy was super hot.
• I really liked him.
• He was by no stretch of the imagination my boyfriend.
As far as I can remember, he barely tolerated me. We fooled around the whole summer after my freshman year. I was basically terrified the entire time because I wanted him to like me so badly. When we finally had sex, I told him I was a virgin three seconds before he stuck it in, and he was so, so, so not into it. Of course he wasn’t! Because, as far as I could tell, he didn’t actually like me, and because we had a weird relationship, and because he probably sensed that I would remember it forever—that he and that night would become this footnote in my life. The poor guy, I think now. Sure, he was kind of a dick to me, but I also think he understood that I was going to have to carry that memory around with me forever.
I can’t change my own experience (and it’s not like it was traumatic in any way, just less than perfect, as these things tend to be across the board), but I wanted to give Sylvia something better than what I had. The guy she has sex with is her Spanish tutor, Joan, which is pronounced Joe-ahhhhn. Her situation is similar to mine in that the sex isn’t a cutesy “Let’s plan this out for six months and buy condoms together at the drugstore in a neighborhood neither of us lives in” scenario. Unlike me, Sylvia knows the guy isn’t going to be her boyfriend, and she doesn’t care. She wants to do it because she wants to do it. And whereas I did the deed on a small bed in an apartment, Sylvia does it on a secluded beach on an island off the coast of Spain. Joan also picks her up and carries her out of the water during the act, which I thought was maybe too much while I was writing it but then decided, fuck it.
That’s the beauty of writing a book. It’s totally up to you to just go for it. And it’s a lucky thing to have a job like this, where, through my characters, I can have every experience under the sun—some of them more than once.
Here’s the excerpt. I hope you like it!
After walking through a short tunnel cut into the side of the mountain, Sylvia and Joan finally found what they were looking for. The beach was magnificent—a tiny horseshoe of sand, completely empty. Sylvia could see the bottom of the water for 50 feet, bright blue and clear. Joan set down his bag and the cooler, and quickly got them set up. He unrolled a thick blanket and stacked heavy things on the corners to keep it down, though the beach seemed totally protected from the wind. There were no waves, not even small ripples. Sylvia kicked off her shoes and waded in.
“This is literally the most beautiful place I have ever been in my entire life,” she said. “And I’m pretty sure that will always be true.”
Joan nodded. “It’s the best. No one knows about it. Even local people don’t know. My grandparents live right up there.” He pointed up the mountain behind them. “They would bring me here when I was little. Very good for toy boats.” He had packed enough food for four: ham-and-cheese sandwiches, wine, thin butter cookies his mother had made. “Do you want to swim first, or eat?”
Sylvia walked over to the blanket, her wet feet and calves now caked with sand. “Hmm,” she said, turning back to face the water. “Normally I would pick the food, but right now, I don’t know.”
“I have an idea,” Joan said. He pulled the corkscrew out of the bag and opened the bottle of wine. He took a slug and then handed the bottle to Sylvia, who followed suit. When she’d passed it back, he recorked the bottle, set it in the cooler, and peeled off his shirt.