Eric and I met at a benefit show headlined by his band, whose name was…much too cheesy to repeat. (OK: It was a close relative of “Ska Bot 2000.”) Even cheesier: He had invited me over MySpace, where we had discovered each other’s DIY electro-rap projects. We were bored 17-year-olds in the boring suburbs, trying to be a little less boring than we knew we were. Sometime between seeing him belt out a cover of Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name” and helping recover his glasses after they flew off his face in the pit, I knew it was love.
Our courtship, dorky as it was, felt effortless. We shared a strong affinity for bad puns, indie rock, and low-budget films. He took me to see the symphony on our first date, where he had hoped to make a great impression in a suit and tie. Though I aimed to charm him in my fancy tulle dress, I promptly fell asleep and drooled on his blazer like a drunk ballerina. (And he let me.) Any pretense of our being on a Very Serious Date was dropped by this point. “Let’s blow this popsicle stand,” he said in a silly 1930s-detective voice. To the beach we went, to cuddle in the sand and watch the stars.
The mix CD I gave him the night we met left much more of an impression than my fancy getup. He gushed over the fact that I included his favorite bands—our favorite bands—like Dinosaur Jr., Television, and Hüsker Dü. He admitted that he had never listened to Beat Happening before, so I took him for a test run with my favorite song of theirs: “What’s Important.” Stripped-down and sung as softly as a nursery rhyme, the song packed less of a punch than the other songs on the mix, but was so full of warmth and good will that I wanted to share it with him.
Put on your boots and walk with me,
Over the freeway and out to the sea.
That’s where we can always go
When we really wanna know.
I noticed two things about Eric in the first couple months of our relationship. For one, unlike all the arrogant, guitar-picking skate rats I’d dated before him, he actually enjoyed all the music I gave him. He never tried to “enlighten” me with the sounds of jam bands or hackneyed screamo heartthrobs. Second: I found him incredibly modest. Not necessarily about his musical talents, nor his athletic prowess (an area in which he definitely had me beat). I was floored at the fact that I could spend a day with him—over a month with him, even—without once having to swat his hands away from my chest, or cut short a make out session for getting too hot and heavy. He wasn’t just modest: He was decidedly sexually abstinent.
Where we lived, holding off on sex wasn’t a huge anomaly; abstinence-only education was the law of the land. Reverends toured public schools teaching that sex before marriage would sully you in the eyes of the Lord. You could wave at many a Christian girl and catch the fleeting glimmer of her promise ring when she waved back. But Eric wasn’t religious, and neither was I. And I thought I was in my prime! I’m cute as hell! I thought, feeling marooned somewhere between insulted and completely baffled that I was dating a teenage boy for whom sex wasn’t on the menu. We were in his car, returning from our spot at the beach on the night I first brought it up.
“Haven’t you… At least thought about exploring?” I asked. “Nope,” he said, “I really don’t get what the big deal is. People lose their minds over it.”
“It’s not a big deal,” I said carefully, “But it’s also not bad. As long as you’re doing it safely, what does it matter?”
“My mother raised me to be more proper than that,” he said curtly. I was shocked that, for once in my life, a dude was taking the moral high ground about sex. And as a girl raised Catholic, I supposed that my mother raised me the same way his mother did. But my mother also raised me not to judge people. When I quietly stared ahead towards the murky back road leading up to my house, and back down at my lap, I felt very, very judged.
I called on my council of friends to weigh in on what had happened. They told me to ditch him outright: If he wasn’t interested in getting physical, then what was the point? But knowing how well we’d gotten along before, I wanted to give him a chance. He called the next evening, hoping to take me out again. Our reconciliation took the form of an ice cream date. I could’ve accepted this sugarcoated treaty and forgotten everything he said the night before. Instead, I went home determined to prove him very, very wrong about sex. For one, I was a very vocal advocate of comprehensive sex education, and was convinced that his world view was just off. But I also couldn’t help but take it very personally. I wondered if he was actually attracted to me at all.
I went from a scrappy kid in cutoff shorts and Keds to a summer siren in miniskirts and heels. As we continued to date, my clothing choices got more risqué. My transformation felt akin to Sandra Dee’s babely revenge look in Grease. I coyly massaged his back as we watched godawful ’80s movies on his couch. I even made attempts to laugh more deeply and womanly, sitting upright like a debutante as he taught me how to play the drums in his garage. I don’t think I ever tried so hard in my entire life to be sexy. I just wanted him to admit he had those feelings at all.
Everything in me suddenly felt so electric. I was emitting waves of lusty energy, hoping they’d land somewhere—anywhere—since I couldn’t count on my boyfriend to return them. I found myself exchanging flirtations with cashiers and whatever other randos I could trade eye contact with.
My lusty streak started out as more of a subconscious response to my own insecurity. But eventually, it turned into something ugly. I placed more importance on how attractive other people found me, than on the all the fun, non-sexy things Eric and I did together. Imagine this as a pop-punk video montage: We’d find the silliest fantasy novels at the library and exchange dramatic readings in terrible British accents. We recorded our own secret electropop songs. We hunted down hideous outfits at the thrift store and wore them to parties. We swapped dancing lessons on his dock where, at some point, after a generous dip during a tango lesson, my red kitten heel went flying into the river. So he hopped into a row boat and fished it back for me.
Although he did his best to play oblivious to my radioactive, sex-crazed jerk vibes, my mother caught on to my signals rather quickly. After watching some fearmongering Lifetime Original Movie on a teen pregnancy that resulted in, I don’t know, THE SPAWN OF SATAN, she grilled me about my relationship. “Are you two… having sex?” she asked. I didn’t even hold back. “That would be the day,” I sighed. My mom scrunched her face in disbelief. “I can’t even lie to you,” I laughed. “We’re not.”
Her shoulders gradually unwound themselves. “Is he…gay?” She asked. “Maybe,” I said. “That would explain everything!”
“Well,” said my mom, “It could be that he’s just not ready. And that’s OK.”
I meditated on what my mom said and felt completely lucid when Eric picked me up at my house the next day to have dinner with his parents. I think I was even wearing a flannel shirt on that humid evening in late May, ready for a compromise. We listened to Beat Happening on the way to his house. You don’t have to smile if you don’t want to, I sang along, I don’t have to smile if I don’t want to.
I wasn’t out to prove Eric “wrong” about his personal choices anymore. I was fine with being at a different place in my life than Eric, and as someone who cared about him and enjoyed his company, I had to respect his decision to not do sexy things with me. Which is why, when his parents suggested I stay the night after dinner, I was thrown for a loop of planetary proportions. As a girl, I always got the third degree about my sex life from my mother. But Eric’s parents were seriously asking me to spend the night? With him?
In true form, Eric briskly declined before I even got the chance to do the same. He drove me home that night blasting what was quite possibly Braid’s most melodramatic record, which set me on edge. Conveniently enough, my parents were out of town. And I don’t know what got into him that night, but he was really, really into making out on my couch. (Amid the procession of campy, low-budget science fiction movies that played quietly in the background.) After a few hours passed, we simply lay atop each other, my legs around his waist. I gingerly pulled the hem of my skirt to keep from riding up past my bum, wondering if he felt he had something to prove, too. And I hated the idea that he ever felt that way.
“Look,” I said. “The sun’s coming up.” We sat up as the dull morning light fell milky over us. I ran my hands through his hair. We looked at each other in silent wonder. “I like this,” I said. “I like this too,” he said.
We never did “sleep” together. And that night, we didn’t sleep at all. At that moment, the most important thing to me was, just wearing the soft pink glow of the sunrise, in the safety of each others’ arms.
You don’t have to smile if you don’t want to,
I don’t have to smile if I don’t want to,
We don’t have to smile if we don’t want to. ♦