March 1, 2023
graphic by Vy Truong
Part I: Tom
graphic by Vy Truong
She likes sleeping with Tom because he doesn’t pay attention to her. While he hovers above, looking at a spot on the pillow to the right of her, she hates herself more than ever before. There might exist a world in which she receives pleasure from a man like Tom, who is older and apparently wiser, clean in a weird way but clean nonetheless, but that world feels so far from this one. Here, she lets the self-loathing wash over her in one large wave, unable to shut off the free flow of internal thoughts telling her how unworthy she is of pleasure.
The stark whiteness of his sheets, the meticulously tucked corners, the closed bathroom door that she knows hides shining tile and fluffy towels all work together to remind her that she is the opposite of what someone like Tom should want. Being in his room feels like being in another country, one that she hasn’t learned the language or customs of yet, and makes her ashamed of where she comes from. Regardless of if she truly wants him, there’s a small voice in her head that wants more than anything to be desirable. She arrived only 30 minutes ago, in torn tights and an oversized sweater, darkness under her eyes that she didn’t try to cover. Taking up almost no space at all and yet still obvious to her surroundings. It’s the look of someone broken down and chewed up. But in her defense, today is one of the worst days.
She hates the way she comes to him each time, thinking it might fix something. And it’s the same routine, as if the script was written for her and delivered by hand to the doorstep of her apartment. She’ll sit on his bed and he’ll order her to lay down. She’s long given up pretense, and so has he. Her clothes will come off, then his later on. She won’t be able to focus at all, but he will continue to touch and prod her. She might squeeze her eyes shut tightly, but he’ll be staring at the back of her head. She’ll find herself in the exact position she is now, cursing herself more each time.
She wonders if Tom would be able to see the thoughts as they enter her head, if he only looked at her. There is little eye contact in the whole process. If she were less consumed with her own shame, she might wonder what he was thinking, too. His shallow groans and exhales of just a little more aren’t any more revealing than her silence. This time, she imagines the perfect world that would exist if she enjoyed sex and could participate in it fully without preoccupations. As Tom’s movements become more painful, and her desire to stop him grows, she is faced, always, with the fact that she may never revel in this type of physical intimacy. He may actually like that she seems, at times, to be in slight pain. Maybe he needs that from her, to be a passive piece in his lust. He finishes with a sigh through clenched teeth.
Tom is one of the first people she sleeps with after realizing that sex is different for her than it is for most people. She recalls conversations with friends, the details that women trade for closeness rather than voyeurism. Her female coworkers especially overshare their exploits, yet somehow it doesn’t feel like crossing a boundary. Regardless, these conversations make pleasure seem to sit on the precipice of her ownership. She can imagine breathy exhales and sharp inhales, the frenzy of excitement and the anticipation of warmth, of closeness. If she wiggles her fingers, she can almost feel the gentle caresses or tight grips. Their stories make it seem so easy, as if sex is something you fall into after a glance across a crowded bar, or, if she’s to believe the stories, years of friendly acquaintance.
It’s never been like that for her. She wonders if there is a pill she can take, or a doctor she can visit. She wonders if she might one day get so good at trying to enjoy sex that it would actually happen. She wonders if she will ever stop doing it, just to discover what it should feel like. She wonders if she will ever be lovable as she currently is, if a man like Tom would ever want to experience her in a way that benefits them both. Perhaps, worst of all, she wonders if she even deserves to be loved, in any state.
And that is how it goes with Tom. She won’t finish, he will. She will lay there, he will roll over. She will lay there, he will go to the bathroom, grab a fluffy towel and step from the shiny tile into the steaming shower. She will lay there, he will grunt a goodbye. This time, just as she hears the click of his bedroom door closing behind her, she thinks she should stop sleeping with Tom.
Part II: Jane
graphic by Vy Truong
The next time she has sex, it’s with Jane. Jane isn’t the first girl she has slept with. There was a time years ago when it was obvious that she would not enjoy sex with a man. As a newly sexually liberated college student, she thought the solution was to experiment a little more. Of course she had never tried it before, growing up in various Catholic schools that were the top choices of the nearby gated communities. She had completely blocked out the part of herself that would acknowledge an attraction to anything except the norm. When she stared a little too long at plaid skirts or tight white button-ups, she tried to divert her attention. It worked for a while, especially in her teen years when sex was something that happened later. But in college, sex was something that was happening now. She didn’t know yet that the problem wasn’t men, or women — the problem was her.
Jane is very attentive. So attentive that it takes much effort to fake it. She is so sweet, a smiling beam of loveliness, really. She doesn’t want to disappoint Jane by not enjoying it. But she can’t enjoy it — not even with Jane’s mouth breathing kisses on her skin. Not even when she whispers, you’re so beautiful. Jane’s voice is gentle against her, but she still feels her mind drifting away, unable to hold onto the present moment, unable to enter the physical world.
Being with Jane sends her back to crowded church pews full of incense and whispers. Her skirt always two inches longer and her shirt buttoned to the very top, she tried her best to not be perceived at all. She would attempt listening to their daily sermons, legs crossed at the ankle and eyes fixed on her chipping manicure. But God was an abstract in those times. Lost somewhere between belief and doubt. His presence loomed over her daily life like an omen, like a commandment, like Big Brother intending to scare the shit out of her.
Despite now viewing Catholic school through a rearview mirror, she just can’t shake the shame of being attracted to women. Of having sex with women. Even if she can’t manage to pay attention, she’s sure it must still be a sin. (A sin in a religion she doesn’t even believe in.) In some ways, she wishes she had that blind optimism of the girls from her school years. It’s something she strongly associates with faith, the belief that everything will work out, no matter what things seem to be now. She thinks she could really use some of that in her current predicament. Jane is still somewhere south of her hip bone, and she’s thankful for the thin cover sheet blocking the look of torment on her face. If she were a more religious person, she might believe in Jane’s goodness. Maybe she would trust that relying on her kindness would heal something inside of her. As it currently stands, Jane’s ministrations, soft as a prayer, don’t stir anything within her.
Jane would be the perfect girlfriend. She would plan dates and buy flowers; she would give and give and give and not complain about not receiving. But she can’t do that to Jane, who deserves a partner that can give her their full focus. If they were dating, she might express this out loud: her insecurity about not being good enough, about not being able to love her in the way she deserves, or please her in the way she should. She might stop her actions under the sheet, and say that it just isn’t working — it isn’t you, it’s me. She might explain the various sexual partners she had to cycle through to realize that, and promise that she would try to get the help or support or prescription or exorcism she needs, all for Jane.
But they aren’t dating, and she doesn’t think she could tell anyone that. Not even perfect, perfect Jane.
Part III: Jordan
graphic by Vy Truong
Jordan is a year younger than her, but he might as well still be in college. He has the look and feel of someone who’s spent a lot of time in a fraternity, even though he now has a Respectable Job in Finance. Jordan takes her exclusively to hotel rooms. He smiles too wide and fumbles too much, and is too eager to show off his new six-figure salary. But it’s refreshing that someone is trying to impress her, that they aren’t wholly disappointed and disinterested quite yet.
Jordan always takes his clothes off first, as if he’s signaling for her to do the same. He hasn’t yet realized how to use his words. He takes off his chinos and underwear in one pull, and she can see the Nike logo peeking out from where he carelessly tosses them on the floor. Sighing, she removes her own camisole, feeling burdened by having to do it herself. But Jordan is already eager and she sees him realize she wasn’t wearing a bra. He’s all hands and no decorum as he stumbles towards her, slack-jawed.
As they fall into a mattress that should be much better quality for the price of the room, she wonders if Jordan’s charisma has always been his fuel for success, or if there is something more that she hasn’t encountered. He reminds her of almost all the boys she interacted with in college. He could be bred from the same litter — adjusting to a world that belongs to him while his prefrontal cortex is still forming. College was the first time she had met anyone like Jordan, or spent significant time with the opposite gender. It was the first time that anyone had convinced her to get into bed with them.
She knows the sex will be one-sided and rushed, but she can’t help but be pulled out of it even for the few minutes it will last. It’s almost exactly like her first time, sans fancy hotel room, and she drifts back into the memory. He wasn’t a villain, but definitely not a saint, either. He had taken her to his room at the party they were at, just up the stairs and off to the right. It was a single room without a connecting bathroom, but she remembers pretending to be awed because he seemed so proud of the flags tacked to the walls and the monitor on his desk. It happened quickly, before she knew it was going to. He didn’t ask very many questions or give any assurances, but she hadn’t the thought nor experience to demand anything otherwise.
Immediately after, she could blame the guy or the atmosphere or the inexperience to explain why it wasn’t good. The few girls that befriended her in their dorm wanted her to embellish and give them something to clutch onto with their tiny red fists, but she had next to nothing to say. It happened, it’s over, it happened. She could’ve lied, made it out to be earth-shattering, leg-shaking, pandemonium — but she felt a little empty afterwards. There was nothing left in her to craft a story out of, and she never really tried to find one.
Jordan is finishing up now, and she’s pulled out of the memory. She’s relieved to see the blank walls and mahogany dresser. She’s even relieved to see Jordan over her shoulder, oscillating between looking at her and tightly squeezing his eyes shut. His compliments tumble out of him, as if he can’t control them: you feel so good, you look so good, so good. When it’s all over, he wears an expression more earnest than ever. Apparently, a month of sleeping together is what it takes for him to want to commit. Or maybe it’s the fact she hasn’t tried to lock him down that makes him more inclined. She just shakes her head like it’s a joke, even though the fallen look on his face is telling her very clearly that it isn’t.
Part IV: Self-Awareness
graphic by Vy Truong
She never leaves her exploits with any lesson learned. It’s more like an experiment in failing, over and over again, differently each time. Instead of gaining something, it chips away at her a little bit more. She walks away from Jordan and towards the trees, wondering when she’ll have nothing left to leave behind. She thinks she might feel better in places like this park bench, watching other people feed the ducks and walk their dogs and kiss their children’s chunky faces and unpack their lunches and fly their kites and live their lives. These things feel so unreachable, like they are intended for someone else’s life. Definitely not the life of the woman still covered in a layer of Jordan’s sweat. She’s at the park on the way home from the hotel, 10 miles from Jane but only two from Tom. She could probably draw a map from where she sits to all the homes and bars and cars and hotels she’s ended up in. She might use a red string to connect herself to these places and the people she met in them. She might collect the memories in a jar, sitting unlidded in the back of her mind. She might write a label: Things that I tried that I can never undo, Things that I tried that never helped, Things I tried… ■