On the Oregon Sail
by Julia D, 21 When I was in high school, I had an experience; one that too many women often do. I found myself in a situation in which my feelings—chiefly disinterest—were of little import to a boy. It was Halloween. That’s a relatively insignificant detail.
This encounter, barely a handful of minutes in which this person made a disturbing and wholly unsolicited advance, damaged me. I pretended that I was going to be sick so that he might let me run off. And he did. No one likes vomit. This was a person whom I would continue to see on a near-daily basis for the remainder of High School.
I never told anyone, because I had it in my mind that nothing of terribly serious consequence had occurred here. I felt that my experience might have been—on a global scale—trivial. And yet I left afraid, and remained so for a very long time—years; the better part of decade, even. I had been damaged, and didn’t even truly realize it. In the interim, I struggled. I struggled to feel comfortable in my body; in my sexuality, or relative lack thereof.
I was skittish around—I’ll continue, for now, to use the label—boys. So much so, in fact, that an exchange so small as a hug hello or goodbye made me extremely uncomfortable… Like I would actually dread even a close friend’s trying to hug me. That’s a fairly minute example of my having been affected, but one, I would venture to say, that is fairly illustrative.
Let’s skip ahead to my junior year in college. I go to art school in New York. Nothing much has changed, except that now I’m 20, not 14, and my friends are blazing trails on all fronts; among these fronts—still, and say it with me—boys(!). I feel mired. And by this time I’ve realized that maybe this all can be connected—trashy-crime-show style with some red string on a bulletin board—to a certain maybe-five-minute period of my freshman year of high school; that maybe my experience was not trivial at all. And by this time I’m very angry. By this time I’ve lost site of the light at the end of whatever tunnel I’m in—probably the Lincoln Tunnel if we’re basing this fictional hope-vacuum on comparative unpleasantness. I’d dated in college, and I mean singular date-ed as in one date per boy(!). None of these ended with a kiss. On one occasion I actually stepped completely out of the trajectory of an attempted kiss. That went over well.
A second date, no matter how smashing the first, was daunting enough to justifiably—in my mind at least—forego. This model served me—kind of not really—until I met a guy who checked all the boxes… Cute; worldly; artistic; in a pretty-fucking-good band. And if he checked all these fantasy-guy boxes, how then could I reasonably blow him off? I knew, knew, knew that I liked him and that, potentially, this could be a person who might make me happy.
So I went on a second date.
And a third. (holy shit).
And on the third, I found myself back at my apartment in Brooklyn with Checks-All-The-Boxes. And then in my bedroom, and—so it follows—my bed. I’m starting to lose my nerve, but I’m forging ahead. Like in that 1997 computer game, Oregon Trail, when you and your virtual, covered-wagon-wheelin’ family came to a river and had to decide whether to forge it, circumvent, or toss some of your shit on the bank and try to float across. I was determined to forge! At the very least I was sure that I could manage some combination of the three;
He paused. He pulled back to look at me…
“I need to tell you something,” he says.
My virtual covered wagon bobs around in place on whatever river this is that I’ve found myself on. I figure it’s probably floating at least a little. I’m trying my best here to leave some of my shit on the shore.
He tells me that he has herpes. (Praise be to God. Or Whoever.)
I look down. I do my best approximation of what I’ll take the liberty of entitling, Disappointed Sex Kitten.
“Wow…” I say. I look down. I look up.
Solemnly, “I think I deserve some time to think about this,” I say.
I could do a touchdown dance.
Our short relationship—never to progress to or be confused with a Relationship—changed my life. His having herpes, as odd as this might sound, allowed for my experience of the time that we did spend together to be a sort of incubation period; a time in which I could very easily, and with understanding on his part, unpack the ol’ covered wagon on the bank; leave fears and pains that I no longer had any use for there in the interest of floating away from them. And when I had two feet firmly planted on the opposite shore, he was there; though he didn’t know it; doesn’t know it.
Checks-All-The-Boxes broke my heart just before my twenty-first birthday. We were never very serious, and so I don’t think that he expected his suggesting that we stop seeing one another to be so crushing a blow. It was. I had attached to him my ability to feel better; to be better; to grow. And so my twenty-second summer became one of near-baptismal magnitude. I was made to find in myself a willingness to grow; to blossom by my own cultivation.
That is what my art is about. It’s about being the wind at my own back, and feeling that wind in my hair; in my sails; my flag. It’s about pride in my body; sexuality; sensitivities; shortcomings; successes; even fears. It’s about desire and desirability, but also about aversion—about my wanting to be desired, but also my accepting wholly the icky parts and the things still to be left on the next bank that I come to.